April 8, 2021



Ten charged over downing of airliner
Iran says it has charged 10 officials over the crash of a Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) jet that was shot down last year, killing all 176 people on board. Gholam Abbas Torki, the former military prosecutor for Tehran Province, said on April 6 that the 10 have been “brought to responsibility” and will face trial to determine “the necessary conclusions” over the incident in January 2020, the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported. Mr. Torki, who made the comments at a ceremony where he was handing over the office to his successor, gave no further details. Tehran initially claimed the plane had crashed, but admitted three days after the tragedy that Flight PS752, which was headed to Kyiv, had been shot down “unintentionally” by the country’s air defenses. Iranian forces say they downed the Boeing 737 after mistaking it for an incoming missile at a time of high tensions with the United States. Iran later called it a “disastrous mistake” by forces who were on high alert. Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization’s interim report blamed the tragedy on the misalignment of a radar system and lack of communication between the air-defense operator and his commanders. Those who died in the crash included citizens of Afghanistan, Britain, Canada, Germany, Iran, Sweden and Ukraine. (RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, with reporting by ISNA)

Western public support for Ukraine mounts
Western expressions of support for Ukraine are growing amid an uptick in violence and an increased Russian troop presence across the border that have heightened concerns of a widening conflict. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on April 6 that he had called Ukraine’s president “to express serious concern about Russia’s military activities in and around Ukraine and ongoing ceasefire violations.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reportedly told Mr. Stoltenberg that a path toward NATO membership was the only way to end war in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists continue to battle Ukrainian government forces seven years into the conflict. Mr. Zelenskyy also urged NATO member states to strengthen their military presence in the Black Sea region as a “powerful deterrent” to Moscow. Mr. Stoltenberg tweeted that “#NATO firmly supports #Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We remain committed to our close partnership.” A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin later misleadingly characterized the situation as a “domestic problem” and said Ukrainian membership in the transatlantic military alliance would make things worse. Since occupying and annexing Crimea from Ukraine early in 2014, overwhelming evidence suggests Russia has continued to lend diplomatic and military aid to armed separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine, despite denials to the contrary. “We very much doubt that this will help Ukraine settle its domestic problem,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on April 6. “From our point of view, it will only worsen the situation.” Earlier in the day, Russian Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Ryabkov said high-level Russian and U.S. officials had discussed the situation in southeastern Ukraine. That TASS report has not yet been confirmed by U.S. officials. The Russian report follows a demand a day earlier by the U.S. State Department that Moscow explain “provocations,” including military movements in the region. On April 5, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed “significant concerns” about the Russian buildup near Ukraine’s border. In a call with Mr. Zelenskyy on April 5, Mr. Johnson voiced “unwavering support” for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, Mr. Johnson’s office said. U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Mr. Zelenskyy on April 2 about the buildup in his first call with the Ukrainian leader since taking power in January. Fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists in two eastern provinces has spiked in recent weeks despite a cease-fire agreement reached in the summer. Officials in Kyiv reported on April 6 that two more Ukrainian servicemen had been killed by Russia-backed forces in the previous 24 hours. Four soldiers were killed by separatist shelling in late March. Russia has acknowledged moving troops toward its border with Ukraine in what Moscow says is an exercise. The United States has called it an attempt to intimidate Ukraine. “Russia’s recent actions pose a serious challenge to the security of Ukraine, NATO member states, and the whole of Europe,” Mr. Zelenskyy reportedly told Mr. Johnson during their conversation, adding a call for a stronger physical presence in the region. He also urged Western nations to impose tougher sanctions on Russia for its destabilizing activities and invite Ukraine into NATO’s Membership Action Plan. Russia is opposed to Ukraine joining the military alliance and recently warned NATO countries against sending troops to support Ukraine. Ukraine has been battling the Russia-backed separatists in a low-simmering war since 2014, when unrest in Kyiv toppled Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych. More than 13,000 people have been killed in the ensuring seven years. Russia is demanding Ukraine give the separatist-controlled regions greater autonomy, which would effectively prevent the country from joining NATO. Ukraine has blamed the Russia-backed separatists for the recent spike in hostilities, while Moscow has pointed the finger at Kyiv. Some analysts have suggested that the recent actions may be Russia’s way of testing the new Biden administration’s commitment to Ukraine. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, with reporting by Reuters and AFP)

