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U.S. Rights Report Slams IS Militants, Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Among Others

A protester wearing a mask of Russian President Vladimir Putin participates in a rally in protest against Russian actions in Crimea in St. Petersburg in March 2014.

In a new report, the U.S. State Department strongly criticizes Islamic State (IS) militants -- as well as the Russian, Iranian, and Azerbaijani governments -- for human rights abuses.

The 2014 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, released on June 25, says one of the most notable trends of the year was the brutality of IS militants in Syria and Iraq against the Yezidi minority, Christians, Turkomans, Shabak, Shi'a, and Sunni Muslims who did not conform to their extremist views.

At the same time, the report noted the Iraqi government's inability to rein in abusive and criminal actions by pro-government Shi'a militia fighters in the so-called Popular Mobilization Committees that helped government troops battle against IS militants.

"The message at the heart of these reports is that countries do best when their citizens fully enjoy the rights and freedoms to which they are entitled," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in presenting the report in Washington. "This is not just an expression of hope, this is a reality and it has proven out in country after country around the world."

"Now we understand that some governments may take issue with these reports, including such extreme cases as North Korea or Syria, but also some governments with whom we work closely may also object," he continued. "But I want to say something about that and I think it is important: The discomfort that these reports sometimes cause does more to reinforce than to undermine the value and the credibility of these reports."

Russia

Russia's government came in for strong criticism not only for abuses within Russia's border but for its annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea and its role supporting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The report describes Russia's political system as "increasingly authoritarian" with "a range of new measures to suppress dissent within its borders."

It says Russian authorities "selectively employed the law on 'foreign agents,' the law against extremism, and other means to harass, pressure, discredit, and/or prosecute individuals and entities that had voiced criticism of the government."

It says Russia's government also continued to use laws against extremism to prosecute some religious minorities, and that it adopted several discriminatory laws against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons.

The report highlighted what it called a "growing recognition" of links between corruption, human rights abuses, and repressive governments -- saying corruption in Russia was "widespread throughout the executive, legislative, and judicial branches at all levels of government."

It also criticized the persecution in Crimea by "Russian occupation authorities" of the ethnic Tatar community, certain religious minorities, and others who opposed the occupation -- noting that many were forced to flee the peninsula.

It said Russian forces and Russian-backed separatists also shelled urban areas and committed "numerous other gross human rights abuses" in eastern Ukraine, including killings and abductions.

Iran

The State Department said Iran continues to severely restrict the freedoms of assembly, speech, religion, and the press.

READ MORE: U.S. To Continue Rights Sanctions Against Iran Regardless Of Nuclear Deal

It also noted that Iran had the world's second highest execution rate after "legal proceedings that frequently didn't respect Iran's own constitutional guarantee to due process or international legal norms."

WATCH: Tom Malinowski, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, says there has no improvement in human rights in Iran:

U.S. State Department: No Improvement For Human Rights In Iran
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Azerbaijan

The State Department criticized Azerbaijan's use of the judicial system to punish peaceful dissent and critical journalists amid allegations of widespread corruption.

It says Baku's restrictions included "intimidation, incarceration on questionable charges, and use of force against human rights defenders, civil society activists, and journalists."

It noted an increased number of arbitrary arrests and detention in Azerbaijan along with politically motivated imprisonment, and lengthy pretrial detention for "individuals perceived as a threat by government officials."

It also lists "physical abuse in the military; torture or other abuse in prisons; and harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions" among other serious human rights problems in Azerbaijan.

Islamic State militants prepare to throw a man from a high rooftop as punishment for allegedly being gay in Mosul.
Islamic State militants prepare to throw a man from a high rooftop as punishment for allegedly being gay in Mosul.

Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, the report says, the most significant problem was continued attacks on civilians by Islamic militants -- including violence that killed eight journalists and that targeted women.

It also noted ongoing human rights abuses committed by Afghan security forces.

Other serious abuses included torture and abuse of detainees, targeted violence, and discrimination against women and girls.

The report says while the situation of women "marginally" improved in 2014, domestic and international gender experts considered the country "very dangerous" for women.

Tajikistan

Tajikistan is described an "authoritarian state" where citizens are unable to change their government "through free and fair elections."

The report says authorities in Tajikistan continued to use torture against detainees and others during 2014 while repressing political activists and limiting the free flow of information.

It says human rights abuses also included "violence and discrimination against women, arbitrary arrest, denial of the right to a fair trial, and harsh and life-threatening prison conditions."

It noted there were very few prosecutions of government officials in Tajikistan for rights abuses.

Bosnia-Herzegovina

The U.S. State Department said government corruption remained among "most serious problems" in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2014, which it says resulted in "continued political and economic stagnation."

