4 Charged in Transporting Suspected Iranian-Made Weapons; 2 SEALs Died in Intercepting the Ship

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA — Four foreign nationals were arrested and charged Thursday with transporting suspected Iranian-made weapons on a vessel intercepted by U.S. naval forces in the Arabian Sea last month. Two Navy SEALs died during the mission.

The criminal complaint unsealed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Richmond alleges that the four defendants — who were all carrying Pakistani identification cards — were transporting suspected Iranian-made missile components for the type of weapons used by Houthi rebel forces in recent attacks.

“The flow of missiles and other advanced weaponry from Iran to Houthi rebel forces in Yemen threatens the people and interests of America and our partners in the region,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a news release.

U.S. officials said that Navy Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Christopher J. Chambers was boarding the boat on January 11 and slipped into the gap created by high waves between the vessel and the SEALs’ combatant craft. As Chambers fell, Navy Special Warfare Operator 2nd Class Nathan Gage Ingram jumped in to try to save him, according to U.S. officials familiar with what happened.

“Two Navy SEALs tragically lost their lives in the operation that thwarted the defendants charged today from allegedly smuggling Iranian-made weapons that the Houthis could have used to target American forces and threaten freedom of navigation and a vital artery for commerce,” Monaco said.

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland pledged that the Justice Department “will use every legal authority to hold accountable those who facilitate the flow of weapons from Iran to Houthi rebel forces, Hamas, and other groups that endanger the security of the United States and our allies.”

Muhammad Pahlawan is charged with attempting to smuggle advanced missile components, including a warhead he is accused of knowing would be used by the Houthi rebels against commercial and naval vessels in the Red Sea and surrounding waters. He is also charged with providing false information to U.S. Coast Guard officers during the boarding of the vessel.

Pahlawan’s co-defendants — Mohammad Mazhar, Ghufran Ullah and Izhar Muhammad — also were charged with providing false information.

Pahlawan’s attorney, Assistant Supervisory Federal Public Defender Amy Austin, said Pahlawan had an initial appearance in U.S. District Court Thursday and is scheduled to be back in court Tuesday for a detention hearing. She declined to comment on the case.

“Right now, he’s just charged with two crimes and we’re just at the very beginning stages, and so all we know is what’s in the complaint,” Austin said when reached by phone Thursday.

According to prosecutors, Navy forces boarded a small, unflagged vessel, described as a dhow, and encountered 14 people on the ship on the night of January 11, in the Arabian Sea off the Somali coast.

Navy forces searched the dhow and found what prosecutors say was Iranian-made weapons, including components for medium range ballistic missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles.

All 14 sailors on the dhow were brought onto the USS Lewis B. Puller after Navy forces determined the dhow was not seaworthy. They were then brought back to Virginia, where criminal charges were filed against four and material witness warrants were filed against the other 10.

According to an FBI affidavit, Navy forces were entitled to board the ship because they were conducting an authorized “flag verification” to determine the country where the dhow was registered.

The dhow was determined to be flying without a flag and was therefore deemed a “vessel without nationality” that was subject to U.S. law, the affidavit states.

According to the affidavit, the sailors on the dhow admitted they had departed from Iran, although at least one of the men initially insisted they departed from Pakistan.

The affidavit states that crew members had been in contact multiple times by satellite phone with a member of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.

 

Hungary Appears to Be Strengthening Ties With Russia, China

Budapest — Hungary continues to buy billions of dollars of Russian oil and gas annually, despite most other Western nations’ cutting of economic ties with Russia after its invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022. Budapest also has sought to strengthen ties with Beijing, bucking Western efforts to reduce dependence on China. 

It has led some to label the country as Russia and China’s “Trojan Horse” in the West. What’s behind Hungary’s warm relations with Moscow and Beijing? Many analysts say Hungary is seeking to exploit global tensions to its own advantage.

Russian oil    

The southern branch of the Druzhba or “Friendship” pipeline brings thousands of metric tons of Russian oil across Ukraine and directly to the state-controlled MOL refinery on the outskirts of Budapest daily.  

Russia was once the European Union’s largest energy supplier, but the bloc banned Russian oil imports after the Ukraine invasion. Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic demanded exemptions, however, claiming that as landlocked countries they cannot quickly diversify supply. 

While Slovakia and the Czech Republic have sought to reduce dependency on Russian energy since the ban came into effect, Hungary has struck new preferential deals to boost supplies from Russia. It is now Moscow’s biggest energy customer in the EU, purchasing $343 million worth of oil and gas in January of this year alone. It is also building a new pipeline to take the Russian oil products into Serbia.

In addition, Russia is building the new Paks II nuclear power plant in Hungary, on the bank of the Danube River, south of Budapest.

