Police arrest over 2,000 at Russia protests backing jailed Kremlin foe Navalny

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People attend a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Saint Petersburg on January 23, 2021. (AFP)
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Police detain a man during a rally in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Saint Petersburg on January 23, 2021. (AFP)
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Police detain a man during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Yekaterinburg, Russia, Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 23 January 2021

Police arrest over 2,000 at Russia protests backing jailed Kremlin foe Navalny

  • The OVD-Info monitoring group said 1,090 people were detained at protests in dozens of Russian cities
  • The demonstrations were called by Navalny after he was detained returning to Russia from Germany

MOSCOW: Police detained over 2,000 people and used force to break up rallies across Russia on Saturday as tens of thousands of protesters ignored extreme cold and police warnings to demand the release of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Navalny had called on his supporters to protest after being arrested last weekend as he returned to Russia from Germany for the first time since being poisoned with a nerve agent he says was slipped to him by state security agents in August.
The authorities had warned people to stay away from Saturday's protests, saying they risked catching COVID-19 as well as prosecution and possible jail time for attending an unauthorised event.
But protesters defied the ban and, in at least one case in temperatures below -50 Celsius (-58 Fahrenheit), turned out in force. Leonid Volkov, a Navalny ally, called on them to do the same next weekend to try to free Navalny from what he called "the clutches of his killers".
In central Moscow, where Reuters reporters estimated at least 40,000 people had gathered in one of the biggest unauthorised rallies for years, police were seen roughly detaining people, bundling them into nearby vans.
The authorities said just some 4,000 people had shown up, while the foreign ministry questioned Reuters' crowd estimate.
"Why not just immediately say 4 million?," it suggested sarcastically on its official Telegram messenger channel.
Ivan Zhdanov, a Navalny ally, put turnout in the capital at 50,000, the Proekt media outlet reported.
Some protesters chanted "Putin is a thief", and "Disgrace" and "Freedom to Navalny!"
Navalny's wife Yulia was briefly detained at the rally before being released. Some of Navalny's political allies were detained in the days before the protest; others on the day itself.
At one point, protesters surrounded a sleek black car with a flashing light used by senior officials, throwing snowballs at it and kicking it. A group of policemen were also pelted with snowballs by a much bigger crowd.
The OVD-Info protest monitor group said that at least 2,250 people, including 855 in Moscow and 327 in St Petersburg, had been detained at rallies in nearly 70 towns and cities.
Navalny, a 44-year-old lawyer, is in a Moscow prison pending the outcome of four legal matters he describes as trumped up. He accuses President Vladimir Putin of ordering his attempted murder. Putin has dismissed that, alleging Navalny is part of a US-backed dirty tricks campaign to discredit him.
Some protesters marched on the prison, where police were waiting to arrest them.
Images of protesters with injuries such as bloodied heads circulated on social media.
The scenes were reminiscent of the months-long unrest in Russia's neighbouring ally Belarus where anti-government protests flared last August over allegations of voter fraud.
One Moscow protester, Sergei Radchenko, 53, said: "I'm tired of being afraid. I haven't just turned up for myself and Navalny, but for my son because there is no future in this country."
He added that he was frightened but felt strongly about what he called an out of control judicial system.


Afghan women prosecutors once seen as symbols of democracy find asylum in Spain

Updated 02 February 2023

Afghan women prosecutors once seen as symbols of democracy find asylum in Spain

  • Women's freedoms in Afghanistan were abruptly curtailed in 2021 with the arrival of a government that enforces a strict interpretation of Islam
  • 32 women judges and prosecutors left Afghanistan only to be stuck in Pakistan for up to a year trying to find asylum in Europe

