Turkmen nationals residing in Turkey stage a protest in Istanbul on June 21 against human rights abuses by Turkmen authorities.

A group of Turkmen nationals residing in Turkey have filed a lawsuit against former Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and other top officials of the extremely isolated and tightly controlled Central Asian nation, accusing them of violating their human rights.

The group’s legal representative, Turkish lawyer Gulden Sonmez, said in a video posted online that he filed the lawsuit with a court in Istanbul on June 21.

Along with Berdymukhammedov, Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov and Interior Minister Muhammet Hydyrov are named in the lawsuit.

Speaking in front of the courthouse, Sonmez said that his clients also are accusing Turkmen authorities of human rights abuses including arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, torture, and ill treatment at penitentiaries.

“We added to the lawsuit numerous pictures, documents, names of Turkmen citizens who died in custody, the testimonies of Turkmen men and women who faced abuses from authorities, the testimonies of Turkmen nationals residing in Turkey who are unable to obtain documents such as passports, birth or marriage certificates from Turkmenistan’s consulates in this country,” Sonmez said.

Ten of Sonmez’s clients rallied in front of the court’s building, holding posters saying “The state should serve people,” “Face the people,” “Freedom of movement is our right,” and “We have the right to have passports.”

For many years, Turkmen citizens residing in Turkey have faced problems with renewing their passports and obtaining documents required by Turkish immigration authorities.

Turkmen nationals permanently residing in Turkey have also complained that they have been subjected to various pressure methods applied by Turkmen authorities in Turkey.

Turkmenistan is one of the most repressive countries in the world.

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ruled the former Soviet republic with an iron fist from 2006 until his 40-year-old son Serdar took over in March this year.

Last year, dozens of Turkmen activists residing abroad held protests in Turkey, the United States, and the European Union, to bring attention to the situation regarding human rights and civil freedoms in Turkmenistan.

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A woman stands in a currency exchange office in St. Petersburg.

Britain has introduced a new set of trade and financial sanctions against Russia over its unprovoked invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

A notice posted on the U.K. government website on June 23 outlined the new restrictions, which include export bans on a range of goods and technology, the export of jet fuel, and the export to or use in Russia of British pounds or euros.

The list of banned products includes goods and technology meant for internal repression, products and technology that can be used in chemical and biological weapons, maritime goods and technology, additional oil refining products and technology, and critical industry products and technology.

The notice bans the import, acquisition, or supply and delivery of goods originating in or being consigned from Russia that can generate revenue.

It also provides for further restrictions on the provision of technical assistance, financial services, funds, and brokering services relating to iron and steel imports.

It imposes prohibitions on the import, acquisition, or supply and delivery of revenue-generating goods that originate in or are consigned from Russia as well as related technical assistance, financial services, funds, and brokering services.

The notice also bans the provision of technical assistance and financial services, funds, and brokering services relating to iron and steel imports.

Some of the new restrictive measures apply both to Russia and Ukrainian territories under the control of Moscow-backed separatists.

The detentions were made as part of an investigation into possible abuse of office in relation to the flow of goods at outposts along the Kazakh-Chinese border. (file photo)

NUR-SULTAN — The former chief of Kazakhstan’s Border Guard Service, Lieutenant General Darkhan Dilmanov, and several of his former subordinates have been detained on corruption charges.

The Committee of National Security (KNB) said on June 22 that the moves were made as part of an investigation into possible abuse of office while supervising the flow of goods at outposts along the Kazakh-Chinese border.

Dilmanov, who was also the KNB’s deputy chief, was sacked from his post in April, days before the Prosecutor-General’s Office said a transportation company co-founded by the sister of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev was suspected of committing “numerous crimes” with regard to the transportation of goods via the Kazakh-Chinese border.

The Anti-Corruption Agency said at the time that it also fired Erbol Nazarbaev, one of the former president’s nephews.

President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev has been distancing himself from Nazarbaev and his clan after they left the tightly controlled oil-rich nation’s political scene following unprecedented deadly antigovernment protests in January, after which the KNB chief and one of Nazarbaev’s closest allies, Karim Masimov, and his three deputies were arrested on high treason charges.

Nazarbaev, 81, resigned as president in 2019, picking longtime ally Toqaev as his successor. But he retained sweeping powers as the head of the Security Council, enjoying almost limitless powers as elbasy — the leader of the nation. Meanwhile, many of his relatives continued to hold important posts in the government, security agencies, and profitable energy groups.

On June 6, a Toqaev-initiated nationwide referendum changed the constitution, removing all mentions of Nazarbaev from it.

The January protests, which started over a fuel price hike, spread across Kazakhstan because of discontent over cronyism that had long plagued the country. Toqaev subsequently stripped Nazarbaev of the Security Council role, taking it over himself.

Just days after the protests, Nazarbaev’s two sons-in-law, Qairat Sharipbaev and Dimash Dosanov, were pushed out of top jobs at two major state companies, QazaqGaz and KazTransOil, respectively.

Timur Kulibaev, Nazarbaev’s billionaire son-in-law, also resigned as chairman of the oil-rich nation’s main business lobby group.

In a separate statement, on June 22, a KNB official said Nazarbaev’s nephew, Samat Abish, who was sacked from the post of KNB’s deputy chief after the January protests, is a person of interest in an unspecified criminal case.

A day earlier, Kazakh authorities said a criminal case on the illegal takeover of a private company may be launched against the former president’s fugitive younger brother, Bolat Nazarbaev.