It also says some political leaders "manipulated deep-seated ethnic divisions" that weakened democracy and governance, undermined the rule of law, fostered discrimination in most aspects of daily life, distorted public discourse in the media, and obstructed the return of persons displaced by the 1992-95 conflict.

Iraq

At the same time, it noted the Iraqi government's inability to rein in abusive and criminal actions by pro-government Shi'ite militias that fought against IS militants.

Belarus

The State Department said authorities in Belarus have continued to "arrest individuals for political reasons and to use administrative measures to detain political activists."

It describes Belarus as an "authoritarian state" where "authorities arbitrarily arrested, detained, and imprisoned citizens for criticizing officials, participating in demonstrations, and other political reasons."

It says Belarus' judiciary suffered from "political interference and a lack of independence and trial outcomes often appeared predetermined."

It also says corruption in "all branches of government" remained a problem in Belarus during 2014.

Here's a look at the other countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region:

Armenia

The State Department says that “systemic corruption and lack of transparency in government” was a serious human rights problem in Armenia last year.

The report says “allegations of persistent corruption at all levels of government undermined the rule of law although the government took limited steps to punish corruption by low- and mid-level officials.”

The report also says that “limited independence of the judiciary, and limitations on the ability of citizens to change their government” were among other serious problems in the country.

Suspicious deaths in the military under noncombat conditions and continued hazing by officers and fellow soldiers were among other abuses cited in the report.

It also notes that there were several incidents of violence toward journalists in connection with citizens’ protests.

Georgia

The State Department says the most important human rights problems reported in Georgia during the last year included domestic violence and politically motivated violence and “increased societal intolerance” of members of minority groups.

The report also denounces interference with religious worship in the country and intimidation that prevented freedom of assembly.

The report adds that “persistent shortcomings” in the legal system led to “incomplete investigations, premature charging of suspects, and inappropriate use of pretrial detention.”

Other problems included abuse by law-enforcement officials, “substandard” prison conditions, and pressure on opposition figures to withdraw from local elections.

The report says de facto authorities in the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia continued to “restrict the rights, primarily of ethnic Georgians, to vote or otherwise participate in the political process, own property, register businesses, and travel.”

Kazakhstan

The State Department says Kazakhstan’s government limited freedom of expression last year and exerted influence on the media through "laws, harassment, licensing regulations, internet restrictions, and criminal and administrative charges."

The report says judicial actions against journalists and media outlets, including civil and criminal libel suits filed by government officials, led to the suspension of several media outlets and encouraged self-censorship.

The report warns that Kazakhstan’s parliament passed new criminal and administrative offenses codes as well as a new labor law, which it says have “the potential to further limit freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion.”

Other reported abuses included arbitrary or unlawful killings, detainee and prisoner torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, infringements on citizens’ privacy rights, prohibitive political party registration requirements, and restrictions on the activities of nongovernmental organizations.

Kosovo

The State Department says actions to block the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina was among the most important human rights problems in Kosovo in the past year.

The report also cites restrictions on such rights as freedom of movement and freedom of worship by Serbian Orthodox pilgrims.

The report says “societal violence and discrimination against members of ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community constituted a second significant area of concern.”

Domestic violence against women was a third major problem, it adds.

The report says the government took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses, but adds that “many assumed that senior officials engaged in corruption with impunity.”

Kyrgyzstan

The U.S. State Department says routine violations of procedural protections in all stages of the judicial process, and systematic, police-driven extortion of vulnerable minority groups, were among the most serious human rights violations in Kyrgyzstan last year.

The report also denounces a “continued denial of justice" in connection with deadly ethnic clashes in the southern city of Osh five years ago as a serious rights issue.

“Underscoring the country’s human rights problems was an atmosphere of impunity for officials in the security services and elsewhere in government who committed abuses and engaged in corrupt practices,” the report adds.

It also denounces torture, poor prison conditions, corruption, and pressure on independent media in the country.

Macedonia

The State Department says the most significant human rights problem in Macedonia last year stemmed from “significant levels of corruption” and from the government’s “failure to respect fully the rule of law.”

The report also says political interference, inefficiency, favoritism toward well-placed persons, and corruption characterized the country's judicial system.

Human rights problems also included physical mistreatment of detainees and prisoners by police and prison guards, discrimination against Roma and other ethnic minorities, societal discrimination against sexual minorities, and child labor.

The report also says the government "took some steps to punish police officials guilty of excessive force, but impunity continued to be a problem.”​

Montenegro

The U.S. State Department says corruption was among Montenegro’s most pressing human rights problems last year.

The report says corruption was pervasive in health care, education, and multiple branches of government including law enforcement.

It was characterized by impunity, political favoritism, nepotism, and selective prosecution of political and societal opponents, the report adds.

According to the report, Montenegro also suffered from a continued deterioration of the environment for nongovernment institutions, including the media and civil society.

