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Russian Supreme Court Scraps Conviction of Opposition Activist

Russia’s Supreme Court on Wednesday canceled the conviction of prominent anti-Kremlin activist Ildar Dadin and ordered his release from jail, Interfax news agency reported.

Dadin, 34, was sentenced to three years in prison – reduced to two and a half on appeal – in December 2015 for a series of peaceful one-man protests against the Kremlin.

“Dadin is to be released from custody,” Interfax cited the ruling as saying.

The motion came after the Constitutional Court on Feb 10 ordered a review of Dadin’s conviction, arguing that a law that criminalized certain types of protests had to be applied more proportionately.

Dadin was the first person to be jailed under a 2014 law, adopted after big anti-Kremlin protests, that criminalized the violation of protest rules more than twice in 180 days.

Last November, Dadin said he was tortured in jail in northwest Russia. Jail officials dismissed the allegations, but the activist was subsequently moved to another prison.

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Amnesty International Decries Global Indifference to Human Rights

The human rights group Amnesty International says political leaders around the world, including U.S. President Donald Trump, are creating a more divided and dangerous world with “toxic rhetoric.” In the London-based organization’s annual report on human rights worldwide, politicians in the United States, Europe and elsewhere are accused of creating an “us versus them” environment that weakens the defense of human rights. VOA’S Greg Flakus has more from Washington.

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No Clear Cause for Russian UN Ambassador’s Sudden Death

New York City’s medical examiners have failed to determine what caused the sudden death this week of Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin. 

The medical examiners concluded that further study, which usually includes toxicology tests and other screenings, would be needed before they could say why Churkin died unexpectedly Monday at age 64. The additional tests could take weeks to complete.

Churkin had been Russia’s envoy at the U.N. since 2006. He was the longest-serving ambassador on the Security Council, the U.N.’s most powerful body.

Diplomatic colleagues from around the world continued to mourn Churkin on Tuesday. They said he was deeply knowledgeable about diplomacy and dedicated to his country, while also being a personable and witty colleague.

‘Brilliant, gracious and funny’

“He could spot even the narrowest opportunities to find a compromise,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said, describing Churkin as “brilliant, wise, gracious and funny.”

In Washington, President Donald Trump said he was saddened by the news. While acknowledging that Churkin and his U.S. counterparts sometimes disagreed, Trump said Churkin “played a crucial role in working with the United States on a number of key issues to advance global security.”

Vitaly Ivanovich Churkin was born in Moscow on Feb. 21, 1952. As a young boy, he appeared in at least three films; two were about Vladimir Lenin, the hero of the communist revolution that produced the Soviet Union a century ago.

Churkin studied at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and earned a doctorate in history from the USSR Diplomatic Academy. He joined the Soviet Foreign Ministry in 1974 and had a distinguished career as a diplomat. He was Moscow’s special representative to international talks on the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and later served as ambassador to Belgium (1994-1998) and Canada (1998-2003).

Posted to UN in 2006

In 2006, Churkin took up his post as U.N. ambassador, presenting his credentials to then-Secretary General Kofi Annan. During more than a decade at U.N. headquarters in New York, diplomats said the Russian ambassador was widely respected by colleagues, even those whose governments had adversarial relationships with Moscow.

His job grew more difficult during the past six years, as Moscow became more isolated due to its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, and the Kremlin drew criticism from many quarters for its strong support of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Churkin often clashed in the Security Council chamber with former U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power. At a heated meeting in December on the situation in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, Power called out Moscow for denying and obfuscating facts and aiding and abetting attacks on civilians. Churkin retorted that she sounded like “Mother Teresa” for scolding Moscow, and urged her to “remember your country’s track record.”

Power tweeted that she was “devastated” by Churkin’s passing, calling him a “deeply caring man” and a “diplomatic maestro.”

VOA correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this report from the United Nations.

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Eiffel Tower View: Paris Tourism Rises After Yearlong Slump

Tourism to Paris is showing signs of a revival after a yearlong slump attributed to deadly extremist attacks, violent labor protests, strikes and floods.

