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Posts tagged ‘Injustice of Russia’

Key moments in Russia’s campaign, involvement in Syrian war

June 16, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s announcement that the Islamic State group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may have been killed in a Russian airstrike in Syria in late May — if confirmed — would be a huge military coup for Moscow as a key player in Syria’s civil war and strengthen its hand in future peace talks.

It would also mark a climax in Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, in which it has sided with President Bashar Assad’s government, from the first days of the air campaign two years ago to boots on the ground in the city of Aleppo.

The airstrike would also highlight the capabilities of Russia’s modernized military, which has tested new precision weapons in Syria. Here are some key moments in Russia’s military campaign in Syria.

QUICK DEPLOYMENT

A series of major battlefield defeats suffered by Assad’s army in 2015 prompted Moscow to intervene to protect its long-time ally. On August 26, 2015, Russia signed a deal with the Syrian government on deploying an air force contingent and other military assets at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria’s province of Latakia, the heartland of Assad’s Alawite religious minority.

In a matter of weeks, Russia’s military built up the base so it could host dozens of Russian jets. It delivered thousands of tons of military equipment and supplies by sea and heavy-lift cargo planes in an operation dubbed the “Syrian Express.” On Sept. 30, Moscow declared the launch of its air campaign in Syria — Russia’s first military action outside the former Soviet Union since the federation’s collapse.

TENSIONS WITH TURKEY

The Russian intervention angered Turkey, which has pushed for Assad’s ouster and backed Syrian opposition forces since the start of the conflict in 2011. On Nov. 24, 2015, a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber on the border with Syria. The pilot was killed by Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters as he parachuted from the plane, and a Russian marine was also killed during an operation to rescue the second pilot. Turkey said the Russian plane violated its airspace but Moscow denied that.

Putin described the downing as a “stab in the back” and responded with an array of economic sanctions, including a ban on the sales of tour packages to Turkey and imports of Turkish fruit and vegetables. The Russian military also beefed up its air defenses in Syria with the long-range S-400 missiles to force Turkey to back off.

FIGHTING FOR PALMYRA

In April 2016, Assad’s forces, relying on Russian air support, scored a major symbolic victory by taking the ancient town of Palmyra from the Islamic State group. Russia deployed field engineers to clear mines from the world-famous archaeological site and then celebrated the victory with a concert by the St. Petersburg Mariinsky orchestra, led by renowned Russian conductor Valery Gergiev.

In December 2016, however, the Syrian army again lost Palmyra to IS. Assad’s forces recaptured it in March, again under the Russian air cover and following fierce fighting. BOOTS ON THE GROUND Though most attention was focused on Russian airstrikes, Russia also became actively involved in ground operations. Senior Russian military officers were deployed alongside Syrian government troops to provide training, plan offensive operations and direct them in combat. Russia also dispatched special forces to conduct intelligence and coordinate air strikes. There were also some indications that Russian artillery units were deployed in key battlefield areas.

Russia’s Defense Ministry never said how many troops it has in Syria, but turnout figures in voting from abroad in the September 2016 parliamentary elections indicated that Russian military personnel in the Arab nation at the time likely exceeded 4,300.

Russia has lost 38 servicemen in Syria so far, according to official data.

BATTLEFIELD TESTS

The Syrian war provided an arena for Russia’s military to test its latest weapons in combat — including state-of-the art Kalibr cruise missiles launched by Russian strategic bombers, navy surface warships and submarines. The long-range precision-strike cruise capability has given a major boost to the Russian military.

In another first, Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, sailed to the Eastern Mediterranean last fall to launch the first carrier-borne combat missions in Russia’s navy history, during the months-long battles between Syrian government forces and the rebels for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and once its commercial hub.

Other weapons for the first time tested in combat included the Su-34 and the Su-35 warplanes, and the Mi-28 and the Ka-52 helicopter gunships. President Vladimir Putin said in a national call-in show on Thursday that the Syrian campaign provided a “priceless” experience for the Russian military.

