U.S. Quits ‘Hypocritical’ UN Human Rights Council
The United States says it is withdrawing from the United Nations Human Rights Council, calling it a “cesspool of political bias.”
The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said at the State Department on June 19 that the "hypocritical and self-serving" body "makes a mockery of human rights."
She lambasted the Geneva-based council for "its chronic bias against Israel" and lamented that its members include "persistent human rights offenders" like China.
Washington refused to join the council when it was first created in 2006 during the presidency of George W. Bush. His successor, Barack Obama, opted to join in 2009.
U.S. officials have long complained that the council focuses too much on Israel while ignoring rights violations in other countries.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu applauded the U.S. move as "courageous," while UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein called it "disappointing, if not really surprising."
Russia's UN mission said the U.S. criticism of the council for failing to make changes advocated by Washington appears "cynical."
Based on reporting by AP and AFP
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Iranian Women Protest Arrest, Alleged Forced Confession Over Hijab Offense
Dozens of female civil activists have called on Iranian authorities to release a woman who was arrested for protesting mandatory head-scarf rules after she appeared on television and gave a "confession" they allege was made under duress.
According to the Free Union Workers of Iran's Telegram channel, the women took to the streets of Tehran carrying placards asking, "Where is Sepideh Rashno?" and demanded to know her status after the 28-year-old writer and artist was arrested on June 15 after a video of her arguing with another woman who was enforcing rules on wearing a head scarf on a bus in Tehran went viral.
The other woman threatened to send the video -- which showed Rashno riding the bus without a hijab -- to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Rashno was subsequently detained and has been held since without access to a lawyer, nor have the charges against her been made public.
Amid growing concern over her whereabouts, a Twitter campaign started with the hashtag "Where is Sepideh?"
Iranian state television subsequently showed Rashno in a video report on July 30 where her eyes appeared darkened. Witnesses said she seemed listless and moved slowly.
The Iranian Human Rights Activists News Agency, the media outlet for Human Rights Activists in Iran, said on August 5 that Rashno had been beaten before she confessed on air to breaking the country's hijab law.
According to eyewitnesses, Rashno had low blood pressure, had difficulty moving, and was transferred to a hospital. She returned to prison immediately after being examined.
During a one-sided narrative over the confrontation, Rashno was shown for a few seconds on state television in what looked like a studio setting. Her halting voice raised suspicion she was reading from a text written for her.
The confession aired amid recent reports that authorities in Iran are increasingly cracking down on women deemed to be in violation of wearing the hijab, which is mandatory in public in Iran.
The hijab first became compulsory in public for Iranian women and girls over the age of 9 after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Many Iranian women have flouted the rule over the years in protest and pushed the boundaries of what officials say is acceptable clothing.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Hundreds Protest Water Shortage In Central Iran, Chant 'Death To Raisi'
Hundreds of people protested water shortages in the central Iranian province of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari, chanting "Death to Raisi," a reference to President Ebrahim Raisi.
According to videos published on social media on August 16, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari administrative building in the regional capital, Shahrekord, 10 days into a water shortage crisis so severe that the only source of daily water is through trucks.
Security forces have been seen among the protesters, though no reports of violence have been reported.
While much of Iran has been suffering through water shortages for years, the recent crisis in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari intensified when the Kohrang spring was removed from the drinking-water supply circuit.
Ahmadreza Mohammadi, head of water and sewerage for Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari, announced that the spring was out of service due to the "turbidity of the Kohrang spring water" due to a recent flood.
On August 14, Etezad Moghimi, director general of the crisis management office at the Energy Ministry, promised that within a day all water treatment plants will be in operation and the water supply problem would be solved.
Residents of the province, however, have complained on social media that the situation has not improved despite the pledge.
Experts say climate change has amplified the droughts and floods plaguing Iran and that their intensity and frequency in turn threaten food security.
Dozens of protests have been held across Iran in recent months over deteriorating living conditions in the country, which has been hit hard by U.S. sanctions imposed over Tehran's nuclear program.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
In Call With Macron, Zelenskiy Condemns 'Russia's Nuclear Terrorism'
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has decried "Russia's nuclear terrorism" in a phone call on August 16 with his French counterpart, as Ukrainian and international nuclear experts continue to demand greater safeguards against catastrophe at the occupied Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine.
Zelenskiy tweeted that he had also informed President Emmanuel Macron about the "situation at the front" and thanked Paris for its "tangible defense aid," as well as discussing economic aid and food-security challenges.
"We must increase sanctions on Russia," Zelenskiy said, continuing a recent push for harsher international penalties to encourage Russian President Vladimir Putin to call off his five-month-old invasion.
Macron's office confirmed the call but did not immediately provide details.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has asked for a demilitarized zone to be created around Zaporizhzhya.
Both the UN and its nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), have said IAEA inspectors should be allowed to visit the plant.
Guterres reportedly spoke with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on August 15, when Russia's Foreign Ministry also insisted it would do "everything necessary" to allow IAEA experts access to the facility, which lies near the front lines in southeastern Ukraine.
Exhausted Ukrainian workers at the plant have complained of being held at gunpoint, and the plant's operator, Enerhoatom, has said Russia is preparing a risky maneuver to divert Zaporizhzhya's energy production to a Russian-controlled grid.
Russia's permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, acknowledged in a state TV interview on August 16 that the Zaporizhzhya situation represents "dangers all of us are facing... as major contamination or a Chernobyl-like disaster could occur there under certain conditions."