Toqaev has said publicly he wants Nazarbaev’s associates to share their wealth with the public by making regular donations to a new charity foundation.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (file photo)

Turkey has pledged to investigate allegations that Russia has been stealing grain from Ukraine during its invasion, with British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss offering to help during an “urgent” global food crisis.

Truss said on June 23 after a meeting in Ankara with her Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, that the global grain crisis “needs to be solved within the next month otherwise we could see devastating consequences.”

The international community has been appealing to Russia to allow exports of Ukrainian grain with Kyiv blaming Moscow blockading its Black Sea ports.

The two countries are among the world’s biggest wheat exporters and play a key role in ensuring global food security. The disruption of grain deliveries due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also led to sharp increases in global food prices.

“It’s very clear that Ukrainian ports must be protected; there needs to be safe passage for commercial vessels. The United Kingdom is offering our expertise on all of those fronts to make sure that we have measures in place so that grain can safely leave, but it is going to require an international effort,” Truss said.

Cavusoglu said Turkey would not allow grains stolen by Russia or any other country to be brought onto its territory.

Based on reporting by Reuters and dpa

The Ukrainian flag flies next to the European flag in Brussels. (file photo)

EU leaders are set to meet at a summit in Brussels with the approval of candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova at the top of the agenda.

All 27 bloc members must approve such a move, which seems unlikely to encounter any resistance at the June 23-24 summit in the Belgian capital. Georgia is expected to be informed that it will be granted the status of candidate country once Tbilisi meets a number of conditions.

“The European Council recognizes the European perspective of Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova and Georgia. The future of these countries and their citizens lies within the European Union,” says the latest draft of the final declaration of the summit, a copy of which RFE/RL has seen.

“The progress of each country towards the European Union will depend on its own merit in meeting the Copenhagen criteria, taking into consideration the EU’s capacity to absorb new members,” it adds.

The unprecedented move by the European body comes as Kyiv fights a devastating war against Russia, which launched an unprovoked invasion of its neighbor on February 24 that has killed tens of thousands of people and caused huge material destruction.

European Council President Charles Michel urged the bloc’s leaders to make the “historic” decision to grant candidate status to war-torn Ukraine and its neighbor Moldova.

“This is a decisive moment for the European Union; this is also a geopolitical choice that we will make today. And I’m confident that today, we will grant the candidate status to Ukraine and to Moldova,” he told journalists in Brussels ahead of the summit.

EU leaders also will aim to maintain pressure on Russia at the summit by committing to further work on sanctions, including a possible move to make gold among the assets that may be targeted by any future measures.

The final draft also reiterates the bloc’s call for investigations into possible war crimes committed in Ukraine and says the bloc remains “strongly committed” to providing further military support for Ukraine and to “swiftly work” on increasing such support.

“International humanitarian law, including on the treatment of prisoners of war, must be respected. Ukrainians, notably children, who have been forcibly removed to Russia must be immediately allowed to return safely,” the document says.

“Russia, Belarus, and all those responsible for war crimes and the other most serious crimes will be held to account for their actions, in accordance with international law.”

Before the main summit begins in the afternoon on June 23, EU officials will hold a summit with leaders from the Western Balkans where they will affirm their commitment to admitting countries from the region and call “for the acceleration of the accession process.”

EU and NATO member Bulgaria has been opposing Albania and North Macedonia’s accession to the bloc because of historical, language, and cultural differences.

On June 23, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama described the stalled accession process for Albania and North Macedonia as a “disgrace.”

“It is a shame that a NATO country, Bulgaria, kidnaps two other NATO countries, Albania and North Macedonia, in the midst of a hot war in Europe’s backyard with 26 other countries sitting still in a scary show of impotence,” Rama said.

“It’s a good thing to give [Ukraine] candidate status, but I hope the Ukrainian people will not make many illusions about it,” Rama said.

With reporting by Reuters and dpa

The Azot chemical plant is seen through a broken window in the city of Syevyerodonetsk on June 19.

Russian forces captured two settlements south of the key city of Lysychansk in the Donbas as they pressed ahead with an offensive meant to completely cut off the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the Luhansk region, a regional official said on June 23.

Russia’s improved military performance in the area of Lysychansk and its twin city of Syevyerodonetsk was likely the result of recent troop reinforcement and heavy use of artillery fire, Britain’s Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence bulletin early on June 23.

Luhansk military governor Serhiy Hayday said on June 23 that the villages of Loskutyvka and Rai-Oleksandryvka south of Lysychansk and Syevyerodonetsk fell to the Russians, but he added that Ukrainian forces continue to resist in Syevyerodonetsk and the nearby settlements of Zolote and Vovchoyrovka.

Live Briefing: Russia’s Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL’s Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia’s ongoing invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians and refugees, and Western aid and reaction. For all of RFE/RL’s coverage of the war, click here.

Hayday said Ukrainian forces are facing massive and relentless artillery attacks in Lysychansk.

The fight for Syevyerodonetsk and Lysychansk is “entering a sort of fearsome climax,” said Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Russia seeks to capture both Luhansk and Donetsk, which make up most of Ukraine’s industrial heartland of Donbas.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk regional military administration, said Ukrainian forces control less than half of the Donetsk region, adding that more than 100 cities and villages within these areas had no gas or electricity.

Kyrylenko said that the 55 percent of Donetsk that is under Russian occupation is “completely destroyed.”

