NATO Chief Says Alliance Will Maintain Focus Despite Tillerson 'Rumors'
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has praised Rex Tillerson for what he called a "strong personal commitment" to the alliance and said "rumors" that the U.S. secretary of state could lose his job would not affect meetings this week in Brussels.
Stoltenberg spoke on December 4, ahead of Tillerson's expected arrival for a December 5-6 NATO foreign ministers meeting and talks with Belgian officials.
The NATO chief said that the Western military alliance "and NATO ministers are able to focus on the core tasks of the job we have to do despite any speculation and rumors."
He praised what he said was Tillerson's "strong personal commitment to the transatlantic bond and to NATO."
Tillerson's December 4-8 trip to Europe comes days after The New York Times and other media published reports, citing unnamed sources, of a White House plan to force him out as secretary of state.
Tillerson is scheduled to attend NATO, EU, and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meetings and to hold bilateral talks with Belgian and Austrian officials in Brussels and Vienna on December 5-7. He is due to make a stop in Paris on December 8 for meetings with French officials.
An encounter with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is also planned on the sidelines of a meeting of the OSCE in the Austrian capital.
Ahead of his European tour, Tillerson stressed Washington's commitment to European security, especially as Russia continues what he called its "aggressive behavior."
Speaking at the Wilson Center think tank on November 28, Tillerson said Russia's military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine, and interference in European elections and politics were unacceptable.
Growing Cloud Or 'Fake News'
Two days after the speech, U.S. media reported that the White House had a plan for CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson.
U.S. President Donald Trump rejected the reports as "fake news," while Tillerson called them "laughable."
Ahead of Tillerson's arrival, U.S. envoy to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison said that "there has been no change whatsoever" in planning for two days of talks between Tillerson and his NATO counterparts on December 5-6.
The president and the secretary of state have often contradicted each other in public statements regarding major international issues.
Tillerson has also been accused by Democrats and some Republicans of weakening U.S. diplomacy by planning staff cuts and not filling major positions at the State Department.
Meanwhile, some European leaders have expressed concern over Trump's "America First" rhetoric and mixed signals sent by U.S. officials regarding NATO and the European Union.
An EU official involved in diplomacy with White House officials told the Reuters news agency that "it seems [Tillerson] has no mandate, that the guillotine is hanging over his head."
"It leaves Europe just as doubtful as before about Trump," the official added.
"The chaos in the administration doesn't help in the current geopolitical climate," a French diplomat was quoted as saying.
In Brussels, Tillerson will participate in a December 5-6 NATO foreign ministers meeting and will also meet with EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini and foreign ministers of the bloc to discuss "U.S.-EU cooperation on major global issues," the State Department said in a statement.
On December 7 in Vienna, he will attend the opening and first plenary sessions of the OSCE Ministerial Council -- the central decision-making and governing body of the organization.
War In Ukraine
Ukraine "will very much be on the agenda" during the OSCE talks, a senior State Department official said on December 1, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The secretary really has a heart for...the safety and security of the Ukrainian people in the east in the occupied territories who continue to be the target of military operations with the encouragement and participation of forces from the Russian Federation," the official also said.
Fighting between government forces and Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.
Several cease-fire deals announced as part of the Minsk accords -- September 2014 and February 2015 pacts aimed at resolving the conflict -- have failed to hold.
The OSCE has deployed an unarmed Special Monitoring Mission to the country (OSCE SMM) to observe and report on the situation.
Discussions about deploying a peacekeeping force have heated up since September, when Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed deploying UN peacekeepers along the line separating Ukrainian government forces and the Russia-backed separatists.
The plan swiftly drew criticism from both Kyiv and the West, largely because of concerns that deployment only along the front line would cement Russian control over separatist-held territory and do nothing to stop Russia from sending fighters and weapons into Ukraine. Putin later said he was open to adjustments to his initial proposal, but no agreement has been reached.
"It needs to be an outcome that would have a UN force encompassing the contested area and not just ratifying the gains that the Russians have made on the ground," the State Department official said.
The official said that a meeting between Tillerson and Lavrov was tentatively scheduled for December 7 on the sidelines of the OSCE meeting in Vienna.
"We have a fairly robust set of discussions under way with the Russians on a lot of global issues" including North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs and the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, the official said.
Tillerson is to meet with Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz to discuss "combating violent extremism, curbing nuclear proliferation, promoting democratic and economic reform in the Western Balkans, and deepening bilateral trade ties," the State Department said.
