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Former Austrian Leader Convicted of False Statements, Given Suspended Sentence

vienna — Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was convicted Friday of making false statements to a parliamentary inquiry into alleged corruption in his first government. He was given an eight-month suspended sentence.

The verdict at the Vienna criminal court followed a four-month trial. The case marked the first time in more than 30 years that a former Austrian chancellor had stood trial.

The case centered on Kurz’s testimony to an inquiry that focused on the coalition he led from 2017, when his conservative Austrian People’s Party formed a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, until its collapse in 2019.

Prosecutors accused the 37-year-old of having given false evidence in June 2020 regarding his role in the setup of a holding company, OeBAG, which administers the state’s role in some companies, and the appointment of his former close confidant, Thomas Schmid, to its leadership.

Judge Michael Radasztics found Kurz guilty of making false statements about the appointment of the company’s supervisory board, though not about that of Schmid.

Kurz stood motionless as Radasztics announced the verdict to a packed courtroom. His lawyer later said he would appeal the verdict.

Once a rising star among conservatives in Europe, Kurz resigned in 2021 after a separate corruption probe opened and has since left politics.

However, his People’s Party continues to lead the government under current Chancellor Karl Nehammer. The party is currently trailing in polls ahead of a national election expected in September, and the Kurz verdict could put it under more pressure.

In his closing statement, prosecutor Gregor Adamovic said Kurz had “actively” supported Schmid with the aim of handing OeBAG’s leadership to his preferred candidate, and contended that it was clear the then-chancellor signed off on all the candidates for the company’s board.

Kurz has repeatedly stated that he was only “informed” about but not actively involved in the decision.

The prosecution also contended that Kurz made false statements in order to avoid public criticism of cronyism which he had himself declared to be fighting in the Austrian political system.

In their indictment, which wasn’t released to the public but was obtained by The Associated Press, prosecutors reference potentially incriminating chat messages found on Schmid’s phone. Schmid, who is cooperating with prosecutors, testified extensively.

In an emotional closing statement to a court session that stretched into the evening, Kurz said it made him feel “helpless” to see that the trial was mainly about how prosecutors interpreted his statement to the inquiry and not what he had actually meant.

“What I said during the parliamentary inquiry does not correspond to the interpretation of the prosecution,” he said.

Kurz rose to power with an anti-immigration platform and was only 31 when he became the leader of the People’s Party and then chancellor in 2017.

Kurz pulled the plug on his first government after a video surfaced that showed the vice chancellor and Freedom Party leader at the time, Heinz-Christian Strache, appearing to offer favors to a purported Russian investor.

A few months later, Kurz returned to power in a new coalition with the environmentalist Greens in early 2020 but resigned in October 2021. The Greens had demanded his replacement after prosecutors announced that he was a target of a second investigation into suspected bribery and breach of trust. Kurz also denied any wrongdoing in that case.

His former chief of staff, Bernhard Bonelli, was tried along with Kurz and was convicted Friday of making a false statement to the parliamentary inquiry about his own involvement and that of Kurz in the selection of OeBAG supervisory board members.

He was given a six-month suspended sentence. Bonelli’s lawyer also plans to appeal.

Botswana Pushes Against European Opposition to Trophy Hunting

Gaborone, Botswana   — Botswana says it will use next week’s U.N. Environment Assembly to lobby against a proposed European ban on importing wildlife trophies from Africa.

This comes as Botswana’s former president visits the U.K. to lobby in favor of the ban, defying his country’s position.

Botswana’s acting minister of environment and tourism, Machana Shamukuni, told Parliament that he would be present when the U.N. Environment Assembly convenes Monday in Nairobi. He said he would be reminding like-minded delegates to continue to lobby against Europe’s efforts to ban trophy hunting.

Trophy hunting is the practice of killing large animals such as elephants, lions and tigers for sport. Hunters often keep the heads or other parts of the animals for display.

In 2022, the European Parliament announced plans to introduce a ban on the import of wildlife trophies. Conservationists are concerned that continued hunting will further deplete wildlife populations, which are declining in many areas from loss of habitat and poaching.