Other human rights problems included mistreatment by law enforcement officers of persons in their custody, overcrowded and dilapidated conditions in prisons, and domestic violence against women and children.

Moldova

The State Department says corruption, particularly in the judicial sector, continued to be “the most significant human rights problem” in Moldova last year.

The report says corruption remained “widespread” in the judiciary, the Tax Inspectorate, the customs service, and other public institutions.

“Poor conditions, mistreatment, and abuse in psychiatric and social care homes were major areas of concern,” the report adds.

Other significant problems included “erosion of media freedom, the opaque ownership of media outlets, and increased monopolization of the media and the advertising market.”

According to the report, the human rights situation in Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester “deteriorated in some respects, including through new restrictions on internet freedom.”

Pakistan

The U.S. State Department mentions serious human rights abuses in Pakistan, including “extrajudicial and targeted killings, disappearances, torture, lack of rule of law” and continued “sectarian violence.”

The report warns that harassment of journalists continued, “with high-profile attacks against journalists and media organizations."

Human rights problems also included “poor prison conditions, arbitrary detention, lengthy pretrial detention, a weak criminal justice system, lack of judicial independence in the lower courts, and infringement on citizens’ privacy rights.”

The report says “lack of government accountability” remained a problem while abuses often went unpunished, “fostering a culture of impunity.”

It adds that violence and intolerance by militant organizations contributed to “a culture of lawlessness” in some parts of the country.

Serbia

The U.S. State Department says the most serious human rights problem in Serbia last year included discrimination and societal violence against members of minority groups, especially Roma.

The report says harassment of journalists and pressure on them to self-censor was also a significant problem in the Balkan country.

Human rights problems also included police mistreatment of detainees, government censorship of the Internet, harassment of human rights advocates as well as government critics, and domestic violence against women and children.

It says the government took steps to prosecute officials when the public took notice of abuses, adding that many believed that numerous cases of corruption, police mistreatment, and other abuses went unreported and unpunished.

Turkmenistan

The State Department denounced human rights violations in Turkmenistan, including arbitrary arrest, torture, and disregard for civil liberties.

The report says officials in the security services and elsewhere in the government acted with impunity.

Human rights problems also included denial of due process and fair trial, discrimination and violence against women, trafficking in persons, and restrictions on the free association of workers.

The report says there were no reports of prosecution of government officials for human rights abuses.

Ukraine

The State Department said the most significant human rights developments in Ukraine last year were linked to antigovernment protests in Kyiv, Russia’s occupation of Crimea, and conflict in the country’s east.

The report says ousted President Viktor Yanukovych government’s decision to use force to disperse citizen protests in central Kyiv in February “resulted in more than 100 civilian deaths, most by sniper fire from special security forces, and numerous injuries.”

The report says Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea in March “displaced more than 18,000 Crimeans, while Russian authorities committed “numerous human rights abuses, targeting ethnic and religious communities, particularly Crimean Tatars.”

The report says fighting between government forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since April destabilized the region and resulted by year’s end in more than 4,700 civilian deaths. The toll is now more than 6,500.

Generally, the document says, actions by the rebels deprived more than 5 million people of “access to education, health care, housing, the opportunity to earn a living and to the rule of law," and forced more than 1 million people to leave the area.

Uzbekistan

The State Department accuses Uzbek officials of “frequently” engaging in "corrupt practices" with impunity.

The report also denounces serious human rights issues in Uzbekistan including, “torture and abuse of detainees by security forces,” denial of due process and fair trial,” and “widespread restrictions on religious freedom.”

It says Uzbek authorities subjected human rights activists, journalists, and others who criticized the government, as well as their family members, to harassment, arbitrary arrest, and politically motivated prosecution and detention.

Human rights problems also included restrictions on freedom of speech and on civil society activity as well as violence against women.

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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and the visiting Iranian foreign minister have discussed the need for "vigilance in defending their national interests against external pressures," according to a statement released on February 4. The Caracas visit by Foreign Minister Ossein Amir-Abdollahian underlined the strength of an alliance between two countries seen as outcasts by much of the international community, both of them subject to U.S. sanctions. Maduro received Abdollahian on the evening of February 3 in the Miraflores presidential palace after the Iranian minister arrived from Managua, Nicaragua. "I am sure that our relations will continue to strengthen for technological, industrial, scientific, and cultural exchanges that benefit both peoples," Maduro wrote on Twitter, calling the meeting "productive."

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Three Bulgarians Detained At Border With North Macedonia

A ceremony attended by state officials was conducted under strong police presence at Delchev's grave at the Church of Holy Salvation in Skopje on February 4.

North Macedonia's Interior Ministry has said that three Bulgarian citizens were detained on February 4 at the Deve Bair border crossing with Bulgaria for disturbing public order.

