To his followers, he was “Grieg,” their guide through tantra yoga toward enlightenment and a higher state of consciousness. For European police, Gregorian Bivolaru represents a far more sinister figure: a master manipulator accused of sexual abuse and exploitation.
The arrest this week in the Paris region of the 71-year-old Romanian yoga guru and 40 others marked the culmination of a six-year manhunt involving Interpol.
The raid, led by 175 officers of a French police unit that combats sect-related crime, also freed 26 people, who were described by authorities as sect victims who had been housed in dirty and cramped conditions.
Bivolaru went before a judge on Friday and could be handed preliminary charges, along with 14 other suspects. French police have for months been investigating a range of suspected crimes, including rape, human trafficking, illegal confinement and preying on followers as part of a sect.
It wasn’t possible to reach Bivolaru, who remains in custody, and it wasn’t immediately clear if he had legal representation.
Allegations include grooming, entrapment
Accounts from alleged victims detailed in the French media portray Bivolaru as a guru who coerced women into sexual relationships under the guise of spiritual elevation spanning decades and continents.
A German woman recounted her alleged entrapment aged 21 when she was in the Indian city of Rishikesh in 2019 in search of spiritual enlightenment. She described to Liberation newspaper a grooming process that allegedly included being photographed and filmed naked before her abduction and coerced sexual encounters in a Parisian house.
The group also fostered deep mistrust among its followers against the external world, especially the medical community, urging them to reject COVID-19 vaccinations and other medical procedures, according to her account.
Another victim, a French woman, told France Info about a five-year ordeal where tantra yoga was fused with astrology and parapsychology to allegedly manipulate members into non-consensual sex under the pretext of spiritual practices.
Bivolaru’s group, initially known as MISA (“Mouvement pour l’Intégration Spirituelle vers l’Absolu”) and later as the Atman yoga federation, allegedly engaged in non-consensual sexual activities under the facade of tantra yoga teachings, according to a French judicial official who spoke on condition of anonymity because she wasn’t authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation.
Despite expulsion from international yoga federations and legal scrutiny for prostitution, sexual slavery and human trafficking, the group’s “ashrams” were centers for indoctrination and sexual exploitation disguised as spiritual enlightenment, according to the official.
One of these supposed ashram’s appeared to be exclusively dedicated to satisfying his desires, with women transported there from other places, the official added.
MISA said in a statement on its website in Romanian that Bivolaru had been targeted by media campaigns since the 1990s to “discredit and slander” him, calling any charges against him in France “absurd accusations.”
The Atman federation meanwhile described the situation to The Associated Press in an email as a “witch hunt,” disclaiming responsibility for the private lives of students and teachers at its member schools. They also highlighted that some member schools had successfully won cases at the European Court of Human Rights, demonstrating human rights violations against them.
However, a 2018 ruling by the court, as seen by the AP, seems more to underscore how Bivolaru’s multinational activities have served to hamper efforts to actually apprehend him. He had obtained political refugee status in Sweden, thereby delaying legal proceedings in Romania.
Media reports systematic exploitation
The scope of the alleged abuses spanned across Europe, entrapping young women in a web of sexual and psychological control. Finnish media reported systematic sexual exploitation at Bivolaru’s Helsinki yoga school, and in 2017, Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation issued an international arrest warrant for him for alleged aggravated human trafficking.
In Sweden, despite being granted asylum in 2005, his alleged activities continued unchecked. Investigations by TV2 and the BT newspaper in Denmark in 2013 further exposed alleged exploitation within yoga centers run by Bivolaru and an associate, where young women were sexually exploited and filmed without their knowledge in purported tantra and sex rituals.
A former member of the Natha Yoga Center in Denmark, in an account to the BT newspaper, described women being treated like slaves, overburdened with chores, and sworn to silence. The woman revealed that the alleged exploitation and sexual abuse extended to the distribution of films, including one sold at gas stations across Denmark and another shot on a ship in the Black Sea.
In France, similar yoga retreats held in and around Paris and in southern France’s Alpes-Maritimes region sought to make followers take part in sexual activities, the French judicial official said. Attendees testified that women were forced to pay for the stays by doing video sex-chats and that men were made to perform manual labor, she added.
Obtained asylum in Sweden
Bivolaru’s transition from respected yoga guru to international fugitive is a narrative laced with legal twists.
After fleeing Romania in 2004 amid charges of sexual misconduct with minors, he obtained asylum in Sweden, evading extradition. Romanian authorities later accused him of leading a criminal network within MISA, exploiting followers through extortion and sexual abuse, and using his spiritual influence to control and isolate them.
He was sentenced in absentia in Romania in 2013 for sexual relations with a minor, but wasn’t imprisoned until his extradition from France in 2016, leading to a brief imprisonment followed by release on probation. In a twist of irony, the Romanian state was later mandated to compensate Bivolaru with 50,000 euros for delays in his trial.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday thanked everyone who has helped Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion, including soldiers, workers of the Emergency Service of Ukraine, the National Police, the National Guard and more.
“It is important that everyone remains committed to the common cause,” Zelenskyy said in his daily address. “It is important that every week one can say, “I have contributed something of my own to the common defense.”
Earlier Saturday, power was restored at Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant after it was lost on Friday, averting again a “nuclear catastrophe,” according to a statement by Ukraine’s Energy Ministry on Telegram.
“This is the eighth blackout which occurred at the [Zaporizhzhia plant] and could have led to nuclear catastrophe,” the statement said. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed the outage and restoration of power.
The plant was occupied by Russia in March of last year and is no longer generating power but needs a supply of electricity to cool one of its four reactors, which is in a state of hot conservation, meaning it has not fully been shut down.
The ministry said that after losing grid connection the plant turned on 20 backup generators to supply its electricity needs.
At 7 a.m. local time, it said, Ukrainian specialists repaired the 750-kilowatt line that is again bringing power to the plant.
Eastern front lines
Fighting continues around the eastern Ukrainian towns of Avdiivka and Marinka, with both Russia and Ukraine claiming advances. Ukraine’s General Staff said Saturday that Russian forces had been unsuccessful in their attempts to advance on villages near Marinka but said nothing of troop movements in the town.
Once a city of 10,000 Marinka, southwest of the Russian-held regional center of Donetsk, is now a ghost town, after almost a year of Russian efforts to seize it. There are no civilians left there.
