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Assange Of WikiLeaks Fights Extradition To Sweden

Julian Assange
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was back in a London court today to begin his battle against extradition to Sweden.

In Sweden, he faces accusations of sexual assault against two women. He denies those allegations.

Assange, who has released thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables on his website, says the inquiry against him is politically motivated.

His lawyers say extradition is unnecessary since Assange has not been formally charged with any offenses and has offered himself for questioning.

They fear that if Assange is forced to return to Sweden, he could be extradited to the United States, where he could face charges related to the publication of secret documents.

Assange's lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, told the court today that Assange would face a "flagrant denial of justice" if extradited to Sweden.

Robertson said Assange, 39, could face the death penalty if further extradited to the United States on separate charges relating to WikiLeaks.

The extradition hearing is expected to take two days, and the judge is expected to defer a decision until later this month.

Assange was arrested in England in December on a European arrest warrant issued by Sweden, but a London court released him on bail nine days later.

compiled from agency reports

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IAEA Chief Grossi Visits Ukraine's Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Plant

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) and IAEA chief Rafael Grossi (left) meet in Zaporizhzhya on March 27.

Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog, visited the Russian-held Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant on March 29, Ukraine's state-owned nuclear company Enerhoatom reported. The visit was Grossi's second to Europe's largest nuclear power plant since the start of its occupation by Russian troops, Enerhoatom's press service said. The visit was part of efforts to avert the risk of an accident at the nuclear plant. On March 27, Grossi met with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a working trip to the Zaporizhzhya region. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, click here.

Russian Rights Defender Not Allowed To Reenter Georgia

Daryana Gryaznova (file photo)

Daryana Gryaznova, a Russian rights defender who has lived in Tbilisi since May 2021, has not been allowed to reenter Georgia after she took a trip to Istanbul. Gryaznova's boyfriend said on March 28 that she was sent back to Istanbul after border guards informed her at the Tbilisi airport that she was not allowed to enter the country for unspecified reasons. The UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, expressed concern over the situation, demanding an explanation from the Georgian authorities. Several Russian activists and journalists have been banned from reentering Georgia in recent months. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Echo of the Caucasus, click here.

Two Men Killed In Chechnya After Allegedly Attacking Police


Two men were killed in Russia's volatile North Caucasus region of Chechnya after they attacked a police station in the city of Gudermes, late on March 28, opposition Chechen Telegram channels reported. The region's authoritarian Kremlin-backed ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov, wrote on Telegram on March 29 that "two criminals" were killed after they were located in Gudermes, refused to give up, and threw a grenade at security forces. One day earlier, the Interior Ministry in the neighboring region of Ingushetia said unidentified men had opened fire at a police station late in the night on March 27, wounding two police officers. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities, click here.

Sweden Summons Russia's Ambassador Over 'Legitimate Target' Statement

Sweden and Finland in 2022 both sought NATO membership shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and are hoping to complete the process this year.

Sweden's Foreign Ministry said on March 29 it will summon Russia's Stockholm ambassador to complain about an "attempt at interference" with the Swedish NATO application process. Sweden and Finland in 2022 both sought NATO membership shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and are hoping to complete the process this year. The Russian ambassador in a statement on the embassy's website said joining NATO made the Nordic countries "a legitimate target for Russian retaliatory measures, including those of a military nature." A Swedish Foreign Ministry spokesperson told Reuters the ambassador would be summoned. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Siberian Journalist Goes On Trial For Article Related To Ukraine War

Mikhail Afanasyev attends a court session in Abakan in April 2022.

The editor in chief of the Novy fokus (New Focus) online newspaper in the Siberian region of Khakasia, Mikhail Afanasyev, went on trial on March 29 charged with discrediting Russia's armed forces. Afanasyev was arrested in April 2022 after his newspaper reported about the refusal of local riot police officers to participate in Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Afanasyev was the first foreign recipient of the Swedish Magazine Publishers Association Award and was twice awarded with the Andrei Sakharov prize. If convicted, he may face up to 10 years in prison. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Siberia.Realities, click here.

Hungary Says 'Grievances' Hold Up Ratification Of Sweden's NATO Accession

Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs (file photo)

Hungary is holding up Sweden's admission to NATO because of grievances over its criticism of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's policies, the Hungarian government spokesman said March 29. Bridging the gap will require effort on both sides, Zoltan Kovacs said. Sweden and Finland asked to join NATO last year following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But the process has been held up by Hungary and Turkey. Swedish representatives "have been repeatedly keen to bash Hungary through diplomatic means, using their political influence to harm Hungarian interests", Kovacs said, referring to Swedish criticism over the erosion of the rule of law by Orban's government. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Azerbaijani PM Known For Criticism Of Iran Wounded In 'Terrorist Attack'

Fazil Mustafa (file photo)

Azerbaijan's State Security Service (DTX) said on March 29 that lawmaker Fazil Mustafa was hospitalized with gunshot wounds to his shoulder and leg the previous evening after an unknown assailant opened fire at him near his home. DTX called the attack "a terrorist act," adding that Mustafa's life was not in danger. Mustafa is the only representative in parliament of the Boyuk Qurulus (Great Creativeness) party loyal to the government. Investigations into the attack are under way, DTX said. Mustafa is a sharp critic of neighboring Iran's policies toward Azerbaijan. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, click here.

