WASHINGTON: A US appeals court on Friday temporarily blocked President Joe Biden’s plan to cancel billions of dollars in college student loans, one day after a judge dismissed a Republican-led lawsuit by six states challenging the debt-forgiveness program.
The 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals granted the states’ emergency petition to freeze the loan forgiveness plan until the court rules on their request for a longer-term injunction while Thursday’s decision against the states is being appealed.
The St. Louis-based appeals court also ordered an expedited briefing schedule on the matter.
US District Judge Henry Autrey in St. Louis ruled on Thursday that while the six Republican-led states had raised “important and significant challenges to the debt relief plan,” he threw out their lawsuit on grounds they lacked the necessary legal standing to pursue the case.
Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas and South Carolina said Biden’s plan skirted congressional authority and threatened the states’ future tax revenues and money earned by state entities that invest in or service the student loans.
Their case is one of a number that conservative state attorneys general and legal groups have filed seeking to halt the debt forgiveness plan announced in August by Biden, a Democrat.
Autrey ruled about an hour after US Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett denied without explanation an emergency request to put the debt relief plan on hold in a separate challenge brought by the Wisconsin-based Brown County Taxpayers Association.
In a policy benefiting millions of Americans, Biden said the US government will forgive up to $10,000 in student loan debt for borrowers making less than $125,000 a year, or $250,000 for married couples. Borrowers who received Pell Grants to benefit lower-income college students will have up to $20,000 of their debt canceled.
The policy fulfilled a promise that Biden made during the 2020 presidential campaign to help debt-saddled former college students. The Congressional Budget Office in September calculated that the debt forgiveness would cost the government about $400 billion.
Democrats are hoping the policy will boost support for them in the Nov. 8 midterm elections in which control of Congress is at stake.
Violence flares as French protesters vent fury at Macron reform
Updated 24 March 2023
PARIS: Protesters clashed with French security forces Thursday in the most serious violence yet of a three-month revolt against President Emmanuel Macron’s hugely controversial pension reform.
Almost 150 police were injured and scores of protesters arrested nationwide, the government said, as a day of protests descended into chaos in several cities including Paris, where protesters lit fires in the historic center of the city.
The uproar over the imposition of the reform — which the government chose to push through without a parliamentary vote — has turned into the biggest domestic crisis of Macron’s second term in office.
It also threatens to cast a shadow over King Charles III’s visit to France next week, his first foreign state visit as British monarch. Unions have announced fresh strikes and protests for Tuesday, the second full day of his trip.
In the southwestern city of Bordeaux, which King Charles is due to visit on Tuesday, the porch of the city hall was briefly set on fire.
The numbers in Paris and other cities were higher than in previous protest days, given new momentum by Macron’s refusal in a TV interview Wednesday to back down on the reform.
Police and protesters again clashed on the streets of the capital during a major demonstration, security forces firing tear gas and charging crowds with batons.
Some protesters lit fires in the street, setting ablaze pallets and piles of uncollected rubbish, prompting firefighters to intervene, AFP correspondents said.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said that across France, 149 members of the security forces had been injured and at least 172 people arrested, including 72 in Paris.
Around 140 fires were set alight in Paris, said Darmanin, blaming “thugs” for the violence, who had come to Paris “to have a go at the cops and public buildings.”
Some 1.089 million protesters took part in demonstrations across France, the interior ministry said, putting the Paris turnout at 119,000, the highest for the capital since the movement started in January.
The nationwide figure still fell short of the 1.28 million people who marched on March 7, according to the government figures.
Unions claimed a record 3.5 million people had protested across France, and 800,000 in the capital.
In Paris, several hundred black-clad radical demonstrators were breaking windows of banks, shops and fast-food outlets, and destroying street furniture, AFP journalists witnessed.
In the northeastern city of Lille, the local police chief Thierry Courtecuisse was lightly injured by a stone.
In Paris, a video went viral of a police officer in helmet and body armor being knocked unconscious and plunging to the ground after being hit on the head by a stone.
