Lawyer Says Independent Journalist Abducted in Georgia

An independent Azerbaijani journalist has been abducted from Georgia, where he had been living, and forcibly taken to Azerbaijan, his lawyer said on Wednesday.

A court in this former Soviet republic was due to hold a hearing later on Wednesday to arrest Afgan Mukhtarli, who is facing charges of smuggling and crossing the border illegally.


Mukhtarli, who is also a civil rights activist, had been living in neighboring Georgia for two years. His lawyer, Elchin Sadigov, told The Associated Press the journalist was abducted outside his home Monday evening, beaten up and taken to the land border between Azerbaijan and Georgia. Sadigov claimed that the journalist’s captors planted 10,000 euros ($11,180) on him, which led to the charges.


Eldar Sultanov, spokesman for the Azerbaijani Prosecutor General’s Office, said the journalist was detained late on Monday “after illegally crossing the Azerbaijani border” with a large sum of money.


Mukhtarli left Azerbaijan in 2015, around the time when several Azerbaijani journalists working for foreign or local independent media faced charges of tax evasion.


Mukhtarli’s wife, Leila Mustafayeva, told the AP she was waiting for her husband at home Monday evening but he never showed up. Mustafayeva said her husband had been investigating Georgian business ties of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s family.


“Naturally, this created resentment in the presidential family,” she said, insisting that her husband’s disappearance is connected to his investigation.


Several dozen journalists rallied in the capital, Tbilisi, demanding that Georgian authorities explain how they allowed the reported abduction to happen.


Giorgi Gogia, Human Rights Watch director of South Caucasus, in a statement described Mukhtarli’s disappearance as another step in the Azerbaijani government’s “relentless crackdown on critics.”



Kushner, Merkel Top Questions at Contentious Briefing

Days after President Donald Trump’s first overseas trip, the contentious relationship between the news media and the White House was on full display. Embattled White House press secretary Sean Spicer abruptly cut short the first post-trip press briefing after once again lecturing reporters about their treatment of the president. It comes as reports circulate of an impending shakeup among White House communications staff, as VOA’s Bill Gallo report.


Flynn to Provide Senate Committee Documents in Russia Probe

U.S. President Donald Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has agreed to hand over documents to the Senate intelligence committee in connection with its investigation into Russia’s efforts to influence last year’s U.S. presidential election.

Flynn had previously refused a subpoena from the committee, with his lawyers asserting the request was too broad in what it was seeking. 

The committee filed a more narrow subpoena, and Flynn is now expected to provide some personal documents and those related to two businesses by next week.

The House intelligence committee is conducting its own investigation, and on Tuesday Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, turned down a request to provide information, calling it “poorly phrased, overly broad and not capable of being answered.”

The U.S. Justice Department has appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel in another investigation that also includes whether Trump campaign aides colluded with Russia.

Trump has rejected those allegations and dismissed the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign aimed at the November election with a desire to help Trump’s chances of beating former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“Russian officials must be laughing at the U.S. & how a lame excuse for why the Dems lost the election has taken over the Fake News,” Trump wrote Tuesday on Twitter.

Later, at a White House briefing for reporters, spokesman Sean Spicer said Trump “is frustrated … to see stories come out that are patently false, to see narratives that are wrong, to see, quote, unquote, fake news, when you see stories get perpetrated that are absolutely false, that are not based in fact.”

Trump’s Russia comment came as news reports continued to focus on Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a White House adviser, and his reported attempt to establish a back-channel communications link to Russian officials in the weeks before Trump’s inauguration in January.

Some foreign affairs experts said the move, while former President Barack Obama had weeks left in his term, worried them that it could undermine U.S. security, and some opposition Democrats have suggested Kushner’s security clearance should be revoked.  Other experts say exploring the creation of “backchannels” is commonplace, even during presidential transitions.

Spicer deflected several questions about Kushner’s actions, telling one reporter his inquiry “presupposes facts that have not been confirmed.”

The White House also is bracing for the upcoming congressional testimony of former FBI chief James Comey.  Trump fired Comey after allegedly asking him to drop the probe into Flynn and his close ties to the Kremlin.


Cyprus President Rebukes UN Envoy for Gas Search Comment

The president of Cyprus on Tuesday rebuked a United Nations envoy for speaking of a possible crisis over the ethnically divided country’s search for offshore oil and gas, calling the remark “unacceptable” and a “threat” amid faltering reunification talks.

