International Criminal Court Marks 20th Anniversary

The International Criminal Court marked the 20th anniversary this week of the treaty that created it, with expectations growing about its effectiveness as it moves toward maturity. 

The so-called Rome Statute establishing The Hague-based court was adopted in the Italian capital on July 17,1998. Today, 123 states have signed up to the treaty.

“The court has established itself as the permanent address for trials of leaders who order or instigate crimes against humanity, war crimes on a massive scale, or even genocide,” said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch’s international justice program. Dicker was present at the statute’s adoption.

At the time, with the end of the Cold War and multilateralism on the rise, some questioned the need for such a tribunal. But the new millennium brought with it a wave of conflicts and atrocities, some of which have been referred to the ICC. 

The court has investigated 11 situations, from Georgia to the Central African Republic, and is conducting preliminary examinations of 10 more, including Afghanistan, Colombia and Ukraine. 

But it has only had a few high-profile convictions and some cases have been dismissed and two defendants acquitted.

The first 20

“My grade would be not bad, not great,” Johns Hopkins International Law professor Ruth Wedgwood told VOA. “I think a lot of what’s been difficult for the court is realizing that politics, including the politics of very powerful countries, would necessarily intercede and therefore they’d have to settle for smaller victories.”

One such instance has been the effort to refer the conflict in Syria to the ICC. Russia and China blocked a move in the Security Council in 2014, in a bid to protect the Assad regime from prosecution. 

“When Russia and China veto referral of the Syria situation to the ICC, it’s almost an invitation to commit crimes,” New York University Law Professor Jennifer Trahan noted.

The Security Council has the power to refer cases to the court. The only other way prosecutors can exercise jurisdiction is if the alleged crimes were committed by a country that is part of the Rome Statute or is in the territory of a country that is, or in a state that has accepted the jurisdiction of the court.

Faced with the blockage on Syria  which is not a party to the ICC — U.N. member states sought to go around the council, and in December 2016 adopted a resolution in the General Assembly establishing a mechanism to assist in the investigation of serious crimes committed in Syria since 2011. It will take place outside the ICC, but it opened up a potential route to justice and accountability. 

Growing pains

The court does not try defendants in absentia, so several cases have not progressed as alleged perpetrators avoid transfer to The Hague. There are currently 15 outstanding arrest warrants, including a 2009 one for President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir of Sudan, on charges of war crimes and genocide for atrocities committed in Darfur. 

The wheels of justice also turn slowly.

“We know from experience that the road to justice is often long and takes patience, perseverance and prolonged support,” said the Netherlands Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Yoka Brandt, whose country hosts the court. “The path set out in Rome has not been an unwavering line toward success, but nor could we expect it to be.”

The ICC has weathered the discontent of some members, particularly in Africa where some leaders complain it disproportionately focuses on the continent. South Africa set in motion its withdrawal in 2016, but withdrew it five months later before it went into effect. The Gambia did the same, but after a change in government, it returned. The Philippines set its withdrawal in motion this year, while Burundi completed the process last October.

The court is lacking some powerful members, including the United States, which is not a state’s party to the treaty. President Bill Clinton initially signed the Rome Statute in 2000, but President George W. Bush withdrew the U.S.’s signature. Russia and China are not states parties either. 

In addition, the ICC is plagued by financial shortfalls, inefficiency, trouble attracting and keeping the highest caliber lawyers and judges, and it needs more help carrying out arrest warrants. 

“The court itself needs to improve its performance  becoming more effective and more efficient — and the states that created it need to be more supportive diplomatically, politically and financially,” HRW’s Dicker said. 

Successes and disappointments

Reflecting on the ICC’s accomplishments to-date, its impact may be more in how it has become a part of the international accountability architecture than on the outcome of individual cases.

“The idea of the court has been a productive and important one in a kind of metaphysical and ethical terms,” said Wedgwood, of Johns Hopkins. “It really doesn’t have in terms of actual output a particularly amazing frequency of conviction, but it certainly has made the law of armed conflict and humanitarian law — it has given it a way to have a stature that it otherwise might not be easy to maintain.”

