Russia Takes Center Stage in US Political Battle

The death of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny has put Russia in the center of American political discourse and has increased pressure on congressional Republicans to support Ukraine. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden and his main challenger, former President Donald Trump, take opposing views heading into the November U.S. election. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Washington.

Russia Takes Center Stage in US Political Battle

washington — Russia has taken center stage in American political discourse after the death of a prominent opposition figure there, putting congressional Republicans under increased pressure to support Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden has highlighted in his recent statements one of the differences between him and his challenger, former U.S. President Donald Trump.

At a recent rally, Trump said that if he were president and a NATO member fell short of its financial commitments to the security bloc, he would not protect that ally. “In fact, I would encourage them” — meaning Russia — “to do whatever the hell they want,” Trump said.

“Every president since Truman has been a rock-solid supporter of NATO, except for Donald Trump,” a stentorian male voice intones in an ad released this week by the Biden campaign. “Trump wants to walk away from NATO. He’s even given Putin and Russia the green light to attack America’s allies. … No president has ever said anything like it. It’s shameful. It’s weak. It’s dangerous. It’s un-American.”

The divide was further compounded by the death last week of opposition leader Alexey Navalny in a Russian prison.

Biden has been quick to lay blame and threaten stiff sanctions over the 47-year-old’s death in an Arctic penal colony, which Russian officials say was caused by “sudden death syndrome.”

“The fact of the matter is, Putin is responsible,” Biden said. “Whether he ordered it, he’s responsible for the circumstances they put that man in. And it’s a reflection of who he is. It just cannot be tolerated. I said there will be a price to pay.”

The Kremlin said Biden’s allegation is “unfounded” and “insolent,” but authorities have denied Navalny’s mother access to his body.

A different line

Trump and his Republican Party have taken a different line, with Trump saying he would not support NATO as strongly as Biden has. And, in a recent event with Fox News, he cast himself as a victim of political persecution, like Navalny.

“It’s a horrible thing, but it’s happening in our country, too,” Trump said Tuesday night. “We are turning into a communist country in many ways. And if you look at it, I’m the leading candidate. I get … I never heard of being indicted before. … I got indicted four times, I have eight or nine trials, all because of the fact that — and you know this — all because of the fact that I’m in politics.”

Trump was vague on how he’d end the war, instead saying that if he were president, Putin would never have invaded Ukraine.

Republicans have grown more vocal in questioning why they should fund the conflict. Russian forces recently captured a key Ukrainian city, Avdiivka, which the White House points to as proof that Ukrainian forces need urgent help.

In urging members of Congress to pass a $60 billion aid package for Ukraine, national security adviser Jake Sullivan argued it is “in our cold-blooded, national security interest to help Ukraine stand up to Putin’s vicious and brutal invasion.”

“We know from history that when dictators aren’t stopped, they keep going,” Sullivan told reporters this week in a briefing. “The cost for America rises, and the consequences get more and more severe for our NATO allies and elsewhere in the world.”

Some Republicans are confident that they will pass the stalled $95 billion aid package, most of which is for Ukraine.

“I think the slow response from Europe and the United States, of course, that hurts Ukraine,” Republican Representative Brian Fitzpatrick said on a recent visit to Ukraine. “And that’s why we can’t let this happen, why we’re going to get something done.”

War’s symbolism grows

Meanwhile, as Ukraine nears the second anniversary of the invasion and U.S. aid hangs in the balance, the war has taken on greater symbolic meaning.

“This has become about America,” journalist and author Peter Pomerantsev told VOA’s Russian Service via Skype. He is also a senior fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. “Will America continue to play the role of a power that keeps its promises, that respects its alliances and that is capable of projecting strength?

“Or is America over as a serious power? That’s the question now,” he said. “It’s no longer about Russia or Ukraine. Now all eyes of the world are on America, and the way America decides will have epic consequences.”

VOA’s Rafael R. Saakyan contributed to this report from Washington.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opposition leader’s family concerned

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

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

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

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

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

International organizations have recognized him as a prisoner of conscience.