However, British intelligence noted in its bulletin that Russian efforts to achieve a deeper encirclement to take the Donetsk region west of Luhansk remain stalled.

Arestovych said in a video address that Russia launched the most intensive strikes in weeks on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, adding that they were aimed at “terrorizing the population.”

Arestovych said the shelling, which caused at least 10 deaths in the Kharkiv region over two days, was mean to “distract us and force us to divert troops” from the main battlefields in the Donbas.

Former Worker At Besieged Syevyerodonetsk Factory Says This Is Different From Mariupol Battle

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a group of European newspapers that the defense intelligence service believes that Russia’s momentum in the war in Ukraine will slow in the next few months as its army exhausts its resources.

In comments released on June 22 by Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Johnson said President Vladimir Putin’s forces were pushing forward in the eastern Donbas region, wreaking destruction but at a heavy cost in soldiers and weapons.

In the next few months, Britain’s intelligence service believes that Russia “could come to a point at which there is no longer any forward momentum because it has exhausted its resources,” Johnson was quoted as saying.

“Then we must help the Ukrainians to reverse the dynamic. I will argue for this at the Group of Seven (G7) summit,” he said.

The G7 summit, bringing together the heads of state of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States, is scheduled to begin on June 26 in Germany.

“In as much as the Ukrainians are in a position to start a counteroffensive, it should be supported with equipment that they demand from us,” he said.

A victory for Ukraine — or failure for Russia — would at least see Ukraine regain the status quo that was there before Russia invaded, he said.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, BBC, CNN, and TASS

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian enter a hall during a meeting in Moscow in March 15.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has arrived in Iran as negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers remain stalled.

Lavrov arrived on June 22 for a two-day visit that Iranian state media and TASS said included a meeting with hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Iranian state TV showed Lavrov meeting with Raisi but gave no details.

Iran’s state news agency IRNA said Lavrov would meet Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on June 23.

Lavrov and Iranian officials will discuss the nuclear deal — reached in 2015 with Iran by Russia, Germany, France, Britain, China, and the United States — as well as boosting bilateral and energy cooperation, Iranian state media said.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry said earlier this week that Lavrov’s visit was aimed at “expanding cooperation with the Eurasian region and the Caucasus.”

Moscow said last month that Russia and Iran had discussed swapping supplies for oil and gas as well as setting up a logistics hub. The economies of the two countries have been heavily impacted by Western sanctions.

Those against Russia came after it launched its military operation in Ukraine.

Harsh sanctions against Iran include those reimposed after Washington withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said earlier that the Russian and Iranian diplomats would exchange views on a number of pressing international issues, including the situation around the talks to revive the nuclear deal, Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

Indirect talks between Iranian and U.S. negotiators to reinstate the nuclear deal have been on hold since March.

The main sticking point is Tehran’s demand that Washington remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps from the U.S. list of designated terrorist organizations.

With reporting by Reuters and TASS

Magdi Kamalov, editor in chief of Chernovik, demonstrates at a picket against the persecution of journalists on June 13.

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia – More than a decade after prominent journalist Khadzhimurad Kamalov was gunned down in Russia’s North Caucasus region of Daghestan, prosecutors have asked a court to sentence three of the alleged perpetrators to life in prison.

Prosecutors asked a court in the southwestern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don on June 22 to hand life sentences to former Daghestani Deputy Prime Minister Shamil Isayev and two other men, Murad Shuaibov and Magomed Khazamov.

Prosecutors seek 15 years in prison for a fourth defendant, Magomed Abigasanov, who made a deal with investigators.

Prosecutors laid out their sentencing requests in the high-profile trial, which started in November 2020 and has yet to return verdicts.

Kamalov, the editor and publisher of weekly newspaper Chernovik, was shot dead in mid-December 2011 outside the newspaper’s office in Makhachkala, capital of Daghestan.

Kamalov’s newspaper was known for extensive reporting on police abuses in the fight against an Islamist insurgency that originated in neighboring Chechnya and spread across the North Caucasus.

Kamalov’s brother, Magdi Kamalov, said after prosecutors demanded the harsh sentences on June 22 that he is confident that more people were involved in the murder of his brother, adding that investigators were unable to find all people directly involved in the crime.

Kamalov’s murder was harshly criticized by international and domestic human rights organizations.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said at the time that Kamalov’s murder “sends a chilling message to journalists” seeking to uncover official corruption and called on Russian authorities to conduct a “thorough, transparent, and independent” investigation into the journalist’s killing and bring the perpetrators to justice promptly.

Aleksandra Skochilenko appears in court in the defendant’s cage during her trial in St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Amnesty International has recognized a Russian artist arrested for using price tags in a store in St. Petersburg to distribute information about Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine as a prisoner of conscience.

“Amnesty International considers Aleksandra Skochilenko a prisoner of conscience and demands her immediate and unconditional release. The case against her must be stopped and the repressive article No. 207.3 of the Criminal Code abolished,” Amnesty International said in a June 22 statement.

Skochilenko is accused of replacing price tags in a supermarket on March 31 with pieces of paper containing “knowingly false information about the use of the Russian armed forces.”

Skochilenko has said her actions were not about the army but instead an attempt to propagate peace.

In early March, President Vladimir Putin signed a law that introduced Article No. 207.3 to the Criminal Code. It allows lengthy prison terms for distributing “deliberately false information” about Russian military operations as the Kremlin seeks to control the narrative about its war in Ukraine.

