Category: Watchdog

  • Russia faced widespread criticism following its use of veto power to effectively terminate official United Nations monitoring of sanctions on North Korea amid investigations into alleged arms transfers between Moscow and Pyongyang.

    The Russian veto at the U.N. Security Council on Thursday blocked the renewal of the panel of experts tasked with probing violations of sanctions related to North Korea’s prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile programs, which was imposed nearly 20 years ago. 

    For a resolution of the renewal to pass, it must receive the support of at least nine of the 15 members of the Security Council, with no veto from any of the five permanent members – the United States, China, Russia, the United Kingdom and France.

    China abstained from Thursday’s vote, while the remaining 13 U.N. Security Council members voted in favor. 

    The panel, which consists of eight experts drawn from the permanent members of the Security Council, is tasked with assisting the North Korea Sanctions Committee to investigate alleged violations of sanctions by North Korea, and has issued in-depth reports twice a year on the sanctions violations.

    The Security Council has extended the panel’s mandate for one year each March by passing a resolution. Its mandate expires at the end of April.

    Members of the United Nations Security Council meet on the day of a vote on a Gaza resolution at U.N. headquarters in New York City, U.S., March 25, 2024. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

    Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on Friday that its veto was in line with its interests.

    “It is clear to us that the U.N. Security Council can no longer use old templates in relation to the problems of the Korean Peninsula,” said Zakharova. 

    The move follows accusations from the U.S., South Korea and others that Pyongyang is supplying Moscow with weapons to use in its war in Ukraine – a claim that both countries have denied.

    But the panel’s report, released in March, detailed, with photographs, Russia’s arms dealings with North Korea in violation of sanctions. It also added that the panel was investigating reports of the arms transfers.

    The Russian move met with international criticism with South Korea’s foreign ministry on Friday slamming the move as an “irresponsible decision.” 

    Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, writing on social media after the veto, described the move as “a guilty plea,” while Yoshimasa Hayashi, Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan, said the move was “regrettable” since it “disrespected” the U.N.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Russia’s actions have “cynically undermined” international peace and security.

    Russian, Chinese agenda

    During negotiations on the draft text on Thursday, Russia and China unsuccessfully pushed for it to include a requirement that the sanctions regime be renewed annually. Over the past few years, both nations have advocated for a relaxation of these sanctions.

    Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, told the council before the vote that Western countries were trying to “strangle” North Korea and that sanctions were losing their “relevance” and becoming “detached from reality” in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the country.

    He accused the panel of experts of “increasingly being reduced to playing into the hands of Western approaches, reprinting biased information and analyzing newspaper headlines and poor quality photos”. Therefore, he said, it was “essentially conceding its inability to come up with sober assessments of the status of the sanctions regime”.

    Anthony Ruggiero, the White House NSC Director for North Korea, said that Russia and China were worried the panel would continue to expose the truth: Beijing and Moscow are violating U.N sanctions on North Korea. 

    Bruce Bennett, senior fellow at an American think tank RAND Institute, shares a similar view. 

    “After all, Russia and China are regularly violating the U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea,” said Bennett. 

    “Russia in particular is doing this because of its needs for military equipment in its conflict with Ukraine. As long as the U.N. panel of experts is operating, the panel will report on such violations, and Russia does not like being embarrassed by that reporting.

    “So if the U.N. panel of experts is no longer watching Russian and Chinese violations, those violations will likely increase and become more serious.”

    He notes that the alternative for the U.S. and its allies is forming a new panel to take over from the U.N. experts, focusing on reporting violations of sanctions by Russia and China.

    “Such a panel will not have the international clout and prestige of a U.N. panel. Still, hopefully the United States decides to take such actions.”

    Edited by Mike Firn and Elaine Chan.

    This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Taejun Kang for RFA.

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • By John Mitchell in Suva

    In any true democracy, the role of journalists and the media outlets they represent is to inform the people so that they can make educated and well-informed choices.

    The role of politicians is to represent those who elected them.

    They are to make decisions that best serve the public interest and to ensure that the concerns of citizens are heard, considered, and, where appropriate, acted upon.

    In such a political system, the journalist and the politician must both serve the people but in peculiarly differing ways.

    Journalists act on behalf of citizens by exploring and covering issues that concern the people and in doing so they include a diversity of voices and political opinions that offer different viewpoints and opinions.

    The bottom line of their job is ensuring that politicians do their job transparently, with accountability and through better public service delivery.

    In the end, journalism enhances, encourages meaningful dialogue and debate in society.

    On the other hand, politicians use the media to reach the masses, make them understand their policies and through this — get acceptance and approval from the public.

    Politicians love media spotlight
    Politicians naturally love the media spotlight for without reporters nobody knows their policies and their good deeds, no matter how grand they may be.

    Politicians love talking to reporters so they can get publicity.

    Reporters like politicians too because they provide them with stories — there goes the long story of the symbiotic relationship between the press and powerful members of the legislature.

    What a perfect relationship.

    Absolutely wrong!

    Some say the relationship is one of “love and hate” and always hangs in the balance.

    This liaison of sorts is more than meets the eye and the truth is simple.

    Like the legislature, the media has a prominent and permanent place in national leadership and governance (known as the Fourth Estate).

    Critical components of democracy
    Both are critical components of a democracy.

    Because of their democratic mandate, the media and politicians cannot be fulltime bedfellows.

    And as the saying goes, they will have their moments.

    However, in past years The Fiji Times has always been seen as the “enemy of the state”.

    This had nothing to do with the media’s work as a watchdog of society or the Fourth Estate, but rather with the way in which the former government muzzled the media and created an environment of fear through draconian media laws that stifled freedom of expression and constricted media freedom.

    Simply put, a newspaper and any truly independent media outlet must be fair and in being fair, its content must reflect the rich diversity of views and opinions that exists in the public sphere, as well as the aspirations, fears and concerns of the varied groups that exist in the community.

    Experts, academics or anyone outside of government is welcomed to use this forum of information exchange, dissemination and sharing.

    Politicians, if they have nothing to hide, can use it too, provided what they have to say is honest, sincere and accurate.

    Listening to pluralistic ‘voices’
    A responsible government deliberately chooses to listen attentively to pluralistic “voices” in the media although these expressions may put it in an uncomfortable position.

    A responsible government also explores avenues in which valid ideas could be propagated to improve its own practices and achieve its intended outcome.

    In other words, a newspaper exists to, among other reasons, communicate and amplify issues of concern faced by citizens.

    This includes voicing citizens’ complaints over any laxity in government’s service delivery, especially people in rural areas who often do not enjoy the public services that we so often take for granted in towns and cities.

    So whenever, people use the mainstream media to raise concerns over poor roads, water, garbage disposal, education and inferior health services, the public does so with the genuine yearning for assistance and intervention from government.

    And in providing this platform for exchange, the media achieves its democratic goal of getting authorities to effectively respond to taxpayers’ needs, keep their development promises and deliver according to their election manifestos.

    Remember, a responsible newspaper or media does not exist to act as government’s mouthpiece.

    Retaining media independence
    If media outlets give up their independence and allow themselves to be used by politicians for political parties’ own political agenda and gains, then citizens who rely on the media as an instrument for meaningful dialogue, discussion and discourse will be denied their participatory space and expressive rights.

    A responsible and autonomous newspaper like The Fiji Times does not exist to make government feel good.

    For if this ever occurs, this newspaper will compromise its ability to provide the necessary oversight on government powers and actions, without which, abuse of power and corruption thrive to the detriment of ordinary citizens.

    If media organisations and journalists who work for them operate in the way they should, then for obvious reasons, all politicians in government will “sometimes” find the media “upsetting” and “meddlesome”.

    Copping the flak from ministers and those in positions of authority is part and parcel of the media’s work.

    It is a healthy sign that democracy works.

    This newspaper was instrumental in calling on the SVT (Soqosoqo Vakavulewa ni Taukei) government and its then prime minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, (now Fiji’s Prime Minister again under the People’s Alliance Party-PAP/National Federation Party (NFP) and Sodelpa coalition) to account for the enormous financial loss which caused the collapse of the National Bank of Fiji in the 1990s.

    Our pages can prove that.

    This newspaper also scrutinised many of the policies of the coalition government under the leadership of Mahendra Chaudhry and Laisenia Qarase, during whose time, this newspaper was the common foe.

    Our pages can prove that.

    Last government ‘vindictive, authoritarian’
    But no government was as vindictive and authoritarian as the last government.

    Today, early in the days of the PAP/NFP and Sodelpa coalition government, we are seeing the good old days of media freedom slowly coming back.

    We can now doorstop the Prime Minister and call the Attorney-General at 9pm for a comment and get an answer.

    The openness with which ministers talk to the press is encouraging.

    We hope things stay that way and the government accepts that we will sometimes put out stories that it finds positive and there will be times when we will make its life difficult and uneasy.

    At the end of the day, it is the people that we both work hard to serve.

    Sometimes we will step on some people’s toes, be blamed for provoking disquiet and seem unpopular among powerful politicians.

    That is to be expected and embraced.

    Safeguarding press freedom
    But we will continue to play a prominent role in safeguarding the freedom of the press so that all Fijians can enjoy their own rights and freedoms.

    With the best intentions, our journalists will continue to forge forward with their pursuit of truth and human dignity, regardless of the political party in power.

    As we rebuild Fiji and regain what many people think we’ve lost in 16 years, this newspaper will play a pivotal role in allowing government to reach the people so that they make informed choices about their lives.

    We must face it — Fiji is heavily in debt, many families are struggling, the health system is in a poor state, thousands are trapped in poverty and the most vulnerable members of society are hanging in the balance, taking one day at a time.

    It is in this environment of uncertainty that the media and politicians must operate in for the common good.

    And as a responsible newspaper, we will listen to all Fijians and provide a safe space to express their voices.

    That is our mandate and our promise.

    John Mitchell is a senior Fiji Times feature writer who writes a weekly column, “Behind The News”. Republished with permission.

  • OBITUARY: By Murray Horton in Christchurch

    It is with great sadness that I am reporting that Jeremy Agar was found dead in his Lyttelton home today. He was 80.

    Agar had been a Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA) member since 2001 and a very active committee member for nearly all of that time. He was our chairperson for a number of years.

    It is the end of an era for Watchdog (and, to a lesser extent, for Anti-Bases Campaign’s Peace Researcher) — for at least 20 years, Jeremy was the most wonderfully prolific and erudite reviewer.

    And he bought the great majority of those books, and paid for the movie tickets, out of his own pocket, declining all offers of reimbursement. He actively sought books out for every issue (you will find his latest — and last — reviews in the December Watchdog, posted this week).

    He hated former US President Donald Trump, and everything he stands for, with a passion and had been writing about that in Watchdog for the past several years. His latest — and last — article on that subject is in the December Watchdog.

    Agar’s last ever Watchdog reviews and article in the December Watchdog.

    Jeremy Agar was passionate about CAFCA and he put himself and his money into it, big time. To give just one example — in 2014, when I undertook my most recent CAFCA national speaking tour, he insisted on driving me (a non-driver) right around both islands for several weeks, at his own expense.

    Everywhere we went we stayed with people — where necessary he slept on floors. He was then in his 70s, older than I am now.

    Not only did he drive me around, he chaired and spoke at every one of my meetings — including at the Pacific Media Centre. It was the longest and most full-on time I had spent with one other person for years and it was one of the highlights of my life.

    Jeremy Agar was not only a colleague but a very good friend. Over the 20 plus years I knew him, we spent a lot of time together and not just on that speaking tour. We shared interests outside of CAFCA and politics — we went to the rugby together and shared memorable moments in cold Christchurch grandstands.

    I am greatly saddened that I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to a good friend and colleague. But I console myself that my wife Becky and I were among the guests at his 80th birthday lunch in a Lyttelton restaurant just two months ago, in October. It was a very happy occasion and a great get together.

    I will miss Jeremy Agar. He was a unique individual. A full obituary will follow in due course.

    Murray Horton is secretary/organiser of the Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA). 

    This post was originally published on Asia Pacific Report.

  • The YouTube app is seen displayed on a smartphone screen.

    The media watchdog group Right Wing Watch (RWW), which monitors and publicizes the activity of far-right political organizations, was “permanently” suspended from YouTube on Monday over multiple (but unspecified) violations of the platform’s community guidelines. This presumably occurred because RWW frequently reposts videos originally posted by right-wing activist groups, some of them overtly white supremacist or fascist in nature. Ironically enough, as RWW pointed out, most of those groups have retained their YouTube channels.

    By Monday evening, YouTube appeared to have grasped the unfortunate optics of this decision and reversed it, even after RWW’s initial appeal had been denied.

    This development was first announced by RWW on Monday and later reported extensively by The Daily Beast. “Our efforts to expose the bigoted views and dangerous conspiracy theories spread by right-wing activists has now resulted in @YouTube banning our channel and removing thousands of our videos,” RWW tweeted. “We attempted to appeal this decision, and YouTube rejected it.”