International calls

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

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

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

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

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

This story originated in VOA’s Azerbaijani Service.

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

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

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

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VOA: What are [those] alternative means?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anna Chernikova contributed to this report.

Biden’s Team Challenges How President Is Portrayed in Press

NEW YORK — Occupants of the White House have grumbled over news coverage practically since the place was built. Now it’s U.S. President Joe Biden’s turn: With a reelection campaign underway, there are signs that those behind the president are starting to more aggressively and publicly challenge how he is portrayed. 

Within the past two weeks, an administration aide sent an unusual letter to the White House Correspondents’ Association complaining about coverage of a special counsel’s report on Biden’s handling of classified documents. In addition, the president’s campaign objected to its perception that negative stories about Biden’s age got more attention than remarks by Donald Trump about the NATO alliance. 

It’s not quite “enemy of the people” territory. But it is noticeable. 

“It is a strategy,” said Frank Sesno, a professor at George Washington University and former CNN Washington bureau chief. “It does several things at once. It makes the press a foil, which is a popular pattern for politicians of all stripes.” 

It can also distract voters from bad news. And while some newsrooms quickly dismiss the criticism, he says, others may pause and think twice about what they write. 

The letter from Ian Sams, spokesman for the White House counsel’s office, suggested that reporters improperly framed stories about the February 8 release of Special Counsel Robert Hur’s report. Sams pointed to stories by CBS News, The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press and others emphasizing that Hur had found evidence that Biden willfully retained and disclosed classified material. Sams wrote that much of that so-called evidence didn’t hold up and was negated by Hur’s decision not to press charges. 

He said it was critical to address it when “significant errors” like misstating the findings and conclusions of a federal investigation of a president occur. 

It was Sams’ second foray into press criticism in a few months; last fall, he urged journalists to give more scrutiny to House Republicans and the reasons behind their impeachment inquiry of Biden. 

“Everybody makes mistakes, and nobody’s perfect,” Sams told the AP. “But a healthy back and forth over what’s the full story helps make both the press and the government sharper in how the country and world get the news they need to hear.” 

Kelly O’Donnell, president of the correspondents’ association and an NBC News correspondent, suggested Sams’ concerns were misdirected and should be addressed to individual news organizations. 

“It is inappropriate for the White House to utilize internal pool distribution channels, primarily for logistics and the rapid sharing of need-to-know information, to disseminate generalized critiques of news coverage,” O’Donnell said. 

In a separate statement, Biden campaign spokesman T.J. Ducklo criticized media outlets for time spent discussing the 81-year-old president’s age and mental capacity, an issue that was raised anew when Biden addressed the Hur report with reporters. He suggested that was less newsworthy and important than Trump’s NATO comments. 

Americans deserve a press corps that covers Trump “with the seriousness and ferocity this moment requires,” said Ducklo, who resigned from the White House in 2021 for threatening a reporter. 

To be fair, deadline times likely affected the initial disparity in coverage that Ducklo pointed out. And Trump’s remarks have hardly been ignored by media outlets. 

The criticism comes amid the backdrop of unhappiness among some journalists about how much Biden is made available for questions — an issue that surfaced again when Biden turned down an opportunity to appear before tens of millions of Americans in an interview during the Super Bowl pregame show. 

The 33 news conferences Biden has given during the first three years of his presidency is lower than any other American president in that time span since Ronald Reagan, said Martha Kumar, a Towson University professor emeritus and expert on presidents and the press. Similarly, the 86 interviews Biden has given is lower than any president since she began studying records with Reagan. By comparison, Barack Obama gave 422 interviews during his first three years. 

Instead, Biden prefers more informal appearances where reporters ask a few questions, with comparatively little opportunity for follow-up, she said: The 535 such sessions that Biden conducted was second only to Trump’s 572. 

One example followed Biden’s remarks Friday after the death of Russian dissident Alexey Navalny. Another was Biden’s early evening availability following the release of Hur’s report, a chaotic scene where reporters tried to outshout one another. The president’s performance, and remarks about his forgetfulness that were made in Hur’s report, led to more questions about the impact of age on his ability. 

