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Is Washington Sending Signal of Renewed Commitment to Balkans?

As Vice President Mike Pence prepares to visit Montenegro and hold talks with Western Balkan leaders this week, a senior State Department official says U.S. engagement in the region remains strong. This is being welcomed by those countries’ leaders amid concerns that deep cuts in the proposed budget for the State Department could diminish Washington’s role in these fragile democracies exposed to Russian interference. VOA’s Keida Kostreci reports.

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Jeanne Moreau Dies at 89

Husky-voiced, French actress Jeanne Moreau has died. She was 89.

The French president’s office announced her death Monday in a statement.

American director Orson Welles once described Moreau as “the best actress in the world.”

Moreau is perhaps best known, in her long, prolific career, for her role in Francois Truffaut’s 1962 film “Jules and Jim.”

Her international career found her acting in films with a host of directors, including Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Tony Richardson and Luis Bunel.

She turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in Mike Nichols “The Graduate.”

She received a number of awards for her work, including a best actress prize at Cannes, a BAFTA, and a honorary Oscar.

French President Macron said Moreau “embodied cinema” and was a free spirit who “always rebelled against the established order.” He praised her range that extended beyond her early roles as a femme fatale.

Moreau, who worked into her 80s, was found dead at her home in Paris Monday morning, the French news agency, AFP, reported.

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Thousands Rally in Istanbul Against Israel’s Al-Aqsa Mosque Measures

Thousands of people rallied in Turkey’s largest city on Sunday against security measures Israel has imposed at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, shortly after Israel removed other measures that led to two weeks of violent Palestinian protests.

The rally in Istanbul, called “The Big Jerusalem Meeting” and organized by Turkey’s Saadet Party, drew some five thousand people to the Yenikapi parade ground on the southern edge of Istanbul.

Protesters were brought in by buses and ferries from across the city, waved Turkish and Palestinian flags, and held up posters in front of a giant stage where the chairman of the Saadet party and representatives from NGOs addressed the crowd.

“The Al-Aqsa mosque is our honor,” read a poster.

“You should know that not only Gaza, but Tel Aviv also has their eyes on this parade ground. Netanyahu does as well, and he is scared”, said Saadet Party Chairman Temel Karamollaoglu, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Turkey has opposed the security measures installed at the entry points of the mosque compound, with President Tayyip Erdogan warning Israel that it would suffer most from the dispute.

Erdogan accused Israel of inflicting damage on Jerusalem’s “Islamic character”, in comments that Israel’s foreign ministry called “absurd”.

The dispute over security at the mosque compound – where Israel installed metal detectors at entry points after two police guards were shot dead this month – has touched off the bloodiest clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in years.

On Friday however, the main prayer session at the Al-Aqsa mosque ended relatively calmly after Israel removed the tougher security measures, though it barred entrance to men under age 50.

Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the Old City and the holy compound, in the 1967 Middle East war. It annexed the area in a move that has never been recognized internationally.

Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine, sits in the heart of the Old City. It is also the holiest place in Judaism – the venue of two ancient temples, the last destroyed by the Romans. Jews pray under heavy security at the Western Wall at the foot of the elevated plaza.

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Trump Expected to Sign New Russia Sanctions

U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to sign into law new sanctions against Russia, Iran, and North Korea. While Washington awaits the president’s signature, Russia is promising retaliation if punitive measures are implemented. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington

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Russian Official Threatens Retaliation Over US Sanctions

The Kremlin vowed Sunday to retaliate against the United States for approving new sanctions against Russia for its meddling in last year’s presidential election to help President Donald Trump win the White House.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told ABC News’ “This Week” show, “I think this retaliation is long, long overdue.”

He said Moscow has “a very rich toolbox at our disposal. It would be ridiculous on my part to start speculating on what may or may not happen. But I can assure you that different options are on the table and consideration is being given to all sorts of things.”

The White House says that Trump will sign legislation overwhelmingly approved by Congress that imposes new sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea.

Trump aides had objected to the measure because of inclusion of a provision that gives Congress 30 days to review and block any Trump effort to ease sanctions against Russia, including those imposed by former President Barack Obama for Russia’s interference in the election. But the lopsided congressional approval of the sanctions left Trump with the prospect that if he vetoed the legislation, Congress would likely have overridden it.

Ryabkov said the U.S. Senate’s 98-2 vote for the sanctions was “the last drop” on what he described as “a completely weird and unacceptable piece of legislation.”