The envoy, Espen Barth Eide, was quoted in the Greek newspaper To Vima as expressing concern about the issue. In similar remarks earlier this month, Eide said an “international crisis” could lead to a collapse of the ongoing talks aiming at reunifying Cyprus as a federation.

“I regret that I’m being harsh about it, but I’ve made complaints directly that I consider such remarks unacceptable, especially if they’re made in the form of a threat,” President Nicos Anastasiades told reporters.

It’s the second time this month that Anastasiades, a Greek Cypriot, has leveled strong criticism at Eide, accusing him of bias.

Turkey and the Cypriot government are sharply divided over the energy search.

Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup mounted by supporters of union with Greece.

Turkey, which doesn’t recognize Cyprus as a state, opposes what it calls a unilateral Greek Cypriot project which flouts the rights of breakaway Turkish Cypriots. In March, the Turkish Foreign Ministry warned that it would “take all necessary measures to protect its interests” in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as those of the Turkish Cypriots. Turkey is also said to claim part of gas exploration areas, or blocks, off Cyprus’ western and southern coast.

French energy company Total is scheduled to drill an exploratory well off Cyprus’ southern coast in mid-July.

Peace talks are at a standstill after Eide called off mediation efforts last week when Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci failed to find common ground on holding a final summit in Geneva, Switzerland. Anastasiades insists on prioritizing at the summit an agreement on withdrawing more than 35,000 troops that Turkey has kept in the island’s breakaway north since 1974. Akinci maintains that all issues should be discussed in a give-and-take process.

Anastasiades said Tuesday there would be no point to a Geneva summit if Turkey isn’t ready to discuss the security issue.


Ex-Gitmo Inmate Among 6 Detained from French Jihadi Network

A French judicial source says a former Guantanamo Bay inmate is among six people from an alleged jihadi recruiting network linked to the Islamic State group who have been detained.

The official said Tuesday that the suspects arrested in Bordeaux included Sabir Mahfouz Lahmar, who was freed from the U.S. detention center in Cuba in 2009 after France agreed to accept him.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the case.

Lahmar was one of six Algerians detained in Bosnia in 2001 on suspicion of plotting to bomb the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo. The Justice Department later backed off the allegations, but held the men at Guantanamo for years.

The French official said Lamar, at age 48, is the oldest of the group of four men and two women arrested.


BA Debacle Puts Spotlight on Airlines’ Old IT Systems, Cuts

The catastrophic IT failure at British Airways that ruined travel plans for 75,000 people has raised questions about some older airlines’ focus on costs to the detriment of investment in new computer systems.

As British Airways resumed full service Tuesday, shares in its parent company, International Airlines Group, dropped 3 percent as investors appeared to worry that the company’s quality of service may have been undermined by recent efforts to save money.


Disaster struck on Saturday, when the company’s computer systems went down and there was no functioning back-up. The airline cancelled all flights and only managed to resume full service on Tuesday.


“Although cost cutting has been good for the share price in the last year, it will come back to bite IAG if it stops them from doing what they are supposed to do: Fly passengers to their destinations,” said Kathleen Brooks, the research director at City Index.


IAG has been battling tough competition, even as it has faced pressure on its earnings from a weaker pound following Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. The company issued a profit warning following the Brexit vote nearly a year ago.


Cost pressures aggravated an already complicated situation. Renewing IT systems is complex, time-consuming and expensive — a factor that prompts many companies to put it off as long as possible, said Loizos Heracleous, a professor of strategy at Warwick Business School.


The problem with IT systems is recurring across the industry, particularly among established airlines. In August, Delta Air lines cancelled hundreds of flights when a power outage likewise knocked out its computer systems worldwide.


Airlines face challenges with their IT systems also due to linkages across their systems. There’s further demand on the system when companies consolidate — as has been the case among airlines — since “IT issues get heightened and any vulnerabilities are exposed.”


Such troubles give an advantage to newer airlines such as Ryanair, a cost-cutting BA rival that focuses on short haul budget flights.


“The ability to set up an airline from scratch by-passes a lot of the legacy issues, because you can go for state-of-the-art systems,” Heracleous said. “Newer airlines can also invest in IT systems that are more easily upgradeable and scaleable. An airline such as Ryanair, that is also financially successful, has more leeway to divert needed resources towards upgrading its IT systems.”


Capitalizing on BA’s troubles, Ryanair said it had seen “strong bookings” over the weekend. Its Twitter account rubbed salt into the wound with tweets that poked fun and added the hashtag “ShouldHaveFlownRyanair.”