“It did not serve him well,” Kumar said. Some on Biden’s team, meanwhile, believe the president showed a combativeness in the face of criticism that Americans will appreciate. 

Medics Set Up Blood Transfusion Station Near Donbas Front Line

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

James Biden Tells Lawmakers Joe Biden Had No Involvement in Family’s Business Dealings

Washington — James Biden told congressional investigators that his brother, President Joe Biden, “never had any involvement” in the family’s business dealings as James Biden appeared for a private interview Wednesday on Capitol Hill as part of House Republicans’ impeachment inquiry.

“I have had a 50-year career in a variety of business ventures. Joe Biden has never had any involvement or any direct or indirect financial interest in those activities,” the younger Biden said in an opening statement obtained by The Associated Press. “None.”

The interview with James Biden is the latest in a series that Republican lawmakers have conducted recently as they seek to rebuild momentum for an impeachment process surrounding the Biden family’s overseas finances that has stalled in recent months.

Criticism over the lack of evidence directly related to the president has grown even among those in the Republican Party who have thrown cold water on allegations that Biden was directly involved in his family members’ supposed efforts to leverage the last name into corporate paydays domestically and abroad.

The Republican investigation was undercut again last week when an FBI informant who claimed there was a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme involving the president, his son Hunter, and a Ukrainian energy company was charged with fabricating the story.

The informant’s claims had been central to the Republican effort in Congress to investigate the president and his family. An attorney for Hunter Biden, who is expected to give a deposition next week, said the charges show the probe is “based on dishonest, uncredible allegations and witnesses.”

Both James and Hunter Biden were subpoenaed by the committee in November. Lawyers for James Biden have said that there was no justification for the subpoena because the committee had already reviewed private bank records and transactions between the two brothers. The committee found records of two loans that were made when Joe Biden was not in office or a candidate for president.

“With my appearance here today, the committees will have the information to conclude that the negative and destructive assumptions about me and my relationship with my brother Joe are wrong,” James Biden said in his. “There is no basis for this inquiry to continue.”

But Republicans have pushed back on the Biden family’s defense, saying the evidence they have gathered since early last year paints a troubling picture of “influence peddling” in the family’s business dealings, particularly with international clients.

US Ambassador Meets With Gabon Coup Leader

YAOUNDE, CAMEROON — A U.S. delegation met with the military ruler of Gabon on Tuesday and reiterated the need for a quick return to constitutional order six months after the nation’s August 30 coup.

Even so, the U.S. ambassador to Gabon who led the delegation, Vernelle Trim FitzPatrick, said economic and diplomatic relations with the Central African state will be reinforced despite sanctions imposed on Gabon’s coup leaders.

Military ruler General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema pleaded for U.S sanctions to be lifted.

Speaking later on Gabon’s state television, FitzPatrick said the United States finds it important to discuss strengthening trade and commercial relations with Gabon to gain the support of the U.S Congress in fostering ties with the nation.

FitzPatrick, who has been ambassador to Gabon for about a month, also said the United States will assist with the transition to civilian rule but did not say how.

Gabon’s military, led by Nguema, ousted President Ali Bongo Ondimba in a bloodless coup on August 30. The military accused Bongo of rigging Gabon’s August 26 elections and ruining the country’s economy.

After the coup, Washington suspended most nonhumanitarian aid and asked for a quick return to constitutional order. Gabon’s military leaders said elections would be held in August 2025, after an inclusive national dialogue this April.

Nembe Patrice, an economic adviser at Alternance 2023, a group of opposition parties created in 2023 to fight for political change in Gabon, said civilians want Nguema to organize elections and hand power to democratically elected officials.

He also said he hopes the United States will advise Nguema not to be a candidate.