For almost two months, Russian forces have been attacking the eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiivka, 40 kilometers north of Marinka. Ukraine says its forces control Avdiivka, though not a single building remains intact.
Ukrainian troops regained swaths of territory last year in a sweep through the northeast, but a counteroffensive launched in the east and south in June has made only incremental gains.
White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby called on the U.S. Congress on Friday to act swiftly to provide aid to Ukraine before the end of the month, after which it will become difficult to provide Kyiv with assistance it needs.
“We need that assistance immediately so we can provide them assistance in an uninterrupted way,” Kirby told a news briefing.
Kirby said the United States expects that Russia will try to destroy critical Ukrainian energy infrastructure this winter as it did last year.
Zelenskyy acknowledges that the advance has been slow but rejects any notion that the war is slipping into a stalemate.
He met with his military command Friday to discuss ways to produce “concrete results” in the war next year.
In his nightly video address, he spoke about improvements in mobilization methods.
Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.
French police arrested a man who targeted passersby in Paris on Saturday night, killing a German tourist with a knife and injuring two others, France’s interior minister said.
Police subdued the man, a 25-year-old French citizen who had spent four years in prison for planning a violent offense. After his arrest, he expressed anguish about Muslims dying, notably in Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories, and claimed that France was an accomplice, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.
The anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office confirmed it has opened an investigation.
The attacker went after a German couple with a knife, killing the man and then used a hammer to injure two others.
The attacker, who was not identified by name, left prison after four years in 2020 and was under surveillance and undergoing psychiatric treatment, the minister said, painting a brief portrait of the assailant, who was born in Neuilly-Sur-Seine, a Paris suburb. He was most recently living with his parents in the Essonne region, south of Paris.
The fatal attack occurred in the 15th district of the French capital with the assailant using a knife to kill the German tourist, who was not identified. He then crossed the Seine to the Right Bank and used a hammer to attack the injured. Details about the victims were not immediately known.
The attacker was stopped by police, the minister said, praising the officers for their quick response.
France has been under a heightened terror alert since the fatal stabbing in October of a teacher in the northern city of Arras by a former student originally from the Ingushetia region in Russia’s Caucasus Mountains and suspected of Islamic radicalization. That fatal attack came three years after another teacher was killed outside Paris, beheaded by a radicalized Chechen later killed by police.
The Saturday attack raised the fear level in the French capital, still marked by the 2015 attacks of cafes and a music hall by Islamist radicals that killed 130 people.
“We will cede nothing in the face of terrorism. Never,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said on X, formerly Twitter, sending her condolences to the victims and their families.
Ukraine’s ex-President Petro Poroshenko said he had been stopped from leaving the country Friday morning in what he described as a politically motivated bid to disrupt his work.
Poroshenko, who led Ukraine from 2014 to 2019 and is now an opposition lawmaker, posted a video of himself at a border crossing with Poland, saying he had been turned away and holding up papers that he said showed he had official permission to cross.
Under martial law, Ukrainian officials must get special approval to travel abroad.
The Ukrainian parliament’s deputy speaker, Oleksandr Korniyenko, later confirmed he had cancelled Poroshenko’s permission to leave the country.
Korniyenko said that while lawmakers were allowed to travel for party political events, he had received a letter, which he could not comment on, that led him to cancel the permission for Poroshenko’s trip.
The dispute comes amid slowly growing tensions between government and opposition — mostly over internal matters such as budgets and appointments — as the war against invading Russian troops grinds on, in contrast to the near-total unity at the start of the conflict.
Poroshenko said he had planned to travel to Poland to help negotiate an end to a truckers’ blockade and then to the United States to build support for Ukraine’s war effort.
Alongside his video post, he wrote a message accusing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s administration of cancelling the permission and playing politics ahead of elections.
“This is an anti-Ukrainian diversion,” Poroshenko wrote. “It is not just the hampering of my entire team’s diplomatic work, but unfortunately a blow to Ukraine’s defense capabilities.”
Zelenskyy’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Poroshenko, who leads the European Solidarity opposition party, is a prominent critic of Zelenskyy’s administration.
The two men fought a bitter, often deeply personal, battle in the 2019 presidential election when Zelenskyy defeated the incumbent Poroshenko in a landslide.
Zelenskyy told Ukrainians last month that it was “not the time” to hold a presidential election, which under normal circumstances would be scheduled for March 2024 but is prohibited under martial law.
France and the Philippines are considering a defense pact that would allow them to send military forces to each other’s territory for joint exercises, the Philippine defense chief said Saturday after holding talks with his French counterpart.
Gilberto Teodoro Jr. said in a joint news conference with French Minister for the Armed Forces Sebastien Lecornu that they were seeking authorization from their heads of state to begin negotiations.
“We intend to take concrete steps into leveling up and making more comprehensive our defense cooperation, principally by working to get authorization from our respective heads of state and relevant agencies to begin negotiations for a status of visiting forces agreement,” Teodoro said.
“The first goal is to create interoperability or a strategic closeness between both armed forces, see how both navies work together, how air forces work together,” Lecornu said through an interpreter.
The Philippines has such an agreement — which provides a legal framework for visits of foreign troops — only with the United States, its longtime treaty ally, and with Australia. Negotiations between the Philippines and Japan are also underway for a reciprocal access agreement that would allow Japanese and Philippine troop deployments to one another for military exercises and other security activities.
The Philippine and French defense chiefs agreed to deepen defense cooperation, including by boosting intelligence and information exchanges to address security threats, Teodoro said.
They agreed to sustain Philippine and French ship visits and underscored the importance of upholding international law, including the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, he said.
That language has often been used by the U.S. and the Philippines, along with their allies, in their criticism of China for its increasingly aggressive actions in the disputed South China Sea.
France has deployed its navy ships to the South China Sea to promote freedom of navigation and push back against Chinese expansionism. China claims virtually the entire waterway and has constructed island bases protected by a missile system in the past decade, alarming smaller claimant states, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.
Washington has repeatedly warned that it is obligated to defend the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally in Asia, if Filipino forces, ships and aircraft come under armed attack, including in the South China Sea.
The Philippines recently staged joint air and naval patrols separately with the U.S. and Australia in the South China Sea, provoking an angry reaction from China, which warned that the joint patrols should not harm its sovereignty and territorial interests.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Saturday that France was “very concerned” by the resumption of violence in Gaza and that he was heading to Qatar to help in efforts to kickstart a new truce ahead of a cease-fire.
