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Expert Tells UN He’s Haunted by Video of 3-Year-Old Cutting Teddy Bears’s Head

Mubin Shaikh says he’s haunted by a video image: A 3-year-old boy uses a large knife given to him by his parents to cut off his teddy bear’s head.

Shaikh is a Canadian Muslim who was radicalized as a young man and is now an expert on countering violent extremism. He uses that video to train police and intelligence services.

Shaikh told a U.N. Security Council meeting on children and armed conflict Tuesday that it’s a “real-life story of where we are today and what we will deal with tomorrow.”

He said armed groups around the world are using children to carry out attacks, build their ranks and promote their beliefs.

Shaikh urged action to prevent recruitment — and to demobilize and rehabilitate radicalized children.

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Opposition Journalists’ Trial Resumes in Turkey Amid Global Concern

Turkey’s press freedom record is under international scrutiny with the resumption of the trial of journalists and executives of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, widely seen as the last mainstream newspaper critical of the president and his government. The case is part of an ongoing crackdown after last year’s failed coup.

Outside Istanbul’s main courthouse Tuesday, a speaker addressing a crowd of press freedom supporters defiantly declared journalists will neither remain silent nor submit until the release of their colleagues.

Seventeen journalists, lawyers, executives, and the cartoonist for the Cumhuriyet newspaper are facing sentences of up to 43 years in jail on terrorism charges. The defendants are accused of being linked to the group Ankara blames for last year’s failed coup. Numerous journalists have been arrested and media organizations shut down in the ongoing post-coup crackdown.

Point of concern

The Cumhuriyet case has become a focal point of international concern over press freedom, according to International Press Institute President John Yearwood. “Turkey is very wanting when it comes to the freedom of press,” he said.

“They have more journalists in jail than any other country in the world,” said Yearwood. “Cumhuriyet is the last remaining truly independent publication here in Turkey. If the government can come in and throw its journalists in jail and succeed in its goal of shutting down the newspaper, it would create a huge hole in how people can get information, one, and two, the type of information that they get.”

Yearwood and his Austria-based media freedom advocacy group were among many foreign observers, including human rights groups and representatives of the European Union, attending the newspaper’s trial. Although the case is nearly a year old, Tuesday was only the fourth day of hearings.

The trial has been criticized for its slow pace, especially as five of the defendants continue to be held in pretrial detention. What observers say is the lack of evidence against the accused has also drawn national and international condemnation.

Government defense

The government has strongly defended the case, insisting the country continues to face a threat to democracy and that no one is above the law.

But Yearwood warned Turkey will pay a heavy price for such cases against journalists, saying Turkey will continue to “get a black eye, not only in Europe but throughout the rest of the world.”

“And we hope that the government here cares about how it is viewed by the rest of the world, particularly if it is trying to be part of the global community,” he added. “And so we think that the country should stop throwing journalists in jail. It is reprehensible.”

In another case in the same Istanbul courthouse, two journalists were released from months of pretrial detention in an ongoing trial against pro-Kurdish newspaper Ozgur Gundem.

The paper was closed down last year for supporting terrorism. Forty eight newspapers have been closed under emergency rule introduced after last year’s failed coup.

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Bosnia Says Terror Suspect Extradited to US

Bosnian authorities say a man with suspected terrorism links has been extradited to the United States.

 

The prosecutor’s office said in a statement on Tuesday that the agency has taken part in a “complex operation” to locate the suspect and hand him over to the U.S. No other details were immediately revealed.

 

Bosnian media have identified the suspect as Mirsad Kandic, a Kosovo-born Islamic State group supporter sought for years by the U.S.

 

The Zurnal online news portal says Kandic was arrested in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo in July, and kept in detention until the extradition Tuesday. Kandic has reportedly spent time in the former IS stronghold of Raqqa, and helped Australian teenage suicide bomber Jake Bilardi, also known as Jihadi Jake, reach the Islamic-held territory in 2014.

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Leftist Candidates Dominate Local Elections in Macedonia

Candidates supported by Macedonia’s left-led government have dominated local elections, preliminary results from Sunday’s runoff show.

 

Results on the state electoral commission’s website Monday gave government-backed candidates victory in 57 of 81 municipalities, including the capital, Skopje.

Candidates backed by the main opposition VMRO-DPMNE conservatives won five posts.

 

The election took place amid bitter rivalry between Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s new Social Democrat-led government and VMRO-DPMNE, which had governed for a decade.

 

The first round was held Oct. 15. Past elections in Macedonia have been marred by claims of vote-rigging or voter intimidation.

 

But the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitored the elections, said the second round of voting showed “respect for fundamental freedoms.”

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Romania: Lawmakers Approve Law That May Harm Press Freedom

Romanian senators on Monday approved a proposal that would allow Parliament to dismiss the chief of the Agerpres national news agency, despite opposition from press groups, which said it could harm the outlet’s political independence.

 

Senators voted 64-16 with 27 abstentions to approve the amendment, initiated by members of the ruling Social Democratic Party. Culture Minister Lucian Romascanu said the changes were necessary because Parliament currently lacked the authority to fire the agency’s general manager.

 

But press groups, including Reporters Without Borders, the European Center for Press and Media Freedom and the Romanian Center for Independent Journalism among others, published a letter earlier urging lawmakers not to change the law, saying: “Don’t destroy this institution. Don’t vote to change the law.” The proposal still needs to be approved by the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies before it can become law.

 

Agerpres general manager Alexandru Giboi criticized the vote, saying lawmakers wanted “merely to transform (the agency) into…. a button that any political party in power can press,” to control it.

 

Under existing legislation, Agerpres’ general manager has a five-year mandate and the agency, under parliamentary control, is required to be politically impartial.

 

The European Federation of Journalists has called the measure “an instrument to politicize the public service media.”

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Finnish President Says Joining NATO Would Require Referendum

Any move by Finland to join NATO would need public approval via a referendum, President Sauli Niinisto told a panel debate on Monday ahead of elections in January.

The Nordic country is a member of the European Union but has stayed outside the NATO military alliance in line with its tradition of avoiding confrontation with Russia, with which it shares an 833-mile (1,340 km) border and a difficult history.

It has forged closer ties with NATO in recent years, however, sharing information and taking part in military exercises, reflecting concerns in Finland about the Ukraine crisis and increased East-West tensions in the Baltic Sea.

Niinisto, who is expected to easily win a second six-year term in the Jan. 28 election, did not indicate whether he favored joining NATO but said a decision to apply for full membership would require a referendum.

“I am convinced that (membership) decision would require legitimacy, a wide acceptability … I would warn against making decisions where a significant part of citizens would get deep wounds,” Niinisto said in a panel discussion in Helsinki.

Only 21 percent of Finns support joining NATO, while 51 percent are opposed, a poll by YLE showed in February.

Niinisto, 69, who will stand as an independent candidate after previously representing the conservative National Coalition Party, is known for cultivating good relations with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Finland’s president is in charge of foreign and defense policy together with the government.

Nils Torvalds, the only one of seven presidential candidates who advocates joining NATO, said politicians needed to show leadership on the issue.

“The thesis of a referendum blocks the discussion on membership. Everybody’s waiting for a referendum and are not taking a stance on the real question … We do have a parliament to decide on issues.”

“To apply for a membership when a crisis is knocking on the door, forget that. The membership must be applied for when the weather is still rather beautiful.”

Torvalds, a politician for Swedish People’s Party of Finland, had 1 percent support in a recent opinion poll while Niinisto had 76 percent.

Finland’s center-right government has said it will monitor the security situation in the region and retain the option of joining NATO.

Russia, which has opposed NATO’s eastward expansion has said any move by Helsinki to join would be of “special concern.”

 

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Madrid: Separatist Leader Can Run in Catalonia’s Snap Election

The Spanish government has not banned Catalonia’s separatist leader from running in the December snap election. Spain’s foreign minister said Sunday ousted Catalan President Carles Puidgemont is theoretically eligible to run as the leader of his party unless he is imprisoned beforehand. Puidgemont’s government has caused Spain’s biggest political crisis in decades after declaring Catalonia’s independence from Madrid. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

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Women Rally Across France to Protest Sexual Harassment, Assault

Hundreds of women took to the streets of Paris and 10 other French cities to protest against sexual harassment in the wake of the scandal surrounding Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

In Paris, women gathered in Republic Square, waving signs bearing the #metoo hashtag used by tens of thousands of women to share personal stories of harassment and assault.