    Screenshots posted by RWW reveal that the Google-owned platform found “severe or repeated violations” of its community guidelines, but did not specify which videos RWW had posted were flagged as violations or exactly why.

    When pressed for comment on RWW’s suspension, a Google spokesperson eventually notified Salon that the account had been restored. “Right Wing Watch’s YouTube channel was mistakenly suspended,” the spokesperson told Salon in a statement, “but upon further review, has now been reinstated.” The enormous volume of content on the site, according to YouTube, can lead to judgment errors by moderators — and also, it would seem, to a perfunctory or haphazard appeals process.

    Kyle Mantyla, who reports for RWW, told Salon that the suspension, sudden as it was, was “not surprising.”

    “We’ve had problems for years with YouTube mistakenly flagging our videos as violating their community guidelines,” he said in an interview. “They seem to be fundamentally unable to distinguish between people who are saying these things and people who are exposing these things.”

    Mantyla told Salon that RWW received two “strikes” from YouTube in April over videos it reposted from right-wing sources that featured falsehoods about the 2020 election and misinformation on the COVID pandemic. In response, the watchdog held off on posting more videos until the strikes expired. The supposedly permanent suspension came after RWW received a third strike, when YouTube flagged material posted eight years ago.

    Mantyla added that some of the original sources from which RWW’s videos had been clipped remain active on the site, despite unambiguous violations of YouTube’s policies.

    Right Wing Watch was founded in 2007 by the progressive advocacy group People for the American Way in an effort to monitor and catalogue right-wing extremism in American media. RWW played a key role in publicizing the material of Alex Jones, a far-right host of “Infowars” who was banned from YouTube in 2018 for propagating conspiracy theories.

    Last week, YouTube also targeted Salon reporter Zachary Petrizzo, whose account was suspended for seven days over a video that apparently violated the platform’s community guidelines. The situation seemed similar to that of Right Wing Watch, if on a smaller scale: Petrizzo posted a clip from a One America News Network (OAN) broadcast in which host Pearson Sharp appeared to call for the mass execution of Donald Trump’s opponents.

    Asked for comment on his temporary banishment while reporting a story on pro-Trump far-right activists, Petrizzo said, “YouTube should learn the difference between a sledgehammer and a scalpel.”

    This post was originally published on Latest – Truthout.

  • His name was Alireza Fazeli Monfared and he was only 20 years old.

    Fazeli Monfared was homosexual and due to the difficulties he faced because of his sexual orientation, was about to flee his native Iran for Turkey.

    But he was reportedly killed by his family members before he could leave the southwestern province of Khuzestan after they accused him of dishonoring the family.

    Fazeli Monfared’s killing has put the plight of Iran’s LGBT community in the spotlight amid concerns that this will not be the last suspected case of so-called honor killings of homosexuals in the Islamic republic.

    “There’s no guarantee that this won’t happen again until our society becomes educated and informed,” Arsham Parsi, a Toronto-based, Iranian gay-rights activist and head of the International Railroad for Queer Refugees, told RFE/RL.

    Killed For Being Gay

    Fazeli Monfared was reportedly killed on May 4 by his half-brother and cousins who, according to some reports, beheaded him and dumped his body under a tree near the provincial capital of Ahvaz. They reportedly called his mother to tell her where to find him.

    The Iranian Lesbian and Transgender Network 6rang said in a May 7 statement that Fazeli Monfared’s half-brother learned about his sexual orientation after seeing his military service exemption card. In Iran, homosexuals are allowed to skip military duty due to “mental disorders.”

    Even before he was killed, Fazeli Monfared had complained to friends about threats from his relatives due to his sexual orientation.

    In an audio recording obtained by the BBC, Fazeli Monfared said that his family had threatened to kill him and that he was planning to flee Iran to seek asylum in Norway or Sweden.

    Fazeli Monfared’s partner, activist Aghil Abyat, told RFE/RL that he was due to travel to Turkey on May 8 to join him.

    “He had told me that he had been threatened by his half-brother,” he said.

    ‘Lively’ And ‘Very Happy’ Man

    Abyat described Fazeli Monfared as a “lively” and “very happy” young man who liked to travel, listen to music, and post videos on TikTok. His Instagram posts also suggest an interest in fashion.

    Parsi, who had in recent weeks interacted with Fazeli Monfared on Clubhouse, said the young man had complained about family pressure and intolerance in society.

    “He didn’t clearly say that he had been threatened with murder because if he had done so I would have contacted him privately since we take these issues very seriously, but he spoke about his family not accepting him and the pressure families put on homosexuals,” Parsi told RFE/RL.

    Monfared had complained about family pressure and intolerance in the weeks leading up to his death.

    Monfared had complained about family pressure and intolerance in the weeks leading up to his death.

    Members of Iran’s gay community are forced to hide their sexual orientation, often leading double lives due to fear of persecution by the state, which criminalizes homosexual acts, while society views homosexuality as a disease.

    Many in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community are shunned by their families who view them as a stain on the family’s honor.

    Homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran but proving that a sexual act has taken place is not easy and requires the testimony of four adult men.

    Horrific Punishments, Abuse

    Parsi said the LGBT community is “extremely vulnerable” while being exposed to horrific punishment and harassment.

    “On the one hand, the establishment has laws that includes the death penalty and stoning for homosexuals, on the other hand their families do not accept them, neither does the society,” he said. “If something happens to them at work or school, if they get abused or raped, they don’t have anywhere to turn to.”

    Fazeli Monfared’s murder has sent a chilling message to Iran’s gay community, reminding them of the dire threats they face.

    “Today, I received the 86th message from [a homosexual inside Iran] who said this could have been us,” said Parsi, adding that “the fear homosexuals experience is real and must be taken seriously.”

    Berlin-based human rights activist Kaveh Kermanshahi said the killing has shocked many.

    “Whoever has gone through similar problems can relate and go through the trauma again, they have been reminded of their hardships,” said Kermanshahi, who came out only after leaving Iran several years ago.

    “The reasons for not coming out are many more than those in favor of coming out,” he said.

    “I was politically active, I was active in the human rights sphere, I was also a journalist faced with the risk of arrest, which happened. Due to of all these issues I had decided that [my sexuality] should not be revealed,” Kermanshahi added.

    Honor Killings Often Unreported

    Both Kermanshahi and Parsi believe that a large number of killings in Iran due to someone’s sexual orientation go unreported.

    “Queers who have been in contact with these people fear reporting or investigating the cases because they can be outed in the society therefore these cases often happen in silence,” Kermanshahi said.

    “When it comes to uxoricide, we have women’s rights activists who highlight these cases,” he said. “But in Iran we don’t have the possibility of queer activists working actively therefore it is possible that other cases — like [Fazeli Monfared’s] murder and [gay suicides] — are not being reported.”

    In 2017, 6rang reported that a 23-year-old transsexual identified as Siavash was killed in Khorramabad in western Iran by his father who, according to the report, committed suicide afterward.

    “Apparently the sexual identity of Siavash was not acceptable to the family at all,” 6rang said.

    Parsi said in 2004 that a local newspaper reported the killing of a member of Iran’s gay community by his father in a northern Iranian village.

    “It never became clear whether the father was arrested and punished,” he said.

    According to a 2020 poll published by the 6rang advocacy group, 62 percent of LGBT members surveyed had said that they had experienced one or more forms of violence by their immediate family. Nearly 30 percent of them complained of sexual violence, while 77 percent said they had been subjected to physical violence.

    The pressure and persecution force many members of Iran’s LGBT community to flee the country, while many others undergo gender-reassignment surgery.

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • QAPSHAGHAI, Kazakhstan — A court in Kazakhstan has again rejected an early-release request for ailing activist Kenzhebek Abishev, who has been recognized by domestic human rights organizations as a political prisoner.

    Abishev’s lawyer, Gulnar Zhuaspaeva, told RFE/RL that the court ruled on May 11 that Abishev cannot be granted early release, again rejecting his argument for time off due to good behavior and concerns over his health.

    Last week, the chairwoman of the Aman-Saulyq Human Rights Foundation, Bakhyt Tumenova, said that Abishev’s condition was worrisome, as he suffers from multiple medical conditions and should be released as soon as possible.

    In mid-April, Abishev was rushed from prison to the hospital in Qapshaghai as his condition word due to a hunger strike that he started to protest the cancellation of his release in February on parole and prison conditions.

    Physicians then diagnosed Abishev with coronary heart disease. It is not clear at the moment if Abishev is still on his hunger strike.

    On February 1, the Qapshaghai court ruled that Abishev could be released on February 16, more than three years early, for good behavior while in prison, a procedure allowed by Kazakh law.

    However, the Almaty regional prosecutor’s office appealed the ruling at the very last moment, arguing that the 53-year-old activist’s good behavior in custody was not enough to secure his early release, since he still had more than three years to serve.

    The court then scrapped the move, leaving Abishev in prison.

    Abishev was sentenced to seven years in prison in December 2018 after he and two other activists were found guilty of planning a “holy war” because they were spreading the ideas of the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement. His prison term was later cut by eight months.

    Abishev pleaded not guilty, calling the case against him politically motivated.

    The DVK was founded by Mukhtar Ablyazov, an outspoken critic of the Kazakh government who has been living in France for several years.

    Ablyazov has been organizing unsanctioned anti-government rallies in Kazakhstan via the Internet in recent years.

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • International media-freedom watchdogs are urging an Uzbek court to overturn the conviction of a blogger who was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison on “trumped-up” extortion and slander charges.

    A court in the southern Surxondaryo region handed down the sentence against Otabek Sattoriy on May 10 in a case denounced by rights defenders as retaliation by the authorities for his critical reporting.

    The 40-year-old Sattoriy has insisted that the case against him was “based on lies.”

    Sattoriy’s lawyer said he intended to appeal the conviction.

    The authorities should “immediately release Otabek Sattoriy, not contest his appeal, and allow all journalists to work freely and without fear of reprisal,” according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

    Sattoriy’s conviction “is a clear attempt to frighten the press away from covering sensitive issues” ahead of a presidential election in October, Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, said in a statement.

    Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said the “fabricated” accusations against the blogger “testify to a desire to quell local corruption scandals and intimidate critical voices.”

    The Paris-based group noted that since his arrest in late January, Sattoriy had been ordered to pay a fine of 9.8 million soms ($931) for “slander” and “insult” in a separate case.

    The Prosecutor-General’s Office has rejected criticism by human rights organizations, saying that Sattoriy’s arrest was lawful.

    The blogger is known to be a harsh critic of the regional governor, Tora Bobolov. In one post on his Halq Fikiri (People’s Opinion) video blog, Sattoriy openly accused the local government of launching fabricated criminal cases against bloggers and vowed to continue to raise the issue of corruption among officials despite the “crackdown.”

    RSF said criminal proceedings were also brought against two journalists from the independent website in early April after they approached the judge to attend the blogger’s trial. Elyor Tojiboev and Aqbar Nurumbetov were charged with “resisting a representative of the authorities” and “interfering with the investigation.”

    Another blogger, Behruz Nematov, was kidnapped in broad daylight on April 2 by unknown individuals who kept him for four hours and beat him with a baton, demanding that he stop covering the trial.

    Uzbekistan is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is urging the Iranian parliament to reject a bill that it says would “help further erode Iran’s increasingly vulnerable press freedom” ahead of next month’s presidential election.

    In a statement on May 10, the Paris-based media-freedom watchdog says the proposed law would ban U.S. and British journalists from entering Iran and would ban the Iranian media from reporting anything published by the U.S. and British media.

    Violations of the proposed law would be punishable by five to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to 360 million rials ($16,340).

    “This proposed law is ridiculous as well as lacking any legitimacy,” said Reza Moini, the head of RSF’s Iran-Afghanistan desk.

    “The media it targets are an integral part of the world in which we live and of which the Islamic republic is part, regardless of what it says,” he added.

    “Furthermore, the Persian-language sections of certain international media are the main sources of freely and independently reported news and information for Iranians.”

    The proposed law, submitted by 41 parliament members on April 18, says the two prohibitions are justified because the U.S. and British media and their journalists are responsible for “many actions against national interests and against the Islamic republic,” according to RSF.

    The group notes that the international media coverage of the June presidential poll “is unlikely to please the regime because it is clear that the electoral process is just a smokescreen for the future president’s designation” by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

    Iran is ranked 174th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

    Upon arrival in Iran, foreign journalists are currently placed under “close surveillance” by the authorities and “their journalism is subjected to a form of censorship in which, if they fail to toe the official line, they can end up having to leave,” RSF says.

    Meanwhile, “Iranian journalists — and sometimes their family members as well — have for years been subjected to harassment, arrest, and long prisons sentences.”