BATTLE FOR ALEPPO

In December 2016 the Syrian army won full control of Aleppo, Assad’s greatest victory in the war, now in its seventh year. The fall of the city, which was divided into government- and rebel-controlled parts since 2012, demoralized the rebels, depriving them of the largest urban area under their control. Russian air support helped cut rebels’ communications and supply lines.

Assad’s victory followed ferocious battles, in which thousands died, and left the rebel enclave in ruins. Russia now has deployed hundreds of military police to patrol the city’s former rebel-held eastern part.

RUSSIA-TURKEY RAPPROCHEMENT

Faced with massive damage from Russia’s economic sanctions, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to mend ties, offering apologies for downing the Russian warplane in June 2016. Putin responded by strongly backing Erdogan during a failed military coup in Turkey.

Since then, the two leaders have held several meetings and frequent phone talks to narrow their differences on Syria. Turkey is also credited with playing a key role in negotiating the withdrawal of the opposition forces from Aleppo.

Also, earlier this year, Russia, Turkey and Iran brokered several rounds of Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. Those meetings — though separate from the U.N. backed Syria peace talks in Geneva — brought together the Syrian government and its foes. In May, the three powers, which back opposing sides in the war, negotiated in Astana a deal on so-called “safe zones” in Syria, which was welcomed by the U.N. But the parties are still to finalize the boundaries of the zones and work out monitoring details in talks expected to be held in the coming weeks.

Russian rallies urge Putin not to run again; dozens arrested

April 29, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Under the slogan “I’m fed up,” demonstrators urging Vladimir Putin not to run for a fourth term rallied in cities across Russia on Saturday. Dozens were arrested in St. Petersburg and elsewhere.

The centerpiece rally in Moscow went peacefully, despite being unsanctioned by authorities. Several hundred people rallied in a park then moved to the nearby presidential administration building to present letters telling Putin to stand down from running in 2018.

But in St. Petersburg, Associated Press journalists saw dozens arrested. The OVD-Info group that monitors political repression relayed reports of more arrests in several cities, including 20 in Tula and 14 in Kemerovo.

Putin has not announced whether he plans to run for president again next year. He has dominated Russian politics since becoming president on New Year’s Eve 1999 when Boris Yeltsin resigned. Even when he stepped away from the Kremlin to become prime minister in 2008-2012 because of term limits, he remained effectively Russia’s leader.

Nationwide protests on March 26 appeared to rattle the Kremlin because of the demonstrations’ unusual size and reach. The predominance of young people in those protests challenges the belief that the generation that grew up under Putin’s heavy hand had become apolitical or disheartened.

Saturday’s demonstrations were much smaller, but indicated that marginalized opposition forces will continue to push. The demonstrations were called for by Open Russia, an organization started by Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

As an oil tycoon, Khodorkovsky was once listed as Russia’s richest man, but his political ambitions put him at odds with the Kremlin. He was arrested in 2003 and served 10 years in prison on tax-evasion and fraud convictions that supporters say were political persecution. He was pardoned in 2013, left the country and revived Open Russia as a British-based organization.

On Wednesday, Russia’s Prosecutor-General banned Open Russia as an undesirable foreign organization. But the group’s Moscow branch says it is administratively separate and not subject to the ban.

Irina Titova in St. Petersburg contributed to this story.

Supreme Court bans Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia

April 20, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s Supreme Court on Thursday banned Jehovah’s Witnesses from operating anywhere in the country, accepting a request from the justice ministry that the religious organization be considered an extremist group.

The court ordered the closure of the group’s Russian headquarters and its 395 local chapters, as well as the seizure of its property. The Interfax news agency on Thursday quoted Justice Ministry attorney Svetlana Borisova in court as saying that Jehovah’s Witnesses pose a threat to Russians.

“They pose a threat to the rights of citizens, public order and public security,” she told the court. Borisova also said Jehovah’s Witnesses’ opposition to blood transfusions violates Russian health care laws.