A group of Bulgarian citizens were waiting to enter North Macedonia on February 4 to pay their respects at the tomb of revolutionary Goce Delchev on the occasion of the 151st anniversary of his birth.

Delchev is claimed by both Skopje and Sofia as a hero in the fight for the liberation from the Ottoman Empire.

The ministry announced on February 4 that the three were detained for disturbing public order and peace.

The three Bulgarians, identified only as G.Z. (35), A.H. (50), and R.H. (54), "first behaved verbally impudently and inappropriately using most derogatory words and then tried to physically attack the police officers who took legal action, detaining the three while work is being done to completely clear up the case," the Interior Ministry said.

The ministry said that all border crossings between the two Balkan neighbors were forced to close for several hours because of a fault in the border-control system. Border traffic resumed after the fault was fixed, it said.

Earlier this week, the interior ministers of North Macedonia and Bulgaria met to discuss tensions between their two countries and measures aimed at preventing violence during Delchev's upcoming celebration.

Oliver Spasovski, interior minister of North Macedonia, and his Bulgarian counterpart, Ivan Demerdziev, met on January 30 in Skopje to reduce tensions between the two countries, vowing that "no incident" will be tolerated during the Fberuary 4 celebration in Skopje.

The announcement that a larger number of Bulgarian citizens will attend the celebration of the Delchev’s birth caused further concern.

A ceremony attended by state officials was conducted under strong police presence at Delchev's grave at the Church of Holy Salvation in Skopje on February 4.

Bilateral tensions were heightened earlier this month after the beating in Ohrid of Hristijan Pendikov, a man who identifies as Bulgarian and is an employee of one of the Bulgarian cultural clubs in North Macedonia that some Macedonians regard as provocative.

Following the incident, Bulgaria recalled its ambassador to Skopje.

Demerdziev said on January 30 that he and Spasovski reached an understanding that such incidents should not be allowed in the Republic of North Macedonia and he was assured that the case will be investigated fully and objectively.

Relations between the two neighbors have long been strained by deep cultural, historical, and linguistic differences that spilled into the open three years ago when Sofia invoked its veto power to stall North Macedonia's negotiations to join the European Union.

Sofia finally agreed to withdraw the veto last year.

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Ukraine, Russia Exchange Prisoners; Kyiv Recovers Bodies Of Foreign Humanitarian Volunteers

Ukraine's Andriy Yermak posted images of the prisoner exchange on February 4.

Russia and Ukraine on February 4 announced an exchange of prisoners that led to the release of 63 Russians and 116 Ukrainians and the return of the bodies of two foreign volunteers who were involved in humanitarian work in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk.

The Russian Ministry of Defense reported the return of its 63 Russian soldiers in a statement on its Telegram channel. The statement said that among those released were persons belonging to a "sensitive category," without elaborating.

It added that the exchange was facilitated "thanks to the mediation of the leadership of the United Arab Emirates."

Ukrainian authorities, meanwhile, reported that 116 prisoners had returned home.

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They had last been seen the previous day on their way from Kramatorsk to Soledar, where heavy fighting had been under way between Ukrainian defenders and Russian forces.

Ukrainians Hold Memorial Service For Slain Foreign Aid Workers
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Soon after, the family of one of the two volunteers said that the men were killed during an attempt to carry out a humanitarian evacuation.

Yermak also published a short video purporting to show released Ukrainian prisoners traveling by bus and two photos of men holding Ukrainian flags in front of a bus.

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U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland (file photo)

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Zelenskiy Says Situation In Eastern Ukraine Getting More Difficult As Odesa Battles To Restore Power

Ukrainian soldier fire a mortar on the front line in Bakhmut.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned on February 4 that Russia was throwing more and more forces into battle and that the situation on the front lines in the eastern parts of the country was getting more severe.

"The occupier is throwing more and more of his forces into breaking down our defenses," Zelenskiy said in his nighty video address, adding that the situation was "very difficult" in Bakhmut, Vuhledar, Lyman, and other areas.

His warning came as Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko said that power had been restored to critical infrastructure in the southern port city of Odesa following an accident at a substation.

"Power to all critical infrastructure has been restored. The city will therefore have water and heat," Halushchenko said on Facebook.

"About one-third of the city's consumers now have lighting," he said, without offering more details.

Earlier, regional Governor Maksym Marchenko said a "serious" accident at a high-voltage substation had left a half-million households without power in Odesa, confirming earlier reports about an accident at a facility that was previously targeted in Russian strikes.

"A serious accident occurred at one of the energy facilities, which caused a fire," he said, adding that emergency measures were being taken.

Earlier, an air-raid alert for the whole of Ukraine was canceled without any reports of Russian shelling as Ukrainian defenders faced renewed attacks by Moscow's troops in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk over the past 24 hours.