Ukraine assured of EU’s ‘unwavering’ support
E.U. foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell has assured the Ukrainian government of “unwavering E.U. support” in the conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country. Mr. Borrell said on Twitter on April 4 that he spoke by phone with Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba and added that he was “following with severe concern the Russian military activity surrounding Ukraine.” He said the matter would be further discussed at the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers. Mr. Borrell’s call with Mr. Kuleba comes after a call on April 2 between U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in which Mr. Biden sought to reassure Mr. Zelenskyy of “unwavering” U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Ukrainian and Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk region have accused each other of attacks over the weekend. The tensions come after Ukraine alleged last week that Russia had been massing troops at their shared border. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded by saying that Russia was “moving troops within its own territory at its own discretion, and this shouldn’t concern anyone.” Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014, has consistently denied involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions despite significant evidence to the contrary. “Russia is not interested in any conflict with Ukraine, especially a military one,” Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Andrei Rudenko told state news agency RIA Novosti in response to the recent allegations. Germany, Russia, France and Ukraine are part of the so-called Normandy Format set up to try to resolve the Ukraine conflict. Germany and France recently expressed concern about the “growing number of cease-fire violations,” adding that “we are closely monitoring the situation and in particular Russian troop movements and call on all sides to show restraint and to work towards immediate de-escalation,” they said in a statement. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by dpa)

EU accuses Russia of ‘conscription campaign’
The European Union has accused Moscow of launching a “conscription campaign” in the Russia-controlled Ukrainian region of Crimea, in a move that the bloc said violated international law. The EU’s strongly worded statement came as Ukraine accused Russia of massing troops near their shared border, an accusation rejected by the Kremlin. “Today, the Russian Federation has launched yet another conscription campaign in the illegally-annexed Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol to draft residents of the peninsula in the Russian Federation Armed Forces,” the EU said in a statement on April 1. Observers noted that Russia has in the past conducted military call-ups in the springtime. The bloc said the Russian military conscription drive in Crimea was “another violation of international humanitarian law.” It stressed that “the Russian Federation is bound by international law, and obliged to ensure the protection of human rights on the peninsula” and reiterated “the EU does not and will not recognize the illegal annexation” of Crimea. Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, sending in troops and staging a referendum denounced as illegitimate by the international community after Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted amid a wave of public protests. Moscow also backs separatists in a war against Ukrainian government forces that has killed more than 13,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014. The EU has imposed several rounds of sanctions on individuals and entities accused of undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. (RFE/RL)

Rights court backs Ukrainian journalist
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled in favor of a journalist from RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service who has battled against the handover of her smartphone data to authorities in what the court agreed is an essential defense of a free press and privacy in democratic society. Natalia Sedletska, who hosts the award-winning investigative TV program Schemes, has been locked in a three-year effort to protect her phone data from seizure by Ukrainian prosecutors investigating a leak of state secrets nearly four years ago. The ECHR concluded that Ms. Sedletska should be protected from the data search under Article 10 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and stressed the importance of protection of sources for a functioning free press. “[T]he court is not convinced that the data access authorization given by the domestic courts was justified by an ‘overriding requirement in the public interest’ and, therefore, necessary in a democratic society,” the decision read. Ms. Sedletska turned to the European rights court after a Ukrainian court ruling in 2018 gave authorities unlimited access to 17 months of her smartphone data. Schemes had reported on several investigations involving senior Ukrainian officials, including Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko, during the period in question. Ms. Sedletska has argued that the Ukrainian ruling contravened domestic law and Kyiv’s commitments to a free press. Her application to the ECHR sought protection from the seizure of her communications data as such judicial action was not “necessary in a democratic society,” and was grossly disproportionate and not justified by any “overriding requirement in the public interest.” The ECHR agreed and stressed that “the protection of journalistic sources is one of the cornerstones of freedom of the press.” In a statement, RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said in connection with the April 1 decision that “RFE/RL applauds this ruling, which protects the confidentiality of journalistic communications and sets limits for executive power. The work of investigative journalists, by its nature, is hard and often dangerous. Credible investigative journalism cannot be done in an atmosphere of official impunity, and without the certainty that exchanges between source and journalist will remain private.” The prosecutors pressed for access to Ms. Sedletska’s phone data in connection with a criminal investigation into the alleged disclosure of state secrets to journalists in 2017 by Artem Sytnyk, director of the country’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau. On August 2018, Kyiv’s Pechersk district court approved a request by the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General’s Office to allow investigators to review all of Ms. Sedletska’s mobile-phone data from a 17-month period. The European Parliament in 2018 passed a resolution expressing “concern” at the Ukrainian ruling and stressing the importance of media freedom and the protection of journalists’ sources. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the watchdog groups Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders have also backed Ms. Sedletska’s arguments. Schemes is a corruption-focused TV program produced by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and Ukrainian Public Television. It had a combined audience across its two channels of more than 10 million last year. (RFE/RL)