...

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry announced on Wednesday that 144 of the country’s fighters were freed from Russian captivity via “an exchange mechanism” and that nearly 100 of the freed fighters had participated in the defense of the Ukrainian coastal city of Mariupol.

Earlier, a leading Ukrainian parliamentarian told VOA that Kyiv and Moscow were undergoing a process of prisoner exchange and that Roman Abramovich, a Russian businessman with ties to Putin, was playing “an active role” in the talks.

 

Hours later, in his nightly address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the development “optimistic and very important.” Zelenskyy said 59 of the soldiers that returned to Ukraine were members of the National Guard, followed by 30 servicemen with the Navy, 28 who had served in the Army, 17 with Border Guards and 9 who fought as territorial defense soldiers and one had been a policeman.

“The oldest of the liberated is 65 years old, the youngest is 19,” he said in the video broadcast. “In particular,” Zelenskyy added, “95 Azovstal defenders return[ed] home.”

The defense of Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol stood out as a particularly fierce struggle between Ukrainian and Russian forces from March to May. It ended with an unknown number of casualties on Ukraine’s side and close to 2,500 Ukrainian fighters in Russian captivity, according to figures released by the Russian side.

Wednesday’s news came on the heels of an announcement a day earlier that 17 Ukrainians, including 16 servicemen and one civilian, were freed from Russian captivity in an exchange that saw 15 Russians released and that the bodies of 46 fallen Ukrainian soldiers returned home. In return, Ukraine handed Russia 40 of their fallen servicemen. Among the 46 fallen Ukrainian fighters, 21 took part in the defense of Azovstal, according to the Ukrainian government.

David Arakhamia, leader of Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People Party in the Ukrainian parliament, told VOA during a visit to Washington earlier this month that Abramovich was playing “an active role” in prisoner exchange talks between Kyiv and Moscow.

“As a human being, I think he has [the] intention to stop the war, he doesn’t like the idea that Russia invaded Ukraine,” Arakhamia said of Abramovich.

As negotiations are concerned, “He’s trying to play the neutral role, but for us, we treat him as a Russian representative. He’s closer to Mr. Putin [than to the Ukrainian side], of course,” Arakhamia said, adding that Ukraine sees Abramovich as a “messenger” who could deliver messages to Russian President Vladimir Putin “in their original form.”

Abramovich was the owner of the British football club, Chelsea. He made arrangements for its sale in the aftermath of Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions put in place by Britain, the United States and other western nations against Russian businessmen believed to have benefited from close ties with the Russian government and Putin.

On Wednesday, Zelenskyy concluded his nightly address to the nation by thanking those who played a part in securing the return home of 144 Ukrainian fighters from Russian captivity.

“I am grateful to the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine and to everyone who worked for this result. But let’s talk about this later. We will do everything to bring every Ukrainian man and woman home,” Zelenskyy said.

As the war enters the fifth month, the exact number of prisoners held by each side has not been made public. Little is known about how they are treated or precisely where they’re held.

your ad here

The United States will strengthen its forces in Europe as NATO faces up to the threat from Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. President Joe Biden announced the deployments at the NATO summit in Madrid. Henry Ridgwell reports.

your ad here

U.S. President Joe Biden thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday for dropping his objections to the bids by Sweden and Finland to join NATO, leading the way for the military alliance to expand even closer to Russia.

“I want to particularly thank you for what you did putting together the situation with regard to Finland and Sweden,” Biden told Erdogan during a one-on-one meeting on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Madrid. “You’re doing a great job.”

In response, speaking through an interpreter, Erdogan said that Biden’s “pioneering in this regard is going to be crucial in terms of strengthening NATO for the future, and it’s going to have a very positive contribution to the process between Ukraine and Russia.”

Turkey, Finland and Sweden on Tuesday signed a memorandum deepening their counterterrorism cooperation, addressing Ankara’s concerns that the two Nordic countries are not doing enough to crack down on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union, the U.S. and others.

Finland and Sweden also agreed not to support the Gulenist movement, led by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, which Turkey blames for a failed 2016 coup attempt and other domestic problems.

Helsinki and Stockholm will also end support for the so-called Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) in Syria, part of the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting against the Islamic State group. Additionally, Sweden agreed to end an arms embargo against Turkey that dated to its 2019 incursion into Syria.

