Russia, Ukraine exchange drone, missile attacks

Kyiv, Ukraine — Kyiv and Moscow staged dozens of drone and missile attacks overnight, officials said Friday, leaving several wounded in Ukraine and damaging a fuel reservoir site in a Russian border region.

The two sides have stepped up cross-border aerial assaults in recent weeks, with Kyiv targeting Russian energy facilities and Moscow launching retaliatory barrages.

Russia said it had downed 87 Ukrainian drones, of which 70 had targeted the southern Rostov region that houses the headquarters of its military operation against Kyiv.

The defense ministry said 70 drones were downed over Rostov, six each over Kursk and Voronezh, and two each over Volgograd and the Belgorod region bordering Ukraine.

The attacks sparked power cuts in several areas of the Rostov region, its governor Vasily Golubev said on social media.

In Voronezh, which borders Ukraine, a fuel reservoir was slightly damaged by falling debris, its regional governor Aleksander Gusev said.

Kyiv meanwhile said Ukrainian air defense systems had downed 24 out of 31 Russian drones and missiles fired overnight.

Six people were wounded in an attack on the front-line town of Selydove in the war-battered Donetsk region, its governor said.

Three people were wounded in a drone attack in the eastern Sumy region and several homes were damaged in the neighboring Kharkiv region.

South Florida rainstorms lead to flight delays, streets jammed with stalled cars

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — A tropical disturbance that brought a rare flash flood emergency to much of southern Florida delayed flights at two of the state’s largest airports and left vehicles waterlogged and stalled in some of the region’s lowest-lying streets.

“Looked like the beginning of a zombie movie,” said Ted Rico, a tow truck driver who spent much of Wednesday night and Thursday morning helping to clear the streets of stalled vehicles. “There’s cars littered everywhere, on top of sidewalks, in the median, in the middle of the street, no lights on. Just craziness, you know. Abandoned cars everywhere.”

Rico, of One Master Trucking Corp., was born and raised in Miami and said he was ready for the emergency.

“You know when it’s coming,” he said. “Every year it’s just getting worse, and for some reason people just keep going through the puddles.”

Travelers across the area were trying to adjust their plans on Thursday morning. More than 50 centimeters of rain had fallen in some areas of South Florida since Tuesday, with more predicted over the next few days.

Ticket and security lines snaked around a domestic concourse at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport just before noon Thursday. The travel boards showed about half of that terminal’s flights had been canceled or postponed.

Bill Carlisle, a Navy petty officer first class, had spent his morning trying to catch a flight back to Norfolk, Virginia. He had arrived at Miami International Airport about 6:30 a.m., but 90 minutes later he was still in line and realized he couldn’t get his bags checked and through security in time to catch his flight.

“It was a zoo,” said Carlisle, a public affairs specialist. He was speaking for himself, not the Navy. “Nothing against the [airport] employees — there is only so much they can do.”

He used his phone to book an afternoon flight out of Fort Lauderdale. He took a shuttle the 32 kilometers north, only to find that the flight had been canceled. He was then heading back to Miami for a 9 p.m. flight, hoping it wouldn’t get canceled by the heavy rains expected later in the day. He was resigned, not angry.

“Just a long day sitting in airports,” Carlisle said. “This is kind of par for the course for government travel.”

Wednesday’s downpours and subsequent flooding blocked roads, floated vehicles and even delayed the Florida Panthers on their way to Stanley Cup games in Canada against the Edmonton Oilers.

The disorganized storm system was pushing across Florida from the Gulf of Mexico at roughly the same time as the early June start of hurricane season, which this year is forecast to be among the most active in recent memory amid concerns that climate change is increasing storm intensity.

The disturbance has not reached cyclone status and was given only a slight chance to form into a tropical system once it moves into the Atlantic Ocean after crossing Florida, according to the National Hurricane Center.

In Hallandale Beach, Alex Demchemko was walking his Russian spaniel Lex along the still-flooded sidewalks near the Airbnb where he’s lived since arriving from Russia last month to seek asylum in the U.S.

“We didn’t come out from our apartment, but we had to walk with our dog,” Demchemko said. “A lot of flashes, raining, a lot of floating cars and a lot of left cars without drivers, and there was a lot of water on the streets. It was kind of catastrophic.”

On Thursday morning, Daniela Urrieche, 26, was bailing water out of her SUV, which got stuck on a flooded street as she drove home from work on Wednesday afternoon.

“In the nine years that I’ve lived here, this has been the worst,” she said. “Even in a hurricane, streets were not as bad as it was in the past 24 hours.”

The flooding wasn’t limited to the streets. Charlea Johnson spent Wednesday night at her Hallendale Beach home barreling water into the sink and toilet.

“The water just started flooding in the back and flooding in the front,” Johnson said.

By Wednesday evening, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and mayors in Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood and Miami-Dade County each declared a state of emergency.

It’s already been a wet and blustery week in Florida. In Miami, about 15 centimeters of rain fell Tuesday and 17 centimeters fell in Miami Beach, according to the National Weather Service. Hollywood got about 12 centimeters.

More rain was forecast for the rest of the week, with some areas getting another 15 centimeters of rain.

The western side of the state, much of which has been in a prolonged drought, also got some major rainfall. Nearly 16.5 centimeters of rain fell Tuesday at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, the weather service said, and flash flood warnings were in effect in those areas as well.

Forecasts predict an unusually busy hurricane season.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates there is an 85% chance that the Atlantic hurricane season will be above average, predicting between 17 and 25 named storms in the coming months, including up to 13 hurricanes and four major hurricanes. An average season has 14 named storms. 

At G7 Italy, Biden galvanizes support for Ukraine

US President Joe Biden and leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy democracies are meeting in Italy, underscoring support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s invasion and the need for a cease-fire in Gaza. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara is traveling with the president and brings this report from Borgo Egnazia, the G7 summit venue.

Washington state’s Makah tribe clears hurdle toward resuming whale hunts

Seattle, Washington — The United States granted the Makah Indian Tribe in Washington state a long-sought waiver Thursday that helps clear the way for its first sanctioned whale hunts since 1999.

The Makah, a tribe of 1,500 people on the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, is the only Native American tribe with a treaty that specifically mentions a right to hunt whales. But it has faced more than two decades of court challenges, bureaucratic hearings and scientific review as it seeks to resume hunting gray whales.

The decision by NOAA Fisheries grants a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which otherwise forbids harming marine mammals. It allows the tribe to hunt up to 25 Eastern North Pacific gray whales over 10 years, with a limit of two to three per year. There are roughly 20,000 whales in that population, and the hunts will be timed to avoid harming endangered Western North Pacific gray whales that sometimes visit the area.