The garbage that has accumulated in the streets due to strikes by refuse collectors proved an appealing target, protesters setting fire to the trash piled up in the city center.
“It is a right to demonstrate and make your disagreements known,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said on Twitter, but added: “The violence and destruction that we have seen today are unacceptable.”
Unions again appealed for peaceful protests. “We need to keep public opinion on side until the end,” said Laurent Berger, leader of the moderate CFDT.
Protesters briefly occupied the tracks at the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris, and some blocked access to Charles de Gaulle airport.
Anger surged after a defiant Macron said on Wednesday he was prepared to accept unpopularity over the pensions reform which he said was “necessary.”
Even before then, a survey on Sunday showed Macron’s personal approval rating at just 28 percent, its lowest since the anti-government “Yellow Vest” protest movement in 2018-2019.
Acting on Macron’s instructions, Borne last week invoked an article in the constitution to adopt the reform without a parliamentary vote. That sparked two no-confidence motions in parliament, which she survived — but one by a narrow margin.
Thursday’s protests were the latest in a string of nationwide stoppages that began in mid-January against the pension changes.
The ministry of energy transition on Thursday warned that kerosene supply to the capital and its airports was becoming “critical” as blockages at oil refineries continued.
Since the government imposed the reform last Thursday, nightly demonstrations have taken place across France, with young people coordinating their actions on encrypted messaging services.
There have been hundreds of arrests and accusations of heavy-handed tactics by police.
Amnesty International has expressed alarm “about the widespread use of excessive force and arbitrary arrests reported in several media outlets.”
King Charles is due to arrive Sunday, with a trip scheduled on the new strike date of Tuesday to Bordeaux.
The fire at the entrance to the city hall in Bordeaux damaged its massive wooden door and was put out after 15 minutes, mayor Pierre Hurmic said.
French public sector trade unionists have warned they will not provide red carpets during the visit, but non-striking workers are expected to roll them out.
Trump gave ‘false expectation’ of arrest: New York prosecutor
Updated 24 March 2023
NEW YORK: Donald Trump created a “false expectation” of his imminent arrest, the New York prosecutor investigating the ex-president over hush money said Thursday, as tensions build over a possible indictment.
The comments come amid uncertainty over when a grand jury hearing the case will take a vote on charging Trump, a historic move that would inflame the 2024 election campaign in which the 76-year-old Republican is running to regain office.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office made the remarks in a letter sent to three Republican lawmakers who had written to Bragg requesting that he testify before Congress about his probe.
The Republicans — who are all chairmen of House committees — accused Bragg, a Democrat, of waging a “politically motivated prosecution” in their letter dated on Monday.
It was sent after Trump had said on Saturday, without providing any evidence, that he expected to be arrested on Tuesday, and called for supporters to “Protest, take our nation back!“
“Your letter... is an unprecedented inquiry into a pending local prosecution,” Leslie Dubeck, the general counsel for Bragg’s office wrote in Thursday’s response, seen by AFP.
“The letter only came after Donald Trump created a false expectation that he would be arrested the next day and his lawyers reportedly urged you to intervene. Neither fact is a legitimate basis for congressional inquiry,” she added.
Trump’s post on Truth Social sparked a media frenzy and led to warnings from Democrats that his call for demonstrations could trigger a repeat of the violence his supporters unleashed at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Protests have so far been small and sporadic.
New York police have erected barricades outside Bragg’s office, Trump Tower and the Manhattan Criminal Court, where Trump would eventually appear before a judge if indicted.
He would become the first former or sitting president to ever be charged with a crime if the grand jury, a panel of citizens convened by Bragg, decides to indict.
The jury was not expected to hear the case Thursday and does not sit on Fridays, meaning any decision would come next week at the earliest.
Bragg is investigating a $130,000 payment to pornographic actress Stormy Daniels in the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election.