It said Tillerson was set to travel to Paris on December 8 to discuss "our deep cooperation on issues of mutual concern" around the world, such as Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, and North Korea, with senior French leaders.
With reporting by AFP, Reuters, AP, and TASS
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French, Ukrainian Leaders Discuss Nuclear Crisis; Zelenskiy Alleges Russian '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 said the French leader "underlined his concern about the threat posed by the presence and actions of the Russian armed forces and the context of war with the ongoing conflicts over security and safety of Ukrainian nuclear installations, and called for the withdrawal of these forces."
Champs-Elysees said Macron also stressed his support for the possible terms of the UN nuclear agency director-general's proposal to send a mission of experts to Zaporizhzhya as soon as possible.
Macron along with Zelenskiy also hailed the continued implementation of a UN- and Turkish-brokered deal with Russia and Ukraine on the export through Ukrainian ports of Ukrainian grain "essential for world food security."
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.
Ukraine's nuclear power company Enerhoatom alleged on August 16 that Russian-based hackers had unleashed an hours-long attack on its website but said major problems had been avoided.
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.
Swiss To Return 'Illegal' Millions Of Late Uzbek Leader's Imprisoned Daughter
TASHKENT -- Uzbekistan and Switzerland have agreed on the return by Swiss authorities of $131 million in assets seized during criminal proceedings against Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of longtime Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
The Uzbek Justice Ministry said on August 16 that Minister Ruslanbek Davletov and Swiss President Ignazio Cassis signed an agreement in Bern to place the confiscated assets for a UN fund for sustainable development in Central Asia's most populous nation of 35 million.
The breakthrough is one of a handful of efforts by Tashkent to agree on the return of some $1 billion in illicit funds, in some cases slowed by foreign authorities' desire to ensure transparency in the funds' return to public coffers.
"The fund will allow the returned assets to be used for the benefit of the population of Uzbekistan," Cassis said at the signing ceremony.
Switzerland froze around 800 million Swiss francs ($842 million) in 2012 in connection with criminal proceedings against Karimova, a pop diva and businesswoman who had a public falling-out with her late father and is currently in an Uzbek prison on embezzlement and criminal conspiracy charges.
The Uzbek Justice Ministry said in February that it was working with authorities in Switzerland, the United States, France, Russia, and several other nations on the return of Karimova's assets that it said were "earned through criminal activities."
The ministry said at the time that Uzbek and Swiss authorities had agreed to create a multiparty trust fund with the United Nations to work on the return of assets that were confiscated under a court decision as part of the probe against Karimova.
It said that assets worth about $131 million and confiscated in 2019 were ready to be transferred to Uzbekistan.
In 2020, the Swiss government said a nonbinding framework agreement signed between Switzerland and Uzbekistan meant any returned assets "shall be used for the benefit of the people of Uzbekistan."
Tashkent has sought over $1 billion from foreign jurisdictions since announcing Karimova's imprisonment in 2017.
Once seen as a possible successor to her father, Karimova was placed under house arrest in Tashkent in 2014 while he was still alive and running the country. Karimov died in 2016 and Shavkat Mirziyoev succeeded him soon afterward.
Criminal investigators in Switzerland, the United States, Sweden, and the Netherlands have linked Karimova to a massive, years-long bribery scheme that revolved mainly around foreign telecommunications companies gaining access to the Uzbek market.
In December 2017, Karimova was sentenced to a 10-year prison term but the sentence was later commuted to house arrest for five years. She was detained in March 2019 for allegedly violating the terms of her house arrest.
In February 2020, Karimova sent a letter to Mirziyoev offering to return $686 million to the country's treasury in exchange for the dismissal of the court case against her at home.
But a month later she received an additional 13-year sentence after being found guilty of extortion, money laundering, and other crimes.
German Troops Rejoin EU's Bosnian Mission, Sparking Russian Anger
A contingent of around two dozen German troops arrived in Bosnia-Herzegovina on August 16 as part of the European Union's nearly two-decade peacekeeping and security mission in the troubled Balkan state, in a move quickly disparaged by Russia's embassy.
The return of German troops to the EUFOR mission for the first time in a decade reflects Western concern at centrifugal ethnic and political forces and potential geopolitical spillover from the Ukraine war.
EUFOR last week announced the deployment of up to 50 Bundeswehr troops to the former Yugoslav republic, which remains divided into a Bosniak and Croat federation and a mostly Serb entity known as Republika Srpska under the terms of a 1995 cease-fire known as the Dayton Agreement.