Hungary's Foreign Minister Holds Energy Talks With Russian Deputy PM

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Novak (left) meets with Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto in Moscow in January 2021.

Hungary's foreign minister held telephone talks with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Novak about gas and oil shipments and nuclear cooperation, the Hungarian minister said late on March 28. In a statement, Peter Szijjarto said Novak reassured him that despite international sanctions, the Russian party would be able to do maintenance work on the Turkstream pipeline. "Hungary's gas supply will continue without any disruptions," the statement added. Under a 15-year deal signed in 2021, Hungary receives 4.5 billion cubic meters of gas per year from Russia mostly via Bulgaria and Serbia on the Turkstream pipeline. To read the full story by Reuters, click here.

Pakistan Says It Will Skip U.S. Democracy Summit

U.S. President Joe Biden (file photo)

Pakistan announced on March 28 that it will not participate in this week's U.S.-led Summit for Democracy. The Biden administration has invited 120 global leaders to the summit being held in Washington on March 29-30. It will be co-hosted by the governments of Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Zambia. Pakistan's Foreign Ministry in a statement thanked the United States and its co-hosts for the invitation and said Pakistan would engage with the United States and co-hosts of the summit "to promote and strengthen democratic principles."

French Parliament Recognizes Ukrainian Famine As Genocide

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his wife, Olena, visit a monument to Holodomor victims in Kyiv in November 2022.

The French parliament has voted to recognize as genocide the starvation of millions in Ukraine in the 1930s under Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

French deputies adopted the resolution on March 28 as the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine revives memories of the famine known in Ukraine as the Holodomor.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the decision on Twitter, thanking French legislators.

"The totalitarian regime of the Kremlin, past or present, could not destroy and will never destroy truth and justice!" he said.

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also thanked the French lawmakers.

"I am grateful to France for recognizing the 1932-33 Holodomor as a genocide of Ukrainians and for honoring the memory of the victims of Stalin and his regime," he said on Twitter.

"With this historic vote, [the French parliament] made it clear that such crimes will never be forgotten and must never be repeated."

Kyiv has urged the international community to declare the mass starvation a genocide.

The European Parliament did so in December and called on Russia, as the legal successor of the Soviet Union, to do the same and apologize. It also called on "all countries and international organizations" that have not yet recognized the Holodomor as genocide to do so.

The Ukrainian government and many scholars regard the Holodomor -- Ukrainian for "death by hunger" -- as an act of genocide by Stalin's regime.

The famine took place in 1932-33 as Stalin's police forced peasants in Ukraine to join collective farms by requisitioning their grain and other foodstuffs.

Historians say the failure to properly harvest crops in Ukraine in 1932 under Soviet mismanagement was the main cause of the famine.

It is estimated that up to 9 million people died as a result of executions, deportation, and starvation during the campaign.

Moscow has long denied any systematic effort to target Ukrainians, arguing a poor harvest at the time wiped out many in other parts of the Soviet Union.

The text adopted in Paris recognizes "the genocidal nature of the forced and planned famine by the Soviet authorities against the Ukrainian population in 1932 and 1933."

The French parliament condemned those acts and "affirms its support for the Ukrainian people in their aspiration to have the mass crimes committed against them by the Soviet regime recognized."

With reporting by AFP

Zelenskiy Says Bakhmut Must Be Held, War In Ukraine Can End Sooner If World 'More Decisive'

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy inspects an outpost of the State Border Service on the border with Russia during a tour of the Sumy region on March 28.

Ukrainian defenders repelled more waves of Russian assaults on Bakhmut, the military said on March 29, as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned that Kyiv cannot afford not to win the battle for the eastern city that has become the focal point of Russia's protracted offensive in the east.

"The enemy continued its assault on the city of Bakhmut," Ukraine's General Staff said in its daily report. "However, our defenders have been courageously holding on to the city, repelling numerous enemy attacks."

Bakhmut, along with Avdiyivka, Mariynka, and Lyman remain the main targets of Russia's relentless shelling, the Ukrainian military said, adding that a total of 57 enemy attacks were repelled over the past 24 hours in the area.

