Russia to block Telegram app over encryption

A court in Moscow has approved a request from the Russian media regulator to block the Telegram messaging app immediately.

The media regulator sought to block the app because the firm had refused to hand over encryption keys used to scramble messages.

Security officials say they need to monitor potential terrorists.

But the company said the way the service was built meant it had no access to customers’ encryption keys.

Telegram had missed a deadline of 4 April to hand over the keys.

Russia’s main security agency, the FSB, has said Telegram is the messenger of choice for “international terrorist organisations in Russia”.

A suicide bomber who killed 15 people on a subway train in St Petersburg last April used the app to communicate with accomplices, the FSB said last year.

The app is also widely used by the Russian authorities, Reuters news agency reports.

In its court filing, media regulator Roskomnadzor said Telegram had failed to comply with its legal requirements as a “distributor of information”.

Telegram’s lawyer, Pavel Chikov, said the official attempt to stop the app being used in Russia was “groundless”.

“The FSB’s requirements to provide access to private conversations of users are unconstitutional, baseless, which cannot be fulfilled technically and legally,” he said.

The messaging app is widely used across Russia and many nations in the Middle East, as well as around the rest of the world. It says it has more than 200 million active users.

Its popularity has grown because of its emphasis on encryption, which thwarts many widely used methods of reading confidential communications.

It allows groups of up to 5,000 people to send messages, documents, videos and pictures without charge and with complete encryption.

Telegram has been used by the Islamic State (IS) group and its supporters though the company says it has made efforts to close down pro-IS channels.

Transgender Kyrgyz seek unlikely refuge in Russia

Russia is a notoriously difficult place to be gay or transgender, but it’s become a surprising refuge for LGBT people in Kyrgyzstan, who say life is far harder at home, writes Katie Arnold in Bishkek.

Anna knew the internet was a dangerous place to meet clients.

Transphobic hate gangs often scoured the list of sex workers advertising online, looking for their next victim among the faceless pseudonyms.

“I was usually very good at distinguishing who was who, I honestly did not suspect this guy to be dangerous,” Anna said, her hand nervously tugging on the skin around her neck, her eyes focused on an object beyond the horizon.

Three weeks earlier, she says, she was kidnapped by two men posing as clients. They laced her beer with a sedative and then drove her deep into the Tian Shan mountain range that towers over Kyrgyzstan’s capital city, Bishkek.

She awoke to an immense and sudden pain as her attackers relentlessly kicked her in the head and chest. “You were born a man, you should be a man,” she remembers them shouting. Paralysed by the drug and unable to defend herself, Anna begged for them to end her life.

“I was happy to die at that moment,” she says. The two men placed a plastic bag around her bloodied head, burnt their cigarettes on her bruised body and left her for dead.

Anna managed to wrestle herself free of the plastic bag. She found her wig, which lay dishevelled on the cold mountain road, then found her way back to Bishkek, where she sought refuge in the city’s only LGBT shelter.

“I cannot stay in Kyrgyzstan any longer, it is not safe here,” she said. “I am going to live in Russia instead.”

‘Corrective rape is common’

Kyrgyzstan’s LGBT community has lived in the shadows since 2014, when the government drafted discriminatory legislation that would ban the popularisation of homosexual relations and promotion of a homosexual lifestyle.

The proposed law, still awaiting its final reading in parliament, unleashed a campaign of violence and intimidation which continues to this day.

  • What’s it like to be transgender?
  • I escaped Egypt to become a woman
  • The transgender arguments dividing society
  • It was change sex or die, says transgender girl

    A survey conducted by the LGBT organisation, Kyrgyz Indigo, in 2016, found that 84% of respondents had experienced physical violence during their lifetime while 35% were victims of sexual violence.

    “Corrective rape is common among the LGBT community but especially among the transgender community,” said Rudolph, a social worker at the LGBT shelter run by Kyrgyz Indigo.

    Like many of the people interviewed, he preferred not to give his second name for fear of attack.

    “All members of the community will become a victim at some point, we are looking after someone right now who was a recent victim of gang rape.”

    Flight to Russia

    Amid the hostility, most cisgender members of the community – people who identify themselves as having the gender they were assigned at birth – have chosen to conceal their sexuality in public.

    But anonymity has proved difficult for the transgender community, the majority of whom find themselves caught up in the sex industry due to discrimination in the workplace.

    It is against this backdrop of violent transphobia that many members of the community are voluntarily moving to Russia – a country renowned for its hostile attitude towards LGBT people.

