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Syrian Films Bring Tears and Smiles to Berlin Film Festival

One drops you, trapped and powerless, in the middle of a civil war, while the other uses humor to depict what’s it like to start a new life in Europe after escaping the same conflict.

“Insyriated” and “The Other Side of Hope” are two films about Syria, and they brought tears and smiles to the Berlin Film Festival.

The former is shot almost entirely inside the walls of an apartment that becomes like a prison for Oum Yazan, a mother determined to survive a war whose brutality is conveyed mostly through the sounds of bombs and sniper gunfire.

“It shocked people in a very smart way. Westerners saw enough images of destruction on their television screens. But few of them know what Syrians are going through or how they feel being trapped in there,” Iraqi film critic Kais Kasim said.

The film forces viewers to ask themselves how they would act in the same situation.

Belgian director Philippe Van Leeuw said the silence that followed the screening as well as seeing some of his actors and members of the audience in tears at the end made him think: “Mission accomplished.”

“It is hard for me to say I was happy when I saw the film for the first time with the audience,” said actress Hiam Abbass, who plays Oum Yazan.

“It brought people close to the Syrian people,” she said, adding that she had no idea the film would leave people speechless.

“The Other Side of Hope” by Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki uses humor to depicts the experiences in Helsinki of stowaway Syrian asylum seeker Khaled, who decides to remain in the country illegally after his application is rejected.

His fate is to meet the main character in the second story of the film, Finnish salesman Wikstrom, who buys a restaurant in the capital where he gives Khaled a job and a bed.

Wikstrom and the other Finns in the film are burlesque characters, the source of most of the light-hearted humor that almost obscures Khaled’s ordeal: most of his family died in a bomb in Aleppo and he lost his sister shortly after they arrived in Europe from Turkey.

“It uses comedy to convey tragedy,” said film critic Kasim. “It blends the critical with the caricature, leaving people with the question: do we laugh or do we cry?”

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Turkish-Russian Rapprochement Questioned

Russia is to host a pan-Kurdish conference Wednesday, and among those invited to attend are members of the Syrian Kurdish group the PYD.  

Syria’s neighbor, Turkey, calls the PYD terrorists, alleging they are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which is fighting the Turkish state. Turkey accuses the PYD of being an extension of the PKK, and claims the PYD is seeking to carve out an independent state along its border.

Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov invited the PYD to Moscow for a briefing on January’s meeting in Kazakhstan about ending the civil war in Syria. Ankara blocked the PYD’s participation in that meeting and in United Nations-backed Syria peace talks in Geneva.

“If Russia is seen by Ankara as having decided to fully invest with the PYD, that certainly has the potential to very much undermine the overall outlook toward Moscow,” said visiting scholar Sinan Ulgen of Carnegie Europe in Brussels.

Turkey keeps quiet

Turkey has so far voiced little public criticism of Russia. Some experts suggest the reason could be that Lavrov’s invitation to the PYD may have been in exchange for Moscow acquiescing to Ankara’s demand for the PYD to be excluded from the Kazakhstan talks.

Last week, a PYD affiliate opened a bureau in the Russian capital, in a move that analysts say is likely to add to Ankara’s angst. Moscow also is pushing for a decentralized state in a future Syrian settlement, a stance strongly opposed by Ankara, which fears an autonomous Kurdish state on its border would lead to similar demands from its restive Kurds.

There have been recent rapprochement efforts between Moscow and Ankara after a Turkish jet downed a Russian fighter operating from Syria in November 2015.

Experts, however, are increasingly questioning the dynamics of those efforts. “My view of the rapprochement is, basically, Turkey approaching and the Russians accepting this, so long as it serves its interests,” said international relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. “It is not a relationship of equals.”

Waiting game for Russia

Turkish leaders are normally vocal on any move by another country deemed supportive of the PYD.