The company’s chief marketing officer, Kenny Jacobs, admitted on the BBC “we had a bit of fun on social media.”


“We don’t take social media seriously but we do take IT very seriously and that is why we’ve never had an outage,” he told the BBC.


Ryanair posted a 6 percent increase in annual profits Tuesday to 1.3 billion euros ($1.4 billion) despite “difficult trading conditions,” caused by terror attacks in European cities and a sharp decline in the British pound.


BA, meanwhile, is counting up the cost of an IT debacle that some have estimated could run into the tens of millions. There are also all those news clips of passengers swearing they will never fly the airline again.


“The whole sorry episode has undeniably put a dent in BA’s reputation for delivering a premium service,” said George Salmon, equity analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown.




Moreno: Assange is a ‘Hacker’ But Will Continue to Receive Haven

Ecuador’s new President Lenin Moreno described WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as a “hacker” but said he would continue to receive asylum in the South American country’s embassy in London.

“Mr. Assange is a hacker. That’s something we reject, and I personally reject,” Moreno told journalists on Monday. “But I respect the situation he is in, which calls for respect of his human rights, but we also ask that he respects the situation he is in.”

Moreno’s tone is a sharp break from that of his predecessor Rafael Correa, who had said Assange was a “journalist and granted him asylum in London in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over rape allegations. And Moreno’s right-wing opponent in the election had promised to kick Assange out of the embassy if he won.

Since taking power, Moreno has also warned Assange “not to intervene in the politics” of Ecuador or its allies.

Assange, who denies the allegations, feared Sweden would hand him over to the United States to face prosecution over WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents in one of the largest information leaks in U.S. history.

Even though Sweden dropped the charges earlier this month, authorities in London have warned Assange that he would be arrested if he left the embassy that his been his home for five years.



Paris Mayor Says ‘Solution’ Found for Black Feminist Event

The mayor of Paris said Monday that a “clear solution” has been found with organizers of a festival for black feminists, an event that had aroused her ire because four-fifths of the festival space was to be open exclusively to black women.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo had strongly criticized and threatened to cancel the upcoming Nyansapo Festival a day earlier because it was “forbidden to white people.”


In a new series of tweets on the topic, Hidalgo said her “firm” discussion with organizers had yielded a satisfactory clarification: the parts of the festival held on property would be open to everyone and “non-mixed workshops will be held elsewhere, in a strictly private setting.”

Three-day event


MWASI, the Afro-feminist collective sponsoring the three-day event, responded to the mayor’s latest comments by saying it hadn’t changed the festival program “an inch.”


“That’s what was planned from the beginning,” the collective said of how the public and private spaces would be assigned.

Anti-racism associations and far-right politicians in France both had criticized the event over the weekend for scheduling workshops limited to a single gender and race.


France defines itself as a country united under one common national identity, with laws against racial discrimination and to promote secularism to safeguard an ideal that began with the French Revolution.

Paris mayor steps in

On Sunday, Hidalgo had said she would call on authorities to prohibit the cultural festival and might call for the prosecution of its organizers on grounds of discrimination.

“I firmly condemn the organization of this event in Paris (that’s) ’forbidden to white people,’” Hidalgo had written.  


Telephone calls to MWASI were not immediately returned Monday.


The group describes itself on its website as “an Afro-feminist collective that is part of the revolutionary liberation struggles” and is open to black and mixed-race women.

The program for the first annual Nyansapo Festival, which is set to run July 28-30 partly at a Paris cultural center, stated that 80 percent of the event space only would be accessible to black women.

Rights group condemns festival

Other sessions were designed to be open to black men and women from minority groups that experience racial discrimination, and one space was scheduled to be open to everyone regardless of race or gender.


Organizers said on the event’s website that “for this first edition we have chosen to put the accent on how our resistance as an Afro-feminist movement is organized.”

Prominent French rights organization SOS Racism was among civil rights groups condemning the festival, calling it “a mistake, even an abomination, because it wallows in ethnic separation, whereas anti-racism is a movement which seeks to go beyond race.”


The International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA), meanwhile, called the festival a “regression” and said American civil rights icon “Rosa Parks must be turning in her grave.”



‘Burkini party’


Identity politics remain a recurrent hot potato in a nation where collecting data based on religious and ethnic backgrounds is banned and the wearing of religious symbols — such as face-covering veils — in public is prohibited.

This approach, known to the French as “anti-communitarianism,” aims to celebrate all French citizens regardless of their community affiliations.