Ukraine anger

Ukraine says Russia spends its energy revenue on weapons to kill Ukrainians. An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy even accused Hungary of being complicit in alleged Russian war crimes through their energy deals with Moscow. “If you’ve seen the video where Russians cut the head off a Ukrainian soldier — the Hungarians are paying for the knife,” Oleg Ustenko, an economic adviser to Zelenskyy, told the Politico website last April, after Hungary signed a deal to boost gas imports from Russia. 

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto rejected criticism of the deals with Moscow.

“The security of Hungary’s energy supply requires uninterrupted transportation of gas, oil and nuclear fuel. To meet these three conditions, Hungarian-Russian energy cooperation must be uninterrupted. It has nothing to do with political preferences,” Szijjarto said at a press conference in April following the agreement.

Moscow ties

Hungary’s links with Moscow go far deeper than oil and gas. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has repeatedly rejected Western calls to sever economic ties with Moscow. 

“Brussels’ strategy for Ukraine has failed spectacularly. Not only on the battlefield, where the situation is catastrophic, but also in international politics. We have said in vain that this war is a brotherly war of two Slavic nations, and not ours,” Orban said in his annual televised address February 17.  

Orban has criticized EU sanctions on Russia, blocked European Union financial assistance for Ukraine, and delayed ratifying Sweden’s accession to NATO. He has made Hungary the outcast of Europe, said analyst Peter Kreko.      

“No one has gone so far in demolishing democratic institutions, turning against the Western institution system and cultivating relationships with Russia and China,” Kreko told VOA.    

Chinese investment

China is financing a $3.8 billon high-speed railway from Budapest to the Serbian capital Belgrade, a flagship project of its Belt and Road Initiative. Hungary was among the largest global recipients of Chinese BRI investment in 2022.  

Critics say the government has prevented any oversight of the deals.

“There are arbitrarily designed and swiftly adopted regulations by parliament to prevent any insight or oversight in and over the Russian investment in the nuclear power plant or the Chinese investment into the railway track that is being developed from Belgrade to Budapest. These are major investments. In the Hungarian context these are unprecedented investments,” Miklos Ligeti, of the anti-corruption organization Transparency International, told VOA.  

 

The Hungarian government rejects claims of corruption and says details of the investments were kept secret to secure a loan from the Chinese Export-Import Bank. Some 85% of the financing comes from China, according to Reuters.

Orban worldview

Hungary’s warm relations with Moscow and Beijing are based on a geopolitical assumption, Kreko said.    

“Where there is a new Cold War-type conflict emerging between China and the West. And Orban wants to play this bridge role between the two. And it’s also increasingly about a notion that the Western liberal democratic order is about to collapse, and we have to look for new models, be them in Russia, be them in China,” Kreko told VOA.

Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party have a large majority in parliament and are well ahead in the polls. 

“The chance of any governmental change is miniscule. It means that he really has a lot of time to deal with foreign policy. And he does not want only to be the prime minister of Hungary – he wants to be a world class player,” Kreko said, adding that Orban relishes being in the center of world attention.

“And this is partially one goal of his game. But the other goal of his game is — through veto, through obstruction — to have an influence on the processes, and he wants to be around the important negotiation tables.”

“He’s quite open about his negative attitude towards the EU, but I think it is increasingly [against] NATO, as well. So, he wants to weaken these institutions from within because he feels they pose a threat to his sovereign decision making,” Kreko said.

US Plans ‘Crushing’ Sanctions on Kremlin 2 Years After Ukraine War

Buenos Aires, Argentina — Two years after Russia’s war on Ukraine, the United States is doubling down pressure on the Kremlin by rolling out sanctions on Russia targeting banks and the weapons industry, as described by a senior U.S. official.

A day before the U.S. plan to announce new sanctions packages imposed on Moscow, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there’s a strong desire among the Group of 20 for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine to end.

“If you were in that room, as (Russian) Foreign Minister Lavrov was, you heard a very strong chorus coming from not just the G7 countries within the G20, but from many others as well, about the imperative of ending the Russian aggression, restoring peace,” Blinken told reporters during a press conference after attending G20 foreign ministers’ meetings in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Some of the U.S. sanctions will target those responsible for the detention death of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

“The fact that (Russian President) Vladimir Putin saw it necessary to persecute, poison, and imprison one man speaks volumes not about Russia’s strength under Putin, but its weakness,” Blinken added.

In Washington, Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said during a Thursday event hosted by the Center for Security and International Studies, or CSIS, that the U.S. will impose “a crushing new package of sanctions, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them, in the next couple of days.”

Some of these sanctions will be targeted at individuals directly involved in Navalny’s death, but the vast majority are designed to further impact “Putin’s war machine” and close gaps in existing sanctions, according to Nuland.

Despite the efforts of the United States and other countries to isolate Moscow, it remains actively engaged in diplomatic activities, as demonstrated by the presence of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at this week’s G20 ministerial meeting.