EU Agrees on New Sanctions Against Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Millions of Displaced Ukrainian Refugees Face Uncertain Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US Lawyers Say Assange Wanted for ‘Indiscriminately’ Publishing Sources’ Names

LONDON — Julian Assange is being prosecuted for publishing sources’ names and not his political opinions, lawyers representing the United States said on Wednesday as the WikiLeaks founder fights to stop his extradition from Britain.  

U.S. prosecutors are seeking to put Assange, 52, on trial over WikiLeaks’ high-profile release of vast troves of confidential U.S. military records and diplomatic cables.

They argue the leaks imperiled the lives of their agents and there was no excuse for his criminality. Assange’s supporters, however, hail him as a journalist and a hero who is being persecuted for exposing U.S. wrongdoing.

Assange’s lawyers told London’s High Court on Tuesday that the case was politically motivated, arguing Assange was targeted for his exposure of “state-level crimes” and that former U.S. President Donald Trump had requested “detailed options” on how to kill him.

But, on Wednesday, lawyers for the U.S. said Assange’s prosecution was “based on the rule of law and evidence.” 

Clair Dobbin told the court: “The appellant’s prosecution might be unprecedented, but what he did was unprecedented.”

Assange “indiscriminately and knowingly published to the world the names of individuals who acted as sources of information to the U.S.,” Dobbin said.

“It is these facts which distinguish him, not his political opinions,” she added.

Dobbin also responded to Assange’s lawyers who cited an alleged U.S. plan to kidnap or murder Assange while he was in London’s Ecuadorean embassy, reported by Yahoo News in 2021.

She said the United States had given assurances about how Assange would be treated that “wholly undermine this suggestion … that anything could happen to him.”

Dobbin argued that the material Wikileaks published was obtained by encouraging people to steal documents and contained unredacted names of U.S. sources.  

Therefore Assange could not be “treated as akin to an ordinary journalist or Wikileaks akin to an ordinary publisher,” she said.

Assange himself was again not in court on Wednesday nor watching remotely because he was unwell, his lawyers and his wife Stella Assange said.

The Australian’s legal battles began in 2010, and he spent seven years holed up in Ecuador’s embassy before he was dragged out and jailed in 2019 for breaching bail conditions.  

He has been held in a maximum-security jail in London ever since, even getting married there, while Britain finally approved his extradition to the U.S. in 2022.

Assange’s lawyers say that he could be given a sentence as long as 175 years, but likely to be at least 30 to 40 years. U.S. prosecutors have said it would be no more than 63 months.

If Assange wins this case, a full appeal hearing will be held. If he loses, his only remaining option would be at the European Court of Human Rights and his wife has said his lawyers would apply to the European judges for an emergency injunction if necessary. 

Israeli Airstrikes Hit Northern, Southern Gaza

United Nations — The Israeli military said Wednesday it carried out airstrikes in northern and southern Gaza, a day after the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire, scaled up aid access and rejected the forced displacement of Palestinians.

The Israel Defense Forces reported killing dozens of militants, including in the Khan Younis area of the southern part of the Gaza Strip.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said Wednesday it recorded 118 deaths during the past day, pushing the total number of Palestinians killed to 29,313 with another 69,333 injured since the war began in October.

“Demanding an immediate, unconditional cease-fire without an agreement requiring Hamas to release the hostages will not bring about a durable peace,” said U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield of the Algerian-drafted resolution.

For weeks, the United States, Egypt, Qatar and Israel have been involved in delicate negotiations aimed at the release of all hostages and an extended pause in the fighting.

“Instead, it could extend the fighting between Hamas and Israel, extend the hostages’ time in captivity, an experience described by former hostages as ‘hell,’ and extend the dire humanitarian crisis Palestinians are facing in Gaza,” Thomas-Greenfield said, adding “none of us want that.”

Algeria first presented the 15-member Security Council with its text three weeks ago and delayed a vote to give those negotiations time. But the country’s Ambassador Amar Bendjama said silence is no longer an option and it is time for the council to act.

“We are rapidly approaching a critical juncture where the call to halt the machinery of violence will lose its significance,” he said of Israel’s impending incursion on the southern city of Rafah, where 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering.

