Category Archives: World

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Former Serbian Mayor Convicted in Arson Attack on Reporter

A Serbian court has sentenced a former mayor to four years in prison for ordering an arson attack on the home of an investigative journalist.In a trial that lasted nearly two years, a court Tuesday found Dragoljub Simonovic guilty of ordering the December 2018 attack on Milan Jovanovic, a reporter for the news website Zig Info. Simonovic, a member of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), was mayor of Grocka, a municipality near the capital, Belgrade, at the time of the attack.”I hope that this verdict will be the harbinger of more media freedom in Serbia,” Jovanovic told reporters outside the court, adding that he was satisfied with the ruling.Jovanovic and his wife were at home at the time of the attack and had to escape through a window after Molotov cocktails were thrown through a window, according to reports at the time. The journalist suffered smoke inhalation, Milan Jovanovic in front of his burned home, in Belgrade, Serbia, December 2018.Jovanovic said he believed he was targeted for investigating cases of corruption and graft allegedly linked to the mayor.A man accused of carrying out the attack, Aleksandar Marinkovic, was sentenced in absentia by the court.The verdict was a rare case of justice being secured for journalists in a region where press freedoms are withering. Hostile rhetoric, sometimes from politicians, a lack of independence in media regulatory bodies, online attacks on journalists and weak mechanisms to support news associations are among the obstacles for media in the Balkans.Serbia’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index has also worsened in the past four years, dropping three places in 2020, according to data compiled by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders. (RSF)Significant rulingInternational media rights groups welcomed Tuesday’s court ruling.Milan Jovanovic’s burned vehicle and garage, in Belgrade, Serbia, December 2018. (RFE/RL)The conviction of a mastermind was significant in the fight against impunity in attacks on the press, Pavol Szalai, head of the European Union and Balkans desk at RSF, told VOA Serbian.“The arson attack against the home of Milan Jovanovic is an emblematic case for press freedom not only in Serbia, but also in the whole Balkans,” Szalai said, adding that the region was “plagued by impunity” regarding crimes against the media.“When RSF Secretary General Christophe Deloire met the Serbian president in 2019, Aleksandar Vucic committed to healing this disease. Today’s verdict is the beginning of the healing process; it is the beginning of the end of impunity for crimes committed against journalists in Serbia,” Szalai said.Noting that Jovanovic and his wife could have been killed in the attack, the media watchdog representative said that RSF would monitor the appeal hearings closely, adding that it was “crucial” that the verdict be confirmed.“Europe is still traumatized by last year’s acquittal of the alleged mastermind of the assassination of Jan Kuciak in Slovakia. If the perpetrators of the attack against Milan Jovanovic are definitively condemned, it will be an important measure to protect the physical security journalists.” Szalai said.Marian Kocner, a powerful businessman in Slovakia, was acquitted last year of involvement in the 2018 slaying of investigative journalist Kuciak. He denied any role in the killing.Milan Jovanovic’s burned vehicle, in Belgrade, Serbia, December 2018. (RFE/RL)The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also welcomed the sentencing.“The verdict is a strong signal from Serbian authorities that acts of violence against journalists will not remain unpunished,” Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, said in a statement forwarded to VOA. “Fighting impunity for such acts is an important step toward preventing further attacks, and it is especially welcome in Serbia where threats, intimidation and acts of violence against journalists are not unprecedented.”Journalist safetySerbia is under pressure to improve press freedom and safety for journalists as part of its steps toward joining the European Union. In its 2020 country report, the European Commission said “cases of threats, intimidation and violence against journalists are still a source of serious concern” in Serbia.Szalai, from RSF, said the country needs to address several issues, including securing justice in crimes against the media and ending verbal assaults and threats, including those from state officials.”Perpetrators of crimes committed against journalists must be swiftly condemned, regardless if they are state officials or not,” Szalai said, adding, “The editorial independence of the public media must be granted, and economic and institutional pressures on the private media’s editorial independence must stop.”Szalai said that law enforcement should also investigate evidence of crime and corruption exposed by reporters. “All these changes would not only contribute to improving media freedom, but also accelerate Serbia’s integration to the EU,” he said.This story originated in VOA’s Serbian Service. Some information is from AFP.   