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

Russian troops also carried out 18 air strikes and three missile strikes, as well as 50 rocket salvoes along the whole front line over the previous day, the military said.

The information could not be independently verified.

Farther south, Russian forces kept shelling the Kherson region, the head of the regional military administration, Oleksandr Prokudin, said.

"Over the past day, the enemy has shelled the region 34 times -- three times the city of Kherson itself," Prokudin said on Telegram, adding that one person was wounded.

Residential buildings, a hospital, and a factory were among the Russian targets, Prokudin said.

East of Kherson, several simultaneous explosions rang out "in all areas" of Russian-occupied Melitopol, the exiled Ukrainian mayor of the city, Ivan Fedorov, said on March 29.

"The power went out in the northern and western districts of the city, as well as in Semenivka, Tambovka, and some other surrounding villages," Fedorov said.

Russian media said the explosions were the result of shelling by Ukrainian forces. Kyiv has not commented on the report.

The strategic city, located some 120 kilometers southeast of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, was targeted by Ukrainian shelling in the past.

Meanwhile, Zelenskiy reaffirmed that Ukraine must hold on to Bakhmut at all costs, warning that a win by Russia there would be used by President Vladimir Putin as a stepping stone in garnering international support for a peace agreement that would force Ukraine to accept painful compromises.

Putin would "sell this victory to the West, to his society, to China, to Iran," Zelenskiy told AP in an interview published on March 29. "If he will feel some blood -- smell that we are weak -- he will push, push, push," he said.

Ukrainian military commanders have said their own counteroffensive is not far off, but in the meantime want to hold on to control of Bakhmut.

The Ukrainian military announced on March 28 that it has recently received long-promised Western equipment, including German Leopard 2 tanks.

On March 28, Zelenskiy said in his evening video address that the world must act with more urgency to put a stop to Russia's aggression.

Zelenskiy used his evening video address to thank all who have followed the "call of their hearts" on behalf of Ukraine, adding that he believes the "Russian aggression can end much faster" than some have said. It will end faster "if the world is faster, if the world is more decisive," he said late on March 28.

Zelenskiy laid out the reasons "to press and fight" and refuse to compromise even as Russian forces continue battling for control of Bakhmut. The reasons include the destroyed Ukrainian cities and villages, threats to destroy life in other countries, and Russia's constant refusal to return to peace.

Zelenskiy spent March 28 on a working trip to the Sumy region in northeastern Ukraine. He presented the city of Okhtyrka with the award of hero city.

He also met with local authorities in the Sumy and Chernihiv regions and with commanders who are directly responsible for the protection of the two regions, which share a border with Russia.

In the eastern Donetsk region, Denis Pushilin, the administrator of the area controlled by Russian-backed separatists, spoke to Russian media about the situation in Bakhmut, saying most Ukrainian forces had pulled back from the AZOM metals factory on the western side of the Bakhmutka River in the city.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

U.S. To Withhold Some Nuclear Data From Russia After Moscow's Treaty Suspension

While Russia has not formally withdrawn from the treaty, which limits the two sides' deployed strategic nuclear arsenals, Russia's suspension, announced on February 21, imperils the arms control treaty. (file photo)

The United States has told Russia it will withhold some data on its nuclear forces in response to Moscow's suspension of participation in the New START nuclear arms treaty. While Russia has not formally withdrawn from the treaty, which limits the two sides' deployed strategic nuclear arsenals, Russia's suspension, announced on February 21, imperils the arms control treaty. A White House spokesperson said that under international law the United States has the right to respond to Russia's breaches of the treaty "by taking proportionate and reversible countermeasures in order to induce Russia to return to compliance with its obligations." To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Iranian Activist Alinejad Says International Support Vital For Both Iran And West

Masih Alinejad said she has tried to persuade leaders such as Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte that the months of unrest that have roiled Iran are an actual revolution that will ultimately lead to the toppling of the Islamic republic's government.

Prominent activist Masih Alinejad says the West's continued support for Iranians is vital both for achieving regime change in Iran and reaching the goals Western nations have in their relationship with Tehran.

Speaking in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Farda, Alinejad said she has tried to persuade leaders such as Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte that the months of unrest that have roiled Iran are an actual revolution that will ultimately lead to the toppling of the Islamic republic's government.

Alinejad said Iranians aren't looking for the West to replace the Islamic regime with democracy, but their support is key to the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people.

"This strategy also holds significant benefits for Western populations in the future. For example, Western governments have dedicated decades to securing a nuclear agreement with the Islamic republic, yet the Islamic republic has covertly advanced its nuclear activities," she added.

"To achieve an Iran without nuclear weapons, the West should assist the Iranian people in achieving an Iran without the Islamic republic."

