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Turkey: 6 Journalists Sentenced to Life Over Failed Coup

Turkey’s state-run news agency says a court in Istanbul has sentenced six journalists accused of involvement in a 2016 coup attempt to life prison terms.

Anadolu Agency says those sentenced Friday include Ahmet Altan, the former editor-in-chief of Taraf newspaper, his brother, journalist and academic Mehmet Altan, and prominent journalist Nazli Ilicak.

The journalists were accused of links to U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey blames for the July 15, 2016, failed coup. Gulen denies the accusation.

The defendants were charged with attempts against Turkey’s constitution and membership in a terror organization. 

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White House Blames Russia for ‘NotPetya’ Cyber Attack

The White House on Thursday blamed Russia for the devastating “NotPetya” cyber attack last year, joining the British government in condemning

Moscow for unleashing a virus that crippled parts of Ukraine’s infrastructure and damaged computers in countries across the globe.

The attack in June of 2017 “spread worldwide, causing billions of dollars in damage across Europe, Asia and the Americas,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

“It was part of the Kremlin’s ongoing effort to destabilize Ukraine and demonstrates ever more clearly Russia’s involvement in the ongoing conflict,” Sanders added. “This was also a reckless and indiscriminate cyber attack that will be met with international consequences.”

The U.S. government is “reviewing a range of options,” a senior White House official said when asked about the consequences for Russia’s actions.

Earlier on Thursday, Russia denied an accusation by the British government that it was behind the attack, saying it was part of a “Russophobic” campaign that it said was being waged by some Western countries.

The so-called NotPetya attack in June started in Ukraine where it crippled government and business computers before spreading around Europe and the world, halting operations atports, factories and offices.

Britain’s foreign ministry said in a statement released earlier in the day that the attack originated from the Russian military.

“The decision to publicly attribute this incident underlines the fact that the UK and its allies will not tolerate malicious cyber activity,” the ministry said in a statement.

“The attack masqueraded as a criminal enterprise but its purpose was principally to disrupt,” it said.

“Primary targets were Ukrainian financial, energy and government sectors. Its indiscriminate design caused it to spread further, affecting other European and Russian business.”

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Russia Blocks Opposition Leader Navalny’s Website

Russia’s communications providers on Thursday blocked access to the website of opposition leader Alexei Navalny on orders of the state communications watchdog.

Navalny announced the move via his Twitter account, which was still accessible. Users going to the website were told it could not be reached.

The agency, Roskomnadzor, had demanded that Navalny remove a video alleging that Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko received lavish hospitality from billionaire Oleg Deripaska.

Deripaska rejected the report and won a court ruling that ordered Navalny to remove the investigation as an unlawful intrusion into the tycoon’s privacy. Navalny refused, and appealed the ruling.

A statement Thursday from Deripaska’s Basic Element company said: “Mr. Deripaska’s claim is to protect his right to privacy, and has nothing to do with any political struggle between Mr. Navalny and his political opponents.”

Navalny’s investigation drew from the social media account of a woman who claims to have had an affair with Deripaska.

The woman, who calls herself Nastya Rybka, has written a book about her work as an escort and said on Russian television last year she had been hired by a modeling agency to spend time at Deripaska’s yacht.

Instagram on Thursday had removed some of Rybka’s posts following Roskomnadzor’s request, but a YouTube video of Navalny’s investigation that has generated over 5 million views remained available.

Rybka posted several videos in 2016 showing Deripaska on his yacht talking with Prikhodko. In one snippet, Deripaska explains to the woman why relations between Russia and the United States are so bad.

Deripaska has been linked to U.S. President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who has been indicted in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

Navalny, the most vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, wanted to run against him in Russia’s March 18 presidential election, but was barred because of a fraud conviction in a case that many see as politically motivated.

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Russian Mother Grieves for Son Killed by US Strike in Syria

For Russian mother Farkhanur Gavrilova, the blow came a week ago when an acquaintance called her to say that her son was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Syria that pitted Russian and U.S. combatants against each other for the first time in the Syrian war.