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • XALQOBOD, Uzbekistan — A court in Uzbekistan’s southern Surxondaryo region has sentenced blogger Otabek Sattoriy to 6 1/2 years in prison in a high-profile extortion and slander case that has sparked harsh criticism of the country by domestic and international human rights groups.

    The Muzrabot district court pronounced the ruling on May 10. Last week, a prosecutor asked the court to sentence the blogger to 11 years in prison.

    The 40-year-old blogger faced a number of charges, including extortion and slander, which his supporters and rights defenders have characterized as retaliation by the authorities for his critical reporting.

    Sattoriy, whose trial started in March, has insisted that the case against him was “based on lies.”

    Sattoriy is known to be a harsh critic of the regional governor, Tora Bobolov. In one post on his Halq Fikiri (People’s Opinion) video blog, Sattoriy openly accused the local government of launching fabricated criminal cases against bloggers and vowed to continue to raise the issue of corruption among officials despite the “crackdown.”

    Since his arrest in late-January, Sattoriy has been tried in a separate case and found guilty of defamation and distributing false information. According to the Prosecutor-General’s Office, the blogger was ordered to pay a fine for the offenses.

    The Prosecutor-General’s Office has also rejected criticism by human rights organizations, saying that Sattoriy’s arrest was lawful.

    Uzbekistan is ranked 156th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders organization’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

    Last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urged Uzbekistan to repeal recent legal amendments that the group says “deepen restrictions” on online speech ahead of a planned presidential election in October.

    The changes introduce prison sentences for crimes such as insulting or defaming the president online and making online calls for “mass disturbances.” They also make it an offense to publish statements online calling on people to violate the law and threaten public order, or show “disrespect” to the state.

    President Shavkat Mirziyoev took over as the head of Central Asia’s most-populous state after authoritarian leader Islam Karimov’s death was announced in September 2016.

    Mirziyoev has since positioned himself as a reformer, releasing political prisoners and opening his country to its neighbors and the outside world, although many activists say the changes have not gone nearly far enough.

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has pardoned hundreds of inmates on the occasion of a religious holiday, including jailed Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    Berdymukhammedov was quoted on May 9 as saying that the pardons marked the Night of Revelation, an important stage during the holy month of Ramadan which is currently being observed by Muslims around the world.

    State media outlets reported that 1,035 inmates were released from prisons around the country on May 9, including 982 Turkmen nationals and 53 foreigners.

    A spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jarrod Lopes, told RFE/RL that 16 followers of the denomination, who had been sentenced to prison terms for refusing to serve in the Turkmen armed forces due to their faith, were among the released inmates.

    Turkmenistan’s laws oblige all men between 18 and 27 years of age to serve in the armed forces for two years. Failing to serve is punishable by up to two years in prison.

    Berdymukhammedov’s predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, issued similar amnesty decrees once a year during Ramadan.

    Berdymukhammedov, an authoritarian ruler who controls all aspects of Turkmen society, has issued such decrees several times a year, usually on the eve of state holidays.

    Such acts usually do not cover political prisoners.

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • TBILISI — The Tbilisi City Court has ruled to release from pretrial detention Nika Melia, the leader of the opposition United National Movement (ENM), after the European Union posted his bail to help end the country’s protracted political crisis.

    The EU said over the weekend that it had posted bail of 40,000 laris (more than $11,600) for Melia, allowing for a court in the capital Tbilisi on May 10 to “order the release,” his lawyer Dito Sadzaglishvili said.

    Melia, whose case has roiled the country’s political scene, went on trial on April 8 for allegedly organizing “mass violence” during 2019 anti-government protests.

    Melia has rejected the charge calling it politically motivated, which the ruling Georgian Dream party denies.

    His release was part of an agreement that the ruling Georgian Dream party and opposition leaders signed last month under European Council President Charles Michel’s mediation.

    The ENM, however, had refused to join the EU-mediated deal until Melia was released from pretrial detention. There was no immediate comment from the party on the court’s May 10 ruling.

    The political scene in Georgia has been on the brink of crisis since October parliamentary elections dominated by the Georgian Dream party, but which independent monitors said were marred by irregularities.

    The opposition has boycotted the new parliament and staged protests demanding new elections.

    The decision to arrest Melia after he refused to pay an increased bail bond led to the resignation of Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia in February.

    Gakharia said the decision was unacceptable if it threatened to fuel political divisions in the Caucasus country of 3.7 million people. It also sparked mass protests as well as international condemnation amid mounting fears in the West over the ex-Soviet republic’s perceived backsliding on democracy.

    The Interior Ministry carried out the arrest on February 23, five days after Gakharia stepped down, which further deepened an ongoing political crisis in the South Caucasus country caused by the parliamentary elections.

    The 41-year-old politician faces up to nine years in prison if found guilty.

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • A 20-year-old Iranian man has reportedly been murdered by family members in the country’s southwest because of his sexual orientation.

    Reports from Iran say Alireza Monfared was killed by his brother and cousins earlier this month after they discovered that he had been exempted from military service due to his homosexuality. Some reports suggested he had been beheaded.

    Up to three people were said to have been arrested in connection with the killing, which reportedly took place on May 4 near Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan Province.

    Monfared’s partner, Aghil Abyat, told RFE/RL that Monfared had been due to travel to Turkey on May 8 to join him.

    The BBC reported it had received audio recordings of Monfared saying he was in danger from family members and that he was planning to flee Iran.

    Homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran, where sexual minorities have to hide their orientation.

    Earlier this year, the UN’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran expressed concern over reports that the country has subjected lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) children to “torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.”

    With reporting by Yahoo! News and the BBC

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Council of Europe member states should reinforce efforts to combat violence against women by quickly ratifying and implementing a regional treaty on women’s rights that the group said has faced “unprecedented backlash” in a number of countries.

    HRW made the call in a statement on May 10, the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the Istanbul Convention.

    The convention has been ratified by 33 countries in the 47-member grouping since taking force in 2014.

    Twelve others have signed but not yet ratified the convention, including Ukraine, which signed it in 2011.

    Azerbaijan and Russia are the only two Council of Europe member states that have not signed the treaty.

    HRW warned that some governments have withdrawn or threatened to withdraw from the treaty while others have refused to ratify it despite “soaring reports of domestic violence” during lockdowns aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus.

    “The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed violence against women as one of the most far-reaching and persistent rights abuses, and a daily threat to the lives and health of women and girls around the world,” said Hillary Margolis, senior women’s rights researcher at the New York-based human rights watchdog.

    “At this decisive moment, Council of Europe members should demonstrate they are serious about prioritizing the safety and well-being of all women and girls by committing to and carrying out the Istanbul Convention.”

    The Istanbul Convention “establishes robust, legally binding standards for governments to prevent violence against all women and girls, support survivors, and hold abusers to account,” according to HRW.

    It noted that the treaty mandates protections from forms of violence that are often not incorporated into national legislation, such as sexual harassment or forced marriage, and requires protections for all victims of violence — regardless of age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, and immigration status.

    But Turkey earlier this year decided to withdraw from the convention. HRW said the move “poses dangerous risks for the region” and called it “a setback for women’s rights in the country.”

    In 2020, Poland’s justice minister announced he would pursue withdrawal from the convention, while parliaments in Hungary and Slovakia blocked its ratification.

    Bulgaria’s Constitutional Court ruled in 2018 that the convention’s use of “gender” makes it unconstitutional.

    “Conservative politicians and groups have erroneously claimed the convention threatens ‘traditional’ families, promotes homosexuality and so-called ‘gender ideology,’ and corrodes ‘national values,’” HRW said.

    Some governments “claim that national legislation provides adequate protection from and accountability for violence against women,” while “many survivors continue to face stigma, dismissive attitudes from authorities, and social pressure to remain silent,” according to the group.

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on May 9 presented one of the state’s highest honors to Peter Handke, an Austrian writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2019 who denies the genocide in Srebrenica.

    The Order of Karadjordje’s Star of the First Degree was given to Handke in Belgrade because of his “uncompromising fight for the truth,” according to a statement by the moderator of the ceremony.

    Vucic said that by presenting the award, Serbia “shows its gratitude to its academic and friend Handke.” Vucic also thanked him “for everything you do for our country, for our Serbia,” and apologized that some Serbs “have not always been able to show enough gratitude for everything you have done for us.”

    The honor is for “special merits and successes in representing the state (Serbia) and its citizens,” according to the website of the Serbian Army. A decree on awarding the honor to the writer was passed in February 2020.

    Handke, who was declared an honorary citizen of Belgrade in 2015, arrived in Belgrade from Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he received the highest awards two days earlier by representatives of the Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity of Bosnia. Film director Emir Kusturica also honored him with the literary Grand Prize Ivo Andric in the eastern city of Visegrad.

    In Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, however, Handke’s visit to the region was met with rejection and dismay. The local media referred to him as a “genocide denier.”

    Handke is well known for his support of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s policies in the 1990s. He was criticized by the international community for his support for internationally isolated Serbia, visits with Milosevic in The Hague tribunal’s detention unit, and attendance at his funeral.

    Many in the Balkans see Handke as an apologist for Serb war crimes during the conflicts that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

    Bosnia marked the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide last year. In July 1995, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were rounded up and killed by Bosnian Serb forces in the worst mass killing in Europe since World War II.

    The massacre was labeled as genocide by international courts, but Serbian and Bosnian Serb officials refuse to accept that wording.

    The 78-year-old Handke, considered one of the most original German-language writers alive, has argued that Serbs were unfairly portrayed by the Western press as the only aggressors in the conflict.

    Handke was a controversial choice for the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature. Bosnia, Albania, Croatia, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Turkey boycotted the Nobel Prize award ceremony that year. Protests also were held in Sweden on the day the awards were presented.

    Numerous reporters who reported on wars in Bosnia and Kosovo raised their voices against Handke on social media at the time.

    With reporting by Tatjiana Bogdanov Krstic, dpa, AFP, and AP

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • MINSK — Belarus’s authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka has downplayed a criminal complaint filed in Germany on behalf of 10 Belarusians alleging that the strongman has committed crimes against humanity.

    Speaking two days before Belarus commemorates the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, Lukashenka referred on May 7 to the German lawyers who filed the case as the “heirs of fascism” and said they were in no position to judge him.

    The lawyers said on May 5 that, on behalf of “torture victims,” they had submitted a complaint to federal prosecutors in the German city of Karlsruhe against Lukashenka “and other Belarusian security officers.”

    “Who are they to judge me? For protecting you and my country? I do not reproach them. But they are the heirs of the generations who unleashed that war,” he was quoted by the official BelTA news agency as saying.

    The 66-year-old Lukashenka, who has run the country since 1994, was officially declared the winner by a landslide of a disputed presidential election in August 2020. This triggered almost daily protests demanding that the longtime strongman step down and new elections be held.

    The opposition says the vote was rigged, and the West has refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of Belarus.

    Security officials have cracked down hard on the demonstrators, arresting thousands, including dozens of journalists who covered the rallies, and pushing most of the top opposition figures out of the country.

    Several protesters have been killed in the violence and some rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used by security officials against some of those detained.

    Lukashenka has refused to talk to the opposition about a new elections and responded on May 7 to a call from some U.S. lawmakers a day earlier for Belarus to hold a new vote by saying that he will do so only if the United States does the same.

    “Let the Americans call early elections and we will call an election in Belarus that very same day,” BelTA cited him as saying.

    He added that he considers the results of last year’s U.S. presidential election as having been “falsified,” a claim pushed by former President Donald Trump and many of his supporters despite showing no proof to back up their words.

    The United States has imposed sanctions on Lukashenka and other senior Belarusian officials over the bloody crackdown. The European Union has followed suit.

    Lukashenka looked to placate protesters in December by saying that there needed to be constitutional amendments before an early presidential election could be held.

    His opponents, however, have called Lukashenka’s gesture a sham to help him cling to power.

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • Amnesty International says it has decided to redesignate Aleksei Navalny as a “prisoner of conscience,” after the human rights watchdog earlier this year stopped referring to the jailed opposition politician as such over past comments he made that reached “the threshold of advocacy of hatred.”

    Navalny “has not been imprisoned for any recognizable crime, but for demanding the right to equal participation in public life for himself and his supporters, and for demanding a government that is free from corruption,” the London-based human rights group said in a statement on May 7.

    “These are acts of conscience and should be recognized as such.”

    Amnesty International announced in February it would stop referring to the Kremlin foe as a “prisoner of conscience” on the grounds that in the past he had made comments over his alleged advocacy of violence and discrimination and comments that included hate speech.

    But the group said in its latest statement that the Russian government and its supporters used that decision to “further violate” Navalny’s rights.

    As a result, Amnesty International launched a review of its approach to the use of the designation “prisoner of conscience” and decided as an interim step to “not exclude a person…solely based on their conduct in the past.”