Russia and Turkey are cooperating on a cease-fire in Syria, efforts perceived in Ankara as enhancing its regional standing. Analysts say Moscow values Ankara’s influence over Syrian rebels being a main supply route as well as supporter. Experts say Turkey also sees its deepening relations with Russia as providing leverage over Turkey’s Western allies.

Moscow chose to continue its rapprochement despite the December assassination of its ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, in Ankara.

Regional experts say Moscow could be biding its time.

“Russia has long memories. It will never forget the downing of its fighter plane or even the shooting of its ambassador at the very center of its capital,” said political consultant Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners. He says Moscow has few illusions about its dealings with Ankara, adding, “What Russia realizes is Turkey is the antidote to its ambitions in the Middle East.”

Another test

Moscow sent its own investigators to liaise with their Turkish counterparts in the probe over Karlov’s assassination. Skepticism continues to surround Ankara’s explanation that the killer was connected to followers of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey blames for a failed coup last July.

Turkish political instability will likely add to questions in Moscow over Ankara. “They [Moscow] are aware of the difficulties faced by Turkey,” notes Haldun Solmazturk, head of the Ankara-based research group 21st Century Turkey Institute. “They are aware of the priority given by the Turkish government to domestic political needs. Moscow doesn’t trust Turkey.”

Turkish-Russian relations were dealt another setback Thursday when a Russian airstrike killed three Turkish soldiers in what Ankara accepted as a friendly fire incident in fighting Islamic State for control of the Syrian town of al-Bab. IS extremists seized control of al-Bab in 2014 as part of a large offensive in northern Syria and neighboring Iraq aimed at establishing an Islamic caliphate.

Turkey’s pro-government media showed rare restraint, offering little criticism of the incident.

Turkey-Russia are not equals

Ankara for now appears ready to continue its courtship of Moscow.

Analysts warn that the Russian stance toward the Syrian Kurds underscores the fact that the Turkey-Russia relationship is increasingly not one of equals and that Turkey may be making a series of missteps.  

“Certainly these guys may think they are geniuses by playing Russia against the United States and vice versa, but the results show they are singularly incapable of doing that,” said analyst Ozel. ” My question is, is it because they are incompetent or is it because they are over-invested in the idea of Turkey’s indispensability and they think the margin of maneuver for Turkey is almost limitless. I doubt that it was and I still do.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to visit Russia next month.

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Montenegrin Prosecutor Gets Nod to Lift Immunity of Opposition Leaders

Montenegro’s special prosecutor on Monday received permission from a parliamentary council to strip immunity from two pro-Russian opposition leaders charged in an alleged sedition plot.

Prosecutor Milivoje Katnic wants immunity lifted from Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic as part of efforts to detain the pair and place them on trial for “acts against constitutional order and security of Montenegro.” Katnic says both leaders of the pro-Kremlin Democratic Front (DF), which oppose the nation’s bid to become the 29th NATO member, have undermined national security.

A frequent visitor to Russia, Mandic, who returned from Moscow earlier this month, has warned of mounting political tensions in the Western Balkan country of 620,000 people, who are divided over joining the Brussels-based military alliance.

Some 20 people — mostly Serbian nationals, including two Russian citizens — have been accused of participating in an October plot that allegedly included plans to kill the prime minister and assume power.

Both men have dismissed the charges as “fiction,” and Kremlin officials have denied involvement in the alleged coup plot. Russian leaders have, however, supported DF calls to hold a referendum on Montenegro’s NATO membership, and Mandic has threatened to organize one without parliamentary approval.

Fellow opposition leader Nebojsa Medojevic told journalists that Katnic and pro-NATO authorities “are provoking a civil war in Montenegro.”

“If the violence becomes official state policy, the answer to it can be also violence,” Medojevic announced at a Monday press conference, where he was joined by Knezevic, who said he had no intention of leaving the country but warned authorities to beware the long-term consequences of lifting immunity.