    They join tens of thousands of Kyrgyz migrants who travel to Russia each year, searching for employment opportunities in a country where language does not serve as a barrier.

    “Lots of transgender women are migrating,” says Roma, a sex worker and outreach officer for local human rights organisation, Tais Plus.

    “I’ve met 10 who have moved to Moscow in the last few months. The ones I have spoken to since say life is not too bad there.”


    More on LGBT life in Russia

    • Gay rights in Russia
    • Russia’s law on gay propaganda
    • Russia’s mixed messages on LGBT
    • Homophobic attacks on the rise in Russia

      A newcomer to the transgender community, Roma’s youthful vigour has not yet been tarnished by a violent attack.

      However, like the sex workers he has met though Tais Plus, he too is moving to Russia.

      “I think life will be easier for us in Russia because even though there is legislation against sex workers, the police will not target us because we are transgender. Here the police are filming their encounters with us, threatening us with the footage, and then publicly outing us online,” he said.

      Selling sex in Russia is illegal, however, with a maximum fine of just 2,000 roubles ($35; £26) the law is rarely applied. According to the Sex Worker Rights Advocacy Network, there is a large and open sex industry in many parts of Russia due to widespread police corruption.

      Homosexuality was decriminalised in Russia in 1993. However, prejudice against LGBT people has remained widespread.

      In 2013 a federal statute, widely knows as the Gay Propaganda Bill, criminalised the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations” to children.

      Like in Kyrgyzstan, these anti-gay laws contributed to a surge in vigilantism across the country, with gay people often lured to meetings where they would be beaten and humiliated.

      “Transgender people face all kinds of violations in everyday life, more than homosexual or bisexual people,” warns Svetlana Zakharova from the Russian LGBT Network.

      “But the problem here is more with society as a whole rather than the police – they do not care if someone is transsexual unless they violate some societal norm by speaking out publicly.”

      ‘What’s the point in caring?’

      This news will come as some relief to Anna as she prepares for a new life in Russia.

      Earlier in the year she was drinking with some transgender friends in a bar often frequented by sex workers. The bar manager took offence to their appearance and started physically attacking the group.

      “We called the police saying that we were being beaten and needed their help, they showed up with a TV crew who broadcast our faces to the country.

      “We don’t have any rights here – no right to safety, privacy, sexuality and the police are the ones encouraging it, that’s just how it is in Kyrgyzstan,” she said.

      The ministry of internal affairs did not respond to these allegations of police abuse, put to them in a formal letter.

      This came as little surprise to Anna, who reported her attackers to the local police but received nothing but defamatory remarks about her appearance in return.

      “What’s the point in caring?” she asked about the police’s inaction. “It will not change the fact that I’ve been abused or stop others from being abused. All I want to do is leave this country and live somewhere I can have a free and easy life.”

      The question is whether Russia will offer Kyrgyzstan’s transgender women the solace they so desperately seek.

      Katie Arnold is a freelance writer

Russian spy: What we know so far

The attempted murder of a former Russian double agent and his daughter on British soil has led to accusations of Russian state involvement.

Soon after the attack on Sergei Skripal, 66, and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, Prime Minister Theresa May said the chemical used had been identified as being part of a group developed by Russia known as Novichok.

The British government went on to expel 23 Russian diplomats and their families after Moscow refused to explain how a Russian-made nerve agent was used in the poisoning.

Twenty-nine countries expelled 145 Russian officials in solidarity with the UK – and Nato ordered 10 Russians out of its mission in Belgium.

Moscow initially responded in kind, expelling 23 British diplomats, 60 US diplomats and several from other countries. It has also closed the British Council in Russia and the British Consulate in St Petersburg.

Spy poisoning: Russia says UK is ‘playing with fire’

Russia has accused the UK of inventing a “fake story” and “playing with fire” over the Salisbury spy poisoning.

At a UN Security Council meeting, Moscow’s UN ambassador Vasily Nebenzia said Britain’s main goal had been “to discredit and even delegitimise” Russia with “unsubstantiated accusations”.

The UK says Russia is behind the attack but Moscow denies responsibility.

Britain’s UN representative Karen Pierce said the UK’s actions “stand up to any scrutiny”.

She likened Moscow’s requests to take part in the investigation to an arsonist investigating his own fire.

  • Russian spy: What we know so far
  • Yulia Skripal ‘getting stronger daily’
  • Sergei Skripal: Who is the former Russian colonel?
  • Russian tensions with West ‘worse than Cold War’

    Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious in Salisbury on 4 March.

