Resuming talks with Russia, Blinken offers ‘substantial’ deal on prisoners

Resuming talks with Russia, Blinken offers ‘substantial’ deal on prisoners
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference at the State Department in Washington, DC, on July 27, 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 01 August 2022

Resuming talks with Russia, Blinken offers ‘substantial’ deal on prisoners

Resuming talks with Russia, Blinken offers ‘substantial’ deal on prisoners
  • President Joe Biden has faced growing pressure to free Griner, who faces up to 10 years in prison

WASHINGTON: The US has made “a substantial offer” to Russia to release US citizens detained there, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday, adding that he would be pressing his Russian counterpart to respond in a conversation planned for the coming days.
Washington offered Moscow a deal to bring home WNBA star Brittney Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan weeks ago, Blinken said at a State Department news conference, and hoped to advance the process when he speaks to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.
“There was a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal. And I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and I hope move us toward a resolution,” Blinken said.
The pair “have been wrongfully detained and must be allowed to come home,” Blinken told reporters.
Citing the sensitivity, he declined to say what the US was offering in return. CNN reported that Washington was willing to exchange Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25 year-prison sentence in the US, as part of a deal to secure the release of the two Americans.
Asked if US President Joe Biden was involved in the process, Blinken said: “He signs off on any proposal that we make. Certainly when it comes to Americans who are being arbitrarily detained abroad, including this specific case.”
The US and Russia already engaged in one prisoner swap in the heat of the Ukraine war: In April Washington exchanged former US Marine Trevor Reed for convicted drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko.
President Joe Biden has faced growing pressure to free Griner, who faces up to 10 years in prison and whose wife earlier accused the administration of doing too little.
Whelan, a security official at an auto parts company, was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 and in 2020 sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage, which he denies.
Whelan’s family welcomed news of the US offer. “We hope the Russian government responds to the US government and accepts this or some other concession that enables Paul to come home to his family,” David Whelan, Paul’s brother, said in a statement.
The telephone conversation will be the first between Blinken and Lavrov since February 15 when the top US diplomat warned Russia against invading Ukraine.
President Vladimir Putin went ahead and attacked nine days later, leading the US and its allies to impose sweeping sanctions and to seek to isolate Russia on the world stage.
The conversation “will not be a negotiation about Ukraine,” Blinken told reporters.
“Any negotiation regarding Ukraine is for its people and people to determine,” he said.
Blinken said the US — which has been pouring billions in military aid into Ukraine — was “under no illusion” that Russia was ready to engage “meaningfully and constructively” to end the war.
“In the meantime, we’ll continue to do all that we can to strengthen Ukraine’s position on the battlefield,” he said.
Blinken said he would urge Russia to fulfill a breakthrough agreement reached last week in Turkey to allow the release of Ukrainian grain after a blockade has sent global food prices soaring.
“Hundreds of millions of people are waiting for these ships to set forth from Ukraine’s ports,” Blinken said.
He also said he would warn of further consequences if Russia annexes more Ukrainian territory. Moscow in 2014 seized Crimea and declared the peninsula to be part of Russia, a decision not recognized by most of the world.
The White House recently said that Russia was laying the groundwork for “sham referenda” in areas it seized, possibly as early as September.
Blinken pointedly declined to meet Lavrov when they both attended Group of 20 talks earlier this month in Bali, with the US rallying its allies in criticizing Russia in the closed-door sessions.
Griner, a two-time Olympic basketball gold medalist and Women’s NBA champion who had played in Russia, was detained just days before Moscow launched its offensive.
She has pleaded guilty to drug charges over possessing vape cartridges with cannabis oil and said that she had brought in banned drugs unintentionally.
Speaking at her trial in Khimki, just outside Moscow, Griner said she still did not know how the cartridges ended up in her bag and had no intention to use them.
“I did not think of or plan to bring banned substances into Russia,” said Griner, wearing a Phoenix Mercury T-shirt and black basketball trousers.
“I did not intend to break Russian law,” she added, saying that she was in a rush packing and tired after a recovery from Covid.
“I wouldn’t do anything that would hurt my team.”
(With AFP and Reuters)