The law envisages sentences of up to 10 years in prison for individuals convicted of an offense, while the penalty for the distribution of “deliberately false information” about the Russian armed forces that leads to “serious consequences” is 15 years in prison.

It also makes it illegal “to make calls against the use of Russian troops to protect the interests of Russia” or “for discrediting such use” with a possible penalty of up to three years in prison. The same provision applies to calls for sanctions against Russia.

Skochilenko’s lawyer, Yana Nepovinnova, said on June 9 her client was forcibly taken to a psychiatric clinic for what investigators called a “medical examination” that may last for up to three weeks.

Amnesty International has called the current-day usage of psychiatric clinics in cases against dissidents “a punitive measure” that was “well tried and tested during the Soviet period” to pressure those in detention.

Afghan workers sort through waste plastic in outside Tehran.

A senior Iranian judiciary official has warned that waste-recycling factories owned by municipal contractors have been employing children in an “organized” manner.

Mohammad Fathi, director-general of the judiciary’s Office of Women and Family Affairs, said on June 22 that municipal contractors had been “forcing children to work long hours in completely harmful conditions” and called on the contractors to improve monitoring of worksites.

The warning came after another official, Mehdi Aghrarian, the head of the Legal and Supervision Commission of the Tehran city council, called for an end to the practice.

“Garbage collection is very difficult and children and adolescents should not be used under any circumstances,” he said.

According to the website IranKargar, which covers labor news in Iran, about 14,000 garbage collectors are working in Tehran, one-third of whom are children. The waste trade in Iran is estimated to be worth about $1.5 billion annually.

Afghan Kids Put To Work Sorting Garbage In Tehran Despite Child Labor Ban

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Ahmad Ahmadi Sadr, the chief executive officer at the state welfare organization, told a meeting of the Special Working Group on the Prevention of Social Injuries on June 20 that the number of working children in the country had increased fivefold in the past year.

Iran’s judiciary says it has no legal authority to act on the matter even though there is a ban on child labor.

With reporting and writing by Ardeshir Tayebi

Samat Abish attends a ceremony in Astana in May 2017.

NUR-SULTAN — A nephew of former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev is a person of interest in an unspecified criminal case, the deputy chairman of the Committee of National Security (KNB) has said.

Asqar Amirkhanov added that Samat Abish had been questioned by KNB investigators but did not specify if he was currently in custody.

Abish, 43, was dismissed as KNB deputy chief in January days after mass anti-government protests turned violent, leaving at least 230 people dead in the former Soviet Central Asian republic.

Following the protests, Abish’s boss, one of Nazarbaev’s closest associates, KNB Chairman Karim Masimov, and his three other deputies were arrested on high-treason charges.

Amirkhanov’s announcement about Abish came one day after the Financial Monitoring Agency said a lawsuit had been filed by the owners of a financial-services company against Nursultan Nazarbaev’s younger brother, Bolat Nazarbaev, accusing him of illegally taking over the firm. The 69-year-old Bolat Nazarbaev is believed to be in Dubai.

Nursultan Nazarbaev, 81, and his clan lost power and influence after the January protests.

Nazarbaev resigned as president in 2019, picking longtime ally Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev as his successor.

But he retained sweeping powers as the head of the Security Council, enjoying the powers as “elbasy,” the leader of the nation. Many of his relatives continued to hold important posts in the government, security agencies, and profitable energy groups.

The protests in January started over a fuel-price hike and spread across Kazakhstan because of discontent over the cronyism that has long plagued the country. Toqaev subsequently stripped Nazarbaev of the Security Council role, taking it over himself.

Just days after the protests, Nazarbaev’s two sons-in-law, Qairat Sharipbaev and Dimash Dosanov, were pushed out of top jobs at two major state companies, QazaqGaz and KazTransOil, respectively.

Timur Kulibaev, Nazarbaev’s billionaire son-in-law, also resigned as chairman of the oil-rich country’s main business-lobby group.

Since then, several other relatives and those close to the family have been pushed out of their positions or resigned. Some have been arrested on corruption charges.

Earlier in June, a Toqaev-initiated referendum amended the constitution, removing all mentions of Nazarbaev.

Erulan Amirov appears in court in Shymkent on May 16.

SHYMKENT, Kazakhstan — A court in the southern Kazakh city of Shymkent has rejected an appeal filed by lawyers of opposition activist Erulan Amirov of a lower court’s ruling sentencing him to seven years in prison on terrorism charges.

The Shymkent City Court pronounced its decision on June 22.

Amirov rejects the charges, and his lawyer, Murat Zholshiev, told RFE/RL that the ruling will be appealed.

On May 16, the Al-Farabi district court in Shymkent sentenced Amirov after finding him guilty of inciting social hatred, propagating terrorism, and involvement in the activities of a banned organization.

An RFE/RL correspondent said a bruise could be seen on Amirov’s head in the courtroom that day, but when asked about it, the activist answered that he was “scared” to talk about it.

Amirov, who went on trial in January, was arrested in April 2021. But his family only learned that he was being held in a detention center in Shymkent in December, after what a Kazakh human rights group said was attempt to commit suicide.

Sharipa Niyazova, his mother, and his lawyer say the activist suffers from psychiatric disorders.

Kazakh human rights organizations have declared Amirov a political prisoner and have demanded his release.

The charges against Amirov stem from his posts on social media criticizing the authorities and for his participation in unsanctioned protest rallies organized by the banned Koshe (Street) political party.

Many activists across the Central Asian country have been handed prison terms or parole-like restricted-freedom sentences in recent years for their involvement in the activities of the Koshe party and its affiliated Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement.

