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Turkish Media Face 18 Trials in One Week

Eighteen journalists, nearly all of whom work for Kurdish media outlets, stood trial at hearings across Turkey this week. 

Lawyers and media rights groups say the trials show how Turkey’s laws on terrorism and protests can be used to detain or harass journalists. 

Nearly all those in court this week face accusations of belonging to or creating propaganda for a terrorist organization—often a reference to the militant group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Others face charges of defying Law 2911, which regulates public meetings and demonstrations, according to the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), a Turkey-based group that offers legal support to journalists.

Media who cover protests can sometimes be accused of organizing an illegal gathering. And in April, Turkey’s Interior Ministry issued an order requiring journalists to have permits for covering approved protests. 

Some rights lawyers have said the ruling appears designed to silence journalists.

“The order is problematic because it only recognizes journalists who are given permits by the government to cover protests,” said Erselan Aktan, an Istanbul-based lawyer who has represented dozens of journalists in recent years. 

“It doesn’t consider freelance journalists and those who work for opposition media outlets as journalists and this is against the core of the freedom of expression,” he told VOA.   

One of those in court this week on charges of defying the law on protests was freelance journalist Rusen Takva. 

The journalist, who contributes to the pro-opposition Arti TV, was charged in connection with his coverage of a protest calling for Kurdish rights, in the eastern Turkish city of Van in January. 

A prosecutor had recommended that Takva be sentenced to 18 years in prison. But at a hearing on Tuesday, a new prosecutor dropped the charges, citing a lack of evidence. 

“It was clear from the beginning that this case was not holding,” Takva said. “I was merely doing my job as a journalist. When the original prosecutor was replaced, the new prosecutor concluded that there was no evidence to support the charges against me.”

Others on trial have cases going back more than four years, like journalist Hayri Demir, who worked for outlets including the pro-Kurdish Dicle News Agency. 

In 2017, authorities charged Demir with belonging to and creating propaganda for the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization by Ankara and Washington.  

The journalist’s case has received media attention because evidence presented in the indictment included photographs from a memory stick that was stolen from Demir’s home in Ankara. 

The images were taken by Demir while he was on assignment in northeast Syria in 2015. 

“Six months after that robbery, the pictures on that card came out in the court as evidence in my case file for my conviction,” Demir told VOA.

“My previous telephone conversations with Selahattin Demirtas were also included in my court file as a crime.” 

Demirtas, a former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), has been in prison since 2016 on terror charges.  

The journalist had his ninth hearing Tuesday, but the case remains open with the hearing adjourned. If Demir is convicted, he could face up to 22 years in prison.    

Turkey’s Interior Ministry and Ankara’s High Criminal Court didn’t respond to VOA requests for comment.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last month that Turkish media is “incomparably free,” and that he does not accept the findings of media rights groups that show mass arrests.

“We don’t have any problems of that nature in terms of freedoms,” Erdogan told U.S. broadcaster CBS.

But media lawyer Aktan, who coordinates with the MLSA, said that arrests and trials are common. 

In September alone, 65 journalists had hearings across Turkey, mostly on terror-related charges, defying the protest law or insulting the head of state, Aktan said.  

The country’s media came under pressure following a failed attempted coup in 2016, after which Ankara arrested dozens of journalists it accused of supporting or being sympathetic to the coup.

As of August, data by the Stockholm Center for Freedom, an advocacy groups that documents human rights abuses with a special focus on Turkey, showed 174 journalists either detained pending trial or serving sentences and a further 167 accused of a crime but who are in exile or at large.

Turkey also ranks poorly on the World Press Freedom Index, coming in at 153 out of 180 countries, where 1 is the freest, according to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

This story originated in VOA’s Kurdish Service.

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David Amess, British MP, Killed in Stabbing

A British member of parliament died Friday after being stabbed several times at a church, while he was visiting constituents in his home district in southeastern Britain, officials said.

David Amess, 69, was a member of the Conservative Party and represents Southend West in Essex, England.

Police said a 25-year-old suspect is in custody.

“We are not looking for anyone else in connection with the incident and do not believe there is an ongoing threat to the wider public,” Essex Police said in a statement.