Why Bangladesh is seeking Saudi oil on credit after IMF success

Why Bangladesh is seeking Saudi oil on credit after IMF success
Updated 8 min ago

Why Bangladesh is seeking Saudi oil on credit after IMF success

Why Bangladesh is seeking Saudi oil on credit after IMF success
  • Bangladeshi government asks Kingdom to supply oil on deferred payment basis
  • Request follows IMF approval of $4.7bn stabilization package for South Asian nation

DHAKA: After securing a stabilization package from the International Monetary Fund this week, Bangladesh has asked Saudi Arabia for extended credit on oil supplies, in a move that experts say would further help its economy get back on track.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen met Riyadh’s Ambassador to Dhaka, Essa Al-Duhailan, earlier this week. The foreign ministry said after the meeting that Momen had asked the Kingdom to consider supplying crude and refined oil “on a deferred payment basis” to help Bangladesh meet its energy needs.

The request came shortly after the IMF approved a $4.7 billion loan for Bangladesh.

“Bangladesh is now passing through a period of constrained foreign exchange reserves and is having difficulty in terms of opening LCs (letters of credit) and also in terms of paying for our imports,” Prof. Mustafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka, told Arab News on Friday.

“If we can get Saudi oil on a deferred payment basis, it will ease up Bangladesh’s foreign exchange reserves and help Bangladesh in terms of purchasing other necessary imports which require instantaneous payment.”

The IMF’s Extended Credit Facility and Extended Fund Facility package approved for Bangladesh on Jan. 30 are likely to boost the country’s outlook among its creditors, including Saudi Arabia, and demonstrate its capacity to pay back.

Unlike other regional countries, such as crisis-hit Sri Lanka and Pakistan, Bangladesh did not ask the fund for a bailout loan. The approved arrangements are a stabilization package to fund structural reform, ensure balance-of-payment stability, and a stable and sustainable economic position.

“The IMF granting of $4.7 billion will be helpful in providing positive signals to our development partners that the fundamentals of the Bangladeshi economy remain strong, and that Bangladesh is also ready to take up reforms,” Rahman said.

“From that perspective, it will also be helpful in projecting to Saudi Arabia that while we are asking for deferred payment, the Bangladeshi economy will be able to sustain good foreign reserves and when the negotiated time comes, we will be able to pay.”

Besides taking the pressure off its dollar reserves, the extended credit on oil supplies would also help Bangladesh with energy security. The South Asian nation, which is dependent on imported liquefied natural gas, has been struggling with an energy crisis in recent months.

Since mid-July, the government has been resorting to daily power cuts amid high global prices driven up by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Industries that do not receive sufficient power to run their operations have been forced to remain idle for several hours a day. In early October, about 80 percent of Bangladesh’s 168 million people were left without electricity after a grid failure caused by fuel shortages to over a third of the country’s gas-powered units.

Saudi Arabia supplies more than half of Bangladesh’s crude imports.

“We are bringing in oil, which is our regular, normal import, because our transport sector is fully dependent on this oil, and also partially our production,” said Prof. Mohammad Tamim, dean of chemical and material engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.

Importing energy and ensuring its uninterrupted supply are crucial to keeping the Bangladeshi economy afloat and helping it stabilize while other reforms requested by the IMF are implemented to fix structural problems.

“There is a lot of pressure in terms of importing energy products, so it’s very important that we keep supplying oil so that there is no disruption in economic activity,” Tamim said.

“Deferred payment will definitely help Bangladesh in tackling the dollar crunch now.”