Amid the unrest, Iranian opposition leaders and activists have begun to discuss the shape of Iran in the future.

In one recent discussion, a group of exiled opposition activists and celebrities met at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. to discuss the future of Iran's pro-democracy movement. The group pleaded for unity and an end to infighting to help replace Iran's theocratic system with a secular democracy.

Alinejad, who is a member of the newly formed Alliance for Democracy and Freedom in Iran, announced that the alliance's representatives will soon meet with members of the Canadian Parliament as well.

The group also includes the exiled former crown prince of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, the spokesman for the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, Hamed Esmaeilion, and rights activist Nazanin Boniadi.

Alinejad spoke to Radio Farda amid nationwide protests in Iran sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16. The 22-year-old died while in custody after being arrested by the notorious "morality police" for allegedly improperly wearing a mandatory Islamic head scarf, or hijab.

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

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

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

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

Anti-government protests over poor living conditions, low wages, and a lack of freedoms have also been taking place.

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

IOC To Decide Russian, Belarusian Participation In Paris Olympics 'At Appropriate Time'

Protesters picketed the IOC board meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 25.

The executive board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on March 28 recommended allowing Russian and Belarusian athletes to take part in international competitions as neutral athletes, but said it will make a decision "at the appropriate time" on whether to allow them to compete at next year's Paris Olympics.

The executive board issued six recommendations in a statement after a meeting at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, saying that while they do not concern the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus in the 2024 Paris Olympics, their implementation will be monitored.

"The IOC will take this decision at the appropriate time, at its full discretion," the IOC statement said.

Despite the ongoing war in Ukraine, the board said during nearly four months of consultations, it was clear that the "vast majority" of Olympic Movement stakeholders “want a pathway to be opened for the competitions under their sole authority," but they also requested recommendations should they decide to admit athletes from Russia or Belarus.

The executive board on March 28 said following this request, it issued six recommendations, saying that while they do not concern the participation of athletes from Russia and Belarus in the 2024 Paris Olympics, their implementation will be monitored.

The recommendations include allowing Russians and Belarusians to compete as individual neutral athletes and bars teams from the two countries. The board also recommended barring athletes who actively support the war and athletes who are "contracted to the Russian or Belarusian military."

The monitoring of the implementation of the recommendations "will be an important factor in the decision by the IOC concerning the participation of athletes with a Russian or Belarusian passport in the Olympic Games Paris 2024 and the Olympic Winter Games Milano Cortina 2026,” the executive board said.

IOC President Thomas Bach said after the meeting that the executive board wants to monitor the implementation of the recommendations "as long as be enabled to take an informed decision."

The board, he said, did not consider it appropriate to give a timeline, adding, "no one knows what's happening tomorrow or in nine months."

Poland slammed the IOC action, while Russia's Olympic Committee said the recommendations were unacceptable.

"What positive things has Russia done for their athletes to now take part in competitions!! After Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel!! After the daily bombings of civilian sites!! It's a day of shame for the IOC!!" Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Wawrzyk said on Twitter.

Stanislav Pozdnyakov, the head of Russia's Olympic Committee, was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying the IOC action is "discrimination on the basis of nationality."

Bach defended plans to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes back into competitions as neutrals, telling the board in his address at the start of the meeting that the method is employed "in a number of sports, most prominently in tennis but also in cycling," but also in ice hockey, handball, and soccer.

He said the method "works," adding, there been no "security incidents."

The IOC sanctioned Russia and Belarus after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and the executive board on March 28 reiterated its condemnation of the invasion.

Bach's support for allowing athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete as neutrals and thereby have a chance to qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympics has faced opposition, particularly from Ukraine, which has threatened to boycott the Paris Olympics should Russian and Belarusians be allowed to compete, even as neutrals.

More than 300 fencers on March 28 wrote to Bach to ask the IOC to reconsider allowing them back, calling it a "catastrophic error" should Russia and Belarus return.

"You have chosen Russian and Belarusian interests over the rights of athletes, notably Ukrainian athletes, and by doing so, you are failing to support the very people your organizations are meant to support," the letter said.

Bach said politics could not be a part of sports competitions, and the board said "the Olympic Games cannot prevent wars and conflicts. Nor can they address all the political and social challenges in our world. This is the realm of politics."

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Montenegro's President: EU's Neglect Gave Russia A Platform

President Milo Djukanovic casts his vote in Montenegro's presidential election on March 19.