Macron also told a news conference at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai that the situation required the doubling down on efforts to obtain a lasting cease-fire and the freeing of all hostages.
A temporary truce between Israel and Hamas collapsed Friday after mediators were unable to extend the pause. Israel and Hamas have traded blame over the collapse.
Macron also urged Israel to clarify its goals toward Hamas.
“We are at a moment when Israeli authorities must more precisely define their objectives and their final goal: the total destruction of Hamas. Does anyone think it is possible?” he asked. “If this is the case, the war will last 10 years.”
“There is no lasting security for Israel in the region if its security is achieved at the cost of Palestinian lives and thus of the resentment of public opinions in the region,” he said. “Let’s be collectively lucid.”
Asked for a response to that remark, Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told reporters Israel does not want to see Palestinian civilians in Gaza caught in the crossfire as battles resume.
“Israel is targeting Hamas, a brutal terrorist organization that has committed the most horrific violence against innocent civilians,” said Regev. “Israel is making a maximum effort to safeguard Gaza’s civilians.”
The giant waves form in the storm belts of the Southern Ocean, off Antarctica, where whales roam. Supercharged by intense winds, the swells then roll on an ocean journey of thousands of kilometers to crash into Tahiti in the South Pacific.
There, in the waters of the volcanic island that will host next year’s Olympic surfing events, surfer Kauli Vaast waits.
If the Tahitian-born 21-year-old catches one of the waves just right, he’ll harness its awesome power as it rears up to become a furious, frothing wall of water. If he stays upright, he’ll zip through the crystal-blue tunnel that forms around him as the wave breaks, emerging unscathed and whooping, with a grin on his face.
“Just the most perfect wave in the world,” says Vaast, who hopes the island’s legendary surfing conditions are his ticket to a gold medal.
The decision to hold Olympic surfing in French Polynesia next July will require competitors to brave some of the world’s biggest waves. The location promises more dramatic television images than when the sport made its Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games in 2021. Then, the waves on Tsurigasaki Beach were sometimes modest, and COVID-19 dented the atmosphere.
But the faraway venue has also raised pointed logistical and environmental questions because the rest of the Summer Games are focused in the host city, Paris, nearly 16,000 kilometers [10,000 miles] and 10 time zones away.
The need to fly 48 surfers, judges, journalists and others that far looks awkward against Paris organizers’ stated ambition of reducing the Olympics’ carbon footprint by half. Four other surf spots that also bid were dotted along France’s Atlantic coast and could easily have been reached by train and bus from the French capital.
But for big-wave enthusiasts such as Vaast, Tahiti makes sense because it has Teahupo’o, a village on the southern shore with lagoons that get the full force of the swells, generating dream surf for the courageous.
“If the conditions are really good, it’s going to be a great contest to watch,” Vaast says. The Olympics “are going to be like crazy.”
Teahupo’o translates from Tahitian as “wall of heads.” The name refers to a tribal battle where heads were severed, but it’s also appropriate for such fearsome waves. The deep ocean bed rises steeply on final approach to Teahupo’o’s offshore reefs, forcing the water into towering walls and huge, rolling tubes.
They are perilous. Surfers who fall risk being body-slammed onto the sharp and shallow corals, which tore chunks off the face of Hawaiian surfer Keala Kennelly when she tumbled in 2011.
Because Teahupo’o’s surf breaks offshore, the Olympic judges have to be out in the lagoon, too. Organizers intend to install them and television cameras on an aluminum tower that will be attached to the reef. That plan has sparked protests in Tahiti. Its critics fear for coral and other marine life.
Tahitian surfer Matahi Drollet is one of the most vocal opponents. His protest videos on Instagram have racked up hundreds of thousands of views.
Vaast acknowledges widespread concern about the Olympics’ footprint in the Teahupo’o lagoon, saying: “We [are] all scared if they’re doing something big.”
But he also expects the Olympic spotlight to boost the tourism industry, which underpins the Tahitian economy.
“It’s going to be great to see a lot of people getting interested in French Polynesia,” he says. “And with the construction for the Olympics and stuff, it creates a lot of work for the local people.”
Vaast is one of only two French Polynesian surfers qualified so far. The other is Vahine Fierro in the women’s competition. Growing up surrounded by the vast Pacific, Vaast swam, fished and surfed as a kid and was just 8 when he first tackled Teahupo’o waves.
He remembers being terrified of their reputation, but he was hooked by their beauty and power. Tahitians say the waves have “Mana,” life-affirming spiritual energy. Vaast believes that his intimate knowledge of Teahupo’o gives him home-field advantage and the “chance of a lifetime” in July.
“I feel this energy nowhere [else] in the world, only in Tahiti, at Teahupo’o,” says Vaast, who often travels on the surfing circuit. “When you go there, you need to be respectful because if you respect [it], like the ocean is going to respect you.”
For France, the Tahitian venue will allow the host country to highlight its long historical ties to the Pacific and involve its far-off overseas territories in the Summer Games.
Teahupo’o, Tahiti’s jewel, is primed to wow.
“When you’re in the barrel, you see the mountains” and colors that are “super clear,” Vaast says. “You can see the corals underneath. … Beautiful. The most beautiful place in the world.”
Russian security forces raided gay clubs and bars across Moscow Friday night, less than 48 hours after the country’s top court banned what it called the “global LGBTQ+ movement” as an extremist organization.
Police searched venues across the Russian capital, including a nightclub, a male sauna, and a bar that hosted LGBTQ+ parties, under the pretext of a drug raid, local media reported.
Eyewitnesses told journalists that clubgoers’ documents were checked and photographed by the security services. They also said that managers had been able to warn patrons before police arrived.
The raids follow a decision by Russia’s Supreme Court to label the country’s LGBTQ+ “movement” as an extremist organization.
The ruling, which was made in response to a lawsuit filed by the Justice Ministry, is the latest step in a decadelong crackdown on LGBTQ+ rights under President Vladimir Putin, who has emphasized “traditional family values” during his 24 years in power.
Activists have noted the lawsuit was lodged against a movement that is not an official entity, and that under its broad and vague definition authorities could crack down on any individuals or groups deemed to be part of it.
Several LGBTQ+ venues have already closed following the decision, including St. Petersburg’s gay club Central Station. It wrote on social media Friday that the owner would no longer allow the bar to operate with the law in effect.
Max Olenichev, a human rights lawyer who works with the Russian LGBTQ+ community, told The Associated Press before the ruling that it effectively bans organized activity to defend the rights of LGBTQ+ people.