    Ms Skripal, 33, is recovering in hospital and has released a statement saying her “strength is growing daily”.

    Her father, 66, remains critically ill but stable.

    Meanwhile it has emerged that when police sealed off Mr Skripal’s home at the start of the investigation. there were two guinea pigs and a cat inside. The BBC understands the guinea pigs died of starvation and the cat, distressed from dehydration, was put down.

    ‘Propaganda war’

    Moscow called the special meeting of the Security Council in New York to discuss the attack, saying Britain had “legitimate questions” to answer.

    Mr Nebenzia said the accusations were “horrific and unsubstantiated”, and claimed the UK was waging a “propaganda war” against Russia.

    He said Novichok – the group of nerve agent used in the poisoning – is “not copyrighted by Russia, in spite of the obviously Russian name” and has been developed in many countries.

    “It’s some sort of theatre of the absurd. Couldn’t you come up with a better fake story?” he asked.

    In his statement to the 15-member council, Mr Nebenzia questioned why Russia would eliminate someone using a “dangerous and highly public” method.

    He contrasted the use of a chemical with the “hundreds of clever ways of killing someone” shown in British series Midsomer Murders.

    Responding, the British Ambassador to the UN, Karen Pierce, accused Russia of seeking to “undermine the international institutions that have kept us safe since the Second World War”.

    She said Russia came under suspicion for several reasons, saying it had “a record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations” and that it “views defectors as suitable targets for assassination”.

    Ms Pierce told delegates that Russia’s request to visit Ms Skripal had been passed on and “we await her response”.

    “Ms Skripal’s own wishes need to be taken into account,” Ms Pierce added.

    ‘Unprecedented’

    On Friday, former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Russia’s comments were a “classic Russian attempt to obfuscate”.

    He said: “They are in a very serious position because it’s not just the UK that has taken action against them. In an unprecedented way, that did not even happen in the Cold War, 29 countries have withdrawn their diplomats.”

    He also said the UK had shared “highly classified information” with the other countries which was also “unprecedented”.

    Meanwhile, US representative Kelley Currie said Russia was attempting to use the Security Council “for political gains”, adding: “This is not a tactic that is appropriate for this body.”

    It comes amid an escalating diplomatic crisis between Moscow and the West as 60 expelled US envoys left Russia on Thursday.

    More than 20 countries have expelled Russian envoys in solidarity with the UK, following Britain’s initial expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats.

    The UK government has constantly maintained Russia was behind the attack, claiming there is “no other plausible explanation”.

    Chemical weapons expert Hamish De Bretton Gordon said he had seen some of the intelligence in the Skripals’ case and was “100% sure” Russia was responsible.

    He told BBC Radio 5 live “we know almost 100%” that Novichok, which requires a “sophisticated laboratory, a lot of money, resources and expertise to make”, was made at Shikhany, a military facility “the size of Salisbury” in central Russia, and the agent used in the attack on the Skripals was “military grade”.

    He added: “We are talking a tiny amount [of Novichok], a quarter of an egg cup full which would be very easy to smuggle.”

    ‘Against transparency’

    On Wednesday, Russia proposed a joint investigation into the poisoning but the idea was voted down by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

    In a press conference, Russian ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, said it marked a vote against “transparency”.

    Meanwhile on Thursday, in a statement issued through UK police, Ms Skripal thanked those who came to her and her father’s aid.

    It came shortly after Russian TV aired a recording of an alleged phone conversation between Ms Skripal and her cousin.

    Doubts were raised over the authenticity of the recording but the cousin, Viktoria, has told Newsnight she is 100% certain it was Yulia.

Russia Kemerovo fire: Shopping centre exits ‘were blocked’

Russian investigators and witnesses say there was no alarm and exits were blocked when a fire engulfed a shopping and entertainment mall in Siberia, killing at least 64 people.

Many of the victims in the coal-mining city of Kemerovo were children.

Russia’s Investigative Committee spoke of blocked exits and “serious violations” at the Winter Cherry mall.

Sunday’s blaze started on an upper floor. The mall’s shops, cinema and bowling alley were packed at the time.

Video on social media showed people jumping from windows to escape.

The Investigative Committee says a fire safety technician at the complex “switched off the alarm system” after being alerted about the fire.

The committee says two other fire safety officials have been detained for questioning, along with the Winter Cherry complex’s technical director and the manager of a business located where the fire started.

Ten people are still listed as missing. Local teachers are trying to trace their pupils, who were on holiday. They do not know how many were in the complex.