Similar gatherings were also held in Marseille, Bordeaux and Lille, among other cities.

As the #metoo campaign erupted across the United States, a similar campaign unfolded across France under the hashtag  #balancetonporc or #squealonyourpig. As in America, French women have begun naming and shaming their attackers.

Since it started, several prominent figures have been targeted in French assault claims, including a lawmaker in President Emmanuel Macron’s party, a judge on France’s equivalent of reality show “America’s Got Talent” and Oxford professor Tariq Ramadan, a leading lecturer in Islamic studies.

French-Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski, who is wanted in the U.S. for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in the 1970s, has also been hit with new abuse claims.

The avalanche of accusations was unleashed weeks ago when The New York Times and The New Yorker published reports of women accusing Weinstein of rape and sexual harassment going back decades. Among the accusers were some of Hollywood’s most prominent actresses, including Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Rosanna Arquette.

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In Calm Before Storm, Madrid and Catalan Separatists Maneuver

An air of calm settled over Barcelona after hundreds of thousands of Catalans attended a rally Sunday for Spanish unity. The atmosphere of the rally was peaceful, as police helicopters monitored from above.

Amid a forest of Spanish national flags and chants of “Viva Espana,” protesters called for the jailing of Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who on Friday issued a declaration of independence shortly before the Spanish government stripped Catalonia of its autonomy.  

But the calm that followed the rally in the Catalan capital attended by an estimated 300,000 people had the quality of the stillness before a storm.  Few are ready to hazard a prediction of how events in Catalonia may unfold in the coming days in a confrontation that has seen intransigence from both sides.

How Madrid starts imposing direct rule Monday on its restive northeast region, and how separatists respond, will determine the next phase in the month-long cat-and-mouse standoff between the politicians in Madrid and Catalan secessionists.  Both appear to be banking on the other side tiring like a bull played by a matador.

But fears are growing the perilous confrontation, at times visceral and seamed with past historical grievances including from the era of Gen. Francisco Franco, will degenerate into violence, despite the separatists’ determination to remain non-violent and Madrid’s eagerness not to repeat the national police violence that accompanied an October 1 independence referendum.

Olive branch

Despite the sacking of Puigdemont by Madrid among a raft of direct-rule measures announced Friday, including the dissolving of the regional parliament, Spanish ministers offered an olive branch Sunday by suggesting the Catalan leader is not barred from continuing in politics and even welcomed the idea of him taking part in regional elections Madrid has called for December 21.

Watch: Puigdemont can run in snap election

“If Puigdemont takes part in these elections, he can exercise [his] democratic opposition,” said government spokesman Íñigo Méndez de Vigo. That suggests the implacable deputy Spanish prime minister, María Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría Antón, a 46-year-old former prosecutor who is charged with overseeing direct rule, is not planning to kick off by arresting Catalan separatist leaders, a move some analysts say would be inflammatory, if it is tried.

Nonetheless, there will be several flash-points in the coming week that could push the confrontation, the worst political crisis to roil Spain since a failed military coup in 1981, down paths neither Madrid nor the secessionists want or could control, say analysts.  They worry the type of clashes seen on October 1, when the national police and Civil Guard tried to distort the referendum, will be seen when Madrid decides  to enforce direct-rule by closing down Catalonia’s parliament and regional government.  “I really will be amazed if we don’t see more of that, sadly,” said Sally Ann-Kitts, a lecturer in Hispanic studies at Britain’s University of Bristol.

“All sides seem to be living in Wonderland,” according to John Carlin, who was fired from his job at the Spanish newspaper El País earlier this month over an article he wrote highly critical of the Spanish government for its response to the independence referendum.

In an article for the London Sunday Times, Carlin argued the biggest risk may come if the idea takes hold “among highly energized independence-seeking youth that they have been the victims of a Franquista coup d’état.”

Another risk is that provocateurs on either side, violent anarchists or hardline Spanish nationalists take advantage of the mess Catalonia is in and organize an incident to provoke a reaction from their opponents.  On Friday young Spanish nationalists attacked a Catalan radio station.

Rival administrations

As things stand, Catalans will wake up Monday to two rival administrations in their region claiming legitimacy, the Puigdemont-led regional government and an emergency authority staffed by Spanish civil servants and led by Sáenz de Santamaría.  On Saturday, Puigdemont defied the fact that he was formally dismissed by the Spanish government and urged Catalans to “defend” the new republic in a televised address.

Separatist leaders and their supporters appear determined to wear Madrid down much as a matador does with a bull by obstructing and resisting the orders issued by Madrid. “The only answer we have is self-defense – institutional self-defense and civil self-defense.  I hope Catalans won’t be intimidated by Madrid,” says Abel Escriba, a pro-independence political scientist.

Madrid is banking on Catalonia’s 200,000 public employees and the executives of public companies in the region accepting direct-rule and ignoring the instructions of the Puigdemont-led regional government.  Public employee, teacher and firefighter unions have proclaimed their members will ignore Madrid’s instruction.

“We are going to ask them to be professional and to continue to provide services for their citizens,” a Spanish official told VOA last week.  The strategy is to be as light-touch as possible as the region is steered to the snap elections in December, which the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is gambling will go against the separatists.

A poll published by El Pais Saturday suggested a small majority of Catalans (52 percent to 43 percent) favor the dissolution of the regional parliament and the holding of the early elections.  Fifty-five percent of Catalan respondents opposed the declaration of independence, with 41 percent in favor of secession.

 

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Barcelona Holding United Spain Rally

Supporters of a united Spain are holding a demonstration in Barcelona Sunday to show they are in favor of the Spanish government’s dismissal of Catalonia’s cabinet and squashing of the region’s secession push.

Meanwhile, ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has called for peaceful “democratic opposition” to Spain’s takeover of the region that once enjoyed a considerable amount of autonomy.

In a pre-recorded statement, Puigdemont said he would continue working to build a free country and that only the regional parliament has the authority to dismiss the Catalan government.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy dissolved Catalonia’s parliament, just hours after the regional body voted Friday in favor of independence from Spain.

In addition to dismissing the regional parliament, Rajoy has called for snap Catalan elections on December 21 and has stripped Catalonia’s most senior police officials of their powers.

Inigo Méndez de Vigo, a spokesman for the Spanish government, said Puigdemont and all other Catalonian leaders will be eligible to run in the December election.

“We are giving the voice to the Catalans in a legal and free elections, not so-called referendum which is outside the law,” he said. “So, this is the way of telling the Catalans, if you want to vote, you have the right to vote, do it under the conditions of the law and freely.”

WATCH: Spanish official: ‘Giving the voice to the Catalans’ 

The resolution to secede from Spain was drafted and presented by the more radical separatist factions of the regional coalition headed by Puigdemont, and it passed with 70 votes in favor, 10 against and 2 blank votes.

Friday’s resolution by the Catalan regional parliament ends a period of uncertainty over Catalan independence that has prevailed since an October 1 referendum on independence that won 90 percent of the vote in a 50 percent voter turnout.

Puigdemont could face a 25-year prison sentence for sedition. The central government already has jailed two separatist leaders and is prosecuting other officials accused of using public resources to support the independence bid.

Belgium’s Asylum and Migration minister, said his country could offer Puigdemont asylum. Theo Francken said on Twitter Sunday that independent asylum authorities would make the final decision about whether to grant asylum to the deposed leader.

World reaction

De Vigo said Europeans “do not want any new nationalism,” and he pointed out that no foreign nations had yet recognized an independent Catalonia.

“We know what in history nationalism has meant to Europe. So, I think it is a very positive reaction,” he said.

The United Nations spokesperson urged all sides “to seek solutions within the framework of the Spanish constitution and through established political and legal channels.”