    “We recognize that an individual’s opinions and behavior may evolve over time. It is part of Amnesty’s mission to encourage people to positively embrace a human rights vision and to not suggest that they are forever trapped by their past conduct.”

    The designation of an individual as “prisoner of conscience” doesn’t imply the endorsement of their views by Amnesty, it said.

    By confirming Navalny’s status as a “prisoner of conscience,” the watchdog is “highlighting the urgent need for his rights, including access to independent medical care, to be recognized and acted upon by the Russian authorities,” according to the statement.

    Navalny is serving a 2 1/2 year prison sentence on embezzlement charges that he says were trumped up because of his political activity.

    He recently ended a hunger strike that he had been holding to demand he be examined by his own doctors amid what he has described as a “deliberate campaign” by Russian prison officials to undermine his health.

    The 44-year-old has been in custody since January, when he returned to Russia following weeks of medical treatment in Germany for a nerve-agent poisoning in August 2020 that he says was carried out by operatives of the Federal Security Service (FSB) at the behest of President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin has denied any role in the poisoning.

    His incarceration sparked numerous protests across Russia which were violently dispersed by police.

    Navalny’s anti-corruption organization has targeted many high-profile Russians, including high-ranking government officials.

    In the course of his political career, he has also come under criticism for his association with ethnic Russian nationalists and for statements seen as racist and dangerously inflammatory.

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya has called on the United States to apply more sanctions to pressure authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has led a brutal crackdown against prodemocracy protests triggered by last year’s disputed presidential election.

    Speaking virtually at a U.S. congressional hearing on May 6, Tsikhanouskaya also urged the United States to engage in international mediation jointly with European partners to help end the crisis in Belarus.

    “We call on the U.S. to use its diplomacy to further isolate Lukashenka, to underscore his point of political no return has passed,” said Tsikhanouskaya, who lives in self-imposed exile in Lithuania.

    Describing human rights abuses and “relentless political repression” in her country, she asked Congress to increase its support for civil society, independent media, and human right defenders in exile and in Belarus.

    The opposition leader claims to have won last August’s presidential election and has sought to unite opposition forces in the face of a brutal regime crackdown on mass protests.

    The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on senior figures in Lukashenka’s government over what they say was a fraudulent election and ongoing human rights abuses.

    In April, the United States said it would not renew a special license authorizing transactions with nine state-owned Belarusian companies.

    Tsikhanouskaya called those sanctions “among the most effective measures,” but she called on Washington to punish other entities and regime figures in her country.

    She also asked that the United States keep Belarus high on the international agenda and help organize an international conference.

    With reporting by AFP

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • It was one of the most sophisticated digital fraud operations in the history of the Internet, by some accounts scamming between $10 million and $30 million over the roughly four years it existed.

    Dubbed “Methbot” by security researchers, the operation used thousands of infected computers around the world to falsely inflate web traffic to dummy websites and defraud advertisers. A related, overlapping scam, dubbed “3ev,” used infected residential computers linked to real human users.

    This week in a U.S. federal court in New York City, the Russian man accused by U.S. authorities of being a ringleader of the group, Aleksandr Zhukov, went on trial for wire fraud, money laundering, and other charges.

    One cybercrime researcher described the setup used to run the Methbot network as “the most costly botnet fraud in history.”

    Extradited to the United States after being arrested in Bulgaria in November 2018, Zhukov has pleaded innocent. Seven other people, mainly Russians, have also been indicted.

    “The cybercrime in my indictment is just [the] imagination of [the] FBI, and I wish to go to jury,” Zhukov told the U.S. court in April 2019.

    The case is the latest example of U.S. law enforcement going after alleged Russian cybercriminals around the world, a trend that has infuriated the Kremlin, which has accused the United States of hunting Russian citizens.

    But written into the code of the Methbot case, there’s also technical intrigue: The network of servers that was allegedly used by the hackers has been under scrutiny to determine whether it was used by Russian state-backed hackers, or intelligence agencies, to hack into U.S. political parties

    “Differentiating between what is ‘cybercrime’ and what is nation-state activity, such as espionage, is getting increasingly difficult, especially concerning Russia,” Mathew Schwartz, executive editor of the industry journal DataBreachToday, told RFE/RL. “In part, this is because some individuals who have day jobs as government hackers — or contractors — seem to hack the West in their spare time — for fun, patriotism or profit.”

    ‘Are You Gangsters? No, We Are Russians’

    According to U.S. court records, the Methbot scam first took form in September 2014, when Zhukov and five other men from Russia and Kazakhstan allegedly rented more than 1,900 computer servers at commercial data centers in Texas and elsewhere and used them to simulate humans viewing ads on fabricated webpages.

    Eventually, the scam grew to include more than 850,000 Internet addresses, supported by hundreds of dedicated servers located in the United States and in Europe, mainly in the Netherlands.

    In a September 2014 text message obtained by U.S. investigators and published by prosecutors, Zhukov, who had moved to Bulgaria in 2010, allegedly bragged about the scope of the scheme to another man who was part of the effort: “You bet! King of fraud!”

    “Are you gangsters? No, we are Russians,” the other man responds, according to a U.S. transcript.

    In December 2016, White Ops, a U.S. cybersecurity company that specializes in digital ad fraud and botnets, published a report that pinpointed much of the technical information about the operation and its financial damages. Those findings were later corroborated by researchers at Google.

    Differentiating between what is ‘cybercrime’ and what is nation-state activity, such as espionage, is getting increasingly difficult, especially concerning Russia.”

    Methbot, White Ops concluded, “was the largest and most profitable advertising fraud operation to strike digital advertising to date.”

    On November 6, 2018, Bulgarian police raided the apartment in the Black Sea port of Varna where Zhukov was living and, with U.S. law enforcement present, questioned, then arrested, Zhukov, seizing his computer hardware and cell phones. U.S. authorities unsealed a 13-count indictment against him and seven other Russian and Kazakh nationals later that month.

    Zhukov was extradited to the United States two months later, in January 2019.

    Another key player was a Kazakh man named Sergei Ovysannikov, who allegedly was involved in the overlapping botnet scheme called 3ve. The scheme was tied to at least $29 million in fraud and allegedly involved more than 1.7 million infected computers. Because the infected computers were in homes, they were linked to real human beings, making it harder to detect.

    “However you want to look at it, from an illicit profit-generating perspective, that counts as super lucrative,” Schwartz said.

    Ovysannikov was arrested on a U.S. warrant in Malaysia in October 2018. He later pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court.

    Yevgeny Timchenko, another Kazakh national who was also allegedly linked to the 3ve scheme, was arrested in Estonia the same month as Zhukov and later extradited. The other men named in the indictment are still at large, according to U.S. officials.

    The Steele Dossier

    Though the fraud allegedly committed in the Methbot and 3ve schemes was lucrative, the underlying technologies and infrastructure used have interested security researchers and experts tracking state-sponsored hacking efforts, particularly those involving Russia, Iran, North Korea, China, and other countries with developed hacking capabilities.

    The complicated setup used to run the Methbot network was extensive and expensive, according to one cybercrime researcher, who described it as “the most costly botnet fraud in history.”

    A sizable number of the servers that the Methbot operation rented and utilized were owned and maintained by companies affiliated with XBT Holding S.A., which is owned by a Russian venture capitalist named Aleksei Gubarev.

    Russian tech entrepreneur Aleksei Gubarev arrives at the High Court in London in July 2020.

    Russian tech entrepreneur Aleksei Gubarev arrives at the High Court in London in July 2020.

    That holding includes a group of web-hosting businesses also known as Webzilla, which has operations in Dallas, Texas, as well as in Russia, and which has specialized in services aimed at Internet advertisers, gaming companies, software developers, and e-commerce businesses. Among its web-hosting domains are, 1-800-HOSTING, and

    A series of reports by the McClatchy newspaper network and the Miami Herald documented how major web viruses have spread via XBT’s infrastructure.

    While known within the tech industry, Gubarev’s name and his companies burst into wider public view in January 2017 with the publication of a collection of memos written by a former British spy named Christopher Steele.

    The memos, which were written in 2016, included salacious, unverified allegations against then-U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. It later emerged that the work was commissioned by a Washington law firm on behalf of the Democratic Party.

    The collected memos, which had circulated among reporters in Washington but were published first by BuzzFeed, were known as the Steele Dossier.

    One memo alleged that XBT/Webzilla and affiliated companies played a key role in the hack of Democratic Party computers in the spring of 2016, which resulted in the leak of e-mails that many believe helped harm former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s campaign against Trump. The memo also alleged Gubarev had been coerced into providing services to Russia’s main domestic security agency, known as the FSB.

    Subsequent U.S. intelligence reports and law enforcement indictments blamed the hack on Russia’s military intelligence agency, known as the GRU. Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, called the SVR, has been implicated both in that hack and the more recent SolarWinds intrusion of U.S. government and corporate servers.

    Gubarev has denied the allegations and sued BuzzFeed in U.S. court for publishing the Steele Dossier. That lawsuit was ultimately thrown out, but during the process, a technical expert who had served as chief of staff of the FBI’s Cyber Division in Washington, D.C., testified on behalf of BuzzFeed’s lawyers.

    The expert, Anthony Ferrante, said that Russian cyberespionage groups had used XBT servers to conduct “spear-phishing” campaigns against Democratic politicians, and XBT-owned infrastructure had been used to support Russian state-sponsored cybercampaigns.

    Ferrante asserted that the size of the Methbot operation, and the fact that a large number of IP addresses were first added to XBT-affiliated servers in late 2015 and then suddenly shut off in December 2016, meant an XBT employee would have had to do that manually.

    That, he said, pointed to the likelihood that XBT managers knew the company’s infrastructure was being used for illegal activity.

    “Additionally, the operation was a large scale ‘botnet,’ which is consistent with statements made in the [Steele] Dossier,” Ferrante wrote.

    ‘Unsung Heroes’

    A press spokesman for Ferrante’s Boston-based consulting company declined to comment further on the case.

    Gubarev, who reportedly lives in Cyprus, could not be immediately located for comment.

    In an e-mail to RFE/RL, however, his U.S. lawyer confirmed that XBT had hosted some of the Methbot operation. But, he said, Gubarev and XBT executives were in fact “unsung heroes” because, he said, they canceled the account and preserved hard drives as evidence.

    “The reason that the government is able to make its case now is because of the fast action by Mr. Gubarev and Webzilla,” Val Gurvits, a lawyer based in the Boston suburb of Newton, told RFE/RL.

    Gurvits also said that while “bad actors” misused Webzilla’s network, “not a single reputable source found that Webzilla was at fault for any such misuse.”

    “The truth is that my clients have always taken extraordinary measures to ensure that its networks are not misused,” he said.

    Schwartz, of DataBreachToday, said the Methbot case shows how blurred the line has become between run-of-the-mill online criminal activity and state-sponsored cybercampaigns of the sort used not only by Russian intelligence, but also the Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. National Security Agency, and intelligence agencies around the world.

    He also said agencies are increasingly using commonly available malware, and even criminal-run infrastructure, as part of “the cybercrime-as-service ecosystem.”

    “For spies, using infrastructure built by — and for — criminals makes sense, because it’s more difficult for victims or foreign intelligence agencies to tell if any given activity is criminal or government run,” he said.

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • Lawyers of the Team 29 (Komanda 29) judicial group have appealed a decision to restrict the activities of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK)

    The Team 29 said in a statement that its lawyers Maksim Olenichev and Valeria Vetoshkina filed the appeal with the Moscow First Court of Appeals on May 6.

    The Moscow City Court ruled on April 27 that the activities of the FBK and another group associated with Navalny, the Citizens’ Rights Defense Foundation (FZPG), must be temporarily banned from using media, placing materials on the Internet, taking part in elections and referendums, and carrying out some banking operations.

    A day earlier, the Moscow prosecutor halted all activities of Navalny’s regional offices and petitioned the court to do the same for the FBK and FZPG as the prosecutors didn’t have the authority to do so on their own.

    The move is part of a broader initiative by the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office, which seeks to have the Moscow City Court label the FBK, the FZPG, and Navalny’s regional headquarters, as “extremist.”

    That proposal has been condemned by international and domestic human rights groups who say that if the Navalny organizations are labeled as “extremist,” their employees and those passing on information about them could face arrest and lengthy prison terms.

    Vetoshkina said in the May 6 statement that some of the restrictions could not be imposed by a court.

    “For instance, within current laws, the ban to hold public events is irrelevant for a foundation since it cannot organize them by law. Therefore, the court went beyond the current legislation, which indicates that its goal is to create maximum obstacles for the organization’s activities. It is obvious that the FBK’s operations do not impose any danger to the rights, freedoms and lawful interests of a wide number of people because they fully correspond to legal requirements,” Vetoshkina said.