However, Botswana has the world’s largest elephant population at more than 130,000, and the giant animals are often in conflict with humans.

Investigation urged

Siyoka Simasiku is director of the Ngamiland Council of Nongovernmental Organizations, a conservation coalition, and has been involved in the campaign against the proposed wildlife trophy import bans. He said authorities in Europe needed to travel to southern Africa to get firsthand information about how limited elephant hunting helps Botswana.

“This has been the call of the community — to invite European countries, including the U.K., to come directly to their areas to witness what the benefits from this wildlife have actually provided them, and also to see the damages that are also brought about by wildlife within their areas in terms of crop damage, competition for water holes and loss of lives,” Simasiku said. “These are things that are dear to our communities.”

Currently, Botswana issues about 300 elephant hunting licenses per year, generating approximately $3 million for the country, separate from the other revenues the hunters generate.

Meanwhile, former Botswana President Ian Khama this week arrived in the United Kingdom to drum up support for the hunting ban.

While in office, Khama enacted a hunting ban in 2014, but his successor, President Mokgweetsi Masisi, lifted the moratorium in 2019.

Simasiku said wildlife communities in Botswana oppose Khama’s recent actions.

“The Botswana communities strongly oppose this move where the former president advocates for a trophy hunting ban in London,” he said. “They have expressed concerns about the negative impact on their livelihoods and conservation efforts. They argue that a blanket ban overlooks their role in sustainable wildlife management and urge for a more inclusive approach that considers their perspectives and needs.”

No European Union ban on wildlife trophy imports has materialized so far, but the U.K. House of Lords considered a ban that failed to pass, while Germany and France are considering similar prohibitions.

Last month, Belgium succeeded in introducing a ban, amid calls for the rest of Europe to follow suit.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

After Navalny’s Death, Family of Jailed Azerbaijani Activist Fears for His Life

Baku, Azerbaijan  — The prison death last week of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny has elevated fears for the welfare of politically active prisoners in neighboring Azerbaijan, including economist Gubad Ibadoglu.

“As his family, we are worried that my brother may be physically destroyed in the conditions of the detention center,” Ibadoglu’s brother, Qalib Toghrul, told VOA.

Toghrul said he last saw Ibadoglu on February 17 and that his health had significantly deteriorated.

“Now, I am unequivocally convinced that they are carrying out the process of purposefully destroying my brother’s body, part by part,” Toghrul said. “Of course, after Navalny’s death, we are under great tension and anxiety that the level of danger, the risk of danger to my brother’s life, has increased even more.”

Ibadoglu, chairman of the Democracy and Prosperity Party, has been in pretrial detention since July 2023, charged with the acquisition or sale of counterfeit money or foreign currency by an organized group and the preparation, storage, or distribution of religious extremist materials.

Ibadoglu denies the accusations and says his arrest is a political order related to his political activism.

Bahruz Maharramov, a member of the Azerbaijani Parliament, told VOA that neither Ibadoglu nor any other person is subjected to any illegal or unnecessary procedural coercive measures.

“In this sense, it should be noted once again that the arrest of Ibadoglu is not a political issue,” he said. “A criminal prosecution has been initiated on specific facts, and the main goal of the state structures during the investigation is to ensure the implementation of this process on the basis of equality of rights before the law and the court in the criminal process.”

According to Toghrul, Ibadoglu suffers from several health issues. Ibadoglu receives IV treatment at the medical unit of the Baku Pre-Trial Detention Center, “but after the IV is done, they immediately take him to his cell without allowing him to lie down and rest for even a minute,” said Toghrul.

He said that though the Penitentiary Service has a specialized treatment facility for IV therapy and “other complex inpatient treatments,” authorities refuse to transfer Ibadoglu there.

VOA sought comment from the Penitentiary Service, the Office of the Ombudsman, the Baku Detention Center and the investigative body conducting the criminal case but have yet to receive a response.

Opposition leader’s family concerned

The family of opposition leader Tofiq Yagublu is also voicing concern about his deteriorating health.

