In this occasional series, The Washington Post brings you up to speed on some of the biggest stories of the week. First up: independence movements in Iraq and Spain are torn between votes and the law.

The biggest story: Two crucial votes leave two regions in limbo

Iraqi Kurdistan faced a backlash after the region voted for independence in a highly contested referendum last week. The United States declared the results illegitimate, and the Iraqi government imposed a ban on international flights to airports operated by the Kurdistan Regional Government. Tensions could escalate, especially if the Iraqi government decides to send troops into the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk, as Mustafa Salim, Karen DeYoung and Tamer El-Ghobashy write

As Iraqi officials were pondering their next moves, violence between pro-secessionists and central government officials erupted in Spain's Catalonia region.

Catalonia turns its back on Spain

With each passing day, national authorities and pro-independence forces in Catalonia seem to be moving toward direct confrontation with Spain. Catalan authorities disobeyed judicial orders to stop a referendum on Sunday that appeared to overwhelmingly back splitting from Spain.

Spain’s high court has launched an investigation against top Catalan police and organizers on suspicion of inciting rebellion against the state, as William Booth writes from Barcelona.

Five other important stories

1. France makes civil liberties restrictions permanent

Among the points of contention between Catalonia and Spain is the alleged lack of counterterrorism information-sharing between regional and national authorities.

Elsewhere in Europe, similar concerns led to tougher laws this week. The French Parliament on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a national security bill that significantly expands the state’s power to fight terrorism, although critics say it poses a historic threat to civil liberties.

Read the full story by James McAuley in Paris.

2. The important Swedish court case that mostly went unnoticed

European laws can be used to prosecute terrorists and war criminals if they commit offenses in Europe, but most rights violations committed by suspects in Syria or Iraq who later fled to Europe have gone unpunished.

With the U.N. Security Council deadlocked over Syria’s war and international willingness for high-level prosecution fading, lawyers have turned to the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows national courts to investigate certain international crimes. A trial in Sweden has ended in a landmark conviction, the first anywhere in the world of a Syrian soldier for crimes committed during the war.

Read the full story by Heba Habib and Louisa Loveluck.

3. Under siege in their villages, Rohingya still in Burma say they’re trapped

Similar legislation could theoretically be used to prosecute officials responsible for the exodus of half a million Rohingya Muslims from Burma in just five weeks. The Burmese government has locked down troubled Rakhine state, blocking independent access to media and aid organizations that could gather evidence of atrocities that the United Nations has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Max Bearak gathered testimony from more than a dozen Rohingya trapped in Burma.

The Washington Post's Maher Sattar and Joyce Lee also spoke to one survivor in a video interview: 

4. Can the North Korean regime's lifeline be cut off?

This week, The Washington Post revealed that a mysterious North Korean vessel steaming toward the Suez Canal was seized off Egypt with a huge cache of weapons in August 2016.

A U.N. investigation later uncovered a complex arrangement in which Egyptian business executives ordered millions of dollars' worth of North Korean rockets for the country’s military while also taking pains to keep the transaction hidden. The incident shed light on a little-understood global arms trade that has become an increasingly vital financial lifeline for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, writes Joby Warrick.

Successive rounds of U.N. sanctions have cut off more than 90 percent of North Korea’s publicly reported exports — including coal, iron ore, seafood and, most recently, textiles — and have restricted the regime’s ability to earn foreign currency income by sending workers abroad. In China, pain and frustration are mounting, as Anna Fifield observed

5. An economic shift may have convinced Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive 

Financial pressure may also be behind Saudi Arabia's surprise announcement last week to allow women to drive. The Saudi government is aiming to increase female workforce participation from 22 percent to 30 percent by 2030. Lifting restrictions on driver’s licenses may be risky for Saudi royals in other ways, but it is one clear way to push the economy in the right direction, writes Adam Taylor.

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