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Honduran Man Exits US Church After Years in Sanctuary From Deportation 

After 3½ years of living inside a Missouri church to avoid deportation, Honduran immigrant Alex Garcia finally stepped outside Wednesday, following a promise from President Joe Biden’s administration to let him be.Garcia, a married father of five, was slated for removal from the U.S. in 2017, the first year of President Donald Trump’s administration. Days before he would have been deported, Christ Church United Church of Christ in the St. Louis suburb of Maplewood offered sanctuary.Sara John of the St. Louis Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America said Garcia’s decision to leave the church came after Immigration and Customs Enforcement declared that he was no longer a deportation priority, and that the agency would not pursue his detention or removal.Garcia, in a statement, said he was separated from living with his family for 1,252 days. A crowd of about 100 people cheered as he and his family left the church Wednesday.”We are not done yet,” Garcia said. “There is still so much work that has to be done and I look forward to being able to join you all out there in the community and continue to fight for my permanent protection.”In his first weeks as president, Biden has signed several executive orders on immigration issues that undo his predecessor’s policies, though several Republican members of Congress are pushing legal challenges.Myrna Orozco, organizing coordinator at Church World Service, said 33 immigrants remain inside churches across the U.S., a number that should continue to drop.”We expect it to change in the next couple of weeks as we get more clarity from ICE or [immigrants] get a decision on their cases,” Orozco said.Others emergeOthers who have emerged from sanctuary since Biden took office include Jose Chicas, a 55-year-old El Salvador native, who left a church-owned house in Durham, North Carolina, on January 22. Saheeda Nadeem, 65, of Pakistan, left a Kalamazoo, Michigan, church this month. Edith Espinal, a native of Mexico, left an Ohio church after more than three years.In Maplewood, Pastor Becky Turner said Garcia has become a valued part of the church family.”The hearts of all of us at Christ Church are overflowing today,” Turner said. “God has answered our prayers for Alex Garcia to live freely, without the threat of being separated from his family.”Garcia’s exit came just two days after U.S. Representative Cori Bush, a St. Louis Democrat, announced she was sponsoring a private bill seeking permanent residency for Garcia. Bush said Wednesday that she would still push the bill forward.”ICE has promised not to deport Alex, and we will stop at nothing to ensure that they keep their promise,” Bush said in a statement.Garcia fled extreme poverty and violence in Honduras, his advocates have said. After entering the U.S. in 2004, he hopped a train that he thought was headed for Houston, but instead ended up in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, a town of about 17,000 residents in the southeastern corner of the state.He landed a job and met his wife, Carly, a U.S. citizen, and for more than a decade they lived quietly with their blended family.In 2015, Garcia accompanied his sister to an immigration office for a check-in in Kansas City, Missouri, where officials realized Garcia was in the country illegally. He received two one-year reprieves during Barack Obama’s administration. 

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Police in Germany, Belgium Seize Record 23 Tons of Cocaine

German customs authorities Wednesday announced the largest seizure of cocaine in European history, more than 23 tons discovered in two raids this month at ports in Hamburg, Germany and Antwerp, Belgium.German customs official Rene Matchke told reporters the 28-year-old owner of a Dutch import company was arrested Wednesday in the Netherlands, where police say both shipments were bound.  German officers had first discovered 16 tons of cocaine hidden in containers from Paraguay at the port of Hamburg February 12, following a tip from a Netherlands-based company. German and Dutch investigations led the officials Sunday to seize another 7.2 tons of cocaine at the port of Antwerp.German and Dutch police confirm the two shipments account for the largest amount of cocaine confiscated in a criminal investigation, and one of the top five in the world.  German customs officials say the investigation is ongoing and that they do not believe the man who was arrested acted alone. They say the drug haul would have been worth billions of dollars.
 

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Putin Signs Laws Imposing Fines for ‘Foreign Agent’ Law Violations, Protest-Related Offenses

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed into law bills that impose fines for violating a controversial law on “foreign agents” as well as other legislation relating to protests, such as the financing of rallies and disobedience of law enforcement.
 
According to the laws, signed by Putin Feb. 24, releasing information about so-called “foreign agents” and their materials without also indicating their status could lead to fines of up to 2,500 rubles ($34) for individuals and up to 500,000 rubles ($6,720) for entities. The law applies regardless of whether the “foreign agent” in question is a mass media outlet or an individual.
 