Yaroslav Sivulsky, a spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, said in a statement they are “greatly disappointed by this development and deeply concerned about how this will affect our religious activity.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses said they would appeal the ruling. Jehovah’s Witnesses claim more than 170,000 adherents in Russia. The group has come under increasing pressure over the past year, including a ban on distributing literature deemed to violate Russia’s anti-extremism laws.

Human Rights Watch criticized Thursday’s decision as an impediment to religious freedom in Russia. “The Supreme Court’s ruling to shut down the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

The rights group also expressed concern that if the ruling takes effect, Jehovah’s Witnesses could face criminal prosecution and punishment ranging from fines to prison time.

European court rules against Russia over 2004 school siege

April 13, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — The European Court of Human Rights ruled Thursday that Russia failed to adequately protect victims of a 2004 school siege in the city of Beslan that left more than 330 people dead, a verdict that Moscow said it would appeal.

The France-based court said authorities did not take necessary preventive measures to save lives. It said the security forces’ use of tank cannon, grenade launchers and flame-throwers contributed to casualties among the hostages. It also noted failures to increase security before the attack despite imminent threats against schools in the area.

A group of 32 heavily armed radical Islamic militants seized the school on the first day of class on Sept. 1, 2004, herding more than 1,000 people into the gymnasium and holding them hostage for nearly three days. The siege ended in gunfire and explosions, leaving 334 dead, more than half of them children. Over 800 people were wounded.

The court ordered that Russia pay nearly 3 million euros ($3.2 million) in total compensation to the 409 Russians who brought the case to the ECHR; they include people who were taken hostage, or injured or are relatives of the hostages or those killed and injured.

The Russian Justice Ministry, announcing its intention to appeal, contended that the judges failed to grasp the gravity of the situation during the siege and specifics of efforts taken to free the hostages.

The ministry said the court’s assessment of indiscriminate use of weapons by Russian special forces was groundless, citing results of an official Russian probe into the siege. Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, also rejected the court’s view of disproportionate use of force by the government, saying that “such hypothetical assessment is hardly acceptable.”

He told reporters in a conference call that Russia, as a country that came under numerous terror attacks, can’t accept the ruling. “Such wording is absolutely unacceptable for a country that came under attack,” Peskov said.

“All the necessary legal action regarding this ruling will be taken,” he added. The head of the Mothers of Beslan group, Aneta Gadieva, said the payment ordered was meager. “Somebody will get 5,000 euro, somebody will get 20,000 euro. That’s a small sum in compensation for moral damages,” she was quoted as telling state news agency Tass.

Chechen rebel warlord Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility for organizing the school siege. It came amid a particularly violent period in the Islamist insurgency that was connected with the fight between Russian forces and Chechen separatists. A week before the seizure, suicide bombers downed two Russian airliners on the same night, killing a total of 90 people, and another suicide bomber killed 10 people outside a Moscow subway station.

Jim Heintz in Moscow and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

2 dozen reported arrested in Moscow protest attempts

April 02, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Police in Moscow have detained about two dozen people at unauthorized rallies in the capital, a week after anti-government protests broke out across Russia. The police presence was notably heavy in central Moscow on Sunday. Pedestrian access to Red Square was only through metal detectors and police blocked off Pushkin Square, traditionally a gathering point for demonstrations.

About 20 people were arrested while trying to conduct a march on Triumphalnaya Square, which is adjacent to a main avenue, and seven others were detained at Manezhnaya Square, which is adjacent to the Kremlin, according to police figures reported by the state news agency Tass.

Last week’s protests, in which more than 1,000 people were arrested in Moscow alone, were the largest opposition show of defiance in several years.

Court bars Russian opposition leader from presidential race

February 08, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was convicted Wednesday in a retrial of a 2013 fraud case and given a suspended sentence, a ruling that bars him from running for president next year and appears to reflect the Kremlin’s reluctance to let President Vladimir Putin’s most charismatic foe into the field.