The court has had only a handful of convictions, including its first in 2012 of the Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, who was convicted of war crimes for the recruitment of child soldiers and sentenced to 14 years in jail. Two years later, the court convicted Congolese militia leader Germain Katanga on four counts of war crimes for a 2003 massacre of villagers in eastern Congo. He was sentenced to 12 years in jail and ordered to pay $1 million in reparations. 

But there have also been disappointments. Most recently, an appeals chamber of the ICC voted to overturn the conviction of former Congolese Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for atrocities committed in the Central African Republic in 2002-2003. 

“The Bemba decision is really a disappointing result for the court,” NYU professor Trahan said. “Other tribunals occasionally have had disappointing verdicts and they have survived as institutions. I think we want to learn the lessons from this and help the court move on in the best way it can.” 

The next 20

Looking ahead, as the court passes from its formative years into maturity, its supporters hope to see it become stronger and more efficient. 

“I want to see an effective court and I want to see situations where the court has found opportunities to have an impact in conflict zones and in places around the world where crimes are happening,” said Stephen Rapp, a former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues under President Barack Obama. 

“The world — and that part of the world that believes in the rule of law — for that community the ICC is more important than ever,” HRW’s Dicker said. “Certainly more important and more relevant than it was 20 years ago when its treaty was finished in Rome at a point in time when people were legitimately asking would this court ever have any cases?”

“Ideally, 20 more states parties, regular proceedings before the ICC that are done efficiently and in a credible way and that advance international criminal justice,” said Lichtenstein’s U.N. Ambassador, Christian Wenaweser, who is a former President of the Assembly of States Parties of the court. “But I think more importantly, an understanding that the worst crimes under international law have to be investigated and prosecuted as part also of a country moving forward after a conflict.”

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Browder: Putin’s Mention of Me in Helsinki Shows Sanctions’ Bite

None of the questions posed to President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin after their one-on-one meeting in Helsinki mentioned U.S.-born British financier Bill Browder, but Putin singled him out anyway.

The Russian leader suggested he would grant special counsel Robert Mueller access to the 12 Russians indicted for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election if Russian investigators could interrogate foreign tax cheats.

“For instance … business associates of Mr. Browder have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia, [who] never paid any taxes, neither in Russia nor in the United States, and yet the money escaped the country,” said Putin, reiterating well-worn allegations that have long since been debunked as unfounded.

Browder, chief executive officer of Hermitage Capital, has been the driving force behind the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 U.S. law authorizing sanctions against human rights abusers in Russia that freezes their assets and bans their entry to the U.S.

Named after Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who died amid allegations of beatings and medical neglect in a Russian jail after working to expose a purported tax fraud scheme by Russian officials, the U.S. legislation — which has since been adopted in seven other countries — may be the single largest threat to the Russian leader’s massive personal fortune.

Effort to detain

The Russian government, which has long denied the fraud charges and officially blamed Magnitsky’s death on a heart attack, has continued to pursue Browder, and in May asked Spanish police to detain him on what turned out to be an expired Interpol warrant.

Within hours of the Trump-Putin meeting, the Prosecutor General of Russia announced that it had prepared an official request to cross-examine a number of U.S. officials and intelligence agents, including former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, as part of its criminal proceedings against Browder.

That the Russian leader again mentioned him by name at a high-profile public forum, Browder told VOA’s Russian service, only proves Western sanctions are being felt in Moscow.

“I think Putin is taking it personally because of all the success that I have had in getting the Magnitsky Act passed all over the world,” Browder said. “He’s made no secret of the fact that Magnitsky Act is his single largest foreign policy priority to repeal. He’s obviously very rattled and upset by all the different people who have been sanctioned under Magnitsky and other related sanctions programs, and this is his Achilles’ heel.”

A primary reason why Putin hates the Magnitsky Act, Browder has told VOA in prior interviews, is that he asks people around him to commit very grave crimes on his behalf, such as illicitly commandeering private assets and property.

“In order to get people to do these terrible acts, he has to guarantee these people impunity,” Browder said. “He could do that in the past. But now, because of the Magnitsky Act, there are consequences outside of Russia that he has no control over. This [lack of guaranteed impunity] challenges the entire operation of his regime.”

The Kremlin typically declines to respond to these allegations, but in 2013, a Moscow court tried and sentenced Browder in absentia on tax evasion charges, accusing him of failing to pay $16 million in taxes. Magnitsky himself was posthumously convicted in that same ruling.