The DVK is led by Mukhtar Ablyazov, the fugitive former head of Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank and outspoken critic of the government.

Human Rights Watch earlier this year criticized the Kazakh government for using anti-extremism laws as a tool to persecute critics and civic activists.

The authorities have insisted there are no political prisoners in the country.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has demanded Tajik officials immediately release two independent bloggers arrested last week and drop “bogus charges” against them.

In a statement on June 22, HRW said that Abdullo Ghurbati and Daleri Imomali, who were detained on June 15 and sent to pretrial detention for two months three days later, “are being targeted for their professional activities, despite being protected by Tajikistan’s laws and international obligations on freedom of expression and media freedom.”

“Criticizing state institutions is not a crime, and the bloggers should be released immediately and all charges against them dropped,” HRW’s Central Asia researcher, Syinat Sultanalieva, said in the statement.

Authorities accuse Ghurbati of beating a police officer at the Shohmansur district police station in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, a charge that could carry a fine or a two-year prison sentence.

Imomali was charged with illegal entrepreneurship and premeditated false denunciation.

The two have denied the accusations and pleaded not guilty.

“Critical voices and opinions are important for a democratic society and stifling them is a violation of international human rights norms on freedom of expression,” Sultanalieva said.

“Journalists and bloggers currently in detention for their work should be released and their cases independently reviewed,” she added.

The two bloggers’ arrests came after an outcry by human rights advocates and media groups over an attack on journalists from RFE/RL’s Tajik Service and Current Time last month. Tajik authorities have launched a probe into the incident.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has been criticized by international human rights groups for years over his disregard for independent media, religious freedoms, civil society, and political pluralism in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic.

Ukrainian photographer and documentary maker Maks Levin (file photo)

An investigation conducted by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) concludes that noted Ukrainian photographer and documentary maker Maks Levin, along with a soldier who was accompanying him for security, was executed by Russian troops near Kyiv in March as they searched for a piece of photographic equipment they had lost.

The Paris-based RSF said in a report that investigations it conducted from May 24 to June 3 as well as information and evidence obtained indicate that Levin and Oleksiy Chernyshov were executed by Russian soldiers in a forest around the village of Moshchun near Kyiv on March 13, “possibly after being interrogated and even tortured.”

The investigation, conducted by Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s investigation desk, and Patrick Chauvel, a French war photo reporter who had worked with Levin in Ukraine, concluded that Levin and Chernyshov were captured by Russian soldiers while trying to locate a drone Levin used for his coverage of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, launched on February 24.

RSF said the compiled evidence, including bullets, identity documents, items with DNA traces attesting to the presence of Russian soldiers at the scene, Levin’s charred Ford Maverick car, and other items, allowed it to conclude that Levin and his bodyguard were executed.

“Analysis of the photos of the crime scene, the observations made on the spot, and the material evidence recovered clearly point to an execution that may have been preceded by interrogation or even acts of torture,” Christophe Deloire, RSF secretary-general, said in a statement.

“In the context of a war heavily marked by propaganda and Kremlin censorship, Maks Levin and his friend paid with their lives for their fight for reliable information. We owe them the truth. And we will fight to identify and find those who executed them,” Deloire added.

The 40-year-old Levin is one of eight journalists killed in the course of their work since the start of the war in Ukraine. His body was found in the forest on April 2.

A father of four, he had been working with many Ukrainian and international media outlets, including Reuters, the BBC, and Associated Press.

Prime Minister Kiril Petkov speaks before parliament ahead of the vote on June 22.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov’s six-month-old government has been toppled in a no-confidence vote over disagreements on the economy and whether Sofia should drop opposition to North Macedonia’s European Union accession.

Opposition parties and the There Is Such a People (ITN) party, a former ally in Petkov’s coalition government, combined for 123 votes to 116 backing Petkov’s government.

The vote means Petkov’s centrist Continue the Change (PP) party has a second chance to propose a government. If it fails to do so, two more attempts by other parties can be made before the president must appoint a caretaker cabinet and call snap elections.

It would be Bulgaria’s fourth parliamentary elections since April 2021.

“This vote is only one small step in a very long way,” Petkov said following the vote. “What they fail to understand is that this is not the way to win the Bulgarian people.”

Petkov said he and his party would send letters to all members of parliament explaining the principles and goals of a possible successor government. Speaking to Nova TV, he said if they did not respond, “we are going to the polls.”

The no-confidence motion was proposed by the opposition GERB party of conservative former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and backed by ITN leader Slavi Trifonov, who set the no-confidence vote in motion two weeks ago when he withdrew ITN from the coalition.

Petkov declared after the vote that his PP party will not give up fighting for a Bulgaria that is “without a mafia” and “a successful European country.”

He added that it was an “honor” to lead a government overthrown by Borisov, Trifonov, former member of parliament Delyan Peevski, who has been hit by U.S. sanctions for his alleged role in corruption, and Russian Ambassador to Bulgaria Eleonora Mitrofanova.

Petkov, a 42-year-old Harvard graduate, has pledged to tackle corruption and took an unusually strong stance against Russia despite Sofia’s traditionally friendly relations with Moscow.

Petkov fired his defense minister in February for refusing to call the Russian invasion of Ukraine “war” and backed EU sanctions against Moscow.