    The leader of Team 29, noted that Russian lawyer Ivan Pavlov was briefly detained in Moscow on April 30 and accused of disclosing classified information about the ongoing investigation of one of his clients, former journalist Ivan Safronov.

    A Moscow court then barred Pavlov from using the Internet, mobile telephones, and communicating with witnesses in Safronov’s case, which caused a public outcry across Russia.

    On May 3, Pavlov issued a statement, saying he and his team will continue to defend all their clients, including Navalny’s groups, despite the restrictions imposed on him.

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • MINSK — Dzyanis Urbanovich, a Belarusian opposition leader and no stranger to longtime leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s security apparatus and jails, was snatched off the streets of Minsk on April 21 and locked up in a prison that has become synonymous with torture.

    Urbanovich, leader of the outlawed Malady Front (Youth Front) movement, was sentenced the next day in a trial that he says lasted all of three minutes and thrown back into a overcrowded two-person cell at the notorious Akrestsina detention center.

    Dzyanis Urbanovich

    Dzyanis Urbanovich

    Versed in the harsh conditions at Akrestsina, Urbanovich was nonetheless shocked by a new tactic the guards employed.

    “It was hot in there, and they poured in a bucket of bleach,” Urbanovich recently recounted to Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “The air became thick with the fumes and you couldn’t breathe. Your eyes started to tear up and your throat burned. You became wobbly, swaying here and there…. You needed to rinse your mouth with water and spit it out.”

    The recent use of bleach at Akrestsina has been confirmed publicly by at least one other Belarusian jailed there and highlights what observers say are Lukashenka’s increasingly aggressive measures aimed at eliminating the remaining opposition to his rule.

    Displaying the opposition’s colors of red and white — be it on banners or even socks — can result in arrest, detention, or a fine.

    Lukashenka, a 66-year-old former Soviet collective farm manager who has ruled Belarus since 1994, has pushed changes through in his rubber-stamp parliament that further criminalize criticizing the government or taking part in unsanctioned demonstrations. Other pending changes would make it a crime for reporters to cover unsanctioned protests or stream them online.

    Lukashenka has chosen a "deterrence strategy,” unleashing a new wave of repression to prevent any fresh wave of mass protests, one analyst says.

    Lukashenka has chosen a “deterrence strategy,” unleashing a new wave of repression to prevent any fresh wave of mass protests, one analyst says.

    Belarus has been rocked by protests since Lukashenka, in power since 1994, was declared the landslide winner of an August 9 election amid claims the vote was rigged against Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a political novice and arguably the biggest threat to Lukashenka’s decades-long rule. More than 30,000 have been detained and thousands beaten or even tortured in the government’s brutal crackdown.

    The Belarusian NGO Vyasna says there are now 369 political prisoners in Belarus. Many opposition leaders are either in prison or have fled Belarus. Hundreds of journalists have been targeted as well, many simply for reporting on the protests.

    Hard Authoritarian Or Soft Totalitarian?

    To demonize the protest movement, Lukashenka has also recently pushed unfounded claims that the opposition — allegedly backed by Washington — was plotting to murder his family and depose him, prompting one of his top Interior Ministry officers to describe regime opponents as “wild dogs.”

    While public discontent remains high, the price of protesting the Lukashenka regime has become increasingly high, with people either out of work, out of the country, or too scared to risk harsher penalties by taking to the streets, explained Kamil Klysinski, a senior fellow at the Warsaw-based OSW Center for Eastern Studies.

    “In the past few months, the regime has evolved from what I’d call medium authoritarian to hard authoritarian or even soft totalitarian,” Klysinski told RFE/RL in e-mailed remarks. “His opponents are punished for everything, even for flags or clothes with the illegal white-red-white symbol. It’s an unprecedented situation, and that’s why there is no activity on the streets.”

    Protests that once attracted as many as 200,000 people in Minsk in the wake of the disputed election are long a thing of the past. In recent months, flash mobs and other subtler forms of protest have become the norm.

    Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya leads the Belarusian opposition from Lithuania.

    Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya leads the Belarusian opposition from Lithuania.

    Tsikhanouskaya, who left for Lithuania after the vote, conceded in February that the pro-democracy movement had “lost the streets.” She had hoped to reignite it on March 25, or Freedom Day, when Belarus marked the anniversary of the founding of the first, albeit short-lived, democratic Belarus republic in 1918.

    Ahead of the planned nationwide rallies at that time, Ivan Tertel, the head of the KGB state security agency, claimed to have uncovered plans to “destabilize” Belarus. State-run television showed Interior Ministry troops preparing for “mass unrest,” and a top Interior Ministry official talked of dealing harshly with protesters, whom he had described as “enemies of the state.”

    Given the threats and ongoing arrests, the large crowds never materialized. Nevertheless, more than 200 people were arrested that day at modest marches across the country, according to Vyasna.

    Lukashenka “chose a deterrence strategy,” unleashing a new wave of repression to nip in the bud any fresh wave of mass protests, explained Alesia Rudnik, a Belarusian analyst based in Sweden.

    “Dozens of journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens were arrested,” Rudnik explained in e-mailed comments. “The regime introduced draconian laws on extremism and mass events. Right in this period, state TV started to actively produce more advanced propaganda materials with new narratives and stories. All this indicates Lukashenka is attempting to strengthen his power.”

    Changes to the country’s mass-media law — passed by the rubber-stamp parliament in April — would make it illegal for journalists to “discredit” the state, or livestream mass unauthorized gatherings, among other draconian measures. Average Belarusians face stiffer penalties for criticizing the government or taking part in unsanctioned rallies, according to changes to the country’s Criminal Code. The proposed changes have been denounced by rights activists, including Human Rights Watch.

    ‘They Started Coughing, Retching…’

    Urbanovich said conditions at Akrestsina — one of the most notorious detention centers in Belarus — worsened around the time of the planned mass demonstrations coinciding with Freedom Day.

    “Up until Freedom Day, things were more or less the same,” he said. “There were mattresses, books, board games. And then on the 27th, it all changed. First, they took out the mattresses, and then gradually by April 1, there was nothing left. And after April 1, they began to deal with us physically.”

    Mikalay Kazlou, a member of the Coordination Council of the Belarusian Opposition (KRBA) and leader of the opposition United Civil Party (AHP), was also jailed for 15 days at Akrestsina around the same time, having been snatched off the streets of Minsk on March 22. He also described being subjected to bleach or chlorine.

    “They poured in two buckets of highly concentrated chlorine,” Kazlou told Current Time. “So high, that after about half a minute everyone’s eyes began to tear, their noses began to run, they started coughing, retching. Some turned blue because the concentration was too high.”

    Officials of the Lukashenka government denied the bleach claims.

    Illegal Socks?

    Meanwhile, reports appear on a near-daily basis of Belarusians being detained or fined for merely displaying anything with the colors red and white, which are associated with the opposition and the first republic flag.

    Natalia Sivtsova-Syadushkina had the red-and-white banners hanging from her Minsk apartment balcony ripped down by Belarusian security officers on March 24. She was charged with “illegal picketing” and fined 2,030 rubles ($794).

    The next day, Freedom Day, she was stopped on the street and fined 2,320 rubles ($900) for wearing “socks of the wrong color” — red and white.

    “Now I owe 4,350 rubles,” Svitsova-Syadushkina told RFE/RL.
    “I don’t have that kind of money to pay the fines, even though I work.”

    According to Vyasna, more than 300 people were detained in April and at least 98 people were sentenced the same month on what it described as politically motivated charges, notably for the use of red-white symbols.

    Coup Plot?

    On April 17, Lukashenka made bizarre claims that an assassination attempt was being prepared against him and his two sons, as well as a military coup, to be carried out by a “group of foreign security services, probably the CIA and the FBI” and approved “by the top political leadership” in the United States. Washington quickly denied what it called the “absurd” claims.

    The same day, Russian security services reported they had detained two people in Moscow for allegedly planning a military coup in Belarus. Yuras Zyankovich, a Belarusian-born lawyer who also holds U.S. citizenship, and Alyaksandr Fyaduta, who served as Lukashenka’s spokesman in the 1990s, were extradited to Belarus.

    The claims came days before Lukashenka traveled to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Lukashenka has leaned on amid growing international isolation for his regime’s crackdown.

    A protest against the actions of Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Kyiv (file photo)

    A protest against the actions of Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Kyiv (file photo)

    Moscow probably had a hand in the concocted plot, argued Klysinski, allowing Russian President Vladimir Putin — who was facing growing international criticism at that time over a troop buildup around Ukraine, as well as over the treatment of imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny — to cast himself as a bulwark against the perfidious West.

    “Moscow exploits this plot because it needs to fuel anti-Western — mainly anti-American — propaganda and they are doing this quite intensively. At the same time, the Kremlin can show itself in the role of defenders of [the] post-Soviet area, of [the] independence of smaller and weaker republics,” Klysinski said.

    [Lukashenka] simply keeps going back to the same familiar bag of tricks, especially when he feels he is getting the upper hand.”

    Putin reaffirmed Lukashenka’s claims during an address to parliament on April 21 and accused the West of pretending that “nothing is happening.”

    For Lukashenka, accusing foreign forces — even Russia, as before the disputed presidential election — of plotting his downfall is nothing new, explained Kenneth Yalowith, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington who served as U.S. ambassador to Belarus in the 1990s.

    “When I was there, he accused me on national TV of leading a NATO ambassadors plot against him. He simply keeps going back to the same familiar bag of tricks, especially when he feels he is getting the upper hand,” Yalowitz told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments.

    Like the supposedly foreign-inspired unrest that Belarus warned about before the opposition’s Freedom Day marches, the latest coup plot was ostensibly timed for the May 9 celebrations of the end of World War II in Europe, another time when the opposition has been calling on backers to take to the streets again.

    After Belarusian state broadcaster ONT on April 25 aired a program on the alleged conspirators, Mikalay Karpyankou, a deputy interior minister in charge of the ministry’s troops, said the regime opponents were “mad dogs.”

    According to Karpyankou — no stranger to brutal threats and actions — opponents of the government have “crossed a line” with their “plans and actions,” putting them in league with “international terrorists.”

    “This means that the fight against them will be fought as the Israeli forces fight their terrorists. The fight against them will be carried out in the same way as the ‘most humane’ state fought against Osama bin Laden and his followers,” Karyankou said, referring apparently to the United States,in comments reported on April 29.

    Lukashenka, for now at least, may have won the battle on the streets, but Rudnik notes he may be running out of time, albeit perhaps slowly.

    “Economic crisis, pressure from the democratic world, less support from the former electorate, and a lot more — these are the factors of instability for Lukashenka today,” Rudnik said. “Forecasting whether he finds means to overcome these pressures, economic crises, and lack of trust is difficult. But I would lean toward two or three years more with Lukashenka, quite a short term in a 27-year perspective.”

    Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Tony Wesolowsky with reporting by Current Time and RFE/RL’s Belarus Service.

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • A court in the western Russian city of Pskov has denied an appeal by RFE/RL contributor Lyudmila Savitskaya contesting her inclusion on Russia’s controversial register of “foreign agent” media.

    The Pskov court ruled on May 5 that Savitskaya’s inclusion on the Justice Ministry’s list was lawful. Savitskaya’s attorneys said they would appeal the ruling.

    Savitskaya and four other people — RFE/RL contributor Sergei Markelov, human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, artist and activist Darya Apakhonchich, and Pskov newspaper editor Denis Kamalygin — were included in the “foreign agent” media list in December 2020.

    The ministry did not give any justification for why these individuals were listed. All five are appealing their inclusion on the list.

    In court on May 5, Justice Ministry representatives presented as evidence against Savitskaya articles she had written about anti-government protesters, alleged torture in Russian prisons, and the blocking of electronic communications in the areas around prisons.

    In addition, they presented a large number of documents marked “for official use only” from the Interior Ministry, the Prosecutor-General’s Office, and other agencies that Savitskaya and her attorneys were not allowed to examine.

    Savitskaya’s defense argued that none of the materials presented indicated that she was working at the behest of any foreign power.

    In her closing remarks to the court, Savitskaya argued that she was merely doing her job as a professional journalist.

    “These days, not a single state mass-media outlet is reporting about the real problems confronting people, But Radio Svoboda does,” she said, referring to the Russian Service of RFE/RL.

    “I was labeled a ‘foreign agent’ because I am shouting out to everyone about injustice and about people who are being persecuted. But everyone needs to know that the real foreign agents today are sitting in the Kremlin and in the State Duma, because they are working against Russian citizens and against a happy Russia in the future, while I am working for them,” she added.

    Russia’s so-called “foreign agent” legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly. It requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as “foreign agents,” and to submit to audits.

    Later modifications of the law targeted foreign-funded media. At the end of 2020, the legislation was modified to allow the Russian government to include individuals, including foreign journalists, on its “foreign agents” list and to impose restrictions on them.