Obama closed two Russian compounds in the U.S. and expelled 35 diplomats in late December, less than a month before leaving office. But Moscow did not retaliate in kind until last week, when it shut two U.S. facilities in Russia and ordered 745 American diplomats out of the country by September 1.

Political analysts in the U.S. had thought that Trump, in an attempt to ease tensions with Russian President Vladimir Putin, might overturn the Obama sanctions when he assumed power, but he did not.

Since then, the early months of Trump’s presidency have been consumed by numerous investigations of Russian meddling in the election, including whether Trump aides colluded with Moscow to help him win and whether Trump obstructed justice by firing James Comey, the Federal Bureau of Investigation director leading the agency’s Russia investigation. Subsequently, another former FBI director, Robert Mueller, was named to take over the criminal investigation.

Moscow has rejected the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Putin personally directed Moscow’s interference in the election, while Trump has been dismissive of the investigations, describing them as a “witch hunt” and an excuse by Democrats to explain his upset win over the Democratic candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Ryabkov told ABC, “If the U.S. side decides to move further towards further deterioration, we will answer, we will respond in kind. We will mirror this. We will retaliate. But my whole point is don’t do this, it is to the detriment of the interests of the U.S.”

The Russian diplomat said, “I believe there are several areas where the U.S. and Russia can and should work together cooperatively. Nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, countering terrorism, illicit immigration, trafficking in people, climate change, you name it.

“We are ready, we are stretching our hand forward, we are hopeful that someone on the other side, President Trump included, but also others may see here a chance for a somewhat different way,” he added.

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Britain Strips More than 100 Islamic State Fighters of Citizenship

Their home countries don’t want them back. Hundreds of foreign fighters who enlisted with Islamic State to fight in Syria and Iraq are being stripped of their citizenship and blocked from returning by Western governments.

Returning fighters are seen as a grim threat, the deadly legacy of a murderous movement being defeated and rolled back on the battlefield. Western intelligence officials say they are already over-stretched trying to monitor tens of thousands of suspected extremists who never left their home countries.

British officials say they have stripped more than 100 British fighters and brides of their citizenship, preventing them re-entering the country legally, according to British news reports. All those who have lost British citizenship are dual nationals. Under international law, governments can’t revoke someone’s citizenship if it would render them stateless.

According to Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper, 152 IS recruits have been stripped of British citizenship since 2016, 30 since March.

Of the estimated 850 Britons who joined IS or al-Qaida-linked groups in Syria, 15 percent are thought to have been killed. A handful of returnees have been jailed, but officials say many cannot be prosecuted for lack of evidence. Some are thought to have become disillusioned with jihadism, but many are thought to pose a significant terror risk.

Britain isn’t alone in fearing the havoc returnees could wreak or the added burden they place on intelligence services already struggling to maintain surveillance on thousands of suspects who never left to fight. In June, following terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, British authorities admitted 23,000 radical Islamists had been considered a “person of interest” to the security services at any one time, more than six times the previous figures made public by the government.

Of those, 3,000 are considered serious threats, including about 400 people who have returned to Britain after fighting for IS in Syria and Iraq.

Other countries fearful

Since 2015, several Western governments have moved to amend their laws to make it easier to revoke the citizenship of dual nationals involved in terrorism. Even so, European governments have faced mounting criticism that they have little in the way of comprehensive plans ready for returnees, either in keeping tabs on them or requiring them to enter rehabilitation and de-radicalization programs.

There is fierce debate also over the effectiveness of de-radicalization programs on fighters who have not already become disillusioned.

Critics include Alex Carlile, a former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, who has complained about the British government’s inconsistency and has called for the reintroduction of tough “control orders” that were banned in 2012 over human right fears. The control orders allowed the authorities to restrict suspects’ movement and their use of phones and computers.

He said in a television interview last month it was a “grave mistake” to abolish the orders which “may have saved dozens of lives” between 2005 and 2011.

In February, the Australian government revoked the citizenship of Khaled Sharrouf, who slipped out of Australia in 2013 after serving a four-year jail term on terrorism-related charges.

He became internationally infamous after posting on the internet in August 2014 a photograph of his seven-year-old son holding the severed head of a Syrian soldier. In April a new video surfaced showing Sharrouf’s youngest son wearing a suicide vest being prompted by his father to issue threats to murder Australians.

At least 110 Australians are estimated to have joined terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria. Seventy are thought to be dead, three were captured in Lebanon and are in jail there. Australian officials are considering revoking their citizenship.