Last week, several women attempting to stage a “burkini party” were detained in Cannes after a ban against the full-body beachwear favored by some Muslim women was upheld in a fresh decree.


Manchester Bomber’s Mosque Comes Under Scrutiny

The mosque where the Manchester bomber prayed is coming under the spotlight after it emerged at least two other British recruits of the Islamic State also worshipped there.

One of the recruits, Khalil Raoufi, died fighting in Syria in 2014. The other, Ahmed Ibrahim Halane, is living in Denmark, where he holds citizenship and is banned from re-entering Britain.

Halane’s sisters, Zahra and Salma Halane, who traveled to Syria to become “jihadi brides,” are believed also to have worshipped at the mosque, say local Muslims.

Last week, trustees of the Didsbury Mosque and Islamic Center issued a statement condemning as an act of cowardice the Manchester Arena bombing by 22-year old British-Libyan Salman Abedi. The bombing left 22 people dead and 100 injured.

The trustees detailed clashes Abedi had with imam Mohammed Saeed over sermons he delivered denouncing IS in 2015. Saeed said Abedi looked at him “with hate” after he gave a sermon criticizing IS and militant Libyan group Ansar al-Sharia. Saeed said most of the mosque’s members supported the condemnation of IS, although a few signed a petition criticizing him.

Saeed said he reported his worries about Abedi’s friends to the police. Manchester police say the mosque is not under investigation.

Inconsistent statements

Mosque elders have been inconsistent in their remarks about Salman Abedi and his attendance at the mosque. Saeed acknowledged the suicide bomber was a regular worshipper until the 2015 argument over IS. But mosque chairman, Muhamad el-Khayat, said last week while other family members were regulars, Salman Abedi “himself we did not know, maybe we have seen him once.”

The bomber’s father Ramadan was a member of the anti-Gadhafi Libyan Islamic Fighting Group that had ties to Osama bin Laden but whose

leaders insist they never affiliated to al Qaida . Ramadan called worshippers to prayer at the Manchester mosque before he moved back to Libya after the ouster of Muammar Gadhafi. He is being held by a vigilante militia in Tripoli along with one of his sons, who the militia says has confessed to IS membership and was involved in a plan to assassinate U.N. envoy to Libya Martin Kobler.

Mosque elders have also appeared defensive. They have refused to allow the media into the mosque and tried to block a Muslim reporter from the BBC from entering to pray.

During Friday prayers, el-Khayat told worshippers the media interest in the mosque, which has been receiving threats and hate mail and is being guarded by police, had been overwhelming. He said the elders fear being misinterpreted.

“We strongly continue to condemn the horrendous crime that was committed,” he said. He praised Britain as a hospitable country for Muslims.

But his remarks aren’t silencing mounting criticism from Muslim activists opposed to militant Islamic ideologies. They say the mosque must bear some responsibility for Abedi’s radicalization because of the conservative Salafi brand of Islam it espouses.

Providing platform for hate

Maajid Nawaz, who helped found the London-based counter-extremist group, Quilliam, has accused the Didsbury mosque of hosting preachers who expressed anti-Semitic and anti-liberal views.

Speaking on London radio station LBC, Nawaz, a British-Pakistani, refused to praise the mosque for its condemnation of IS, saying “the biggest danger to our community at the moment is extremist preachers like this, using mosques that tolerate extremist preachers like this, that breed jihadist terrorists.”

“Until we can separate these extremists from our community and isolate them, don’t blame the rest of society for wondering whether every Muslim is an extremist, when our mosques are hosting the extremists themselves,” he added.

There has been fierce debate in Britain in recent years about the role mosques play, unwittingly or not, in the process of radicalization. In 2015, Conservative peer Baroness Warsi, a Muslim, claimed most radicalization is happening online and not at mosques.

But two British government reports have warned extremists take advantage of mosques and other institutions, including universities, to spread a “poisonous narrative.”

In a recent study of British IS recruits for the Henry Jackson Society, British research institute analyst Emma Webb warned some mosques have “functioned as spaces in which extremists could socialize with each other and form relationships” and where extremists can begin the process of recruitment.

She told VOA some family members of British IS recruits complain that by providing a platform, even for non-violent Salafi ideology, some mosques are playing a role in the radicalization process.

“It isn’t so much that they recruited them,” she argued, “but that they gave them an ideology that allowed them to think it was okay to kill Shi’ites and okay to hate certain people, so it made it easier for them to be recruited subsequently.”