MADRID: Pushing her son on a swing at a playground on a sunny winter's day in Madrid, former Afghan prosecutor Obaida Sharar expresses relief that she found asylum in Spain after fleeing Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban took over.
Sharar, who arrived in Madrid with her family, is one of 19 female prosecutors to have found asylum in the country after being left in limbo in Pakistan without official refugee status for up to a year after the Taliban's return to power. She feels selfish being happy while her fellow women suffer, she said. "Most Afghan women and girls that remain in Afghanistan don't have the right to study, to have a social life or even go to a beauty salon," Sharar said. "I cannot be happy."
Women's freedoms in her home country were abruptly curtailed in 2021 with the arrival of a government that enforces a strict interpretation of Islam.
The Taliban administration has banned most female aid workers and last year stopped women and girls from attending high school and university.
Sharar's work and that of her female peers while they lived in Afghanistan was dangerous. Female judges and prosecutors were threatened and became the target of revenge attacks as they undertook work overseeing the trial and conviction of men accused of gender crimes, including rape and murder.
She was part of a group of 32 women judges and prosecutors that left Afghanistan only to be stuck in Pakistan for up to a year trying to find asylum.
A prosecutor, who gave only her initials as S.M. due to fears over her safety and who specialised in gender violence and violence against children said, "I was the only female prosecutor in the province... I received threats from Taliban members and the criminals who I had sent to prison."
Now she and her family are also in Spain.
Many of the women have said they felt abandoned by Western governments and international organizations.
Ignacio Rodriguez, a Spanish lawyer and president of Bilbao-based 14 Lawyers, a non-governmental organisation which defends prosecuted lawyers, said the women had been held up as symbols of democratic success only to be discarded.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was not in a position to comment on specific cases.
"The Government of Pakistan has not agreed to recognise newly arriving Afghans as refugees," UNHCR said in a statement. "Since 2021, UNHCR has been in discussions with the government on measures and mechanisms to support vulnerable Afghans. Regrettably, no progress has been made."
The foreign ministry of Pakistan did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Pakistan is home to millions of refugees from Afghanistan who fled after the Soviet Union's invasion in 1979 and during the subsequent civil war. Most of them are yet to return despite Pakistan's push to repatriate them under different programmes.
The Taliban has said any Afghan who fled the country since it took power in 2021 can return safely through a repatriation council.
"Afghanistan is the joint home of all Afghans," said Bilal Karimi, deputy spokesperson for the Taliban administration. "They can live here without any threat."


EU plans new Russia sanctions by war anniversary

Updated 02 February 2023

EU plans new Russia sanctions by war anniversary

  • An existing oil price cap alone is costing Moscow around 160 million euros every day
KYIV: The European Union plans to slap Russia with fresh sanctions by the anniversary of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said on a visit to Kyiv Thursday.
“We will introduce with our G7 partners an additional price cap on Russian petroleum products, and by the 24th of February — exactly one year since the invasion started — we aim to have the 10th package of sanctions in place,” von der Leyen said during a press conference with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Existing sanctions are “eroding” Russia’s economy, she said, and “throwing it back by a generation,” estimating that an existing oil price cap alone is costing Moscow around 160 million euros every day.

Russia’s Lavrov says United States involved in Nord Stream explosions

Updated 02 February 2023

Russia’s Lavrov says United States involved in Nord Stream explosions

  • Russia vows to push Ukrainian army back in response to longer-range rockets

MOSCOW: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday said the United States was directly involved in explosions that severely damaged the Nord Stream gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea last year.
Lavrov provided no evidence for his claim. President Vladimir Putin has previously accused Britain of blowing up the pipelines, which London denied.
In an interview on state TV, Lavrov also said the West was lying about Russia’s refusal to negotiate over Ukraine and was trying to turn Moldova, Georgia and former Soviet states in Central Asia against Moscow.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russian forces would respond to the delivery of longer-range Western weapons to Kyiv by trying to push Ukrainian forces further away from its borders to create a safe buffer zone.
In the interview on state TV, Lavrov said everybody wanted the conflict in Ukraine — which Moscow calls a “special military operation” — to end, but that the West’s support for Kyiv was playing an important role in how Russia approached the campaign.
Two US officials told Reuters on Tuesday that Washington was preparing a new package of military aid worth $2.2 billion which is expected to include longer-range rockets for the first time.
.”..We’re now seeking to push back Ukrainian army artillery to a distance that will not pose a threat to our territories,” said Lavrov.
.”..The greater the range of the weapons supplied to the Kyiv regime the more we will have to push them back from territories which are part of our country.”
Longer-range rockets would allow Ukraine — which has said it plans to retake all of its territory by force, including annexed Crimea — to strike deeper into Russian-held territory.
The Kremlin said on Wednesday that such rockets would escalate the conflict but not change its course.
President Vladimir Putin sent tens of thousands of Russian troops into Ukraine in February last year. He has said the operation was needed to protect Russia’s own security and to stand up to what he has described as Western efforts to contain and weaken Moscow.
Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of waging an illegal war designed to expand its territory.