Navalny vowed to keep campaigning while he appeals. “What we have just seen is a telegram of sorts from the Kremlin, saying that they consider me, my team and people whose views I represent too dangerous to be allowed into the election campaign,” he said. “We do not recognize this verdict, it will be overturned, and … I have the right to run in the election.”

Navalny was the driving force behind massive protests of Putin’s rule in 2011-2012 in Moscow, electrifying crowds with chants of “We are the power!” and saying at one point that the protesters were numerous enough to take the Kremlin.

Even after the protests fizzled amid the Kremlin crackdown, Navalny came in a strong second in Moscow’s mayoral election in 2013, with 27 percent of the vote. Shortly before that vote, Navalny was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison, but was freed the next morning and allowed to run pending appeal. The abrupt about-face was widely seen as the result of lobbying by those in the government who believed that Navalny’s participation would help legitimize the incumbent’s victory.

The 2013 guilty verdict in the fraud case was overturned by the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that Russia violated Navalny’s right to a fair trial, prompting the Russian Supreme Court to order of a retrial. It sparked speculation that the Kremlin was considering the same tactic in the 2018 presidential race, letting Navalny compete to help revive public interest in the vote and boost turnout without any real threat to Putin.

The president hasn’t said yet whether he will seek another six-year term, but he’s widely expected to run. The 70-year old ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the 64-year old liberal Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky, who ran unsuccessfully in the past elections, both have voiced their intention to run, but their involvement would hardly encourage interest in the campaign.

If Navalny is allowed to run, he would be unlikely to unseat Putin, who has remained widely popular with approval ratings topping 80 percent. The Kremlin, however, might have thought that letting Navalny enter the race would be too risky, given his charisma and the plummeting economy.

Maria Lipman, an independent political analyst, said the verdict has proven the government’s intention to keep Navalny from running. “The Kremlin is demonstrating that he does not have a political future,” she said.

Navalny, who rose to prominence by blasting official corruption in his blog, has continued to badger senior officials relentlessly by exposing their lavish mansions and other assets. His critics have charged that he has effectively become a weapon for rival government clans feeding material to him, but Navalny rejected that, arguing he’s serving the public interest and doesn’t care about Kremlin infighting.

During a hearing in Kirov, a city nearly 800 kilometers (500 miles) east of Moscow, Judge Alexei Vtyurin found Navalny guilty of embezzling 16 million rubles ($270,000 at the current exchange rate) from a timber company and gave him a five-year suspended sentence. Including the suspended sentence he has served since 2013, it leaves a year and a half left to serve.

Navalny dismissed the new verdict as a mere “copy and paste” of the previous one, a “cynical trampling” of the European Court’s ruling. The German Foreign Ministry voiced concern about the verdict, pointing at the European court’s ruling that the previous verdict was politically motivated, and to doubts about whether the right to a fair trial had been upheld in the new proceedings. It added that Navalny must “have the opportunity to take part in political life in Russia.”

The verdict keeps Navalny from competing in the presidential election because of a legal provision barring anyone convicted of grave crimes from seeking public office. He countered by citing the Russian constitution, which says that anyone not serving a prison sentence can run for office.

“I will continue to represent the interests of those who want to see Russia as a normal, honest and corruption-free country,” Navalny said.

Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

Russia set to move closer to decriminalize domestic violence

January 22, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — In Russia, giving one’s spouse a slap is nothing extraordinary for many people. This week, the Russian parliament is expected to take a step closer toward decriminalizing it altogether. Battery is a criminal offense in Russia, but nearly 20 percent of Russians openly say they think it is sometimes OK to hit a spouse or a child. In a bid to accommodate conservative voters, deputies in the lower house of parliament have given initial approval to a bill eliminating criminal liability for domestic violence that stops short of serious bodily harm or rape.

If the measure passes its second reading in the Duma on Wednesday, when the draft can be changed, approval in the third and final reading would be a foregone conclusion. From the Duma, it would proceed to the upper house, largely a rubber-stamp body, and then to President Vladimir Putin’s desk.