In 2016, Browder said, a group led by Kremlin-linked attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya “went around and tried every different document, every different door to find sympathetic ears to repeal the Magnitsky Act.”

Trump Tower meeting

“The meeting with [Donald] Trump Jr. was just one of the meetings they had,” he said, referring to the 2016 meeting at Trump Tower that also was attended by, among others, White House adviser Jared Kushner and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort.

“They had meetings all up and down Capitol Hill with members of Congress trying to do the same thing,” he said. “In my opinion it was a completely failed operation, but it does not mean they didn’t have a lot of resources to try to make it happen.”

In a July 2017 interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Trump Jr. described being disappointed when Veselnitskaya changed the subject of the meeting from information damaging to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to Russian adoption policy.

“That’s when we shut it down,” Trump Jr. said, wondering “… what does this have to do with what we were talking about?”

Russia’s ban on adoptions by American families, colloquially referred to as Moscow’s “anti-Magnitsky Act,” was advanced by Putin’s United Russia party nine days after former President Barack Obama signed the Magnitsky Act into law.

President Trump has defended his 40-year-old son’s actions, downplaying the meeting with Kremlin operatives as a normal part of campaign trail “opposition research.”

In excerpts of an interview with Kremlin-funded RT news, Veselnitskaya defended the meeting at Trump Tower, contending she was the victim of a “disinformation” campaign organized by Browder.

Browder has said he had no knowledge of the meeting until it was reported by various news media outlets, and the public may never know precisely what was discussed that day.

‘Always’ at risk

Asked whether Putin’s comment made him fear for his safety, especially after the recent spate of poisonings of anti-Kremlin figures in Britain, which Prime Minister Theresa May has blamed on the Kremlin, the London-based financier was stoic.

“My security has always been at risk,” he said. “I was just arrested a month ago in Madrid on a Russian Interpol arrest warrant. But at the same time, there is very, very broad international consensus that Putin is running a criminal vendetta to try to have me arrested, and most civilized countries are there to protect me, not to honor Putin’s vendetta.”

“We have effectively caught Putin red-handed, as an individual beneficiary of the … $230 million that Sergei Magnitsky was killed over,” he said.

Although Putin has asked Trump to work to remove the Magnitsky Act, Browder says he’s confident about its longevity.

“The administration doesn’t have control over the Magnitsky Act, as it is an act of Congress,” he said. “I have met with many members of Congress. There’s no chance whatsoever that Congress is going to repeal the Magnitsky Act.”

This story originated in VOA’s Russian service.

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Proposed Legislation Stokes New Crackdown as Emergency Rule Ending in Turkey

A state of emergency imposed in Turkey following a failed coup two years ago this week is set to end in the coming days. But there are concerns that the government will maintain draconian measures under a different guise.

Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul Monday confirmed the imminent end to emergency rule, a move broadly welcomed.

“The end of the emergency rule, which bypasses parliament on key issues, has been something demanded internationally and domestically for better conditions and for the independence of the judiciary and the media,” Murat Yetkin, editor of Hurriyet Daily News, wrote Tuesday.

Human rights groups say that under the emergency powers, more than 150 journalists were jailed, and newspaper outlets, television and radio stations seized. Tens of thousands of prosecutors and judges, along with academics, were detained or removed from their posts. 

The government maintains the measures were needed to remove the threat posed by followers of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames for the botched military takeover. Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the U.S., denies the accusation.

Despite the government’s decision to lift the state of emergency, critics say the status quo will remain in place. They point to parliament’s consideration of sweeping new anti-terrorism legislation that would allow authorities to detain people for up to 12 days without charge in anti-terror cases. Erdogan’s ruling party, the AKP, is pushing for passage of the measures that would also give governors the power to stop people from leaving or entering defined areas. 

Additionally, state workers, including security forces, would be removed from their posts for three years if considered a threat. The interior minister would also be empowered to cancel passports of those dismissed from their jobs. The passport policy would also apply to their spouses.