In a Facebook post (in Russian), Kemerovo politician Anton Gorelkin said that “fire exits were shut, turning the complex into a trap” and “there was no organised evacuation”.

He also said a fire extinguisher that could have doused the flames at the start did not work.

The region’s deputy governor, Vladimir Chernov, said “this is the question: why were the doors shut?”

Russian media said most of the roof had collapsed. The fire engulfed a children’s trampoline room and a cinema on the fourth floor.

The cause of the fire is not yet known.

Firefighters said the building was still smouldering a day later, with smoke billowing out and the remaining structures at risk of collapse.

What do we know so far?

The fire broke out at about 17:00 (10:00 GMT) on Sunday. Some 660 emergency personnel were deployed in the rescue effort.

Deputy governor Chernov was quoted as saying the fire probably began in the children’s trampoline room.

“The preliminary suspicion is that a child had a cigarette lighter which ignited foam rubber in this trampoline room, and it erupted like gunpowder,” he said.

However, Rossiya 24 TV, a national broadcaster, said an electrical fault was the most likely cause – as in most previous deadly fires in Russia.

Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Anna Kuznetsova, has blamed negligence, and called for urgent safety checks at similar entertainment complexes.

Two witnesses told BBC Russian that they had seen the fire blazing in the trampoline room on the fourth floor but had not heard any fire alarm.

Meanwhile, witness Anna Zarechneva told Russian RBC News that “a woman burst into the cinema during the film and shouted ‘Fire! Fire!’, and we started running out”.

“The lights didn’t come on in there to help us escape. We got out by following the floor lighting. But at that point no alarm bells were ringing. I only heard an alarm when I reached the first floor.”

The daughter of a shop assistant who was working on the second floor said “the alarm didn’t go off… she learnt about the fire from a man who ran past her – there was no help from any staff”.


Russia’s deadliest fires

2009 – 156 people die in a Perm nightclub inferno in the Urals region, Russia’s worst fire in recent years (fireworks and lack of exits blamed)

2007 – Fire engulfs a rural old people’s home in the southern region of Krasnodar, killing 63 (burning cigarette blamed)

2006 – 46 die in Moscow narcological hospital fire (arson blamed)

2003 – A hostel fire at the Russian People’s Friendship University in Moscow kills 44 (lack of safety measures blamed)

1999 – Fire engulfs the police headquarters in the southern city of Samara, killing 57 people (burning cigarette blamed officially, but arson by criminals not ruled out)

Source: Interfax news agency


There are unconfirmed reports that some mall guards prevented children from fleeing down staircases.

Kemerovo region has declared three days of mourning, and locals are leaving flowers and cuddly toys at a makeshift memorial near the complex.

An Instagram post from Kemerovo showed a big queue of volunteers waiting to donate blood at a clinic.

Skip Instagram post by kemerovo_insta

Очередь в пункт Сдачи Крови! Кемеровчане 🙏🏻 #кемерово #кемеровоинста #kemerovo #kemerovoinsta #кузбасс

A post shared by Кемерово | Kemerovo (@kemerovo_insta) on Mar 25, 2018 at 6:50pm PDT

Report

End of Instagram post by kemerovo_insta

Who were the victims?

At least nine of the bodies found so far are children.

As well as those killed, 11 injured victims are being treated in hospital, suffering from smoke inhalation.

The most serious case is an 11-year-old boy whose parents and siblings died in the fire, Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova said. He reportedly fell from the fourth floor and is in intensive care with multiple injuries.

Russia’s emergencies ministry says 58 bodies have been recovered, and so far just 17 have been identified.

Kemerovo lies about 3,600km (2,200 miles) east of Moscow.

The shopping centre, covering 23,000 sq m (248,000 sq ft), opened in 2013. It includes a petting zoo, all of whose animals are reported to have died.

Yevgeny Dedyukhin, deputy head of the Kemerovo region emergency department, said the area of the fire was about 1,500 sq m.

“The shopping centre is a very complex construction,” he said. “There are a lot of combustible materials.”

Russia and Taliban deny US claims of working together

Russia and the Taliban have separately rejected comments made by the head of US forces in Afghanistan that Moscow has been supporting, and even supplying weapons to, the insurgent group.

Gen John Nicholson told the BBC last week he had seen “destabilising activity by the Russians”.

The Russian embassy in Kabul in a statement dismissed the general’s claim as “baseless” and “idle gossip”.

A Taliban spokesman said they had not “received assistance from any country”.