The European Union Council President Donald Tusk, who has supported Madrid’s approach to the crisis, said on Twitter he hoped “the Spanish government favors force of argument, not argument of force.”

European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker echoed the sentiment, saying “there isn’t room in Europe for other fractures or other cracks. We’ve had enough of those.”

NATO, of which Spain is a member, said in a statement, “The Catalonia issue is a domestic matter which should be resolved within Spain’s constitutional order.”

Even regional authorities in the traditionally nationalistic Basque region have been reluctant to support the Catalan cause, despite growing relations between radical separatists in both regions.

Madrid’s efforts to keep the country united also have the continued support of the U.S. government. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement, “… the United States supports the Spanish government’s constitutional measures to keep Spain strong and united.”

Russian involvement

Some international support for Catalan independence, however, seems to be coming from Russia, which is giving some recognition to Catalan separatists as reciprocal action for past U.S. and European backing to breakaway former Soviet republics and the controversial independence of Kosovo.

“By backing the independence of Kosovo, formed and prosperous countries such as Spain put at risk their own fragile stability,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week at an international forum in Sochi.

“It’s undeniable that Putin is interested in the destabilization and balkanization of Spain,” a senior Spanish diplomat told VOA, asking that his name not be used.

The de facto foreign minister of the Russian supported breakaway state of South Osetia, Dimitri Medoev, who is reported to be close to the Kremlin, visited Catalonia this week to set up an “interests office” in Barcelona to promote “bilateral relations in humanitarian and cultural issues.”

South Osetia pledged support for the “sovereignty of Catalonia” following the October 1 referendum.

Rogue states such as Venezuela and North Korea also have expressed support for Catalonian secessionism.

 Martin Arostegui in Barcelona contributed to this report.

 

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For Spanish, Catalan Economies, No Winners in Standoff

Xavier Gabriel can take some credit if the tiny Catalan mountain town of Sort is one of the most famous in Spain.

He runs a lottery shop called La Bruja de Oro, or The Golden Witch, in a town whose name, aptly, means “Luck” in Catalan. Its fortune in having sold many prize-winning tickets has made it a household name and a successful online business.

But the crisis surrounding Catalonia’s push for independence has changed life for 60-year-old Gabriel. He joined more than 1,500 companies in moving their official headquarters out of the wealthy region in recent weeks. Their main fear: that they would no longer be covered by Spanish and European Union laws if Catalonia manages to break away, dragging their businesses into unknown territory.

“The time had come to make a decision,” said Gabriel, who employs 16 people and describes himself as a proud Catalan.

​Hedging their bets

Like Gabriel’s, the vast majority of companies that moved their headquarters didn’t transfer workers or assets, such as bank holdings or production equipment. So far, it’s mainly a form of legal insurance. But as the political crisis escalates, the risk is that companies are deferring investments and hiring. There is evidence that tourists are holding off booking, perhaps frightened by images in the media of police crackdowns, street demonstrations and strikes.

And the situation risks getting worse before it improves: the central government’s decision Friday to take control of the region could spiral out of control if there is popular resistance, whether by citizens or local authorities like the Catalan police force.

“There is absolutely no doubt that the crisis is having a very damaging effect on the economy,” said Javier Diaz Gimenez, an economics professor at Spain’s prestigious IESE Business School.

Financial markets in Spain have so far fallen only modestly, reflecting investors’ apparent belief that the tensions will eventually be resolved. The Spanish government has called a regional election in Catalonia for Dec. 21 and could later consider revisions to the constitution that might placate some of the independence supporters.

But that could take some time, Diaz Gimenez says, given how confrontational both sides have been.

Banks leave

The list of businesses moving headquarters includes Catalonia’s top two banks, Caixabank and Sabadell, which are among Spain’s top five lenders. Then there is the Codorniu cava sparkling wine maker for which Catalonia is famous. Another well-known cava maker, Freixenet, is also planning to follow if the independence drive continues. Publishing giant Planeta, the world’s leading Spanish-language publisher and second biggest publisher in France, has also moved its official address out of Catalonia.

Caixabank says it suffered a moderate but temporary run on deposits because of the crisis, but said it has since recovered and was adamant the move was permanent.

Shares for Caixabank, Sabadell and some other companies have been volatile, falling after the Oct. 1 vote for independence and jumping sharply when they announced their decision to move headquarters.

Tip of the iceberg

Lottery shop owner Gabriel says ticket sales this month are up nearly 300 percent over last year, a rise he attributed to popular support for his decision to move his business.

Diaz Gimenez said the decisions to move headquarters, while not immediately affecting jobs, were “just the tip of the iceberg.”

“Plans to relocate firms or invest elsewhere are going to accelerate and some of it is going to go to, say, Poland, and it’s never going to come back,” he said.

“People that were thinking about investing in Spain and Barcelona are starting to think again,” he said. “It’s not just Catalonia. It’s the mismanagement by Spain, which is proving that it’s not a serious country because it cannot solve this thing.”

Spanish economy humming

The turmoil, ironically, comes just as Spain has been enjoying some of the fastest economic growth in Europe.

Its economy, the fourth-largest in the 19-country eurozone, grew by a hefty quarterly rate of 0.9 percent in the second quarter. The government has maintained its forecast for growth in 2017 at 3.1 percent, but revised its estimate for 2018 from 2.6 percent to 2.3 percent because of the political crisis. Moody’s credit rating agency has warned that a continued political impasse and, ultimately, independence for Catalonia would severely hurt the country’s credit rating.

Billions at stake

Tourism seems to be taking the biggest hit so far.

Experts say spending in the sector in Catalonia in the first two weeks of October — that is, following the independence referendum — was down 15 percent from a year earlier.

Tourism represents about 11 percent of Spain’s 1.1-trillion euro ($1.3 trillion) gross domestic product, with Catalonia and its capital, Barcelona, providing a fifth of that, being the most popular destinations for visitors.

Exceltur, a nonprofit group formed by the 25 leading Spanish tourist groups, expects growth in tourism this year to ease from an estimated 4.1 percent to 3.1 percent.

Reservations in Barcelona alone are down 20 percent compared with last year, it said. If the trend continues in the final three months of the year, it could lead to losses of up to 1.2 billion euros ($1.41 billion) in the sector, which in turn could affect jobs.

Analysts fear that the independence movement’s stated aim of continuing to create as much social and economic chaos for Spain as possible could exacerbate the situation. The Catalan National Assembly group has been openly talking about a boycott against Spain’s top companies and major strike activity.

“Spain, its tourism, everything is very dependent on image,” Diaz Gimenez said. “And this is just killing it.”

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Iceland’s Political Landscape Changing

The political landscape of Iceland has changed, according to preliminary results from Saturday’s election.

The Independence Party, which has won almost every election since independence from Denmark in 1944, is losing its center-right grip thanks to two scandals. Stepping in to that void are left-leaning parties.

Part of the current ruling coalition, the Independence Party, won 26 percent of the vote, down 3 percentage points from last year.

The main opposition Left Green Movement came in second with 17 percent of the vote.

The newly formed Center Party of former Prime Minister David Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson was third with 11 percent of the ballots. Gunnlaugsson was forced out of office last year when his name was found in the Panama Papers scandal that exposed worldwide tax evasion networks.

Katrin Jakobsdottir, leader of the Left Green Movement, told Reuters she is not ruling out working with the new Center Party. 

“Nothing is out of the picture, but our first choice is to work with the parties on the left,” she said. “We’d hoped that the opposition would get a majority, but that is unclear now.”

Talks to form a ruling coalition government are expected to last for several months.

Current Iceland Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, a member of the Independence Party, called the election last month after a member of the three-party center-right coalition resigned over a controversy about granting clemency to a child molester.

The clemency scandal coupled with the Panama Papers scandal led to the collapse of the government, prompting the second snap parliamentary election in a year.

Iceland has recovered spectacularly from the 2008 financial crisis, which forced the country into near bankruptcy. But the scandals have fueled anger and distrust among voters, who are increasingly concerned about inequality and immigration threatening one of the world’s most homogeneous countries.

Iceland’s 63-member parliament is one of the oldest in the world.