Nevertheless, hurdles remain. The tribe must enter into a cooperative agreement with the agency under the Whaling Convention Act, and it must obtain a permit to hunt, a process that involves a monthlong public comment period. 

Animal rights advocates, who have long opposed whaling, could also challenge NOAA’s decision in court. 

Archeological evidence shows that Makah hunters in cedar canoes killed whales for sustenance from time immemorial, a practice that ceased only in the early 20th century after commercial whaling vessels depleted the population. 

By 1994, the Eastern Pacific gray whale population had rebounded, and they were removed from the endangered species list. Seeing an opportunity to reclaim its heritage, the tribe announced plans to hunt again. 

The Makah trained for months in the ancient ways of whaling and received the blessing of federal officials and the International Whaling Commission. They took to the water in 1998 but didn’t succeed until the next year, when they harpooned a gray whale from a hand-carved cedar canoe. A tribal member in a motorized support boat killed it with a high-powered rifle to minimize its suffering. 

It was the tribe’s first successful hunt in 70 years. 

The hunts drew protests from animal rights activists, who sometimes threw smoke bombs at the whalers and sprayed fire extinguishers into their faces. Others veered motorboats between the whales and the tribal canoes to interfere with the hunt. Authorities seized several vessels and made arrests. 

After animal rights groups sued, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned federal approval of the tribe’s whaling plans. The court found that the tribe needed to obtain a waiver under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. 

Eleven Alaska Native communities in the Arctic have such a waiver for subsistence hunts, allowing them to kill bowhead whales — even though bowheads are listed as endangered. 

The Makah tribe applied for a waiver in 2005. The process repeatedly stalled as new scientific information about the whales and the health of their population was uncovered. 

Some of the Makah whalers became so frustrated with the delays that they went on a rogue hunt in 2007, killing a gray whale that got away from them and sank. They were convicted in federal court.

Russian Israeli journalist barred from entering Serbia

washington — A Russian Israeli freelance journalist who has been labeled a “foreign agent” by Moscow said Wednesday that he was banned from entering Serbia because of alleged security risks.

In a Zoom interview with VOA, Roman Perl said he landed at the airport in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, for a personal visit Saturday. He was kept waiting for about eight hours before being handed an order blocking his entry.

“They gave me a paper stating that there are security risks if I were to be on Serbian soil,” Perl said.

The Russian government designated Perl a “foreign agent” in 2021, a legal term the Kremlin has used since 2012 to enforce its harsh crackdown on news outlets and civil society groups. The law prompted Perl to depart Russia for Israel.

Press freedom experts expressed concern about the incident.

“It’s very worrying because it may confirm that the Serbian authorities are working with the Russian ones,” Jeanne Cavelier, the head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders, told VOA from Paris. “To go to Serbia could be a great danger for journalists.”

Perl, who has previously produced documentaries for Current Time TV, said he was traveling to Belgrade to visit a friend.

Perl said it was “possible that Russian authorities can, in certain cases, persuade the Serbs to do something the Russian side deems necessary.” But, he added, Serbia may have blocked him over his brief detention in Belgrade in 2023.

While filming a documentary about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at that time, one of his interviewees unfurled the Ukrainian flag near the Russian Embassy, he said.

“Then the members of the gendarmerie approached us and told us that the embassy had called them to remove us from the area,” he said.

Perl was then held in police custody for a few hours before being released without charge.

Serbia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Information and Telecommunications and Border Police did not reply to emails from VOA’s Serbian Service requesting comment. Serbia’s Washington embassy also did not immediately reply to VOA’s email requesting comment.

Although Serbia has a vibrant media landscape, reporters often face political pressure, and impunity for crimes against journalists tends to be the norm, according to press freedom groups.

The threat of impunity in Serbia was highlighted earlier this year. In February, four people who were previously charged with the 1999 murder of prominent Serbian journalist Slavko Curuvija were acquitted in an appeals trial.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Serbia 98th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom.

Diplomat: US committed to work with Bangladesh on corruption

WASHINGTON — The United States is “committed to working with Bangladesh to fight corruption,” Donald Lu, U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs, told VOA’s Bangla Service.

Lu visited Bangladesh in mid-May and met with senior government officials and civil society leaders. Shortly after his visit, the U.S. announced sanctions against former Bangladesh army chief General Aziz Ahmed for what it termed his involvement in “significant corruption.”

In an interview conducted by email on Monday, Lu spoke about topics that included economic cooperation, the climate crisis, women’s rights and the commitment of the United States to work with the people of Bangladesh on issues of democracy and human rights. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: In your recent visit to Bangladesh, you expressed the administration’s intention to move beyond the tension between Bangladesh and the U.S., which was caused by your administration’s initiative to promote democracy and a free, fair and peaceful election in Bangladesh in January this year. Is this an indication of a U.S. policy shift toward Bangladesh where you intend to focus more on geopolitical, economic, environmental and strategic bilateral issues rather than promoting democracy?

Donald Lu: As I said during my recent visit to Dhaka, we are looking forward, not back. We are ready and eager to advance our partnership with Bangladesh across a broad range of issues. We hope to continue deepening our trade ties with Bangladesh. We want to advance our shared interest in women’s economic security. We are already working together to address the climate crisis. We are optimistic about the opportunities for continued partnership on our shared priorities.

Promoting democracy and human rights in Bangladesh remains a priority for us. We will continue to support the important work of civil society and journalists and to advocate for democratic processes and institutions in Bangladesh, as we do in countries around the world.

VOA: Opposition political parties in Bangladesh and sections of civil society have criticized the U.S. administration for being “soft” on the current government of Bangladesh regarding the January 7 election issues, which include human rights violations. How would you respond to this criticism?

Lu: The United States staunchly supports free and fair elections and is firmly committed to promoting respect for human rights. Throughout the election cycle, we regularly engaged with the government, opposition, civil society and other stakeholders to urge them to work together to create conditions for free and fair elections. We were outspoken in our condemnation of the violence that marred the election cycle and we have urged the government of Bangladesh to credibly investigate incidents of violence and hold perpetrators accountable. We will continue to engage on these issues.

VOA: In your recent visit, you did not meet with the representatives from the opposition parties who boycotted the election, although you met with members of the civil society. Why did you decide not to meet with the opposition members?

Lu: It is true that last year ahead of the elections I had the opportunity to meet with a roundtable of leaders from several political parties. It’s not a pre-election period, so I didn’t meet with political parties during this visit.

I was fortunate to meet with a diverse group of Bangladeshis while in Dhaka, from civil society representatives to government officials, to the Bangladesh National Women’s Cricket Team, who taught me a thing or two about bowling and batting.