“Lifting the state of emergency appears good but doesn’t change anything,” political columnist Semih Idiz of Al-Monitor website said. “The authorities have the same powers as they do under emergency rule. Especially with the newly expanded powers being pushed through parliament, it will be the state of emergency by default,” he added.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party, the CHP, criticized the new legislation. “It aims to make the state of emergency rule permanent,” deputy group leader Ozgur Ozel wrote in a statement.

Despite the proposed new powers, analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners suggests there remains a way for Erdogan to make a conciliatory gesture.

“One way to keep the binding provisions of state of emergency in the new legislation but signal a more tolerant approach to human rights such as free speech is to release most of the 150 journalists and intellectuals currently locked up, as well as ending the practice of firing academics for pro-PKK (Kurdish insurgents) or Gulenist sympathies,” Yesilada said. Turkey considers the PKK a terrorist organization. The PKK has been waging a decades-long insurgency in southeastern Turkey. 

On Monday, prominent journalist Erdem Gul was acquitted of charges of publishing state secrets. Last month, Mehmet Altan, a well-known writer, academic and Erdogan critic, was released from jail. Altan had been serving a life sentence on charges of helping the plotters behind the attempted coup. Both writers are widely seen as high-profile cases on freedom of expression.

Human rights groups point out the arrests and detentions of government critics continue.

Another court case in the spotlight is that of jailed U.S pastor Andrew Brunson, whose trial is due to resume in the western Turkish city of Izmir Wednesday. Brunson has been incarcerated for nearly two years under emergency rule on charges of supporting both the PKK and Fethullah Gulen.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Congress have described the Brunson case as baseless. 

“It’s (case) very important because it’s already an obstacle and sticking point between the two countries, having prompted the discussion about sanctions against Turkey,” Idiz said.​

​“Erdogan needed to maintain his image during the elections that he didn’t want to cave into international pressure. We have a very different situation now. He is in an insecure position now with his re-election. And the court will possibly take note of the situation,” said Idiz. Erdogan was re-elected last month in the vote that allows him to consolidate power.

Trump has until now headed off threats from Congress to sanction Turkey. Failure to release Brunson at Wednesday’s hearing could result in a rapid escalation in bilateral tensions. 

“Even Trump’s good graces may not be able to deter Congress from punishing Turkey. In that scenario, the relationship enters the proverbial “slippery slope,” Yesilada said.

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Europe Rights Court Censures Russia Over Journalist Murder Probe

The European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday ordered Russia to pay 20,000 euros ($23,442) in damages to relatives of murdered investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, saying it had failed to carry out an effective investigation into her killing.

Politkovskaya, a critic of the Kremlin, was shot dead in her apartment block in Moscow in 2006 in a killing opposition leaders blamed on the Kremlin. Russian authorities denied any role in her death.

In response to the decision by the Strasbourg-based court, the Russian Justice Ministry said on its website that the ruling had not taken effect and could be appealed against by the ministry within three months.

The court, which polices the European Convention on Human Rights, said in its ruling: “The State had failed to abide by its obligations … to carry out an effective investigation and the length of the proceedings had been too long.”

“The Court found in particular that while the authorities had found and convicted a group of men who had directly carried out the contract killing of Ms Politkovskaya, they had failed to take adequate investigatory steps to find the person or persons who had commissioned the murder.”

Politkovskaya’s killing drew attention to the risks faced by Russians who challenge the authorities and deepened Western concerns for the rule of law under President Vladimir Putin, who was then serving his second term.

Five men were convicted in 2014 of her murder. The defendants were three Chechen brothers, one of whom was accused of shooting Politkovskaya in the lobby of her Moscow apartment building on October 7, 2006, as well as their uncle and a former police officer. In December 2012 another former policeman had also been found guilty in her murder.

Rights activists and relatives of Politkovskaya have said that justice will not be done until those who ordered her contract-style killing are identified and convicted.


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Britain’s Official Brexit Campaign Fined for Campaign Violation

Britain’s Electoral Commission has fined the country’s official Brexit campaign group for violating campaign spending limits and referred the case to the police.

The commission said Tuesday that Vote Leave had exceeded its mandatory spending limit in its stunning victory in the 2016 referendum of $9.3 million by over $600,000.  It said Vote Leave worked with a BeLeave, a smaller pro-Brexit group, to get around campaign finance rules.