Mandic, who was not at Monday’s news conference, told VOA’s Serbian Service by phone from Belgrade that he was boarding a return flight to Podgorica, where he’ll discuss the charges at a Tuesday press conference.

The decision to formally lift immunity will be put to a full parliamentary vote February 15.

Montenegro is expecting to wrap up the NATO membership process by May.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Serbian Service. Some information for this report was provided by AP.

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Opinions Differ on EU Deal with Libya to Curb Migration

The European Union is touting a plan it says will help Libya curb the number of migrants leaving its shores, but some advocates believe the plan does little more than trap African and Middle Eastern migrants in a war zone.

On February 3, the European Union announced it would give $212 million to help Libya’s U.N.-backed government bolster its coast guard capabilities as well as offer training and equipment in order to block smuggling routes.

Preben Aamann, spokesman for European Council President Donald Tusk, said the current migration situation is both tragic and untenable. He said last year 181,000 people set off from Libya en route to Italy and approximately 5,000 drowned in the central Mediterranean. Both of those figures were all-time highs.

“It is deadly for those who try it, for many who try it, and it’s not sustainable for Europe,” Aamann said. “So, our full determination is to close that route or at least very significantly reduce the number of irregular migrants using that route. In terms of resources that we are ready to put into it, it’s quite significant.”

Aamann said the European Union has already trained about 90 Libyan coast guard members as part of its Operation Sophia, a joint naval operation meant to stop human smugglers. The new plan includes efforts to block smuggling routes.

Further training for coast guard forces is expected to take place in Europe and the European Union is prepared to spend more out of its Trust Fund for Africa if needed.

“I believe that it will not be money that is the problem, it is all the other operational issues and also the situation in Libya of course that complicates this,” he said, speaking to VOA from a summit in Malta. “But the objective of reducing the number, saving lives is very clear and the determination is full.”

MSF: Strategy leaves migrants in ‘inhumane’ camps

But some human rights groups disagree with the strategy, saying it is a plan that will only leave migrants in squalid Libyan detention centers.

In a string of tweets during the EU heads of state summit, Doctors Without Borders or Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) which has conducted a maritime rescue program, denounced the plan. The group tweeted: “hypothetically, blocking people in Libya would prevent them from drowning. In reality, it would condemn them to slow death.”

Giorgia Girometti, field communication manager for MSF in Italy, told VOA that MSF has sent people to visit detention centers in Tripoli and provide medical assistance. She called the conditions at the centers “really undignified and inhumane.”

“There is lack of water and there is no space to sleep on the ground, and you have all type of skin disease and also breath disease [respiratory infections],” she said.

Girometti has spent time on board MSF search and rescue vessels and heard stories of violence and sexual abuse against migrants in Libya.

“For sure, blocking them in national Libyan waters by the Libyan coast guard and pushing them back on Libyan shores is really, really not a good solution,” she said.

Is Tripoli an effective partner?

Another criticism of the EU program is that it is reliant on Libya’s Government of National Accord based in Tripoli. This government, although backed by the United Nations, does not control much of the country’s coastline. It is opposed by a group of former Libyan parliamentarians based in the eastern city of Tobruk who are led militarily by General Khalifa Haftar.

Other rebel groups control areas of the country, among them IS, which until recently boasted control of some territory around the city of Sirte.

Aamann said, for this reason, the European Union is working with multiple aid agencies present in Libya, including the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the U.N. refugee agency.

“So we don’t only rely on the Libyan government who everybody knows is in a terribly difficult situation, but we also take a number of other steps,” he said.

In December, the European Union launched a $21 million program to assist migrants stuck in Libya. The program, implemented by the IOM, aims to improve conditions in detention centers and assist with repatriating migrants to their home countries.

Additionally, the new deal aims to support local communities that are on migration routes and provide assistance to generate better socio-economic conditions.

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Russia Gathers Stakeholders, Sans US or NATO, for Afghanistan Conference

Russia is hosting a conference in Moscow this week that will bring together Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, India and Iran to discuss a possible solution of the conflict in Afghanistan.