The biggest drop came in demand for Paris hotels from Chinese, Japanese, Russian and Italian tourists, according to 2016 figures released Tuesday by the Paris regional tourism committee.

 

The Louvre Museum, Musee d’Orsay and Disneyland Paris saw visits drop between 9 and 13 percent last year and overall tourism-related revenue in the region fell more than 1 billion euros, or about 6 percent, according to the committee’s estimates.

 

Many potential Paris visitors were scared off by November 2015 attacks on cafes, a rock concert and the national stadium that killed 130 people.

 

However by the end of 2016, hotel reservations started rising again, the report said.

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Ukraine’s Poroshenko Urges More Sanctions Against Russia

Ukraine’s president on Tuesday called for new sanctions against Russia over its decision to recognize passports issued by separatist authorities in the east, while the Kremlin accused Ukrainian authorities of denying vital documents to people in the rebel regions.

The Kremlin said its decision is a “humanitarian” move to help residents of the east suffering from Ukraine’s blockade, and doesn’t amount to recognizing the rebel regions.

 

Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since April 2014, a conflict that has killed more than 9,800 people.

 

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Tuesday denounced Moscow’s action as contradicting the 2015 Minsk peace agreement. Speaking at a meeting with EU Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Commissioner Christos Stylianides, Poroshenko called for “resolute action, up to strengthening sanctions.”

 

The United States and the European Union have hit Russia with sanctions for its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and support for pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine.

 

The February 2015 peace agreement brokered by France and Germany has helped reduce fighting in the east, but clashes have continued and provisions for a political settlement have stalled. Russia and Ukraine have blamed each other for the lack of progress.

 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov argued Tuesday that the decision to recognize passports and other documents issued by separatist authorities in the east was intended to protect the rights of local residents, who have found it impossible to receive documents from Ukraine because of its blockade of the rebel regions.

 

“The Ukrainian authorities are doing all they can to make life as difficult as possible for the residents of those territories and make it as hard as possible for them to enjoy the most basic rights and freedoms,” Lavrov said. “It’s hard and often impossible to exercise those rights without documents.”

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European Border Officials Paint Grim Libyan Picture

A bleak assessment by European border officials of the turmoil in Libya is casting doubt on the prospects for European Union efforts to work more closely with authorities in the strife-torn country to curb migration flows across the Mediterranean.

The internal report was disclosed as the country’s Red Crescent reported Tuesday that at least 74 bodies had washed ashore on Libya’s Mediterranean coast near the western city of Zawiya. It’s the latest tragedy at sea after a year that has seen record numbers in migrant deaths along key smuggling routes.

The report by officials with the EU Border Assistance Mission in Libya paints a grim picture of factional dysfunction and chaos within Libyan law enforcement bodies and its ministries, which are barely operating.

“Due to the absence of a functioning national government, genuine and legitimate state structures are difficult to identify, in particular, given the dynamic and ever changing landscape of loyalties,” the officials say in their 56-page report, which was leaked to the website statewatch.org.

The Ministry of Interior, the border officials say, is riddled with “militias and religiously motivated stakeholders; the Ministry of Defense “has little or no control of the armed forces,” which also are militia dependent; and the Customs’ General Directorate for Anti-Smuggling and Enforcement is “barely functioning due to the security situation.”

Lack of accountability

On the Libyan police, the report notes that 70 percent of the members are thuwwars (members of armed militias), who are not accountable to any central authorities. Women won’t approach the police out of fear “they could be murdered or raped,” warn the officials.

 

The judicial system has “in essence collapsed,” according to the report.

“Few courts are operational because both court premises have been bombed and judicial actors [prosecutors, judges and defense lawyers] encounter threats and dangers in the line of their duties. Attacks targeting the judiciary directly affect the administration of justice and the rule of law and terrorism,” according to the report.

The Libyan Coastal Guard (LCGPS) is one of the few law enforcement bodies praised by the European border officials. It notes the guards have little in the way of equipment to patrol Libyan waters and intercept and rescue migrants.