 

Invitation to join NATO

With Turkey withdrawing its veto, NATO formally invited Finland and Sweden to join the alliance earlier Wednesday.

“It sends a very clear message to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. We are demonstrating that NATO’s doors are open,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, characterizing the invitation process as “the quickest in history.”

Helsinki and Stockholm will bring great military capability and strategic outlook to the alliance, said Jim Townsend, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy, now at the Atlantic Council.

“Both nations — because they were neutral — they had to spend a lot of money and make a lot of effort to be a very professional force because they weren’t in an alliance. They had to depend on themselves,” Townsend told VOA. “It took the wolf being at the door for those nations to come in.”

 

The two countries applied to join in May, but the process began months earlier during the initial phase of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Biden reaching out to the leaders to discuss the possibility of joining NATO, a senior U.S. administration official told reporters Tuesday.

Since then, the U.S. has been “painstakingly working to try and help close the gaps between the Turks, the Finns and the Swedes,” the official said. “All the while trying, certainly in public, to have a lower-key approach to this so that it didn’t become about the U.S. or about particular demands on the U.S.,” he said, referring to Ankara’s long-standing request to purchase U.S. F-16 fighter jets.

Biden phone call

The official denied that Ankara made the warplane request a precondition to withdraw its objections. However, he noted that Biden conveyed Tuesday during a phone call to Erdogan his desire to “get this other issue resolved, and then you and I can sit down and really, really talk about significant strategic issues.”

The day after Ankara lifted its veto, the administration announced its support for the potential sale of the fighter jets.

Celeste Wallander, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs at the Pentagon, told reporters that Washington supports Ankara’s effort to modernize its fighter fleet.

“That is a contribution to NATO security and, therefore, American security,” she said.

In 2017, despite American and NATO opposition, Turkey signed a deal to purchase the S-400 Russian missile defense system. In response, Washington issued sanctions and kicked Ankara out of its newest, most advanced F-35 jet program. Since then, Turkey has sought to purchase 40 modernized F-16s, which are older models of the American fighter jets, and modernization kits for another 80 F-16s.

Wallander said any F-16 sales “need to be worked through our contracting processes.” A deal would likely require approval from Congress.

Ukraine grain

In their meeting, Biden also thanked Erdogan for his “incredible work” to establish humanitarian corridors to enable the export of Ukrainian grain to the rest of the world amid the war.

“We are trying to solve the process with a balancing policy. Our hope is that this balance policy will lead to results and allow us the possibility to get grain to countries that are facing shortages right now through a corridor as soon as possible,” Erdogan said in response.

Turkey has played a central role in negotiations with Kyiv and Russia to increase the amount of grain that can get out of Ukraine. Tens of millions of people around the world are at risk of hunger as the conflict disrupted shipments of grain from Ukraine, one of the world’s leading producers.

Earlier this month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met his Russian counterpart to discuss unlocking the grain from Black Sea ports but failed to reach an agreement. Hurdles remain, including payment mechanisms and mines placed by both Moscow and Kyiv in the Black Sea.

Turkey has suggested that ships could be guided around sea mines by establishing safe corridors under a U.N. proposal to resume not only Ukrainian grain exports but also Russian food and fertilizer exports, which Moscow says are harmed by sanctions. The U.N. has been “working in close cooperation with the Turkish authorities on this issue,” said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

VOA’s Henry Ridgwell contributed to this report.

your ad here

Indirect talks between Tehran and Washington aimed at breaking an impasse about how to salvage Iran’s 2015 nuclear pact have ended without the progress “the EU team as coordinator had hoped-for,” EU’s envoy Enrique Mora tweeted Wednesday.

“We will keep working with even greater urgency to bring back on track a key deal for non-proliferation and regional stability,” Mora said.

The talks began Tuesday with Mora as the coordinator, shuttling between Iran’s Ali Bagheri Kani and Washington’s special Iran envoy Rob Malley.

“What prevented these negotiations from coming to fruition is the U.S. insistence on its proposed draft text in Vienna that excludes any guarantee for Iran’s economic benefits,” Iran’s semi-official Tasnim said, citing informed sources at the talks.

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump ditched the pact in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran’s economy. A year later, Tehran reacted by gradually breaching the nuclear limits of the deal.