Russia's TASS also quoted him repeating Moscow's accusations that Ukrainian forces and its Western backers are behind the recent shelling around Zaporizhzhya, which Russian forces captured in March.
Kyiv has insisted that Russian troops are using Europe's largest nuclear plant as a military base, including storing dangerous weapons and shelling in the area.
On August 14, 42 countries condemned Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and said the presence of Russian military forces at Zaporizhzhya is preventing authorities from maintaining nuclear and radiation safety obligations.
"It is undeniable that Russia's invasion and its continued presence at Ukraine’s nuclear facilities significantly raise the risk of nuclear incidents and accidents," the statement on the European Union's website says.
Kazakh Authorities Raise Death Toll From January Unrest To 238
NUR-SULTAN -- Kazakh authorities have raised the death toll resulting from January anti-government unrest that rocked the county to 238, adding six more people who died in police custody to the overall tally.
Officials also released a full list of the victims for the first time on August 16.
The updated figure comes as officials continue to investigate the causes of the violence, and its aftermath, as well as the police response.
Thousands were detained during and after the protests, which erupted when a peaceful demonstration in a western district over a fuel-price hike led to nationwide anti-government protests that were violently dispersed by law enforcement and the military.
President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev blamed the unrest on "20,000 terrorists" from abroad, a claim for which authorities have provided no evidence. Russia briefly sent troops to help protect key government facilities.
In June, prosecutors said the overall death toll stood at 232. Deputy Prosecutor-General Aset Shyndaliev also said at the time that six people had been tortured to death after being arrested for taking part in the January protests.
He also said that an unspecified number of security officers had been arrested in connection with the alleged torture.
Eldos Qilymzhanov, a top official with the Prosecutor-General's Office, said on August 16 that six individuals who were detained during the riots had died as a result of “illegal methods of interrogation by law enforcement structures.”
The updated overall toll now stands at 238, he said, as the Prosecutor-General's Office for the first time released the names of those killed.
Qilymzhanov also said that 15 law enforcement officers were under investigation.
The Prosecutor-General's Office said earlier that 25 people were officially considered victims of torture, and had been subjected to hot irons used by investigators during interrogations.
Human rights groups say the number of demonstrators killed was much higher than any of the various figures provided by officials. The groups have provided evidence that peaceful demonstrators and people who had nothing to do with the protests were among those slain by law enforcement and military personnel.
The unrest led to the removal of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his relatives from Kazakh politics. Some of his relatives have been stripped of their posts, have lost influential positions at companies, or have even been arrested on corruption charges.
Kazakh authorities have rejected calls by Kazakh and global human rights groups for an international probe in the events in January.
With reporting by Kazinform and KazTAG
Finland To Sharply Cut Russian Tourist Visas Amid Outcry Over Ukraine War
Finland said it will cut the number of Russian tourist visas it issues by 90 percent due to rising discontent over the war in Ukraine.
The decision, announced on August 16 by Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, is the latest in a series of moves by the country in direct response to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Speaking to reporters in Helsinki, Haavisto said Russian tourist visas would be cut to 10 percent of current volumes as of September 1.
"Tourist visas will not stop completely, but their number will be significantly reduced," he was quoted as saying.
"This means that other types of visas -- visits to relatives, family contacts, work, study -- will be given preference and more time," he said
Finland currently processes around 1,000 Russian visa applications a day, according to the public broadcaster Yle.
He said Finland will also look into establishing a specific humanitarian visa category, which could help journalists or NGO workers.
A small, but growing number of European Union members have publicly called for either restricting completely banning Russian tourists from Europe in response to the war.
The EU’s largest members, including Germany, have so far resisted the idea, though the Czech Republic, which holds the rotating EU presidency, has pledged to discuss the issue further.
After decades of adhering to a neutral, nonaligned military status, Finland has moved quickly to embrace NATO membership following the February 24 invasion. Finnish public opinion has shifted in just a matter of months in favor of joining the alliance.
Sweden has also moved to join and currently, 20 out of NATO’s 30 members have approved the two countries’ membership.
"It's not right that Russian citizens can enter Europe, the Schengen area, be tourists...while Russia is killing people in Ukraine. It's wrong,” Prime Minister Sanna Marin said on August 15.
With reporting by AFP
Moscow Court Fines Telegram, Twitch For Failing To Delete 'Illegal' Content
A court in Moscow has fined the Telegram and Twitch applications for failing to delete content that the Russian government deems illegal as the Kremlin continues to ramp up pressure on social media networks.
The Magistrate Court of the Taganka district ruled on August 16 that Telegram must pay 4 million rubles ($64,770) for failing to take down materials related to Russia's ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
In a separate hearing, the court ordered Telegram to pay 7 million rubles ($113,350) for failing to remove a manual on how to prepare and conduct acts of sabotage.
The court also ordered the video-streaming service Twitch to pay 2 million rubles ($32,400) as a fine for its failure to remove materials related to the war in Ukraine.
President Vladimir Putin has accused social media platforms and other foreign-based tech companies of flouting the country's Internet laws. He has been pushing ways to force foreign firms to open offices in Russia and to store users' personal data locally.
The companies did not immediately comment on the decision, but in recent months, Russian courts have fined Google, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok over the personal-data issue, as well as for refusing to delete content deemed to be banned by Russian laws.
Many critics have accused the Russian authorities of trying to quell dissent by imposing stricter regulations on Internet companies.
Based on reporting by TASS and Telegram
Russian Court Fines Popular Russian Rocker For Criticizing War In Ukraine
A Russian court has fined the lead singer for the classic Russian rock group DDT 50,000 rubles ($800) for harshly criticizing President Vladimir Putin and the invasion of Ukraine during a concert.