EU chief arrives in Kyiv, says bloc ‘stands by Ukraine’

Updated 02 February 2023

EU chief arrives in Kyiv, says bloc ‘stands by Ukraine’

  • EU countries have staunchly backed Ukraine since Moscow invaded in February
  • In June last year, Ukraine was granted EU candidate status

KYIV: European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said she had arrived in Kyiv with a team of commissioners on Thursday, a day before a Ukraine-European Union summit in the war-torn country.
“Good to be back in Kyiv, my 4th time since Russia’s invasion.... We are here together to show that the EU stands by Ukraine as firmly as ever. And to deepen further our support and cooperation,” she wrote in a tweet.
She is accompanied by 15 commissioners, including the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
The Commission described the visit as a “strong symbol” of European support for Ukraine “in the face of Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified aggression.”
EU countries have staunchly backed Ukraine since Moscow invaded in February, by hitting Russia with waves of economic sanctions and by sending weapons to Kyiv.
In June last year, Ukraine was granted EU candidate status.


Pakistan mosque suicide bomber ‘was in police uniform’: police chief

Updated 02 February 2023

Pakistan mosque suicide bomber ‘was in police uniform’: police chief

  • Hundreds of police were attending afternoon prayers in the police headquarters’ mosque when the blast erupted

PESHAWAR: The suicide bomber who killed more than 80 police officers at a mosque inside a sensitive compound earlier this week entered wearing a uniform and helmet, a provincial police chief said Thursday.
Hundreds of police were attending afternoon prayers inside what should have been a tightly controlled police headquarters in the northwest city of Peshawar on Monday when the blast erupted, causing a wall to collapse and crush officers.
“Those on duty didn’t check him because he was in a police uniform... It was a security lapse,” Moazzam Jah Ansari, the head of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial police force, told a news conference.
The suspect is shown in CCTV images arriving at the gates on a motorcycle before walking through a security checkpoint and asking officers where the mosque was located.
Authorities are investigating how a major breach could happen in one of the most sensitive areas in the city, which houses the intelligence and counter-terrorism bureaus.
“Our comrades were martyred in this uniform, but the bomber made it worthless for us,” Amanullah Khan, a police officer on duty at a checkpoint in Peshawar, wearing a bulletproof jacket and a helmet with a Kalashnikov in his hands, told AFP.
“Now I will doubt the uniformed officials as well as other people, which is very sad and which has created a distrust.”
It is Pakistan’s deadliest assault in several years and the worst since violence began to resurge in the northwest bordering Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power in Kabul in 2021.
On Thursday, police officials revised down the death toll, putting it at 83 policemen and one woman civilian, after saying there was confusion in registering bodies.
The assault has put a scarred city on edge, harking back to when Peshawar was at the center of rampant violence carried out by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban.
Most TTP fighters were rounded up, killed or pushed into Afghanistan in a military clearance operation beginning in 2014.
But analysts say Islamist militant groups — which are highly factional — have become emboldened since US and NATO troops withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban swept into Kabul, with Islamabad accusing Afghanistan’s new rulers of failing to secure their borders.
The TTP, separate from the Afghan Taliban but with a similar ideology, has mostly targeted security forces at checkpoints.
Ansari blamed militant group Jamaat-ul-Ahrar — an occasional affiliate of the TTP — for the attack, adding that they were searching for the bomber’s handlers.
The TTP — who once frequently attacked places of worship and schools — has distanced itself from the Peshawar blast, claiming it no longer attacks mosques.
“They first claimed this attack and later denied any involvement after a public backlash,” said Ansari.
Bickering politicians who are months away from contesting a general election amid a severe economic crisis have traded blame for the deteriorating security situation.
“Multiple institutions with no policy have no ability to take a decision on launching a decisive offensive against the militant groups. We need empowered political leadership,” security analyst Saad Muhammad told AFP.
“Our current police force is not trained to fight a war,” he added.
Police said they have a “fair idea” about the bomber’s identity, after matching his head — found at the scene — with security footage.
Authorities are also investigating the possibility that people inside the compound helped to coordinate the attack, a senior city police official told AFP on condition of anonymity on Wednesday.
He said at least 23 people had been detained for up to 48 hours, including some from inside the compound and from the nearby former tribal areas that border Afghanistan.