The alert, which lasted for about two hours in the morning, was the third in two days. No massive Russian strikes on civilian and infrastructure targets were reported on February 3 either.

Amid warnings that a massive Russian offensive is in the making as Moscow's unprovoked invasion nears the one-year mark, the military said fighting had intensified in the Donbas.

"The enemy continues offensive operations in the Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, and Novopavlivka areas [of Donetsk], suffering heavy losses," Ukraine's General Staff said in its report.

Battles have been raging for months for the city of Bakhmut, where waves of Russian attackers are piling increasing pressure on the Ukrainian forces.

Witnesses have told RFE/RL that street fighting is under way in Bakhmut, with building-by-building combat on the outskirts of the city.

Zelenskiy said on February 3 that Ukrainian forces will continue their fight to hold on to Bakhmut. "Nobody will give away Bakhmut. We will fight for as long as we can. We consider Bakhmut our fortress," he said.

Zelenskiy's comments come after U.S. media reports saying the United States had advised Ukraine to withdraw from Bakhmut. U.S. officials quoted by Bloomberg said this would allow Kyiv to gather forces for a spring offensive.

The General Staff said on February 4 that the Ukrainian military also repelled Russian attacks in the Grekivka, Nevske, Kreminna, and Dibrova settlements in the Luhansk region.

Russian forces carried out 20 air strikes and three missile strikes, the military said, targeting civilian infrastructure of the Kharkiv and Mykolayiv regions, causing civilian casualties.

Zelenskiy said Ukrainian forces "have a chance" of beating back a looming Russian offensive if supplied with the right Western weapons.

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"If weapon [supplies] are accelerated, specifically long-range weapons, not only will we not abandon Bakhmut but we will also begin to remove the [Russian] occupiers from the Donbas," he said.

Zelenskiy said European sanctions should aim to ensure Russia cannot rebuild its military capability.

On February 4, Zelenskiy said he discussed the "further expansion of capabilities" of Ukraine's military in a call with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Zelenskiy said he also thanked Sunak for the start of training of Ukrainian crews on Challenger 2 tanks.

"The prime minister said he was focused on ensuring the U.K.'s defensive military equipment reached the front line as quickly as possible," Sunak's office said in a readout of the call.

"Both leaders agreed that it was vital that international partners accelerated their assistance to Ukraine to help seize the opportunity to push Russian forces back," it added.

The United States on February 3 announced a fresh $2.2 billion package of military aid for Ukraine that will include rockets with a range twice the distance of the rockets Ukraine now has.

The Ground-Launched Small-Diameter Bomb (GLSDB) is included in the package announced by the Pentagon.

GLSDBs have a range roughly double that of the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) already supplied.

Kyiv is requesting more powerful modern weapons, including F-16 fighter jets, even after securing pledges from its Western allies to send tanks as its forces brace for an expected new Russian onslaught in the east.

Meanwhile, Portugal will send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said on February 4, without specifying how many will be shipped.

Costa added that Portugal is in talks with Germany to obtain parts needed for the repair of a number of inoperable Leopard tanks in Portugal's inventory.

"I know how many tanks will be (sent to Ukraine) but that will be announced at the appropriate time," Costa told the Lusa news agency during a trip to the Central African Republic.

The EU announced on February 3 that it is ramping up its military training mission for Ukraine, raising it from an initial target of 15,000 troops to up to 30,000.

With reporting by Reuters. dpa, and AFP

EU Agrees On Price Caps On Russian Refined Oil Products

Ambassadors for the 27 EU countries agreed on the European Commission proposal, which will apply from February 5. (file photo)

European Union countries agreed to set price caps on Russian refined oil products to limit Moscow's funds for its invasion of Ukraine, the EU said on February 3. EU diplomats said the price caps are $100 per barrel on products that trade at a premium to crude, principally diesel, and $45 per barrel for products that trade at a discount, such as fuel oil. Ambassadors for the 27 EU countries agreed on the European Commission proposal, which will apply from February 5. The price caps follow a $60 per barrel cap on Russian crude that the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations imposed on December 5. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

New U.S. Aid Package For Ukraine Includes Rockets With Longer Striking Range

U.S. Brigadier General Patrick Ryder (file photo)

A new package of U.S. military aid for Ukraine announced on February 3 includes rockets with a range twice the distance of the rockets Kyiv now has. The Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB) is included in a $2.2 billion U.S. military aid package announced by the Pentagon. GLSDBs has a range roughly double that of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) already supplied. As part of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI), the United States “will be providing a Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb to Ukraine," Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told a news briefing at the Pentagon. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, click here.

U.S. Targets Executives Of Iranian Drone Maker In Latest Sanctions Designation

Ali Reza Tangsiri, the IRGC's naval commander is among those sanctioned. (file photo)

The United States has imposed new sanctions on a previously designated Iranian drone maker, Paravar Pars, this time targeting the board of directors.