VOA: You highlighted your government’s plan to work together with Bangladesh to fight corruption and ensure financial good governance. Is the recent sanction against the former Bangladesh army chief General Aziz a part of that fight against corruption? Are you satisfied with the Bangladesh government’s willingness to cooperate to mitigate these issues?

Lu: When I was ambassador to Albania and the Kyrgyz Republic, we sanctioned corrupt officials. This was not popular with the governments at the time, but now those sanctioned former corrupt officials are all in jail. Societies around the world are eager to see justice for corruption.

We are committed to working with Bangladesh to fight corruption, and on May 20, we announced the public designation of former General Aziz Ahmed under Section 7031(c), due to his involvement in significant corruption. We welcome statements by government ministers that this corruption allegation will be fully investigated.

VOA: You have offered Bangladesh authorities free real-time use of satellite data to monitor the impact of climate change. How has Bangladesh responded to this? Which areas, in your opinion, should be prioritized in the cooperation between the two countries regarding climate change?

Lu: I felt firsthand the impact of climate change during my visit to Dhaka in May as I sweltered alongside Bangladeshis in the extreme heat. We are committed to partnering with Bangladesh to address the climate crisis. We’re focused on building clean energy capacity, reducing greenhouse gas emissions in sectors like agriculture and power, and conserving ecosystems to maintain biodiversity and reduce vulnerability to climate change. Our discussions with Bangladeshi officials were extremely positive.

VOA: In what ways can Bangladesh play an important role in the U.S. government’s Indo-Pacific policy? What are the priority areas where you seek Bangladesh government’s cooperation?

Lu: The United States and Bangladesh share a vision of an Indo-Pacific region that is free and open, connected, prosperous, secure and resilient. With a dynamic and fast-growing economy, Bangladesh is positioned to act as a bridge for commerce and an anchor for prosperity in the region. We’re focused on working with our Bangladeshi partners to boost inclusive economic growth in the region, as well as increasing security cooperation, addressing the climate crisis, and promoting democracy and human rights. Coordination on these and other issues benefits the people of both of our countries.

Georgia’s NGOs refuse to comply with ‘Russian’ foreign agent law

Opponents of the so-called “foreign agent” law that came into effect in Georgia this month say they will not comply with the law’s requirements. The opponents say the measure – which requires organizations that get 20% or more of their funding from abroad to register as foreign agents – reflects similar laws in Russia and is aimed at silencing critics ahead of elections later this year. As Henry Ridgwell reports from Tbilisi, organizations that refuse to comply could face heavy financial penalties.

Google AI Gemini parrots China’s propaganda

Washington — VOA’s Mandarin Service recently took Google’s artificial intelligence assistant Gemini for a test drive by asking it dozens of questions in Mandarin, but when it was asked about topics including China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang or street protests against the country’s controversial COVID policies, the chatbot went silent.

Gemini’s responses to questions about problems in the United States and Taiwan, on the other hand, parroted Beijing’s official positions.

Gemini, Google’s large-language model launched late last year, is blocked in China. The California-based tech firm had quit the Chinese market in 2010 in a dispute over censorship demands.

Congressional lawmakers and experts tell VOA that they are concerned about Gemini’s pro-Beijing responses and are urging Google and other Western companies to be more transparent about their AI training data.

Parroting Chinese propaganda

When asked to describe China’s top leader Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, Gemini gave answers that were indistinguishable from Beijing’s official propaganda.

Gemini called Xi “an excellent leader” who “will lead the Chinese people continuously toward the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

Gemini said that the Chinese Communist Party “represents the fundamental interest of the Chinese people,” a claim the CCP itself maintains.

On Taiwan, Gemini also mirrored Beijing’s talking points, saying the United States has recognized China’s claim to sovereignty over the self-governed island democracy.

The U.S. only acknowledges Beijing’s position but does not recognize it.

Silent on sensitive topics

During VOA’s testing, Gemini had no problem criticizing the United States. But when similar questions were asked about China, Gemini refused to answer.

When asked about human rights concerns in the U.S., Gemini listed a plethora of issues, including gun violence, government surveillance, police brutality and socioeconomic inequalities. Gemini cited a report released by the Chinese government.

But when asked to explain the criticisms of Beijing’s Xinjiang policies, Gemini said it did not understand the question.

According to estimates from rights groups, more than 1 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang have been placed in internment camps as part of campaign by Beijing to counter terrorism and extremism. Beijing calls the facilities where Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities are being held vocational training centers.

When asked if COVID lockdowns in the U.S. had led to public protests, Gemini gave an affirmative response as well as two examples. But when asked if similar demonstrations took place in China, Gemini said it could not help with the question.

China’s strict COVID controls on movement inside the country and Beijing’s internet censorship of its criticisms sparked nationwide street protests in late 2022. News about the protests was heavily censored inside China.

Expert: training data likely the problem

Google touts Gemini as its “most capable” AI model. It supports over 40 languages and can “seamlessly understand” different types of information, including text, code, audio, image and video. Google says Gemini will be incorporated into the company’s other services such as search engine, advertisement and browser.

Albert Zhang, a cyber security analyst at Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told VOA that the root cause of Gemini making pro-Beijing responses could result from the data that is used to train the AI assistant.

In an emailed response to VOA, Zhang said it is likely that the data used to train Gemini “contained mostly Chinese text created by the Chinese government’s propaganda system.”

He said that according to a paper published by Google in 2022, some of Gemini’s data likely came from Chinese social media, public forums and web documents.

“These are all sources the Chinese government has flooded with its preferred narratives and we may be seeing the impact of this on large language models,” he said.

By contrast, when Gemini was asked in English the same questions about China, its responses were much more neutral, and it did not refuse to answer any of the questions.

Yaqiu Wang, research director for China at Freedom House, a Washington-based advocacy organization, told VOA that the case with Gemini is “a reminder that generative AI tools influenced by state-controlled information sources could serve as force multipliers for censorship.”

In a statement to VOA, a Google spokesperson said that Gemini was “designed to offer neutral responses that don’t favor any political ideology, viewpoint, or candidate. This is something that we’re constantly working on improving.”

When asked about the Chinese language data Google uses to train Gemini, the company declined to comment.

US lawmakers concerned

Lawmakers from both parties in Congress have expressed concerns over VOA’s findings on Gemini.

Mark Warner, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told VOA that he is worried about Beijing potentially utilizing AI for disinformation, “whether that’s by poisoning training data used by Western firms, coercing major technology companies, or utilizing AI systems in service of covert influence campaigns.”

Marco Rubio, vice chairman of the committee, warned that “AI tools that uncritically repeat Beijing’s talking points are doing the bidding of the Chinese Communist Party and threatens the tremendous opportunity that AI offers.”