    In 2017, the Russian government placed RFE/RL’s Russian Service, six other RFE/RL Russian-language news services, and Current Time on the list.

    Earlier this year, Russian courts began imposing large fines against RFE/RL for failing to mark its articles with a government-prescribed label as required by rules adopted in October 2020. RFE/RL is appealing the fines.

    RFE/RL has called the fines “a state-sponsored campaign of coercion and intimidation,” while the U.S. State Department has described them as “intolerable.”

    Human Rights Watch has described the foreign agent legislation as “restrictive” and intended “to demonize independent groups.”

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on Russian lawmakers to withdraw three bills under discussion, saying they “would add new dangerous tools” to an already “significant arsenal of legislative weapons” being used in the country’s crackdown on dissent.

    HRW said in a statement on May 5 that two of the bills proposed by a group of lawmakers the day before would expand the impact of Russia’s law on “undesirable” organizations.

    One bill would extend the ban on participating in activities of organizations blacklisted by Russian authorities as “undesirable” beyond the country’s borders, allowing the government to ban foreigners residing in Russia and stateless persons from taking part in the activities of such groups.

    It also would allow the Russian authorities to designate a foreign or international organization as “undesirable” if they decide that such a group acts as an “intermediary,” transferring funds or property to support the operations of “undesirables.”

    Another new bill involving “undesirables” introduces amendments to the Russian Criminal and Criminal Procedural codes to make it easier to open criminal cases on charges of affiliation with “undesirable” organizations.

    ‘Death By A Thousand Cuts’

    The third bill would allow the authorities to impose lengthy bans on potential candidates for the parliament’s lower chamber, the State Duma, if they are associated with groups deemed “extremist,” even if they were associated with the group before it received that designation.

    “These bills are a far-from-subtle attempt to deprive the Kremlin’s political opponents of legal means of political participation and to instill ever more fear into Russia’s civil society.

    “For years now, and with particular ferocity in the past six months, the Russian authorities have been trying to inflict death by a thousand cuts on civil society and meaningful political opposition,” Hugh Williamson, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia director said in the statement.

    The bills appear to be thinly veiled attempts to target Russian politicians and activists even remotely associated with jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK).

    A court in Moscow is expected to designate the FBK and Navalny’s two other groups — the Citizens’ Rights Defense Foundation and his regional teams — “extremist” later this month following a request by the city’s prosecutors. One FBK lawyer, Lyubov Sobol, has announced her intention to run for a seat in the State Duma in September.

    HRW emphasized that it was “hardly a coincidence that the bills are being proposed only a few months before the September parliamentary elections.”

    “There appears to be a clear aim to isolate Russia’s civil society and force many of its activists abroad into self-imposed exile under a threat of criminal sanctions, as well as to delegitimize and punish anyone affiliated with or actively supporting…Navalny,” Williamson said.

    “Russian authorities need to stop the attempts to drag the country behind a new Iron Curtain and start demonstrating respect for fundamental human rights and democratic values.”

    The pressure on Navalny has intensified greatly in the past eight months, starting with his poisoning in Siberia in August 2020.

    But it goes back at least as far as December 2011, when Navalny helped lead protests prompted by anger over evidence of election fraud that benefited the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party and dismay at Vladimir Putin’s plans to return to the presidency in 2012 after four years as prime minister.

    The elections must be held by September 19 and the United Russia party has been polling at historically low levels. Many observers link this to the government’s latest crackdown on Navalny and his colleagues, as well as on other dissenters and independent media outlets.

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • Despite a lack of material evidence, and no established intention of harm, a trio of Russian 14-year-olds are facing lengthy prison sentences after being charged with “training for terrorist activities” in a case that initially alleged the schoolboys were planning to destroy a virtual Federal Security Services (FSB) building they created in the popular computer game Minecraft.

    The case, which has attracted widespread attention due to the age of the accused and the notion that child’s play could constitute terrorism, appears to have entered a sort of legal Nether — Minecraft’s hell-like alternate dimension.

    Russia’s Investigative Committee earlier this year dismissed the original case opened in November against schoolmates Nikita Uvarov, Denis Mikhailenko, and Bogdan Andreyev after determining that their relationship did not have the necessary structure, subdivisions, or distribution of functions “to regard this group as a terrorist community.”

    And the remaining charges against them under Article 205.3 of the Russian Criminal Code — “training for the purpose of carrying out terrorist activities” — no longer cite their alleged plans to “blow up” an “FSB building” in Minecraft as evidence they had established an online terrorist network.

    But the pupils at School No. 21 in the Krasnoyarsk Krai city of Kansk are not in safe mode by any means: The three still face from seven to 10 years in prison on charges that stem from their detention nearly a year ago for pasting leaflets supporting a jailed anarchist on the local FSB department building.

    A screenshot from Minecraft, the computer game in which the teenagers were purportedly "training for terrorist activities."

    A screenshot from Minecraft, the computer game in which the teenagers were purportedly “training for terrorist activities.”

    Following their arrest in June after two days of interrogation, investigators determined that the boys had constructed at least one Molotov cocktail and set it alight in Kansk in March 2020. The following May, prosecutors allege, the three used another Molotov cocktail to set fire to an abandoned building.

    And at some point between late May and early June they allegedly produced and detonated an “Ammokisa” explosive, for which investigators did not provide a gauge of strength but which was reportedly a crude and weak device using antiseptic tablets.

    To buttress the argument that the three were engaged in dangerous activities, investigators have reportedly homed in on communication shared between the three on Telegram and VKontakte in which they discussed the American rock musician Kurt Cobain and his “fierce revolutionary struggle,” the “Yellow Vests” movement in France and anti-government protests in Belarus, and the tsarist-era Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin.

    ‘Rude’ Boys

    The three schoolboys have been described by their parents and school officials as curious yet rebellious students with an interest in anarchy.

    “They were normal children, like usual, like other kids,” school director Sergei Kreminsky told Current Time in September, three months after they were arrested after pasting leaflets supporting jailed university student Azat Miftakhov on the building of the local FSB department. “In the case of some of their parents there was insufficient control. They were rude, snapped sometimes at school.”

    That the three were facing serious charges, the school director and current City Council deputy representing the pro-Kremlin United Russia party said: “Well, since the investigation is under way, it means they are guilty, I think. What else?”

    The boys did not hide their interest in chemistry from their parents, and Svetlana Mikhailenko, Denis’s mother, told Current Time recently that she was aware of their pyrotechnic activities.

    “I always knew where the child was, even when they were making these bombs,” she said. “But it was a small, childish prank, a child’s bomb.”

    Photos displayed in Denis Mikhailenko's home, showing the teenager as a young boy.

    Photos displayed in Denis Mikhailenko’s home, showing the teenager as a young boy.

    Svetlana Mikhailenko also told the Russian-language media network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA that the investigators skewed the boys’ testimony, replacing their description of the devices as “bombochki” — little bombs — with “bombs,” and focusing on the amount of material required to make them.

    Anna Uvarova, Nikita’s mother, spoke to Current Time following an April 16 court hearing. She said in the family’s apartment that following her son’s detention in June, investigators searched her home from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m., seizing but eventually returning a toy musket that she shows to the cameras.

    But after they realized that a case was being built against the three boys, “we looked at what was in their phones” and saw that they had recorded a video of them throwing a Molotov cocktail.

    ‘Evidence’ Working Against Them

    The case against the three boys contains no material evidence — no caches of explosives, no weapons. And while Vladimir Vasin, a lawyer for the Russian legal-defense organization Agora who is representing Uvarov, cited a previous case in which an activist in Russia was imprisoned for 10 years for throwing a Molotov cocktail in a public case, in this case there was no harm, and no intention of harm.

    “The guys were really cooking something up with chemicals and were playing with something,” Vasin said. “But they went far into a field, to a deserted place, and did it there.”

    Russian lawyer.Vladimir Vasin

    Russian lawyer.Vladimir Vasin

    “One was very fond of history, the other loved chemistry,” he said of the boys. “And as I know my client, he had no thoughts of doing anything” more.

    Unfortunately, Vasin said, to Russian prosecutors “the go-to recipe is a confession — the queen of evidence.”

    Mikhailenko and Andreyev each provided confessions of guilt — while facing a mix of “pressure, threats, and promises,” according to the news site Baza — to “undergoing training in order to carry out terrorist activities” following the initial interrogations into their pasting leaflets on the FSB building.

    The two have since retracted their confessions and Mikhailenko’s mother, in comments to Current time, said that investigators tricked the parents into implicating their own children.

    Uvarov refused to confess — a decision the teens’ parents believe led the FSB to accuse him of being the leader of a group they say never existed, and of sending him immediately to pretrial detention, where he has remained for 11 months.

    Close Comparisons

    The case has drawn comparisons to other cases in which young people in Russia with views not in step with the official line have been accused of extremism and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences.

    Miftakhov, the avowed anarchist and graduate student at Moscow State University for whom the three teens were expressing support in their leaflets, stands as a prominent example.

    In January, the 25-year-old was sentenced to six years in prison for aggravated “hooliganism” after being found guilty of involvement in an arson attack against the ruling United Russia party’s office in Moscow in 2018.

    The Russian human rights organization Memorial has said that his body showed signs of torture that Miftakhov, who denies the charges against him, said were the result of investigators’ attempts to force a confession.

    In late 2020, eight young men and women were found guilty of charges that they had created an extremist group called New Greatness with the intention of overthrowing President Vladimir Putin’s government. The eight received punishments ranging from four-year suspended sentences to seven years’ imprisonment after an FSB agent infiltrated their chat group and suggested they turn it into a political movement.

    Another alleged member received an 18-month prison sentence in 2019 after cutting a deal with investigators, and yet another left the country and applied for asylum in Ukraine. All 10 are considered by Memorial to be political prisoners.

    Also in 2020, a regional court’s decision in Penza was described as “heinous” after seven activists belonging to a group called Set — or the Network — were sentenced to prison terms of six to 18 years after being found guilty of planning terrorist attacks to destabilize Russia’s presidential election and hosting of the World Cup in 2018.

    The defendants all said the group never existed, and that while they shared anti-fascist views they merely played BB-gun war games together. Several of the young men said they were subjected to torture in order to extract their confessions.

    Human rights groups believe the case was fabricated by the state as a signal to others who express political views that run counter to the government.

    Date With Destiny

    Today, Nikita Uvarov, Denis Mikhailenko, and Bogdan Andreyev sit in pretrial detention awaiting their own trial, for which a date has yet to be set.

    Uvarov’s lawyer Vasin, speaking while riding on a train to see his client, falls short of saying the entire case was fabricated, but does note that there have been three cases accusing adolescents of terrorism in Krasnoyarsk Krai in the last year alone.

    He said he struggles to imagine how such situations involving youths play out.

    “My colleagues and I were discussing how it could have been done — invite the police to the children’s room, I don’t know, to summon the director of the school to for a meeting” to try to talk and sort things out,” Vasin said. “But instead, boom! — immediately to interrogation. Two days of interrogation. A third interrogation. Endless interrogations.”

    Ten years ago, he said, the matter might have been settled by a spanking with a belt, but “now everything is different. And it will get worse.”

    Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Michael Scollon based on reporting in Krasnoyarsk Krai by Current Time correspondents Aleksei Aleksandrov and Kirill Ralev

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • The media-freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says the Russian government’s “draconian and defamatory” decision to list the Meduza website as a “foreign agent” may force one of the country’s most popular independent news sites to shut down.

    The listing is “a massive blow to media pluralism in Russia,” the Paris-based RSF said in a May 5 statement.

    “We call on the Russian Justice Ministry to abolish this draconian and defamatory register of ‘foreign agent’ media, which exists solely to enable the government to tighten its grip on the press,” said Jeanne Cavelier, RSF’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

    Meduza, which is based in Latvia, is one of Russia’s most popular and influential media outlets, claiming some 13 million unique visitors each month.

    The Russian government included Meduza in the “foreign agent” register on April 23. Meduza is appealing the designation and has launched a crowd-funding campaign to compensate for lost advertising revenues that forced it to curtail operations.

    Just in the last week, Meduza closed its offices in Riga and Moscow, slashed staff salaries, and halted the use of freelancers.

    The European Union on April 24 said “it is extremely concerning that Russian authorities continue to restrict the work of independent media platforms, as well as individual journalists and other media actors.”

    Russia’s so-called “foreign agent” legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly.

    It requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as “foreign agents,” and to submit to audits.

    Later modifications of the law targeted foreign-funded media, including RFE/RL’s Russian Service, six other RFE/RL Russian-language news services, and Current Time, a network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

    Earlier this year, Russian courts began imposing large fines against RFE/RL for failing to mark its articles with a government-prescribed label. RFE/RL is appealing the fines.