More than 11 months of talks between Tehran and major powers to revive their nuclear deal stalled in March, chiefly over Tehran’s insistence that Washington remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), its elite security force, from the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list.

your ad here

The lone survivor of a team of Islamic State extremists was convicted Wednesday of murder and other charges and sentenced to life in prison without parole in the 2015 bombings and shootings across Paris that killed 130 people in the deadliest peacetime attacks in French history.

The special court also convicted 19 other men involved in the assault following a nine-month trial.

Chief suspect Salah Abdeslam was found guilty of murder and attempted murder in relation to a terrorist enterprise. The court found that his explosives vest malfunctioned, dismissing his argument that he ditched the vest because he decided not to follow through with his attack on the night of Nov. 13, 2015.

Abdeslam, a 32-year-old Belgian with Moroccan roots, was given France’s most severe sentence possible.

Of the defendants besides Abdeslam, 18 were given various terrorism-related convictions, and one was convicted on a lesser fraud charge. They were given punishments ranging from suspended sentences to life in prison.

During the trial, Abdeslam proclaimed his radicalism, wept, apologized to victims and pleaded with judges to forgive his mistakes.

For victims’ families and survivors of the attacks, the trial has been excruciating yet crucial in their quest for justice and closure.

For months, the packed main chamber and 12 overflow rooms in the 13th century Justice Palace heard the harrowing accounts by the victims, along with testimony from Abdeslam. The other defendants are largely accused of helping with logistics or transportation. At least one is accused of a direct role in the deadly March 2016 attacks in Brussels, which also was claimed by the Islamic State group.

The trial was an opportunity for survivors and those mourning loved ones to recount the deeply personal horrors inflicted that night and to listen to details of countless acts of bravery, humanity and compassion among strangers. Some hoped for justice, but most just wanted tell the accused directly that they have been left irreparably scarred, but not broken.

“The assassins, these terrorists, thought they were firing into the crowd, into a mass of people,” said Dominique Kielemoes at the start of the trial in September 2021. Her son bled to death in one of the cafes. Hearing the testimony of victims was “crucial to both their own healing and that of the nation,” Kielemoes said.

“It wasn’t a mass — these were individuals who had a life, who loved, had hopes and expectations,” she said.

France was changed in the wake of the attacks: Authorities declared a state of emergency and armed officers now constantly patrol public spaces. The violence sparked soul-searching among the French and Europeans, since most of the attackers were born and raised in France or Belgium. And they transformed forever the lives of all those who suffered losses or bore witness.

Presiding judge Jean-Louis Peries said at the trial’s outset that it belongs to “international and national events of this century. ” France emerged from the state of emergency in 2017, after incorporating many of the harshest measures into law.

Fourteen of the defendants have been in court, including Abdeslam, the only survivor of the 10-member attacking team that terrorized Paris that Friday night. All but one of the six absent men are presumed to have been killed in Syria or Iraq; the other is in prison in Turkey.

Most of the suspects are accused of helping create false identities, transporting the attackers back to Europe from Syria or providing them with money, phones, explosives or weapons.

Abdeslam was the only defendant tried on several counts of murder and kidnapping as a member of a terrorist organization.

The sentence sought for Abdeslam of life in prison without parole has only been pronounced four times in France — for crimes related to rape and murder of minors.

Prosecutors are seeking life sentences for nine other defendants. The remaining suspects were tried on lesser terrorism charges and face sentences ranging from five to 30 years.

In closing arguments, prosecutors stressed that all 20 defendants, who had fanned out around the French capital, armed with semi-automatic rifles and explosives-packed vests to mount parallel attacks, are members of the Islamic State extremist group responsible for the massacres.

“Not everyone is a jihadi, but all of those you are judging accepted to take part in a terrorist group, either by conviction, cowardliness or greed,” prosecutor Nicolas Braconnay told the court this month.

Some defendants, including Abdeslam, said innocent civilians were targeted because of France’s policies in the Middle East and hundreds of civilian deaths in Western airstrikes in Islamic State-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq.

During his testimony, former President François Hollande dismissed claims that his government was at fault.

The Islamic State, “this pseudo-state, declared war with the weapons of war,” Hollande said. The Paris attackers did not terrorize, shoot, kill, maim and traumatize civilians because of religion, he said, adding it was “fanaticism and barbarism.”

During closing arguments Monday, Abdelslam’s lawyer Olivia Ronen told a panel of judges that her client is the only one in the group of attackers who didn’t set off explosives to kill others that night. He can’t be convicted for murder, she argued.