Gavrilova’s son, 37-year-old Ruslan Gavrilov, was one of seven men in this central Russian village of 2,300 who are believed to have joined a private military company called Wagner. The company reportedly was involved in a Feb. 7 attack on U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria and suffered devastating losses in a U.S. counterstrike.

On the morning of Feb. 8, she said, her son’s colleague called to say he was told by an unidentified caller that Ruslan had died in the Feb. 7 airstrike.

“He was torn to pieces,” said Gavrilova, 67, speaking Thursday in her sparsely furnished apartment. “If he was alive — he is a plucky guy — he would have tried to call.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday for the first time acknowledged that five Russians had been killed by the U.S. strike in Syria, emphasizing they weren’t on active military duty. Previously, both Russian and U.S. officials said they had no information on Russian casualties in the clash.

Russian forces are supporting the Syrian government in the fight against opposition groups, some of which are backed by the United States, and elements of both sides are fighting the last remnants of the Islamic State group in Syria. Moscow and Washington long have feared a collision between Russian and U.S. combatants in Syria and sought to prevent it by maintaining a regular communications link between the militaries.

Observers blame the Feb. 7 clash on a lack of coordination between the Russian military and private military contractors in Syria.

Along with the Russian military, thousands of Russians have also reportedly fought in Syria as private contractors. That allows the Kremlin to keep the official death toll from its Syrian military campaign low, helping to avoid negative publicity as President Vladimir Putin runs for re-election in Russia’s March 18 presidential vote.

Lure of high pay

Gavrilova said she had tried to dissuade her son, who was remodeling apartments, from going to Syria but he was lured by a promise of a high pay.

“Why did they leave? Because of poverty, to make money,” Gavrilova said.

Russian law forbids the hiring of mercenaries or working as one.

Putin declared victory in Syria on a visit to a Russian military base there in December, and ordered a partial pullout of troops. Many Russian politicians and commentators long have assailed the Kremlin for failing to acknowledge the Russian contractors’ presence in Syria.

A push for oil assets appears to have been the top mission for Russian private contractors in Syria. The Associated Press last year obtained a copy of a contract between a Russian company and the Syrian government that would give the Russians a 25 percent cut of the proceeds from the oil fields they capture and guard.

Unlike many other military contractors with previous experience of fighting alongside Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, Gavrilova’s son hadn’t even done his military service.

“I thought they went there to do some odd jobs,” Gavrilova said. “They did not even undergo medical tests. He called me from Krasnodar and asked: `Mother, what is my blood type?”‘

The Krasnodar region in southern Russia hosts a training base for the Wagner company on the grounds of a Russian Defense Ministry installation, according to social media evidence and testimony of the relatives. A listing for the company could not be found to seek comment.

Gavrilova and a relative of another Wagner fighter said the men from Kedrovoye all traveled to Krasnodar before traveling to Syria.

Others fighting, dying

Asked if she knew anyone else in the village whose family members were fighting in Syria, Gavrilova pointed at a two-story house just across the yard. Yevgeny Berdyshev, interviewed there, quoted his half brother Alexander Potapov as saying he was driven to go to Syria by “patriotic sentiment.”

“He would say: ‘Putin is waging the right war. He’s killing IS fighters.’ But I understand, of course, that he didn’t have a choice,” Berdyshev said.

Potapov, a 54-year-old father of two, had fought in two separatist wars in Chechnya. Yet work was hard to come by, especially because he was no longer young, and had a hand injury and a criminal conviction, Berdyshev said. Potapov worked at a sawmill before he left in October last year with Gavrilov.

Starved of reliable information about Russians in Syria, the residents in Kedrovoye, 1,400 kilometers (880 miles) east of Moscow, are getting together, compiling lists of who went to Syria and exchanging any news they get from the men’s associates.

Potapov’s brother showed a piece of paper with six names of other locals now in Syria.

One more, Igor Kosoturov, originally from the nearby town of Asbest but linked to Kedrovoye people, is also believed to have been killed in Syria. Natalya Krylova, a local legislator in Asbest, confirmed Kosoturov’s death.