Amess, who had been a member of parliament since 1983, was married and had five children.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed some information in this report.

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Norway Bow-and-Arrow Suspect Facing Custody Hearing

The suspect in a bow-and-arrow attack that killed five people and wounded three in a quiet Norwegian town this week is facing a custody hearing Friday. He won’t appear in court because he has confessed to the killings and has agreed to being held in custody.

Espen Andersen Braathen, a 37-year-old Danish citizen was arrested Wednesday night, 30 minutes after the deadly rampage targeting random people. Police have described the attack as an act of terror.

On a central square in Kongsberg, a town of 26,000 people surrounded by mountains and woods some 66 kilometers southwest of Oslo, people were laying flowers and lighting candles Friday.

“This a a small community so almost everybody knows each other, so it s a very strange and very sad experience for us,” said teacher Ingeborg Spangelo, who brought her students to the impromptu memorial. “It’s almost surreal or unreal.”

Andersen Braathen was handled over to medical authorities, Norwegian news media reported Friday, saying he will be observed and assessed by two experts who will try to clarify whether he was sane at the time of the attack. If they conclude he was not sane, he cannot be punished for the acts but can be sentenced to compulsory mental health care.

Regional prosecutor Ann Iren Svane Mathiassen told Norwegian broadcaster NRK that the decision for his move was an assessment of his health situation. She didn’t elaborate.

Officials said Andersen Braathen used a bow and arrow and possibly other weapons to randomly target people at a supermarket and other locations in Kongsberg, where he lived.

Four women and a man, all between the ages of 50 and 70, were killed, and three other people were wounded, police said.

Police said they believe he acted alone. Norway’s domestic security service PST said the attack “appears to be an act of terror,” but didn’t elaborate. It added that Andersen Braathen was known to the PST, but, again, declined to elaborate.

The suspect has been described by police as a Muslim convert and said there “earlier had been worries of the man having been radicalized,” but they did not elaborate or say why he was previously flagged or what authorities did in response.

According to Norwegian media, Andersen Braathen has a conviction for burglary and drug possession, and last year a court granted a restraining order for him to stay away from his parents for six months after threatening to kill one of them. 

 

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US, Greece Enhance Ties with China, Turkey in the Background

The United States and Greece upgraded an existing Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement on Thursday, a move seen as elevating bilateral ties in defense and overall relations.

The amendment to the MDCA was signed by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and visiting Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias in Washington as part of the third round of the U.S.-Greece Strategic Dialogue. The talks were launched in 2018 by then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Greek counterpart.

Blinken described the dialogue as “a signal of our shared commitment to deepen our partnership” through which the two countries will become “an even more powerful force for peace, prosperity and human dignity.”

The amendment will enable U.S. forces in Greece “to train and operate from additional locations,” Blinken told a Thursday news conference.

Dendias described the amendment as one that safeguards Greek interests and enables collaboration beyond defense issues.

“It also creates a shell [framework] that allows the United States to invest in Greece, not only for the improvement of our country’s defense facilities, but to do so in a broader framework of cooperation that is being established and improved,” he said.

The agreement comes as tension appears to be rising in the eastern Mediterranean, where Greece and its neighbor Turkey have recently accused each other of aggressive actions that threaten an escalation of territorial disputes.

Reliable ally

Congressman Ted Deutch, a senior member of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, also met with Dendias this week. In written response to VOA’s request for comment, Deutch, chairman of the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism Subcommittee, said Greece is a reliable ally in the eastern Mediterranean region.

“The U.S.-Greece relationship is vital to U.S. national interests and to the security and stability of the Eastern Mediterranean region. Greece has consistently proven itself to be a reliable ally in the region, and the United States must continue to support its efforts to modernize its armed forces and strengthen our nations’ strategic partnership,” Deutch said.

Deutch said the importance of this partnership is behind his decision to sponsor, with Representative Gus Bilirakis, the United States-Greece Defense and Interparliamentary Partnership Act of 2021.

The bill, he said, is designed to foster interparliamentary engagement among Greece, Cyprus and Israel, known as the “3+1 process,” in addition to supporting Greece’s military modernization.