“In practice, it could happen that the Russian authorities, with this court ruling in hand, will enforce (the ruling) against LGBTQ+ initiatives that work in Russia, considering them a part of this civic movement,” Olenichev said.
Before the ruling, leading Russian human rights groups had filed a document with the Supreme Court that called the Justice Ministry lawsuit discriminatory and a violation of Russia’s constitution. Some LGBTQ+ activists tried to become a party in the case but were rebuffed by the court.
In 2013, the Kremlin adopted the first legislation restricting LGBTQ+ rights, known as the “gay propaganda” law, banning any public endorsement of “nontraditional sexual relations” among minors. In 2020, constitutional reforms pushed through by Putin to extend his rule by two more terms also included a provision to outlaw same-sex marriage.
After sending troops into Ukraine in 2022, the Kremlin ramped up a campaign against what it called the West’s “degrading” influence. Rights advocates saw it as an attempt to legitimize the war. That same year, a law was passed banning propaganda of “nontraditional sexual relations” among adults, also, effectively outlawing any public endorsement of LGBTQ+ people.
Another law passed this year prohibited gender transitioning procedures and gender-affirming care for transgender people. The legislation prohibited any “medical interventions aimed at changing the sex of a person,” as well as changing one’s gender in official documents and public records.
Russian authorities reject accusations of LGBTQ+ discrimination. Earlier this month, Russian media quoted Deputy Justice Minister Andrei Loginov as saying that “the rights of LGBT people in Russia are protected” legally. He was presenting a report on human rights in Russia to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, arguing that “restraining public demonstration of nontraditional sexual relationships or preferences is not a form of censure for them.”
The Supreme Court case is classified and it remains unclear how LGBTQ+ activists and symbols will be restricted.
Many people will consider leaving Russia before they become targeted, said Olga Baranova, director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBTQ+ Initiatives.
“It is clear for us that they’re once again making us out as a domestic enemy to shift the focus from all the other problems that are in abundance in Russia,” Baranova told the AP.
From underwater drones to electronic warfare, the U.S. is expanding its high-tech military cooperation with Australia and the United Kingdom as part of a broader effort to counter China’s rapidly growing influence in the Indo-Pacific.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with defense chiefs from Australia and the United Kingdom at the U.S. military’s defense technology hub in Silicon Valley on Friday to forge a new agreement to increase technology cooperation and information sharing. The goal, according to a joint statement, is to be able to better address global security challenges, ensure each can defend against rapidly evolving threats and to “contribute to stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.”
Austin met with Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles and Grant Shapps, the British secretary of state for defense, at the Defense Innovation Unit headquarters.
Speaking at a news conference after the meeting, Austin said the effort will, for example, rapidly accelerate the sophistication of the drone systems, and prove that “we are stronger together.”
The new technology agreement is the next step in a widening military cooperation with Australia that was first announced in 2021. The three nations have laid out plans for the so-called AUKUS partnership to help equip Australia with a fleet of eight nuclear-powered submarines. AUKUS is an acronym for Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Under the deal, Australia will buy three Virginia-class submarines from the United States and build five of a new AUKUS-class submarine in cooperation with Britain. The subs, powered by U.S. nuclear technology, would not carry nuclear weapons and would be built in Adelaide, Australia with the first one finished around 2040.
Marles said there has been an enormous amount of progress in the submarine program. He added that as an island nation, Australia has a need for improved maritime drones and precision strike capabilities.
And Shapps said that with China “undermining the freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific, we’ve never had a greater need for more innovation.” He said that open navigation of the seas, including in the Pacific and the South China Sea is critical.
According to officials, Australian Navy officers have already started to go through nuclear power training at U.S. military schools.
Also, earlier this year the U.S. announced it would expand its military industrial base by helping Australia manufacture guided missiles and rockets for both countries within two years. Under that agreement, they would cooperate on Australia’s production of Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems by 2025.
The enhanced cooperation between the nations has been driven by growing concerns about China’s burgeoning defense spending and rapidly expanding military presence in the region. Last year Beijing signed a security pact with Solomon Islands and raised the prospect of a Chinese naval base being established there.
The U.S. has increased U.S. troop presence, military exercises and other activities in the region. U.S. relations with China have been strained in recent years, over trade, U.S. support for self-governing Taiwan, Beijing’s military buildup on a series of manmade islands, and a numbers of aggressive aircraft and ship encounters.
High-tech demonstrations were set up across a large parking area at DIU and inside the headquarters, allowing Austin to take a few minutes before the start of the meeting to see a number of projects being developed, including a virtual training device that will help Ukrainian pilots learn to fly F-16 fighter jets and swarming drones being developed for warfighters. The projects aren’t tied to the Australian agreement, but reflect the ongoing effort by the three nations to improve technology — an area where China often has the lead.
As Austin walked through the exhibits, he was able to watch a swarm of five drones lift off from the pavement and hover over the onlookers — all controlled by a single worker with a small handheld module. The short range reconnaissance drones — called the Skydio X2D — are already in use in combat, but the swarming technology and ability to control them all from a single device is still in development, said Skydio CEO Adam Bry.
Inside the DIU offices, Air Force Maj. Alex Horn demonstrated a new portable, pilot training module that will allow instructors in the United States to remotely coach trainees overseas using a virtual reality headset. Four of the so-called “Immersive Training Devices” will be delivered to Morris Air National Guard Base in Arizona next month and will be used to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s.
Horn said the devices, which are cheaper than other systems, will help accelerate the training for Ukrainian pilots who are used to flying Soviet aircraft and need schooling on F-16 basics before moving to cockpit training.
A Russian court on Friday ordered American Russian journalist Alsu Kurmasheva to remain in custody until February 5.
The editor for the Tatar-Bashkir Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, or RFE/RL, has spent 45 days in prison on accusations that she failed to register as a foreign agent. Kurmasheva denies the charge.
RFE/RL acting president Jeffrey Gedmin said in a statement that Kurmasheva’s “unjust, politically motivated detention has been extended,” and he called for Russia to free the journalist and grant her consular access under her rights as a U.S. citizen.
Kurmasheva had traveled to Russia in May for a family emergency. When she tried to leave, authorities confiscated her passports. Then, on October 18, she was arrested and accused of failing to register as a foreign agent.
Earlier this week, Kurmasheva’s husband, Pavel Butorin, spoke with VOA about her case and why he believes Russia is detaining his wife.