Yury Shevchuk was not present at the August 16 hearing in Ufa, the capital of the Russian region of Bashkortostan, but his lawyer, Aleksandr Peredruk, read out a statement from his client.
"I, Yury Shevchuk, have been always against wars in any country at any time. I have spoken against wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Abkhazia, Georgia, Ossetia, Karabakh, Iraq, etc...I believe that any problems and complications of a political nature between countries and peoples must be solved by diplomatic methods...I am also against the war in the Donbas that has been underway for eight years and the ongoing special military operation in Ukraine," Shevchuk's statement said.
Russia calls its invasion of Ukraine a "special military operation" and has made it illegal to refer to it as a war.
Before the hearing, Pavel Chikov, the chief of the legal defense organization Agora, placed Shevchuk's written statement on Telegram.
Peredruk said the court's ruling will be appealed.
Prosecutors charged Shevchuk in May under a law passed shortly after the February 24 invasion, criminalizing public statements that are deemed to discredit the armed forces.
During a DDT concert in Ufa in May, Shevchuk harshly criticized President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
"The Motherland is not the president's ass that one must lather and kiss all the time," Shevchuk said at the concert. “The Motherland is a beggar, an old woman that sells potatoes at the railway station. That is what the Motherland is.”
Shevchuk was loudly applauded by the audience. Videos of his statements went viral on Russian social media channels.
The law that Putin signed in March calls for lengthy prison terms for distributing "deliberately false information" about Russian military operations as the Kremlin seeks to control the narrative about its war in Ukraine.
The law envisages sentences of up to 10 years in prison for individuals convicted of an offense, while the penalty for the distribution of "deliberately false information" about the Russian Army that leads to "serious consequences" is 15 years in prison.
It also makes it illegal "to make calls against the use of Russian troops to protect the interests of Russia" or "for discrediting such use" with a possible penalty of up to three years in prison. The same provision applies to calls for sanctions against Russia.
DDT was founded by Shevchuk in the early 1980s in Ufa and he has written most of its songs over the years.
Tajik Prosecutors Seek Life In Prison For Alleged Organizer Of Protests In Gorno-Badakhshan
DUSHANBE -- Tajik prosecutors are seeking a life sentence for retired Major General Kholbash Kholbashov for his alleged role in organizing deadly protests in the Gorno-Badakhshan region (GBAO) in May, a charge human rights organizations have called "bogus."
Sources close to law enforcement in Dushanbe told RFE/RL that prosecutors also asked the court to convict and sentence a second defendant in the case, noted journalist and human rights activist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoeva, to 25 years in prison. Mamadshoeva is Kholbashov's ex-wife.
The trial for the two began on August 3 and is being held behind closed doors on the premises of the State Committee for National Security’s detention center in Dushanbe.
Kholbashov and Mamadshoeva also face several charges of publicly calling for violent change to Tajikistan's constitutional order, organizing a criminal group, murder, attempted murder, and terrorism.
They were arrested on May 18 and later shown on the Tojikiston television channel saying that they, along with opposition politician Alim Sherzamonov and Mahmadboqir Mahmadboqirov, an informal leader in GBAO, had planned and organized the protests. Authorities in the Central Asian nation have claimed those actions were "terrorist" in nature.
The day before her arrest, Mamadshoeva, 65, told RFE/RL that she had nothing to do with the anti-government protests in GBAO's capital Khorugh, and in the district of Rushon.
Authorities say in the footage showing the so-called "confessions" that an unspecified Western country was involved in organizing the unrest. A total of 78 residents from GBAO's Rushon district were arrested at the time.
Mahmadboqirov was killed on May 22 in Khorugh. His relatives say law enforcement officers killed him, while authorities insist he was killed “when criminal groups were settling scores.”
Sherzamonov told RFE/RL that he had nothing to do with the planning of the riots in GBAO and that he suspects Mamadshoeva and Kholbashov were forced to make their televised statements.
Tajik authorities have said 10 people were killed and 27 injured during the clashes between protesters and police. Residents of the Rushon district, however, have told RFE/RL that 21 dead bodies were found at the sites where the clashes took place.
Deep tensions between the government and residents of the restive region have simmered ever since a five-year civil war broke out shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Still, protests are rare in the tightly controlled nation of 9.5 million where President Emomali Rahmon has ruled for nearly three decades.
The latest protests were sparked in mid-May by anger over the lack of an investigation into the 2021 death of an activist while in police custody and the refusal by regional authorities to consider the resignation of regional Governor Alisher Mirzonabot and Rizo Nazarzoda, the mayor of Khorugh.
The rallies intensified after one of the protesters, a 29-year-old local resident Zamir Nazrishoev, was killed by police on May 16, prompting authorities to launch what they called an "anti-terrorist operation."
The escalating violence in the region has sparked a call for restraint from the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Western diplomatic missions in Tajikistan, and human rights groups.
Gorno-Badakhshan, a linguistically and ethnically distinct region, has been home to rebels who opposed government forces during the conflict in the 1990s.
While it occupies almost half of the entire country, its population is just 250,000. The region is difficult to travel around because of the mountainous terrain, while its economy is wracked by unemployment, difficult living conditions, and high food prices.
Estonia Removes Soviet WWII Memorial In Border City
Estonian authorities has moved to demolish and relocate Soviet-era World War II memorials in the border city of Narva, a decision that earlier sparked warnings and protests from Moscow.