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Azerbajani Opposition Holds Anti-corruption Rally in Baku

Hundreds of people have attended an opposition-organized anticorruption rally in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku.

The protest Saturday was organized by the National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF) — an umbrella group of Azerbaijani opposition forces, under the slogan “No To Robbery.”

Activists from the Popular Front Party, People’s Democratic Party, National Statehood Party, Musavat Party youth organization, Muslim Union, and NIDA movement attended the rally.

The rally held in the Mehsul stadium in Baku’s Yasamal district was approved by the city authorities. Police said the protest was attended by an estimated 1,000 people, although opposition activists say the number was higher.

Protesters chanted slogans like “End to corruption” and “Freedom for political prisoners!”

Police cordoned off the area around the stadium as part of increased security measures.

No incidents were reported, and the rally ended peacefully, police said.

The opposition, as well as Western governments and international human rights groups, have criticized Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s government for persistently persecuting independent media outlets, journalists, and opposition politicians and activists.

Aliyev, who has ruled the oil-rich South Caucasus country of nearly 10 million people since shortly before his father’s death in 2003, has shrugged off the criticism, and the authorities deny that there are political prisoners in the country.

Recent international corruption investigations have also found that Aliyev’s family makes frequent use of offshore companies to hide its wealth and mask the ways it gains shares in Azerbaijan’s most lucrative businesses.

During the rally, Ali Karimli, the leader of the Popular Front Party, which is part of the NCDF, denounced government corruption. He said the government doesn’t use oil revenues effeciently, and high-level corruption deprives Azerbaijanis from benefiting from oil billions.

Human rights activist Oktay Gulaliyev told the rally that freedom of speech was under threat in the country.

“Access to independent, critical Internet sites has been blocked,” Gulaliyev said. “There are more than 160 [political] prisoners in the country, and up to 20 of them are journalists and bloggers.”

The rally came after the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) earlier this month voiced concerns over Azerbaijan’s “unprecedented crackdown on human rights” as well as checks and balances, and the functioning of justice in the country.

PACE on October 11 passed a resolution blasting “the reported prosecution and detention of leaders of NGOs, human rights defenders, political activists, journalists, and bloggers,” although some of them were released last year.

PACE cited cases of “torture and inhuman or degrading treatment during arrest, in police custody, and in prisons, and the lack of effective investigations, violations of the right to a fair trial, and violations of the right to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.”

The resolution also called on Azerbaijani authorities to “begin real and meaningful reforms” to remove the obstacles to the work of journalists and rights defenders.

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Azerbaijani Opposition Holds Anticorruption Rally in Baku

Hundreds of people attended on October 28 an opposition-organized anticorruption rally in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. The protest was organized by the National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF) — an umbrella group of Azerbaijani opposition forces, under the slogan “No To Robbery.” Protesters chanted slogans like “End to Corruption” and “Freedom for Political Prisoners!” (RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service)

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Ankara Mayor Resigns as Turkish President Continues Purge

The long-serving mayor of the Turkish capital, Ankara, has resigned after pressure from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the last few weeks, Erdogan has forced out of office six mayors belonging to his ruling AKP party as part of efforts to revitalize the party ahead of looming elections.

Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek’s resignation followed weeks of intense pressure by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, culminating in the president publicly warning the mayor of severe consequences if he did not quit. In his resignation speech, Gokcek made clear he was not leaving willingly after 23 years in office.

He said, “I’m quitting not because I’m unsuccessful. I’m quitting because Erdogan asked me to do so. I’m complying with Erdogan’s orders and leaving my post.”

Gokcek is the sixth mayor of Erdogan’s ruling AKP Party to be forced out by the president in the past few weeks. Included among the resignations are mayors of some of Turkey’s largest cities, including Istanbul. The purge is part of Erdogan’s effort to revitalize the party after its sluggish performance in this year’s referendum to extend the country’s presidential powers.

The referendum narrowly passed, and it was rejected in many of Turkey’s largest cities, including Ankara and Istanbul, traditional strongholds of the president. While opinion polls continue to give Erdogan’s AKP a commanding lead, the same polls indicate a growing number of undecided voters and a softening among his supporters.

Political analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners says with presidential and general elections due by 2019, Erdogan knows he has to act.

“That AKP lost of support is very obvious,” said Yesilada. “So Mr. Erdogan thinks by changing unpopular mayors and local administrations, which in his view have lost their desire to serve the public, he could turn the tide.”

The ongoing ouster of mayors already has resulted in unprecedented challenges to Erdogan’s authority. Several resignations came only after repeated threats by the president, who analysts say is accustomed to his demands being immediately obeyed.

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With Turkey under emergency rule since last year’s failed coup, Erdogan has sweeping powers to remove elected mayors from their office. It’s a power he has used on more than 80 occasions against mayors belonging to the pro-Kurdish HDP party. Erdogan’s ousting of his top mayors also is being accompanied by a similar ongoing nationwide purge of party and local elected officials.

Analyst Yesilada warns, though, that Erdogan’s strategy may be mistaken.

“What antagonizes the voter is probably not the local administrations or mayors, but it is Mr. Erdogan’s policies or cabinet polices,” said Yesilada. “But he does not seem to understand that. And this cleanup in the rank and file is leading to a lot of objections, as these people, they don’t understand why they are being let go.”

There are increasing reports of growing discord within the ruling AKP, though few members dare to openly speak out. But analysts warn Erdogan’s gamble on revitalizing his party by sacrificing his mayors could backfire given that voters are more likely to be concerned with Turkey’s rising double-digit inflation and unemployment, along with a sinking currency.

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Senate Judiciary’s Russia Probe Veers into Partisanship

The once-bipartisan Senate Judiciary Committee investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election has broken along partisan lines, with the committee’s top Democrat contacting witnesses independently and asking for a broad swath of new information.

After months of negotiations with Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley stalled, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein sent five letters of her own on Friday to witnesses and companies involved in the probe. The letters were sent to the White House, Facebook, Twitter and President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. There is also a letter to Cambridge Analytica, a data firm working for Trump’s campaign during the 2016 election.

The inquiries are designed to get more information about whether the Russian meddling was in any way connected with Trump’s campaign. Feinstein indicated this week that negotiations had broken down with Grassley, who has also sought to investigate issues surrounding Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The two senators have been talking since the summer about how to handle several witnesses, including whether to subpoena Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and whether to call Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. for a public hearing.

Both men were involved in a June 2016 campaign meeting with Russians. Trump Jr. spoke to committee staff behind closed doors in September.

As a member of the minority party, Feinstein could have a hard time getting responses. But she is trying anyway, asking the social media companies in particular for a wide range of information, some of which they have already declined to turn over because of privacy concerns. Facebook and Twitter, along with Google, will testify before a panel subcommittee on Tuesday about the Russian meddling.

In the White House letter, Feinstein asks White House counsel Don McGahn for a range of documents related to fired FBI Director James Comey. Going beyond a May request for documents she made with Grassley, which was not answered, Feinstein is asking for several other letters and memos surrounding his firing and about other figures key to the panel’s probe.

A release from Feinstein’s office said the letters were the “first tranche” and that “additional requests are expected to be sent in the coming weeks.”

Grassley has been sending his own letters in the Russia probe, including to Russians and people connected to Trump who were in the June 2016 meeting. Unlike letters sent earlier in the year, they were from Grassley alone and not Feinstein.

Feinstein has also been working on legislation with Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, another Democrat on the committee. The bill hasn’t yet been finalized but would “potentially would make crystal clear that working with America’s enemies to undermine American elections is a crime,” according to Blumenthal.

 

Blumenthal said Friday that he believes the investigation will continue, and “my hope is that we will all eventually come together.”

 

Also Friday, the House intelligence committee announced that it will hold a hearing Nov. 2 with Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. The hearing is listed as “open in a closed space,” which a committee spokeswoman said means that it will be closed to press, but a transcript will eventually be released.

 

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Catalonia Parliament Votes for Independence from Spain

The Catalan regional parliament voted for independence from Spain Friday by approving a resolution to convene a constitutional assembly to form a sovereign republic. The move was accompanied by applause and embraces between lawmakers present, who sang the Catalan anthem.