Montenegro's pro-Western president criticized the European Union for allegedly allowing Russia to spread its influence in the Western Balkans, saying the volatile region has become a "platform" for anti-EU policies due to the bloc's "negligence." President Milo Djukanovic spoke to the Associated Press as he prepares for an April 2 runoff election with a political newcomer who has the support of the Montenegrin government, which includes parties seeking closer relations with Serbia and Russia. "Russia has simply walked into an open space left by the European Union," Djukanovic said of the EU's position toward the Balkans. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Iranian IRGC Commander Warns Restive Province Of 'Red Lines'

A "Protest Friday" in Zahedan after that followed Friday Prayers on February 17 called for the release of political prisoners.

A high-ranking commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has warned protesters in the southeastern Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan against crossing the regime's "red lines" in anti-government rallies that have been taking place weekly after Friday Prayers.

According to the Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with the IRGC, Mohammad Pakpor, the commander of the IRGC's ground forces, blamed the protests in the province on "malicious individuals and enemies" and warned that "if someone attempts to undermine the security of the people, they will face severe consequences." He gave no more details on what exactly would constitute a "red line" for the government.

The comments come at a time when religious leaders in Sistan and Baluchistan, particularly Molavi Abdolhamid, a spiritual leader for Iran’s Sunni Muslim population, have complained that the government's actions, including the violent dispersal of worshippers demonstrating in the region by security agents of the Islamic republic, as being a major factor adding to the feeling of insecurity among the general population.

Meanwhile, civil activists in Sistan and Baluchistan report that over the past six months of protests, particularly during the ongoing protests on Fridays in the city of Zahedan, "a significant number of citizens, including children under 18, have been arrested without justification and contrary to legal procedures."

Due to Internet disruptions in many areas of Sistan and Baluchistan and threats by security agencies to the families of protesters, there is limited accurate information available about the status of many detainees.

During the Bloody Friday massacre in Zahedan on September 30, 2022, almost 100 people were killed and hundreds injured by security forces amid unrest triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini and the alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl by a local police commander.

In December, a leaked audio recording from the Iranian pro-regime Coalition Council of Islamic Revolution Forces appeared to show the secretary of the council admitting to the accidental killing of women and children during Bloody Friday.

Earlier, another leaked document from the Fars agency, published by the Black Reward hacking group, shows Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei telling security and military officials to try and disgrace Abdolhamid, who is a vocal critic of the government, instead of arresting him.

Anger over Amini's death while in police custody on September 16 has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets nationwide to demand more freedoms and women's rights. The widespread unrest represents the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

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

Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population in Sistan-Baluchistan Province in southeastern Iran where Abdolhamid is based but make up only about 10 percent of the population in Shi'a-dominated Iran overall.

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

IAEA Chief Grossi Says Deal To Protect Ukrainian Nuclear Plant 'Close'

IAEA head Rafael Grossi meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, on March 27.

A deal to protect Europe's largest nuclear power plant from a catastrophic accident due to fighting in Ukraine could be "close," said the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, but he warned that intensified combat in the area has increased risks to the Zaporizhzhya plant. In an interview with the Associated Press a day before he was to cross the front lines for a second time to visit the plant, Grossi said he felt it was his duty to ramp up talks aimed at safeguarding the facility. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Bulgaria Suspects Russian Role In Bomb Threats Closing Schools For Second Day

Children and teachers gather outside a Sofia school on March 27 that received an e-mailed bomb threat.

Dozens of Bulgarian schools were closed for a second day on March 28 following bomb threats with investigators saying they were looking into potential Russia-linked terror actions meant to disrupt the upcoming snap parliamentary elections scheduled for April 2.

Most of the schools targeted in the threats -- first made by e-mail and phone on March 27 -- were located in the capital, Sofia, and the Black Sea port cities of Varna and Burgas. The threats prompted the disruption of classes and the evacuation of students.

More threats were made on March 28, with Sofia's Economic University among the institutions targeted by the calls that appeared to be hoaxes after police teams searching for explosives failed to find any devices.

The Interior Ministry said it suspected Russia may be behind plans to disrupt the April vote, since most polling across Bulgaria will take place at schools, with Acting Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev saying similarly worded threats had been sent to other European schools before.

"What is happening to us has been happening in many European countries recently," Demerdzhiev told the media on March 28 in the city of Malko Tarnovo in the Burgas region, adding that the ministry's investigation is taking into account a possible hybrid attack originating in Russia.

Demerdzhiev said EU and U.S. partner agencies were aiding Bulgaria in its effort to pinpoint the source of the threats.

EU and NATO member Bulgaria is among the countries that imposed sanctions on Russia following its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and has since been regarded as a hostile country by the Kremlin.

Asked about how authorities will respond if bomb threats continue through election day on April 2, Demerdzhiev said, "The election process will only be interrupted if there is a credible threat."

Demerdzhiev said authorities plan to review the procedures that assess the seriousness of a threat before evacuating public institutions.