“We are very worried about his weight loss. Now, he is being examined at the initiative of the Penitentiary Service,” his daughter, Nigar Hezi, told VOA.

Hezi believes the deaths of Navalny and other political prisoners in Russia and neighboring countries warrant extra attention to be paid to political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

“Navalny’s death in Russia has created a trend in the post-Soviet countries,” she said. “After Navalny, a journalist died in Belarus. All this is cause for concern.”

Yagublu has been arrested numerous times and is being held in pretrial detention on charges of “massive fraud.”

International organizations have recognized him as a prisoner of conscience.

International calls

“If [President Ilham] Aliyev attends, other leaders must press him to release Gubad Ibadoglu from illegal detention,” former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Kauzlarich wrote on X, before the Munich Security Conference. “Otherwise, like Navalny, Gubad may die in prison.”

A number of countries and international organizations, including the U.S. State Department and U.S. senators and representatives, have called for Ibadoglu’s release.

U.S. Representative David Rouzer introduced a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives last week condemning Ibadoglu’s treatment.

The resolution also urges the secretary of state to “continue prioritizing Dr. Ibadoglu’s well-being and release in all engagements with the Government of Azerbaijan.”

On February 15, Ibadoglu’s pretrial detention was extended by three months.

This story originated in VOA’s Azerbaijani Service.

Q&A: US Ambassador in Ukraine Reaffirms American Support as War Drags On

Kyiv — U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink is reassuring Ukrainians that Washington intends to help them finish the job as the country enters another year of war against Russian invaders. Since the onset of Russia’s full-scale assault on Feb. 24, 2022, Brink said the U.S. has earmarked billions of dollars to Ukraine’s war effort, all under what she says is strict oversight.

In an interview with VOA Eastern Europe Bureau Chief Myroslava Gongadze, the U.S. diplomat reaffirmed that the U.S. remains committed to supporting Ukraine, despite the growing debate in Washington and in European capitals about the future of funding for military aid to the country.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

VOA: You arrived in Ukraine as a U.S. ambassador a few months after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. How did you find Ukraine back then? And how do you find Ukraine now?

U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink: I found Ukraine and Ukrainians tough and resilient. And I find it exactly the same today. And I’m really proud we have supported Ukraine. We just have to help you finish the job.

VOA: Today, Ukraine is in dire need of military support. There are delays in Congress for this support. How are you explaining to Ukrainians why it’s taken so long for the U.S. to decide when and how they will support Ukraine?

Brink: Well, what I’ve been explaining to Ukrainians is that there’s bipartisan support for Ukraine in America and in our Congress. I have been doing and the president and everyone in the administration has been doing everything possible to communicate to Congress and also to the American people why it’s important to support Ukraine. And we will continue to do that.

VOA: Despite Congressional inaction to send much needed support, Pew Research Institute had research [showing] 73% of Americans supporting Ukraine as a national security interest for the United States. There is bipartisan, as you said, support in Congress as well. Is Ukraine winning in the U.S. national interest

Brink: Absolutely, yes. As President [Joe] Biden said, we support Ukraine winning this war, making sure that it’s a strategic defeat for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. And I think there’s broad support for that in the Congress and among the American people.

VOA: Conservative voices in [the U.S.] Congress are asking about accountability on U.S. aid for Ukraine. U.S. inspectors recently visited Kyiv. Can you give us some insight [into how their audits went]? How [does] the accountability process work here in Ukraine?

Brink: I can tell you we’re watching like a hawk from the Embassy. About a third of my team is devoted to oversight. We also have three inspectors general who are at the Embassy, as well. And they have a staff of 400 people around the world. So, there is oversight happening, both with the Ukrainians, with us at the Embassy, and also just generally.

VOA: Do they have access to the facilities where those weapons and other ammunition are held?

Brink: They have access to every place that we can get to physically, and to places where they can’t have access, for example, on the front lines, we have developed some alternative means to account for things like weapons.

VOA: What are [those] alternative means?

Brink: I probably can’t say specifically, but we have found ways that we can adhere to the policies and the law, without putting people at risk.