It has been rare for Western fighters to be captured. In an interview last week with VOA, Gen. Andrew Croft, who oversees the coalition air campaign against IS in Iraq, said foreign fighters are certainly among the IS forces.

“One of the dynamics you see is that foreign fighters can’t just blend in with civilians and go to an IDP camp. So the foreign fighters often move around in groups, and they will often fight to the death,” he said.

A move by then-president Francois Hollande to pass legislation to make it easier to revoke French citizenship of terrorist suspects holding dual nationality failed last year. Opinion polls suggested the legislation had public backing, but political critics and rights groups argued the measure would do little to prevent terror attacks and risked worsening race relations by stigmatizing sections of the population, notably Muslims of North African descent.



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Seven Turkish Journalists Released From Prison

Seven Turkish journalists were freed Saturday after spending nine months in prison, but they expressed sorrow that four of their colleagues were still being detained on charges of having aided terror groups.

The staff members from Cumhuriyet, a Turkish opposition newspaper, were released from Silivri jail on the outskirts of Istanbul. They must still stand trial, with the next hearing scheduled for September 11. If convicted, they face terms of up to 43 years in prison.

The journalists are charged with using their news coverage to support three groups Turkey considers terrorist organizations: the Kurkistan Workers’ Party, or PKK; the leftist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party; and the followers of a U.S.-based spiritual leader, Fethullah Gulen, who is accused of backing last year’s coup attempt.

“To be honest, I thought I would be very happy the moment I was released,” said cartoonist Musa Kart in a statement. “But I cannot say that I am very happy today. Unfortunately, four of our friends are still incarcerated in Silivri Prison. I do not think that the image of journalists in prison is one that becomes this country.”

An Istanbul court ruled Friday that the seven journalists should be freed, but it kept the most prominent of the Cumhuriyet journalists behind bars: commentator Kadri Gursel, investigative journalist Ahmet Sik, editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu and chief executive Akin Atalay.

Sik, who was jailed in 2011-12 over a book he’d authored, was jailed again in December over the content of his Twitter feed. Prosecutors said they planned to charge him additionally for a statement in court Wednesday that was fiercely critical of Turkey’s ruling party.

Indictment called ‘trash’

In what was expected to be a defense statement, Sik lashed out with a tirade about press freedom. He called the indictment against him and his colleagues “trash” and referred to the judiciary as a “lynch mob.” He said the purpose of the charges against him and his colleagues was to scare and silence people who would speak out against the government.

Following last year’s coup attempt, Turkey instituted a crackdown on journalists that resulted in the closure of more than 100 media outlets.

The independent watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists, which tracks press freedom issues, says Turkey jails more journalists than any other country, due to broadly worded laws on supporting terrorism and “insulting Turkishness.” As of December 2016, at least 81 journalists were being held in Turkish jails, all of them facing charges that they were working against the state, CPJ said.

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Putin Pardons 2 Women Given Prison Terms for Text Messages

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday pardoned two women who were sentenced to prison terms for sending text messages to Georgian acquaintances about the movement of Russian military equipment on the eve of a war in 2008.

Two orders published by the Kremlin said Annik Kesyan and Marina Dzhandzhgava would not have to complete the rest of their sentences. It cited humanitarian principles for the decision.

Kesyan and Dzhandzhgava were found guilty of treason for sending text messages about the movement of Russian military hardware near the border with Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia not long before a war broke out in 2008.

Kesyan was sentenced to eight years in prison, while Dzhandzhgava was given a prison term of 12 years, according to Team 29, an association of lawyers based in St. Petersburg.

Putin in March pardoned a third woman, Oksana Sevastidi, who was also convicted of treason for sending a text message to a Georgian acquaintance about a train carrying Russian military equipment.

Rights groups had criticized the sentences given to the women.

Team 29 said in an article on its website that in April 2008 Kesyan had sent a text message to a friend saying “Yes, they are moving”, in response to a question about whether Russian tanks were moving in Sochi.

Dzhandzhgava was accused of treason for sending a text message to a Georgian acquaintance about the movement of a train carrying Russian troops, Team 29 said.

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EU Launches Legal Action Over Poland’s Court Reforms

The European Union has launched an infringement procedure against Poland over reforms the country made to its judiciary, which the EU fears will affect the impartiality of Poland’s courts.

EU commissioners decided to start the legal action Wednesday, prior to the publication of the new Polish law, with the main concern that the justice minister now can extend the mandates of judges, and dismiss and appoint court presidents.

“The new rules allow the minister of justice to exert influence on individual ordinary judges through, in particular, the vague criteria for the prolongation of their mandates thereby undermining the principle of irremovability of judges,” the European Commission said in a statement on Saturday.