Indian state arrests 1,800 people in child marriage crackdown

Indian state arrests 1,800 people in child marriage crackdown
Updated 03 February 2023

Indian state arrests 1,800 people in child marriage crackdown

Indian state arrests 1,800 people in child marriage crackdown
  • 31.8 percent of women in Assam were married before the legal age
  • Police expect to arrest about 8,000 during week-long drive

NEW DELHI: Police in India’s northeaster state of Assam arrested hundreds of people on Friday in a crackdown on those marrying or arranging marriages with children.
The minimum legal age for Indians to marry is 18 for women and 21 for men, but the practice of child marriage remains widespread in parts of the country, especially Assam. According to India’s latest National Family Health Survey, 31.8 percent of women in the state were married before the legal age, compared with the national average of 23.3 percent.
In some districts of Assam, more than half of married women were married before 18.
The crackdown on child marriage was approved by the Assam government late last month to tackle the practice and increasing numbers of child pregnancies.
“We have arrested 1,793 people till 8 a.m. this morning,” Prasanta Kumar Bhuiyan, Assam’s inspector general of police, told Arab News.
“The crackdown will continue for one week and people are being detained under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.”
He estimated that another 6,000 suspects would be arrested in the coming days.
The state’s chief minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, said on Friday that he had requested the police to act with “zero tolerance against the unpardonable and heinous crime on women.”
Activists said welcomed the operation.
“The basis for this drive is the increasing infant mortality rate and mother mortality rate among young children,” said Miguel Das, who runs the Assam-based Utsah Child Rights Organization.
Das said however that law enforcement should not be the only response.
“There should be socio-economic welfare measures to address the deep-seated problem prevalent among all the demographics in the state,” he said, adding that the drive should also include the rehabilitation of married children and initiatives to prevent the practice.
The UN estimates that India is home to around 223 million child brides — the largest number of any country in the world.
“Early marriage causes lots of imbalance in the society and leads to high population growth and illiteracy among the young generation,” said Azizur Rahman, former president of All Assam Minority Students’ Union.
“I support the government’s crackdown and hope the large-scale arrests will send a message to the people.”


Liberian warlord’s trial set to conclude in Switzerland

Liberian warlord’s trial set to conclude in Switzerland
Updated 03 February 2023

Liberian warlord’s trial set to conclude in Switzerland

Liberian warlord’s trial set to conclude in Switzerland
  • Lawyers for the plaintiffs said Kosiah's actions were "widespread and systematic" against a civilian population
  • A verdict by the three-judge panel is expected within months

GENEVA: The appeal hearings of a former Liberian rebel commander convicted of war crimes were set to conclude on Friday in a trial that was broadened in its final stages to include crimes against humanity for the first time in Switzerland.
Alieu Kosiah, who fought in the 1990s against then-President Charles Taylor’s army, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in June 2021 for rape, murder and cannibalism in one of the first trials for war crimes committed in the West African country.
During the three weeks of appeal hearings at the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona, the defendant sought to overturn the lower court’s ruling, arguing at length that he was not present when the crimes were committed. Kosiah’s lawyer denied the charges and said he was a minor when first recruited.
But lawyers for the plaintiffs said Kosiah’s actions were “widespread and systematic” against a civilian population.
“We feel strongly that these crimes are the epitome of crimes against humanity,” said Alain Werner, a Swiss lawyer and director of Civitas Maxima, an NGO that represents war crimes victims and is acting on behalf of some of the plaintiffs.
A verdict by the three-judge panel is expected within months. If Kosiah is found guilty of crimes against humanity, this could extend his sentence to life.
The hearings were often laden with emotion, with some Liberian witnesses and victims confronting Kosiah for the first time since the country’s civil wars. They all asked for anonymity because of the risk of reprisals back home where former warlords still hold prominent roles.
In one poignant moment, a former child soldier under Kosiah acknowledged him with a military salute in the court room and then broke down and was too upset to testify.
In another, a witness who had been held as a sex slave by a soldier described how Kosiah had stabbed one of the Liberian plaintiffs present in the back. “Many people in the courtroom were crying. It was very emotional, even 30 years later,” said Zena Wakim, one of the prosecution lawyers.
No trials have taken place in Liberia for its back-to-back civil wars between 1989 and 2003 that became infamous for their brutality and degradation, with marauding child soldiers and combatants high on drugs.
In an indication of the importance of the trial to the Liberian plaintiffs, one of them who says she was raped by Kosiah, named a recently born baby “Justice.”
“I want him in jail,” she told Reuters on the opening day of the appeal trial on Jan. 11.


