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RFE/RL Journalist Laid To Rest In Kabul
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The United States has decried the killing of journalists in a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan and accused the militants of trying to undermine the country's upcoming elections by attacking the "cornerstone of democracy."

"We strongly condemn yesterday's suicide bombing in Kabul," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters on May 1.

"Afghanistan's press corps is a powerful illustration of how that country has transformed," Sanders said. "There is absolutely no justification for such a senseless and heinous act."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Twitter called the twin suicide attacks that killed at least 25 people including nine journalists in Kabul on April 30 "senseless and barbaric."

"Independent media is a cornerstone of democracy," he said. "Despite today's attack, the vibrant media landscape that has developed in Afghanistan will endure."

Pompeo added that "we will not turn blind on this." The Islamic State (IS) extremist group claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed the most media workers ever in a single attack in Afghanistan.

The twin blasts came little more than a week after an April 22 suicide blast claimed by IS that killed 60 people at a voter registration center in Kabul.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the attacks were aimed at undermining Afghanistan's electoral process ahead of parliamentary elections in October.

Mattis on May 1 told reporters at the Pentagon that the United States will stand by the Afghan people and the Kabul government.

"The murder of journalists and other innocent people is a great testimony to what it is we stand for, and more importantly what we stand against," he said.

"We'll stand by the Afghan people, we'll stand by the Afghan government and the NATO mission will continue as we drive them to a political settlement," Mattis said

The killings occurred when multiple journalists covering a suicide bombing in the Shash Darak area of Kabul were hit by a second blast set off by a suicide bomber carrying a press pass and pretending to be a reporter, officials said.

Among those killed were two RFE/RL journalists, a woman training to become an RFE/RL reporter, and AFP's chief photographer in Kabul. The other journalists killed were working for Afghan media.

"Where media are in danger, all other human rights are under greater threat," the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was "outraged."

"The deliberate targeting of journalists in the attack highlights once again the risks media professionals face in carrying out their essential work," the UN chief said through a spokesman.

"Those responsible for such crimes must be swiftly brought to justice," Guterres added.

Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah also called it "an attack on democracy and an effort to silence the voice of the voiceless," while President Ashraf Ghani called it an example of "war crimes."

A BBC Afghan reporter was killed separately on April 30 in Khost Province on the border with Pakistan.

"Actions like this one only strengthen our steadfast commitment to the people of Afghanistan," said General John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

"This tragedy reminds us of the danger that our teams continually face on the ground and the essential role journalists play for democracy," AFP chief executive Fabrice Fries said.

Afghanistan was already considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, with at least 20 killed last year. Last week, unidentified gunmen shot a journalist in the southern city of Kandahar.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, AFP, AP, and Reuters
Crimean activist Volodymyr Balukh (file photo)

Volodymyr Balukh, a pro-Kyiv activist jailed by the Russia-imposed authorities in Crimea, has been on hunger strike for 43 days and his health is reportedly in decline.

Akhtem Chiygoz, deputy chairman of Crimean Tatars' Mejlis self-governing body, told RFE/RL on April 30 that Balukh has been on hunger strike since March 19.

Lyudmyla Denysova, the human rights ombudswoman for Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, said on April 30 that Balukh needed an urgent medical examination and that his health was deteriorating with each passing day.

She said a court of the Russia-imposed authorities in Crimea had denied a request by Balukh's lawyers that he be afforded medical care.

Balukh was sentenced in January to three years and seven months in a penal colony where convicts live close to an industrial facility or a farm where they work, after being convicted on a weapons-and-explosives possession charge.

Balukh's initial sentence to the same prison term in August was annulled by an appeals court and returned for additional investigation.

Balukh insists the case against him was politically motivated.

In March, a new case was launched against Balukh after a warden in a local detention center in Crimea claimed that Balukh attacked him. Balukh denies the charge, saying the warden attacked him.

One Of Dozens

Balukh is one of dozens of Crimeans prosecuted by Russia in what rights groups say has been a persistent campaign to silence dissent since Moscow annexed the Ukrainian region in March 2014.

He was arrested in December 2016, after the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) said explosives and 90 bullets were found in the attic of his home.

The search was conducted shortly after Balukh planted a Ukrainian flag in his yard and affixed a sign to his house that read Heavenly Hundred Street, 18.

"Heavenly Hundred" is a term Ukrainians use for the dozens of people killed when security forces fired on protesters in Kyiv in February 2014, shortly before Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych was driven from power.

After Yanukovych's ouster, Russia seized Crimea by sending in troops and staging a referendum dismissed as illegal by Ukraine, the United States, and nearly 100 other countries.

The Russian takeover badly damaged Moscow's relations with Kyiv and the West and resulted in the imposition of sanctions by the European Union, the United States, and several other countries.

Rights groups say Crimea residents who opposed Russia's takeover have faced discrimination and abuse at the hands of the Moscow-imposed authorities.

In March 2017, the European Parliament called on Moscow to free more than 30 Ukrainian citizens who were in prison or under other conditions of restricted freedom in Russia, Crimea, and parts of eastern Ukraine that are controlled by Russia-backed separatists.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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