Krylova, who has been friends with him for several decades, said the 45-year-old Kosoturov went to fight alongside Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine in 2015 and received the town’s award for a “humanitarian mission” there.

Oleg Surnin, head of a paramilitary Cossack group in Asbest, said by phone it was “evident” that Kosoturov and another Asbest resident, Stanislav Matveyev, were killed in the U.S. airstrike on Feb. 7, but he wouldn’t elaborate.

The grieving families are waiting for those who survived the U.S. strike to come home and describe what happened to the others.

“At first, everyone was weeping out loud, but how long can you cry?” Gavrilova said. “It’s the uncertainty that’s gnawing at me.”

She said she couldn’t understand why Russian men ended up on a battlefield in Syria if they were not part of the Russian army.

“Why were they taken away? Why does this organization exist?” she asked.

Berdyshev is indignant about the Russian government’s refusal to even acknowledge the existence of the private contractors.

“They do exist,” he said. “The government sends in troops, it is responsible for its actions. They sent in the troops, they sent back the troops, but actually there are still some [Russians], and it’s all secretive.”

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Violence during Rio Carnival Spotlights Security Woes

A series of muggings, armed robberies and confrontations during Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival celebrations are underscoring the deteriorating security situation in the city. 

TV Globo on Wednesday showed videos of gunfire between rival drug gangs, teenagers punching tourists in areas usually considered relatively safe and a policeman narrowly escaping after several people attacked him in front of his home.

Rio state Gov. Luiz Fernando Pezao acknowledged there weren’t enough police on hand during the first couple days of Carnival, though more than 17,000 policemen worked in Rio state each day during the festivities. 

“We were not prepared. There was a failure on the first two days, and then we brought backup for police. I think there has been a mistake in our part,” Pezao said. 

Statistics from the Friday to Tuesday bash have not yet been released. However, Pezao said the number of firearms confiscated by authorities was “incredible.” 

A year after hosting the 2016 Olympics, Rio is experiencing a spike in violence. Days before Carnival, rival drug gangs closed key arteries of the city. 

Last year Rio used almost 12,000 policemen during Carnival, but it also counted on the help of 9,000 members of the country’s armed forces. This time there was no federal aid during the bash.

Politicians avoided Rio during one of the most political Carnivals in Brazil’s history, with revelers targeting Pezao, President Michel Temer and especially Mayor Marcelo Crivella, an evangelical bishop who is no fan of the party and left the city for Europe.

Beija-Flor de Nilopolis won the samba-school parade title on Wednesday in Rio’s Sambadrome using corruption as a theme. One of its floats portrayed a rat below the building of state-oil Petrobras, which is at the center of a corruption scandal that has engulfed politicians across Latin America. 

Crowd favorite Paraiso do Tuiuti finished in a surprising second place, likely because of its political tone. The samba-school’s anti-slavery theme attacked Temer’s labor reform and the president himself. One of Tuiuti’s floats featured a vampire wearing a presidential sash. 

Next week Temer, whose popularity is at single-digits, wants to push through a reform of Brazil’s pension system. Analysts have said bill is unlikely to pass with October’s presidential election approaching. The Carnival atmosphere did not help the president make his case for austerity.

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VOA Interview: US Envoy Discusses Next Moves in Battle Against IS

Brett McGurk, the U.S. special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter the Islamic State group, has been meeting with partners in Kuwait this week, looking to build on the gains the alliance has made in countering and, in many instances, crushing IS militants in Iraq and Syria. VOA’s U.N. Correspondent Margaret Besheer spoke with McGurk about where the fight against Islamic State goes next.

 

Besheer: “Special Envoy, welcome. So you just had this meeting here in Kuwait. Is there a long-term political and strategic road map for countering ISIS and making sure it doesn’t regroup and re-emerge in Iraq and Syria?”