The LCGPS fleet consists of only four fast 14.5-meter-long boats, three small fiberglass boats and an undefined number of dinghy boats of just 12 meters long. The Libyan coastal guards own also four large Coastal Patrol Vessels, but all are currently in Naples for maintenance.

“Despite the lack of technical means, the LCGPS has rescued more than 13,500 immigrants in close cooperation with the Italian Guardia Costiera,” the report says.

The report estimates there are at last 1,500 militia groups in the country.

Six years after the start of the uprising against Libya’s dictator Moammar Gadhafi, exactly what should replace him is still being fiercely contested.

The militias are complicating the efforts of a United Nations initiative led by special envoy Martin Kobler from securing any agreement between rival powers in the country.

Competing governments

Libya is split between a parliament in the east, two competing governments in Tripoli, one of which is recognized by the international community, and the powerful warlord Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who has made no secret of his wish to become the North African country’s military ruler.

Warring Libyan factions last week agreed tentatively on an Egypt-brokered “road map” to heal divisions with the creation of a joint committee to negotiate reconciliation and elections by February 2018.

Doubts about ‘road map’

Both Fayez Seraj, prime minister of the U.N.-brokered government in Tripoli, and Haftar visited Cairo, but they did not negotiate face-to-face, meeting separately with Egyptian military officials. Analysts are doubtful about the prospects for the “road map,” arguing that it has much chance of success as the stalling U.N. initiative.

Last month, EU members states agreed to channel about $210 million in migration and border projects to try to curb migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. But it isn’t clear how much of those resources will be directed to Seraj’s U.N.-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli. Officials say no decisions as yet have been made on where the money will go.

In their report, the European border officials cautioned: “All in all there will need to be a legitimate political counterpart/Libyan government with a minimum of control over different institutions and their respective leadership. Without this, it will be unlikely that any institution, lacking basic control and identity of its staff, would be able to absorb and benefit from training and equipping in a sustainable manner.”

The border officials propose a phased approach “to regain control of the public space” by establishing areas of legality, “expanding from selected areas in Tripoli to greater Tripoli, combining all entities along the Criminal Justice Chain.”

The challenge to that approach was made clear Monday when a convey carrying Seraj and the chairman of his State Council, Abdulrahman Sewehly, reportedly was shot at near the Rixos hotel in downtown Tripoli. In a statement, Sewehly accused Khalifa Ghell, the head of a rival government, of trying to assassinate him.

Ghell has denied his men were involved​ in the shooting. A spokesman for the GNA, Ashraf Tulty, said the motorcade had been hit by gunfire as it passed through Tripoli’s Abu Salim district. It was unclear who was behind the shooting or whether it was a targeted attack, he said. 

The Libya-Italy smuggling route across the Mediterranean last year saw record numbers in migrant drownings — 4,579 as compared to 2,869 deaths in 2015 and 3,161 in 2014. Last year, 181,459 migrants and refugees crossed the Mediterranean, a 17-percent increase from 2015.

 

 

 

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Trump Claims Massive Immigration into Sweden Has Been a Failure

U.S. President Donald Trump contends the “fake news media” is defending Sweden’s immigration policies, claiming that massive immigration into the Scandinavian country has been a failure.

“Give the public a break – The FAKE NEWS media is trying to say that large scale immigration in Sweden is working out just beautifully. NOT!” Trump said Monday on his Twitter account.

Trump’s comment extended for another day the spat he ignited with Washington’s allies in Stockholm when he suggested, erroneously, at a Saturday campaign rally that a terrorist attack had occurred in Sweden on Friday.

Trump mentioned past terrorist attacks in Europe linked to open-borders immigration, saying, “You look at what’s happening in Germany.You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden.Who would believe this?Sweden.They took in large numbers and they’re having problems like they never thought possible.”

Trump, after many Swedes mocked the comment for hours on Swedish social media sites, said his remark referred to a Fox News broadcast about migrants and Sweden that he had watched Friday, not a terrorist attack.