Engineers began removing a tank at one memorial in Narva early on August 16, with a sizable contingent of police and security forces standing guard, Estonia's public broadcaster ERR reported.
“Today’s decision helps to keep our focus on our most important tasks: ensuring Estonia’s security and helping all the people of Estonia weather the crises caused by the war in Ukraine,” Prime Minister Kaja Kallas was quoted as saying.
The Soviet tank will be moved to a war museum north of the capital, Tallinn.
Narva is a mainly Russian-speaking city on the border with Russia, and the government’s announcement that it planned to move the tank had sparked an outcry from Russian officials.
It's not the first time that Estonia has angered Russia over the relocation of war memorials.
In 2007, the Estonian government announced it would move a monument called the Bronze Soldier from Tallinn's center to a military cemetery on the outskirts of the city.
The monument was erected by Soviet officials to commemorate Soviet forces pushing the Nazi army out of Estonia; many Estonians considered the monument to be offensive due to the decades-long occupation of the country by the Soviet Union.
The decision sparked outrage in Russian-language media and led to two days of riots in Tallinn that injured 156 people and resulted in 1,000 people being detained. The country was later hit by massive cyberattacks that were largely blamed on Russia.
This latest move comes as Estonia and the two other Baltic nations have taken increasingly hard-line positions toward Moscow in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February.
Estonian authorities have called for blocking Russians from getting access to so-called Schengen visas, which allow widespread access to many European Union countries.
Russian Ammunition Depot In Northern Crimea Explodes; Authorities Blame Sabotage
A Russian ammunition storage unit in northern Crimea has exploded, the Defense Ministry said, injuring at least two people and prompting the evacuation of thousands of nearby residents. The ministry blamed the blast on sabotage.
Local news organizations, meanwhile, reported a second explosion on August 16 at a nearby electrical substation in the Dzhankoy district of the Russian-occupied Black Sea peninsula.
It was unclear if the two incidents, which occurred around the same time, were related.
Video and photographs posted on Telegram and other social media showed a series of blasts and explosions in the district, which is not far from the administrative border with the mainland Ukrainian region of Kherson, now occupied by Russian forces.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that the explosion occurred at a temporary storage facility for ammunition. The ministry later blamed the blast on unidentified saboteurs.
“On the morning of August 16, as a result of sabotage, a military warehouse near the village of Dzhankoy was damaged. A number of civilian facilities, including power lines, a power plant, a railway track, as well as a number of residential buildings, were damaged,” the ministry said in a statement.
“There are no serious casualties. Necessary measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of sabotage,” it added.
Sergei Aksyonov, the Russia-appointed governor for the peninsula, said two people had been injured and that railway traffic had been disrupted. About 3,000 people were also evacuated from a nearby village, he said.
Refat Chubarov, a prominent leader of the Crimean Tatar community, also said in a post on Facebook that the explosion occurred at an ammunition depot.
Two local Crimea news organizations, Kryminform and Crimean Wind, reported that a transformer at an electrical substation had also exploded or caught fire.
Russia’s Energy Ministry was quoted by news agencies as confirming a fire at the Crimea substation, but said it had been contained. No cause was given.
The incidents came roughly a week after a series of explosion tore through a Russia’s Saky air base, in a western district of Crimea, destroying a number of Russian warplanes.
There's been no confirmation as to what caused those explosions, though satellite imagery showed extensive destruction at the base. Most observers suggest Ukrainian forces were responsible but Kyiv has not claimed any responsibility.
Mykhaylo Podolyak, a top aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said in a post to Twitter that the latest blasts were a reminder that the "Crimea occupied by Russians is about warehouses, explosions and a high risk of death for invaders and thieves."
"What is stolen does not bring prosperity," Podolyak later told Ukrainian television.
The Dzhankoy district is about 50 kilometers from the Russian-occupied region of Kherson in southern Ukraine.
With reporting by Crimea.Realities, a project of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, and AP
EU Confirms Iran Has Responded To Final Nuclear Proposal; Details Unclear
Iran says it has responded to a final European Union-brokered proposal on reviving a 2015 nuclear accord, though details of the response were not immediately released.
The official IRNA news agency reported on August 16 that negotiators had submitted their reply and suggested that Tehran still wouldn't accept the EU proposal, despite warnings there would be no more negotiations.
“The differences are on three issues, in which the United States has expressed its verbal flexibility in two cases, but it should be included in the text,” the IRNA report said. “The third issue is related to guaranteeing the continuation of [the deal], which depends on the realism of the United States.”
"Iran has submitted a written response to the draft text of a Vienna agreement and has announced that an agreement will be concluded if the United States reacts with realism and flexibility," the agency reported.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was quoted earlier quoted by IRNA as saying that "the American side has verbally accepted the two demands" made by Tehran.
A spokesman for the EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, confirmed that Tehran had submitted its response and said it was being studied.
"We are studying it and are consulting with the other JCPOA participants and the U.S. on the way ahead," the spokesperson said, referring to the formal title of the 2015 nuclear pact.
He did not give any details on what the response contained.
The possibility of reviving the deal, which could lead to the lifting of U.S. sanctions on Iran's oil output, has helped trigger a fall in global oil prices.
The landmark agreement has been on hold since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from it in 2018, and reimposed crippling sanctions.
The main countries negotiating with Iran have been waiting for Tehran's response to the final draft which was submitted by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell last week.
IRNA quoted an unidentified Iranian diplomat as saying that "the European Union's proposals were acceptable so long as they provide assurances to Iran on various points related to sanctions and safeguards" as well as pending issues with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia resumed talks with Iran on the accord earlier in August after a months-long hiatus. The United States has been participating indirectly.