“Today, every Palestinian is a target for death, extermination and genocide,” he said. “We should ask ourselves; how many innocent lives must be sacrificed before the council deems it necessary to call for a cease-fire?”

The Algerian text had strong council support – 13 members voted for it, Britain abstained, and the U.S. cast its veto. It is the third time Washington has used its council veto to block a cease-fire measure.

“The call for a cease-fire should have been agreed to a long time ago,” Palestinian envoy Riyad Mansour said. “What fresh hell needs to be crossed for this council to finally demand a cease-fire?”

Israel’s envoy called the idea of a cease-fire “absurd” and not a magic solution.

“So why is the council charged with security so fixated on aiding these monsters staying in power?” Ambassador Gilad Erdan asked, warning Hamas would attack Israel again given the chance.

Erdan urged the council as a whole to condemn the Hamas terror attack of Oct. 7, which it has so far not done. Several council members said in their remarks that the council should take this step.

US counter-proposal

The United States is proposing its own draft resolution, which several diplomats said had not yet been officially circulated at the council.

Seen by VOA, it calls for a temporary cease-fire “as soon as practicable” and based on a formula of all hostages being released. It also notes the “urgent need for a viable plan” to protect civilians from an Israeli offensive in Rafah.

The U.S. proposal “underscores that such a major ground offensive should not proceed under current circumstances” and “rejects any other effort at forced displacement of the civilian population in Gaza.”  

“Colleagues, this is not, as some members have claimed, an American effort to cover for an imminent ground incursion,” Thomas-Greenfield said of the U.S. text. “Rather, it is a sincere statement of our concern for the 1.5 million civilians who have sought refuge in Rafah.”

Thomas-Greenfield told reporters that the United States would work with other council members in good faith to get the resolution “over the finish line.”

Israel has warned it plans to carry out an offensive in Rafah, the area of southern Gaza along the Egyptian border. Israeli officials say the operation is necessary to target Hamas members there. The officials have also mentioned evacuations of civilians without providing any detailed plans. 

United Nations officials have repeatedly said no place is safe for civilians to go in Gaza.

Egypt objects to the evacuation of Palestinians into its territory, saying it would amount to their forced displacement. Israel denies that is its intention.

The World Food Program said it is pausing deliveries in northern Gaza, until safe conditions are in place for distribution. About 300,000 people are believed to still be living in the north, in dire conditions including looming famine.

WFP said it resumed deliveries Sunday after a three-week suspension after an aid truck was hit in an air strike. But chaotic situations with crowds climbing aboard their trucks, looting and violence, including gunfire, had impeded food distribution and made it unsafe.

Israel began its military campaign to eliminate Hamas after the group’s fighters crossed into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people according to Israeli officials and taking about 250 others hostage. Hamas, designated a terror group by the U.S., the U.K. and EU, is believed to still be holding about 130 hostages in Gaza, including 30 who are believed to be dead.

Some material in this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

French WWII Resistance Hero Inducted into Panthéon

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

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

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

The tribute will also include members of his Resistance group.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farmers Paralyze Greek Capital with Massive Protest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Commercial Spaceship Set for Lunar Touchdown, in Test for US Industry

WASHINGTON — A company from Texas is poised to attempt a feat that until now has only been accomplished by a handful of national space agencies but could soon become commonplace for the private sector: landing on the moon.

If all goes to plan, Houston-based Intuitive Machines will guide its spaceship named Odysseus to a gentle touchdown near the lunar south pole on Thursday at 2249 GMT, then run experiments for NASA that will help pave the way for the return of astronauts later this decade.

A previous effort by another U.S. company last month ended in failure, raising the stakes to demonstrate private industry has what it takes to put an American lander on Earth’s cosmic companion for the first time since the Apollo era.

“Accepting risk was a challenge posed by the United States to the commercial business sector,” Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus said ahead of launch. “Our collective aim is to return to the moon for the first time in 52 years.”