The U.S. Treasury Department said on February 3 that its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) had designated eight senior executives of Paravar Pars.

The drone maker was previously blacklisted by OFAC for making Shahed-series unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the Treasury Department said in a news release.

"Iranian entities continue to produce UAVs for Iran's IRGC and military. More broadly, Iran is supplying UAVs for Russia's combat operations to target critical infrastructure in Ukraine," said Brian Nelson, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

“The United States will continue to aggressively target all elements of Iran’s UAV program,” added Nelson, who is the U.S. Treasury's top sanctions official, in the statement.

Among the eight individuals blacklisted are Paravar Pars’ managing director and CEO, Hossein Shamsabadi, and the company’s chairman, Ali Reza Tangsiri, who is also the commander of the IRGC Navy. Tangsiri, who the Treasury Department said has overseen the testing of UAVs and cruise missiles, was previously designated for U.S. sanctions in 2019.

The sanctions freeze any property held in U.S. jurisdictions by the eight individuals. People in the United States who engage in transactions with the individuals designated may themselves be exposed to sanctions, the Treasury Department said.

The department earlier his week put new trade restrictions on seven Iranian entities for producing drones that the Treasury Department said Russia has used to attack Ukraine.

In response, Iran's mission to the United Nations in New York said sanctions have no effect on Iran's drone production capacity because its drones are all produced domestically.

“This is a strong indication that the drones shot down in Ukraine and using parts made by Western countries don't belong to Iran," it said, according to Reuters.

Since Russia launched its war against Ukraine in February 2022, the United States and more than 30 other countries have sought to degrade Russia’s military and defense industrial base by restricting its access to defense needs.

With reporting by Reuters

Iranian Film Director Panahi 'Temporarily ' Released From Prison, Wife Says

Award-winning Iranian film director Jafar Panahi (file photo)

Iranian director Jafar Panahi has been temporarily released from prison days after going on a hunger strike to protest “the illegal and inhumane behavior" of Iran's judiciary and security apparatus, which have led a brutal and sometimes deadly crackdown on unrest over the death of a young woman while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.

"Today, on the third day of Jafar Panahi's hunger strike; Mr. Panahi was temporarily released from Evin prison with the efforts of his family, respected lawyers, and representatives of the cinema," a statement on Panahi's wife's Instagram page said on February 3.

The post added that further details would follow from Panahi's legal team.

She gave no further details, but a photo of the couple in a car was attached to the post.

The U.S.-based US-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) also said on Twitter that Panahi had been released.

Panahi, 62, was arrested in July as the authorities cracked down on dissent in response to growing antiestablishment sentiment and near-daily protests over living conditions and graft across the Islamic republic.

Just days prior to his arrest, Panahi had joined a group of more than 300 Iranian filmmakers in publishing an open letter calling on the security forces to "lay down arms" in the face of public outrage over "corruption, theft, inefficiency, and repression" following the violent crackdown against those protesting a building collapse in May in the southwestern city of Abadan, which killed 41 people.

Those protests were overtaken by a wave of unrest following the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody for allegedly violating the country's head-scarf law.

Since the start of daily protests that have rocked Iran since Amini's death, several Iranian filmmakers and prominent public figures have been summoned or arrested by the authorities, including the popular actress Taraneh Alidoosti.

Several high-profile actresses have taken pictures without a head scarf in defiant support of the protesters, whose demonstrations pose one of the biggest threats to the Islamic leadership since the revolution in 1979.

Panahi was awarded the Special Jury prize at the Venice International Film Festival in September for his latest film, released while he was in prison, No Bears.

The filmmaker has won a number of international awards for films critiquing modern Iran, including the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival for Taxi in 2015 and best screenplay at Cannes for his film Three Faces in 2018.

Since Amini's death, more than 500 people have been killed in the police crackdown, according to rights groups.

Several thousand more have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.

Ukraine's Security Service Exposes 'Large-Scale' Embezzlement Scheme

Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) said the Ukrainian Defense Ministry had lost more than $3 million as a result of the fraud.

Ukraine's Security Service (SBU) says it has uncovered a large-scale embezzlement scheme to siphon off public funds earmarked for the purchase of food for the military as it battles to repel Moscow's nearly yearlong invasion.

The SBU said in a statement posted on Telegram on February 3 that as a result of the fraud, the Defense Ministry incurred losses of more than 119.5 million hryvnyas ($3.24 million).

The findings are part of a scandal that broke on January 22 when allegations surfaced in local media that the ministry was overpaying suppliers for food for troops. The supplier has said a technical mistake was to blame and no extra money had actually changed hands. The ministry said the accusations were baseless.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Eradicating endemic corruption is one of the chief requirements presented by the European Union to Kyiv as Ukraine is pressing Brussels to speed up its accession into the 27-member bloc even as it is fighting Russian troops that invaded on February 24 last year.