“Encouraging continued security cooperation among our allies and partners, including Greece, will help us ensure stability throughout the region and bolster global security,” Deutch told VOA in a written statement.

Stephen J. Blank, a senior fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told VOA in a phone interview that while the strengthening of defense ties with Athens sends a signal that the U.S. will support Greece, Washington’s overriding concern is ensuring that the “two NATO allies that have a long history of mutual enmity dating back to Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, don’t start a war.”

China

China’s influence in Greece, particularly its purchase of a majority stake in the largest and strategically located port in Greece, the Port of Piraeus, is another factor in the background of talks between Washington and Athens.

China Ocean Shipping Company purchased a 51% stake in the Piraeus Port Authority in 2016 and signed a deal to obtain an additional 16% stake last month, despite having delivered only a third of agreed-to investments under the initial agreement.

Eric Brown, who studies China’s strategic designs at the Hudson Institute in Washington, told VOA that the Port of Piraeus “has featured prominently in the [People’s Republic of China’s] imagining of the new world system that it is striving to build,” as a key component to China’s maritime Silk Road Initiative.

Even though Beijing’s control of a key Greek and European strategic asset may put a question mark in the minds of policymakers in Washington and Brussels, the fact that China is situated in a different part of the world limits its potential as a guarantor of security for countries like Greece, Brown said.

“Geography matters,” he said.

Chinese ownership of a key port at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa nonetheless poses significant security concerns, U.S. analysts say.

“They own it now, they can use for economic, military, intelligence purposes, whatever they want,” Blank said.

David Stilwell, a former Pentagon and State Department official who served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, said deals Beijing has managed to strike may not always last, pointing to recent reports that the 99-year lease between a Chinese state-backed entity and the Australian Port of Darwin may either be scrapped or subjected to additional scrutiny on security grounds.

In Stilwell’s view, the more distance democratic countries put between themselves and Beijing, the better. He considers Lithuania’s recent decision to withdraw from a multilateral forum designed to increase collaboration between China and Central and Eastern European countries as a model that other countries can learn from. 

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US Defense Secretary Heads to Eastern Europe, NATO Next Week

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin heads to Europe next week for talks with allies concerned about Russia and what the NATO military alliance will focus on now that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is complete. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb reports.

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Turkey Presses Taliban for Female Education and Inclusive Afghan Government 

Turkey hosted leaders of Afghanistan’s Taliban government for the first time Thursday, repeating its advice to the Islamist group on the need to form an inclusive government in the war-torn South Asian nation and to ensure Afghan female participation in education as well as public life. 

 

After Thursday’s meeting with the visitors, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a televised news conference in Ankara that the Taliban asked for humanitarian aid and the continuation of Turkish investment in Afghanistan.

 

Taliban acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and his delegation arrived in Turkey for the talks following meetings in Qatar this week with envoys from the United States and European diplomats. In those discussions, Muttaqi warned that attempts to pressure his government through sanctions would undermine the security of not only Afghanistan but the world in general and spark an exodus of Afghan economic migrants.

 

“We have told the international community about the importance of engagement with the Taliban administration. In fact, recognition and engagement are two different things,” Cavusoglu said. 

 

The Taliban have been seeking international legitimacy for their male-only Cabinet in Kabul since returning to power two months ago after waging an insurgency against the Western-backed Afghan government for 20 years. Several members of the Taliban Cabinet have been blacklisted by the United Nations. 

Cavusoglu said that in talks with the Taliban delegates, the Turkish side underscored the importance of Afghan girls’ education and women’s employment in business life. 

 

While boys were allowed last month to return to secondary school, the hardline movement has not permitted girls at the same level to resume their education, insisting that it must put in place a “safe learning environment” before female students could return. 

 

Taliban acting Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi wrote on his Twitter feed that the wide-ranging discussions with officials in Ankara covered bilateral diplomatic ties, humanitarian aid, Afghan refugees and resumption of Turkish commercial flights to Afghanistan.

Washington has frozen nearly $10 billion in Afghan assets — parked mainly in the U.S. Federal Reserve — since the Taliban took over the country. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have also halted financial assistance and lending programs for Kabul, citing human rights concerns under the Taliban rule. 