VOA: In the last two years, the United States helped Ukraine a lot militarily, but a lot of money actually stays in the United States. In the rural [communities] that produce those weapons. Do you have some insights into how the money is spent?

Brink: Actually, the money that we are allocating to Ukraine is spent in 31 states across the nation, and that includes Patriot missiles in Arizona. It includes artillery in Pennsylvania. It includes even vehicles from my home state of Michigan. So, this is actually also very important to Americans and American jobs while it also supports Ukraine.

VOA: [The] Ukrainian economy, despite the war and significant downturn, [has] survived. The U.S. helped a lot. What is the outlook for the next year for [the] Ukrainian economy, from your perspective? And what new mechanism are you planning to use to help Ukraine to survive economically?

Brink: This is actually, maybe, one of the biggest successes that Ukraine has had outside of the military sphere. Your economy, the Ukrainian economy, has grown by 5% in the last year. It’s phenomenal. [A] big part of that is Ukrainian ability to continue exports. And that was done even though Russia pulled out of the Black Sea grain initiative. Through incredibly brave and creative efforts, a new corridor was created out of the Black Sea ports. And now 760 ships and over 23 million metric tons of goods have set sail safely. And that’s important to the world because it’s getting grain and other supplies out, but also very important to Ukraine’s economy.

VOA: I talked to Ukrainian business, and they are really appreciative of, especially, [the] insurance mechanism the Western financial institutions are using. Are you planning to expand that effort?

Brink: Yes. We’re working together with Ukrainian government as well as other partners to support in every way we can. Increasing exports out of the Black Sea ports, out of the Danube ports, and also improving border crossings and other things to facilitate these exports and ultimately bring money back into state coffers. This is a big part of our assistance, and it’s supporting Ukraine’s ability to sustain itself.

VOA: What is your outlook for the next year, for Ukraine, and for the region?

Brink: It’s the same as when I started. Ukraine must win. The United States, together with partners and allies, are going to continue to support Ukrainians in this objective. And what that means is to reclaim their territories, to move closer to Europe, to the EU and ultimately to NATO; to move toward what Ukrainians want, which is a sovereign, independent, prosperous country that’s integrated into Euro-Atlantic institutions, that will be a strong and important partner for the United States. And that’s what we support.

Anna Chernikova contributed to this report.

Medics Set Up Blood Transfusion Station Near Donbas Front Line

When Ukrainian soldiers are wounded during combat, they are taken to what is called a stabilization point, where combat medics take care of them. Now, thanks to overseas donors, medics at one of the stabilization points in Ukraine’s Donbas region can perform blood transfusions. Anna Kosstutschenko has the story. VOA footage by Pavel Suhodolskiy.

EU Agrees on New Sanctions Against Russia

BRUSSELS — European Union countries on Wednesday agreed on a new package of sanctions against Russia to target individuals and businesses suspected of assisting Moscow in its war against Ukraine, including Chinese companies. 

The decision coincides with the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion, which began on Feb. 24, 2022, and comes days after the death of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. 

Belgium, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the 27-nation bloc, said the “package is one of the broadest approved by the EU.” 

According to several diplomats, EU ambassadors from all member countries agreed to impose sanctions on about 200 companies and individuals. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to disclose details about the sanctions, which have yet to be formally adopted. 

They said several Chinese companies, which are believed to have provided help to Russia, have been sanctioned. Details of the entities targeted will be revealed when the sanctions are published in the EU’s legal journal. 

The EU has imposed several rounds of sanctions on Russia since President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine. The measures have targeted the energy sector, banks, the world’s biggest diamond mining company, businesses and markets, and made Russian officials subject to asset freezes and travel bans. 

The new sanctions will further enhance trade restrictions against entities linked to the Russian military-industrial complex, diplomats said. Additional bans on exports to Russia of highly technical components for drone production were adopted. 

“I welcome the agreement on our 13th sanctions package against Russia,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. “We must keep degrading Putin’s war machine. With 2,000 listings in total, we keep the pressure high on the Kremlin. We are also further cutting Russia’s access to drones.”