The company plans to run a live stream on its website, with flight controllers expected to confirm landing around 15 seconds after the milestone is achieved, because of the time it takes for radio signals to return.

As it approaches the surface, Odysseus will shoot out an external “EagleCam” that captures images of the lander in the final seconds of its descent.

About the size of a big golf cart, Odysseus is hexagon-shaped and stands on six legs.

It launched on Feb. 15 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and boasts a new type of supercooled liquid oxygen, liquid methane propulsion system that allowed it to race through space in quick time, snapping pictures of our planet along the way.

Its destination, Malapert A, is an impact crater 300 kilometers (180 miles) from the lunar south pole.

NASA hopes to eventually build a long-term presence and harvest ice there for both drinking water and rocket fuel under Artemis, its flagship Moon-to-Mars program.

The U.S. space agency paid Intuitive Machines $118 million to ship science hardware to better understand and mitigate environmental risks for astronauts, the first of whom are scheduled to land no sooner than 2026.

Instruments include cameras to investigate how the lunar surface changes as a result of the engine plume from a spaceship, and a device to analyze clouds of charged dust particles that hang over the surface at twilight as a result of solar radiation.

The rest of the cargo was paid for by Intuitive Machines’ private clients and includes 125 stainless steel mini moons by the artist Jeff Koons.

After touchdown, the experiments are expected to run for roughly seven days before lunar night sets in on the south pole, with the lack of solar power rendering Odysseus inoperable.

Dubbed IM-1, the mission is the second under a NASA initiative called Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), which it created to delegate cargo services to the private sector to achieve savings and stimulate a wider lunar economy.

Four more CLPS launches are expected this year, which would make 2024 among the busiest ever for moon landings.

The first, by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, launched in January, but its Peregrine spacecraft sprung a fuel leak and it was eventually brought back to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Spaceships landing on the moon have to navigate treacherous boulders and craters and, absent an atmosphere to support parachutes, must rely on thrusters to control their descent. Roughly half of the more than 50 attempts have failed.

The Soviet Union was the first country to achieve a survivable landing on a celestial body when its Luna 9 spaceship touched down and transmitted pictures back from the moon in February 1966.

Next came the United States, which is still the only country to also put people on the surface.

In America’s long absence, China has landed three times since 2013. India reached the moon in 2023, and Japan was the latest, last month.

Honduras Ex-President Hernandez, Once a US Ally, Faces Drug Trafficking Trial

NEW YORK — Former Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s trial on U.S. drug trafficking charges began Tuesday, giving a New York jury the chance to determine whether Washington’s onetime key anti-drug ally actually ran the Central American country as a “narco-state.”

Hernandez was close to Washington during his 2014-2022 tenure. Honduras received more than $50 million in U.S. anti-narcotics assistance and tens of millions more in security and military aid during his presidency, and he won support from former President Donald Trump for cracking down on migration.

But three months after he left office, federal prosecutors in Manhattan charged him with accepting millions of dollars in bribes from cocaine traffickers in exchange for using his position to protect them. Attorney General Merrick Garland said he abused his power to operate the country as a “narco-state.”

That came nearly three years after his brother, former congressman Tony Hernandez, was convicted on U.S. drug charges and sentenced to life in prison. A prosecutor at that trial said Juan Orlando Hernandez protected his brother.

Juan Orlando Hernandez has pleaded not guilty to three counts of cocaine importation conspiracy and illegal weapons possession. He has been detained at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center since his April 2022 extradition.

He faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 40 years and up to life in prison if convicted on all counts. The trial began with jury selection on Tuesday and is expected to last between two and three weeks.

Prosecutors said that while Hernandez was campaigning in 2013, he accepted $1 million from Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel. He used that money to bribe officials to manipulate voting results in his favor, and used similar tactics for his 2017 re-election, prosecutors said.

“This rampant corruption and massive cocaine trafficking came at a cost to the people of Honduras,” Damian Williams, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, told reporters after Hernandez was extradited.

Hernandez has argued that drug traffickers have smeared him to seek to lighten their own sentences and to extract revenge over his administration’s law enforcement actions.