 

The U.S. and other Western countries have been pressing the Taliban to keep their promises to form an inclusive Afghan government, protect human rights (especially those of women), fight terrorism and not restrict freedom of expression. 

 

However, critics say freezing Afghan assets could trigger an economic meltdown that could worsen the growing humanitarian crisis facing the country.

The United Nations has warned that about 1 million Afghan children are at risk of starvation and more than 18 million people need urgent humanitarian assistance. A deepening drought and the approaching harsh winter are only going to make matters worse, the U.N. says. 

 

U.N. officials told reporters in New York on Thursday that they are working to scale up assistance to reach Afghans in need. 

 

The World Food Program last month reached 4 million people with food and nutrition assistance across all 34 Afghan provinces, three times the number it reached in August, said U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric 

 

The head of WFP, David Beasley, stressed that if international aid did not flow as soon as possible, it would be catastrophic, and that this was a war on hunger. 

Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.

 

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La Palma Records Strong Earthquake as Volcano Eruption Continues

A 4.5-magnitude earthquake struck the Spanish island of La Palma overnight Thursday, officials said, the strongest recorded since the island’s Cumbre Vieja volcano began erupting last month. 

Spain’s National Geographic Institute reports the earthquake was one of as many as 100 that shook the island in the past 24 hours. Earthquakes have been a regular feature of the volcanic eruption that began on the island September 19 and shows no signs of stopping soon. 

Meanwhile, the Canary Islands Security and Emergencies Department has ordered 300 more residents to evacuate from Tazacorte and La Laguna as the lava flow advances closer to those towns. 

The eruption has forced more than 6,000 to abandon their homes on the island. 

More than 1,500 buildings and more than 600 hectares of land on the western side of the island have been destroyed by lava flows

The La Palma government said the flow from three rivers of molten rock has broadened to more than 1.7 kilometers. 

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez visited the Island Wednesday and said the government is considering additional aid for the island residents and its industries, which have been disrupted if not devastated by the eruption. 

The government has already approved about $250 million in assistance. 

La Palma is part of the Canary Islands archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa. 

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters. 

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Russia Sets COVID-19 Death Record for 3rd Straight Day

Russian health officials Thursday reported a record number of COVID-19 deaths – 986 – for the third consecutive day, while also reporting a record 31,299 new confirmed infections.

The number of new cases breaks a record set last December, and marks the first time Russia has officially reported more than 30,000 cases in a single day. The nation has repeatedly set records for deaths while new infections have surged for much of the past month.

Russian officials have blamed the rise in infections on the nation’s sluggish vaccination program.

The Health Ministry reports this week that barely one-third of Russia’s population of 146 million has been fully inoculated, despite the fact the nation was quick to roll out its Sputnik vaccine early this year.

According to the Reuters news agency, President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday urged newly elected lawmakers to actively support efforts to vaccinate more of the population. The government, however, has been reluctant to impose vaccine mandates.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Monday it was up to regional authorities to establish such rules.

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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Biden to Meet With Pope, Attend Climate Talks in Europe

U.S. President Joe Biden plans to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican later this month, the White House said Thursday. 

“They will discuss working together on efforts grounded in respect for fundamental human dignity, including ending the COVID-19 pandemic, tackling the climate crisis, and caring for the poor,” the White House said in a statement. The statement said first lady Jill Biden will also take part in the audience with the pope. 

The meeting on Oct. 29 comes on the eve of a two-day summit of G20 leaders in Rome. Biden hopes to reach agreement at the meeting on a global minimum corporate income tax rate of 15% to help ensure businesses don’t continue to avoid taxation, according to the Reuters news agency, which cited a White House official.

Biden will then attend the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland on Nov. 1-2, when the official said the president would announce “key actions.” 

Biden, the second Roman Catholic president after John F. Kennedy, meets with the pope as some Catholic bishops in the U.S. have admonished Biden for his support of abortion rights. 

Biden’s pending visit to Europe will mark the second foreign trip of his presidency. Biden attended a European Union summit in Brussels in June and later met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva.

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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