This meeting is part of Russia’s effort at playing a more pro-active role in Afghanistan for the first time since its invasion of the country in 1979. Its efforts, however, have encountered controversies at the very outset.

The last conference Moscow hosted on Afghanistan in December included only China and Pakistan, prompting a strong protest from the Afghan government.

The one this week is more inclusive of the regional stakeholders, but excludes the United States or NATO, leading to speculation that Russia is more interested in undermining the Unites States than in solving the regional problems. 

At a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, chairman Senator John McCain said Russia is propping up the Taliban to undermine the U.S.

“Given how troubling the situation is in Afghanistan, any efforts by any outside stakeholder to look for regional solutions to the war there should be welcomed,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy Asia director at the Washington based Wilson Center. The question he asked, however, was what is Russia trying to do.

“Is it genuinely trying to rally the key players to come up with an actionable plan to wind down the war? Or is it just trying to scale up its role in Afghanistan to undercut U.S. influence?”

Other regional analysts, however, are looking at the development with more optimism.

“This framework does include all the regional players that have a major stake in Afghanistan,” according to Amina Khan of the Institute for Strategic Studies Islamabad, a Pakistani government run think tank.  

“Terrorism is a global phenomena but I think regional countries need to play a more pro-active role,” she added.

At the last trilateral, Russia’s primary focus was on the presence of the Islamist militant group Islamic State in Eastern Afghanistan. Moscow does not want its influence to spread to the Muslim population in the Caucasus bordering Russia.

However, Gen. John Nicholson, the man leading the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee recently that Russia is trying to “publicly legitimize the Taliban” with a “false narrative” that the Taliban is fighting Islamic State, not the Afghan government.

However, Russia is not the only country in the region worried about IS influence and using the Taliban as a hedge. Iran also has started supporting the Taliban to keep IS influence away from areas bordering Iran. China has had contacts with the Taliban for a while, hosting several secret meetings between the Taliban and Afghan government officials or peace envoys.

Expectations from the upcoming conference, meanwhile, are low at this stage.        

“The fact that three countries have been added to the list at this point for the first time means it’s still going to be in the initial stages of getting to know each other, and getting to hear each other’s narrative and try to make sense of it.  I don’t see anything big coming out of this,” said Omar Samad, former Afghan ambassador to the U.S.

Several similar efforts have fallen victim to the tension and mistrust between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Whether this process succeeds, will depend on whether Russia and China can persuade the two to work out their differences.

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White House Declines to Publicly Defend Embattled Flynn

 A top White House aide sidestepped repeated chances Sunday to publicly defend embattled national security adviser Michael Flynn following reports that he engaged in conversations with a Russian diplomat about U.S. sanctions before Trump’s inauguration.

The uncertainty comes as Trump is dealing with North Korea’s apparent first missile launch of the year and his presidency, along with visits this week from the leaders of Israel and Canada.

Trump has yet to comment on the allegations against Flynn, and a top aide dispatched to represent the administration on the Sunday news shows skirted questions on the topic, saying it was not his place to weigh in on the “sensitive matter.”

Pressed repeatedly, top policy adviser Stephen Miller said it wasn’t up to him to say whether the president retains confidence in Flynn.

“It’s not for me to tell you what’s in the president’s mind,” he said on NBC. “That’s a question for the president.”

The White House said in an anonymous statement Friday the president had full confidence in Flynn. But officials have been mum since then amid fallout from reports that Flynn addressed U.S. sanctions against Russia in a phone call late last year. The report, which first appeared in The Washington Post, contradicted both Flynn’s previous denials, as well as those made by Vice President Mike Pence in a televised interview.