The resolution to secede from Spain was drafted and presented by the more radical separatist factions of the regional coalition headed by Catalonia President Carles Puigdemont, and it passed by 70 votes in favor, 10 against and 2 blank votes.

Spain’s ruling center-right Popular Party and the mainstream opposition socialists, who hold just under half the seats in the Catalan parliament, boycotted the session.

Waiting game

 

Friday’s resolution by the Catalan regional parliament ends a period of uncertainty over Catalan independence that has prevailed since an Oct. 1 referendum on independence that won 90 percent of the vote in a 50 percent voter turnout.

Puigdemont has held back from declaring independence for fear of triggering direct rule by the central government, which has been moving to take over the region’s finances, police services, and key infrastructure and administrative bodies, including publicly financed TV and broadcast media.

“It was very astute on the part of Puigdemont to let parliament vote on independence resolution prior to declaring it, as it gives him certain legal cover,” a former senior member of the Spanish parliament told VOA.

Puigdemont could face a 25-year prison sentence for sedition. The central government already has jailed two separatist leaders and is prosecuting other officials accused of using public resources to support the independence bid.

Immediately following the Spanish senate vote to impose direct rule on Catalonia, the government issued an official bulletin announcing that Puigdemont and his Vice President Orio Junqueras had ceased to be the heads of the Catalonian regional government.

Rajoy reportedly set to move 

Spanish official sources consulted by VOA say Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is preparing to appoint a close aide of Catalan origin to head a centrally administered regional government, and he has set Dec. 21 as the date for regional Catalan elections.

Spain’s Senate responded to Catalonia’s independence move by approving the application of constitutional article 155, which officially authorizes the central government to suspend Catalan authorities and take over the region’s administration.

“The turn of events … has left us with no recourse but the application of constitutional prerogatives to reinstitute the legal order in Catalonia,” said Spain’s senate president.

Rajoy appealed for national “calm” and called together a special cabinet meeting for later Friday.

“The government will take whatever measures are necessary. We will not allow a group of people to liquidate the country.” he told reporters.

Puigdemont, accompanied by other members of the Catalan regional government, lawmakers and hundreds of mayors, crowded onto the steps of the parliament building to address thousands of supporters gathering outside, shouting “liberty.”

In a short speech, he said, “We ourselves must now form our own structures and our own society.”

Opposition leader supports Spain

Socialist opposition leader Pedro Sanchez reacted to the Catalan independence move Friday by pledging “my party’s progressive flag will never join those seeking to take our country over the abyss.”

Even regional authorities in the traditionally nationalistic Basque region have been reluctant to support the Catalan cause, despite growing relations between radical separatists in both regions.

World reaction

The United Nations spokesperson urged all sides “to seek solutions with in the framework of the Spanish constitution and through established political and legal channels.”

The European Union Council President Donald Tusk, who has supported Madrid’s approach to the crisis, said on Twitter he hoped “the Spanish government favors force of argument, not argument of force.”

NATO, of which Spain is a member, said in a statement, “The Catalonia issue is a domestic matter which should be resolved within Spain’s constitutional order.”

Madrid’s efforts to keep the country united also has the continued support of the U.S. government. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement, “… the United States supports the Spanish government’s constitutional measures to keep Spain strong and united.”

Russian involvement

Some international support for Catalan independence, however, seems to be coming from Russia, which is giving some recognition to Catalan separatists as reciprocal action for past U.S. and European backing to breakaway former Soviet republics and the controversial independence of Kosovo.

“By backing the independence of Kosovo, formed and prosperous countries such as Spain put at risk their own fragile stability,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week at an international forum in Sochi.

“It’s undeniable that Putin is interested in the destabilization and balkanization of Spain,” a senior Spanish diplomat told VOA, asking that his name not be used.

The de facto foreign minister of the Russian supported breakaway state of South Osetia, Dimitri Medoev, who is reported to be close to the Kremlin, visited Catalonia this week to set up an “interests office” in Barcelona to promote “bilateral relations in humanitarian and cultural issues.”

South Osetia pledged support for the “sovereignty of Catalonia” following the Oct. 1 referendum.

Rogue states such as Venezuela and North Korea also have expressed support for Catalonian secessionism.

 

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Catalan, Spanish Historians Continue Dueling, Using History as Battlefield

History is a battlefield in the contentious independence standoff between Spain and Catalan secessionists, pressed into service by each, shaped as a weapon and hurled with abandon.

Both sides in the confrontation that threatens the territorial integrity of Spain have raised the political temperature by citing some of the darkest chapters in Spanish and Catalan history to provoke or to bolster support.

Underscoring the struggle for hearts and minds are disputes about who did what to whom, stretching back to 1714, an emblematic year for Catalans, when after a long siege the Catalan capital of Barcelona, which was loyal to the Habsburg dynasty, fell to the troops of the Bourbon monarch, Felipe V.

The victorious king shuttered Catalonia’s parliament, closed the city’s universities and banned Catalan as the official language.

Since then, the Catalans have struggled with three centuries of exclusion and repression by Madrid, enjoying short periods of autonomy and recognition, and long periods of being forced into a cultural homogeneity dictated by the dominant Castilian nationalism of Spain.

When Spain’s current monarch, Felipe VI, broadcast earlier this month in an unprecedented televised address, his condemnation of Catalan separatists for their “lack of loyalty to the Spanish government,” casting their October 1 independence vote as illegal and undemocratic, Catalan secessionists reacted by referencing the 18th century repression of his namesake.

Catalan commentators, even those holding pro-unity sentiments, complained the king was not the best person to deliver a scathing attack on the independence aspirations of Catalan secessionists, arguing he was merely feeding into the separatist narrative of Madrid’s long-standing disdain for the sub-nationalisms of the Catalans, Basques and Galicians, and the Castilian oppression of Catalonia stretching back to 1714.

The most frequent references to the past that both sides have used to frame the independence standoff roiling Spain, however, is to the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

Regional autonomy was a key driver of the Spanish Civil War — Franco and the nationalist army opposed the leftwing Republican government’s extension of autonomy to Catalonia and the Basques.

To hear some Catalan separatists speak, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is the second coming of General Franco, a hyperbolic comparison considering that in the purges following the civil war the Franco regime executed an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Catalans.

That’s a far cry from the violent clashes at voting stations on October 1 when 800 were injured as police, on the orders of Madrid, sought to close voting stations in Barcelona.

“The suppression Catalans lived with during the Franco dictatorship has remained in people’s hearts, and has been transmitted to my generation,” argued Catalan filmmaker Irene Baque.

Some critics of the separatists counter that more Catalans likely were killed during the civil war by the Communist-dominated Republican government as it sought to purge anarchists, Trotskyites and other political undesirables from its ranks — an action that fractured the left as it sought to fend off Franco’s fascist uprising.

And they note that during the 1939-1975 Franco dictatorship there were plenty in the ranks of Catalonia’s middle and landed classes who saw conservative values and law and order as higher priorities than Catalan nationalism. They were supportive of the regime and thrived under it.  

Some hardline Spanish nationalists have gleefully stoked the fires of past controversy.

Earlier this month, Pablo Casado, a lawmaker with Rajoy’s ruling People’s Party, warned Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont that history might repeat itself. Casado said his fate could be similar to that of one of his predecessors, Lluis Companys, who ended up being shot in 1940 by General Franco.

And there was deliberate provocation by Spanish nationalists in Madrid last month when some cheered national police units as they headed to Catalonia to try to prevent the October 1 independence vote by shouting “Viva Franco.”   

“This is a very long lasting political conflict,” said Josep Costa, a political scientist. “The issue of the status of Catalonia within Spain is a problem that comes out every time there is a democratic opening of Spanish society.”

Both sides can be accused of airbrushing the complex history of Spain. Most Spaniards remain unaware the first book printed in Spain was in Catalan. Pro-unity Catalan historians complain that they get snubbed by Catalonia’s cultural institutions, which are dominated the pro-secessionists.

Spanish and Catalan historians have been guilty of mutual ignorance for years, with Spanish historians disregarding Catalan contributions and glorifying the story of the Castilians, and their Catalan rivals doing the reverse and demonizing Spain, according to Swiss journalist Raphael Minder.

