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US Consular Official Demands Release of Her Husband from Belarusian Jail

A U.S. consular official says her Belarusian-American husband’s life is in “immediate danger” after security forces in Belarus arrested him in July.  Vitali Shkliarov, 44, a political analyst who holds a U.S. diplomatic passport, was detained while visiting his elderly parents in his hometown of Gomel ahead of Belarus’s highly charged August 9 presidential elections, recounts his wife, Heather Shkliarov, in a letter released to news media.  “Vitali traveled to Belarus on July 9, along with our 8-year-old son, simply to visit his mother, who is suffering from advanced cancer, and to celebrate his birthday on July 11 with his family and friends,” writes Shkliarov, who says she stayed behind in the United States to prepare the family’s move to Ukraine as part of a new assignment to the U.S. embassy in Kyiv.Vitali Shkliarov in Moscow, 2018. (Charles Maynes/VOA)Vitali Shkliarov was arrested July 29 after having finished a two-week quarantine at his parents’ house due to the coronavirus.  “He was grabbed off the street, thrown into a van, and driven 300 kilometers to a detention center in Minsk, while our son was left in the custody of his grandmother, without either of his parents,” recounts Heather Shkliarov in her statement.As he was being detained, Shkliarov managed one quick message on his popular Russian-language Telegram channel: “arrested.” Authorities accuse him of working with jailed opposition blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski to sponsor “group actions that grossly violate public order.”  He is the husband of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, President Alexander Lukashenko’s main election rival, who is now in Lithuania. She argues the longtime Belarusian leader rigged the vote to remain in power.  In her statement, Heather Shkliarov disputed that her husband was involved in campaigning at all.Heather Shkliarov says her husband was charged with the crime of organizing an illegal campaign rally on May 29 in Grodno, Belarus, for jailed opposition leader Siarhei Tsikhanouski, despite never having been to Grodno or having met Tsikhanouski.  She also notes her husband was at home with her in Virginia at the time of the May rally.   “Vitali is suffering this fate not because he was a protestor or involved in any way in the presidential election in Belarus,” she added.  “His only offense,” she notes, was that “he had written articles that publicly criticized the administration of President Lukashenko.”Western plotsA prolific political commentator on events in America and the former Soviet Union, Shkliarov’s writings have appeared in Foreign Policy magazine and Russia’s independent Novaya Gazeta, among other publications.  He has also worked on presidential campaigns in Russia, Georgia, and the United States, where he was a field organizer for both President Barack Obama’s reelection bid in 2012 and Senator Bernie Sanders’s failed presidential run in 2016.  Shkliarov’s lawyer, Anton Gashinsky, says Lukashenko has exploited that political experience in an effort to portray a wave of protests against his government as a Western-backed plot.  The argument has been key to shoring up critical Russian support for Lukashenko’s government as the democratic uprising has grown in numbers and authorities have resorted to mass arrests.  “Vitali has become a convenient scapegoat for Lukashenko’s security forces,” said  Gashinsky in an interview with VOA.  “He ideally fits the picture that they’re trying to draw: foreigners came from abroad to organize a revolution.”  EU Parliament Votes to Stop Recognizing Belarus President When His Term ExpiresEuropean lawmakers also support sanctioning Alexander Lukashenko over disputed reelection, violent crackdown on protestersEarlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Belarus to release Shkliarov and “all those who have been unjustly detained” amid a police crackdown.  Heather Shkliarov’s press release said, “The views expressed in this statement are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.”The view from inside  Vitali Shkliarov has detailed a grim existence since his detention last month.“Like any person daring to criticize an authoritarian regime, I understood you can’t swear off prison. But when they arrested me, I didn’t expect that I would fall into a totalitarian torture chamber,” Shkliarov wrote in a statement released last month.   “No, they don’t beat me. But they’re trying to break me. With everything they have,” he added.   Heather Shkliarov’s statement backed those assertions, arguing her husband was being exposed to “extreme psychological pressure” to force a confession.   “He is moved constantly from cell to cell to avoid having a sense of stability. The lights are never turned off in his cell, and loud music is blared all night so he is not ever able to sleep properly,” she writes.  “He has been subjected to extreme strip searches, forced to stand naked in a cell for hours at a time, and never allowed even to sit down on his bed during the day.”His wife also expressed growing concerns over his health in the COVID-19 era.  “On September 8, Vitali started feeling extremely ill, and for several days in a row, has reported a fever of over 102 degrees, along with respiratory issues, chills, and muscle pains.”Gashinsky, the lawyer, tells VOA prison authorities relented to requests for medical care and a doctor administered an initial test for COVID-19 on Wednesday.   It was not clear when results would come available, he added. 