The spokesman told the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency: “The enemy has no evidence in this regard.”

  • Who are the Taliban?
  • Sacked Tillerson issues Russia warning
  • Taliban ‘threaten 70% of Afghanistan’

    Speaking with the BBC’s Justin Rowlett, Gen Nicholson said Russia had been undermining US efforts in the region despite shared interests in fighting terrorism and narcotics.

    The US general explained: “We’ve had weapons brought to this headquarters and given to us by Afghan leaders and [they] said, this was given by the Russians to the Taliban.”

    American commanders, including Gen Nicholson, have made similar allegations of collusion before, though no confirmed evidence has been made public.

Russia fire: Kemerovo shopping centre blaze kills children

At least four people, three of them children, have been killed and dozens injured in a fire at a shopping centre in Siberia, media reports say.

The blaze started on the fourth floor of the Winter Cherry building in the city of Kemerovo, according to Russia’s Sputnik news site.

Video posted on social media showed smoke billowing from windows as fire crews worked to evacuate the property.

People were also seen jumping from windows to escape the flames on Sunday.

Initial reports said that four children had died, but this was later corrected to three children and a woman.

A representative of Russia’s Investigative Committee, Svetlana Petrenko, said that 26 people had sought treatment or had been taken to hospital.

The fire started in part of the building that contains an entertainment complex and a cinema, local media reported, raising concerns that more children may have been trapped.

Ms Petrenko added that in two of the halls that formed part of the cinema, the ceiling had collapsed.

More than 200 people were reportedly evacuated in a rescue operation that involved 15 fire crews.

Eyewitnesses said the popular shopping centre also contained a zoo, with animals including guinea pigs, goats, hedgehogs and cats – although there have been no reports of any animal fatalities.

The cause of the blaze is not yet known but authorities have launched an investigation into the incident, Sputnik added.

‘Orange snow’ baffles eastern Europeans

People in eastern Europe have been wondering at the appearance of orange-tinted snow.

Pictures of the snow have been posted on social media from Russia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania and Moldova.

Meteorologists say the phenomenon is caused by sand from Sahara desert storms mixing with snow and rain.

It occurs roughly once every five years but concentrations of sand are higher than usual his time. People have complained of sand in their mouths.

Skiers and snowboarders from resorts near the Russian city of Sochi sent pictures of the unusual scenes.

Russia and Taliban deny US claims of working together

Russia and the Taliban have separately rejected comments made by the head of US forces in Afghanistan that Moscow has been supporting, and even supplying weapons to, the insurgent group.

Gen John Nicholson told the BBC last week he had seen “destabilising activity by the Russians”.

The Russian embassy in Kabul in a statement dismissed the general’s claim as “baseless” and “idle gossip”.

A Taliban spokesman said they had not “received assistance from any country”.

The spokesman told the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency: “The enemy has no evidence in this regard.”

  • Who are the Taliban?
  • Sacked Tillerson issues Russia warning
  • Taliban ‘threaten 70% of Afghanistan’

    Speaking with the BBC’s Justin Rowlett, Gen Nicholson said Russia had been undermining US efforts in the region despite shared interests in fighting terrorism and narcotics.

    The US general explained: “We’ve had weapons brought to this headquarters and given to us by Afghan leaders and [they] said, this was given by the Russians to the Taliban.”

    American commanders, including Gen Nicholson, have made similar allegations of collusion before, though no confirmed evidence has been made public.

Russia and Taliban deny US claims of working together

Russia and the Taliban have separately rejected comments made by the head of US forces in Afghanistan that Moscow has been supporting, and even supplying weapons to, the insurgent group.

Gen John Nicholson told the BBC last week he had seen “destabilising activity by the Russians”.

The Russian embassy in Kabul in a statement dismissed the general’s claim as “baseless” and “idle gossip”.

A Taliban spokesman said they had not “received assistance from any country”.

The spokesman told the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency: “The enemy has no evidence in this regard.”

  • Who are the Taliban?
  • Sacked Tillerson issues Russia warning
  • Taliban ‘threaten 70% of Afghanistan’

    Speaking with the BBC’s Justin Rowlett, Gen Nicholson said Russia had been undermining US efforts in the region despite shared interests in fighting terrorism and narcotics.

    The US general explained: “We’ve had weapons brought to this headquarters and given to us by Afghan leaders and [they] said, this was given by the Russians to the Taliban.”

    American commanders, including Gen Nicholson, have made similar allegations of collusion before, though no confirmed evidence has been made public.