Trump has been discussing the situation with associates, according to a person who spoke with him recently. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie, who led Trump’s transition planning before the election, said Flynn would have to explain his conflicting statements about his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

“Gen. Flynn has said up to this point that he had not said anything like that to the Russian ambassador. I think now he’s saying that he doesn’t remember whether he did or not,” Christie said on CNN. “So, that’s a conversation he is going to need to have with the president and the vice president to clear that up, so that the White House can make sure that they are completely accurate about what went on.”

The comments came as the White House continues to weigh its options following a legal blow last week to Trump’s immigration order suspending the nation’s refugee program and barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.

Miller, who was one of the architects of the order, maintained in a round of Sunday show interviews that the president has sweeping executive authority when it comes to barring foreigners he deems pose a risk to the country. He said Trump will do “whatever we need to do, consistent with the law, to keep this country safe” and slammed judges who’ve stood in his way.

“This is a judicial usurpation of the power. It is a violation of judges’ proper roles in litigating disputes. We will fight it,” Miller said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”

As for the administration’s next steps, Miller said that “all options” remain on the table,” including a Supreme Court appeal. Trump said on the plane ride to Florida on Friday that he was considering signing a “brand new order” as early as Monday to try to bypass the legal challenges.

“As you know, we have multiple options, and we are considering all of them,” Miller said on ABC’s “This Week.”

The comments come amid an outcry from immigration activists over an “enforcement surge” by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers that officials say is targeting immigrants who are in the country illegally and have criminal records.

Advocacy groups contend the government has rounded up large numbers of people as part of stepped-up enforcement. The agency calls the effort no different from enforcement actions carried out in the past.

But Trump and Miller appeared eager to take credit for the action.

“The crackdown on illegal criminals is merely the keeping of my campaign promise. Gang members, drug dealers & others are being removed!” Trump tweeted.

Added Miller on NBC’s “Meet the Press”: “We’re going to focus on public safety and saving American lives and we will not apologize.”.

Trump has spent the weekend in Florida at his sprawling Mar-a-Lago estate, holding meetings, making calls, golfing and hosting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

For most of Saturday, Trump and the Japanese prime minister played golf under the Florida sun to get to know one another and show the world the U.S.-Japan alliance remained strong. A surprise provocation by the North Koreans provided a more significant example of cooperation.

After North Korea reportedly launched a ballistic missile, the two leaders appeared for hastily prepared statements in a ballroom of Trump’s south Florida estate late Saturday. Abe spoke first and longest.

“North Korea’s most recent missile launch is absolutely intolerable,” Abe said through a translator. He added that the North must comply fully with relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions, but also noted that Trump had assured him that the U.S. supported Japan.

“President Trump and I myself completely share the view that we are going to promote further cooperation between the two nations. And also we are going to further reinforce our alliance,” he said.

Trump followed Abe with even fewer words, saying in part: “I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.” With that, they left the room.

Miller said on ABC that the joint appearance marked “an important show of solidarity between the United States and Japan.”

 

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"La La Land" Takes 5 Prizes at British Academy Awards

Glamour was shot through with grit at the British Academy Film Awards on Sunday.

Frothy musical “La La Land” took five prizes including best picture, but major awards also went to tough welfare-state drama “I, Daniel Blake” and fractured-family stories “Lion” and “Manchester by the Sea.”

In keeping with an awards season that has coincided with a wrenching change of government in the United States, even “La La Land’s” prizes came with a political tinge.

Accepting the best-actress trophy for playing a barista who dreams of Hollywood stardom, Emma Stone said that “this country and the US, and the world seems to be going through a bit of a time.”

She said that in a divided world, it was vital to celebrate “the positive gift of creativity and how we can transcend borders and how we help people to feel a little less alone.”

The U.K. awards, known as BAFTAs, are often seen as an indicator of who will win at Hollywood’s Academy Awards, held two weeks later. “La La Land” already is a dominant force at the Oscars, with 14 nominations. It also has won seven Golden Globes.

“La La Land” had 11 nominations for the British awards and won prizes for Stone, director Damien Chazelle, music and cinematography as well as best picture.