“National identity is rooted in history, which is why so much importance is attached to celebrating one event rather than another,” he wrote in his new book on Catalan rebel politics, The Struggle for Catalonia.

He added, “When there is serious disagreement over the past, it becomes even harder to agree over the present, let alone the future.”

 

 

 

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Migrants Stranded on Greek Isles Facing Mental Health Crisis

More than 10,000 mainly Syrian refugees who escaped fighting in their country are living on five Greek islands. About 2,500 of them are crowded into camps on the island of Samos, even though there is only room for about 800. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports aid groups say there is a growing mental health crisis among those refugees.

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Party’s Launch Could Upend Erdogan, Turkey’s Political Establishment

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accused by critics of amassing power and creating the latest in a series of autocratic governments in the country, faces a new political threat after the launch Wednesday of the Iyi Party by Meral Aksener.

The former interior minister boosted her profile by campaigning against a referendum on extending the Turkish president’s powers, and now observers see her as potentially posing the biggest challenge to Erdogan’s re-election bid. Some polls show she could secure more than 20 percent of the vote and threaten the majority that Erdogan’s party now holds in parliament.

Aksener, a right-wing nationalist, is promising to shake up Turkish politics with the launch of her Iyi, or “Good,” Party.

“It is time to say new things,” she said Wednesday in a speech at the kickoff of her party, where she promised to take things in a new direction. “Yes, we have major problems. But Turkey has enough powers to resolve them. We have hopes and dreams. We want a prosperous and just Turkey. We want a free society. We want a happy Turkey.”

Criticism on human rights

The Good Party seeks to place itself in the center-right of Turkey’s political spectrum. In what appeared to be a jab at the Erdogan government and its post-coup-attempt crackdown on journalists, Aksener took aim at the country’s recent human rights record.

“Media should not be under pressure. Democratic participation, a strong parliament and the national will are irreplaceable,” she said.

Turkey has been under emergency rule since last year’s failed coup, with tens of thousands arrested or dismissed from their jobs.

Aksener, interior minister during the 1990s, gained prominence this year in a formidable campaign against a referendum to extend Erdogan’s powers. The ballot measure was approved, but by the narrowest of margins — something analysts attributed to the success of Aksener’s campaign.

Several recent opinion polls have suggested she enjoys strong support, with one poll giving any party she leads more than 20 percent in what political analysts say could be a rising tide of discontent about the crackdown.

“She clearly rides the wave of current political anxiety and dissatisfaction of voters with existing political parties,” said political consultant Atilla Yesilada of GlobalSource Partners, a political and economic analysis service. “The economy is slowing down and the currency is going down. People are accumulating foreign currency. There is anxiety about what the future will bring.”

Turkey is suffering both double-digit inflation and unemployment, while the currency is approaching record lows fueled by diplomatic tensions with many allies and concerns about the country’s large foreign debt. A driver of Erdogan’s success at the polls was a booming economy, characterized by massive infrastructure projects.

Appeal to AKP constituency

If Erdogan’s fortunes are in fact changing, and supporters insist they are not, Aksener could benefit.

“She is getting cross-party support,” said political scientist Cengiz Aktar, highlighting that a parliamentary deputy of the center-left CHP Party had joined her ranks. “But the natural terrain of her party where she can really grow is the constituency of the [ruling] AKP Party.”

The timing of the founding of the Good Party is opportune for Erdogan opponents, coinciding with what observers say are signs that Erdogan’s AKP is in disarray. Erdogan is in the midst of purging dozens of the country’s mayors — including those of the capital, Ankara, and Istanbul — in an effort to revitalize his party ahead of general and presidential elections in 2019.

“This whole process is demoralizing the [AKP] party. Their willingness and desire to fight the next election is diminishing as we speak,” said political consultant Yesilada. “It’s like the old joke in the office: ‘Whippings will continue until morale improves.’ It does not work that way,” the analyst said.

While opinion polls give AKP a commanding lead over its rivals, some polls record a softening in AKP support, with as much as 20 percent of its voters considering not supporting the party. But Aksener’s political past is seen as a potential handicap.

“Her party of origin is the extreme right MHP Party, which is far from being a center-right party,” said Aktar. “Her brain team [advisers], her very close team, are almost all [of] MHP origin. Among them are some very radical figures. She needs to broaden her political staff if she is to broaden her constituency. For the time being, in Turkish public opinion, she is considered an offspring [of] the MHP.”

Winning over Kurdish voters

In the eyes of skeptics, Aksener’s political baggage will be her biggest hurdle in seeking to win over AKP Kurdish voters, who account for about a fifth of its support. The MHP, her old party, is deeply hostile to the granting of greater rights to Turkey’s large Kurdish minority. But with Erdogan increasingly courting nationalist voters, he has enforced a major military crackdown in Kurdish regions. Ankara’s tough stance against the recent Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum, some analysts say, has further alienated traditional AKP Kurdish voters.

“The AKP Kurds have no alternative, even though Erdogan has been quite tough on the Kurds. The traditionalist Kurds know CHP or MHP is no alternative. They will evaluate now whether the Iyi Party is serious,” said Aktar.

Aksener reportedly is planning to spend time in the Kurdish region. Critics charge that the logo of her party, perhaps by coincidence, is an image of the sun, a traditional symbol of Kurdish nationalists.

“Aksener, during her time as interior minister, was considered a heavily anti-Kurdish politician, so she needs to change this image and it won’t be easy. There are no good memories about her among the Kurdish population,” said Aktar.

Aksener’s tenure as interior minister was at the height of fighting against the Kurdish separatist group, the PKK. She was then a member of the center-right DYP Party, which traditionally secured significant Kurdish votes despite the conflict, a legacy observers say she will seek to resurrect.

On Kurdish rights, as on most key policy issues, Aksener has not yet revealed her hand.

“She is going to get reaction votes, but whether she really can put together an agenda that will appeal to all those unsatisfied voters is an unanswered question,” said Yesilada.

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NATO Challenges Russia on Scope of War Games

NATO has accused Russia of misleading the Western military alliance about the military exercises it held last month with Belarus.

“There is a discrepancy between what Russia briefed before the exercise … and the actual numbers and the scale and the scope of the exercise,” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday.

Russian defense officials said the Zapad 2017 exercises involved 12,700 troops, but NATO contends there were nearly 100,000 troops from the Arctic to eastern Ukraine and that they simulated attacks on the West.

Alexander Grushko, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, disputed the claim. “NATO countries are counting all the military activities that took place in the Russian Federation and counting them as part of Zapad,” he said. “We don’t accept the propaganda about the Russian exercises.”

In the run-up to the exercises, there was concern in the West that Russia would use the war games to seize parts of the Baltics that have high numbers of Russian minorities, as it did with Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014.

There was also concern that Moscow would leave troops at NATO’s borders, for possible future confrontation with the West. But Stoltenberg said there was no indication Russia had done so.

Grushko insisted there was “no proof” of the claims NATO was making. “All efforts have been to demonize Zapad,” he said.

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Catalan Leader Says Revoking Autonomy Will Worsen Crisis

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont says the Spanish government will worsen the political crisis over the Catalonia region’s push for independence if lawmakers go ahead with a threat to revoke its autonomy.

In a letter Thursday to the Senate, Puigdemont said the proposed steps go beyond reasonable measures and carry “direct and immediate consequences” for the people of Catalonia.

“In order to resolve what the government has called a serious, extraordinary situation, it will create an even more serious, extraordinary situation by seizing Catalonia’s political autonomy,” Puigdemont said.

The Senate is expected to approve direct rule for Catalonia during a session Friday.

Catalonia’s regional government announced Puigdemont would make an announcement Thursday, but did not give details.

Speculation about his possible moves has included formally declaring independence on the basis of an October 1 referendum, or calling for snap elections for the regional government.

Carlos Uxo, a senior lecturer at Monash University, says it is a foregone conclusion that the Senate will go ahead with stripping Catalonia’s independence.