On the eve of a meeting between EU leaders and Ukrainian officials on February 3, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pledged "new steps" to continue "our fight against the internal enemy," a reference to the battle against graft. He did not give any details.

The SBU said in its statement explaining the scheme that officials from one ministry department made agreements with the heads of two commercial enterprises regarding the wholesale supply of food to locations where the military is deployed.

Funds from the ministry's budget were then transferred to the accounts of firms that "lacked a production base and technological equipment" to provide the relevant services.

"Instead of supplying the armed forces with the agreed quantities of food products, the participants in the fraudulent mechanism diverted the funds through a number of affiliated shadow companies," the statement said.

The SBU added that, based on evidence found, two heads of companies involved in the fraudulent scheme were notified of being suspected of "[illegal] appropriation, waste of property, or possession of [such property] through abuse of an official position."

It noted that SBU agents are still conducting an investigation to establish the involvement of Defense Ministry officials in any illegal activities.

"In addition, SBU officers exposed the commander of a military unit in the Kyiv region who embezzled almost 2.4 million hryvnyas ($68,000) allocated for military personnel's food," the statement said, adding that the commander had as accomplices four of his subordinates and businessmen who concealed the "kickbacks" through falsified documentation.

No names were given in the statement, which comes after a number of senior Ukrainian officials resigned or were fired beginning on January 24 as Zelenskiy vowed to eradicate corruption from his administration amid a high-profile graft scandal.

Ukraine Unveils Criminal Case Against Russia's Wagner Boss

Yevgeny Prigozhin attends the funeral outside St. Petersburg in December of Dmitry Menshikov, a prisoner who died fighting with Wagner in the war in Ukraine.

Ukraine has unveiled a criminal case against the boss of Russia's Wagner mercenary company and promised to track down and prosecute the company's fighters who try to flee abroad. Wagner, run by businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, has recruited thousands of fighters, including convicts from Russian prisons, to wage war in Ukraine. "The Prosecutor-General's Office has served a notice of suspicion to the head of the private military company Wagner," Prosecutor-General Andriy Kostin said in a statement on Facebook that did not identify Prigozhin by name. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Iranian Protesters Burn Government Propaganda Banners

A protester sets fire to a government banner in Isfahan.

Protesters in several Iranian cities, including the capital, Tehran, have set fire to government banners commemorating the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in a continued show of defiance amid unrest over the death of a young woman while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.

Protesters in Tehran's Ekbatan neighborhood showed the depth of their anger toward the government's intrusion on their freedoms with chants from windows and rooftops of "Death to the dictator," a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Similar scenes were repeated in other neighborhoods of Tehran, as well as in other areas of the country.

Several videos published on social networks showed people setting fire to the government's propaganda banners for the 44th anniversary of the revolution that brought Iran's clerical rulers to power. The anniversary falls on February 11.

The unrest was sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16. The 22-year-old died while in custody after being arrested by the notorious morality police for improperly wearing a mandatory Islamic head scarf, or hijab.

Her death, which officials blamed on a heart attack, touched off a wave of anti-government protests in cities across the country. The authorities have met the unrest with a harsh crackdown that rights groups say has killed more than 500 people, including 71 children.

Officials, who have blamed the West for the demonstrations, have vowed to crack down even harder on protesters, with the judiciary leading the way after the unrest entered a fourth month.

The protests pose the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

Several thousand people have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.

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

Germany Confirms Approval Of Leopard 1 Tank Deliveries To Ukraine

Dozens of German-made Leopard 1 tanks are seen in a hangar in Tournais, Belgium.

Germany has approved the export of Leopard 1 battle tanks to Ukraine from industry stocks, a government spokesperson said on February 3 at a regular news conference in Berlin. The spokesperson declined to comment on the number of tanks that would be exported. The Leopard 1s are not as advanced as Leopard 2s that Germany and other countries pledged last week, but could be delivered sooner. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Emaciated Iranian Activist Meysami Vows To Continue Hunger Strike

Farhad Meysami has been in prison since August 2018.

Farhad Meysami has vowed to continue his hunger strike until Iranian authorities stop executing protesters, release six political prisoners, and stop their harassment of women over the compulsory hijab rule despite photos on social media showing him in an emaciated condition amid growing fears over his state of health.

"I still stand by my three demands," Meysami, a doctor, said in a letter published on February 2 along with the photos that show him looking frail and sickly.

Meysami has been in prison since August 2018 after being sentenced to six years for supporting women protesting against the hijab law that forces them to cover their hair and bodies in public.

He was charged with "spreading propaganda against the system" and "gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security," as well as for "insulting Islamic sanctities," because the authorities said he denigrated the hijab.