"Within days, a change in the protocol for action in such situations will be prepared. At this stage, we have no confirmed information about the original source of the bomb threats to Bulgarian schools," said Demerdzhiev.

The Sofia City Prosecutor's Office, meanwhile, said that it had opened an investigation into a potential act of terrorism.

Father Of Russian Sixth-Grader Who Drew Anti-War Picture Escapes House Arrest, Given Prison Term In Absentia

Aleksei Moskalyov came to the attention of police after his daughter Maria, a sixth grader, drew a picture in an art class in December calling for peace in Ukraine.

A man in Russia's western region of Tula whose daughter last year drew an anti-war picture at school has been sentenced to two years in prison in absentia on a charge of discrediting Russia's armed forces. The Yefremov district court said after pronouncing the sentence on March 28 that Aleksei Moskalyov had escaped house arrest. Moskalyov came to the attention of police after his daughter Maria, a sixth-grader, drew a picture in an art class in December calling for peace in Ukraine. The charges against him stemmed from a subsequent investigation into his own online posts that condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Russian Service, click here.

EU Official Calls On Kyrgyzstan To Prevent Russia From Evading Sanctions

Kyrgyz Economy and Commerce Minister Daniyar Amangeldiev told RFE/RL that Bishkek cannot guarantee that no sanctioned goods are being exported to Russia. (file photo)

BISHKEK -- David O'Sullivan, the European Union's special envoy for the implementation of sanctions, has called on Kyrgyzstan and other nations in Moscow's political and economic sphere to avoid assisting Moscow's attempts to evade sanctions imposed on Russia over its ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Talking to reporters in Bishkek on March 28, O'Sullivan questioned the final destination of many goods imported to Central Asian nations, as well as to Armenia, Georgia, Serbia, and the United Arab Emirates, after data showed a 300 percent increase of goods coming into the area from the EU in recent months.

"The transportation of goods previously exported to Russia from the European Union, but stopped after the sanctions, has increased," he said.

O'Sullivan pointed out that 770 items imported from the EU to other countries had been found in Russian military equipment and weapons used in its war against Ukraine, a clear sign that some nations were being used as transit points for goods to flow into Russia.

He added that he hopes to meet with top officials from Kyrgyzstan to discuss the exporting of goods from the Central Asian nation to other countries to prevent the products from making their way to Russia.

Kyrgyz Economy and Commerce Minister Daniyar Amangeldiev told RFE/RL that Kyrgyzstan's trade with other nations is being carried out in accordance with all laws and regulations, adding however, that Bishkek cannot guarantee no sanctioned goods are being exported to Russia.

Kyrgyzstan is one of Russia's active trading partners and a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, a trading bloc dominated by Russia that also includes Belarus, Armenia, and Kazakhstan. The grouping was conceived by Moscow as a counterweight to the European Union, though experts view it as being mainly a way for Moscow to exert economic leverage over the other countries.

Since the start of Russia's full-scale aggression against Ukraine, the EU and the United States have sanctioned thousands of entities and individuals, while the U.S. Commerce Department has imposed prohibitive controls on exports to Russia and its ally Belarus.

The United States said earlier this month that Russian companies have evaded the sanctions using intermediaries in China, Armenia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and the United Arab Emirates.

In April last year, the deputy chief of the presidential office in Kazakhstan, Russia's largest trade partner in Central Asia, said his country will not help Russia evade Western sanctions, but added it will continue its economic ties with Russia within the Eurasian Economic Union, as "there is no way for our economy to do it differently."

Bosnian Serb Entity Says Controversial Draft Law Will Monitor NGOs' Financial Flows

President Milorad Dodik

A controversial draft law approved by the government of Republika Srpska that would require nonprofit organizations funded from abroad and active in Bosnia-Herzegovina's Serb entity to register and report on their work will require them to submit their "financial flows" to the Justice Ministry of Republika Srpska.

The draft law, approved by the Republika Srpska's executive on March 23, is now being debated by the entity's parliament -- the National Assembly. After a two-month period for public discussion, an adapted version of the law would then return to the National Assembly for approval.

The proposal has been sharply criticized by the United States and the European Union, with American officials calling it "repressive, anti-democratic legislation."

Justice Minister Milos Bukejlovic, however, justified the move, saying in a video message released on March 28 that the goal of the legislation is "to prevent the misuse of nonprofit organizations."

"There are organizations that use these funds through illegal financial flows for social destruction, destabilization, and eventual financing of terrorist organizations," Bukejlovic said.

If adopted, it would then be signed into law by the entity's president, Milorad Dodik, who has been backing the measure.

After approving the draft on March 23, the government issued a statement justifying the move as necessary to plug a hole in the current legislation that does not require the NGOs to exercise financial transparency.