Journalist Ami Horowitz contended on the show that high-level Swedish officials are deliberately covering up a surge in crime, especially gun violence and rapes, committed by some of the more than 300,000 immigrants Sweden has accepted from war-torn countries since 2013. 

Official government statistics show that the country’s crime rate has fallen since 2005.

While Trump contended that Sweden’s acceptance of the immigrants has failed, the Swedish embassy in Washington said Sunday, “We look forward to informing the U.S. administration about Sweden’s immigration and integration policies.”

Upon first learning of Trump’s campaign rally statement, Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said that democracy and diplomacy “require us to respect science, facts and media.”

Her predecessor, Carl Bildt, took to Twitter, saying of Trump, “Sweden?Terror attack?What has he been smoking?Questions abound.”Other Swedes joked that Trump’s original comment might have been referring to a large meatball theft, an avalanche warning or police chasing a drunken driver.

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Oscar-Nominated Documentaries Highlight Refugee Crisis

Two documentaries on the plight of refugees off the Italian coast and the Greek coast have received Oscar nominations this year. “Fire at Sea,” by Gianfranco Rosi has been selected in the Feature Documentary category and “4.1 Miles” by Daphne Matziaraki has been nominated in the Short Documentary category. VOA’s Penelope Poulou spoke with Rosi about his film and how these documentaries bring public awareness to the refugees crisis in a tough political climate.

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Russia’s Long-time UN Ambassador Dies Suddenly

Russia’s long-time U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin died suddenly Monday in New York, a day before he would have turned 65 years old.

 

The Russian foreign ministry announced his death in a statement, giving no details on the circumstances.  The president of the U.N. General Assembly, Peter Thomson, told VOA that he was informed Churkin had “some sort of cardiac arrest” at the Russian Mission and was taken to the hospital, where he died.

 

Fellow U.N. diplomats immediately took to social media to express their shock and sadness at his sudden passing.

“Absolutely devastated to hear that my friend & colleague Vitaly Churkin has died,” tweeted Britain’s U.N. envoy Matthew Rycroft. “A diplomatic giant & wonderful character. RIP” he added.

 

“Shocked to learn of the passing of our dear colleague Vitaly Churkin,” Sweden’s U.N. Ambassador Olof Skoog wrote. “He will be deeply missed. Deepest condolences to his family.”

The new U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, paid tribute to a “gracious colleague.”

“We did not always see things the same way, but he unquestionably advocated his country’s positions with great skill. We send our prayers and heartfelt condolences to lift up his family and to the Russian people,” she said in a statement.

General Assembly President Thomson called for a minute of silence during an afternoon meeting at U.N. headquarters. In emotional remarks, he said “not only has Russia lost one of its truest sons here at the United Nations, we have lost one of our truest.”

“His name shall live on in the annals of this organization’s history,” Thomson said.

WATCH: UN’s Thomson: Churkin’s Name Will Live on in UN History

Kenya’s ambassador, Macharia Kamau, described Churkin as “a very calm and purposeful diplomat” and praised him for understanding the problems of smaller countries, not just big ones.

“He was a deeply experienced and able diplomat, a defender of his country, a believer in the multilateral system and the work of the United Nations, and someone who we all respected and cherished very much,” UAE Ambassador Lana Nusseibeh said.

Road to diplomacy

Vitaly Ivanovich Churkin was born in Moscow on Feb. 21, 1952. As a young boy he appeared in at least three films – two were about Vladimir Lenin.

 

He later was a graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and went on to earn a Ph.D. in history from the USSR Diplomatic Academy.

 

Churkin had a distinguished career as a Russian diplomat, joining the foreign ministry in 1974. He was his government’s Special Representative to the talks on Former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and later served as ambassador to Belgium (1994-1998) and Canada (1998-2003).

 

U.N. posting

 

In 2006, he presented his credentials to then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan and took up his post as U.N. ambassador, which he held until his death. In the more than a decade Churkin was envoy to the world body, he was widely respected by colleagues, even those whose governments had adversarial relationships with Moscow.