During the meeting, Lavrov held talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, where they discussed “diplomatic solutions” to the Ukraine war.

U.S. officials have said they don’t see the conditions for diplomatic negotiations to end the Ukraine war, as there’s skepticism that Russia is not motivated to negotiate and that Putin would never accept an independent Ukraine.

“Two years. We are all here,” wrote Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a post on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, indicating that representatives from dozens of countries and various international organizations have gathered to show solidarity with Ukraine.

Former President Trump Leading Only Republican Opponent in Her Home State

The two-person contest for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination comes this weekend to South Carolina, where former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley hopes for an upset victory in her home state over former president Donald Trump. VOA’s Congressional Correspondent Katherine Gypson has more from the Southern state.

Why Are Americans Likely Stuck With a Biden-Trump Rematch in November?

washington — In an election year beset with uncertainties, one thing is clear: Americans find a November rematch between U.S. President Joe Biden and his leading Republican challenger, former U.S. President Donald Trump, even less appealing than the first time around in 2020.

A January Reuters/Ipsos poll showed most Americans do not want Biden and Trump to run again and that they are tired of seeing the same candidates in presidential elections.

Trump is besieged by legal woes, and both he and Biden are seen as too old, although polls show more Americans worry about Biden, who would be 81 on Election Day, than Trump, who would be 78.

So, why are Americans in this predicament?

The short answer, according to analysts, is that both Biden and Trump want another term, and they operate in a political system geared to favor incumbents.

Trump wants four more years

A second term could deliver vindication for Trump who since losing to Biden in 2020 has pushed baseless claims that the election was stolen, said Thomas Schwartz, a presidential historian with Vanderbilt University.

Trump’s critics accuse him of running not for the good of the country but to stay out of prison, something he denies. Trump faces 91 criminal charges under four indictments: for falsifying his business records in New York, for withholding classified federal government documents in Florida, and for attempting to overturn the 2020 election in two separate cases in Washington and the state of Georgia.

These indictments have not hurt his poll numbers, said Clifford Young, president of Ipsos Public Affairs in the U.S.

“Trump has a very strong connection with his base,” Young told VOA. “It’s almost unbreakable.”

Revisiting grievances that resonate with MAGA (Make America Great Again) Republicans, Trump dominated the primaries — the statewide voting processes in which voters select a party’s nominee who will compete in the general election — held so far. He is expected to handily win the rest, capitalizing on a system that amplifies the most ideologically fervent voices of the electorate.

This is particularly true in states with “closed” primaries where voters must register with a party before voting. The process shuts out independent and unaffiliated voters, and candidates win by taking on the most ideologically extreme positions.

“You have an overwhelming vote for Donald Trump among Republican primary voters,” Schwartz told VOA.

But even “open” primaries, where registered voters regardless of their political affiliation can vote for any candidate, reflect only a small share of the electorate. In U.S. elections since 2000, the average turnout rate for primary elections is 27% of registered voters, compared to 60.5% for general elections.

Biden wants four more years

Like any incumbent American president, Biden sees a second term as a vindication of his achievements, Schwartz said.

Biden secured a series of legislative wins, led the Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and presided over an economy where recession fears have eased, growth and job gains are beating expectations, and inflation is cooling.

“It is possible for Joe Biden to declare himself a successful one-term president and step aside. He just doesn’t want to,” Schwartz noted, citing Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson who decided not to run again in March of 1952 and 1968 respectively. “And the party is not strong enough to tell him to do so.”

Democrats see Biden as the best barricade against their biggest fear — another Trump administration, Schwartz said. Had Trump not been in the race, he added, they would have been more willing to challenge Biden.

“What I’m hearing is, we’re riding with Biden,” said Democratic strategist Corryn Grace Freeman.

This despite progressives’ frustration with the president’s inability to fully cancel student loan debt and his response to the Israel-Hamas war, she told VOA.

“There are many people that cannot support this president, who also don’t like Donald Trump, who just feel like the Democratic Party consistently fails us,” she said, adding that support from Blacks and Latinos “is beginning to dwindle because of how this president has shown up.”

Democrats are now stuck in an extraordinarily high-risk gamble where a potential health or other age-related incident could further discourage voters, Schwartz warned. But despite Biden’s weak poll numbers and questions about his age, there is no Plan B for Democrats.

“No viable alternative got into the race,” said Elaine Kamarck, senior fellow in Governance Studies and the director of the Center for Effective Public Management at Brookings Institution. “You can’t beat something with nothing,” she told VOA.

This notion was put to the test early, during the January New Hampshire primary that Biden skipped because he had promised South Carolina Democrats that their state would host the first primary. The president was not on the New Hampshire primary ballot, but the majority of voters there wrote in his name, delivering his overwhelming victory over two longshot challengers, Minnesota Congressman Dean Phillips and self-help author Marianne Williamson, who were on the ballot.