Congressman Michael McCaul, who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, is worried about the national security and foreign policy implications of the “blatant falsehoods” in Gemini’s answers.

“U.S. companies should not censor content according to CCP propaganda guidelines,” he told VOA in a statement.

Raja Krishnamoorthi, ranking member on the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, urges Google and other Western tech companies to improve AI training.

“You should try to screen out or filter out subjects or answers or data that has somehow been manipulated by the CCP,” he told VOA. “And you have to also make sure that you test these models thoroughly before you publish them.”

VOA reached out to China’s embassy in Washington for comment but did not receive a response as of publication.

Google’s China problems

In February, a user posted on social media platform X that Gemini refused to generate an image of a Tiananmen Square protester from 1989.

In 2022, a Washington think tank study shows that Google and YouTube put Chinese state media content about Xinjiang and COVID origins in prominent positions in search results.

According to media reports in 2018, Google was developing a search engine specifically tailored for the Chinese market that would conform to Beijing’s censorship demands.

That project was canceled a year later.

Yihua Lee contributed to this report.

Turkey courts China, stoking Uyghur dissident fears

Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan’s visit to China marks the latest effort by Ankara to establish itself at the center of a strategic trade route between Europe and China. But analysts say Beijing’s suspicions over Ankara’s support of Chinese Uyghur dissidents remain an obstacle. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul.

Russian forces arrive in Cuba for joint maneuvers

A flotilla of Russian warships has arrived in Cuban waters to carry out joint maneuvers with Cuban armed forces, a visit that Moscow and Havana assure does not represent a threat to the region. Western governments are watching closely. Jonathan Spier narrates this report by Ricardo Marquina.

US says it will front $50 billion for Ukraine using Russian frozen assets

BORGO EGNAZIA, ITALY — The United States said Thursday it and other G7 members will provide Kyiv with a loan of up to $50 billion that will be paid back to Western allies using interest income from Russian assets frozen in Western financial institutions.

The announcement came as U.S. President Joe Biden meets with leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy democracies Thursday at the luxury resort of Borgo Egnazia in Puglia, Italy, on the first day of their summit.

Biden has been pushing G7 leaders to agree to his plan for Western allies to provide funds up front to Ukraine and to be paid back using interest income from the $280 billion in immobilized Russian assets.

The frozen funds are expected to generate an interest income of $3 billion a year or more. The $50 billion loan will be paid back with the interest income for 10 years or more or until Russia pays reparation.

The European Union in May had agreed on a less aggressive plan, which would provide Ukraine with the interest income as it is generated annually.

Other G7 countries are expected to declare how much they’re willing to provide to Ukraine. However, a senior administration official told reporters Thursday that the U.S. is willing to front the full $50 billion. The U.S. will not be the only lender but part of a “lending syndicate” with other G7 members. The money can be made available “this calendar year” depending on how quickly Ukraine will be able to absorb it.

“USAID has loan authority already established from Congress,” the official told VOA during the briefing for reporters. “There’s not a set schedule that is required or a capped amount, but we have decided that we can provide up to $50 billion.”

Under EU rules, the sanctions regime that freezes the funds must be unanimously renewed every six months by the bloc’s 27 member states. The official said that Germany, France, Italy, the European Commission and the president of the European Council have “committed” to keep the loan immobilized and will seek approval from the full membership of the EU.

However, other requirements need to be worked out, including adoption by the EU as well as contracts between lenders, Ukraine and any intermediaries, the official said.

In April, Biden signed legislation to seize the roughly $5 billion in Russian assets that had been frozen in U.S. financial institutions. The bulk of the frozen money, $190 billion, is in Belgium, and much of the rest is in France and Germany.

Much is still unknown about the plan. However, the U.S. goal is to have a leaders’ declaration at the end of the summit that lays out a “framework that is not generic, that is quite specific in terms of what it would entail,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told VOA Wednesday. Core operational details still need to be worked out, he said.

Attending the summit for the second consecutive year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is advocating for the deal to pass. He and Biden are scheduled to sign a separate bilateral security agreement outlining U.S. support for Ukraine and speak in a joint press conference Thursday evening.

US reporter Evan Gershkovich, jailed in Russia on espionage charges, to stand trial, officials say

Moscow — American reporter Evan Gershkovich, jailed in Russia on espionage charges, will stand trial in the city of Yekaterinburg, Russian authorities said Thursday.

Russia’s Prosecutor General’s office said an indictment of Gershkovich has been finalized and his case was filed to the Sverdlovsky Regional Court in the city in the Ural Mountains.

Gershkovich is accused of “gathering secret information” about a facility in the Sverdlovsk region that produced and repaired military equipment, the Prosecutor General’s office said in a statement, revealing for the first time the details of the accusations against the jailed reporter. Gershkovich has been charged with espionage.

The officials didn’t provide any evidence to back up the accusations.

Gershkovich was detained while on a reporting trip to Yekaterinburg in March 2023 and accused of spying for the U.S. The Federal Security Service, or FSB, alleged at the time he was acting on U.S. orders to collect state secrets but also provided no evidence. Washington designated him as wrongfully detained.

He was the first U.S. journalist taken into custody on espionage charges since Nicholas Daniloff in 1986 at the height of the Cold War. Gershkovich’s arrest shocked foreign journalists in Russia, even though the country had enacted increasingly repressive laws on freedom of speech after sending troops into Ukraine.

Biden, G7 leaders focus on Ukraine, Gaza, global infrastructure, Africa

BORGO EGNAZIA, ITALY — U.S. President Joe Biden is in Apuglia, Italy, meeting with leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy democracies Thursday, aiming to address global economic security amid wars in Europe and the Middle East and U.S. rivalry with China.

The G7 leaders arrived at the luxury resort of Borgo Egnazia, the summit venue, welcomed by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Meloni’s hard-right party took nearly 29% of the vote in last weekend’s European Parliament election, making her the only leader of a major Western European country to emerge from the ballots stronger.

Meanwhile Biden is dealing with a contentious reelection campaign against Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump, and a personal ordeal. On Tuesday, a day before departing for the summit, his son, Hunter, was found guilty on federal charges for possessing a gun while being addicted to drugs.

Still, Biden came to the summit hoping to convince the group to provide a $50 billion loan to Ukraine using interest from Russian frozen assets, and deal with Chinese overcapacity in strategic green technologies, including electric vehicles. 

The European Union signaled their support by announcing duties on Chinese EVs a day ahead of the summit, a move that echoed the Biden administration’s steep tariff hike on Chinese EVs and other key sectors in May.