McGurk: “Well, in terms of countering ISIS (IS), you have to take into account where we were three years ago. I remember being here in Kuwait three years ago where nobody thought they’d be able to take back territory from ISIS. They were controlling, really, basically a quasi-state with 7 million people. They were planning attacks all around the world. They were committing acts of genocide, and they were approaching the capital of Baghdad. So, since then, almost 100 percent of their territory has been taken back, and most important, they haven’t reclaimed any of these areas. So in Iraq — the focus of the meetings today, really — 100 percent of the territory in Iraq has been reclaimed from ISIS, so that’s quite extraordinary.

But you ask about whether this will be sustainable. I think I’ll make three points. Number one, they haven’t retaken any territory. Number two, in areas that they have lost, 3.2 million Iraqis — these are almost all Sunni Arabs who fled ISIS — are back in their homes. That’s an unprecedented rate of returns in a post-conflict environment like this.

WATCH: US Envoy Discusses Next Moves in Battle Against IS

And now, today, the third point I make is you see really the entire world coming to help Iraq get back on its feet. And the underpinning of this is an initiative of the Iraqi government with the World Bank. So they have put out to the world, just Monday here in Kuwait, their 10-year vision. It’s a 10-year plan of reconstruction, investment, and the foundational kind of landmark event here to get this started is today. This is just a — this is not the end of the road. It’s really the beginning of the road of a 10-year process of recovery, but I think it’s an encouraging start.

Besheer: But at the same time, [U.S.] Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson announced, I think, it was $200 million for newly liberated areas in Syria, but none for the newly liberated areas in Iraq. So how does that play into that strategy?

​McGurk: Well, we’re the number one contributor to humanitarian aid in Iraq. We’re the number one contributor in stabilization assistance in Iraq. We’re the number one contributor in military support in Iraq. A lot of our support is still in the pipeline, so of course we have a budgetary cycle of the way these things go, but we also announced yesterday — Secretary Tillerson announced an important signing of the Iraqi Minister of Finance with the EXIM Bank [the Export-Import Bank of the United States, the government’s official export credit agency] ​— about $3.3 billion to support financing for U.S. companies to do business in Iraq. And U.S. companies in Iraq are doing quite well. I mean, General Electric helps provide for almost 60 percent of all of electricity generation in Iraq. So, look, this is going to be a long-term effort.

The one point I want to make out of the conference here, because I’ve read some stories about, well, this is just a one-day event and they have to try to raise $10 billion — that’s not the case. Iraq put out a figure on Monday here that they need about $80 billion over the next 10 years to help finance their reconstruction. They also made very clear that most of their reconstruction assistance will come from their own budget, their own reform process — working with the IMF [International Monetary Fund], working with the World Bank, to reform their own mechanisms. So, they’re really not asking for handouts. They’re asking for a hand up to get themselves moving, and I think so far — of course, the meeting is still going on here, right down the hall — I think so far, the responses have been quite encouraging.

Besheer: So what do you think the game changer has been in the progress you’ve made against ISIS in Iraq and Syria? What was the key to it? Was it the choking [of] the funding or the military or a combination — I mean, what was the game changer?

McGurk: Well, I can go through a whole strategy. We have five lines of effort in the global strategy — we can go through that.

I want to make two points when it comes to Iraq. Number one, a very different way to fight the war on the ground. So when we say by, with and through, we really mean it. This was Iraqi-led. The Iraqis did the fighting, the Iraqis cleared their cities. It was the Iraqis who then held the cities and held the ground, the Iraqis working with local communities. The U.S. forces, coalition forces, were behind helping them and assisting them; we were not doing the fighting on the ground. And I think that model has actually proven to be quite effective.

Number two, we did an awful lot of diplomacy, and a lot of it behind the scenes — but not only to get the whole world organized to combat ISIS globally, to fight their networks, the finances, the foreign fighters, but also to have the region engage with Iraq. So, some of the biggest contributors here just down the hall today are really quite amazing. Turkey, one of the biggest contributors today — $5 billion of reconstruction assistance to Iraq. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE [United Arab Emirates], Kuwait, of course, with $2 billion. If you add all that up, it comes to a little less than $10 billion or so. UAE announced a fairly extraordinary private sector investment of $5 billion for an Iraqi housing project outside Baghdad. So, this engagement from the region was really not happening some years ago, and I give credit really to [Iraqi] Prime Minister [Haider al-]Abadi and his government. They reached out to the region and they helped build some bridges that had been closed.