System favors incumbents

Both essentially running as incumbents, Biden and Trump have huge influence over their party apparatus and resources. They also benefit from a primary system where a small number of states have outsized influence and candidate choices are locked in far in advance of the election, even if they become less popular.

The latter feature of the system is the unintended result of efforts to fix the former, said Geoffrey Cowan, a professor at the University of Southern California.

During the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Cowan pushed for reform to ensure voters in all 50 states are represented, replacing a system where fewer than 20 states held primary elections and caucuses and presidential nominees were mostly selected by party leaders during their convention.

“I put together this commission which said that all delegates to the 1972 convention would have to be picked through a process open to full public participation in the calendar year of the election,” Cowan told VOA.

In mandating that primaries are held the same year, the commission did not anticipate that state rules would evolve to lock in candidates early, even if voters’ attitudes about them change, Cowan said.

Most states now require candidates who want to run in a party’s primary to register by the first week of election year. States also race to hold their primaries as early as possible, a process known as frontloading.

This means by the third week of February, it would be difficult for a candidate to launch a campaign against Biden or Trump even though there are still more than 250 days to the election. Primaries have been held in critical states such as New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, and candidacy filing deadlines have passed in many others.

Which means, unless one of them drops out and the party scrambles to nominate a replacement during the convention, Americans are stuck with either Trump, who will be the Republican nominee by championing MAGA grievances, or Biden, because he is seen as the only one who can beat Trump.

Biden Meets With Navalny’s Widow in California

As the United States is set to announce sanctions against Moscow following Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s death, President Joe Biden met with his widow in San Francisco on Thursday. VOA Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from Washington.

Why is Hungary Strengthening Ties with Russia and China?

While many Western nations have cut economic ties with Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, Hungary continues to buy billions of dollars of Russian oil and gas. It also has sought to strengthen ties with Beijing, bucking Western efforts to reduce dependence on China. As Henry Ridgwell reports from Budapest, analysts say Hungary’s leader is seeking to exploit global tensions.

Former US President Jimmy Carter Surpasses One Year in Hospice Care

chicago, illinois — A year since The Carter Center announced that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was receiving end-of-life hospice care, Carter continues to defy the odds.

He quietly celebrated his 99th birthday on October 1, and last appeared in public on November 29 to attend the funeral of his wife, Rosalynn Carter.

“He is very old and very frail,” said author Jonathan Alter, who chronicled Carter’s life in the book “His Very Best.” “When you are 99, various systems in your body start breaking down, but it’s very important to understand that he does not have any underlying health condition like heart failure or cancer.”

The Carter family’s decision to announce that the 39th president was entering hospice care has raised awareness about end-of-life care giving, which Alter compares to the decades-long efforts of the former president and first lady to remove the stigma associated with mental illness.

“They did this very intentionally to give a boost to the hospice movement,” Alter told VOA in a recent Skype interview. “I don’t think there was any expectation that he’d still be in hospice a year later, but they were very, very interested in spreading the word about hospice.”

“Once again leading by example, [the Carter family] is showing us how to embrace a stage of life that people don’t want to think about — that people don’t want to talk about,” Ben Marcantonio, interim CEO of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, explained during an event his organization sponsored in New York’s Time Square in August, recorded live on Facebook.

“They’re showing us how hospice helps patients live life to the fullest to the end of life, and that’s why we’re gathered here today to publicly thank President Carter and his family.”

While now out of the spotlight, the global nonprofit Carter Center continues to “wage peace, fight disease and build hope” around the world. One of Jimmy Carter’s key efforts leading the center — the complete eradication of parasitic Guinea worm infections — marked a steady number of infections in the last several years.

“Thirteen human cases reported in 2023,” said Adam Weiss, director of The Carter Center’s Guinea worm eradication program. “With such few human cases, the biggest risk is about the reinfection of humans from some of the animal infections that are occurring primarily in Chad, Mali, Cameroon and Angola.”

“While nine of those 13 cases were in Chad, four of those nine cases were in one family,” explained Dr. Donald Hopkins, one of the architects of The Carter Center’s Guinea worm eradication efforts.

Hopkins encouraged Carter to take on the neglected tropical disease in the center’s early days and added that while the annual number of infections did not decrease this year, the total number of infections globally are dramatically different from where they were when the effort began in the 1980s.

“There were an estimated 3 ½ million cases, mostly in Africa, but some also in India, Pakistan and Yemen,” said Hopkins. “Having only 13 human cases now annually means that a lot fewer people are suffering.”

Middle East conflicts

In recent months, The Carter Center has called for a cease-fire in the war between Israel and Hamas, which threatens to undo a pillar of Jimmy Carter’s legacy. The genesis of the center’s efforts to promote peace and democracy around the world was the success of the Camp David Peace Accords, which Carter brokered between Egypt and Israel during his presidency in the 1970s.