It said this gap in regulation creates a situation that could lead to "the collapse of the legal system and constitutional framework of [Republika Srpska], while harmful consequences are caused for the institutions and organizations of [Republika Srpska]."

Dodik, who has been blacklisted by the United States and Britain in multiple rounds of sanctions over alleged destabilization efforts and corruption, has claimed the draft law is based on the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

A similar foreign agents law in Russia has proved controversial and has been used to disrupt the work of media organizations, including RFE/RL.

Russia also claimed its law was in response to FARA.

U.S. officials have argued that Russia uses its foreign agents law to silence dissent and discourage the free exchange of ideas and have said there is there "no equivalence" between FARA and Russia’s foreign agents law.

"[The law], if implemented, would drastically impinge on the rights and freedoms of the people living in the Republika Srpska. This legislation would benefit only the ruling coalition in its effort to consolidate power. It will hurt everyone else," the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo said on March 10.

Civil society organizations in Republika Srpska say the proposed foreign agents law has more in common with the Russian law than with the U.S. FARA. They also said is about "establishing supervision and total control over the work of civil society."

The EU delegation in Bosnia has said in a statement that the move is "regrettable, as it further limits the work of civil society organizations, and thus the realization of freedom of association and assembly."

In a statement released on March 27, the delegation also voiced its hope that Republika Srpska authorities will withdraw proposed laws on introducing criminal sanctions for defamation and controlling nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

As per the electronic register of associations and foundations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, there are currently around 25,600 nongovernmental organizations. More than 7,500 of these are registered in Republika Srpska. However, there is no data on how many of them are funded from abroad.

Russian Court Cancels Acquittal Of LGBTQ Activist In Case Of 'Pornographic' Art

Yulia Tsvetkova leaves after a court session in Komsomolsk-on-Amur on April 12, 2021.

A court of appeals in Russia's Far Eastern city of Vladivostok has canceled the acquittal of LGBTQ activist and artist Yulia Tsvetkova in a high-profile pornography case involving nude drawings and other artwork.

The Court of Appeals No. 9 ruled on March 28 that the case must be sent for retrial in the city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur.

The 29-year-old Tsvetkova, who was acquitted in November, is currently out of Russia.

She initially was found not guilty in mid-July 2022 before prosecutors, under pressure from anti-LGBTQ activists, appealed the ruling. But the appeal was rejected by a court in Komsomolsk-on-Amur on November 22.

Tsvetkova draws women's bodies and is widely known for her advocacy of LGBTQ issues.

She administers a social media page called The Vagina Monologues. The pages contained drawings and other images that resembled female genitalia, which had attracted the attention of authorities.

She was charged with producing and distributing pornographic material and prosecutors said at the time that they sought a 38-month prison sentence in the case.

Tsvetkova’s trial began in April 2021 after an investigation of almost 18 months, during which she was fined for spreading LGBTQ "propaganda" and put under house arrest.

The trial was held behind closed doors because prosecutors said they needed to show the images as evidence.

In May 2021, Tsvetkova launched a hunger strike to protest the case against her, accusing the state of the “cowardly” handling of her case and treatment that amounted to “torture.”

In June 2022, the Justice Ministry added Tsvetkova to its list of “foreign agents.”

Amnesty International has said the case against Tsvetkova amounts to political repression and “Kafkaesque absurdity,” adding that the artist was criminally charged with “producing pornography“ simply for "drawing and publishing images of the female body and freely expressing her views through art.”

In November, Tsvetkova's paintings were exhibited in Marseille, France.

U.S. Performances By Pro-Kremlin Opera Singer Canceled

Ildar Abdrazakov in 2018

Two venues in the United States have canceled performances by Russian opera singer Ildar Abdrazakov over his open support of the Russian government's policies.

Activists of the Arts Against Aggression group in the United States told RFE/RL that concerts at New York's Carnegie Hall and in Boston have been canceled at the request of Russian-speaking communities in the two cities. The communities pointed to Abdrazakov’s links with the Kremlin as the reason for their requests.

Abdrazakov, who has not commented publicly on the issue, was scheduled to perform in Dmitry Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 in Boston. The concert's organizers replaced Abdrazakov with German baritone Mathiass Goerne following the protesters' demands.

At Carnegie Hall, Abdrazakov was expected to sing in the opera Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk and has been replaced by Austrian bass opera singer Gunther Groissbock amid the protests.

Last month, Abdrazakov's performances were canceled at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and La Scala in Milan.

Austria's Opern News periodical has written about Abdrazakov’s links with the Russian government. According to the media outlet, which focuses on the opera world, Abdrazakov took part in a concert in Moscow where he sang with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Abdrazakov also has taken part in numerous public events and concerts promoting the Russian government's policies.