Bob Posner, the commission’s director of political finance and regulation, said there was substantial evidence that Vote Leave and BeLeave “worked to a common plan” and “did not declare their joint working.”

Posner said Vote Leave has been fined over $80,000 and referred the case to the police for false declarations of campaign spending.  

A spokesman for Vote Leave said the Electoral Commission’s report was filled with “a number of false accusations” and accused the commission of being “motivated by a political agenda.”



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Trump and Europe: Friend or Foe?

Europeans have reacted with a mixture of alarm and relief to Monday’s summit between President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

They are relieved the U.S. leader did not give away any aces but they remain queasy about Trump’s apparent eagerness to get on with the Russian leader while displaying to them a combativeness normally reserved for opponents rather than allies.

Their mood was downcast even before the summit kicked-off, disheartened by President Trump denouncing the European Union as a greater “foe” than Russia and China in a media interview just hours before the summit in Finland’s capital Helsinki.

Beforehand, there was alarm in Europe on whether the U.S. President would be lured by the more experienced and disciplined summiteer Putin into giving ground on the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula or Moscow’s fomenting of rebellion in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. But the Russian president apparently secured no concessions on Crimea, no public promise to re-admit Russia into the G7, and no reversal on Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

And Trump maintained opposition to the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline, which will be increasing Russian energy exports to Germany.

But what Trump described as a “deeply productive dialogue” and a first step in improving strained relations between the U.S. and Russia has prompted accusations in Europe that, in his eagerness to be an international deal-maker, he overlooks Kremlin aggression — including alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 White House race.

The summit dominated the front pages of Europe’s newspapers Tuesday with Spain’s ABC running a full-page picture of the leaders of the world’s biggest nuclear-armed nations shaking hands, under the tart headline: “Trump and Putin: Such friends.” The paper said the two leaders had buried the Cold War and the issue of Russian interference in America’s election — at least “for now.”

Another Spanish newspaper, El País, said Trump was befriending Putin while bashing the EU. And Belgium’s Le Soir argued Trump had “aligned himself” with Putin over his own authorities on the subject of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Some newspapers were less indignant. Belgium’s De Morgen wrote that the leaders were “working on their relationship” in a story headlined: “On to a better future.”

But Britain’s Daily Telegraph, a newspaper that has generally been sympathetic to Trump, especially over his spats with Europe, said the U.S. leader’s aim to establish peace was laudable. At the same time, it warned the summit was a big win for the Kremlin.

“By affording him [Putin] the trappings of an equal partner Mr. Trump has given President Putin what he craved most: respect… The relationship has been reset without the Russians having to change anything,” the paper said in an editorial.

The reaction of European leaders and officials to Trump has been subdued. Few have gone public with their thoughts, preferring to stay out of the furious fight between the U.S. president and his critics in the U.S. over the summit. But privately there is indignation at Trump’s blaming the West as much as Russia for the strained relations, with German officials saying the summit advances their fears of a widening rift between Europe and Trump-led America.

Privately, they worry that Trump’s determination to forge a personal bond with Putin is adding to a shift in the dynamics of America’s relationship with Europe. “I am relieved there were no concessions,” said a senior British diplomat. “But it is unnerving to see the U.S. President being friendlier with Putin than with America’s traditional allies,” he said.

Speaking to Britain’s Sky News, Jeremy Greenstock, a former British ambassador to the U.N., said he regarded Trump’s effort to forge better relations with Putin a “good thing.” But faulted the U.S. leader, saying, “he is doing it naively and is taking too much from President Putin at face value.”

Coming on the back of a pre-summit interview during which Trump described the EU as a “foe,” European officials and analysts are still scrambling to understand what he meant and whether the U.S. and Europe are set on a path of separation.

Some officials console themselves by saying Trump seems to use “foe” and “competitor” as interchangeable. And they point to the formal paperwork of diplomacy as more reassuring, like the 23-page communique agreed at last week’s NATO summit, which reaffirmed the alliance’s principle of collective defense and rebuked Russia.

“We are confronted with that dilemma that we have often had with the Trump administration,” said Mark Leonard of the European Council for Foreign Relations.

“The president is a raging bull, he makes all sorts of statements, yet the policy beneath him doesn’t look that dramatically different than traditional American policy. And so people are left trying to figure out who they should believe — the policy or the President of the United States.”