But while the luscious musical was an academy favorite, voters also rewarded less escapist fare.

Stone’s co-star, Ryan Gosling, lost out on the best-actor prize to Casey Affleck, who played a grieving handyman in “Manchester by the Sea.”

Affleck, who is also Oscar-nominated for the role, thanked writer-director Kenneth Lonergan for creating a film that “dignifies everyday lives and their struggles with great compassion.”

The wintry New England drama also won Lonergan the prize for best original screenplay.

British actor Dev Patel pulled off an upset, beating favorite Mahershala Ali, from “Moonlight,” to the best supporting actor trophy for “Lion,” about a young man who goes searching for the Indian family from which he was separated as a child.

The London-born Patel expressed shock at being a winner at a ceremony he used to watch on TV with his family.

He said “Lion,” which co-stars Nicole Kidman is “a film, about family, about a love that transcends borders, race, color, anything.”

The “Slumdog Millionaire” star thanked his “amazing team, who had the insane task of trying to get this Indian dude, this noodle with wonky teeth and a lazy eye and floppy hair, work in this industry.”

“Lion” also took the BAFTA for best adapted screenplay.

Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake” was named best British film. The 80-year-old director used his acceptance speech to lambast the country’s Conservative government.

Loach said his docudrama about a carpenter trying to get welfare after a heart attack shows that “the most vulnerable and the poorest people are treated by this government with a callous brutality that is disgraceful.”

Loach apologized for making a political speech, but told reporters backstage that “you can’t do a film like this and then talk showbiz.”

Loach was cheered by an audience at London’s Royal Albert Hall that included Prince William, his wife, Kate, and nominees including Meryl Streep, Casey Affleck, Emma Stone and Nicole Kidman.

Both William and Kate wore black and white – he a tuxedo, she an off-the-shoulder Alexander McQueen gown and glittering chandelier earrings.

Viola Davis won the supporting actress BAFTA for “Fences,” Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s stage drama about an African-American family.

A visibly moved Davis praised Wilson’s play for showing “that our lives mattered as African Americans.”

“The horse groomer, the sanitation worker, the people who grew up under the heavy boot of Jim Crow,” she said. “The people who did not make it into history books, but they have a story – and those stories deserve to be told.”

Ada DuVernay’s film about mass incarceration in America, “The 13th,” was named best documentary, and Laszlo Nemes’ unbearably powerful Holocaust drama “Son of Saul” took the trophy for best foreign-language film.

The stars brought a dose of glamour to gray, wintry London, as hundreds of fans lined the red carpet outside the domed concert hall beside London’s Hyde Park.

Many said they were unsurprised politics made a guest appearance at the ceremony, as it has so often this awards season. Streep is among the stars who have used the awards stage to criticize President Donald Trump.

Master of ceremonies Stephen Fry joked about Trump’s dismissal of Streep as overrated, declaring from the stage: “I look down on row after row of the most overrated people on the planet.”

Prince William, who serves as president of Britain’s film academy, presented the academy’s lifetime-achievement honor to veteran comedian Mel Brooks at the end of Sunday’s ceremony.

The 90-year-old entertainer said he would treasure the trophy.

“This is one of the awards you will not see on eBay,” he said.

 

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Greek City Evacuates 75,000 to Defuse World War II Bomb 

A massive evacuation has begun in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki so experts can defuse a 500-pound unexploded World War II bomb.

 

Police went house-to-house Sunday morning, ringing bells and knocking on doors to remind people living within a 1.9-kilometer (1.18-mile) radius of the bomb site to leave their homes. Most were leaving in their cars, but some were taken by bus to schools, sports halls and cultural centers elsewhere in the city, where they can get food and shelter.

 

Authorities believe about 75,000 people will be evacuated, most from the western suburb of Kordelio. A state of emergency has been declared in the area involved and about 1,000 police and 300 volunteers are helping in the evacuation. Trains have been halted in the area and church services canceled.