    RFE/RL has called the fines “a state-sponsored campaign of coercion and intimidation,” while the U.S. State Department has described them as “intolerable.”

    Human Rights Watch has described the “foreign agent” legislation as “restrictive” and intended “to demonize independent groups.”

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • As President Vladimir Putin’s government intensifies its crackdown on all forms of dissent, many Russians who oppose him have found inspiration in the closing remarks Moscow State University student Olga Misik made last week at her trial.

    Writer Nikolai Kononov posted on Twitter that the speech Misik made in court on April 29 “will end up in school textbooks.”

    St. Petersburg artist Yuly Rybakov shared Misik’s remarks in full on Facebook and wrote: “With such children, Russia does have a future!”

    The student’s defiant speech joins the ranks of the impassioned courtroom addresses of dissidents that have characterized the two decades of Putin’s rule and go back at least as far as the Soviet era.

    Misik and two other young defendants, Ivan Vorobyevsky and Igor Basharimov, are charged with vandalizing government buildings. In a gesture of support for those they consider political prisoners, they hung banners on a railing outside a Moscow district court on August 8, 2020, and then splattered red paint on a security booth outside the Prosecutor-General’s Office building. Prosecutors claim they caused 3,500 rubles ($47) in damages.

    Defense attorneys say that the documents provided by prosecutors concerning the alleged damages were falsified and that no harm was caused by the water-soluble paint.

    Under the charges, they could face up to three years in prison when Moscow’s Tverskoi District Court delivers its decision on May 11. Prosecutors, however, have asked for two years of “restricted liberty” for Misik and one year and 10 months for the other defendants, according to the independent OVD-Info monitoring agency. During the trial, the defendants have been under a limited form of house arrest, unable to leave home between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., to approach within 10 meters of government buildings, to attend public events, or to use means of communication.

    Misik, who turned 19 in January, has long been actively involved in protests against Putin’s government. She attracted national attention in August 2019 during a protest against the government’s decision to disqualify virtually all the opposition candidates running for seats on the Moscow City Duma.

    Misik protested by reading the Russian Constitution out loud to a heavily armed phalanx of riot police in body armor – an act that for many distilled the relationship between the Russian state and the people in recent years.

    Olga Misik reads the Russian Constitution in front of a phalanx of riot police at a protest in Moscow in July 2019.

    Olga Misik reads the Russian Constitution in front of a phalanx of riot police at a protest in Moscow in July 2019.

    In October 2019, she was detained on Red Square while conducting a one-person picket by holding up a large piece of blank paper.

    In February 2020, she was detained in Penza while organizing a demonstration of support for the accused in the so-called Network (“Set”) case, which activists say was fabricated by the security forces.

    In her closing speech to the court in the vandalism case, Misik insisted that she had never been afraid during her years of activism.

    “I am often asked if I am afraid,” she told the court. “More often by people from abroad than those in Russia because they don’t know the specifics of our lives…. They don’t know the feeling of hopelessness that we take in with our mother’s milk. And that very feeling of hopelessness atrophies all signs of fear and infects us with a learned helplessness. What is the point of being afraid if your future does not depend on you.”

    “I was never afraid,” she said. “I felt despair, helplessness, hopelessness, confusion, anxiety, despair, anger, but neither politics nor activism every infected me with the feeling of fear.”

    ‘Sad And Sickened But Not Scared’

    Misik said she was not afraid when police came to arrest her in the middle of the night and threatened her with prison.

    “I joked and laughed because I knew that as soon as I stopped smiling, I had lost,” she told the court.

    She added that she was not afraid when the police van drove her away or when she remembered her father, whom she saw cry for the first time in her life.

    “I was sad and sickened, but not scared,” she said.

    Misik added, though, that she began to be afraid and to experience panic only after she found herself under modified house arrest.

    “And now it seems to me that all the fear that has accumulated in me over the last nine months is concentrated here and now in my final speech, because public speaking is more frightening to me than the prospect of being sentenced,” Misik said.

    “Someone once said that you can’t be afraid if you know that you are right,” she continued. “But Russia teaches us to be afraid all the time. It is a country that is trying to kill you every day. And if you are not part of the system, you are already as good as dead.”

    She said that in her support of those unjustly imprisoned, she thought about her future children.

    “When my children ask me what I was when all this happened, when they ask how I could allow this to happen and what did I do to fix it, I won’t have anything to tell them,” she said. “What can I say? That I held a picket outside the FSB? That is laughable.”

    And then she asked Judge Aleksei Stekliyev: “And what about your children? When they ask you where you were when this happened, how will you answer them? That you handed down the guilty verdicts?”

    She stated that she did not regret participating in the vandalism protest.

    “If I could go back in time, I’d do it again,” she said. “Even if the death penalty threatened me, I’d do it again. And I’d do it again and again and again…. They say that repeating the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is madness. Then hope is madness. And ceasing to do what you consider right because everyone around you thinks it is hopeless is surrendering to helplessness. I would rather look insane to your eyes than helpless to mine.”

    ‘We Will Win’

    She closed her speech with a reference to Sophie Scholl, a Munich university student who together with her brother, Hans, was executed by guillotine in 1943 for her resistance to the regime of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.

    “She was condemned for leaflets and graffiti, while I have been tried for posters and paint,” Misik said. “Essentially, we were both persecuted for thought crimes. My trial has been very similar to Sophie’s trial and today’s Russia is very similar to fascist Germany. Even facing the guillotine, Sophie did not abandon her convictions and her example has inspired me not to seek a deal. Sophie Scholl is the embodiment of youth, sincerity, and liberty. And I really hope that I am in this way like her.”

    “The fascist regime collapsed in the end, just as the fascist regime in Russia will fall,” she said. “I don’t know when this will happen – a week, a year, a decade. But I know that we will win because love and youth always win.”

    Olga Misik at a Moscow protest in 2019.

    Olga Misik at a Moscow protest in 2019.

    The transcript of Misik’s speech has been shared widely on social media, and more than 45,000 people have signed an online petition calling for her release.

    Andrei Chvanov, from Tatarstan, wrote on Facebook: “I just read her final speech. And you know what? I felt ashamed. Because my threshold of fear is much lower…. She holds strong, jokes, writes, and is 100 percent sure that she is right. And she is right. She sees the truth. And she is not afraid. Not many people in our country have such a gift.”

    Another Facebook user urged people to “help Olga Misik, if only because her closing statement is the strongest closing statement of all those I have read.”

    “It is a very powerful statement,” another user wrote on Facebook. “It will force the judges and prosecutors to think about what Russia will be like tomorrow. To see that there are inalienable human rights.”

    RFE/RL’s Russian Service contributed to this report

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • XALQOBOD, Uzbekistan — A prosecutor in Uzbekistan’s southern Surxondaryo region has asked a court to sentence blogger Otabek Sattoriy to 11 years in prison in a high-profile extortion and slander case that has drawn harsh criticism from domestic and international human rights groups.

    The prosecutor said in a statement at the Muzrabot district court during closing arguments on May 4 that Sattoriy “does not deserve a mitigated punishment,” since he has refused to accept blame and has not paid compensation to his alleged victims.

    Sattoriy, whose trial started in March, has said that the case against him was fabricated and “based on lies.”

    The 40-year-old blogger was charged with extortion, slander and insult, which his supporters and rights defenders have characterized as retaliation by the authorities for his critical reporting.

    Sattoriy is known to be a harsh critic of the regional governor, Tora Bobolov. In one post on his Halq Fikiri (People’s Opinion) video blog, Sattoriy openly accused the local government of launching fabricated criminal cases against bloggers and vowed to continue to raise the issue of corruption among officials despite the “crackdown.”

    Since his arrest in late January, Sattoriy has been tried in a separate case and found guilty of defamation and spreading false information. According to the Prosecutor-General’s Office, the blogger was ordered to pay a fine for the offenses.

    The Prosecutor-General’s Office also rejected criticism by human rights organizations, saying that Sattoriy’s arrest was lawful.

    Uzbekistan is ranked 156th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

    Last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists urged Uzbekistan to repeal recent legal amendments that the group said “deepen restrictions” on online speech ahead of a planned presidential election in October.

    The changes introduce prison sentences for crimes such as insulting or defaming the president online and making online calls for “mass disturbances.” They also make it an offense to publish statements online calling on people to violate the law and threaten public order, or show “disrespect” to the state.

    President Shavkat Mirziyoev took over as head of Central Asia’s most-populous state after authoritarian leader Islam Karimov’s death was announced in September 2016.

    Mirziyoev has since positioned himself as a reformer, releasing political prisoners and opening his country to its neighbors and the outside world, although many activists say the changes have not gone nearly far enough.

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • A group of Russian lawmakers has proposed legislation that would bar individuals involved in the activities of a public or religious group, or any organization that has been recognized by a court as “extremist or terrorist,” from taking part in parliamentary elections.

    The draft bill, put forward just ahead of September elections to the parliament’s lower chamber, the State Duma, states that ordinary employees and leaders of such organizations cannot be elected as lawmakers if they worked in such groups for one and three years, respectively, before a court’s decision to ban such groups.

    The bill also says that individuals who “provided financial support, property, as well as organizational, methodical, consultative, or any other type of assistance” to such organizations one year before the organization was banned will be barred from taking part in parliamentary elections for three years.

    The move comes on the heels of Moscow prosecutors asking a court to recognize jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s regional network, along with his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and his Citizens’ Rights Defense Foundation (FZPG), as extremist organizations.

    The Moscow City Court has said it will rule on the motion on May 17.

    Leonid Volkov, a close associate of Navalny, says the draft bill is aimed squarely at the Kremlin critic, his supporters, and the staff members at its organizations.

    “We have seen a mass of ‘laws against Navalny,’ but nothing this harsh. Contributed even just a penny to the FBK in the last year — you cannot be elected to the State Duma. Worked as a coordinator for Navalny’s team in the last three years — you cannot be elected to the State Duma. Just read [the draft bill], there is fear in every sentence, ” Volkov wrote on Telegram.

    The pressure on Navalny has intensified greatly in the past eight months, starting with his poisoning in Siberia last August. But it goes back at least as far as December 2011, when Navalny helped lead protests prompted by anger over evidence of election fraud that benefited the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party and dismay at Vladimir Putin’s plans to return to the presidency in 2012 after four years as prime minister.

    The elections must be held by September 19, and the United Russia party has been polling at historically low levels. Many observers link this to the government’s latest crackdown on Navalny and his colleagues, as well as on other dissenters and independent media outlets.

    Lyubov Sobol, another close Navalny associate and a lawyer for the FBK who has announced her intention to run for a seat in the State Duma in September, told Current Time that the move by lawmakers is “a demonstration of United Russia’s weakness.”

    “I think I am the person that the Kremlin [and] United Russia are scared of. And they will try, using that bill, to prevent me from taking part in the elections to the State Duma because they understand that if I am registered, I will win…. Because Moscow residents want change, they want decent, strong, and independent politicians…. The fact that they will try to label us as extremists to ban our participation in the elections shows that they are really afraid of us,” Sobol said.

    Volkov announced on April 29 that Navalny’s regional network will be disbanded ahead of the Moscow City Court hearing on May 17 to avoid the prosecution of staff members.

    With reporting by Current Time

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • Six United Nations rights experts are calling for the immediate release of imprisoned dissident Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Nourizad, who they say is reportedly so ill he risks “serious complications and possible death.”

    “We are seriously concerned at the mistreatment of Mohammad Nourizad and his continued imprisonment for expressing his opinion,” the independent UN experts said in a joint statement issued on May 4.

    “It is clear that Mohammad Nourizad is not in a medical state to remain in prison,” they said, adding that his continued detention and the denial of adequate medical care “may amount to torture.”

    The outspoken Nourizad, who has written and directed several films, has since 2019 been serving a prison sentence totaling over 17 years on charges of allegedly insulting Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to Amnesty International.

    Nourizad, who has been arrested several times in the past, is among activists who have publicly called for the resignation of Khamenei.

    The experts who signed up to the joint statement included the UN special rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Iran; on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression; on rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; on the right to physical and mental health; and on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions.

    They pointed out that Nourizad had gone on hunger strikes in detention and refused to take medications to protest his imprisonment and his family’s mistreatment by the authorities.

    “He has also reportedly attempted suicide in prison, and began to self-harm as a form of protest on February 19,” according to the statement.

    This was particularly worrying, it said, since he has been diagnosed with a heart condition and has repeatedly lost consciousness in detention.

    He also suffers from diabetes, according to Amnesty International, which last month warned that Iranian authorities were “cruelly toying with the life” of Nourizad.

    The UN experts said the filmmaker was transferred to Loghman Hakim Educational Hospital in Tehran on April 14 after fainting, and was injected with a substance he did not know the content of and had not consented to.

    They added that the Iranian judiciary’s own legal medical organization and other medical professionals had reportedly found he should be released.