Butorin is the director of Current Time TV, a Russian-language TV and digital network led by RFE/RL in partnership with VOA.
He has called on the U.S. to designate Kurmasheva wrongfully detained, saying doing so will release other resources to help free her.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: There are a lot of repressions now against Russian journalists in Russia. What makes Alsu Kurmasheva’s case unique?
Pavel Butorin, Director of Current Time TV: It is no secret that reporting [on] Russia independently has become an endangered profession. But I think it’s especially dangerous now for American journalists to work inside Russia. I’m convinced that Alsu’s being targeted because she’s an American citizen and because she is a journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
She is held in a cold prison cell exactly for that reason – because she had the courage to report on what’s going on inside Russia, what’s going on with ethnic minorities inside Russia.
VOA: What do you know about the conditions in the prison?
Butorin: Communication that we receive from Alsu is censored, so we cannot be certain that she receives the attention and the treatment that she deserves. We know that her prison cell is cold. Sometimes it gets overcrowded. It isn’t a pretrial detention facility, but it is a Russian jail.
She does send us letters that are upbeat and optimistic. Make no mistake. She is held by a penitentiary system that is notorious for its mistreatment of political prisoners. She shouldn’t be in that jail.
VOA: When she was first detained in June, she was released but then detained again. Why did they need such a scenario?
Butorin: Well, I can’t get into their heads, but I can only speculate that they were building a bigger case against Alsu.
She was first detained and charged for failure to report her American citizenship, which is now a criminal offense in Russia. They dragged this case out for several months, and eventually, in early October, a judge issued a relatively small fine.
But before she was able to pay the fine, they came after [her], arrested her and charged her for now with a more serious offense, with failure to register as a so-called foreign agent, an absurd charge that she denies.
VOA: In your opinion, is Alsu’s coverage of ethnic minorities and culture and language related to her case?
Butorin: I don’t have the details of her case, but it’s quite likely that her coverage of the plight of ethnic minorities in Russia has played a role in this.
Alsu is primarily a journalist, not necessarily an activist, but she has been a very strong proponent of and enthusiast for culture and the Tatar language. Honestly, I can’t think of another person who is as passionate about a culture as Alsu. She has been involved in, and you know, spreading awareness about her Tatar culture.
VOA: What is the most important thing to do to help Alsu right now?
Butorin: Right now, letters are really the biggest lifeline for Alsu in detention. She very much appreciates the support that she’s been receiving.
She receives a lot of letters from people that she doesn’t know, from complete strangers, who share their life stories with her and even recount movie plots. So that’s a big help.
But on the diplomatic front, we would like to see more involvement from the United States government and from other parties, as well from the European Union and from human rights organizations.
There is no doubt in my mind that the reason for her detention is her American citizenship and her work for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
I think Alsu must be designated as a wrongfully detained person. I think she meets most, if not all, of the criteria.
This interview originated in VOA’s Russian Service.
Finland closed its entire 1,340-kilometer-long border with Russia this week, accusing Moscow of sending asylum-seekers across the frontier in a hybrid attack in retaliation for its decision to join NATO. Russia denies the accusation. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell has more.
Finland has closed its entire 1,340 kilometer-long border with Russia after accusing Moscow of “instrumentalizing” asylum-seekers by sending them across the frontier in a hybrid attack, in retaliation for Finland’s joining of NATO. Russia denied the accusation and warned that the deployment of any military units at the border would be seen as a threat by Moscow.
The Finnish Border Guard said more than 900 asylum-seekers from countries including Kenya, Morocco, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen entered Finland from Russia in the month of November. Previously, the rate was less than one per day.
The Finnish government responded by closing all but one of the official border crossings in mid-November. On Thursday, Finland closed the last remaining crossing, at Raja-Jooseppi, inside the Arctic Circle, sealing off the entire frontier for at least the next two weeks.
Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo said his country would not accept Russian interference.
“Instrumentalized migration from Russia has continued. I would like to stress that it is not just the number of arrivals that is at issue, but the phenomenon itself,” Orpo said at a news conference Thursday.
“In recent days, there has been a growing understanding that this is an organized activity, not a genuine emergency. … We don’t accept any attempt to undermine our national security.”
Russia is clearly trying to weaponize migration, said analyst Charly Salonius-Pasternak of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
“There are interviews [with migrants] saying that some of these people have been given an option: Either go to the front in Ukraine, or then jump in a bus or military truck, be driven up to the Arctic Circle or further north, and then be forced to buy a bicycle and try to get across,” he told VOA. “So, it’s very structured how the Russian authorities have done this.”
Russia’s actions are seen as retaliation for Finland’s joining of NATO in April following Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Its membership of the alliance ended decades of nonalignment.
“Finland is considered by Russia to be a hostile state,” Salonius-Pasternak said. “And as we’re seeing through this weaponization of people and flows, it is actively trying to destabilize Finland and maybe cause other kinds of havoc. It hasn’t succeeded yet, but clearly there’s some intent here.”
The head of the Polish National Security Bureau, Jacek Siewiera, wrote on the social media site X on Tuesday that his country would send military advisers to Finland in response to “an official request for allied support in the face of a hybrid attack on the Finnish border.” Finland said it had no knowledge of the offer.
Poland accused Belarus of sending tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to their shared border in 2021, creating a humanitarian crisis. Belarus is a close ally of Moscow.
Russia denies accusations that it is driving the migrant flows to the Finnish border.
“There is no threat there, in reality there is no tension,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told Reuters Thursday. “Tension may actually arise during the concentration of additional units on our border, because the Finns must be clearly aware that this will pose a threat to us.”
There are concerns in Finland that some migrants may try to cross the border illegally, risking their lives. Dozens of migrants died on the Belarus-Poland border in 2021, prompting accusations that Europe was turning a blind eye to human rights abuses.
“It’s been down to minus-25 [degrees Celsius]. It will go there again. It’s supremely inhospitable to anyone seeking to cross the border,” said analyst Salonius-Pasternak. “So there is this fear — will we start seeing video or pictures of people just having frozen in the wilderness?”
Estonia said Thursday it was also ready to close its border with Russia if there is a big influx of migrants. The government warned its citizens against traveling to Russia in case they are unable to return.
Spanish police said Friday that they had arrested a Spaniard wanted by U.S. officials for working with an American to provide cryptocurrency and blockchain technology services to North Korea in violation of U.S. sanctions against the rogue state.