That argument has been used by other high-ranking Latin American officials who have been charged by the United States in recent years, including former Mexican security minister Genaro Garcia Luna, who was convicted last year on charges of taking bribes from El Chapo.

“I’m really curious to see if this is going to be a prosecution that is just going to exhibit a long list of finger-pointing at him by convicted former drug dealers, or if this is going to be a prosecution showing unquestionable evidence that he was actually involved,” said Edgar Zurita, a former law enforcement official at Mexico’s U.S. embassy and current managing director at investigations firm Nardello & Co.

El Chapo was himself convicted of drug trafficking in 2019 and sentenced to life in prison.

Earlier in February, two co-defendants who were initially set to be tried alongside Hernandez – his cousin Mauricio Hernandez and former Honduras national police chief Juan Carlos Bonilla – pleaded guilty to drug trafficking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunter Biden is expected to give a deposition next week.

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

Isolated in Europe, Hungarian Prime Minister Hopes for Trump’s Return

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is the European Union’s longest-serving head of state – and his critics say he has tightened his grip on power by eroding democracy. He has long been a thorn in the side of European and NATO unity, threatening to block support for Ukraine and EU sanctions on Russia. But as Henry Ridgwell reports from Budapest, Orban believes that he will soon have new allies in the West. Camera: Ancsin Gábor

Alabama Supreme Court Rules Frozen Embryos Are ‘Children’ Under State Law

Montgomery, Alabama — The Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that frozen embryos can be considered children under state law, a ruling critics said could have sweeping implications for fertility treatments. 

The decision was issued in a pair of wrongful death cases brought by three couples who had frozen embryos destroyed in an accident at a fertility clinic. Justices, citing anti-abortion language in the Alabama Constitution, ruled that an 1872 state law allowing parents to sue over the death of a minor child “applies to all unborn children, regardless of their location.” 

“Unborn children are ‘children’ … without exception based on developmental stage, physical location, or any other ancillary characteristics,” Justice Jay Mitchell wrote in the majority ruling Friday from the all-Republican court. 

Mitchell said the court had previously ruled that fetuses killed while a woman is pregnant are covered under Alabama’s Wrongful Death of a Minor Act and nothing excludes “extrauterine children from the Act’s coverage.” 

The ruling brought a rush of warnings about the potential impact on fertility treatments and the freezing of embryos, which had previously been considered property by the courts. 

“This ruling is stating that a fertilized egg, which is a clump of cells, is now a person. It really puts into question the practice of IVF,” Barbara Collura, CEO of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, said in an interview Tuesday. The group called the decision a “terrifying development for the 1 in 6 people impacted by infertility” who need in-vitro fertilization. 

She said it raises questions for providers and patients, including if they can freeze future embryos created during fertility treatment or if patients could ever donate or destroy unused embryos. 

The plaintiffs in the Alabama case had undergone IVF treatments that led to the creation of several embryos, some of which were implanted and resulted in healthy births. The couples had paid to keep others frozen in a storage facility at the Mobile Infirmary Medical Center. A patient in 2020 wandered into the area and removed several embryos, dropping them on the floor and “killing them,” the ruling said. 

The justices ruled that wrongful death lawsuits by the couples could proceed. 

An anti-abortion group cheered the decision. “Each person, from the tiniest embryo to an elder nearing the end of his life, has incalculable value that deserves and is guaranteed legal protection,” Lila Rose, president and founder of Live Action said in a statement. 

Chief Justice Tom Parker issued a concurring opinion that quoted the Bible as he discussed the meaning of the phrase “the sanctity of unborn life” in the Alabama Constitution. 

“Even before birth, all human beings bear the image of God, and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing his glory,” Parker said. 

Justice Greg Cook, who filed the only full dissent to the majority opinion, said the 1872 law did not define “minor child” and was being stretched from the original intent to cover frozen embryos. 