With reporting by AP and AFP
DJ In Russia-Annexed Crimea Jailed For Using Ukrainian Song Clip
A court in Ukraine’s Russia-annexed Crimea has sentenced a local DJ to 10 days in jail for playing a video clip of a song by Ukrainian rapper Yarmak.
The Lenin district court in Crimea said on August 15 that a Russian citizen in the town of Shcholkine was sentenced to 10 days in jail for playing the clip of the song "The Wild Field," which it said contains "the Nazi symbols of the Azov regiment that is banned in Russia," in a local cafe.
The man who was identified as a DJ in the cafe acknowledged that a customer had asked him to play the video in question.
Earlier, local media showed a video in which a man who introduced himself as Dmitry Gent said he had requested the clip.
Another video by media showed the DJ, who identified himself as Yury Radionov, saying that he had never seen the video and had no idea about its content before he played it at the customer’s request.
Created in 2014 as the Azov Battalion after Russia illegally annexed Crimea, the Azov Regiment is a far-right, volunteer group that is part of Ukraine’s National Guard. It espouses an ultranationalist ideology that U.S. law enforcement has linked to neo-Nazi extremism. But supporters see it as a patriotic and effective segment of the country’s defense forces, particularly since the all-out invasion by Russian forces began in February.
Russia falsely claims that Ukraine is controlled by Nazis and used that allegation among its justifications for its unprovoked invasion.
The Azov Regiment fought Russian troops for months in the southern city of Mariupol before around 2,500 fighters surrendered in mid-May.
On August 2, the Supreme Court of Russia designated the Azov Regiment as a "terrorist" organization.
RFE/RL Urges Ukraine To Probe Who's Behind Alleged Surveillance Of Commentator Portnikov
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has urged a thorough and transparent investigation after the discovery of a listening device in the apartment where a political commentator for its Ukrainian Service was living in the Lviv region of Ukraine.
Prominent Ukrainian journalist and longtime contributor to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service Vitaliy Portnikov filed a report with the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) after discovering the device in his rental apartment on August 10.
SBU agents inspected Portnikov's apartment and removed the equipment.
They say they are still working to establish the capabilities of the device and how it got there.
“We urge Ukrainian authorities to investigate the possible surveillance of Vitaliy Portnikov thoroughly and transparently,” Fly, the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster's president and CEO, said in a statement on August 15. “A free press means freedom from harassment and intimidation. It is important that democratic governments ensure that journalists are not targeted for their work, even during a time of war.”
Ukraine is in the midst of all-out war against Russian forces who rolled across the border unprovoked on February 24, when Russian President Vladimir Putin doubled down on an eight-year conflict that began with the annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Putin and his authorities have waged an intense crackdown on dissent and criticism of a war that Kremlin calls a "special military operation," including a battle for global opinion.
Kyiv has also mobilized its intelligence resources to fight what it says is "hybrid warfare" by the Russians.
Death Toll From Yerevan Market Explosion Rises To 16
Emergency officials said the death toll from a fire triggered by an apparent fireworks explosion in Yerevan rose to 16, as searchers continued to look for victims and survivors.
Emergency Situations Minister Armen Pambukhchian said in a post to his official Facebook account on August 16 that another 18 people, including an Iranian citizen and a Russian citizen, were still unaccounted for.
A blast and subsequent fire at the Surmalu market, about 2 kilometers south of Yerevan's center, sent a cloud of smoke over the capital on August 14. The explosion occurred in an area where fireworks and other pyrotechnics were stored.
Officials have signaled that the blast appeared to be accidental and not the result of terrorism.
Painter Of Iconic Brezhnev-Honecker 'Kiss' On Berlin Wall Dies At 62
Dmitry Vrubel, the author of the iconic painting on the Berlin Wall depicting Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing East Germany's communist leader, Erich Honecker, has died in the German capital at the age of 62.
Chief editor of The Art Newspaper Russia, Milena Orlova said on Facebook that Vrubel died late on August 14.
Titled "My God! Help Me Survive This Deadly Love," Vrubel's painting on the remains of the Berlin Wall became a symbol of Germany's unification in 1990.
Sometimes also referred to as "The Fraternal Kiss,' the graffiti artwork became enormously popular and has decorated souvenirs in Germany ever since.
In 2009, Vrubel's painting was removed from the wall's remains, but the artist painted it again.
In June, Vrubel was hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms. In early August, he underwent heart surgery.
Vrubel had lived in Germany since 1990.
Russia-Backed Separatists Say Swede, Croat, Briton In Ukraine Face Possible Death Penalty
Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's eastern region of Donetsk have charged five foreigners captured in Ukraine with being mercenaries in a trial process that began on August 15, Russian media said.
The Russian TASS news agency quoted the judge in the case as saying the charges against three of the men -- Swede Matias Gustavsson, Croat Vjekoslav Prebege, and Briton John Harding -- carry the death penalty.
Reports said all five pleaded not guilty to charges of mercenary activities and training to "seize power by force."
The separatist-administered court's next hearing for the five is reportedly scheduled for October.
The leaders of what the separatists call the Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) last week accused Gustavsson, Prebeg, Harding, and Britons Andrew Hill and Dylan Healy of joining Ukraine's armed forces.
They said the five would be charged with being mercenaries, preparing for terrorist activities, and activities aimed at seizing power.
Last month, Britain's Foreign Office condemned the “exploitation” of prisoners of war and civilians for political purposes following the capture of Healy and Hill. Another Briton, Paul Ury, who was captured along with Healy and Hill, died in the separatists' custody.