In a statement, Spanish police said they had arrested Alejandro Cao de Benos, 48, in Madrid on Thursday as he got off a train from Barcelona. He appeared before a judge Friday and was then released, pending the formal extradition process.
The U.S. Justice Department, in April of last year, indicted Cao de Benos along with British citizen Christopher Emms, then 30, accusing them of conspiring with a third man, U.S. cryptocurrency expert Virgil Griffith, to provide North Korea with training in the technology — in violation of U.S. sanctions.
Griffith was arrested and pleaded guilty to the charges. He was sentenced to 63 months in prison in April 2022. Emms remains at large.
According to a Justice Department statement following the indictments, Emms allegedly told North Korean officials the cryptocurrency technology they were offering to advise them on would have “made it ‘possible to transfer money across any country in the world, regardless of what sanctions or any penalties’ ” might be in place. In effect, they could evade U.S. sanctions.
If tried and convicted, Cao de Benos could face 20 years in prison. The extradition process, which the Justice Department must initiate and Spanish courts and officials must approve, could take months to complete.
Some information for this report came from Reuters and Agence France-Presse.
Developers at the University of Maryland are using a holographic camera to capture people’s movements in three dimensions for what could be high-impact training, education and entertainment. It is technology with the power to transform how we learn and entertain ourselves. VOA’s Julie Taboh has more. VOA footage by Adam Greenbaum.
Chad’s opposition and civil society groups are asking France to immediately withdraw troops who arrived in Chad after being ordered to depart neighboring Niger by that country’s military junta.
Ordjei Abderahim Chaha, president of the opposition party Rally for Justice and Equality, said Thursday that military ruler Mahamat Idriss Deby has failed to heed calls to ask French troops to leave.
Speaking at a news conference in the capital, N’Djamena, Chaha said he believes Deby wants French troops to keep Chad’s military junta in power by intimidating or cracking down on civilians who are ready to protest should Deby fail to hand power to civilian rule by November 2024 as agreed.
Opposition and civil society groups have asked Deby to ensure some 1,000 French troops already stationed in Chad — plus those who have arrived from Niger — leave the central African state no later than December 28, Chaha said.
All colonial-era agreements and newly negotiated deals between France and Chad should be canceled, he said, adding that citizens are fed up with France’s overbearing influence in many African nations.
Deby, a general in Chad’s army, was proclaimed head of an 18-month transitional council on April 21 to replace his late father, Idriss Deby Itno, who had run Chad as a dictator for 30 years.
Opposition and civil society groups say Deby cannot be trusted because he failed to hand power to a civilian government in October 2022 as agreed and instead extended the transition period by two years.
Deby insists he will hand power to civilian rule.
The Chadian government says there have been at least six protests against French military presence in Chad this year. In February, there were widespread protests against French troops after civilians accused the foreign military of brutality against civilians.
In early September, a French military medic opened fire and killed a Chadian soldier who reportedly attacked him with a scalpel as he received care in a military base. Anti-French protests then erupted in Faya-Largeau, a northern town, and Chad’s military used live ammunition and injured several people as it struggled to disperse protesters, according to civil society groups.
Koursami Albert, an international affairs lecturer in Chad’s University of N’Djamena, told VOA via a messaging app that civilians are unhappy because French troops restrict or arrest people who come close to their bases — an indication, he said, that the French do not want anyone to know their activities.
He said even Chadian troops are restricted from going near French military bases.
France has always claimed that its troops are in Africa to ensure peace and stability in friendly countries, especially where it was the former colonial power, but people struggle to see what services their troops render, Koursami said.
French troops have not intervened in the communal violence and armed conflicts Chad faces, observers say.
On October 19, Colonel Pierre Gaudillière, spokesperson for the French military, announced that the first convoy of French troops that left Niger by land had arrived in N’Djamena.
France did not disclose the final destination of their forces leaving Niger. Chad said the troops were to leave for Paris via N’Djamena International airport, while their equipment was to transit through the Douala Seaport in neighboring Cameroon.
French President Emmanuel Macron in September promised to pull all 1,500 French troops from Niger and end military cooperation with the landlocked western African country.
Nigerien military leader General Abdourahamane Omar Tchiani and junta supporters accused France of failing to resolve the security crisis that has killed thousands and displaced millions across Niger.
A BBC Channel 4 documentary, “Secrets and Power: China in the UK,” claims the Chinese government is interfering with academic freedom and spying on Hong Kong activists in the United Kingdom.
The 49-minute film released Wednesday alleges that the University of Nottingham used a Beijing-approved curriculum in classes taught on a satellite campus in Ningbo and closed its School of Contemporary Chinese Studies under pressure from Beijing.
The program also claims a professor at the Imperial College London collaborated with researchers at a Chinese university on the use of artificial intelligence weaponry that could be used to benefit the Chinese military. Both institutions deny the allegations.
The film also alleges that Chinese government agents pretending to be journalists used fake profiles and avatars to target Hong Kong activists now living in the U.K.
VOA Mandarin sent an email to the Chinese Embassy in the United Kingdom seeking comments on the claims in the documentary but has not received a response.
Nations track China’s influence
The documentary comes as other nations, including the U.S., are monitoring China’s influence on campuses (( https://www.voanews.com/a/us-officials-warn-of-chinese-influence-in-american-higher-education/4600204.html )) and its so-called “overseas police centers,” purportedly intended to help Chinese diaspora and tourists with everyday problems.
VOA has previously quoted human rights groups saying the outposts are in fact part of a complex global surveillance and control web that gives Beijing reach far beyond China’s borders.
The University of Nottingham was approved by the Chinese Ministry of Education to open a campus in Ningbo, China, in 2004. On the China campus, all courses are taught in English and students are awarded the same degrees as on the U.K. campus.
Professor Stephen Morgan, the former vice provost for planning at the Ningbo campus, said in the documentary that books and articles on campus are censored by local Communist Party officials.
According to Morgan, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also encouraged students to spy on their teachers. He said he was forced to resign from his management position after writing a blog criticizing constitutional changes that enabled President Xi Jinping to serve a third term. The CCP secretary at the Ningbo campus deemed the blog “totally unacceptable,” he said.
Steve Tsang is director of the China Institute at SOAS London and a former director of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, which closed in 2016.
Tsang, an outspoken critic of the CCP, said in the documentary that University of Nottingham administrators told him not to speak with media when Xi visited the U.K. in 2015. Tsang also said the university did not allow him to host a senior Taiwanese politician who planned to deliver a speech in 2014.