On August 16, it called the arrival of around 30 troops "a further demonstration of the EU's commitment to a stable, prosperous, and European future for all the citizens" of Bosnia.
EUFOR's Althea mission in Bosnia comprises around 1,100 soldiers from 20 countries.
EUFOR said after the German troops' arrival at Camp Butmir that "the advance party of German personnel arriving this week are expected to be followed by further troops deployed on a phased basis."
The Serb member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik, who has openly sought secession for Republika Srpska and hastened instability with rival institutions, has criticized the arrival of German troops with references to World War II.
EUFOR is in part tasked with ensuring civilian order and compliance with Dayton alongside an international high representative, currently German Christian Schmidt.
Dodik ally Russia last year accelerated its push to phase out Schmidt's post.
EUFOR's current mandate expires in November and there is speculation that Moscow could use its UN Security Council veto to scupper an extension.
Russia's embassy in Sarajevo alleged on August 16 that the United States and Britain are "preparing the ground for the creeping NATOization" of Bosnia.
Given European forces' most recent report to the UN Security Council suggesting Bosnia is calm and stable, the embassy said, "the reasons for the need to expand military personnel in EUFOR, including at the expense of Bundeswehr soldiers, are groundless."
It said that it "especially" considers suggestions that the Russia-Ukraine conflict is affecting the situation in Bosnia as "unacceptable."
Bosnia has EU aspirations but has struggled to implement reforms and even maintain unified policies in the face of governmental and administrative divisions based on ethnicity and geography.
Elections scheduled for later this year are in jeopardy as Serbs continue to press for independence and ethnic Croats insist on major electoral changes or they will boycott the vote.
More than 100,000 people died in the 1992-95 Bosnian War that ended with the signing by Serb, Croat, and Bosniak leaders of a U.S.-mediated peace in Dayton, Ohio.
EUFOR replaced NATO peacekeeping troops in Bosnia in 2004.
With reporting by Reuters
After Going Dark, Ship With Ukrainian Corn Appears In Syrian Port
The first ship to have left Ukraine under a UN- and Turkish-brokered deal two weeks ago to resume food and fertilizer exports amid the Russia-Ukraine war was said by a shipping source and satellite data to have docked early on August 16 in the Syrian port city of Tartus.
The ship, the Sierra Leone-flagged Razoni, departed Ukraine with its cargo of 26,000 tons of corn on August 1 and didn't unload in Lebanon as scheduled but went dark -- when a ship turns off the transponder beaming location data -- before appearing in Tartus.
Russia is a key ally that has helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad weather a brutal civil war and has a small naval facility at Tartus.
In June, Damascus recognized the independence declarations of two regions of eastern Ukraine where Russia-backed separatists have controlled wide swaths of land since 2014, prompting Kyiv to sever diplomatic relations with Syria.
Reuters quoted imagery from Planet Labs PBC as showing the Razoni at Tartus and a shipping source as saying at least some of its cargo was being unloaded there.
The original buyer in Lebanon reportedly refused delivery before the Razoni continued to Turkey on August 11, where some of the cargo was unloaded.
After setting sail on August 11, the Razoni appeared to turn off its transponder.
Ukrainian officials said they were no longer responsible for the cargo or vessel.
Kyiv has already accused Syrian authorities of taking at least 150,000 tons of grain stolen from Ukrainian stockpiles after Russia invaded in February.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will meet with the Ukrainian and Turkish presidents in Ukraine on August 18-19 including in the port city of Odesa in part to discuss the scheme that resumed grain and fertilizer shipments.
Based on reporting by Reuters
UN's Guterres To Meet With Zelenskiy, Erdogan In Ukraine This Week
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will meet with the Ukrainian and Turkish presidents in Ukraine on August 18 and visit a Ukrainian Black Sea port the following day that has resumed shipments of grain exports halted by Russia's five-month-old invasion.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will join Guterres in Lviv, in western Ukraine, to discuss the security situation at a Russian-occupied nuclear power plant and possible paths out of the conflict with Russia.
Guterres and the international community have expressed intense concerns over the risk of disaster at the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, Europe's largest, amid reports of shelling and other dangers in the past week.
The United Nations has offered to help facilitate a visit by its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to Zaporizhzhya, but Moscow has dismissed a mission traveling through Kyiv despite vowing it would do all it could to help ensure IAEA access to the plant.
Zelenskiy earlier on August 16 accused Russia of "nuclear terrorism" in its actions while Moscow says Ukrainian troops are responsible for artillery fire near the facility.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly sought a role for his NATO-member state to mediate in the conflict, and Ankara was crucial to a recent deal that allowed for the restart of grain and fertilizer exports from three of Ukraine's Black Sea ports.