 

The bomb, dropped during an air raid in the 1940s, was found earlier this month during work to expand storage tanks under a gas station. Defusing it is expected to take about six hours.

 

“It’s the first time something like this is happening in Greece,” Thessaloniki Deputy Governor Voula Patoulidou told The Associated Press. 

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Simplified Naturalization, Low Business Taxes on Swiss Ballot

Swiss voters are considering two issues that will affect immigrants and foreign companies in Switzerland, deciding whether to make it easier for “third-generation foreigners’’ to get Swiss citizenship and whether to lock in competitive low tax rates for businesses.

 

The “simplified naturalization of third-generation immigrants’’ measure is expected to pass in Sunday’s referendum. It would simplify applications for anyone under 25 whose parents and grandparents have lived in Switzerland for years.

 

Polls have suggested a tight race over the complex tax reform initiative, which aims to get Switzerland in line with international standards by scrapping a two-track tax system that offers lower rates to foreign firms to lure investment.

Olympics also up for a vote

Sunday’s referendum is the latest installment of Switzerland’s direct democracy that gives voters a frequent say on political decisions. A third issue on the national ballot involves infrastructure spending. 

 

Voters in the eastern Graubuenden canton, or region, are also deciding whether to bid to host the 2026 Winter Olympics. Four years ago, the region rejected a similar referendum about the 2022 Winter Games, which were eventually awarded to Beijing.

 

Those hoping to benefit from a new, easier way to Swiss citizenship include high school student Selena Mercado. The 17-year-old was born in Switzerland, has gone to school in Switzerland, considers herself Swiss and dreams of a political career in the country one day. 

Born in Switzerland but not Swiss 

But her passport is from Chile, a country that she’s never set foot in but was home to her grandparents before they moved to this small Alpine nation decades ago.

 

Being born in Switzerland doesn’t mean automatically mean becoming Swiss, a situation echoed in a few other European nations.

 

Swiss voters are considering giving “third-generation foreigners’’ like Mercado the same fast-track, simplified access to Swiss citizenship that foreign spouses of Swiss nationals often enjoy.

 

“I want to give back to Switzerland,’’’ said Mercado, who lives in Vallorbe on the French border.

 

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Turkish Court Formally Charges Nightclub Massacre Suspect

A Turkish court has formally charged an Uzbek man with murdering 39 people and wounding scores of others in a New Year’s Day shooting rampage at an Istanbul nightclub.

A court in Istanbul on Saturday charged Abdulgadir Masharipov with belonging to an armed terrorist group — Islamic State — possession of heavy weapons, attempting to destroy constitutional order and murder.

Masharipov fled from the scene of the shootings but was arrested 17 days later in Istanbul, after a nationwide manhunt. Authorities said he received terrorist training in Afghanistan and that he had confessed to the attack on the Reina nightclub in the early hours of January 1.

In a separate incident linked to the Islamic State group, the Anadolu news agency reported Saturday that a court in southern Turkey had charged two suspected IS terrorists with plotting to carry out a “sensational” attack in Europe.

Mahamad Laban, a Danish citizen of Lebanese origin, and Swedish citizen Mohammed Tofik Saleh were taken into custody earlier this month. They were said to have confessed after 10 days of interrogation.

Quoting an unnamed source, Anadolu said the suspects initially told police they were traveling from Europe to Syria to help provide humanitarian aid. However, police found that the two men had been trained in the use of explosives and firearms during the last three months.

Investigators were reported to have learned that the wife of suspect Saleh filed a legal complaint in Sweden in 2014, alleging that her husband had left for Syria to join other Islamic State extremists.

Also, in the southern city of Gaziantep, near Turkey’s border with Syria, police arrested four Islamic State suspects Thursday who were thought to have been planning attacks inside Turkey. Authorities said they recovered suicide belts and explosives during the arrests.