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EU Parliament Votes to Stop Recognizing Belarus President When His Term Expires

The European Parliament said Thursday that Alexander Lukashenko should not be recognized as the president of Belarus when his term expires on November 5.  
 
The authoritarian leader was elected to a sixth term in office August 9, a vote that Belarusian opposition parties, the United States and European Union allege was rigged.
 
The European Parliament rejected the results of the August election by a 574 to 37 margin, with 82 abstentions. The Parliament also called on the European Union to impose sanctions on Lukashenko.
 
“The EU needs a new approach toward Belarus, which includes the termination of any cooperation with Lukashenko’s regime,” said Lithuanian centrist legislator Petras Austrevicius.
 
The EU Parliament’s rejection of the August election is not legally binding, but it can affect how the EU supports Belarus financially.
 
Lukashenko’s August reelection sparked mass protests in Minsk and other Belarusian cities. More than 7,000 protesters have been arrested, and widespread evidence of abuse and torture have been reported. At least four people are reported to have died during the demonstrations, during which police aggressively dispersed peaceful protesters with rubber bullets, clubs and stun grenades.
 
Human Rights Watch accused Belarusian security forces earlier this week of detaining thousands of people and torturing hundreds of others in the days after the election.
 
Lukashenko denies the voting was fraudulent and blamed the unrest on meddling by Western countries. Russian news agencies quoted him last week saying he has nothing to discuss with the opposition, and that he would be open to constitutional reforms and possibly a new presidential election.
 
During his meeting Monday with Lukashenko in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a firm Lukashenko ally, endorsed the possibility of Belarus amending its constitution to lay the groundwork for new elections.
 

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Brazil President’s Third Health Minister is Sworn In

General Eduardo Pazuello has become Brazil’s third health minister after taking the job on an interim basis in April.Pazuello, who has no health credentials, was officially sworn in Wednesday at the Planalto Palace, in the country’s capital, Brasilia.Pazuello first became health minister following the resignations of the previous ministers after being at odds with President Jair Bolsonaro over policies to curb the spread of the coronavirus.President Bolsonaro, who has been infected with the coronavirus, has always downplayed its threat, clashing with local leaders who imposed restrictions to curb the spread of the virus, saying the measures hurt the economy.During the ceremony Wednesday, Bolsanaro repeated his support for a controversial anti-malarial drug, hydroxychloroquine, which most experts reject as an effective treatment for the coronavirus.Brazil has the largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Latin America, with more than 4 million cases and more than 134,400 deaths.

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US Vows to Restore International Sanctions on Iran

The United States vowed to assert a “snapback” of all prior international sanctions on Iran, effective 8 p.m. Eastern Time on September 19, with more announcements to be made this weekend and next week as to exactly how Washington is planning to enforce the “returned U.N. sanctions.”“We will return to the United Nations to reimpose sanctions so that the arms embargo will become permanent next week,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Wednesday during a joint press conference with British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.“I think we absolutely agree that Iran must never be — never be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon,” said Raab. “We also, I think, share the view that the diplomatic door is open to Iran to negotiate a peaceful way forward. That decision, that choice is there for the leadership in Tehran to take.” He stopped short of saying whether or not and how Britain will implement the snapback sanctions.Britain, France and Germany, the so-called E3, said in August that they cannot support the U.S. move to restore U.N. sanctions on Iran, saying the action is incompatible with efforts to support the Iran nuclear deal.U.S. special envoy for Iran and Venezuela Elliott Abrams speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Aug. 4, 2020.“Whether those countries will in fact ignore the U.N. sanctions [under U.N. Security Council resolution 2231] remains to be seen,” U.S. special envoy for Iran and Venezuela Elliott Abrams told reporters in a Wednesday phone briefing. He added the E3 and other European countries had told Washington that they don’t want the Iran arms embargo to end, but they were unable to take any action that kept the UN arms embargo in place.Abrams said the returned sanctions include “a ban on Iran engaging in enrichment and reprocessing-related activities, the prohibition on ballistic missile testing and development, and sanctions on the transfer of nuclear and missile-related technologies to Iran.”U.S. officials warn that an Iran free from restrictions would lead to further regional destabilization, intensified conflicts and a regional arms race.Iranian armed forces members march in a military parade in Tehran, Sept. 22, 2018.The U.S. tried but failed on August 14 to extend an expiring arms embargo against Iran through a resolution at the United Nations Security Council.The embargo against the sale or transfer to or from Iran of conventional weapons is set to expire on October 18, under the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).With the extension blocked, Washington saw triggering a snapback of U.N. sanctions under Security Council Resolution 2231, which implemented the Iran nuclear agreement, as the only path for restoring the arms embargo.As the U.S. prepares to snap back sanctions against Iran this weekend, E3 nations are largely seen as likely to ignore them. Some experts said there would be a limited impact on European economies, unless the U.S. punishes those nations with secondary sanctions.“The immediate U.S. goal in trying to re-impose sanctions is to prevent the end of the U.N. arms embargo in mid-October. But even if the Europeans recognize the U.N. embargo ends next month, British and EU companies are not going to start selling tanks to Tehran. The U.S. expects Chinese and firms to look for arms deals, and they will probably sanction those companies bilaterally. But that doesn’t bother the Europeans very much,” said Richard Gowan, U.N. director of International Crisis Group (ICG).“Overall, the U.S. has realized that this is not a useful fight to pursue,” Gowan told VOA on Wednesday. “Equally, E3 diplomats say that they would prefer to avoid a big public row over snapback too, to limit the harm to relations with Washington.”Under the JCPOA concluded on July 14, 2015, the five permanent U.N. Security Council members, plus Germany, agreed with Iran to gradually lift international sanctions in return for limits on Tehran’s nuclear activities, to prevent it from making a nuclear bomb. It also opened Iran’s markets back up to many foreign investors.The United States withdrew from the deal in May 2018, re-imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran. In response, Tehran resumed some of its nuclear activities, and in July 2019, it breached the deal by exceeding limits on both uranium enrichment and stockpile levels. Iran denies that its nuclear activities are for military purposes. 