“To be approved, you need a majority in the Senate, and the ruling party, Partido Popular, has that majority so they don’t even need to discuss with other parties,” Uxo told VOA. “They have said that it will go ahead no matter what the Catalan government does.”

The situation has played out for several weeks with both sides threatening to take action the other sees as escalating the situation.

Uxo said he thinks neither side is ready to engage in real dialogue.

“I think they are more interested at this stage in defending their views rather than trying to come out of this stalemate,” he said.

VOA’s Victor Beattie in Washington DC contributed to this report.

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EU Human Rights Prize Goes to Venezuela Opposition, Prisoners

The democratic opposition and political prisoners in Venezuela have won the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for human rights. 

 

The European Parliament said Thursday that it wanted to reward the courage of students and politicians fighting for freedom in the face of a repressive government. 

 

Guy Verhofstadt of the ALDE liberal group said that “this award supports the fight of democratic forces for a democratic Venezuela.’’ He urged “the international community to join us in this fight for the freedom of the people of Venezuela.’’ 

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Hong Kong Publisher Gui Minhai Released, but Still Missing

International concerns about the safety and whereabouts of a Hong Kong publisher Gui Minhai, who was seized by Chinese authorities in Thailand two years ago, is growing after China claimed he was released last Tuesday.

More than a week has passed, and Gui has not contacted any of his family or friends, despite Beijing’s claim that he’s “free to travel,” according to his daughter, Angela Gui.

On Wednesday, she told a Hong Kong radio station that if her father is not free to travel within China or abroad or contact people, then he is neither released nor free.

“The fact we don’t know where he is and the fact that we haven’t heard anything from him, actually means that he’s been disappeared again. And this is something that I think is very serious,” Angela Gui told Hong Kong’s RTHK radio.

​Release coincides with congress

Gui’s alleged release coincided with the Communist Party’s twice-a-decade national congress. During the high-level political meetings and leadership reshuffle, China went to great lengths to control commentary online. Authorities also detained dozens of dissidents and activists, putting them under tighter monitoring or sending them out of the capital on “vacation.”

Still under informal custody?

Rights activists called on the Chinese government to prove — not just claim — that Gui is truly free while many speculated pessimistically that he would remain under informal custody until Chinese authorities no longer see him as a threat.

China will only “gradually ease its monitor on him [Gui] if he stays low-key, keeps his mouth shut and shys away from media or other dissidents. Only when attention toward his case is watered down will he be set free completely,” said Chinese rights lawyer Chen Guangwu.

Nonrelease release

Peter Dahlin, a Swedish activist who used to work with rights lawyers in China, said via Twitter Tuesday that Gui is likely “a straightforward case of Chinese nonrelease release. ‘Free’ in a guesthouse somewhere under 24/7 watch.”

Dahlin is personally familiar with China’s methods and practices. Right around the time that Gui ran into trouble, he was detained on charges of damaging national security. Held for 23 days and interrogated, Dahlin was later released and deported, but only after authorities released a video-taped “confession” on national television.

In late 2015, Gui, a Swedish passport holder, was one of five Hong Kong booksellers who disappeared.

He first disappeared from his vacation home in Thailand and then reappeared in early 2016 in an apparent staged confession on Chinese state media.

He was later jailed for his alleged involvement in a 2003 hit-and-run case, which lawyer Chen argued was just an excuse for Beijing to put Gui behind bars as China hadn’t introduced any drunken driving regulation back then.

Political taboo

The real reason behind Gui’s incarceration, Chen argued, was that many of his publications have embarrassed top leaders with details of their private lives, which is seen as a political taboo in China that could potentially endanger the country’s political stability.

Upon his release last June, Gui’s colleague Lam Wing Kee said that during questioning his interrogators had a slip of the tongue and revealed their identity.

“He told me: We’re members of the central special task force. You booksellers have sent books by post to our domain in China, which slander our national leaders and endanger our national security. We have our eyes on you,” Lam said in an earlier interview with Taiwan’s Public Television Service.

Katrina Byrenius Rosland, the Swedish Foreign Ministry spokesperson, told VOA late Wednesday that her ministry is still working to get details of Gui’s whereabouts and well-being while seeking clarifications from their Chinese counterparts.

Whereabouts unknown

According to Gui’s daughter, the Swedish Consulate General in Shanghai received a phone call Monday from someone who claimed to be Gui and said that he wanted to visit his “ill mother.”

“To my knowledge, my grandmother isn’t ill. My father is not in fact with her. It is still very unclear where he is. I’m deeply concerned for his well-being,” Angela Gui said in a statement posted on her Twitter account earlier this week.

William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, said the way China handled the controversial arrests of several Hong Kong booksellers, including Gui, has shocked both the public in Hong Kong and the international community with its attempts to arbitrarily detain citizens, even foreign passport holders outside of China.

“Saying that he’s released, but he wants to go visit his old mother. … All these sorts of pretenses isn’t gonna give any further confidence that China’s legal system is just and that China is actually a rule-of-law country. And I think that’s one thing that Hong Kong people are very concerned about,” Nee told VOA.

The bookseller controversy will remain a constant reminder to the former British colony that China’s promises of a self-ruled Hong Kong are nothing but lip service, said Wu Chi Wai, chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party.

“What the mainland government has done will put up a lot of frustration to the people of Hong Kong that … in terms of the implementation of ‘one country two systems,’ they [China] tried to find room not to honor the way we think how the ‘one country, two systems’ should be honored,” Wu said.

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French Film Institute Goes Ahead With Polanski Retrospective

France’s famed film institute La Cinematheque Francaise says it will go ahead with a retrospective of works by director Roman Polanski despite opposition by feminist groups.

 

La Cinematheque said Wednesday that calls to cancel the Polanski screenings – attended by the director – only began “in the last few days” as the sexual harassment accusations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein gained force. The statement said it would not change the program that begins Monday.

 

Weinstein denies the allegations.

 

The institute said its role was not to moralize – in regard to the Polish-born director who in the 1970s pleaded guilty to having sex in the U.S. with a 13-year-old girl whom he plied with champagne and Quaaludes.

 

Since Polanski fled the U.S., he mostly has lived in Paris.

 

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Russia Frees Two Pro-Kyiv Crimea Tatar Leaders from Jail

Russia has freed two prominent Crimean Tatar activists opposed to Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, their lawyer said Wednesday.

Ukraine’s leader thanked Turkey’s president for helping broker the release.

Ilmi Umerov, deputy head of the Crimean Tatars’ semi-official Mejlis legislature before it was suspended by Moscow, was sentenced last month by a Russian court to two years in jail for separatism.

Ahtem Chiygoz, another Crimean Tatar leader, was sentenced at the same time to eight years for stirring anti-Russian protests.

“What everyone had been waiting for so long, has happened,” a defense lawyer for the Crimean Tatars, Nikolai Polozov, wrote on his Facebook page. “Two more hostages, two Ukrainian political prisoners have gained their freedom.”

There was no immediate confirmation of their release from Russian authorities.

The Tatars, a mainly Muslim Turkic community that makes up about 15 percent of Crimea’s population, have largely opposed Russian rule in the peninsula and say the 2014 annexation was illegal, a view supported by the West. They suffered mass deportation under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Nariman Dzhelyalov, a Crimean Tatar leader, told Reuters the two, Ilmi Umerov and Ahtem Chiygoz, had landed in Turkey.

“This is the result of Turkey’s talks with Russia with Ukraine’s participation,” he told Reuters.

“After Erdogan’s visit to Kyiv, representatives of Russian competent bodies turned up at Umerov’s house in Crimea to agree the terms [of the release].”

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his role in helping free the pair.

Moscow says the overwhelming majority of Crimeans voted to join Russia in a proper and fair referendum.

Western governments and human rights groups had alleged the two Crimean Tatar leaders were imprisoned for speaking out against Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and pressed Moscow to release them.

Umerov’s supporters said at the time that the two-year jail term handed to him actually amounted to a death penalty for the elderly man who suffers from Parkinson’s disease.

Russian officials denied the prosecutions were politically-motivated.

A U.N. human rights report said last month that Russia had committed grave human rights violations in Crimea, including its imposition of citizenship and deporting of prisoners. Moscow said it deemed those allegations “groundless.”