Philippines tightens rules for Kuwait recruitment after maid murder

Philippines tightens rules for Kuwait recruitment after maid murder
Updated 03 February 2023

Philippines tightens rules for Kuwait recruitment after maid murder

Philippines tightens rules for Kuwait recruitment after maid murder
  • In 2018 and 2020, Manila banned worker deployment to the Gulf state after murder cases
  • Philippine president says government will review bilateral labor agreement with Kuwait

MANILA: The Philippines is tightening rules for the deployment of workers to Kuwait after the brutal murder of a migrant Filipino worker last month sent shockwaves across the Southeast Asian nation.
The charred body of the 35-year-old maid, Jullebee Ranara, was found abandoned in a desert in late January and repatriated to the Philippines last week. Kuwaiti police have since arrested and charged the 17-year-old son of her employer over the killing.
Ranara was one of more than 268,000 overseas Filipino workers living in Kuwait. Most are women employed as domestic helpers.
After Ranara’s murder, the Philippine Migrant Workers Office in Kuwait suspended the accreditation of new recruitment agencies in the Gulf country, while President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. announced on Monday that the Philippine government is scheduling meetings with Kuwaiti authorities to review the bilateral labor agreement to “see if there are any weaknesses in the agreement that allowed this (murder) to happen” and provide more protection to overseas Filipino workers.
“The Philippine government’s priority is to seek justice for our deceased compatriot,” Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs Eduardo Jose De Vega told Arab News on Thursday.
“The Department of Migrant Workers is reviewing the records of the currently accredited agencies and is imposing stricter rules for deployment in the meantime.”
Ranara’s murder is not the first such incident in Kuwait to shock the Philippines, which in 2018 imposed a worker deployment ban to the Gulf country after the killing of Filipino domestic helper Joanna Daniela Demafelis, whose body was found in a freezer in an abandoned apartment.
The ban was partially lifted the same year, after the two countries signed a protection agreement for workers. In May 2019, Filipino maid Constancia Lago Dayag was killed in Kuwait, and a few months later, another employee, Jeanelyn Villavende, was tortured to death by her employer. The Philippines again imposed a worker deployment ban in January 2020, which was lifted when Kuwaiti authorities charged Villavende’s employer with murder and sentenced her to death.
The Philippine government is not considering another ban, despite calls from Filipinos outraged by the recent gruesome killing.
According to migrant work expert Emmanuel Geslani, a ban “may result in more harm than good” by leading to human trafficking.
“Any deployment ban always leads workers to illegal recruitment syndicates enticing overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) eager to find work in the oil-rich country of Kuwait,” he told Arab News.
“OFWs who are victims of human trafficking will be devoid of the protection of the Migrant Workers Office and the labor agreement forged by both countries.”


Job: ‘Sniper’: Accused Daesh fighter on trial in US

Job: ‘Sniper’: Accused Daesh fighter on trial in US
Updated 03 February 2023

Job: ‘Sniper’: Accused Daesh fighter on trial in US

Job: ‘Sniper’: Accused Daesh fighter on trial in US
  • Ruslan Maratovich Asainov kept a makeshift version of the militants' black flag right above the desk in his cell
  • The trial is a reminder of the enduring and far-reaching fallout of a war that drew tens of thousands of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq

NEW YORK: He had been brought from the battlefields of Syria to a New York lockup, a US citizen charged with serving as a sniper and weapons trainer for the Daesh group.
And even in jail, Ruslan Maratovich Asainov kept a makeshift version of the militants’ black flag right above the desk in his cell, according to trial testimony this week.
“What’s the big deal? It’s mine. It’s religious,” then-jail lieutenant Judith Woods recalled him saying when she went to confiscate the hand-drawn image in 2020.
Years after the fall of the extremist group’s self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate, the trial is a reminder of the enduring and far-reaching fallout of a war that drew tens of thousands of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq. Their home countries are still contending with what should become of them.
Jurors, who are expected to start deliberating as soon as Monday, have gotten a refresher course Daesh’s gruesome rule and its sophisticated, social-media-savvy recruitment of distant supporters to come and take up arms. Prosecutors say Asainov did so and rose through the group’s ranks, eventually becoming an “emir” who taught other members to use weapons.
In post-arrest videos shown at his trial, he gives his occupation as “a sniper” to FBI agents and readily tells them that he provided instruction in everything from rifle maintenance to ballistics to adjusting for weather effects — and, of course, “how to actually pull the trigger.”
“Oh, it’s a long lesson,” he explains, sitting on a bed in a room where he was being held. “I would give, like, a three-hour lesson, just on that, just to pull the trigger.”
Jurors have seen photos alleged to be of Asainov in camouflage, aiming a rifle, and the handmade flag that Woods said she took from his cell. Witnesses have included his flabbergasted ex-wife, who testified that he morphed from a Brooklyn family man into a zealot. She said he weighed in from Syria to complain about their daughter donning a Halloween costume and sent a photo of the bodies of what he said were comrades killed in a battle, according to the Daily News of New York.
Asainov chose not to testify. One of his lawyers, Susan Kellman, has said he went to Syria because he wanted to live under Islamic law. He has pleaded not guilty — a plea that Kellman entered on his behalf because, she said, he didn’t abide by the American legal system.
Nonetheless, the 46-year-old Asainov listened politely to government witnesses on a day this week, alternately stroking his beard and folding his arms across his chest.
Daesh fighters seized portions of Iraq and Syria in 2014 and declared the establishment of a so-called Islamic caliphate there, at a time when Syria was already convulsed by civil war. Fighting laid waste to multiple cities before Iraq’s prime minister declared the caliphate vanquished in 2017; the extremists lost the last of their territory two years later, though sporadic attacks persist even now.
During the height of the fighting, as many as 40,000 people from 120 countries showed up to join in, according to the United Nations. There is no comprehensive US statistic on Americans among those foreign fighters; a 2018 report by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism found at least 64 who had joined jihadist fighting in Iraq and Syria since 2011.
Since Daesh’s defeat, some foreign members and their families have lingered in detention facilities in Syria because their countries refused to take them back. Other accused foreign fighters have returned to their countries, including some who were prosecuted.
Recent US cases include a Kansas mother who led an all-female Daesh battalion, a Minnesota man who served in a battalion that prepared foreign fighters for suicide attacks in Europe, and a Detroit-area convicted this week of training with and then spending more than two years with the group.
Born in Kazakhstan, Asainov is a naturalized US citizen. He lived in Brooklyn starting in 1998, married and had a child.
Then he flew to Istanbul on a one-way ticket in December 2013 and made his way to Syria to join what he later described in a message as “the worst terrorist organization in the world that has ever existed,” authorities say.
“You heard of Daesh,” he said in another text message in January 2015, according to prosecutors’ court filings. “We will get you.”
By that April, Asainov told an acquaintance — in fact, a government informant — that he’d been fighting in Syria for about a year, according to court papers. They say that in various exchanges, he urged the informant to come to Syria and help with Daesh’s media operations, asked for $2,800 to buy a rifle scope, and sent photos of himself with fatigues and rifle, saying he “didn’t mean to show off” but was showing what was “just normal” in his new life.
Authorities announced in July 2019 that US-backed forces in Syria had captured Asainov and turned him over to the FBI.
He faces charges that include providing material support to a US-designated foreign terrorist organization. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.