“This treaty between Egypt and Israel is the most successful, durable treaty of the postwar era,” Alter told VOA.

The tense and difficult negotiations Carter hosted at the Camp David Presidential Retreat for 12 days in September 1978 between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin resulted in a treaty that ended decades of conflict between Israel and one of its most powerful neighbors.

“Israel turned back hundreds of thousands of acres of land in the Sinai Peninsula and pulled the Israeli settlements in the Sinai Peninsula as they turned that land back to Egypt. In exchange for that, they received a promise from Egypt it would not attack Israel as it had four times in the previous 30 years. It was understandable why it would be durable. It was a land for peace swap,” Alter said.

But as Israel presses its offensive against Hamas in the Gaza strip, the Egyptian government has threatened to suspend the 45-year-old treaty.

“Given the stakes, this is a big deal and obviously very much on the mind not only of the Israelis who understand its importance, but also the United States,” Alter said.

He said it also underscores Carter’s unrealized dream of broader peace in the Middle East.

“If Jimmy Carter were just a few years younger, you can bet he would be in the region right now trying to make peace,” Alter said.

While Carter holds the records for the longest-living occupant of the White House and the longest marriage of any president and first lady in U.S. history, he marks another first this year.

The White House Historical Association unveiled its annual Christmas ornament on Wednesday, this year featuring Carter — the first time a living president is honored with an ornament.

“Both the front and reverse side of the ornament feature peace doves, symbolic of President Carter’s work for peace in the Middle East, and perhaps most significantly, the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty signed on the North Lawn of the White House on March 26, 1979,” the association describes on its website.

On the reverse side of the ornament is the Seawolf-class USS Jimmy Carter. Commissioned in 2005, it is the only submarine to be named for a living president. The globe at the center refers to Carter’s lifelong work on environmental conservation. At the base of the anchor is a garland of peanut flowers, a reminder of Carter’s years as a farmer and businessman in Plains, Georgia.

France’s Call for Stronger Europe Finally Gains Traction

PARIS — For years, French President Emmanuel Macron has argued for a stronger, more independent European defense. “What Europe, Defense Europe, lacks most today is a common strategic culture,” he said in a 2017 speech at Sorbonne University in Paris.

His address, just months after taking office, called for such unity in countering a raft of threats, including climate change. “Our inability to work together convincingly undermines our credibility as Europeans,” Macron said.

Today, it seems, other European Union countries are finally listening. Not necessarily because of Macron, but because of events taking place far from the French capital: a menacing Russia and struggling Kyiv as the war in Ukraine heads into its third year; and fears of waning U.S. support for both the conflict and the Atlantic alliance, especially if former president Donald Trump returns to power.

“The Europeans will have to get their act together on defense no matter what — and that requires a sustained effort for five, 10 years,” says Camille Grand, who leads defense issues at the European Council on Foreign Relations policy institute. While some European Union members had already begun moving in that direction, he said, “it took the full-scale invasion of Ukraine to get that massive shift.”

Recent weeks have seen Europe’s defense take center stage in meetings and commitments. At the Munich Security Conference that wrapped up Sunday, Denmark announced it would send its entire ammunition stock to Ukraine, calling on other European countries to also step up. During back-to-back visits to Berlin and Paris, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy secured fresh security pacts from both countries and billions of dollars more in aid.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has called for the European Union to become a military power in its own right, while the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia agreed last month to set up a common defense zone on their borders with Russia and Belarus. Last week, too, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced that Europe, for the first time, had collectively met the alliance’s 2% GDP target for defense spending.

But whether Europe’s wakeup call will translate into a common defense strategy remains uncertain, observers say, as doing so would entail moving beyond the EU’s traditional glue of France and Germany to include central and eastern member states — and working together in new ways.

“All we’ve been able to construct since the beginning of this century were specific cooperations to manage peripheral crises — in the Middle East, Africa or the Balkans,” said Dominique David, defense specialist at the French Institute of International Relations. “Not to make war or defend against a threat on our territory.”

Others warn against going it alone.

“We should not pursue any path that indicates that we are trying to divide Europe from North America,” the alliance’s Stoltenberg said.

Challenges ahead

While their aims may differ, the wave of recent European defense commitments reflects an old French argument.

“The idea that the Europeans, even within NATO, should represent a more autonomous and independent force vis-a-vis the United States was always a French idea,” analyst David said — one also taken up by Macron’s predecessors.

“The other Europeans thought the real security guarantee came from the United States,” he added, “and constructing a more-or-less autonomous European defense would weaken the American guarantee.”

Those beliefs are crumbling as a $60 billion aid package for Ukraine gathers dust in Congress — and after former President Donald Trump’s suggestion he may not protect a NATO member “delinquent” on its military spending, and instead encourage Russia to attack if back in office.