In some ways, the Europeans have no alternative but to hold fast to the idea that the transatlantic relationship remains solid — their security assumptions are based on it and they are not ready to go it alone, say analysts.

In the margins of last week’s summit, U.S. senators and government officials went out of their way to reassure America’s formal European allies and to soothe frayed nerves, saying they should discount Trump’s freewheeling statements and not interpret them at face value, arguing it is the way he wheels-and-deals, pursuing tactics of disruption to get what he wants. “It isn’t personal; it is business, I was told by a White House aide,” a European minister told VOA.

Cutting through Trump’s transactional approach, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis reaffirmed the “unbreakable trans-Atlantic bond,” underscoring after NATO’s tumultuous summit Washington’s enduring commitment to peace and prosperity on the European continent at a meeting of southern European security ministers in Zagreb, Croatia.

But some European officials see an emerging trend with U.S. policy decisions and actual decisions being colored — or telegraphed — by the presidential tweets, pointing to Trump’s early social-media threats of a trade war with Europe and his subsequent hiking of tariffs on imported European metals.

“President Trump has personally made criticism of Europe, and particularly the European Union, pivotal to his foreign policy,” according to Robin Niblett of Britain’s Chatham House. “Europe is the poster child for his thesis that America has been taken advantage of for the past 30 years,” Niblett said in an expert comment posted on the Chatham House web-site.

“Trump doesn’t believe in allies,” argued Mark Leonard in a podcast. “If you think about America First and you think about the transactional approach, it means you work with the countries you can work with at that moment. You don’t really have long-term relationships. Allies are a problem. They are sort of like relatives who show up at your house to borrow money and stay all day and won’t leave your pool,” he says.


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US Reporter Forcibly Removed Prior to Trump-Putin Press Conference

A man who identified himself as a working journalist was escorted out a room where a joint press conference in Helsinki between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin was scheduled to be held.

Sam Husseini had received press credentials for the event through U.S.-based magazine The Nation. Husseini was holding up a sign that read, “Nuclear weapons test ban.”

“At a time when this administration consistently denigrates the media, we’re troubled by reports that he was forcibly removed from the press conference before the two leaders began to take questions,” a statement by the magazine read.

Husseini has written one article for The Nation, in June 2017. According to his biography on the website, he is the communications director for the Institute for Public Accuracy, a nonprofit organization aiming to increase “the reach and capacity of progressive and grassroots organizations … by getting them and their ideas into the mainstream media,” according to the institute’s website.

Husseini was forcefully removed from the press conference site by the U.S. Secret Service but was allowed to return to gather his belongings, CNN reported. According to video of the incident, Husseini said he was there to ask a question rather than protest.

“You’re grabbing me for what?” Husseini could be heard asking. “I’m telling you what I’m doing. I’m being totally open.”

Both Trump and Putin have been criticized for their hostile nature toward journalists. Trump has repeatedly called journalists “the enemy of the American people,” while more than 30 journalists have been murdered in Russia since Putin came to power in 2000, according to PolitiFact.



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Italy Allows Ships With Hundreds of Migrants to Dock in Sicily

Hundreds of migrants aboard two border patrol ships were allowed to disembark in the Sicilian port of Pozzallo early Monday after a half dozen European countries promised to take in some of them, rather than have Italy process their asylum claims alone.

After two days at sea and a very long night, the 450 migrants aboard the Italian ship Monte Sperone and the British naval vessel Protector finally disembarked at dawn. They had been picked up from an overcrowded boat that left Libya on Friday. Among them were 128 unaccompanied minors.

The ships, one operated by EU border agency Frontex and the other by Italy’s tax police, were given permission to bring the mainly Eritrean and Somali migrants into port only after other European Union countries agreed to accept more than half of them, ending a diplomatic standoff that had left them stuck at sea.

Roberto Ammatuna, the mayor of Pozzallo, said he does not expect that the migrants can be moved for a few days. He said many are suffering from scabies and that there are many minors. He said it may be necessary to wait a few more days before they are transferred to other European countries or other holding centers in Italy.

As the migrants disembarked, at least eight suspected people-smugglers were driven away in police cars.