In early June, two other Britons -- Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner -- and a Moroccan national -- Saaudun Brahim -- were sentenced to death by the separatists.
All three say they were serving in the Ukrainian military when they were captured by pro-Russia separatists while fighting Russian forces.
Britain, the United Nations, Ukraine, and Germany condemned the death sentences, and the European Court of Human Rights warned Moscow that it must ensure the death penalty is not carried out.
The British government insists that, as legitimate members of the Ukrainian armed forces, they should be treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.
The Ukrainian government has set up a recruitment channel and Westerners have been traveling to Ukraine to help defend it against Russia's unprovoked invasion or to assist in providing humanitarian aid to Ukrainians in wartime.
With reporting by Reuters and RFE/RL's Russian Service
Navalny Says He's Been Placed In Solitary As Retaliation For Starting A One-Man Union
Jailed Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny says he was placed in punitive solitary confinement for violating prison dress code by having an unbuttoned jacket, a punishment in retaliation for his decision to set up a one-man labor union in the penal colony.
Navalny said on social media on August 15 that the penal colony's acting warden handed him three days in solitary, but warned it could be prolonged if he "does not change his attitude."
An extension would mean Navalny wouldn't be able to meet his family in September at a scheduled three-day visit that is given to inmates three times a year.
Last week, Navalny said he had established a labor union -- of which he is the sole member -- and managed to have stools that were hurting the backs of inmates seated at sewing machines replaced with proper chairs.
Navalny was arrested in January last year upon his return to Moscow from Germany, where he was treated for a poison attack with what European labs said was a Soviet-style nerve agent.
He was then handed a 2 1/2-year prison sentence for violating the terms of an earlier parole during his convalescence abroad. The original conviction is widely regarded as a trumped-up, politically motivated case.
In March, Navalny was sentenced in a separate case to nine years in prison on embezzlement and contempt of court charges that he and his supporters have repeatedly rejected as politically motivated.
He was transferred in June to Correctional Colony No. 6 in the town of Melekhovo in the Vladimir region east of Moscow after the Moscow City Court rejected his appeal against the nine-year jail term.
Navalny is still able to use Telegram and other social media through his representatives.
Iranian President Signs Decree Further Restricting How Women Can Dress
An order by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to enforce the country's hijab and chastity law has resulted in a new list of restrictions on how women can dress.
The IRIB news agency, which is affiliated with Iranian state television, quoted Mohammad Saleh Hashemi Golpayegani as saying at the National Conference of Hijab and Chastity on August 14 that under the new order, "violators" will be fined, while female government employees will be fired if their social media profile pictures do not conform to Islamic laws.
Golpayegani is the secretary of Iran’s "Headquarters for Enjoining Right and Forbidding Evil," which is responsible for determining and enforcing behavioral models in society.
Based on the new Hijab and Chastity law, women who publish their pictures without a hijab on the Internet will be deprived of some social rights for six months to one year.
The news comes amid recent reports that authorities in Iran are increasingly cracking down on women deemed to be in violation of wearing the hijab, which is mandatory in public in Iran.
In recent weeks, women judged not to be in compliance have been barred from entering government offices, banks, or riding on public transportation.
The notorious Guidance Patrols, or morality police, have become increasingly active and violent. Videos have emerged on social media appearing to show officers detaining women, forcing them into vans, and whisking them away.
The hijab -- the head covering worn by Muslim women -- became compulsory in public for Iranian women and girls over nine years of age after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Many Iranian women have flouted the rule over the years and pushed the boundaries of what officials say is acceptable clothing.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Another Belarusian Activist Gets Prison Term Over His Anti-Lukashenka Views
A Belarusian activist has been handed a prison term for his criticism of authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his regime.
The Minsk-based Vyasna human rights center said on August 15 that the Vitsebsk regional court in the country's east sentenced 28-year-old Mikita Palyayonak to four years in prison after finding him guilty of insulting Lukashenka, organizing an extremist group, and inciting hatred.
It is not clear how Palyayonak pleaded.
Also, on August 15, the Hrodna regional court in the country's west started the trial of Dzyanis Ivashyn, who was arrested in March last year.
Ivashyn's trial is being held behind closed doors, though diplomats from the embassies of Austria, Britain, and the Czech Republic were allowed into the hearing. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison.
Belarusian human rights organizations have recognized Ivashyn as "a political prisoner."
Many in Belarus have faced trials since a disputed presidential election in August 2020, with authorities brutally suppressing dissent in any form.
Rights activists and opposition politicians say the 2020 vote was rigged to extend Lukashenka's rule. Thousands have been detained during countrywide protests and there have been credible reports of torture and ill-treatment by security forces. Several people have died during the crackdown.
Many of Belarus's dissident leaders have been arrested or forced to leave the country, while Lukashenka has refused to negotiate with the opposition.
The United States, the European Union, and several other countries have refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as the winner of the vote and imposed several rounds of sanctions on him and his regime, citing election fraud and the police crackdown.
U.S. Basketball Star Griner Appeals Russian Conviction Amid Reported Talks On Prisoner Swap
Brittney Griner has appealed her nine-year sentence for drug possession in a Russian court, as reports suggest talks are continuing between Moscow and Washington over a possible prisoner swap involving the U.S. women's basketball star .
Griner's lawyers were quoted by Russian media as saying she was requesting an acquittal or a reduced sentence.
A two-time Olympic champion and six-time Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) all-star, the 31-year-old Griner has been in Russian detention since police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February. She was returning at the time to Russia, where she has competed since 2014.