The payment was allegedly made to stop her from going public about a liaison she says she had with Trump years earlier. Trump’s ex-lawyer-turned-adversary Michael Cohen says he made the payment on his then boss’s behalf and was later reimbursed.
If not properly accounted for, the payment could result in a misdemeanor charge for falsifying business records, experts say.
That might be raised to a felony if the false accounting was intended to cover up a second crime, such as a campaign finance violation, which is punishable by up to four years behind bars.
Legal analysts say that argument is untested and would be difficult to prove in court. Any jail time is far from certain.
Trump denies the affair. He repeated on Truth Social Thursday that Bragg has “no case.”
Trump is facing several criminal investigations at the state and federal level over possible wrongdoing that threaten his new run at the White House, many more serious than the Manhattan case.
They include his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state of Georgia, his handling of classified documents, and his possible involvement in the January 6 rioting.
Some observers believe an indictment bodes ill for Trump’s 2024 chances, while others say it could boost his support.
India police seek Sikh leader, arrest separatist supporters
Singh has been on the run since the search for him began on Saturday.
Updated 24 March 2023
New Delhi: Indian police are searching for a separatist leader who has revived calls for an independent Sikh homeland, stirring fears of violence in northwestern Punjab state where there’s a history of bloody insurgency.
Police have accused Amritpal Singh, a 30-year-old preacher, and his aides of creating discord in the state, which is haunted by the memories of an armed insurgency in the 1980s for an independent Sikh state called Khalistan. The insurgency had prompted a controversial military operation by the Indian government that killed thousands of people, according to official estimates.
Authorities have deployed thousands of paramilitary soldiers to the state and suspended mobile internet services in some areas to prevent unrest, Sukhchain Singh Gill, the inspector general of police for Punjab, said Wednesday. He said police have so far arrested 154 supporters of Singh and seized 10 guns and ammunition.
Singh has been on the run since the search for him began on Saturday.
Singh, who has said he supports the Khalistan movement, captured national attention in February when hundreds of his supporters stormed a police station in Punjab with swords and guns to demand the release of a jailed aide.
Very little is known about Singh, who for years drove a truck in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. He emerged in 2022 in Punjab and began leading marches calling for protecting rights of Sikhs who account for about 1.7 percent of India’s population.
His speeches have become increasingly popular among supporters of the Khalistan movement, which is banned in India. Officials see it and affiliated groups as a national security threat. Even though the movement has waned over the years, it still has some support in Punjab and beyond — including in countries like Canada and the United Kingdom, which are home to a sizable Sikh diaspora.
On Sunday, supporters of the movement pulled down the Indian flag at the country’s high commission in London and smashed the building’s window in a show of anger against the move to arrest Singh. India’s Foreign Ministry denounced the incident and summoned the UK’s deputy high commissioner in New Delhi to protest what it called the breach of security at the embassy in London.
On Wednesday, police removed temporary security barricades outside the British High Commission in New Delhi, news agency Press Trust of India reported. There was no immediate comment from the police or the government whether it was in retaliation to the incident in London.
The supporters of the Khalistan movement also vandalized the Indian Consulate in San Francisco on Monday.
Singh claims to draw inspiration from Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a Sikh militant leader accused by the Indian government of leading an armed insurgency for Khalistan. Bhindranwale and his supporters were killed in 1984 when the Indian army stormed the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine in the Sikh religion.
Singh also heads Waris Punjab De, or Punjab’s Heirs, an organization that was part of a massive campaign to mobilize farmers against controversial agriculture reforms being pushed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The legislation triggered a year of protests that began in 2020, as farmers — most of them Sikhs from Punjab state — camped on the outskirts of New Delhi through a harsh winter and devastating coronavirus surge. The protests ended after Modi’s government withdrew the legislation in November 2021.
Waris Punjab De was founded by Deep Sidhu, an Indian actor who died in 2022 in a traffic accident.