The office of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said, “Today we can say that for the first time migrants are landing in Europe” after France, Malta, Germany, Spain and Portugal each agreed to take in 50 of the 450 migrants who landed at Pozzallo.”

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who initially closed Italy’s ports to the migrants, said “Italy is no longer Europe’s refugee camp; it is a political victory,” adding that “firmness and consistency pay off.” He stressed the need for Libya to be recognized as a safe port for migrants.

Speaking in Moscow where he attended the World Cup soccer final, Salvini said Italy would discuss with its European partners the need to legitimately rescue, save and assist everyone, but then to take them back to where they left from.

The European Commission said it shared the sense of urgency voiced in a letter on migrants from Prime Minister Conte to European Council President Donald Tusk and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. The commission also welcomed the six EU member states that have decided to take in some of the migrants.

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Tens of Thousands Welcome Croatia Home After World Cup Final

In an outburst of national pride and joy, Croatia rolled out a red carpet and staged a euphoric heroes’ welcome for the national team on Monday despite its loss to France in the World Cup final.

Tens of thousands of people wearing national red-and-white checkered colors and waving Croatian flags poured into the streets in the capital Zagreb to greet the players, many coming to the city from other parts of the country.

The joyful, singing crowd crammed the central squares or lined up along the route where the players passed in an open bus, greeting the fans along the way and signing autographs.

Police said about 100,000 people came out in central Zagreb and as many along the route. The players’ bus traveled for hours, often stopping when it was blocked by the crowds.

Fans honking car horns, waving and shouting “Bravo! Bravo!” welcomed the bus as it slowly left the airport. The inscription at the front read: “Fiery heart, the pride of Croatia!” in reference to the name “The Fiery” as the team is dubbed at home.

As the bus went by, fans followed on bicycles or on foot, waving. Large players’ photos were displayed along the way amid a cacophony of noise and cheers.

Earlier, Croatian air force jets escorted the plane carrying the team from Russia as it entered the country’s air space and flew over Zagreb.

“Champions! Champions!” roared the crowds as the players came out of the plane to a red carpet on the tarmac at Zagreb airport.

The country of four million people has been gripped in euphoria since its team beat England to reach its first World Cup final, where Croatia lost to France 4-2 on Sunday.

The success has been described as the biggest in Croatia’s sporting history, boosting national pride and sense of unity in the country that fought a war to become independent from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Now a member of the European Union, Croatia’s economy remains weak and people have been leaving the country looking for a more secure future elsewhere.

“I can’t even begin to explain what this has meant for Croatian unity,” President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic told The Associated Press in Moscow on Sunday. “I hope that this … will boost the country’s economic development and bring new jobs and young people back to the country.”

Grabar-Kitarovic said Croatia, despite its size, has managed to make a difference in sports, along with science and culture.

“I’m so proud not only of our football team, I’m so proud of our nation,” she said.

Croatia’s state railway company halved ticket prices so fans could travel to Zagreb, while city authorities said public transportation would be free on Monday.

State TV urged citizens to come out and enjoy “the historic moment” of the players’ return, while other media described the players as “our heroes.”

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5 EU Countries to Share Some of 450 Stranded Migrants

Five EU countries have agreed to accept some of the nearly 450 migrants being transported aboard two military ships stuck off the coast of Sicily, Italian Prime Minister Giueseppe Conte said Sunday.

Germany, Spain and Portugal each agreed Sunday to accept 50 of the migrants after France and Malta agreed to do the same on Saturday.

But the Czech Republic rebuffed the appeal, calling the distribution plan a “road to hell.”  

The two ships, one belonging to the European Union border agency Frontex and another to the Italian border police, have been stranded in Italian waters after hardline Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said the vessels should be sent to Malta, “or better Libya,” from where the migrants had originally set sail.

Italy’s new populist government, which came to power on June 1, has upended years of migrant policy by banning ships run by migration charities from docking in Italian ports, accusing them of aiding human traffickers.

Salvini, who has vowed not to take in any more migrants unless the burden is shared by other EU countries, repeated that Sunday, telling reporters the “aim was for brotherly redistribution” of the 450 rescued passengers on the two ships.

The number of migrants arriving in Italy so far this year is down about 80 percent compared to 2017. Salvini has vowed to stop all arrivals except for war refugees and a few other exceptions.


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