Biden is also lending his support to key themes in Meloni’s presidency – investing in Africa, international development, and climate change. Those topics were covered in the opening session of the G7 on Thursday, followed by discussions on the Gaza and Ukraine wars. 

Gaza cease-fire

With cease-fire negotiations at a critical juncture, Biden could face tough questions from leaders on whether he is doing enough to pressure Israel to pause its military campaign, reduce civilian casualties and provide more aid for Palestinians.

Leaders are “focused on one thing overall; getting a cease-fire in place and getting the hostages home as part of that,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told VOA as he spoke to reporters on board Air Force One en route to Italy. Biden has “their full backing,” Sullivan added.

Leaders will also discuss increasing tension along the Israeli border with Lebanon, Sullivan told reporters Thursday morning. 

“They’ll compare notes on the continuing threat posed by Iran both with respect to its support for proxy forces and with respect to the Iranian nuclear program,” he added.

While the group has thrown its weight behind the cease-fire, G7 members are split on other Gaza-related issues, including the International Criminal Court’s decision last month to seek arrest warrants for the leaders of Hamas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The United States denounced the court’s decision, and Britain called it “unhelpful.” France said it supports the court’s “fight against impunity,” while Berlin said it would arrest Netanyahu on German soil should a warrant is released.

Sullivan dismissed a United Nations inquiry result released Wednesday that alleges both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes and grave violations of international law.

“We’ve made our position clear,” he told VOA, referring to a review published in April by the State Department concluding that Israel’s campaign did not violate international humanitarian law.

Russian assets

Biden is pushing G7 leaders to provide Kyiv with a loan of up to $50 billion that will be paid back to Western allies using interest income from the $280 billion Russian assets frozen in Western financial institutions, estimated at $3 billion a year, for 10 years or more.

The goal is a leaders declaration at the end of the summit, a “framework that is not generic, that is quite specific in terms of what it would entail,” Sullivan told VOA Wednesday. Core operational details would still need to be worked out, he added. 

In April, Biden signed legislation to seize the roughly $5 billion in Russian assets that had been immobilized in U.S. financial institutions. The bulk of the money, though, $190 billion, is in Belgium, and much of the rest is in France and Germany.

“There’s a tension here between a Biden administration ambition on an issue in which they do not have the final say, hitting against very staunch European fiscal conservatism and simply the mechanics of, how do you get something done in Europe in the week of European [parliamentary] elections,” Kristine Berzina, managing director of Geostrategy North at the German Marshall Fund think tank, told VOA.

Attending the summit for the second consecutive year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is advocating for the deal to pass. He and Biden will sign a separate bilateral security agreement outlining U.S. support for Ukraine and speak in a joint press conference Thursday evening.

From Italy, Zelenskyy heads to Switzerland for a Ukraine peace conference over the weekend.

Africa, climate change and development

Meloni, a far-right politician who once called for a naval blockade to prevent African migrants from crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, now wants to achieve the goal by bolstering international investments to the continent.

Most of the nearly 261,000 migrants who crossed the Mediterranean Sea from northern Africa in 2023 entered Europe through Italy, according to the United Nations.

She has aligned her G7 presidency with this agenda, and the group is set to release a statement on providing debt relief for low- and middle-income countries, dealing with irregular migration and calling for more investments in Africa.

The G7 statement will reflect the Nairobi/Washington vision that Biden signed with Kenyan President William Ruto, Sullivan said.

Meloni invited several African leaders as observers to the G7 meeting, including Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, Tunisia’s Kais Saied, Kenyan President William Ruto and Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, the president of Mauritania. The invitation follows the first Italy-Africa summit in Rome in January, where Meloni launched her investment initiative called the Mattei Plan for Africa.

The Mattei Plan has been integrated into the G7’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, which aims to mobilize $600 billion private infrastructure funding by 2027 as an alternative to Chin’s Belt and Road initiative.

On climate change, the G7 has an uphill climb. None of the group’s members are on track to meet their existing emission reduction targets for 2030 to align with the Paris Agreement goal, according to data compiled by Climate Analytics.

Hong Kong cancels passports of six self-exiled democracy activists

London, Washington — Hong Kong authorities have canceled the passports of six pro-democracy activists living in self-exile in Britain.

A statement issued Wednesday identified Nathan Law, Finn Lau, Christopher Mung, Simon Cheng, Johnny Fok and Tony Choi as “lawless wanted criminals hiding in the United Kingdom.”

The statement said the six “continue to blatantly engage in activities that endanger national security,” including making remarks that slander Hong Kong.

During a press conference, Hong Kong Secretary for Security Chris Tang announced the designation of six individuals as “specified absconders” under the “Safeguarding National Security Ordinance” commonly known as Article 23.   

Tang expressed concerns about British entities attempting to influence Hong Kong’s governance and security cases, citing the listed individuals’ activities as threats to national security.

Tang mentioned that individuals wishing to return to Hong Kong and surrender could seek assistance from its immigration department.

Simon Cheng, co-founder of the Hongkongers in Britain group, said the revocation of the passports can be seen as an act of retaliation specifically directed at Hong Kong exiles currently living in the U.K.  

Last month, London’s Metropolitan Police charged three individuals, including an official from the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, for helping the Hong Kong intelligence service to monitor overseas dissidents.

“I believe this is a form of revenge for the ‘Hong Kong espionage case’ incident, and it also clearly indicates that we, as democratic activists, have become political and diplomatic hostages,” Cheng told VOA.

The government has warned that anyone who provides money, leases property or co-owns a business with any of the six activists could face up to seven years in jail.

Being on Hong Kong’s wanted list has had minimal impact on the daily lives of the U.K.-based exiles, said Cheng.  Since being on the list, he said, the dissidents no longer rely on Hong Kong SAR passports but use alternate forms of documents when needed.

But, Cheng said, people and financial institutions may now have second thoughts when interacting with the six people described as “wanted criminals” who no longer have valid passports. 

Nathan Law wrote on his Facebook page that the government’s move was unnecessary since he was granted asylum in Britain in 2021. 

Law stated that in 2020, when he sought asylum in the U.K., he surrendered his SAR passport to the U.K.’s Home Office. After his asylum application was granted, Law did not take his passport back. 

The cancelation of the passports was based on the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance passed in March by the city’s legislature under Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the mini constitution that took effect when Britain handed the city back to China in 1997.   

The law covers treason, insurrection, espionage, theft of state secrets, foreign influence and interference and sabotage, including the use of computers and electronic systems to conduct acts that endanger national security.  

“You can cancel my passport, but you can never cancel my identity as a Hong Kong citizen,” said Christopher Mung, one of the six. “One day, we will reclaim what we rightfully deserve in a dignified manner.”