After Russia launched its full-scale aggression against Ukraine in February last year, another well-known Russian singer, soprano Anna Netrebko, started having problems organizing concerts in the European Union and the United States over her open support of Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine's eastern regions of Donetsk in 2014. Netrebko also publicly supported President Vladimir Putin in his election campaigns.

On February 28, 2022, four days after Russia launched its ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the Metropolitan Opera stopped its cooperation with Netrebko, saying the collaboration with her might be restored only after Russia stops its war against Ukraine and compensates Kyiv for damages.

Kremlin-friendly Russian pianist Denis Matsuyev's concerts in Austria, the Czech Republic, and Italy have been also canceled since the start of the war in Ukraine. The Sergei Rachmaninoff Foundation in Switzerland halted Matsuyev's membership in its council in April.

Russia Says It Will Keep Calling For Nord Stream Probe After UN Failure

The leak spewed gas into the Baltic Sea.

The Kremlin said on March 28 that it would keep demanding an international investigation into explosions that damaged the Nord Stream gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea last year, after failing to win backing for a probe at the United Nations. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said everyone should be interested in an impartial investigation in order to find the culprits. On March 27, Russia failed to get the UN Security Council to ask for an independent inquiry into explosions in September that ruptured the Nord Stream gas pipelines connecting Russia and Germany and spewed gas into the Baltic Sea. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.


Belarus Alleges Western 'Pressure' Prompted Decision To Host Russian Nukes

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka outside Moscow on February 17.

Belarus claims it was "forced" to agree to host Russian tactical nuclear weapons on its territory in response to what it called "unprecedented political, economic, and information pressure" from the West.

A statement placed on the website of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry on March 28 accused the United States, Britain, and the European Union of "direct and blatant interference into the internal affairs of an independent state aiming to derail the geopolitical course and change the internal political order of Belarus."

Live Briefing: Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine

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

The statement comes three days after Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had reached agreement with Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the authoritarian ruler of Belarus, to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, which borders NATO and EU member states Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, as well Russia and Ukraine.

Lukashenka has become an international pariah since claiming victory in an August 2020 presidential election that the opposition and West says was rigged.

His subsequent brutal crackdown on dissent spurred the European Union, United Kingdom, United States, and many other Western nations to impose crippling sanctions on Minsk and most of Lukashenka's regime.

Amid the growing international isolation, Lukashenka has turned to traditional ally Russia for support. In return, he has also allowed Moscow to use Belarus as a staging area for launching the Kremlin's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The Foreign Ministry statement said that in the face of such actions by the West, "Belarus has to undertake responsive actions to strengthen its own security and defense capabilities."

When announcing the move, Putin said Russia was building a storage facility in Belarus and that Moscow would not be transferring control of the weapons to Minsk authorities.

The Belarus Foreign Ministry said the move fits "tightly in accordance with international law" and doesn't contradict the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), though Western leaders have condemned it.

Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, on March 26 called the move "an irresponsible escalation and threat to European security" and warned that Minsk faces possible further sanctions if it hosts the weapons.

"The announcement of the deployment of nuclear weapons in Belarus will certainly lead to the announcement of additional sanctions. The level of sanctions will be much more severe for the Lukashenka regime," Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said during a news conference in Bucharest on March 28.

NATO, meanwhile, said it is "closely monitoring the situation" and accused Moscow of "consistently" breaking arms-control commitments, including its recent suspension of the New START treaty."

The White House has also said it is monitoring the situation, though it saw no immediate reason to adjust its nuclear stance nor any indications Russia is preparing to use such weapons.

Military experts told RFE/RL that Putin's announcement was just as much a political card being played as it was a military move.

"The placement of the nuclear weapons in Belarus, in the ongoing situation, is blackmail targeting not only NATO but Ukraine as well. The signal is sent to make Europeans worry, to scale down their assistance to Ukraine. And it is a warning to Ukraine -- if you want to shoot down our jets based in Belarus, remember, there is a nuclear option," Russian military expert Pavel Luzin said.

According to Luzin, Lukashenka may not have taken into account that any placement of nuclear arms in his country will prolong the presence of Russian troops in Belarus.

"Since late 2021, Russian troops have been in Belarus temporarily. After [nuclear arms] depots appear in Belarus, Russian troops will stay in the country on a permanent basis," Luzin said.

Meanwhile, Pavel Podvig, a senior research fellow at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, told RFE/RL that "it is unlikely that Russian nuclear weapons will appear in Belarus" as there are no proper facilities to keep such weapons there.

"As far as I understand, [the statement's] goal was mostly political -- to demonstrate the strengthening of the alliance between Belarus and Russia. There was no military expediency in it," Podvig said.

The NPT is a landmark pact aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. Signed by more than 190 countries, it entered into force in 1970.

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