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Belarusian Opposition Leader Denounces Lukashenko Meeting With Putin

Belarusian opposition leader and human rights advocate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has expressed regret that President Alexander Lukashenko met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as a leading human rights organization accused Belarusian security forces of unlawfully arresting thousands of people and torturing hundreds of others. The two authoritarian leaders met Monday at a Black Sea resort in Sochi, when Putin granted the Belarusian government a $1.5 billion loan during a period of unrest in Belarus. The meeting was their first since mass protests erupted in Belarus after Lukashenko was reelected to a sixth term in an election widely viewed as rigged.   FILE – Opposition supporters take part in a rally against police brutality following protests to reject the presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, Sept. 13, 2020.Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s election opponent who has left Belarus, said she and other opposition leaders do not consider Lukashenko the legitimate president and that his meeting with Putin is further evidence of the need for change “after new fair elections when the new president will be in power.” Putin recognizes Lukashenko as the legitimate leader of Belarus, despite the ongoing mass protests. Detentions, tortureEarlier this week, Human Rights Watch accused Belarusian security forces of detaining and torturing people in the days after Lukashenko’s reelection. HRW said its findings were based on interviews with 27 former detainees, most of whom were arrested between Aug. 8 and 12, 14 people with knowledge of the arrests, and an examination of 67 videos and written accounts from former detainees and their relatives. FILE – People detained during recent rallies of opposition supporters, who accuse Alexander Lukashenko of falsifying the polls in the presidential election, show their marks from beatings as they leave the Okrestina prison, in Minsk, Aug. 14, 2020.The detainees said they were subject to beatings, electric shocks and other forms of torture, resulting in injuries such as broken bones, electrical burns, mild traumatic brain injuries, kidney damage and cracked teeth. At least one detainee was allegedly raped. Mass arrests resumed in the first week of September. The Interior Ministry reported that 600 people were apprehended Sept. 6 alone. The Ministry said another 774 people were arrested in Minsk and other Belarusian cities for holding unsanctioned demonstrations Sunday. Belarusian authorities also have targeted foreign journalists and local reporters working for foreign and local independent media organizations. HRW said dozens of the journalists have had their media credentials revoked, or have been expelled or harassed.  A journalist in Hrodna said he was arrested despite showing authorities his media credentials. He suffered two broken wrists at the hands of an officer with a Russian special police unit. Exiled Belarus Opposition Leader Pleads for ‘Help Now’ Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya urged international pressure, including sanctions on Alexander Lukashenko and his government following a disputed election Response from Lukashenko Opposition parties, the United States and the European Union allege the election was rigged.  Lukashenko denies the voting was fraudulent and blamed the unrest on meddling by western countries. Russian news agencies quoted him this week saying he has nothing to discuss with the opposition, and that he would be open to constitutional reforms and a potential new presidential election. During his meeting with Lukashenko, Putin endorsed the possibility of Belarus amending its constitution to lay the groundwork for new elections. VOA’s Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.  
 