School denies taking political action
The University of Nottingham has denied that the closure of its Institute of Contemporary China was for political reasons and denied Channel 4’s allegations about Nottingham’s Ningbo campus.
“We do not recognize the description of the University of Nottingham’s Ningbo campus. Any U.K. organization operating overseas … must comply with the laws and customs of the host country.”
The documentary alleges that Imperial College London’s collaboration with researchers from Shanghai University included the publication of several papers on the military applications of artificial intelligence. The work was overseen by Guo Yike, director of Imperial College’s Institute of Data Science.
According to a report in the English newspaper The Telegraph, Imperial College said staff have a “clear code of research” and insisted that due diligence and regular reviews of partners have been done.
The Chinese Embassy in London also denied to The Telegraph in the same article that it had interfered in the running of British universities, saying the allegation was “aimed at discrediting and smearing China.”
Film alleges China targets activists
A study prepared by the British think tank Civitas and released this month in parliament found that a number of British universities have received significant funding from organizations linked to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) over the past five years.
The documentary alleges Hong Kong activists who have taken refuge in Britain appear to be the targets of sophisticated Chinese government espionage.
It follows the case of Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Finn Lau, who said he had been repeatedly approached by fake journalists and feared being followed. In July, Hong Kong offered a bounty equal to $128,000 for Lau’s arrest. Seven others were also targeted.
According to the documentary, an American man who taught English in Shanghai pretended to be a journalist working for a Canadian media outlet and used a false avatar and profile to ask Lau for information about pro-democracy activities. When the American was asked by a Channel 4 reporter for his real name and those of his superiors, he hung up the video call.
Hungary will not support any European Union proposal to begin talks on making Ukraine a member of the bloc, a government minister said Thursday.
Gergely Gulyas, the chief of staff to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, said at a news conference in Budapest that it was premature to begin formal talks with Kyiv on the war-ravaged country joining the EU, and that Hungary would not consent to opening the discussions when EU leaders meet in mid-December.
“We are dealing with a completely premature proposal,” Gulyas said, adding that Hungary “cannot contribute to a common decision” on inviting Ukraine to begin the process of joining the bloc.
Earlier this month, the EU’s executive arm recommended allowing Ukraine to open membership talks once it addresses governance issues that include corruption, lobbying concerns, and restrictions that might prevent national minorities from studying and reading in their own languages.
But unanimity among all EU member nations is required on matters involving admission of a new country, giving the nationalist Orban a powerful veto.
His government has long taken an antagonistic approach to Ukraine, arguing vehemently against EU sanctions on Russia over its invasion and holding up financial aid packages to Kyiv.
Orban, widely considered one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest allies in Europe, has argued that accession negotiations should not begin with a country that is at war, and that Ukraine’s membership would reorient the system the 27-nation European Union uses to distribute funds to member countries.
Earlier this month, Orban said that Ukraine is “light years” from joining the bloc, further signaling that his government would be a major obstacle to Kyiv’s ambitions at next month’s meeting of EU heads of state and government in Brussels.
On Thursday, Gulyas also said Hungary would not support proposed amendments to the EU’s budget, part of which would provide 50 billion euros ($54.5 billion) in long-term aid to Kyiv.
He said the EU was “illegally” withholding funds from Hungary, and that the government would consequently decline to support any budget amendment.
The EU froze billions in funding to Budapest over the alleged failures of Orban’s government to adhere to EU rule-of-law and corruption standards.
Hungary insists it doesn’t link the frozen EU funds to other issues, but many in Brussels see its veto threats regarding aid and Ukraine’s membership as an attempt to blackmail the bloc into releasing the withheld funds.
More than 2,000 of Britain’s churches of several denominations have closed in the last decade. Many have been demolished, but as Umberto Aguiar reports from London, some are finding new life and are being used for purposes other than religion. Marcus Harton narrates. Camera: Umberto Aguiar.
Shane MacGowan, the boozy, rabble-rousing singer and chief songwriter of The Pogues, who infused traditional Irish music with the energy and spirit of punk, died Thursday, his family said. He was 65.
MacGowan’s songwriting and persona made him an iconic figure in contemporary Irish culture, and some of his compositions have become classics — most notably the bittersweet Christmas ballad “Fairytale of New York,” which Irish President Michael D. Higgins said “will be listened to every Christmas for the next century or more.”
“It is with the deepest sorrow and heaviest of hearts that we announce the passing of our most beautiful, darling and dearly beloved Shane MacGowan,” his wife Victoria Clarke, his sister Siobhan and father Maurice said in a statement.
The singer died peacefully with his family by his side, the statement added.
The musician had been hospitalized in Dublin for several months after being diagnosed with viral encephalitis in late 2022. He was discharged last week, ahead of his upcoming birthday on Christmas Day.
The Pogues melded Irish folk and rock ‘n’ roll into a unique, intoxicating blend, though MacGowan became as famous for his sozzled, slurred performances as for his powerful songwriting.
His songs blended the scabrous and the sentimental, ranging from carousing anthems to snapshots of life in the gutter to unexpectedly tender love songs. The Pogues’ most famous song, “Fairytale of New York” is a tale of down-on-their-luck immigrant lovers that opens with the decidedly unfestive words: “It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank.” The duet between the raspy-voiced MacGowan and the velvet tones of the late Kirsty MacColl is by far the most beloved Pogues song in both Ireland and the U.K.
Singer-songwriter Nick Cave called Shane MacGowan “a true friend and the greatest songwriter of his generation.”
Higgins, the Irish president, said “his songs capture within them, as Shane would put it, the measure of our dreams.”
“His words have connected Irish people all over the globe to their culture and history, encompassing so many human emotions in the most poetic of ways,” Higgins said.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said MacGowan’s songs “beautifully captured the Irish experience, especially the experience of being Irish abroad.”
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald said: “Nobody told the Irish story like Shane — stories of emigration, heartache, dislocation, redemption, love and joy.”
Born on Christmas Day 1957 in England to Irish parents, MacGowan spent his early years in rural Ireland before the family moved back to London. Ireland remained the lifelong center of his imagination and his yearning. He grew up steeped in Irish music absorbed from family and neighbors, along with the sounds of rock, Motown, reggae and jazz.
He attended the elite Westminster School in London, from which he was expelled, and spent time in a psychiatric hospital after a breakdown in his teens.