 

In the past six years, his job grew more difficult as Moscow became more isolated due to its annexation of the Crimea and its support for the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

 

He often clashed in the Security Council chamber with former U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power. At a heated council meeting in December on the situation in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, Power called out Moscow for denying and obfuscating facts and aiding and abetting attacks on civilians. Churkin retorted that she sounded like “Mother Theresa” for scolding Moscow and urged her to “remember the track record of your country.”

Churkin was known as a tough negotiator and a top-notch diplomat. Many expected he would be appointed foreign minister if Sergei Lavrov retired.

 

Vitaly Churkin is survived by his wife, Irina, and two adult children.

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AP Source: Trump’s Revised Travel Ban Targets Same Countries

A draft of President Donald Trump’s revised immigration ban targets the same seven countries listed in his original executive order and exempts travelers who already have a visa to travel to the U.S., even if they haven’t used it yet.

A senior administration official said the order, which Trump revised after federal courts held up his original immigration and refugee ban, will target only those same seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya.

The official said that green-card holders and dual citizens of the U.S. and any of those countries are exempt. The new draft also no longer directs authorities to single out – and reject – Syrian refugees when processing new visa applications.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the order before it’s made public. The official noted that the draft is subject to change ahead of its signing, which Trump said could come sometime this week.

Asked about the revised order, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the document circulating was a draft and that a final version should be released soon. The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that the current draft of the revised order focused on the seven countries but excluded those with green cards.

Trump’s original executive order triggered chaos at airports around the world, as travelers were detained when the order rapidly went into effect, U.S. permanent residents known as green-card holders among them. Attorneys provided legal assistance to those held and protesters descended on the airports as news of the order’s implementation spread. In its original form, the order temporarily suspended all travel to the U.S. for citizens of those seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days.

The original order also called for Homeland Security and State department officials, along with the director of national intelligence, to review what information the government needs to fully vet would-be visitors and come up with a list of countries that can’t or won’t make the information available. It said the government will give countries 60 days to start providing the information or citizens from those countries will be barred from traveling to the United States.

Even if Syrian refugees are no longer automatically rejected under the new order, the pace of refugees entering the U.S. from all countries is likely to slow significantly. That’s because even when the courts put Trump’s original ban on hold, they left untouched Trump’s 50,000-per-year refugee cap, a cut of more than half from the cap under the Obama administration.

The U.S. has already taken in more than 35,000 refugees this year, leaving less than 15,000 spots before hitting Trump’s cap, according to a U.S. official. That means that for the rest of this fiscal year, the number of refugees being let in per week will likely fall to a fraction of what it had been under the Obama administration’s cap of 110,000.

Earlier this month, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco refused to reinstate Trump’s ban, unanimously rejecting the administration’s claim of presidential authority, questioning its motives and concluding that the order was unlikely to survive legal challenges. The pushback prompted Trump to tweet “SEE YOU IN COURT!” and he has since lashed out at the judicial branch, accusing it of issuing a politically motivated decision.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said Saturday that Trump is working on a “streamlined” version of his executive order banning travel from the seven nations to iron out the difficulties that landed his first order in the courts.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference about combating terrorism, Kelly said Trump’s original order was designed as a “temporary pause” to allow him to “see where our immigration and vetting system has gaps – and gaps it has – that could be exploited.”

He said the Trump administration was surprised when U.S. courts blocked the executive order and now “the president is contemplating releasing a tighter, more streamlined version” of the travel ban.

Kelly said this next time he will be able to “make sure that there’s no one caught in the system of moving from overseas to our airports.”

Kelly mentioned “seven nations” again on Saturday, leading to speculation they will all be included in Trump’s next executive order.

Trump’s order sparked an immediate backlash and sowed chaos and outrage, with travelers detained at airports, panicked families searching for relatives and protesters marching against the sweeping measure – parts of which were blocked by several federal courts.

Protests were held across the country, including in sight of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York City, and at international airports where travelers were temporarily detained.