“The French, like other Europeans, are faced with a situation in which Ukraine has become their exclusive responsibility, a situation which nobody was expecting,” said French defense analyst Francois Heisbourg.

“We’re not in a point-scoring situation anymore,” he added, referring to earlier debates over how autonomous Europe’s defense should be. “We are now in a more existential world.”

What’s clear, analysts say, is Europe has serious catchup to do, after years of spending little on defense. Some fear it may be just a few years before Russia sets it sights beyond Ukraine. While the bloc has earmarked billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine, including $54 billion earlier this month, it is lagging behind in other areas. The EU has moved a March deadline to deliver a million artillery shells to Ukraine, for example, to year’s end.

“It’s astonishing that the European abilities to supply Ukraine are not either physically strong enough or don’t exist,” said Judy Dempsey, a defense specialist at Carnegie Europe policy institute. “This is the tragedy of the post-Cold war era; that the defense structures were downsized.”

France, too, hasn’t always walked its security talk. It ranks 14th, behind Germany and the Netherlands, in terms of defense commitments to Ukraine, according to Germany’s Kiel Institute research group, although French government figures are higher. It’s fallen just shy of NATO’s 2% spending target in recent years — compared to Poland’s nearly 4% last year — although French authorities say that spending goal will be met this year and rise after that.

“The Poles, the Balts and the Nordics have been investing more rapidly and more significantly in defense than many of Europe’s more western and southern countries,” said analyst Grand. “They have become high-profile defense players,” which traditional EU heavyweights France and Germany “need to account for.”

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, who hopes to win another term this year, has called for creating a new post of EU defense commissioner. Some suggest the job should go to an eastern European country like Poland, with a focused understanding of Russia’s threat.

The bigger goal of forging a common European defense strategy and bloc within NATO will be a key challenge, some say.

“I would say the answer is no,” said analyst David, referring to the prospect of that happening anytime soon. “We’re many, we’re divided, we’re in a situation that’s very complicated — we don’t know how to emerge from the war in Ukraine.”

What Europe can do now, he said, “is open these discussions, and hope to progress fairly quickly.”

Turkey’s Erdogan Eyes Key Role in Postwar Gaza

As Israeli forces close in on the Gaza Strip’s last main population center and international pressure grows for cease-fire, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is eyeing a key role in the postwar future of the Palestinian enclave. Analysts warn, though, that Erdogan’s staunch support for Hamas will spur Israeli resistance. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul.

Second IVF Provider in Alabama Pauses Some Services After Ruling on Embryos

montgomery, alabama — A second in vitro fertilization provider in the U.S. state of Alabama is pausing parts of its care to patients after the state Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos are legally considered children. 

Alabama Fertility Services said in a statement Thursday that it has “made the impossibly difficult decision to hold new IVF treatments due to the legal risk to our clinic and our embryologists.” 

The decision comes a day after the University of Alabama at Birmingham health system said in a statement that it was pausing IVF treatments so it could evaluate whether its patients or doctors could face criminal charges or punitive damages. 

“We are contacting patients that will be affected today to find solutions for them and we are working as hard as we can to alert our legislators as to the far reaching negative impact of this ruling on the women of Alabama,” Alabama Fertility said. “AFS will not close. We will continue to fight for our patients and the families of Alabama.” 

Doctors and patients have been grappling with shock and fear this week as they try to determine what they can and can’t do after the ruling by the all-Republican Alabama Supreme Court that raises questions about the future of IVF. 

Alabama Fertility Services’ decision left Gabby Goidel, who was days from an expected egg retrieval, calling clinics across the South looking for a place to continue IVF care. 

“I freaked out. I started crying,” Goidel said. “I felt in an extreme limbo state,”

The Alabama ruling came down Friday, the same day Goidel began a 10-day series of injections ahead of egg retrieval, with the hopes of getting pregnant through IVF next month. She found a place in Texas that will continue her care and plans to travel there Thursday night. 

Goidel experienced three miscarriages and she and her husband turned to IVF as a way of fulfilling their dream of becoming parents. 

“It’s not pro-family in any way,” Goidel said of the Alabama ruling. 

Dr. Michael C. Allemand, a reproductive endocrinologist at Alabama Fertility, said Wednesday that IVF is often the best treatment for patients who desperately want a child, and the ruling threatens doctors’ ability to provide that care. 

“The moments that our patients are wanting to have by growing their families — Christmas mornings with grandparents, kindergarten, going in the first day of school, with little backpacks — all that stuff is what this is about. Those are the real moments that this ruling could deprive patients of,” he said. 

Justices — citing language in the Alabama Constitution that the state recognizes the “rights of the unborn child” — said three couples could sue for wrongful death when their frozen embryos were destroyed in an accident at a storage facility. 