The ITN left the coalition after accusing Petkov of disregarding Bulgaria’s interests by pushing to lift its veto on North Macedonia’s EU accession talks under pressure from its EU and NATO allies.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who visited Bulgaria earlier this month, urged Sofia to drop its opposition to North Macedonia’s EU aspirations over a series of language and historical disagreements.

Bulgaria is also grappling with high inflation, which has surged to a 24-year high last month when it reached 15.6 percent.

Fresh polls are likely to benefit Borisov’s GERB party as well as pro-Russian parties like the nationalist Revival as the economic woes and the war in Ukraine polarize society.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

People attend a mass demonstration in support of Georgia’s bid country’s for EU membership in Tbilisi on June 20.

A draft of the final declaration for this week’s European Union summit proposes candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova, a copy of the document seen by RFE/RL shows.

“The European Council has decided to grant the status of candidate country to Ukraine and to the Republic of Moldova,” the document, dated June 21, says, adding Georgia will be granted the same status once Tbilisi meets a number of conditions.

“The future of these countries and their citizens lies within the European Union,” it adds.

All 27 bloc members must approve such a move, which seems unlikely to encounter any resistance.

“I do believe that all 27 European Union countries will support our candidate status,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told students in Toronto, speaking via video link on June 22. “This is like going into the light from the darkness.”

While it is expected to take years for Ukraine to meet the criteria for joining the EU, the bloc’s leaders have said Ukrainians are fighting for European values, and the EU therefore must make a gesture that recognizes their sacrifice.

The unprecedented move by the European body comes as Kyiv fights a devastating war against Russia, which launched an unprovoked invasion of its neighbor on February 24 that has killed tens of thousands of people and caused huge material destruction.

EU leaders will meet on June 23-24 in Brussels, where they also will aim to maintain pressure on Russia by committing to further work on sanctions, including a possible move to make gold among the assets that may be targeted by any future measures.

“Work will continue on sanctions, including to strengthen implementation and prevent circumvention,” the document says, adding that the bloc remains “strongly committed” to providing further military support for Ukraine and to “swiftly work” on increasing such support.

The document also reiterates previous EU calls for the rights of Belarusians to have “new, free and fair elections” and calls on the country’s authorities “to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law, to end repressions and to release political prisoners.”

Belarusian authorities have brutally suppressed dissent in any form since a disputed presidential election in August 2020 handed authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka a sixth term.

Rights activists and opposition politicians say the poll was rigged to extend Lukashenka’s rule. Thousands have been detained during countrywide protests and there have been credible reports of torture and ill treatment by security forces. Several people have died during the crackdown.

Many of Belarus’s opposition leaders have been arrested or forced to leave the country, while Lukashenka has refused to negotiate with the opposition.

With reporting by Reuters

Americans Andy Huynh (left) and Alexander Drueke were captured earlier this month while fighting with the Ukrainian military. (composite file photo)

The U.S. State Department said on June 21 that Russian authorities have not provided the United States with any additional details on the whereabouts of two Americans captured in Ukraine.

Spokesman Ned Price told reporters that the U.S. was pursuing every channel and every opportunity to learn more and support the families of the two Americans, who were captured earlier this month while fighting with the Ukrainian military.

The Kremlin claimed on June 21 that the two men were not protected by the Geneva Conventions on prisoners of war and suggested that they could face execution.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a call with reporters that Moscow could not rule out that the two captured men would be sentenced to death if put on trial by Russia-backed separatists.

“We are talking about mercenaries who threatened the lives of our service personnel. And not only ours, but also the service personnel of the DPR and LPR,” he said referring to the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, the names used by the separatists for the two regions of Ukraine.

“We cannot exclude anything because these are decisions for the court,” Peskov said when asked whether the Americans would be put on trial like two Britons and a Moroccan captured while fighting for Ukraine. “We never comment on them and have no right to interfere in court decisions.”

White House national-security spokesman John Kirby said it was “appalling that a public official in Russia would even suggest the death penalty” for the Americans. He said the Kremlin was being at the very least reckless with its comments.

“Either way, it’s equally alarming. Whether they actually mean what they’re saying here, and that this could be an outcome, that they could levy a death penalty against two Americans that were fighting in Ukraine, or that they just feel that it’s a responsible thing for a major power to do, to talk about doing this,” he said.

Kirby declined to say what steps the U.S. would take if Russia does not treat Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27, both from Alabama, as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.

The men, veterans of the U.S. military, went missing while fighting near Kharkiv. Russian state media later showed video interviews with them and said they had been captured by Russia-backed separatists.

They are among hundreds of foreigners from the West who have volunteered to fight for Ukraine since Russia launched the invasion.

The two Britons, Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, and the Moroccan, Saaudun Brahim, were sentenced to death after a closed trial on June 9 by Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donetsk for “mercenary activities.” All three say they were serving in the Ukrainian military when they were captured by pro-Russian forces.

With reporting by Reuters

The head of the Kosovo negotiating team, Besnik Bislimi (left), EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue Miroslav Lajčak (center), and Serbia’s chief negotiator Petar Petković (composite file photo)

Kosovo and Serbia have agreed to adopt a road map for the implementation of energy agreements within an EU-led dialogue that aims to reach a comprehensive agreement between Belgrade and Pristina on the normalization of relations.

The road map is the first agreement the parties have reached since EU Special Representative Miroslav Lajcak began holding talks within the dialogue.

Lajcak said on Twitter on June 21 that he was pleased to announce that Kosovo and Serbia had “adopted the Energy Agreements’ Implementation Roadmap in the framework of the EU-facilitated Dialogue,” calling the move “a major step forward.”