The other laws signed by Putin the same day set fines for individuals found guilty of illegally financing a rally at up to 15,000 rubles ($200), while officials and organizations for such actions will be ordered to pay up to 30,000 rubles ($400) and 100,000 rubles ($1,345), respectively. Putin also signed a law that significantly increases fines for disobedience of police and security forces.
 
Russia’s “foreign agent” legislation was adopted in 2012 and has been modified repeatedly. It requires nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign assistance and that the government deems to be engaged in political activity to be registered, to identify themselves as “foreign agents,” and submit to audits.
 
Later modifications of the law targeted foreign-funded media, including RFE/RL’s Russian Service, six other RFE/RL Russian-language news services, as well as Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
 
At the end of 2020, the legislation was modified to allow the Russian government to include individuals, including foreign journalists, on its “foreign agents” list and to impose restrictions on them.
 
Russian officials have said that amending the “foreign agents law” to include mass media in 2017 was a “symmetrical response” to the U.S. requirement that Russia’s state-funded channel RT register under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
 
U.S. officials have said the action is not symmetrical, arguing that the U.S. and Russian laws differ and that Russia uses its “foreign agent” legislation to silence dissent and discourage the free exchange of ideas.
 
The Russian state media monitor Roskomnadzor last year adopted rules requiring listed media to mark all written materials with a lengthy notice in large text, all radio materials with an audio statement, and all video materials with a 15-second text declaration.
 
The agency has prepared hundreds of complaints against RFE/RL’s news websites. When they go through the court system, the fines levied could reach nearly $1 million.
 
RFE/RL has called the fines “a state-sponsored campaign of coercion and intimidation,” while the U.S. State Department has described them as “intolerable.” Human Rights Watch has described the foreign agent legislation as “restrictive” and intended “to demonize independent groups.”
 
Since early in Putin’s presidency, the Kremlin has steadily tightened the screws on independent media. The country is ranked 149th out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders.
 
 

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Judge Bans Enforcement of Biden’s 100-Day Deportation Pause

A federal judge late Tuesday indefinitely banned President Joe Biden’s administration from enforcing a 100-day moratorium on most deportations.  U.S. District Judge Drew Tipton issued a preliminary injunction sought by Texas, which argued the moratorium violated federal law and risked imposing additional costs on the state.Biden proposed the 100-day pause on deportations during his campaign as part of a larger review of immigration enforcement and an attempt to reverse the priorities of former President Donald Trump. Biden has proposed a sweeping immigration bill that would allow the legalization of an estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally. He also has instituted other guidelines on whom immigration and border agents should target for enforcement.  Tipton, a Trump appointee, initially ruled on January 26 the moratorium violated federal law on administrative procedure and the U.S. failed to show why a deportation pause was justified. A temporary restraining order issued by the judge was set to expire Tuesday.  Tipton’s ruling did not require deportations to resume at their previous pace. Even without a moratorium, immigration agencies have wide latitude in enforcing removals and processing cases.  But in the days that followed his ruling, authorities deported 15 people to Jamaica and hundreds of others to Central America. The Biden administration also has continued expelling immigrants under a separate process begun by Trump officials, who invoked public-health law due to the coronavirus pandemic.  The legal fight over the deportation ban is an early sign of Republican opposition to Biden’s immigration priorities, just as Democrats and pro-immigrant legal groups fought Trump’s proposals. Almost four years before Tipton’s order, Trump signed a ban on travel from seven countries with predominantly Muslim populations that caused chaos at airports. Legal groups successfully sued to stop implementation of the ban.It was not immediately clear if the Biden administration will appeal Tipton’s latest ruling. The Justice Department did not seek a stay of Tipton’s earlier temporary restraining order. 

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Georgian Police Detain Opposition Leader as Political Crisis Deepens

Police stormed the party offices of Georgian opposition leader Nika Melia and detained him Tuesday, deepening a political crisis that prompted the prime minister to resign last week.
 
Melia’s supporters had barricaded themselves in the offices, using furniture to block the doors. Scores of police surged into the building during the early morning raid, including using firefighting ladders to gain access via the roof.  
 