MacGowan embraced the punk scene that exploded in Britain in the mid-1970s. He joined a band called the Nipple Erectors, performing under the name Shane O’Hooligan, before forming The Pogues alongside musicians including Jem Finer and Spider Stacey.
The Pogues — shortened from the original name Pogue Mahone, a rude Irish phrase — fused punk’s furious energy with traditional Irish melodies and instruments including banjo, tin whistle and accordion.
“It never occurred to me that you could play Irish music to a rock audience,” MacGowan recalled in “A Drink with Shane MacGowan,” a 2001 memoir co-authored with Clarke. “Then it finally clicked. Start a London Irish band playing Irish music with a rock and roll beat. The original idea was just to rock up old ones but then I started writing.”
The band’s first album, “Red Roses for Me,” was released in 1984 and featured raucous versions of Irish folk songs alongside originals including “Boys from the County Hell,” “Dark Streets of London” and “Streams of Whisky.”
Playing pubs and clubs in London and beyond, the band earned a loyal following and praise from music critics and fellow musicians from Bono to Bob Dylan.
MacGowan wrote many of the songs on the next two albums, “Rum, Sodomy and the Lash” (1985) and “If I Should Fall from Grace with God” (1988), ranging from rollicking rousers like the latter album’s title track to ballads like “A Pair of Brown Eyes” and “The Broad Majestic Shannon.”
The band also released a 1986 EP, “Poguetry in Motion,” which contained two of MacGowan’s finest songs, “A Rainy Night in Soho” and “The Body of an American.” The latter featured prominently in early-2000s TV series “The Wire,” sung at the wakes of Baltimore police officers.
“I wanted to make pure music that could be from any time, to make time irrelevant, to make generations and decades irrelevant,” he recalled in his memoir.
The Pogues were briefly on top of the world, with sold-out tours and appearances on U.S. television, but the band’s output and appearances grew more erratic, due in part to MacGowan’s struggles with alcohol and drugs. He was fired by the other band members in 1991 after they became fed up with a string of no-shows, including when The Pogues were opening for Dylan. The band briefly replaced MacGowan with Clash frontman Joe Strummer before breaking up.
MacGowan performed with a new band, Shane MacGowan and the Popes, with whom he put out two albums: “The Snake” in 1995 and “The Crock Of Gold” in 1997. He reunited with The Pogues in 2001 for a series of concerts and tours, despite his well-documented problems with drinking and performances that regularly included slurred lyrics and at least one fall on stage.
MacGowan had years of health problems and used a wheelchair after breaking his pelvis a decade ago. He was long famous for his broken, rotten teeth until receiving a full set of implants in 2015 from a dental surgeon who described the procedure as “the Everest of dentistry.”
MacGowan received a lifetime achievement award from the Irish president on his 60th birthday. The occasion was marked with a celebratory concert at the National Concert Hall in Dublin with performers including Bono, Nick Cave, Sinead O’Connor and Johnny Depp.
Clarke wrote on Instagram that “there’s no way to describe the loss that I am feeling and the longing for just one more of his smiles that lit up my world.”
“I am blessed beyond words to have met him and to have loved him and to have been so endlessly and unconditionally loved by him and to have had so many years of life and love and joy and fun and laughter and so many adventures,” she wrote.
Russia’s Supreme Court on Thursday effectively outlawed LGBTQ+ activism, in the most drastic step against advocates of gay, lesbian and transgender rights in the increasingly conservative country.
In a statement announcing a lawsuit filed to the court earlier this month, the Justice Ministry argued that authorities had identified “signs and manifestations of an extremist nature” by an LGBTQ+ “movement” operating in Russia, including “incitement of social and religious discord,” although it offered no details or evidence. In its ruling, the court declared the “movement” to be extremist and banned it in Russia.
The hearing took place behind closed doors and with no defendant. Multiple rights activists have pointed out that the lawsuit targeted the “international civic LGBT movement,” which is not an entity but rather a broad and vague definition that would allow Russian authorities to crack down on any individuals or groups deemed to be part of the “movement.”
“Despite the fact that the Justice Ministry demands to label a nonexistent organization — ‘the international civic LGBT movement’ — extremist, in practice it could happen that the Russian authorities, with this court ruling at hand, will enforce it against LGBTQ+ initiatives that work in Russia, considering them a part of this civic movement,” Max Olenichev, a human rights lawyer who works with the Russian LGBTQ+ community, told The Associated Press ahead of the hearing.
Some LGBTQ+ activists have said they sought to become a party to the lawsuit, arguing that it concerns their rights, but were rejected by the court. The Justice Ministry has not responded to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
The Supreme Court ruling is the latest step in a decadelong crackdown on LGBTQ+ rights in Russia begun under President Vladimir Putin, who has put “traditional family values” at the cornerstone of his rule.
In 2013, the Kremlin adopted the first legislation restricting LGBTQ+ rights, known as the “gay propaganda” law, banning any public endorsement of “nontraditional sexual relations” among minors. In 2020, constitutional reforms pushed through by Putin to extend his rule by two more terms also included a provision to outlaw same-sex marriage.
After sending troops into Ukraine in 2022, the Kremlin ramped up its comments about protecting “traditional values” from what it called the West’s “degrading” influence, in what rights advocates saw as an attempt to legitimize the war. That same year, the authorities adopted a law banning propaganda of “nontraditional sexual relations” among adults, also, effectively outlawing any public endorsement of LGBTQ+ people.
Another law passed earlier this year prohibited gender transitioning procedures and gender-affirming care for transgender people. The legislation prohibited any “medical interventions aimed at changing the sex of a person,” as well as changing one’s gender in official documents and public records. It also amended Russia’s Family Code by listing gender change as a reason to annul a marriage and adding those “who had changed gender” to a list of people who can’t become foster or adoptive parents.
“Do we really want to have here, in our country, in Russia, ‘Parent No. 1, No. 2, No. 3’ instead of ‘mom’ and ‘dad?'” Putin said in September 2022. “Do we really want perversions that lead to degradation and extinction to be imposed in our schools from the primary grades?”
Authorities have rejected accusations of discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. Earlier this month, Russian media quoted Andrei Loginov, a deputy justice minister, as saying that “the rights of LGBT people in Russia are protected” legally. Loginov spoke in Geneva, while presenting a report on human rights in Russia to the U.N. Human Rights Council, and argued that “restraining public demonstration of non-traditional sexual relationships or preferences is not a form of censure for them.”