The Article 23 legislation expanded on a similar national security law imposed on the port city by China four years ago in response to massive pro-democracy demonstrations a year earlier. The national security law punished anyone in Hong Kong believed to be carrying out terrorism, separatism, subversion of state power or collusion with foreign forces.

Since the law took effect, hundreds of democracy advocates have been arrested, tried and jailed, and the city’s once-vibrant civil society has been stifled.  

VOA’s Cantonese service contributed to this report.

India beats US at cricket’s Twenty20 World Cup

WESTBURY, New York — There was no upset this time for the United States as the home team was easily beaten by cricket heavyweight India at the Twenty20 World Cup on Wednesday.

Suryakumar Yadav’s half-century powered India to a seven-wicket win over the U.S., which had shocked Pakistan last week.

With the win, India reached the Super 8 round. The U.S. can advance by beating Ireland on Friday.

In a later match at Brian Lara Stadium in Trinidad, Sherfane Rutherford scored an unbeaten 68 from 39 deliveries to help the West Indies in their great escape — the co-hosts beat New Zealand by 13 runs.

The Caribbean lineup, 149-9 in its 20 overs, was 76-7 before its Rutherford-led recovery. Alzarri Joseph snared four New Zealand wickets and Gudakesh Motie took three — including New Zealand captain Kane Williamson for 1 — to restrict the Black Caps to 136-9 in reply.

On Long Island, Yadvav’s 50 runs came off 49 balls and included two boundaries and two sixes. He put on 72 runs off 65 balls in an unbeaten fourth-wicket stand with Shivam Dube, who scored 31 not out as India finished with 111-3 in 18.2 overs in reply to 110-8 by the United States.

Left-arm pacer Arshdeep Singh returned figures of 4-9 — including two wickets in the first over — to restrict the co-hosts after India had won the toss and opted to field at the Nassau County International Stadium.

India was in early trouble in its chase as Indian-born medium pacer Saurabh Netravalkar continued his golden run for the Americans.

After bowling the co-hosts to the upset over Pakistan, he celebrated the wickets of Indian superstars Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli.

Kohli was caught behind for a golden duck — dismissed off the first delivery he faced — in what surely will become a career highlight for Netravalkar. Sharma (3) fell to a slower delivery as Netravalkar finished with 2-18 in four overs.

Rishabh Pant scored 18 off 20 balls batting at No. 3 before he was bowled by Ali Khan delivery. With India struggling at 39-3 in 7.3 overs, the U.S. team momentarily raised visions of an even bigger shock.

West Indies advanceLeft-hander Rutherford turned the home team’s fortunes around, going to the crease with the West Indies reeling at 22-4 after 5.4 overs. Rutherford scored 18 off the last over that culminated with a six and a boundary.

The loss left New Zealand with a strong possibility it will not make the second round. If Afghanistan beats Papua New Guinea on Thursday, three-time runner-up New Zealand will be out of contention.

For most of the first half of the game, the Black Caps were on top.

But Rutherford went on the attack as the West Indies added 58-2 in the last five overs of their innings.

He was 15 off 14 deliveries when star allrounder Andre Russell was out for 14 in the 13th over, and he accelerated with the lower-order in a counter-attacking, 72-minute innings containing six sixes and two boundaries.

“It’s a good feeling, to help my team. That is what we live for and work hard for,” man-of-the-match Rutherford said during the innings break. “It was a very tough surface to start on. I think 149 is a brilliant score on this wicket.”

After the match, Rutherford had a more optimistic tone: “It is only the start of something big to come and hopefully we can keep winning and momentum going.”

New Zealand started well after winning the toss and fielding, with Trent Boult (3-16) bowling opener Johnson Charles to end the first over.

Tim Southee (2-21), recalled after missing New Zealand’s opening loss to Afghanistan, dismissed dangerman Nicholas Pooran for 12 in the fourth over, trigging a run of three wickets for three runs.

Lockie Ferguson deceived Roston Chase with a slower ball to make it 21-3 and skipper Rovman Powell (1) was caught behind off Southee five balls later.

Russell went on the attack but his dismissal — caught in the deep of Boult’s bowling — appeared to be an insurmountable setback until Rutherford took up the challenge.

“The quality of Sherfane’s innings was high,” New Zealand skipper Williamson said. “The batting depth in their side was beneficial for sure. We cannot make excuses and have to find ways.”

Anti-Muslim hate groups in US surge back into spotlight

Washington — Once seemingly fading into obscurity, anti-Muslim hate groups in the United States have surged back into the spotlight in recent months, reinvigorated by the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

Many of these groups, such as Jihad Watch and ACT for America, emerged in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. and thrived on public fears of terrorism. But as those fears waned in recent years, so did the groups’ sway. Some disbanded, while others gravitated to other hot-button issues.

From a peak of 114 in 2017, their number dropped to a mere 34 last year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that tracks hate groups.

In early 2023, “Islamophobia was down to a slow trickle,” SPLC senior research analyst Caleb Kieffer said.

Then came the October 7 Hamas assault on Israel, which claimed about 1,200 lives and triggered a massive Israeli military response in Gaza.

Anti-Muslim groups that had “opportunistically” seized on divisive issues, such as critical race theory and LGBTQ-inclusive policies, swung back into action.

“These anti-Muslim groups went right back to their core messaging,” Kieffer said in an interview with VOA. “They’ve been going hard on the rhetoric since October last year.”

Take ACT for America. Founded in 2007 by Brigitte Gabriel, a Lebanese American political activist and self-described “survivor of terrorism,” it grew into one of the country’s leading anti-Muslim organizations.

At its peak, the group had more than 50 active chapters, each counted as a separate hate group by the SPLC. But in recent years, most of those chapters either shut down or shifted into other areas, leaving ACT for America with just eight on SPLC’s most recent list.

According to the SPLC, ACT for America embraced a “nativist tone” before October 7, circulating, among other things, a petition calling to “Stop the Taxpayer Funded Border Invasion.”

After October 7, the group launched another petition more in line with its agenda and with a call by former U.S. President Donald Trump to stop admitting Palestinian refugees from Gaza.

Warning her followers about homegrown jihadi terror, Gabriel, a staunch Trump supporter, began peddling her bestselling anti-Muslim book, Because They Hate: A Survivor of Islamic Terror Warns America, in exchange for a $25 donation.

In a video titled “Wake Up America” in October, she claimed, “Hamas has a large network of cells spreading all across America,” from Laurel, Maryland, to Tucson, Arizona.

Other groups that had also latched onto contentious issues similarly pivoted back to their core agenda.

Jihad Watch, a website run by prominent anti-Muslim figure Robert Spencer, published an article last October claiming, “We’re in a war between savages and civilization. Everything else is a detail.”