“Unborn children are ‘children’ … without exception based on developmental stage, physical location, or any other ancillary characteristics,” Justice Jay Mitchell wrote in Friday’s majority ruling. Mitchell said the court had previously ruled that a fetus killed when a woman is pregnant is covered under Alabama’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act and nothing excludes “extrauterine children from the Act’s coverage.” 

While the court case centered on whether embryos were covered under the wrongful death of a minor statute, some said treating the embryo as a child — rather than property — could have broader implications and call into question many of the practices of IVF. 

Guinness World Records Annuls ‘Oldest Dog Ever’ Title for Dead Portuguese Canine

Lisbon — Guinness World Records has ruled against a Portuguese dog that died last year keeping the title of oldest canine ever.

Following a review, GWR said Thursday it “no longer has the evidence it needs to support Bobi’s claim as the record holder.”

Bobi, a reportedly 31-year-old guard dog, had lived on a farm in the village of Conqueiros in Portugal with its owner, Leonel Costa. He was proclaimed as the world’s oldest living dog and oldest dog ever in February 2023. Said to have been born on May 11, 1992, he died last October.

GWR said it opened an investigation following concerns raised by veterinarians and other experts, both privately and publicly, and media investigations.

“We take tremendous pride in ensuring as best we can the accuracy and integrity of all our record titles,” Mark McKinley, GWR’s Director of Records, who conducted the review, said in a statement.

The group had suspended the title pending the review announced last month.

“We of course require evidence for all Guinness World Records titles we monitor, often a minimum of two statements from witnesses and subject experts,” McKinley said.

He said they also considered pictures, video and, where appropriate, data provided by technology relevant to the achievement.

GWR said they found that a lack of evidence from Bobi’s microchip data left them with no conclusive evidence of Bobi’s date of birth.

McKinley said that it was too early to speak about a new record holder.

“It’s going to take a long time for microchip uptake around the world to catch up with pet ownership, especially of older pets,” he said.

“Until that time, we’ll require documentary evidence for all years of a pet’s life,” he said.

Bobi was a purebred Rafeiro do Alentejo, a breed that has an average life expectancy of about 10 to 14 years.

In an emailed statement in January, his owner defended the title, saying Guinness World Records had spent a year checking the record claim.

British Judges to Rule on US Extradition of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange

London — British judges are set to rule whether Julian Assange, the founder of the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, will be extradited to the United States after he launched a last-ditch legal bid this week to block the order, the latest chapter in a legal battle stretching back nearly 14 years.

U.S. prosecutors are seeking Assange’s extradition in relation to 18 federal charges relating to allegations of hacking and theft of classified material, after Wikileaks published a trove of stolen U.S. diplomatic cables and military documents in 2010 relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Reserved judgement

The two-day hearing at the High Court in London concluded Wednesday and the two senior judges hearing the case are expected to deliver a ruling in the coming days or weeks. “We will reserve our decision,” judge Victoria Sharp said. It is unclear when she and fellow judge Jeremy Johnson will issue their decision.

Julian Assange’s supporters staged demonstrations outside the London court and in cities across the world, with protestors marching on U.S. embassies to demand Assange’s release.

Assange was not present at the High Court due to his poor health, and he did not appear via video link.

Assange’s defense

His defense lawyers argued the extradition warrant was politically motivated and that Assange was simply doing his job as a journalist by publishing the stolen U.S. files, according to Simon Crowther, a legal adviser for the human rights group Amnesty International, which is campaigning for the extradition order to be blocked.

“Firstly, they pointed out this is something that journalists do all the time: you receive classified material as journalists from confidential sources and you publish it when it’s in the public interest, particularly when it covers issues such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, accusations of torture, extrajudicial execution,” Crowther said.

“So, Julian Assange’s lawyers were able to point to legal arguments and found legal precedent that showed that this is political action that journalists take. And as a result, they say it’s outside of the extradition treaty between the U.S. and the U.K.,” he added.

Crowther said the second argument the lawyers made is that Assange’s actions were protected under guarantees of freedom of expression.

Press freedom

Press freedom campaigners have called for the United States to drop the charges against Assange and for him to be released from the high-security Belmarsh prison in London. Rebecca Vincent, the director of campaigns at Reporters Without Borders, said Assange would not get a fair trial in the United States.

“The publication by WikiLeaks in 2010 of the leaked classified documents exposed information that was in the public interest and informed journalism around the world. The prosecutor and other US officials have stated that as a foreign national, Assange will not be afforded First Amendment protections. Combined with the fact that the Espionage Act has no public interest defense, that means he cannot get a fair trial,” Vincent told VOA in a statement.

US prosecutors

U.S. prosecutors insist that Assange would receive a fair trial. In past hearings, British judges have also ruled that Assange would receive fair treatment under the U.S. judicial system.

Clair Dobbin, one of the lawyers representing the U.S. government, argued that Assange had encouraged people to steal documents, and that the published material contained unredacted names of U.S. sources, putting their lives at risk. She told the court this week that Assange had published them “indiscriminately” without redactions, and alleged that his actions were “unprecedented” and did not constitute journalism.