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also hailed the agreement.

“This is a big & important step forward in the EU-facilitated Dialogue and will deliver concrete results for all citizens,” Borrell said on Twitter.

He congratulated Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti on agreeing on the road map, which encourages both sides to make further progress in all other unresolved issues.

The European External Action Service (EEAS) said in a statement that the road map sets concrete steps for implementing energy agreements from 2013 and 2015.

“With today’s agreement, Elektrosever, a Serbian-owned company established in Kosovo and under Kosovo law, will start supplying electricity to consumers in four Serb-majority municipalities in the north,” the EEAS said.

Serbia’s chief negotiator Petar Petkovic said the road map represents a set of steps, deadlines, and responsibilities for both parties, and all deadlines run from the moment when Elektrosever receives a supply license.

“Elektrosever will also have important distribution services, which we asked for and insisted on,” Petkovic said. In addition, it will handle billing and network maintenance.

“This is very important because it means we have independence in electricity supply in the north of Kosovo and Metohija,” Petkovic said.

The statement also says the road map opens the way to ending “nontransparent and unregulated” practices, a veiled reference to four northern municipalities whose residents have not paid their electricity bills for more than two decades.

Kosovo’s chief negotiator, Besnik Bislimi, said the agreement allows for the invoicing of electricity in the four northern municipalities in line with Kosovo’s laws and regulatory system.

Kosovo and Serbia have engaged in the EU-led dialogue since 2011, aiming to reach a comprehensive and legally binding agreement on the normalization of relations.

Vucic last month pledged to keep the Balkan country on its EU membership path as he was sworn in for a second term. He said Serbia’s priority will be joining the 27-member bloc and he urged the incoming government that will take over in July to step up efforts toward this goal.

Against the background of the war in Ukraine, Kurti has said that for his country there is no alternative to membership in not only the EU but NATO as well.

Kosovo declared its independent from Serbia in 2008, but Serbia doesn’t recognize it as independent, while most EU countries do.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland (left) and Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova, met near Lviv on June 21.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has pledged to help prosecute war crimes committed in Ukraine since the Russian invasion began, saying on June 21 during a visit to the country that those responsible for such crimes will have “no place to hide.”

Garland met with Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova near Lviv and announced the creation of a team focused on tracking down war criminals, the Justice Department said.

“We and our partners will pursue every avenue available to make sure that those who are responsible for these atrocities are held accountable,” Garland told reporters as he entered the meeting with Venediktova.

The newly created team will assist Ukraine with criminal prosecution, evidence collection, forensics, and legal analysis of human rights abuse, war crimes, and other atrocities, the department said, adding that the team’s lead counselor once led the effort to track down Nazi war criminals.

The team will also focus on potential war crimes over which the United States has jurisdiction, including the killing and wounding of U.S. journalists covering the war, the department said.

“America — and the world — has seen the many horrific images and read the heart-wrenching accounts of brutality and death that have resulted from Russia’s unjust invasion of Ukraine,” Garland said in the department’s statement.

Venediktova thanked Garland for his support, calling it “very important.”

“We all understand that we have huge enemies,” she said.

Nearly four months after Russia invaded Ukraine, Kyiv says it has identified thousands of suspected war crimes cases.

Most notorious have been allegations of indiscriminate killings of civilians in Bucha. U.S. President Joe Biden has denounced those killings as war crimes.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

Ebrahim Raisi marked the first anniversary of his presidential election victory on June 18. (file photo)

Protests continue across Iran as discontent grows over the government’s failure to address deteriorating living conditions one year after President Ebrahim Raisi’s election victory.

Workers in the industrial town of Mahmoudabad in Isfahan continued their strike for a fourth consecutive day on June 21. Workers in the industrial towns of Dolatabad, Bakhtiar Dasht, Meimeh, Rezvanshahr, Najafabad and Doshakh have also joined the action.

At the same time, in the city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran, taxi drivers launched a wildcat strike, stopping their vehicles in a long line to clog one of the city’s main streets.

WATCH: Protests have continued in several Iranian cities over skyrocketing inflation, especially over the soaring cost of fuel and rising food prices. Videos posted on social media on June 21 showed retirees in the cities of Ahvaz and Kermanshah demanding higher pensions, and taxi drivers in Mashad went on strike.

Taxi Drivers Strike, Pensioners March As Inflation Protests Continue Across Iran

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Labor protests in Iran have been on the rise in response to declining living standards, wage arrears, and a lack of insurance support. Labor law in Iran does not recognize the right to form independent unions.

At the same time, pensioners and other groups have been protesting since early May against worsening economic conditions, blaming the government for spiraling inflation and failing to deliver on promises to increase wages and improve living conditions.

Raisi marked the one-year anniversary of his election victory on June 18.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

The U.S. State Department said that Stephen Zabielski was killed in combat in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya region on May 15. (file photo)

A second U.S. national has been killed in Ukraine while fighting with Ukrainian armed forces against Russia’s ongoing unprovoked invasion launched on February 24.

The U.S. State Department confirmed to The Washington Post on June 20 that Stephen Zabielski, 52, was killed near the village of Dorozhnyanka in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya region on May 15.

No other details on Zabielski’s death were provided.

In late April, another U.S. national, 22-year-old former U.S. Marine Will Cancel was killed in Ukraine, his relatives told journalists.

Last week, Russian news agencies reported that two former members of the U.S. military, Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27, both from Alabama, had been captured during a fight near Kharkiv in Ukraine’s northeast.