Griner admitted in court to an "honest mistake" in packing the cartridges.
U.S. President Joe Biden has assigned a hostage negotiator to Griner's case and said his administration is "working hard" toward her release.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said early this month that Washington would "pursue" Russia's offer -- expressed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov -- to discuss at the presidential level a possible prisoner swap.
U.S. officials have said their proposal also involves former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison on espionage charges that he denies.
News reports suggest a deal could involve jailed Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
CNN has quoted multiple sources as saying that the Russian side is also pressing for the handover of Vadim Krasikov, a former colonel from Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) who was convicted last year of murder in Germany in the death of an emigrant Chechen former fighter.
Based on reporting by Meduza.io, AP, and Interfax
Iranian Activist Rezaei Still In Custody Despite Being Granted Bail
Ronak Rezaei, an Iranian student and labor activist arrested in May during protests over the deadly collapse of a building, remains in prison despite being granted bail by a court.
Sources with knowledge of the situation told RFE/RL's Radio Farda on August 14 that a court had set bail for Rezaei, but Iranian "security and judicial institutions" had obstructed her release and the situation remains unresolved because the judge involved in the case is on a pilgrimage to the hajj.
Rezaei was arrested in a raid on her home after the collapse of the partially finished 10-story Metropol building on May 23, in the southwestern city of Abadan, which killed 43 people. Accusations that the accident was caused by government negligence and endemic corruption sparked protests.
Rezaei spent about a month in the detention center of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) before being transferred to Sepidar prison in Ahvaz on July 2.
Farzane Zilabi, Rezaei's lawyer, has called the proceedings against her client "propaganda."
According to Zilabi, the judicial authorities did not allow her to be with her client during the court proceedings.
Rezaei is a master's student in cultural studies at Allameh Tabatabai University in Tehran. She was in Abadan to do research on her thesis.
The collapse of a large section of the Metropol building, which was under construction, was one of Iran's deadliest such disasters in years.
Authorities have blamed the accident on isolated corruption and lax safety standards. So far, 13 people are reported to have been arrested for construction violations.
In recent years there have been several cases of buildings collapsing in Iran. Experts largely attribute the incidents to a disregard for safety standards and corruption in urban management.
Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Moscow Court Launches Bankruptcy Proceedings For RFE/RL's Entity in Russia
MOSCOW -- A court in Moscow has begun bankruptcy proceedings against RFE/RL’s Russian entity, RFE/RL LLC, after local tax authorities initiated the process earlier this year, a move that prompted the broadcaster to suspend operations in the country.
The Arbitration Court of Moscow ruled on August 15 to start bankruptcy proceedings, which were initiated by the Federal Tax Service on March 4, saying that RFE.RL LLC owes some 7 million rubles ($112,000) to the tax authorities for 2021.
RFE/RL LLC in Moscow represents RFE/RL's interests in Russia. It was established in 2020 due to Russia's controversial law on "foreign agents."
The bankruptcy proceedings stem from Russian media regulations requiring that RFE/RL and other outlets deemed “foreign agents” mark themselves as such with a lengthy notice in large text for all written materials, an audio statement with all radio materials, and a text declaration with all video materials.
They also coincided with a new law signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin that took effect on March 5 and allows for prison sentences of up to 15 years for people who distribute "false news" about the Russian Army at a time when Moscow had invaded neighboring Ukraine.
RFE/RL has refused to comply with this mandate and since last year Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has filed more than a thousand administrative charges against RFE/RL LLC and its director, ordering them to pay almost 1 billion rubles ($16 million) in fines.
The official start of the bankruptcy proceedings was sparked because RFE/RL LLC was unable to pay its taxes because its bank accounts were blocked by court bailiffs last year.
RFE/RL considers Russia's law on foreign agents to be an expression of political censorship that does not allow journalists to carry out their professional activities. RFE/RL has appealed the Russian authorities' moves against its activities with Russian courts and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Many international journalist organizations and foreign governments have expressed support for RFE/RL and freedom of speech in Russia.
In March, after 30 years of operations in the Russian capital, RFE/RL had to close its bureau there. Some 27 journalists contributing to RFE/RL's programs currently are listed in the Justice Ministry's registry of foreign agents.
Websites of RFE/RL's Russian Service and several of its projects, as well as their accounts on social networks, have been blocked in Russia.
Despite that, the popularity of RFE/RL's Russian Service, known locally as Radio Svoboda, remains very high.
In March, days after Russia launched its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, more than 18 million Internet users visited Radio Svoboda's sites.
Since January, more than 100 million users have visited the sites.
Kyrgyz Blogger Detained Over Post Questioning Development Of Iron-Ore Mining
BISHKEK -- A Kyrgyz blogger has been detained on a charge of making public calls for mass disorder and violence after he posted online materials questioning the legality of the government's plans to develop iron-ore mining in the Central Asian nation's Jetim-Too mountain region.
The Interior Ministry said on August 15 that 19-year-old Yryskeldi Jekshenaliev was detained a day earlier after investigators questioned him regarding his post on a Facebook account called Polit Uznik (Political Prisoner).
The ministry did not specify which post sparked the teen's detention, saying only that "recently, many disputes appear regarding the development of iron-ore mines at Jetim-Too," adding that the Polit Uznik account in Facebook distributes "controversial, false information."
Polit Uznik posted a handwritten statement from Jekshenaliev while in custody in which he calls the case again him "100 percent politically motivated."