Assange could not therefore be “treated as akin to an ordinary journalist or Wikileaks akin to an ordinary publisher,” she said.

WikiLeaks cables

In 2010, WikiLeaks published a trove of diplomatic cables relating to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that had been stolen by the U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. Assange said Manning’s leaks exposed abuses by the United States military, including potential war crimes.

Assange was first arrested in Britain in 2010 on unrelated allegations of rape and sexual assault in Sweden. He jumped bail and sought refuge inside the Ecuadorian Embassy, where he stayed for seven years.

Sweden later dropped the charges. However, Assange was evicted from the Ecuadorian embassy in 2019 and imprisoned for breaching bail.

The British government signed an extradition order to the United States in June 2022, after successive failed legal challenges by Assange.

‘Life in danger’

Assange’s wife Stella has repeatedly claimed that the 52-year-old’s life is in danger if he is extradited to the U.S. “It’s an attack on all journalists, all over the world. It’s an attack on the truth and an attack on the public’s right to know. Julian is a political prisoner, and his life is at risk,” she told reporters outside the High Court as the hearing began this week.

In previous legal challenges, Assange’s lawyers unsuccessfully sought to block the extradition on claims that the U.S. prison system would constitute a risk to his life, potentially causing him to commit suicide.

“If he was extradited to the U.S., Julian Assange could be held in solitary confinement – prolonged solitary confinement. And that constitutes a violation of the (convention on the) prohibition of torture,” Amnesty’s Simon Crowther told VOA.

U.S. authorities have disputed the notion that Assange would inevitably be held in solitary confinement.

Prison term

If he is found guilty in the U.S., Assange’s lawyers say he could face a prison sentence of up to 175 years, but a term of 30 to 40 years was more likely. U.S. prosecutors have said he would serve no more than 63 months.

The Australian parliament last week called for Assange, who holds Australian citizenship, to be allowed to return to his homeland in a motion supported by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

If Assange wins his case at the British High Court, a full appeal hearing will be held. If his legal bid fails, the case could be taken to the European Court of Human Rights. However, Britain could seek to extradite Assange to the United States before European judges could rule on the case.

At G20 Meeting, Western Ministers Criticize Russia Over Ukraine

RIO DE JANEIRO — Western foreign ministers from the G20 group of nations meeting in Brazil on Wednesday attacked Russia for its invasion of Ukraine as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov listened, diplomats said.

“Russia must be made to pay for its aggression,” British Foreign Minister David Cameron told the closed session, according to his office.

The top diplomats from the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, France and Norway made similar remarks on the first day of a two-day meeting.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide told reporters that Lavrov calmly replied to Cameron’s remarks with “a set of alternative facts” about events in Ukraine.

Lavrov did not speak to reporters. Russia’s justification of its “special military operation” in Ukraine, which began two years ago, initially was to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. More recently, Moscow has emphasized that it needs to defend against Western aggression.

The meeting was set to prepare the agenda for a G20 summit in November. At a summit in September, G20 leaders adopted a declaration that avoided condemning Russia for the war in Ukraine but called on all states not to use force to grab territory.

Cameron also noted the death of dissident Alexey Navalny in a Russian prison last week.

Eide said the G20 session in Rio focused mainly on conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine. “We have to support Ukraine until it emerges as a free and independent sovereign country without another army on its soil,” the Norwegian minister said he told the meeting.

Eide said the ministers who spoke at the meeting agreed with the need for a two-state solution in the Middle East but there was no consensus on how to achieve it.

Brazil, this year’s president of the G20, opened the foreign ministers’ meeting by blaming the United Nations and other multinational bodies for failing to stop conflicts that are killing innocent people.

Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira called for “profound reform” of global governance as Brazil’s top priority this year.

“Multilateral institutions are not adequately equipped to deal with current challenges, as demonstrated by the Security Council’s unacceptable paralysis in relation to ongoing conflicts,” Vieira said at the meeting.

“This state of inaction results in the loss of innocent lives,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva in Brasilia on his way to the Rio meeting and expressed U.S. support for Brazil’s agenda to make global governance more effective.

The top U.S. diplomat discussed Israel’s war in Gaza with Lula amid a diplomatic spat after the Brazilian leader likened Israel’s war to the Nazi genocide during World War Two, a U.S. spokesperson told reporters.

Lula’s accusations last week of atrocities by Israel in Gaza triggered a diplomatic crisis with an Israeli reprimand and Brazil recalling its ambassador.

Russia Takes Center Stage in US Political Battle

The death of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny has put Russia in the center of American political discourse and has increased pressure on congressional Republicans to support Ukraine. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden and his main challenger, former President Donald Trump, take opposing views heading into the November U.S. election. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Washington.

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