Belgium said the package will undergo a written procedure and be formally approved on Saturday, which marks the second anniversary of the war. 

Millions of Displaced Ukrainian Refugees Face Uncertain Future

GENEVA — A recent study by the U.N. refugee agency warns that millions of Ukrainian refugees and internally displaced people face an uncertain future as Ukraine enters its third year of war with Russia and its battle for survival risks becoming a protracted crisis. 

“After two years of full-scale war in Ukraine, amidst massive destruction and ongoing shelling and missile attacks across the country, the future for millions who have been displaced remains shrouded in uncertainty,” Philippe Leclerc, the UNHCR regional director for Europe, said on Tuesday.

Speaking in Athens, Greece, Leclerc told journalists in Geneva that preliminary findings from the study indicate that the majority of those surveyed expressed a desire to return home one day. He noted, however, that “the proportion has declined, with more expressing uncertainty due to the ongoing war.”  

The UNHCR study is based on interviews conducted in January and February with some 9,900 Ukrainian refugees, internally displaced and returnee households inside and outside the country.  

Leclerc said, “Those displaced who were surveyed cited the prevailing insecurity in Ukraine as the main factor inhibiting their return, while other concerns included a lack of economic opportunities and housing.”

This Saturday marks the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In a stark reminder of the cost of the war, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says at least 10,000 civilians have been killed and more than 18,000 injured; nearly 6.5 million Ukrainians have sought refuge globally, while some 3.7 million people remain forcibly displaced inside the country.  

“As war rages on, humanitarian conditions remain dire inside Ukraine, where some 40% of the population — 14.6 million people — are in need of humanitarian and protection support,” said Leclerc, noting that this week also marks 10 years “since the war in eastern Ukraine began.”  

Although the war shows no sign of abating, Leclerc said 59% of Ukrainian refugees surveyed said they feared they would be compelled to return home “if they continue to face challenges in host countries, mainly related to work opportunities and legal status.”  

Separately, he said the study shows that despite the fighting, many refugees choose to return home because of the challenges they face abroad. That is due to family separation and the sorrow they feel about the many male family members remaining in Ukraine.  

“The report reveals that family reunification was a main driver for refugees who have returned home permanently,” he said.  

Dusan Vujasanin heads the International Committee of the Red Cross Central Tracing Agency Bureau for the war between Russia and Ukraine. He said his job is to learn the fate and whereabouts of people who have disappeared in this conflict.  

He explained that one of the main tasks of the ICRC’s tracing bureau in this, as in other international conflicts, is “to centralize all information about prisoners of war, about civilian internees, and all the other affected persons alive and also dead.”  

As of now, he said, “There are still 23,000 persons that are reported to the ICRC as missing, and that number keeps growing.”  

Vujasanin said that Russia and Ukraine have abided by the obligation specified under the Geneva Conventions to put in place national information bureaus.  

Noting that both countries had put the system in place two years ago, he said the system is not perfect, but functions. “We receive on a regular basis the list from the two parties to the conflict.”  

At the same time, Vujasanin said, people searching for their family members contact the ICRC daily. “We have been contacted in these two years over 100,000 times by different families, and in that period, we have opened up over 31,000 requests to search for missing persons.”  

To date, he said the ICRC has been able to clarify the fate of 8,000 of the 31,000 missing persons and inform the families of their fate and whereabouts.  

“Even talking now about it gives me goose bumps because I can assure you that we have families, mothers who are receiving news of the fate of their children after two, three, eight months, learning that they are alive.”  

He said, however, the job is not finished because 23,000 families still do not have news about what has happened to their loved ones.  

“The impact that this has on families, on this ambiguous loss of not knowing what happened to family members, weighs extremely heavily on these families,” he said.  

“And we also know from past experiences, from past conflicts, that this is an engagement that will take ICRC years of comforting the families and of continuing that search,” he said.

French WWII Resistance Hero Inducted into Panthéon

PARIS — While France hosts grandiose ceremonies commemorating D-Day, Missak Manouchian and his Resistance fighters’ heroic role in World War II are often overlooked.

