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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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.”



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.


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.


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.



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.



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.”


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.