“If a life sentence without hope for ever experiencing freedom again is pronounced, I fear we have lost a sense of proportion,” Ronan said. She emphasized through the trial that she is “not providing legitimacy to the attacks” by defending her client in court.

Abdeslam apologized to the victims at his final court appearance Monday, saying his remorse and sorrow is heartfelt and sincere. Listening to victims’ accounts of “so much suffering” changed him, he said.

“I have made mistakes, it’s true, but I am not a murderer, I am not a killer,” he said.

your ad here

A U.N. investigator warns that systematic and widespread repression in Belarus is eroding peoples’ civic and political rights. The investigator’s report was presented Wednesday at a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council. Belarus boycotted the meeting.

Special Rapporteur Anais Marin says the human rights situation in Belarus has gone from bad to worse. She says authorities are enacting laws that are stripping the rights and freedoms of their citizens.

She says the criminal code has been amended to restrict freedom of expression, the right to peacefully assemble and other fundamental rights. She says the new laws retroactively criminalize activities that previously were only considered administrative offenses.

Speaking through an interpreter Wednesday in Geneva, she warned the action raises the troubling prospect of potential abuse resulting from the arbitrary application of very restrictive legislation.

“Emblematic in that respect is that the scope of the death penalty in Belarus has been expanded by including cases of planning or attempts to plan terrorist acts. Terms that are not clearly defined moreover. This paves the way for abusive application of the death penalty, even if no crime has been committed.”

Investigator Marin says the deterioration of the human rights situation in Belarus has resulted in the significant shrinking of civic space. She says the government is pursuing a deliberate policy to eradicate all media and expression of dissent.

Marin says 1,214 people are imprisoned in Belarus on politically motivated charges. She says the climate of fear and impunity in Belarus has forced tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of repressed and intimidated Belarusians into exile. She speaks through an interpreter.

“Let me add that my mandate has been informed of severe repression by the authorities against anti-war protesters in Belarus, but also difficulties and cases of discrimination and hate speech that certain Belarussians have been forced to leave their country have endured since the start of the Russian armed aggression in Ukraine.”

Marin urges the international community to support and protect the human rights of those Belarussian nationals that have been forced into exile due to repression and intimidation by the state.

Belarus boycotted Wednesday’s meeting, renouncing its right of reply. Contacted by VOA after the meeting, the Belarussian U.N. mission in Geneva said it had no comment.

your ad here

U.S. President Joe Biden announced Wednesday the United States is sending additional naval destroyers to be stationed in Spain, establishing a permanent headquarters for the U.S. 5th Army Corps in Poland, adding a rotational brigade of 3,000 troops and 2,000 other personnel to be headquartered in Romania, and sending two additional F-35 fighter jets to Britian.

“Today, I’m announcing the United States will enhance our force posture in Europe to respond to the changed security environment, as well as strengthening our collective security,” Biden said in Madrid, where NATO leaders are gathering. for a summit that will include discussion of support for Ukraine and how the alliance will adapt to face current and future challenges.

“Earlier this year, we surged 20,000 additional U.S. forces to Europe to bolster our lines in response to Russia’s aggressive move, bringing our force total in Europe to 100,000. We’re going [to] continue to adjust our posture based on the threat in close consultation with our allies,” Biden said.

The leaders are expected to agree at the summit to boost support for Ukraine as it defends itself from a Russian invasion. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is addressing the summit by video.

Biden said that at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin “has shattered peace in Europe and attacked the very tenets of rule-based order,” the United States and its allies are “proving that NATO is more needed now than it ever has been, and it’s as important as it ever has been.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters the gathering will be a “historic and transformative summit for our alliance,” adding that it comes amid “the most serious security crisis we have faced since the Second World War.”

Russia’s attack is also influencing NATO’s own long-term plans, with a new strategic concept that includes what the alliance has called its “changed security environment.”   

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters the strategic concept, which was last updated in 2010, will mention China for the first time, “and quite frankly the deepening strategic partnership that we see evolving between Russia and China and how that affects our allies.”

“I won’t get ahead of the exact language, but clearly our allies have likewise been concerned about this growing, burgeoning relationship between Russia and China,” Kirby said. “They have had growing concerns about China’s unfair trade practices, use of forced labor, theft of intellectual property and their bullying and coercive activities, not just in the Indo-Pacific, but around the world.”