“Moreover, there are other significant reasons to be concerned about the main opinion’s holding. No court — anywhere in the country — has reached the conclusion the main opinion reaches,” he wrote, adding the ruling “almost certainly ends the creation of frozen embryos through in vitro fertilization (IVF) in Alabama.” 

The Alabama Supreme Court decision partly hinged on anti-abortion language added to the Alabama Constitution in 2018, stating that it is the “public policy of this state to ensure the protection of the rights of the unborn child.” 

Supporters at the time said it would “be a declaration of voters’ beliefs” and would have no impact unless states gain more control over abortion access. States gained control of abortion access in 2022. Critics at the time said it would have broad ramifications for civil and criminal law beyond abortion access and that it was essentially a “personhood” measure that would establish constitutional rights for fertilized eggs. 

Two Charged With Murder Over Super Bowl Parade Shooting

Washington — Two men have been charged with murder over the shooting at the Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl parade which left one person dead and 22 wounded, officials said Tuesday. 

Dominic Miller and Lyndell Mays, both local residents, were charged with second-degree murder, armed criminal action and unlawful use of a weapon, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker told reporters. 

Peters Baker said Mays got into a verbal altercation with other individuals at the parade that “very quickly escalated.”

She said Miller allegedly fired the shots that killed a local DJ, Lisa Lopez-Galvan.

Peters Baker said both men were being held on $1 million bond and face a potential sentence of life in prison on the murder charges.

The prosecutor said the arrests of Miller and Mays were in addition to those of two juveniles whose arrests were announced last week.

The pair, who were not identified because of their ages, are facing gun-related charges and are accused of resisting arrest.

The shooting took place on Wednesday at the victory parade which had attracted up to a million fans to downtown Kansas City.

The Chiefs were celebrating their third Super Bowl title in five seasons after beating the San Francisco 49ers in Las Vegas on Sunday.

Mass shootings are common in the United States, where there are more guns than people and about a third of adults own a firearm.

President Joe Biden deplored the shooting and issued a rallying call for Americans to back his pleas for Congress to enact gun reform. 

Russia Labels RFE/RL ‘Undesirable Organization’

WASHINGTON — The Russian government on Tuesday labeled VOA’s sister outlet Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as an “undesirable organization” in a move that underscores the Kremlin’s harsh repression of media.

The new designation opens RFE/RL staffers, donors and sources to criminal charges, the Prague-based outlet reported.

The outlet was added to a registry of “undesirable organizations” maintained by Russia’s Ministry of Justice, becoming the 142nd organization to be labeled that way.

RFE/RL President Stephen Capus said the designation “is just the latest example of how the Russian government views truthful reporting as an existential threat.”

“Millions of Russians have relied on us for decades — including record-breaking audiences over the past few days since the death of Aleksei Navalny — and this attempt to stifle us will only make RFE/RL work harder to bring free and independent journalism to the Russian people,” Capus said in a statement.

Russia’s Washington embassy did not immediately reply to a VOA email requesting comment.

Russia’s “undesirable organization” law was adopted in 2015. Dozens of media organizations have been labeled as “undesirable” since 2021, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Among them are Meduza, Novaya Gazeta Europe and Bellingcat.

Moscow has targeted RFE/RL for years.

In 2017, Russian authorities labeled the outlet a so-called “foreign agent.” Since then, RFE/RL has refused to pay multiple fines totaling more than $14 million for not complying with the law.

The foreign agent law came into effect in 2012, and since then it has been used to target groups and individuals critical of the Kremlin. Russia has declared VOA a “foreign agent” as well.

More than 30 RFE/RL employees have also been listed as “foreign agents.”

RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva has been jailed in Russia since October 2023 on charges of failing to register as a so-called “foreign agent.”

A dual U.S.-Russian national, Kurmasheva traveled to Russia in May 2023 for a family emergency. When she tried to leave the country in June, her passports were confiscated. She was detained while waiting for them to be returned.

In addition to the foreign agent charge, Kurmasheva is also facing accusations of spreading false information about the Russian army. If convicted, she faces a combined sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

Kurmasheva and her employer reject the charges against her.