Seventeen people were hurt in the scuffles between police and activists, the Interfax news agency reported. Some activists were coughing and suffered eye irritation after police sprayed gas towards them from hand-held canisters.
 
Melia, the United National Movement (UNM) party’s chairman in the South Caucasus country of 3.7 million people, has been accused of inciting violence at street protests in June 2019, a charge he dismisses as politically motivated.
 
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was “deeply troubled” by Melia’s arrest, urging the Georgian government to avoid actions that could further escalate tensions. A State Department spokesman added that recent developments in the country were in contravention of its Euro-Atlantic aspirations.
 
A new prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, was chosen by parliament late on Monday to replace Giorgi Gakharia, who resigned last week after a court ordered the detention of Melia, a move Gakharia said would cause political turmoil.
 
In a video posted on Facebook late on Tuesday, the new prime minister called for “all the political forces to which our country is dear to start a true dialogue.” 
Hundreds protest
 
Hundreds of people massed outside parliament to protest Melia’s detention and pitched two tents in the capital, Tbilisi. One protester held up a sign calling for a snap election, the government’s resignation and freedom for “political prisoners.” A UNM party member called for a large-scale protest march on Friday, the Rustavi 2 media outlet reported.
 
The Interior Ministry said it had no option but to use coercive measures at Melia’s party offices as activists had ignored numerous warnings not to obstruct their work.
 
“Polarizing rhetoric, force and aggression are not the solution to Georgia’s political differences,” Blinken said in a statement. “We call on all sides to avoid actions that could further escalate tensions and to engage in good faith negotiations to resolve the current political crisis,” he said.
 
The U.S. Embassy earlier expressed regret that its call for restraint and dialogue had been ignored.
 
Britain’s ambassador, Mark Clayton, urged restraint from all sides. The European Union’s ambassador called for efforts to find common ground.
 
“The logic of escalation is getting the upper hand. The political crisis is deepening,” the EU diplomat, Carl Hartzell, wrote on Twitter.
 
Zygimantas Pavilionis, a special envoy from the Lithuanian parliament who returned on Monday from a mediating mission to Georgia, said the authorities had been seeking support from Western diplomats for a crackdown.
 
“They were asking for green light from me, from the EU ambassador, from the American ambassador. I said, no way,” he said. “Now democracy is dying there.”
 
Last week, a court ordered Melia to be detained for allegedly failing to post bail. Gakharia abruptly resigned on Thursday, citing disagreement with his own team over the arrest order. The Interior Ministry initially held off on detaining Melia because of Gakharia’s resignation.
 
The new prime minister, Garibashvili, served as prime minister from 2013 to 2015. His candidacy was put forward by the ruling Georgian Dream party.

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German Court Convicts Assad Official

A German court has convicted a former member of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s secret police of accessory to crimes against humanity for facilitating the torture of prisoners.
 
The court in Koblenz sentenced Eyad Al-Gharib to 4 1/2 years in prison.
 
Prosecutors accused him of being part of a unit that arrested protesters and delivered them to a detention center where they were tortured.
 
The conviction marked the first time a court outside of Syria ruled in a case alleging members of Assad’s government committed crimes against humanity.   
 
The court is also holding a trial for a second person who is accused of directly committing crimes against humanity.  That trial is expected to last until late this year.
 
Prosecutors are invoking the principle of universal jurisdiction to bring charges of crimes against humanity in a German court.

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Judge Says Wife of Drug Kingpin ‘El Chapo’ to Stay in Jail