Dujarric said Guterres on August 20 will visit the Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul that oversees the seaborne shipments.
The center is staffed by Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish, and UN officials.
The first ship to have left Ukraine under the multilateral deal two weeks ago was said by a shipping source and satellite data to have docked early on August 16 in the Syrian port city of Tartus.
The ship, the Sierra Leone-flagged Razoni, departed Ukraine on August 1 and didn't unload in Lebanon as scheduled but went dark before appearing in Tartus.
Russia is a key ally who has helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad weather a brutal civil war and has a small naval facility at Tartus.
A UN-chartered ship loaded with 23,000 tons of Ukrainian grain meanwhile set sail on August 16 from a Black Sea port for Ethiopia, the first shipment of its kind in a program to assist countries facing famine, according to Ukraine's Infrastructure Ministry.
Based on reporting by Reuters
Yerevan Market Director Denies Safety Breach As Blast's Death Toll Rises To 16
YEREVAN -- The director of a market where an apparent fireworks warehouse explosion killed at least 16 people in the Armenian capital has denied any breach of fire-safety regulations ahead of the tragedy.
But fire inspectors said that two dozen violations identified last year at the sprawling Surmalu market had not been eliminated by the market's administration before the August 14 incident.
Sixteen bodies have been recovered so far and three* people are still missing, with 61 more people injured in the massive fire triggered by the blast, about two kilometers from downtown Yerevan.
Emergency Situations Minister Armen Pambukhchian said an Iranian and a Russian are among those still unaccounted for as rescue crews continue to search the site.
Razmik Zakharian, the 86-year-old businessman and former politician who owns Surmalu, was not immediately reachable.
Irina Madatova, the manager of Surmalu, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service by phone that the operators had addressed the violations. She did not elaborate.
Fire inspectors said they had given Surmalu until the end of 2021 to comply with city-planning norms and fire-safety rules. They said no subsequent inspection had been carried out.
Vardan Tadevosian, a spokesman for Armenia's Investigative Committee, said that about two dozen people, most of them survivors of the fire, have been questioned so far.
Surmalu's managers and owners have not been interrogated, he said, and no charges have been filed against any individuals.
Tadevosian said authorities were still trying to clarify the identities of tenants and vendors.
Investigators together with experts are also examining the scene of the explosion and fire, he said but added that with rescue work still continuing it would likely take time to establish a cause.
Pambukhchian told reporters a day earlier that authorities had "practically ruled out" terrorism as a cause, based in part on footage showing smoke before a small fire and then an explosion.
"Watching the footage of the explosion, we almost rule out such a theory [that a bomb had been planted], because first there was smoke, then fire covering some small area, then came an explosion," he said. "Quite a large amount of explosive materials was stored there."
CORRECTED to lower number of people still missing to three. We apologize for the error.
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
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.
Russians Blame 'Sabotage' For Blasts At Crimean Ammo Depot; Kyiv Hints At Role
A Russian ammunition storage unit in northern Crimea has exploded, Russia's 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.
Ukrainian officials avoided publicly or directly claiming responsibility for the incidents but some appeared to suggest Kyiv was involved.
Crimea was captured and annexed by Russia in 2014 and is still internationally recognized as Ukrainian territory, but Moscow has threatened severe reprisals for any attacks on the peninsula.
The New York Times quoted an unnamed senior Ukrainian official as saying an elite Ukrainian military unit that was operating behind enemy lines was responsible for the explosions.
The head of Zelenskiy's office, Andriy Yermak, wrote on Twitter that "the Ukrainian Armed Forces continue the filigree 'demilitarization' operation to fully rid our land of Russian invaders."
"Our soldiers are the best sponsors of a good mood," Yermak added, "Crimea is Ukraine."
Mykhaylo Podolyak, another top Zelenskiy aide, said on Twitter that thelatest 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.
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 explosions tore through 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.
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
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
Defending Bakhmut: How Ukraine Is Countering The Russian Offensive In The Donbas6
Interview: With The 2008 Georgia War, 'We Knew What Was Coming, But We Were Slow To Believe It'7
Kherson Clampdown: Russian Authorities Going Door-To-Door, Mandating Russian Passports, Official Says8
Estonia's Contentious Soviet Monuments9
Russians Blame 'Sabotage' For Blasts At Crimean Ammo Depot; Kyiv Hints At Role10
'Final Stage Putin' And The War In Ukraine