    “The Iranian authorities must release him immediately in line with these medical opinions and give him free access to the required medical care and treatment,” they said.

    The experts said Nourizad’s treatment reflected that of many detained in Iran for “merely exercising their right to freedom of expression,” including some who have reportedly died due to denial of adequate medical treatment.

    “His case is emblematic of the situation many Iranian political activists face in detention,” they said.

    With reporting by AFP

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Kyiv this week and meets with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, he will seek to demonstrate strong Western support for Ukraine from the external threat of Russian aggression.

    Behind the scenes, however, there could be tension between the two over what Blinken often calls Ukraine’s “internal threat”: corruption and weak institutions.

    One week before Blinken’s expected arrival on May 5, Zelenskiy’s government did exactly the kind of thing that has raised questions in the West about Kyiv’s dedication to reforms, which observers and officials say are needed to make the system strong enough to withstand persistent pressure from Moscow.

    The government dismissed Andriy Kobolyev, the respected chief executive officer of Naftogaz, the state-owned energy company that has been at the center of some of Ukraine’s biggest corruption scandals over the past three decades, using a legal loophole to get around Western corporate governance practices it had promised to uphold.

    Analysts said the stealth move, coming amid an outpouring of Western support for Ukraine in the wake of a big Russian military buildup on its borders and in occupied Crimea, smacked of direct government interference in the management of a state-owned company, a practice that has had dreadful consequences for the Ukrainian economy in the past and which the West is trying to wean Kyiv off.

    Kobolyev’s dismissal provoked pointed criticism from the European Union and the United States, which have tied financial aid to Ukraine to improvements in corporate governance at state-owned companies and overall anti-corruption efforts.

    I believe that Zelenskiy has a fear that all these [managers] were affiliated with the previous team of Poroshenko.”

    Philip Reeker, acting U.S. assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, called the move “troubling” during a phone briefing with reporters on April 30 and said the United States will push Ukraine’s leaders to “respect transparent corporate governance practices.”

    The move has potentially jeopardized not only billions of dollars in aid from the International Monetary Fund, but also much needed private investment in the nation’s energy sector.

    The Naftogaz CEO’s ouster was just the latest in a series of actions by the Zelenskiy administration that have raised concerns about a rollback of the reforms achieved since Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych was pushed from power in 2014 by the massive Maidan protests, which were prompted largely by anger over corruption.

    Blinken’s response to the situation surrounding Naftogaz will send an important signal to Zelenskiy about just how far President Joe Biden’s administration is willing to go to protect the nation’s reform path, analysts said.

    ‘Unsatisfactory’ Results

    Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers on April 28 dismissed Naftogaz’s supervisory board, opening a legal door for the removal of Kobolyev, who has been widely credited with turning around the historically graft-infested company during his seven-year reign.

    The cabinet named Yuriy Vitrenko, the acting energy minister, to replace Kobolyev and then reinstated the board.

    Over the past three decades, managers, government officials, and tycoons have milked Naftogaz for billions of dollars through procurement and subsidized-gas schemes, among other methods.

    Over the past three decades, managers, government officials, and tycoons have milked Naftogaz for billions of dollars through procurement and subsidized-gas schemes, among other methods.

    The government’s decision violated the corporate governance principles of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which stipulates that supervisory boards of state-owned companies have the power to hire and fire management.

    Ukraine has never implemented OCED rules for state-owned companies, and Zelenskiy’s government just proposed a new law that would keep such powers with the cabinet, setting up the possibility of a similar development at another company, said Andriy Boytsun, a Ukrainian corporate governance and privatization adviser.

    In a terse statement, the cabinet cited the “unsatisfactory” 2020 financial performance of Naftogaz, which posted its first annual loss in five years.

    Pointing to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on economies worldwide, many quickly dismissed the government’s reasoning as an excuse to get rid of an independent manager who has consistently pushed Ukraine to carry out sometimes unpopular energy-market reforms.

    Ukrainian officials have been seeking to oust Kobolyev for years under various pretexts, going back to the early days of post-Maidan President Petro Poroshenko’s administration. Critics say these efforts have been motivated by the desire for direct control over the nation’s largest company by revenue and its largest taxpayer.

    Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk is one of several former top officials who have been outspoken in their criticism of the Zelenskiy administration.

    Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk is one of several former top officials who have been outspoken in their criticism of the Zelenskiy administration.

    “It’s not about the concrete performance of [Naftogaz] management, it’s a decision against corporate governance reform,” former Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk told RFE/RL about Kobolyev’s dismissal.

    “For Zelenskiy and his team, it is very important to have total control” in order to carry out populist, nonmarket policies like price ceilings, he asserted.

    Honcharuk, who was fired by Zelenskiy in March 2020 after six months on the job, is one of several former top officials who have been outspoken in their criticism of the administration’s policies.

    Andrian Prokip, a Kyiv-based energy expert and senior associate at the Kennan Institute think tank, noted that Zelenskiy’s administration has changed the leadership of nearly all the key state-owned energy companies since he took office in May 2019.

    “I believe that Zelenskiy has a fear that all these [managers] were affiliated with the previous team of Poroshenko,” Prokip said.

    Energy prices have historically been a very sensitive political topic in Ukraine and can make or break a candidate.

    Poroshenko’s rating took a hit after his administration was forced to take steps to liberalize energy markets as a condition for Western financial aid, causing prices to spike.

    During the 2019 presidential election campaign, Zelenskiy seized on price increases to bash Poroshenko’s leadership.

    After energy prices rebounded in late 2020 from historically low levels, coinciding with a decline in Zelenskiy’s ratings, his administration imposed a temporary cap on prices in January.

    2020 Loss

    Energy price caps have traditionally fueled corruption in Ukraine, and Zelenskiy’s decision was criticized by proponents of market reforms.

    In dismissing Kobolyev, Ukraine’s cabinet cited Naftogaz’s 2020 loss of 19 billion hryvnya ($680 million) versus management’s initial forecast of a 11.5 billion hryvnya ($410 million) profit.

    U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken

    U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken

    But the company’s large loss was not out of the ordinary for the global fossil fuel industry in 2020. ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and Conoco Phillips posted losses totaling more than $30 billion last year due to the sharp drop in energy demand and prices caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

    Many small, highly leveraged international energy firms went bankrupt as the pandemic persisted.

    Naftogaz’s 2020 financial results were also hurt by new bad debt provisions exceeding $1 billion.

    In a May 3 letter, Naftogaz’s supervisory board rejected the cabinet’s criticism of the results, saying the company would have posted a higher profit in 2020 compared with 2019 excluding extraordinary losses and gains.

    Naftogaz Chief Operating Officer Otto Waterlander, a Dutch national who was appointed last year, said in a Facebook post the same day that Naftogaz earned more than 10 billion hryvnya in the first three months of 2021.

    Many Enemies

    Naftogaz has not yet published audited results for the first quarter, but Waterlander’s comment would appear to support the view that the 2020 results were an aberration due to the pandemic and debt write-offs.

    The upcoming publication of first-quarter results might have made it difficult for the government to justify dismissing the board and firing Kobolyev in the near future, possibly explaining what some analysts have called the awkward timing of the controversial move just days before Blinken’s visit.

    Kobolyev, a corporate finance specialist who worked at Naftogaz from 2002 to 2010, has acquired many enemies since being tapped to lead the company in March 2014, a month after Yanukovych lost power and fled to Russia.

    Over the past three decades, managers, government officials, and tycoons have milked Naftogaz for billions of dollars through procurement and subsidized-gas schemes, among other methods. Energy analysts said that, backed by a supervisory board comprising independent foreign members, Kobolyev’s team had managed to take on vested interests, including influential tycoons.

    The former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, called Kobolyev “as clean as they come” and “fearless” in pursuing reforms.

    The former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, called Kobolyev “as clean as they come” and “fearless” in pursuing reforms.

    In testimony to Congress in November 2019, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch called Kobolyev “as clean as they come” and “fearless” in pursuing reforms, though some analysts have said his reputation exceeds his accomplishments and has been boosted by his own intensive lobbying efforts in Washington.

    Poroshenko’s administration sought to fire him in 2016, only to be deterred by Biden, then President Barack Obama’s vice president and point man on Ukraine. Another attempt took place in 2019 shortly before the presidential election.

    The Zelenskiy administration began putting pressure on Kobolyev last year, analysts said, when the State Audit Service launched a criminal investigation into Naftogaz management for its decision to write off bad debt.

    The accounting policy impacts Naftogaz’s net profit and the dividends it has to pay to the budget. As a result of Naftogaz’s loss, the government will not receive about $400 million in dividends it had anticipated based on the company’s initial forecast of a profit.

    However, Naftogaz’s financial reports have been audited and approved according to international reporting standards since 2014 by top global accounting firms, including Deloitte and KPMG.

    The Firtash Factor

    Energy firms controlled by billionaire Dmytro Firtash, who has been indicted by the United States on corruption charges, account for a significant portion of the bad debt owed to Naftogaz.

    Yet Ukraine has so far resisted U.S. calls to investigate Firtash, who earned hundreds of millions of dollars importing natural gas from Russia through a scheme many in the West and in Kyiv describe as corrupt.

    Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash (file photo)

    Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash (file photo)

    Amos Hochstein, a former U.S. official who served almost three years on the Naftogaz supervisory board, called the State Audit Service investigation a tactic of “intimidation and retaliation” against Naftogaz.

    In an October 2020 article in the Kyiv Post explaining his reason for stepping down from the Naftоgaz supervisory board, Hochstein, who served as the U.S. special envoy for international energy affairs in the Obama administration, warned of increasing efforts to “sabotage” the company’s reform agenda.

    Hochstein said that Naftogaz management has been forced “to spend endless amounts of time combating political pressure and efforts by oligarchs to enrich themselves through questionable transactions.”

    He slammed the Zelenskiy administration for signing a memorandum of understanding earlier in 2020 with Louisiana Natural Gas Exports to import liquefied natural gas from the United States while giving one of its executives, Robert Bensh, a seat on the board, calling it a “sordid affair” and a sign of Kyiv backsliding on corporate governance.

    In the May 3 letter to the cabinet, the supervisory board also raised concerns about Bensh’s potential conflict of interest. In addition, it warned the government that Naftogaz executives, including recently hired foreign specialists, could leave if Vitrenko’s appointment isn’t reversed, potentially destabilizing the company.

    The supervisory board announced on April 30 that it would be resigning effective mid-May.

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.

  • HOMEL, Belarus — Four associates of Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms for organizing protests against authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the southeastern city of Homel.

    Judge Alyaksey Khlyshchankou of the Chyhunachny district court on May 4 sentenced Tatsyana Kaneuskaya, Dzmitry Ivashkou, and Alyaksandr Shabalin to six years in prison each, and Yury Ulasau to 6 1/2 years in prison.

    They were found guilty of organizing mass disorder and planning to seize administrative buildings in Homel. Ulasau was additionally found guilty of publicly insulting police officers.

    The four were members of Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign team and were arrested just days before an August 9, 2020 presidential election as they urged people to demonstrate for independent candidates to be allowed to be registered for the vote.

    They all rejected the charges, calling them politically motivated.

    Crisis In Belarus

    Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country’s legitimate leader after an August 9 election considered fraudulent.

    Kaneuskaya’s sons, Alyaksey and Alyaksandr Kaneuski, said given the current crackdown against dissent by Lukashenka, the prison sentences were expected.

    “We do not have real courts, what we have are kangaroo courts. They just carry out whatever they are instructed to do by those who are in power,” Alyaksandr Kaneuski said after the sentences were announced.

    Dzmitry Ivashkou’s wife Svyatlana said she hopes that the four activists “will not stay behind bars too long.”

    “They all greeted the sentences with smiles. They are holding up quite well. Will we appeal? Well, the state has penalized them and now how does one appeal against the state? We will, for sure, write appeals, but that is to make sure no one in the future says that we gave up and admitted guilt,” Svyatlana Ivashkova said, adding her husband and her colleagues had done nothing illegal.

    Prior to the election, police detained dozens of activists and politicians as they held rallies to collect the signatures necessary to register independent presidential candidates for the vote.

    Tsikhanouskaya became a candidate after her husband, well-known vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, was incarcerated for openly expressing his intention to run for president.

    Tens of thousands of Belarusians then took the streets for several months after a presidential poll in which Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory.

    The demonstrators, who say the vote was rigged, have demanded Lukashenka step down and new elections be held, but Belarus’s strongman has been defiant.

    Security officials have arrested thousands in the protests, in a crackdown that has become more brutal with each passing month.

    Several protesters have been killed in the violence and some rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture being used against some of those detained.

    In response to the ongoing crackdown, the West has slapped sanctions on top Belarusian officials. Many countries, including the United States, as well as the European Union, have refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of the former Soviet republic.

    This post was originally published on Radio Free.