Data on domestic violence in Russia are obscure, but Interior Ministry statistics show that 40 percent of all violent crimes in Russia are committed in family surroundings. In 2013, more than 9,000 women were reported to have been killed in incidents of domestic violence.

The bill stems from a Supreme Court ruling last summer to decriminalize battery that doesn’t inflict bodily harm, but to retain criminal charges for those accused of battery against family members. Conservative activists objected, saying the ruling meant a parent spanking a child could be punished more harshly than a non-relative striking the child.

Ultra-conservative lawmaker Yelena Mizulina, who also authored Russia’s “gay propaganda” ban, then introduced the bill to decriminalize domestic violence. It initially was shelved after a disapproving review from the government.

Tables turned at the end of the year when a journalist from a conservative publication pressed Putin about it at his annual news conference. “If the father spanks his child for a good reason as a means of education, a traditional Russian one, he will be sentenced to two years in prison — and if a neighbor does this, he will get away with a fine!” the journalist told Putin.

Putin replied that “it’s better not to spank children and refer to some traditions,” but then said, “We should not go overboard with it (punishment for battery). It’s not good, it harms families.” The bill would make battery on a family member punishable by a fine of less than 30,000 rubles ($500) or a 15-day arrest.

The Moscow-based Anna Center foundation, which runs Russia’s only domestic violence hotline, received more than 5,000 calls last year. The foundation says many more calls that go unanswered since the line operates only between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.

The Duma bill “is not going to improve the situation to say the least,” said Irina Matvienko, who runs the hotline. “Domestic violence is a system which makes it difficult for a woman to seek help,” she said. “It’s not a traditional value. It’s a crime. ”

Calls to the Anna Center hotline show that a lot of Russian women initially don’t even realize that domestic violence is an offense, Matvienko says. A survey this month by state-run pollster VTsIOM showed that 19 percent of Russians say “it can be acceptable” to hit one’s wife, husband or child “in certain circumstances.” The nationwide poll by phone of 1,800 people was held Jan. 13-15. The survey had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

Russian police are notoriously reluctant to react to domestic violence calls, which many regard as meddling in family affairs. Prosecutors in November began investigating a police officer who took a call from a woman complaining about her boyfriend’s aggressive behavior. Instead of offering help, the officer reportedly told the woman that the police would only come if she got killed. Shortly thereafter, the man beat the woman to death, prosecutors say.

Activist Alyona Popova, whose online petition against the bill has attracted more than 180,000 signatures, sees the efforts to decriminalize domestic violence as a continuation of the Kremlin’s increasingly aggressive policies after several repressive laws targeting various groups, from foreign-funded NGOs to gay people.

“I think it’s part of an overall ideology: aggression and violence are on the rise in society in general since war is everywhere and we’re surrounded by enemies,” Popova said, referring to the state media narrative that portrays Russia as a besieged fortress.

Council of Europe Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland earlier this week sent a letter to the speakers of both houses of Russia’s parliament, expressing deep concern at the legislation. Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin dismissed the letter as an “unacceptable” attempt to influence parliament.

Olga Batalina, one of the bill’s co-authors, said in the Duma last week that the penalty for battery should be lenient for acts of violence “committed in an emotional conflict, without malice, without grave consequences.”

“Battery doesn’t even involve grave bodily harm. We’re only talking about bruises, scratches, which is bad, too, of course,” Batalina said. The comment rattled some lawmakers. “Has anyone tried going around with a bruise for a week?” deputy Oleg Nilov asked Batalina at the hearing. “Does anyone think it’s OK?”

There haven’t been any significant protests against the bill so far. Activist Popova is not surprised: discussing domestic violence still is taboo in Russia. “Society is judgmental,” she said. “It goes like this: you’re a bad woman if you allow this to happen to you, or you’re airing dirty laundry and you’re to blame, or it’s he beats you it means he loves you. And a lot of people don’t want to go public about it.”

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