Lawyer Mohammad Moghimi has warned that Meysami’s condition is worsening and that his life is in danger.

Last month, Moghimi said Meysami's weight had dropped to 52 kilograms and that he had been beaten by guards due to his resistance to being transferred to the criminal-prisoners ward.

Many on social media, including Reza Pahlavi, the exiled former crown prince of Iran and an opposition leader, have supported Meysami and demanded his release.

On Twitter on February 3, Pahlavi said that the thin body of Meysami, "is another symbol of the boundless cruelty of the Islamic regime."

Prominent Iranian oppositionist Hamed Esmaeilion said he holds the government responsible for Meysami's condition.

Meysami has held several hunger strikes during his incarceration and in most, his demands are related to social conditions in Iran and other activists and prisoners.

In May, Meysami went on a hunger strike to protest the possible execution of Ahmadreza Djalali, a Brussels university professor with dual Iranian-Swedish citizenship. He ended the hunger strike after 145 days.

He reportedly went on a hunger strike in August 2018 to protest the charges he faced and also the lack of access to a lawyer of his choosing. He reportedly was being held at the time in a medical clinic at Evin prison, where he was force-fed intravenously.

The news comes as Iran finds itself engulfed in a wave of protests following the September 16 death of a young woman while in custody for allegedly violating the country's head-scarf law.

The U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency said that as of January 29, at least 527 people had been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces muzzle dissent.

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

NATO Calls On Russia To Fulfill Obligations Under Nuclear Arms-Reduction Treaty

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (file photo)

NATO called on Russia to fulfill its obligations under the nuclear reductions treaty START, it said in a statement on February 3. "We note with concern that Russia has failed to comply with legally-binding obligations, including on inspection and call on Russia to fulfill its obligations under the Treaty," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Pakistan 'Will Have To Agree' To IMF Conditions For Bailout, PM Says

Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif (file photo)

Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif said on February 3 the government would have to agree to International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout conditions that are "beyond imagination." An IMF delegation landed in Pakistan on January 31 for last-ditch talks to revive vital financial aid that has stalled for months. Pakistan's economy is in dire straits, stricken by a balance-of-payments crisis as it attempts to service high levels of external debt, amid political chaos and deteriorating security.

CPJ Condemns Kyrgyz Threat To Block Media Outlet Kloop's Websites Over Article

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has condemned a warning by Kyrgyz authorities that threatens to block the websites of investigative journalist outlet Kloop if it does not take down an article over the controversy surrounding the cost of reconstructing public facilities destroyed in border clashes with Tajikistan last year.

"Kyrgyzstan authorities' attempt to censor Kloop, one of the country's most respected news outlets, once again shows the absurdity and arbitrariness of its false information law, which should never have been enacted," said Gulnoza Said, the CPJ's Europe and Central Asia program coordinator.

While Kyrgyzstan is known for having a vibrant and pluralistic media environment compared to its Central Asian neighbors, human rights groups have warned that the climate for free expression has deteriorated since President Sadyr Japarov first came to power in October 2020, especially with the approval of the Law on Protection from False Information, adopted in August 2021.

In late October, Kyrgyz authorities blocked the local-language websites of RFE/RL, known as Radio Azattyk, after it refused to take down a video about deadly clashes along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

In the case of Kloop, the Ministry Of Culture, Information, Sports, and Youth Policies objected to part of a January 20 report regarding allegations that the state Community Development and Investment Agency (ARIS) had inflated its construction costs.

On January 25, Kloop reported that ARIS denied the allegations, but the ministry sent a letter dated February 1 that demanded Kloop "immediately" remove or amend the January 25 article, as ARIS objected to the summary of its denial, the article's headline, and the mention of a government official who accused the agency of inflating its costs.

Failure to obey the demand would result in Kloop's websites being blocked for at least two months under the false-information law.

Kloop has denied the article contains any false information and has refused to take it down.

"Authorities should withdraw their threat to block Kloop's website, repeal the false information law, and cease their escalating repression of the independent press," the CPJ's Said added.

In the case of RFE/RL, the video in question was produced by Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America.

Kyrgyz officials have claimed that the authors of the video "predominantly" took the position of the Tajik side.

In response, RFE/RL President and Chief Executive Officer Jamie Fly said that the broadcaster "takes our commitment to balanced reporting seriously" and that after a review of the content in question, "no violation of our standards" was found.

Days after the blocking of the RFE/RL local websites, the government froze Radio Azattyk's bank account in Bishkek. Kyrgyz authorities have also suspended the accreditation of 11 RFE/RL correspondents at parliament.

RFE/RL has said it is "will pursue all available legal means to preserve our operations in the country."

Dozens of media organizations, domestic and international rights groups, Kyrgyz politicians, and lawmakers have urged the government to unblock Radio Azattyk's websites.

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