They are among hundreds of foreigners from the West who have volunteered to fight for Ukraine since Russia launched the invasion.

On June 9, two Britons, Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, and a Moroccan national, Saaudun Brahim, were sentenced to death by Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donetsk for “mercenary activities.” All three say they were serving in the Ukrainian military when they were captured by pro-Russian separatists.

Britain, the United Nations, Ukraine, and Germany have condemned the death sentences.

Aslin’s family said he and Pinner were living in Ukraine when the war broke out and “as members of Ukrainian armed forces, should be treated with respect just like any other prisoners of war.”

The father of Saaudun Brahim said on June 13 that his son has Ukrainian citizenship and should be treated accordingly.

With reporting by The Washington Post

Russian oppositionist Aleksei Navalny (file photo)

Jailed Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny says he has been reprimanded by penitentiary authorities less than a week after he had been transferred from a penal colony to a correctional facility with harsher conditions.

Navalny said on June 21 on Twitter that he was formally reprimanded on behalf of the warden for a “violation of the inmates’ dress code” for wearing a T-shirt at his previous penal colony before the transfer.

According to Navalny, all inmates usually go to the bathroom in the morning wearing T-shirts but no jackets to brush their teeth, shave, and wash. Navalny added that he was the only one reprimanded.

Navalny said that 30 reprimands he received last year were supposed to be annulled in August, but the new reprimand will allow the penitentiary’s administration to preserve all the previous ones, meaning that he might be deprived of parcels from relatives and visits by his family or placed in solitary confinement, where he may be humiliated and even killed.

While Navalny is still able to use Twitter and other social media through his representatives, his daughter said on June 20 that he had been placed in a separate area to create “a prison within the prison.” She said people are not allowed to communicate with him, and the isolation is “purely psychological torture for anyone.”

Navalny was transferred on June 14 to Correctional Colony No. 6 in the town of Melekhovo in the Vladimir region east of Moscow after the Moscow City Court rejected his appeal in May against a new 9-year jail term he was handed on embezzlement and contempt charges.

He was already serving a prison term from an earlier case in a penal colony in Pokrov, also in the Vladimir region.

5 Things To Know About Russian Opposition Leader Aleksei Navalny

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The outspoken foe of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his supporters have rejected all charges against him, calling them politically motivated.

Navalny, 46, was arrested in January last year upon return from Germany, where he had been treated for a poison attack with what European laboratories defined as a Soviet-style nerve agent.

He was then handed a 2 1/2-year prison sentence for violating the terms of an earlier parole because of his convalescence abroad. The original conviction is widely regarded as a trumped-up, politically motivated case.

Navalny has blamed Putin for his poisoning. The Kremlin has denied any role in the attack.

International organizations consider Navalny a political prisoner. The European Union, U.S. President Joe Biden, and other international officials have demanded that Russian authorities release him.

FIFA banned Russian soccer teams from all international competitions following Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. (file photo)

FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, says it has extended its employment rules to help players, coaches, and teams impacted by the war in Ukraine.

Live Briefing: Russia’s Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL’s Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia’s ongoing invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, the plight of civilians and refugees, and Western aid and reaction. For all of RFE/RL’s coverage of the war, click here.

The association said in a statement on June 21 that the move, which extends the right of foreign players and coaches to suspend contracts with clubs in Russia and Ukraine until June next year, will help bring players and clubs stability given the uncertainty surrounding Ukraine as it fights to repel Russia’s unprovoked invasion.

“These provisions give players and coaches the opportunity to train, play and receive a salary, while protecting Ukrainian clubs and facilitating the departure of foreign players and coaches from Russia,” the statement said.

The rule was first introduced on March 7, less than two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine. FIFA has also banned Russian teams from all international competitions.

FIFA said it will continue to monitor the situation in Ukraine “closely to ensure that the regulatory framework is adapted according to any new developments.”

“FIFA also continues to condemn the ongoing use of force by Russia in Ukraine and calls for a rapid cessation of the war and a return to peace,” the statement said.

Kurdish activist Firuz Musalu

A human rights group says Iran has “secretly” executed Kurdish political prisoner Firuz Musalu without even informing his immediate family that the punishment was being meted out.

According to the Hengaw Organization for Human Rights, which monitors Kurdish areas in western Iran, Musalu was executed inside the Urmia Central Prison on June 20. Not even his lawyer was informed, the group added.

The 31-year-old had been sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court of Urmia on charges of “waging war against God through membership of an opposition group.”

Without mentioning Musalu’s name, the Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, quoted the chief justice of West Azerbaijan as saying that a person had been executed as punishment for “killing two border guards” in the northwestern Iranian province.

“The Public Relations Department of the Judiciary of West Azerbaijan Province has confirmed the execution of this political prisoner,” Hengaw said in a statement noting that “some of the criteria for a fair trial were not observed even according to internal standards and that the security services prevented his case from being sent to the Supreme Court.”

The Statistics and Publication Center of the Human Rights Activists in Iran NGO says that, from the beginning of January to December 20, 2021, at least 299 people were executed in Iran, while another 85 were sentenced to death. Four children were among those executed.

Some human rights sources, including the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), have stated that more than 85 percent of executions in Iran are carried out “in secret and without official and public information.”

According to Amnesty International, Iran has had the highest number of executions in the world since 2017. More than half of the world’s recorded executions take place in the country.

With writing and reporting by Ardeshir Tayebi

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