Trump Sends Mixed Messages During First Foreign Trip

Donald Trump is back in Washington after wrapping up his first international trip as president. The nine day trip was free of any major controversies abroad, but did produce several eyebrow-raising moments. VOA’s Bill Gallo reports.


New French President Promises Tough Talk at First Putin Meeting

New French President Emmanuel Macron is promising tough talk at his first meeting with Vladimir Putin on Monday, following an election campaign when his team accused Russian media of trying to interfere in the democratic process.

Macron, who took office two weeks ago, has said that dialogue with Russia is vital in tackling a number of international disputes. Nevertheless, relations have been beset by mistrust, with Paris and Moscow backing opposing sides in the Syrian civil war and at odds over the Ukraine conflict.

Fresh from talks with his Western counterparts at a NATO meeting in Brussels and a G-7 summit in Sicily, Macron will host the Russian president at the palace of Versailles outside Paris.

Amid the baroque splendor, Macron will use an exhibition on Russian Tsar Peter the Great at the former royal palace to try to get Franco-Russian relations off to a new start.

“It’s indispensable to talk to Russia because there are a number of international subjects that will not be resolved without a tough dialogue with them,” Macron said.

“I will be demanding in my exchanges with Russia,” the 39-year-old president told reporters at the end of the G-7 summit on Saturday, where the Western leaders agreed to consider new measures against Moscow if the situation in Ukraine did not improve.

Strained relations under Hollande

Relations between Paris and Moscow were increasingly strained under former president Francois Hollande. Putin, 64, cancelled his last planned visit in October after Hollande said he would see him only for talks on Syria.

Then during the French election campaign the Macron camp alleged Russian hacking and disinformation efforts, at one point refusing accreditation to the Russian state-funded Sputnik and RT news outlets which it said were spreading Russian propaganda and fake news.

Two days before the May 7 election runoff, Macron’s team said thousands of hacked campaign emails had been put online in a leak that one New York-based analyst said could have come from a group tied to Russian military intelligence.

Moscow and RT itself rejected allegations of meddling in the election.

Putin also offered Macron’s far-right opponent Marine Le Pen a publicity coup when he granted her an audience a month before the election’s first round.

Macron decisively beat Le Pen, an open Putin admirer, and afterwards the Russian president said in a congratulatory message that he wanted to put mistrust aside and work with him.

Hollande’s former diplomatic adviser, Jacques Audibert, noted how Putin had been excluded from what used to be the Group of Eight nations as relations with the West soured. Meeting in a palace so soon after the G-7 summit was a clever move by Macron.

“Putin likes these big symbolic things. I think it’s an excellent political opportunity, the choice of place is perfect,” he told CNews TV. “It adds a bit of grandeur to welcome Putin to Versailles.”

The Versailles exhibition commemorates a visit to France 300 years ago by Peter the Great, known for his European tastes.

Frank conversation

A Russian official told reporters in Moscow on Friday that the meeting was an opportunity “to get a better feel for each other” and that the Kremlin expected “a frank conversation” on Syria.

While Moscow backs President Bashar al-Assad, France supports rebel groups trying to overthrow him. France has also taken a tough line on European Union sanctions on Russia, first imposed when it annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and cancelled a $1.3 billion warship supply contract in 2015.

During the campaign, Macron backed expanded sanctions if there were no progress with Moscow implementing a peace accord for eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv’s forces have been battling pro-Russian separatists.

Since being elected, Macron appears to have toned down the rhetoric, although he noted the two leaders still had “diverging positions” in their first phone call.

Macron has said his priority in Syria was crushing the Islamic State group, which will resonate with Putin.

One French diplomat said Macron was insisting on talking more after several years when everyone took France’s hard line for granted, making compromise difficult.

“Macron gave himself enough wiggle room, which opens up a new diplomatic and political window,” said the diplomat.


Norway Demands Return of Funds From Palestinian Authority

Norway is demanding that the Palestinian Authority reimburse it for funds donated to a women’s center on the West Bank because the center was named after a female militant who participated in an attack in Israel that killed 37 civilians.


The Norwegian Foreign Ministry says the country “will not allow itself to be associated with institutions that take the names of terrorists.”


Israeli Foreign Ministry officials applauded Norway’s move and urged “the international community to check closely where the money that it invests in the Palestinian Authority goes.”


The women’s center was named for Dalal Mughrabi, a member of the Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). She participated in the 1978 Coastal Road massacre in Israel and died during the attack.