Eight days later, an affiliated political website called FrontPage Magazine ran a piece titled “It’s Islam, Stupid,” arguing that everything Hamas did “has been done by Muslims throughout history and is still being practiced today.”

FrontPage Magazine is published by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, another leading anti-Muslim group. Jihad Watch is a project of the center.

ACT for America, Jihad Watch and the David Horowitz Freedom Center are part of what experts describe as a well-funded, close-knit anti-Muslim industry, with each group playing a distinct role in the ecosystem.

With chapters across the country, Washington-based ACT for America provides the “grassroots muscle” to the movement, Kieffer said. The Center for Security Policy serves as its think tank, he said.

The SPLC-designated groups appear on other hate lists. Several SPLC-branded groups contacted by VOA condemned their designation.

In a statement to VOA, a spokesperson for ACT for America rejected the “anti-Muslim” label, saying the organization has “always welcomed and included members of all faiths,” including Muslims, and hosted Muslim keynote speakers at its conferences.

ACT for America works “on a broad range of issues, none of which are anti-Muslim,” the spokesperson said.  “As a matter of fact, since the defeat of ISIS and al-Qaida between 2018 and 2024, you didn’t hear a blurb from ACT for America about radical Islam.”

In response to a VOA query, Jihad Watch’s Spencer accused the SPLC of smearing and defaming “organizations that oppose its far-left political agenda by lumping them in with the likes of the KKK and neo-Nazis.”

In a brief interview with VOA, J. Michael Waller, a senior analyst for strategy at the Center for Security Policy, called the designation “slander,” saying it was tied to his group’s criticism of the Iranian government and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Kieffer defended the SPLC’s methodology, saying it only designates groups that “vilify” and “demonize” people because of their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity.

The SPLC defines anti-Muslim hate groups as organizations that “broadly defame Islam and traffic in conspiracy theories of Muslims being a subversive threat to the nation.”

Not every anti-Muslim hate group has stood the test of time. In recent years, dozens of ACT for America chapters have closed.

The ACT for America spokesperson said most of its member groups have “turned into digital chapters meeting via zoom or other technology platforms.”

Last year, an anti-refugee and anti-Muslim blog called Refugee Resettlement Watch became inactive and was dropped from SPLC’s list of hate groups.

Another well-known anti-Muslim group called Understanding the Threat announced last year it was shutting down. The group was operated by a former FBI agent known for spreading anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.

Other groups have rebranded. One former ACT for America chapter now operates as AlertAmerica.News, according to SPLC. Its focus ranges from “strengthening national security” to “fighting communism and American Marxism.”

Kieffer said while the group’s central focus may have shifted away from Islamophobia, it continues to invite well-known, anti-Muslim speakers to its events.

With the war in Gaza still raging, the resurgence in Islamophobia remains unabated, Kieffer said. But that’s likely to change in the run-up to the presidential election in November.

“I imagine that we’re going to slowly see a decline again as these groups start to push other issues,” he said.

Brian Levin, a criminologist and hate crime researcher, noted that anti-Muslim hate crimes have surged in recent years, even as the number of hate groups has dwindled.

That’s because hatred has found a new home in the mainstream, rendering niche groups such as Islamophobic outfits increasingly obsolete, he said.

“The bottom line is, the way we associate to express and amplify hatred has changed,” Levin said in an interview with VOA. “Up-and-coming bigots of all sorts will find an array of xenophobic bigotry and conspiracism within general mainstream platforms.” 

Biden arrives at G7 in Italy with sanctions for Russia, support for Ukraine, but no deal on Gaza

Brindisi, Italy — U.S. President Joe Biden arrived in Brindisi, Italy, late Wednesday ahead of his meeting with leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized democracies.

He came armed with fresh sanctions for Russia, a new bilateral security agreement for Ukraine, but no breakthrough on Gaza cease-fire negotiations that now sit at a critical juncture.

The United States is working with mediators Egypt and Qatar after reviewing Hamas’ response to the proposal, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Italy early Wednesday.

“Many of the proposed changes are minor and not unanticipated,” he said. “Others differ quite substantively from what was outlined in the U.N. Security Council resolution.”

As Biden was in flight to Italy, the U.S. Treasury Department announced fresh sanctions that target individuals and companies, including those based in China, that are selling semiconductors to Russia.

It includes an expansion of secondary sanctions that allow the United States to blacklist any bank around the world that does business with Russian financial institutions already facing sanctions. The goal is to prevent smaller banks in China and other countries from funding the Russian war effort.

The sanctions also target networks Russia uses to obtain critical materials for building aerial drones, anti-drone equipment, industrial machinery and for the country’s chemical and biological weapons program, the Treasury Department said.

“We are increasing the risk for financial institutions dealing with Russia’s war economy and eliminating paths for evasion, and diminishing Russia’s ability to benefit from access to foreign technology, equipment, software, and IT services,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement.

The Moscow Exchange, Russia’s top financial marketplace, announced it was halting trading of dollars and euros after being listed in the new sanctions.

Biden is also set to sign on Thursday a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine during his meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The agreement is intended to show U.S. resolve to strengthen Ukraine’s defense and deterrence capabilities without committing American troops on the Ukrainian battlefield. The agreement would include Ukrainian commitment to reform and on end-use monitoring of U.S.-provided weapons.

It will be Biden’s second meeting with Zelenskyy in the span of days; the two met in Paris on the sidelines of the 80-year commemoration of D-Day last week.

Russian frozen assets

Zelenskyy will be urging G7 leaders to get behind Biden’s plan to provide Kyiv with a loan of up to $50 billion for Ukraine’s war efforts against Russia, amid Moscow’s strategic advances in the battlefield. The U.S. proposal would pay back Western allies using interest income from the $280 billion in Russian assets frozen in Western financial institutions, estimated at $3 billion a year, for 10 years or more.

The goal is a Leaders’ Declaration at the end of the summit, a “framework that is not generic, that is quite specific in terms of what it would entail,” Sullivan told VOA as he spoke to reporters in flight. However, “core operational details” would still need to be worked out. It’s unclear whether the loan will be provided by the G7 or only some of its members.

In April, Biden signed legislation to seize the roughly $5 billion in Russian assets that had been immobilized in U.S. financial institutions. But the bulk of the money, $190 billion, is in Belgium and much of the rest, is in France and Germany.

A big source of concern for Europeans is who will be responsible to cover losses should interest rates fall below expectations or if the sanctions that immobilize the funds are not renewed. Russia considers the immobilizing of its assets following its invasion on Ukraine as theft and has threatened retaliation.