A federal judge has ordered the wife of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to remain temporarily jailed after she was arrested and accused of helping her husband run his multibillion-dollar cartel and plotting his audacious escape from a Mexican prison in 2015. Emma Coronel Aispuro, 31, appeared by video conference for an initial court appearance before a federal magistrate judge in Washington, D.C. The judge’s order came after Coronel’s attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman, said he would consent to her temporary detention after her arrest at Dulles International Airport in Virginia. U.S. Magistrate Judge Robin Meriweather explained the charges to Coronel, who spoke to the judge through a Spanish interpreter. She said prosecutors had provided sufficient reason to keep Coronel behind bars for now and noted that her attorney had consented to the temporary detention. Prosecutor Anthony Nardozzi said the U.S. government believed that Coronel should remain jailed, arguing that she “worked closely with the command-and-control structure” of the Sinaloa cartel, particularly with her husband. Nardozzi said she conspired to distribute large quantities of drugs, knowing that they would be illegally smuggled into the U.S.  Nardozzi said Coronel had access to criminal associates, including other members of the cartel, and “financial means to generate a serious risk of flight.” If convicted, she could face more than 10 years in prison. Her arrest was the latest twist in the bloody, multinational saga involving Guzman, the longtime head of the Sinaloa drug cartel. Guzman, whose two dramatic prison escapes in Mexico fed into a legend that he and his family were all but untouchable, was extradited to the United States in 2017 and is serving life in prison.This photo shows the shower area where authorities claim drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman slipped into a tunnel to escape from his prison cell at the Altiplano maximum security prison, in Almoloya, west of Mexico City, July 15, 2015.And now his wife, with whom he has two young daughters, has been charged with helping him run his criminal empire. In a single-count criminal complaint, Coronel was charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana in the U.S. The Justice Department also accused her of helping her husband escape from a Mexican prison in 2015 and participating in the planning of a second prison escape before Guzman was extradited to the U.S.  As Mexico’s most powerful drug lord, Guzman ran a cartel responsible for smuggling mountains of cocaine and other drugs into the United States during his 25-year reign, prosecutors said in recent court papers. They also said his “army of sicarios,” or “hit men,” was under orders to kidnap, torture and kill anyone who got in his way. His prison breaks became the stuff of legend and raised serious questions about whether Mexico’s justice system was capable of holding him accountable. In one case, he escaped through an entry under the shower in his cell to a milelong (1.6-kilometer-long) lighted tunnel with a motorcycle on rails. The planning for the escape was extensive, prosecutors say, with his wife playing a key role.  Court papers charge that Coronel worked with Guzman’s sons and a witness, who is now cooperating with the U.S. government, to organize the construction of the underground tunnel that Guzman used to escape from the Altiplano prison to prevent his extradition to the U.S. The plot included purchasing a piece of land near the prison, firearms and an armored truck and smuggling him a GPS watch so they could “pinpoint his exact whereabouts so as to construct the tunnel with an entry point accessible to him,” the court papers say. Guzman was sentenced to life behind bars in 2019.  Coronel, who was a beauty queen in her teens, regularly attended Guzman’s trial, even when testimony implicated her in his prison breaks. The two, separated in age by more than 30 years, have been together since at least 2007, and their twin daughters were born in 2011.  Her father, Ines Coronel Barreras, was arrested in 2013 with one of his sons and several other men in a warehouse with hundreds of pounds of marijuana across the border from Douglas, Arizona. Months earlier, the U.S. Treasury had announced financial sanctions against her father for his alleged drug trafficking.  After Guzman was rearrested following his escape, Coronel lobbied the Mexican government to improve her husband’s prison conditions. And after he was convicted in 2019, she moved to launch a clothing line in his name. Mike Vigil, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s former chief of international operations, said Coronel “has been involved in the drug trade since she was a little girl. She knows the inner workings of the Sinaloa cartel.” He said she could be willing to cooperate. “She has a huge motivation, and that is her twins,” Vigil said. 

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Ecuador President Declares State of Emergency Following Deadly Prison Riots

Officials in Ecuador say order has been restored at prisons in three cities, where authorities said at least 75 inmates died in riots between rival gangs. President Lenín Moreno declared the national prison system in a state of emergency and ordered stepped-up security measures.    Officials say authorities, with the assistance of an additional 800 police officers, gained control of the fighting within the detention centers at Guayaquil, Cuenca and Latacunga. The president also ordered the Ministry of Defense to exercise strict gun, ammunition and explosives control in the surrounding areas of correctional facilities..  Edmundo Moncayo, the General Director of the National Service of Attention to People Deprived of Liberty (SNAI), said the inmate fights were set off when police carried out a search for weapons. Moncayo said some prison staff were injured in the riots but none died.   Moncayo also said the vast majority of the country’s prison population lives in the centers where the violence occurred. Among Ecuador’s roughly 38,000 inmates, confrontations among criminal groups often resulted in riots. In December, riots at several facilities left 11 people dead. 

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