Polit Uznik also said the post in question was an old video in which a former security chief raises environmental issues when talking about the government’s
On August 14, President Sadyr Japarov condemned unspecified "defenders" of the environment in the region, calling them "false patriots and liars."
Japarov, who initiated the project to develop iron-ore mining in Jetim-Too, called on law enforcement "to work" with such persons. He did not elaborate.
Iran Hints Nuclear Deal Near As U.S. Says It's Responding Privately To EU 'Final Text'
The United States said on August 15 that it would respond privately to the European Union's "final draft" of a text to salvage the hobbled nuclear deal with Iran, as the international community awaited a response from Iran amid signals that Tehran might eventually sign off on the proposal.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was quoted by state agency IRNA as saying "the American side has verbally accepted
Tehran's "two demands."
He did not specify what "demands" he was referring to, and the statement appeared to fly in the face of tough words from Washington.
But Amir-Abdollahian vowed that Tehran would send its "final proposals in writing by midnight" on August 15. It was unclear late on August 15 whether those proposals had been sent.
The EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, has served as coordinator for the long-stalemated talks between Iran and world powers to revive the 2015 deal.
"If our opinion is accepted, we are ready to conclude and announce the accord at a meeting of foreign ministers," Amir-Abdollahian said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Washington's reaction would not be made publicly but would go directly to Borrell.
Price also said the only path to a return to the agreement was if Tehran stopped making "extraneous demands."
Public stagnation in the talks on renewing the deal exchanging sanctions relief for curbs on Iran's nuclear activities have given way to hints in recent weeks that a deal is within reach.
Amir-Abdollahian said recently the coming days were important in finding a solution to the remaining issues holding up a final deal, and called on Washington to show some "flexibility" to allow the talks to move forward.
"We do not want to reach a deal that after 40 days, two months, or three months fails to be materialized on the ground.... We have told them that our red lines should be respected," Amir-Abdollahian said, according to the Fars news agency, which is affiliated with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Borrell said on August 8 that a 25-page draft had been delivered to the capitals involved for decisions on acceptance.
The draft, according to Borrell's spokesman, was a "final text" that needed a yes-or-no answer from all of the participants, as there was "no more space for negotiations."
The State Department has previously indicated that the United States was ready to "quickly conclude a deal" to revive the 2015 agreement based on the EU proposals.
The spokesman said Washington will wait to see if Tehran's "actions match their words" following repeated signals that Iranian officials might endorse the deal.
Iran has so far said it is considering the draft amid "more comprehensive discussions in Tehran."
Amir-Abdollahian said that "like Washington, we have our own plan B if the talks fail."
Enrique Mora, the European Union’s top negotiator, has said he's “absolutely” optimistic about the talks’ progress.
Iran struck the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 with the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Russia, and China. The deal saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium under the watch of UN inspectors in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
Washington unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear pact under then-President Donald Trump in 2018. Iran reacted by gradually backtracking on its obligations under the deal, such as uranium enrichment.
Negotiators from Iran, Russia, and the EU -- as well as the United States, indirectly -- resumed talks over Tehran’s nuclear deal on August 4 after a months-long standstill in negotiations.
With reporting by Fars and Reuters
Kosovo Walks Back Power Cutoffs To Consumers Amid Energy 'Emergency'
Kosovar authorities say electricity supplies have resumed as normal after its main power distributor announced periodic brownouts starting on August 15 that it blamed on high import costs and production woes.
Nonetheless, officials in the Balkan state signaled that there would be challenges ahead as a result of the current "energy crisis and state of emergency."
"Regular electricity supply is back," the Kosovar Economy Ministry said on Facebook.
It credited cooperation between the local KEK energy company and its counterpart in neighboring Albania for resolving the immediate problem.
"Institutions will continue to do their best to maintain regular electricity supply in the coming days," the ministry said.
"However, given the situation, they ask all citizens and businesses to take frugal measures and be as careful as possible in using electricity."
Kosovo's electricity distribution company KEDS had warned that it would limit power supplies to customers from August 15 to six hours on and two hours off due to flagging local production and the high cost of importing electricity from abroad.
KEDS said in a statement that it was informed by the national grid operator KOSTT that the cuts were necessary because it will have to rely solely on domestic production for supplies.
It has been pushing regulators to allow price hikes for consumers.
The Economy Ministry said "cooperation with Albania will be followed by other measures to address the energy crisis and the state of emergency we are in."
Kosovo's 1.8 million inhabitants rely mainly on two aging coal-fired power plants for domestic electricity production. Some of the output has been limited due to scheduled summer maintenance at the plants.
European electricity prices reached record highs in the first week of August as a prolonged heat wave across the continent disrupted power markets that were already under strain from Russia’s cuts to the continent’s gas supplies amid its war with Ukraine.
With reporting by Koha
Heavy Shelling Reported In Donetsk Region As Ukrainian Forces Make Gains In Kherson2
Tank Warfare Plays Crucial Role In Battle For The Donbas3
Ukraine Targets More Russian Arms Depots As Safety Fears Grow At Occupied Nuclear Plant4
Bulgaria's Underground Truffle Trade5
Interview: With The 2008 Georgia War, 'We Knew What Was Coming, But We Were Slow To Believe It'6
Defending Bakhmut: How Ukraine Is Countering The Russian Offensive In The Donbas7
Kherson Clampdown: Russian Authorities Going Door-To-Door, Mandating Russian Passports, Official Says8
Estonia's Contentious Soviet Monuments9
'Final Stage Putin' And The War In Ukraine10
'We Strike Back Mightily': Ukrainian Troops Slug It Out With Big Guns