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Turkey Accused of Coronavirus Cover-Up as Cases Rise

Doctors and local politicians in Turkey are voicing concerns that the government is downplaying the scale of the resurgent coronavirus outbreak. The latest official figures suggest there are around 1,700 new infections and around 60 deaths every day across the country – but doctors say the numbers don’t add up. As Henry Ridgwell reports, opposition politicians accuse the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of a cover-up.
Camera: Memet Aksakal and Henry Ridgwell   Produced by: Marcus Harton  
 

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US Sanctions 2 Russians in Crypto Theft Scheme

The U.S. government announced sanctions Wednesday on two Russian nationals for their role in the theft of at least $16.8 million worth of cryptocurrency.In the phishing scheme, which was conducted in 2017 and 2018, Danil Potekhin and Dmitrii Karasavidi allegedly created web sites that looked like legitimate currency exchange sites. Victims would enter their information, which was then used to access real accounts.The two, who were identified by the Treasury Department and the Department of Homeland Security, then allegedly laundered the stolen cryptocurrencies through multiple virtual currency exchanges using fake profiles.“The individuals who administered this scheme defrauded American citizens, businesses and others by deceiving them and stealing virtual currency from their accounts,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement. “The Treasury Department will continue to use our authorities to target cybercriminals and remains committed to the safe and secure use of emerging technologies in the financial sector.”According to the statement, the government seized millions of dollars in virtual currency and U.S. dollars in an account owned by Karasavidi.

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UN Investigators Accuse Venezuelan Government of Crimes Against Humanity

U.N. investigators alleged Wednesday that the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has committed crimes against humanity that include murders, torture and other atrocities.
 
Independent investigators commissioned by the Human Rights Council, the U.N.’s top human rights body, said in a report that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that Maduro and his defense and interior ministers were aware of crimes committed by government security forces and intelligence agencies.
 
In attempts to silence the opposition, the report said, they committed crimes that include extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture. The report also said senior Venezuelan officials had control over the security forces and intelligence agencies, making those officials responsible.
 
Maduro’s socialist government did not immediately respond to the allegations in the report, which are based on 3,000 cases and more than 270 interviews with victims, witnesses, former officials, confidential documents and attorneys.
 
“Far from being isolated acts, these crimes were coordinated and committed pursuant to state policies, with the knowledge or direct support of commanding officers and senior government officials,” panel chair Marta Valinas said in a statement.
 
The report is likely to result in increased global scrutiny on the Maduro administration, which is governing a country torn by hyperinflation, a violent government crackdown and a migration of millions of citizens who have fled to nearby countries to escape the chaos that has persisted since he took office in 2013.
 
Maduro’s government has faced mounting pressure from the United States and dozens of other countries that recognize politician Juan Guaido as the legitimate president.
 
Maduro has said this is part of a plan to overthrow him so the U.S. can exploit Venezuela’s vast oil reserves.
 
The U.N. fact-finding mission, established by the Human Rights Council to investigate alleged crimes since 2014, was not given access to Venezuela. The authors of the report said the Maduro government did not respond to inquiries.
 
Article 7 of the U.N. treaty that established the International Criminal Court defines a crime against humanity as an act that is part of a “widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population.”  
 

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EU Commission President Calls on Member Nations for Unity

In a wide-ranging speech, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen Wednesday presented her vision for a new European Union emerging from the coronavirus crisis, on-going Brexit negotiations, and conflicts over equality.Speaking to members of the European Parliament in Brussels in her state of the EU address, von der Leyen said the bloc must get better at responding to events unfolding around the world.Once able to boast of a “soft power” that helped transform communist neighbors into market economies, the EU increasingly finds itself unable to agree because of the need to secure unanimity among member states.She said, “Why are even simple statements on EU values delayed, watered down or held hostage for other motives? When member states say Europe is too slow, I say be courageous and finally move to qualified majority voting at least on human rights and sanction implementation.”On the subject of on-going Brexit negotiations, Von der Leyen lashed out at a new Internal Market Bill put forth by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that could violate portions of the withdrawal agreement signed in January. She said of the agreement, “It cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied. This is a matter of law and trust and good faith.”She said time is running out for a Brexit trade agreement before the end of the year deadline. The Reuters news service reported Tuesday Britain had quietly offered concessions on some of the other issues blocking the agreement, leaving some officials hoping a deal is still possible.The EU Commission president also condemned recent policies in Poland to restrict the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people that are being promoted by the nationalist government there. Von der Leyen said there was no place in the bloc for such polices.She said “I will not rest when it comes to building a union of equality, a union where you can be who you are and love who you want without fear and recrimination because being yourself is not your ideology. It is your identity and no one can ever take it away. So I want to be crystal clear: LGBTQI-free zones are humanity-free zones. And they have no place in our union.”On the subject of climate change, Von der Leyen announced a new commission plan to cut the European Union’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% from 1990 levels by 2030, up from an existing target of 40%. 

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