So Saudi Arabia — you used the word “game changer.” I don’t really use that word too often, but Saudi Arabia for the first time in 30 years reopened its borders with Iraq a few months ago, direct flights from Saudi Arabia into Iraq for the first time in 30 years, and then you saw the investment the Saudis are just making now in Iraq. So, those are the types of shifts that are quite important and that we want to try to encourage to make sure that the defeat of ISIS is enduring.

Besheer: So, ISIS may be down and out in Iraq and Syria, but not so much in places like Libya, West Africa, Afghanistan. So how are you going to replicate the success you’ve had to date in those places? Is it a similar model or does it change with the environment?

​McGurk: It’s a great question. So each region is different, and we look at this — we look at this very carefully. I mean, every single day, 24/7, we’re looking at how the networks are emerging, where people are moving, how they’re getting money. So the one thing we have to do, of course: ISIS tries to be a global network. That’s what makes it different than kind of other terrorist organizations. It has become a metastasized global network. And so what we had to do was build a global network to fight the network. So, yesterday here just in Kuwait, we had all now 75 members of our coalition — Philippines joined just yesterday, so one of the largest coalitions in history — united to work together against this threat. And that’s the counterideology, the countermessaging. It’s the counterfinancing, it’s the counter-foreign fighters. And then we look at each different region of the world and who among the coalition wants to take the lead in that part of the world, and what particular tools might be needed, say, in Philippines versus Afghanistan versus in Iraq.

So every place is different, but by building this international consensus and this international coalition, that’s really the only way to stay ahead of the threat. We’re making progress, but the number one message yesterday in our coalition meetings is that we’ve made a lot of progress in the last three years, there’s no question — but this is not over. And that was the point from almost every delegation we heard yesterday: This isn’t over. We remain united as a coalition. We actually approved — all 75 delegations — a document called The Guiding Principles to guide the coalition as we go forward into the next year. And the key point of that is that this isn’t just about Iraq and Syria, it’s about the global campaign. So there was real unanimity in that room yesterday, led by Secretary Tillerson. And so you know, we’re going to stay at it. This isn’t over, and we’re going to keep our foot on the accelerator.

Besheer: Finally, I just like to ask you about accountability, because that’s a big issue. They found massive graves in liberated areas in Iraq, ISIL/ISIS-liberated areas. What about accountability for the victims of ISIS?

McGurk: So, this is also worth reminding people, what was happening in some of these areas not very long ago — you know, mass atrocities, acts of genocide, destroying our common heritage, thousands of young girls taken hostage and many of them are still missing, and we still meet with the families and we do all we can to find leads to try to rescue as many girls as we possibly can.

But, look, it gets back to the point I just made: We cannot rest against this enemy, and that means not only defeating them, but also following through and making sure that their defeat is enduring and they can’t come back, and that justice is done to those who committed these terrible crimes.

In Syria now, you know, they’re all trying to escape, so we have in Syria detained over 400 foreign fighters, including some of the most notorious former ISIS leaders, and we’re going to make sure that they can never get out. And we’re working with coalition countries and partners, if they happen to be their citizens, about how they are going to be prosecuted, how they’re going to be handled. This is a very difficult issue within our coalition. But we are very much determined that justice will be done for these terrible crimes.

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Dutch Foreign Minister Resigns After Admitting Lie

Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra resigned Tuesday after admitting he had lied about attending a 2006 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Zijlstra went before members of parliament and said he had decided to step down because the foreign minister’s credibility must be “beyond doubt.”

He held the position for about four months.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte faced questions about why he had not made the lie public despite having known about it for several weeks. He said he underestimated the impact it would have.

Parliament held a no-confidence vote Tuesday, but Rutte easily survived.

The scandal involving Zijlstra risks undermining Dutch foreign policy at a time when diplomatic ties between the Netherlands and Russia have deteriorated, largely over the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine, allegedly by pro-Russian separatists. Most of the 298 people who died in the crash were Dutch. 

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