Also of concern to commissioners is that female judges are required to retire five years earlier than their male counterparts.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party wants to push forward with the court reforms because it says the courts are too slow and bogged down with communist-era thinking.

According to the EU statement, the Polish ruling party has a month to respond to the notice, which informed the country it is infringing on EU laws.

The Polish government has called the court reforms an internal matter. Poland’s deputy foreign minister for European affairs, Konrad Szymanski, told the PAP news agency that the EU decision was “unfounded,” and he said the new law met legal requirements.

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Trump to Approve Sanctions Bill; Russia Imposes Its Own

The White House says President Donald Trump approves of Congress’ new sanctions against Russia and he intends to sign the bill.

In a statement Friday, the press secretary said the president has reviewed the final version of the bill that outlines additional sanctions against a wide range of Russia industries. The bill also gives Congress the ability to block the president from lifting the Russia sanctions.

The Trump administration had opposed the sanctions aimed at punishing Russia for interfering in last year’s U.S. presidential election. The White House argued that it needed flexibility in trying to improve relations between the two countries. But after months of investigations into contacts between Russian officials and members of President Trump’s campaign team, there was broad bipartisan support in both houses of Congress for more stringent measures.

Russia responds with sanctions

Russia responded earlier Friday to the sanctions with new measures targeting U.S. missions in the country. Moscow said Washington must reduce the number of diplomatic and technical staff working in U.S. missions in Russia to 455 by Sept. 1. That’s same number of Russian diplomats and technical staff Moscow said are working in the United States. It is unclear how many Americans that would affect, possibly hundreds.

In addition to the reduction in U.S. diplomatic personnel, Russia also said it would block the U.S. embassy in Russia from accessing its warehouses in Moscow and a vacation compound in Serebryany Bor.

“We also reserve the right to take other measures according to the principle of reciprocity, which may affect the interests of the United States,” the ministry said.

​Putin approves decision

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Russian leader had personally approved Friday’s Foreign Ministry decision.

“The form in which the sanctions bill emerged from the Senate had greater significance,” Peskov said.

The Russian retaliation was celebrated in Moscow as a long overdue response to actions from the previous U.S. administration.

In December 2016, former President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and seized Russian embassy compounds in Maryland and New York as punishment for Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential elections.

At the time, Putin chose not to respond, a move many saw as a gesture of goodwill to the incoming Trump administration, which had expressed a desire for improved relations with Moscow.

Yet Friday’s move reflected growing Russian frustration that the Trump White House, besieged by multiple investigations into its ties to Russia during the campaign, had not delivered on its campaign promises.

“We did everything in our power to save relations from disaster, but the Americans did just the opposite,” wrote Konstantin Kosachev in a post to Facebook. Kosachev, a Russia politician, went on to call the retaliation “long overdue.”

Sergey Markov, a political analyst close to the Kremlin, also cheered the Kremlin’s decision as inevitable, writing on Facebook that “hope that the President of the United States could change relations with Russia for the better are over.”

The bill U.S. senators approved Thursday also imposes new sanctions on Iran and North Korea. For Russia, the measures are designed to affect a wide range of Russian industries, hitting the country squarely in the pocketbook.

The European Union has expressed concern about the new sanctions, saying they could have an impact on the European energy sector.

Praise on Capitol Hill

Daniel Fried, an Obama-era official who coordinated the administration’s sanctions policy, told VOA he didn’t think the move by Congress to block Trump from altering sanctions would affect a bilateral settlement, but rather was meant to stop Trump from lifting the sanctions “for no good reason.”

“I think if there were a settlement and if this were generally acceptable to all the parties, including Ukraine, I think that Congress would not stand in the way of the administration lifting the Ukraine-related sanctions,” he said.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are already praising the group effort to pass the bill quickly. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., said in a statement: “I am pleased the Senate has acted overwhelmingly to give the administration much-needed economic and political leverage to address threats from Iran, Russia, and North Korea. This bipartisan bill is about keeping America safe, and I urge the president to sign it into law.”

Senator Mark Warner, D-Va., vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and a member of the Senate Banking Committee said, “This bill passed with overwhelming majorities in both the Senate and the House, sending a strong message to Vladimir Putin that attacks on our democracy will not be tolerated. President Trump should sign this bill as soon as it hits his desk. Otherwise, he risks encouraging Russia’s interference in future elections.”

VOA’s Charles Maynes, Michael Bowman and Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.