French President Emmanuel Macron is seeking to change that by inducting Manouchian into the Panthéon national monument on Wednesday. 

A poet who took refuge in France after surviving the Armenian genocide, Manouchian was executed in 1944 for leading the resistance to Nazi occupation. Macron is to lead a Paris ceremony in homage to Manouchian at the Panthéon, the resting place of France’s most revered figures, in the presence of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

The tribute will also include members of his Resistance group.

“With them, it’s all foreign Resistance fighters who enter into the Panthéon,” said historian Denis Peschanski, who led efforts to honor Manouchian’s memory.

The move comes as France gets ready to celebrate the 80th anniversary of D-Day this year in the presence of heads of states and World War II veterans.

Manouchian’s coffin, covered with the French flag, will be carried in the street in front of the Panthéon by soldiers of the Foreign Legion.

On Tuesday, a homage was held at Mont Valérien, where Manouchian and his group members were shot by the Nazis. The site has become a memorial to French WWII fighters. The Holocaust Memorial in Paris was also holding an exhibit in his honor.

“Missak Manouchian chose France twice, first as a young Armenian who loved Baudelaire and Victor Hugo, and then through the blood he shed for our country,” the French presidency said in a statement last year announcing the Panthéon homage.

Born in 1906 in the then-Ottoman empire, Manouchian lost both his parents during the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 2015-2016.

He was sent to an orphanage in Lebanon, then a French protectorate, where he discovered French language and culture.

He came to France in 1924. Living in Paris, he wrote poetry and took literature and philosophy classes at the Sorbonne University — while working in factories and doing other odd jobs.

He joined the communist party in the early 1930s within the MOI (Immigrant Workforce Movement) group and became editor-in-chief of a newspaper for the Armenian community. 

During World War II, he joined the French Resistance as a political activist with the then-underground MOI group.

In 1943, he became a military chief in the armed organization of the communist party, the FTP-MOI group of about 60 Resistance fighters that gathered many foreigners from Armenia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Italy and Spain, including many Jewish people.

Manouchian is the first foreign and first communist Resistance fighter to be inducted into the Panthéon, Peschanski noted.

His group led dozens of anti-Nazi attacks and sabotage operations in and around Paris between August and November 1943, including the assassination of a top German colonel. 

Tracked down by the French police of the Vichy regime that collaborated with Nazi Germany, Manouchian was arrested on Nov. 16, 1943, along with most of the group’s members. He was sentenced to death in February 1944.

Nazi propaganda officers ordered a poster to be made with the photos and names of 10 Resistance fighters, including Manouchian, displayed in Paris and other French cities. 

The so-called Red Poster sought to discredit them as Jews, foreigners and criminals, and Manouchian was “obviously the first target,” Peschanski said. Yet the campaign didn’t convince the French population, he said: The poster, while “aiming at presenting them as assassins, made them heroes.”

In his last letter to his wife, Mélinée, Manouchian wrote: “At the moment of death, I proclaim that I have no hatred for the German people … The German people, and all other people will leave in peace and brotherhood after the war.”

French poet Louis Aragon wrote a poem in 1955 inspired by the letter that singer Léo Ferré set to music under the title “L’Affiche Rouge” (“The Red Poster”), keeping the memory alive and making the song a French standard.

Mélinée, also a member of the Resistance who survived the war, will be buried alongside her husband at the Panthéon. A commemorative plaque will pay tribute to the other members of the Manouchian group.

Recent research about Manouchian also brought to light the fact that dozens of the 185 foreigners shot to death by the Nazis at Mont Valérien had not been officially declared “Morts pour la France” (“Dead for France”) — “mostly because they were foreigners,” Peschanski noted. The French presidency said the issue was addressed last year to give them the honor.

The Panthéon is the resting place of 83 people — 76 men and seven women — including Manouchian and his wife.

Most recently, Josephine Baker — the U.S.-born entertainer, anti-Nazi spy and civil rights activist became the first Black woman to receive France’s highest honor, in 2021.

Farmers Paralyze Greek Capital with Massive Protest

ATHENS — Farmers in Greece have stepped up their protests, storming the country’s capital with tractors and farming equipment, gathering outside the nation’s parliament.