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German Woman’s Letter to Man who Fled Nazis Stirs Memories

Peter Hirschmann has often recounted his own story of fleeing Germany as a teenager to escape Adolf Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, then joining the U.S. Army to fight the Nazis.

But the 92-year-old started to cry as he read a three-page letter, neatly printed in blue fountain pen, which arrived out of the blue from Nuremberg and stirred very different thoughts of his past.

 

Its author, Doris Schott-Neuse, told him how her grandfather had acquired Hirschmann’s family home under the Nazis, expressing her shame and imploring him for forgiveness.

 

Spurred to look into her family’s past after helping a friend dealing with traumatic issues related to her own, the 46-year-old civil servant was shocked to find the family narrative she’d believed for years was a half-truth at best, and felt compelled to reach out to the elderly man in Maplewood, New Jersey, near New York City.

“I am deeply ashamed for what us Germans did to yourself, your family and to your friends and relatives and to the members of the Nuremberg Jewish community,” she wrote. “It is hardly bearable to start thinking about the details — what a horror and nightmare it must have been to live through this.”

 

Included in the envelope were photos of the Hirschmann family home today.

 

“I teared up because it brought back to mind all of those memories of mine,” Hirschmann recalled in an interview.

 

___

 

The home is a stately building on the northeastern outskirts of Nuremberg, on Eichendorffstrasse 15.

 

“It was probably one of the nicer homes around according to the standards of the day,” Hirschmann said. “Of course things have changed; it wouldn’t rank as one of the great mansions that you would see, but at the time it was a really lovely place.”

 

Hirschmann fondly recalls helping tend his family’s fruit, vegetable and flower gardens.

 

He also remembers how his parents set up sprinklers for him and his friends after the Nazis came to power and steadily removed of Jewish rights — like at the local public pool.

 

“All of a sudden there was a sign up there: ‘Juden und Hunde Verboten,’ which means Jews and dogs not allowed,” he said.

 

Schott-Neuse has little memory of the home itself. Her aunt inherited it in 1969 after Schott-Neuse’s grandmother died, and Schott-Neuse was 5 when her aunt sold it. She has vague recollections of Easter egg hunting in the garden and her aunt’s small black-and-white television.

 

She didn’t know either of her grandparents, and she’d never asked a lot of questions. From her aunt, she learned a vague story about the house.

 

“She told me there were Jews who were the owners, who were able to escape to the United States and my grandparents helped them,” she recalled. “I don’t know if I want to believe that any longer. The letter was not only telling the family I was very sorry, but it was also searching for what was going on.”

 

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The medieval Bavarian city of Nuremberg was an early Nazi hub. It was at a rally in 1935 that the Nazis announced what became known as the Nuremberg Laws — revoking the citizenship of Jews and excluding them from many walks of life.

 

At that time, Hirschmann’s father, Julius, was a successful businessman with a two-story, three-bedroom house in the suburbs.

 

By 1938, the so-called “Aryanization” process was in full swing, as Jewish businesses and properties were taken over by non-Jewish Germans, in the prelude to the full-scale mass murder of some 6 million European Jews several years later.

 

As Schott-Neuse combed through property registers in Nuremberg’s city archives, she uncovered documents showing how the Nazis had methodically and bureaucratically seized the Hirschmann’s home. By 1941, it was listed as being owned by by Muhr W., salesman.

 

Willi Muhr was Schott-Neuse’s grandfather.

 

“I thought he bought it directly from the Jewish owners but this doesn’t seem to be true,” she said.

 

Though she knows little about her grandfather, she assumes he must have had Nazi connections, since “it was a prime real estate area and you probably don’t get this really nice house with a large garden,” without any.

 

“That is what prompted me to write the letter, because I thought that the family also doesn’t know what happened and I wanted to say I’m so sorry, because it’s not done and over… there are Holocaust survivors still living,” she said.

 

After the war, Hirschmann’s family was paid restitution, though because of the depressed German housing market, it was a tenth of what the home had been worth before.

 

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Peter Hirschmann and his family managed to safely flee Nazi Germany before the outbreak of war in September 1939. They ended up in Newark, New Jersey, and started over.

 

By the time Peter turned 18, the U.S. had entered the war. He signed a waiver allowing him to be drafted even though he was still a German citizen.

 

As a soldier with the 78th Infantry Division, he saw his first major action in Belgium in December 1944, in the Battle of the Bulge.

 

Like thousands of other Americans he was captured, but as a German Jew, he was in unique peril. When his captors found out he spoke German, he bluffed, saying he learned it in high school. He survived the final months of the war in a Nazi camp.

 

“If he had found out my background I would have been shot without any explanation,” he said.

 

He still chokes up remembering the young German soldier guarding him, who dug through his things and gave him a chocolate bar — and hope.

 

“He was my enemy, and he treated me like a human being,” Hirschmann said.

 

More than 70 years later, when he received Schott-Neuse’s letter, he accepted her overture without hesitation, telling her by email it was particularly touching “because it is obvious that you, too, are suffering and it pains me to think of that — you, who are blameless.”

 

He told her that it would have been easy for her to remain silent. The two have been corresponding regularly, but currently have no plans to meet face-to-face.

 

“You were not satisfied with that and examined the depths of your heart to reveal the era’s true impact. You had the option to ignore it and instead you confronted it,” he wrote. “My tears reflect the fervent hope that the humanity, dignity, and compassion you have shown is shared by others of your generation and the generations to follow.”

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Serbian Defense Chief Slams US Diplomat for ‘Hostile’ Remarks

Serbia’s defense minister on Tuesday criticized remarks by the top U.S. diplomat in the region, who recently called on Belgrade to choose between aligning itself with either Washington and Brussels or Moscow if it intends to secure European Union status.

Addressing Serbian news outlets, Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin, who has been known to advocate a pro-Russian stance, said comments by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Hoyt Brian Yee represent “the greatest pressure against Serbia yet.”

The “statement was not made by a friend or a person respecting Serbia, respecting our right to decide independently,” Vulin said, calling Yee’s remarks “very undiplomatic.”

It was late Monday when Yee, speaking at the Serbian Economic Summit in Belgrade, said EU candidate countries should clearly demonstrate their desire to become members, and not seesaw between two sides.

Calling the U.S. Serbia’s partner on the country’s path toward the EU membership, “the EU hopefuls should clearly demonstrate that they really want to become members,” Yee said. “You cannot sit on two chairs, especially if those chairs are too far apart.”

Among the six Western Balkan countries aiming to join the EU — Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania — Serbia may be closest to securing membership. Still recovering from a decade of wars and economic turmoil in the 1990s, however, Serbia also maintains unusually close ties with Russia.

Serbia received MIG-29 jet fighters as a “gift” from Russian president Vladimir Putin just days ago.

Yee expressed concerns that Serbia has turned only halfway toward the EU, and the other half toward Russia, adding “that countries should pick one side regardless of how difficult that might be.”

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s office said that during a meeting Tuesday, the U.S. envoy expressed “perception that Serbia is with one foot on an EU path, and another in a union with Russia.”

Vucic’s office later issued a statement saying the president carefully listened to Yee’s concerns and responded to his remarks “very directly.”

“[Vucic] will make his answer public in the coming days,” the statement said.

Jaksa Scekic, a Belgrade-based pundit and journalist who has covered Balkan affairs for more than three decades, called the statement “mixed,” adding that it was “probably the best sign that it was a joint product with opinions from both sides.”

“Serbia has been playing this game for a while now and this is nothing new,” Scekic told VOA’s Serbian Service. “The country risks staying in isolation and it has to decide. Usually after harsh rhetoric, we will probably see gifts and bribes coming from all sides. We will have to wait and see which gift Serbia will take.”

Under pressure from its historic Slavic ally Russia, Serbia, like some of its Balkan neighbors, has been pressured by Russia to stay out of NATO and other Western bodies.

“It is clear from Russia’s actions that it wants to have disjointed Balkans, not strong and united,” Yee said.

This story originated in VOA’s Serbian Service. Some information is from AP.

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