In the short term, NATO is strengthening its readiness to respond to outside threats, including boosting the number of troops under direct NATO command and pre-positioning more heavy weapons and logistical resources.

Celeste Wallander, U.S. assistant secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, told reporters the new U.S. deployments to Europe are significant “precisely because of the changed security environment and the recognition that the United States needs to have a longer-term capability to sustain our presence, our training, our activities and our support to the countries of the eastern flank, both bilaterally and through the NATO battle groups.”

As NATO invites Sweden and Finland to join the alliance, the summit also is set to include talks about reinforcing partnerships with non-NATO countries. Participating in the summit are leaders from Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

“President Putin has not succeeded in closing NATO’s door,” Stoltenberg said. “He’s getting the opposite of what he wants. He wants less NATO. President Putin is getting more NATO by Sweden and Finland joining our alliance.”

Other areas of discussion include terrorism, cyberattacks and climate change.

VOA’s Chris Hannas contributed to this story.

your ad here

A German court on Tuesday handed a five-year jail sentence to a 101-year-old former Nazi concentration camp guard, the oldest person to go on trial for complicity in war crimes during the Holocaust. 

Josef Schuetz was found guilty of being an accessory to murder in at least 3,500 cases while working as a prison guard at the Sachsenhausen camp in Oranienburg, north of Berlin, from 1942 to 1945. 

Given his age, Schuetz is highly unlikely to be put behind bars.

The pensioner, who now lives in Brandenburg state, had pleaded innocent, saying he did “absolutely nothing” and had not even worked at the camp. 

“I don’t know why I am here,” he said at the close of his trial Monday. 

But presiding judge Udo Lechtermann said he was convinced Schuetz had worked at Sachsenhausen and had “supported” the atrocities committed there. 

“For three years, you watched prisoners being tortured and killed before your eyes,” Lechtermann said. 

“Due to your position on the watchtower of the concentration camp, you constantly had the smoke of the crematorium in your nose,” he said. “Anyone who tried to escape from the camp was shot. So every guard was actively involved in these murders.” 

More than 200,000 people, including Jews, Roma, gays and regime opponents, were detained at the Sachsenhausen camp from 1936 to 1945. 

Tens of thousands of inmates died from forced labor, murder, medical experiments, hunger or disease before the camp was liberated by Soviet troops, according to the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum. 

Contradictory statements 

Schuetz, who was 21 when he began working at the camp, remained blank-faced as the court announced his sentence. 

“I am ready,” said Sc

huetz when he, dressed in a gray shirt and striped trousers, entered the courtroom in a wheelchair.

Schuetz was not detained during the trial, which began in 2021 but was postponed several times because of his health. 

His lawyer, Stefan Waterkamp, told AFP he would appeal, meaning the sentence will not be enforced until 2023 at the earliest. 

Thomas Walther, the lawyer who represented 11 of the 16 civil parties in the trial, said the sentencing had met their expectations and “justice has been served.” 

But Antoine Grumbach, 80, whose father died in Sachsenhausen, said he could “never forgive” Schuetz as “any human being facing atrocities has a duty to oppose them.” 

During the trial, Schuetz had made several inconsistent statements about his past, complaining that his head was getting “mixed up.” 

At one point, the centenarian said he had worked as an agricultural laborer in Germany for most of World War II, a claim contradicted by several historical documents bearing his name, date and place of birth. 

‘Warning to perpetrators’ 

After the war, Schuetz was transferred to a prison camp in Russia before returning to Germany, where he worked as a farmer and a locksmith. 

More than seven decades after World War II, German prosecutors are racing to bring the last surviving Nazi perpetrators to justice. 

The 2011 conviction of former guard John Demjanjuk on the basis that he served as part of Hitler’s killing machine, set a legal precedent and paved the way for several of these justice cases. 

Since then, courts have handed down several guilty verdicts on those grounds rather than for murders or atrocities directly linked to the individual accused. 

Among those brought to late justice were Oskar Groening, an accountant at Auschwitz, and Reinhold Hanning, a former SS guard at Auschwitz. 

Both were convicted at the age of 94 of complicity in mass murder but died before they could be imprisoned. 

However, Schuetz’s five-year sentence is the longest handed to a defendant in such a case. 

Guillaume Mouralis, a research professor at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, told AFP the verdict was “a warning to the perpetrators of mass crimes: whatever their level of responsibility, there is still legal liability.”

your ad here