Although Ukraine is not a G7 member, this is the second consecutive year Zelenskyy is attending the summit. From Italy, he heads to Switzerland for a Ukraine peace conference over the weekend.

EU puts tariffs on Chinese EVs

Biden imposed a drastic tariff hike in May to confront what he calls Chinese overcapacity in strategic green technologies and has been urging the G7 to do the same.

On Wednesday, the European Union responded to the call by announcing it would slap Chinese electric vehicles (EVs) with higher tariffs, up to 38.1%, saying the imports benefit “heavily from unfair subsidies” and pose a “threat of economic injury” to producers in Europe.

U.S. tariffs on Chinese EVs were quadrupled to a 100% rate, while solar cell and semiconductor import tariffs were doubled to 50%. The rates on certain steel and aluminum imports were tripled to 25%. The additional duties covered $18 billion in Chinese products.

Europe is taking action to address Chinese overcapacity just as the United States has done, Sullivan said. A “common framework” on how to deal with various economic security issues posed by China will likely be included in the G7 final communique, he added.

The punitive moves could prompt retaliation from Beijing, which accuses the West of hyping overcapacity claims to blunt China’s competitive edge.

Biden arrived on the global forum after a family drama. On Tuesday, a day before departing for the summit, his son Hunter Biden was found guilty on federal charges of possessing of a gun while being addicted to drugs.

Biden has said he would not use presidential powers to pardon his son. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to respond to further questions, including the possibility of commuting Hunter Biden’s sentence when it is given by the judge. 

US voices support for South Korean ‘balloon war’ efforts

Washington — The U.S. expressed its support for providing outside information to the people of North Korea even as attempts are made in South Korea to block leaflet campaigns aimed at sending information to the North.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been rising in recent weeks due to tit-for-tat exchanges between Pyongyang and Seoul over balloons they both have been sending across the inter-Korean border.

Responding to an inquiry by VOA’s Korean Service, a State Department spokesperson said on Monday that “it is critical for the people of North Korea to have access to independent information not controlled by the DPRK regime.”

“We continue to promote the free flow of information into, out of, and within the DPRK,” continued the spokesperson, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“We continue to urge North Korea to reduce tensions and cease any actions that could increase the risk of conflict,” the spokesperson added.

North Korea, listed by Human Rights Watch among “the most repressive countries in the world,” considers outside information a threat to the ruling regime’s survival and denies its people access to information.

The government heavily controls all forms of media and cracks down on people distributing, watching or listening to any South Korean cultural content.

In what it said was a response to South Korean activists sending balloons carrying leaflets into the North, Pyongyang has floated more than 1,600 balloons filled with trash and waste into South Korea since May 28.

In response, Seoul on June 4 fully suspended an inter-Korean military deal made in 2018 and resumed loudspeaker broadcasts at the border Sunday before halting them the following day.

The South Korean balloons, sent aloft by human rights activists, have carried leaflets conveying information about the outside world and the North Korean regime. They also carried thumb drives containing K-pop songs and dramas.

But the effort has caused controversy in South Korea, where attempts are being made to halt the campaign.

In September 2023, the South Korean constitutional court struck down a law banning the sending of leaflets to North Korea, saying it violated the constitutional right to freedom of expression.

Nevertheless, the opposition Democratic Party of Korea is attempting to apply other existing laws to block the campaign.

The opposition party, preferring engagement with North Korea, has been opposed to sending leaflets to North Korea. The anti-leaflet law was passed in December 2020 by the liberal party of former President Moon Jae-in six months after North Korea, expressing discontentment over leaflet activities, blew up an inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, a town in North Korea near the border.

On Tuesday, Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the party, called leaflet activities “illegal under the current law.”

In June 2020, Lee, the then-governor of Gyeonggi Province, declared five cities in the province as “danger zones” under the Framework Act on the Management of Disasters and Safety. Gyeonggi Province borders North Korea.

Lee then issued an administrative order banning people from entering the areas to launch balloons.

Kim Dong-yeon, from the opposition party and the current governor of Gyeonggi Province, said on Wednesday a consideration is being made to declare some areas in the province “danger zones” to “prevent the launch of propaganda leaflets in accordance with related laws.”

He said he will “immediately dispatch provincial police to potential leaflet sites to bolster patrols and surveillance,” according to South Korea’s liberal daily Hankyore.

Questions have been raised in South Korea whether the police can stop leaflet-sending activities based on the Act on the Performance of Duties by Police Officers, according to Seoul-based news agency Yonhap. The act allows police to restrain people from causing damage to property or harm other people.

Yoon Hee-keun, National Police Agency commissioner, told reporters Monday that the leaflet campaigns cannot be blocked on the basis of that law.

He said this is because it is “unclear whether the trash-carrying balloons” sent by North Korea “would constitute an urgent and grave threat to the lives and bodies of the public, which is prerequisite for restricting them under the law.”

David Maxwell, vice president of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy, told VOA on Tuesday via email that Seoul is “complying with the 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry that calls on people around the world to call out North Korea for its human rights abuses, one of which is the isolation of the people and the denial of all information going into the North.”

Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said, “The North Korean balloons are government actions and thus a violation of the armistice,” whereas balloons from the South are sent by non-government organizations.

Robert Rapson, who served as charge d’affaires and deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul in 2018-21, said while Seoul’s “decision to pause loudspeaker broadcasts” is “a positive step toward de-escalation, it should go further by also pausing balloon launches from the South.” 

Iran releases French citizen, says France’s Macron

BARI, Italy — French President Emmanuel Macron announced on Wednesday the release of Louis Arnaud, a French citizen who had been held in Iran since 2022 and who had been sentenced to five years in prison in November.

“Louis Arnaud is free. He will be in France tomorrow after a long incarceration in Iran,” Macron said on X, thanking Oman in particular for its role in obtaining his release. 

The release is rare positive news about France and Iran. 

Bilateral relations have deteriorated in recent months, with Tehran holding four French citizens — including Arnaud — in what Paris has said are arbitrary arrests equivalent to state hostage taking. 

France is also increasingly concerned by Iran’s regional activities and the advance of its nuclear program. 

Arnaud, who had been held since September 2022 after traveling in the country, was sentenced to five years in prison in November on security charges. He was held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. 

“This evening, I also think of Cecile, Jacques and Olivier,” the remaining French citizens held in Iran,” said Macron. “I am calling on Iran to liberate them without delay.” 

In recent years, Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards have arrested dozens of dual nationals and foreigners, mostly on charges related to espionage and security. 

Rights groups have accused Iran of trying to extract concessions from other countries through such arrests. Iran, which does not recognize dual nationality, denies taking prisoners to gain diplomatic leverage. 

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