In the largest agricultural demonstration in recent memory, thousands of farmers drove colorful tractors through the streets of Athens, paralyzing traffic and then parking outside Parliament.

They are complaining of rising production costs, but the government says it has no money to spare to meet their financial demands.

Many chanted slogans and lit flares, others waved black flags, dragged out coffins and hung funeral wreaths on their vehicles, showcasing, as they put it, the plight of their dying trade.

One farmer said he drove 14 hours to be at the protest. He said the cost of production is rising and while farmers sell their products at low prices, they end up in the supermarket basket three and four times over that base price.

Police said at least 6,000 farmers and about 200 tractors stormed the Greek capital.

Their anger and frustration over rising costs echo similar concerns by farmers staging rolling strikes across the 27-nation European Union for the past few months.

 

In Greece, though, farmers are furious about the compensation they have yet to receive after losing livestock and crops to ferocious floods that hit the country’s farming land last year.

The center-right government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has acknowledged the plight of the farmers, granting some concessions, including substantial discounts on electricity and petrol bills.

But beyond that, the government says, budgetary constraints do not allow for more funding, aggravating an already heated showdown with the farmers.

One young cotton producer said he felt duped and cheated by the government. He said farmers will not let up. They are determined to stay until their demands are met.

Ex-FBI Informant Charged With Lying About Bidens Had Russian Intelligence Contacts, Prosecutors Say

Las Vegas — A former FBI informant charged with making up a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme involving President Joe Biden, his son Hunter and a Ukrainian energy company had contacts with officials affiliated with Russian intelligence, prosecutors said in a court paper Tuesday.

Prosecutors revealed the alleged contact as they urged a judge to keep Alexander Smirnov behind bars while he awaits trial. He’s charged with falsely reporting to the FBI in June 2020 that executives associated with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma paid Hunter and Joe Biden $5 million each in 2015 or 2016. The claim has been central to the Republican impeachment inquiry in Congress.

Smirnov is due in court later Tuesday in Las Vegas. He has been in custody at a facility in rural Pahrump, about an hour drive west of Las Vegas, since his arrest last week at the airport while returning from overseas.

Defense attorneys David Chesnoff and Richard Schonfeld said in a statement ahead of the hearing that they were asking for Smirnov’s release while he awaits trial “so he can effectively fight the power of the government.”

Prosecutors said that during an interview before his arrest last week, Smirnov admitted that “officials associated with Russian intelligence were involved in passing a story” about Hunter Biden. They said Smirnov’s contacts with Russian officials were recent and extensive, and said Smirnov had planned to meet with one official during an upcoming overseas trip.

They said Smirnov has had numerous contacts with a person he described as the “son of a former high-ranking government official” and “someone with ties to a particular Russian intelligence service.” They said there is a serious risk that Smirnov could flee overseas to avoid facing trial.

The White House didn’t immediately comment on the claims in Tuesday’s court filing.

Prosecutors say Smirnov, who holds dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship, falsely reported to the FBI in June 2020 that executives associated with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma paid Hunter and Joe Biden $5 million each in 2015 or 2016.

Smirnov in fact had only routine business dealings with the company starting in 2017 and made the bribery allegations after he “expressed bias” against Joe Biden while he was a presidential candidate, prosecutors said in court documents. He is charged with making a false statement and creating a false and fictitious record. The charges were filed in Los Angeles, where he lived for 16 years before relocating to Las Vegas two years ago.

Smirnov’s claims have been central to the Republican effort in Congress to investigate the president and his family, and helped spark what is now a House impeachment inquiry into Biden. Democrats called for an end to the probe after the indictment came down last week, while Republicans distanced the inquiry from Smirnov’s claims and said they would continue to “follow the facts.”

Hunter Biden is expected to give a deposition next week.

The Burisma allegations became a flashpoint in Congress as Republicans pursuing investigations of President Biden and his family demanded the FBI release the unredacted form documenting the allegations. They acknowledged they couldn’t confirm if the allegations were true.

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