Eager young Albanians risk everything for new future in UK
UK interior minister Suella Braverman has described the arrivals as an ‘invasion on our southern coast’ — words that Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama blasted as a ‘crazy narrative’
Britain is attractive to Albanians because it has a better economy and higher-paying jobs than neighboring countries such as Greece or Italy
Updated 23 March 2023
BAJRAM CURRI, Albania: Monika Mulaj’s son was in his second year of college in Albania, studying to become a mechanical engineer, when he resolved to make a daring change: He told his parents he would leave his lifelong home for a new future in Britain.
“We had tried to fulfil all his requests, for books and clothing, food and a bit of entertaining. But he was still dissatisfied,” said Mulaj, a high school teacher in the northeastern town of Bajram Curri, which is in one of the country’s poorest regions.
Five years later, her now 25-year-old son is working two jobs in Britain and hardly thinks of returning to his homeland. “Albania is in regress,” he complains to his mother.
His path has been shared in recent years by thousands of young Albanians who have crossed the English Channel in small boats or inflatable dinghies to seek work in the UK. Their odyssey reflects the country’s anemic economy and a younger generation’s longing for fresh opportunities.
In 2018, only 300 people reached Britain by crossing the channel in small boats. The number rose to 45,000 in 2022, in part because of arrivals from Albania, a country in southern Europe that is negotiating for membership in the European Union.
Other migrants were from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Unlike many countries that fuel migration, Albania is considered safe by UK officials.
Britain is attractive to Albanians because it has a better economy and higher-paying jobs than neighboring countries such as Greece or Italy. Many Albanians also have family ties in the UK. Birmingham, for instance, has a large immigrant population from the Albanian town of Kukes, on the border with Kosovo.
The deputy mayor of Bajram Curri, Abedin Kernaja, said young people leave because of low wages and the difficulty of building “a comfortable family life.” His two sons are in the UK
Xhemile Tafaj, who owns a restaurant on a scenic plateau outside town, said “young people have no money to follow school, no job to work, no revenue at all.”
In such an environment, “only old men have remained and soon there will be empty houses,” Tafaj said.
Northeastern Albania is known for its natural Alpine beauty and green sloping landscape. The region is also famous for chestnuts, blueberries, blackberries and medicinal plants, as well as wool carpets and other handmade goods.
But those products offer scant job opportunities. The only jobs are at town halls, schools and hospitals, plus a few more at cafes and restaurants.
Petrit Lleshi, who owns a motel in Kukes, has struggled to find waiters for two years.
“I would not blame a 25-year-old leaving because of the low salaries here,” Lleshi said. “What our country offers is not enough to build a proper life.”
Few migrants seek a visa. They generally pay smugglers 5,000 to 20,000 euros ($5,300 to $21,200) for the dangerous, illegal crossing.
Many migrants undertake the trip with the expectation of a secure job, only to find after arriving in the UK that they must work in cannabis-growing houses for up to two years to pay back the trafficking money, according to reports by Albanian news outlets.
The steady stream of migrants has provoked clashes between British and Albanian leaders in recent months.
UK interior minister Suella Braverman has described the arrivals as an “invasion on our southern coast” — words that Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama blasted as a “crazy narrative” and an attempt to cover up for the UK’s failed border policies.
Albania also publicly protested what it called a “verbal lynching” by another UK official who made comments about Albanian immigrants. Rama accused the new UK Cabinet of scapegoating Albanians because it “has gone down a blind alley with its new policy resulting from Brexit.”
Rama was is in London Thursday for talks on immigration with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and accused UK officials of “singling out” Albanians for political purposes. “It has been a very, very disgraceful moment for British politics,” he told the BBC.
Sunak’s spokesman has said the UK welcomes and values Albanian migrants who come to the country legally, but that large numbers making illegal boat journeys to the UK are straining the asylum system.
In a statement after the meeting, Sunak and Rama welcomed progress to date following a taskforce action on organized crime and new UK guidance designating Albania a safe country, with around 800 migrants returning to Albania since December.
They also decided to create a joint team to assess Albania’s prison capacity until the end of April “with a view to returning all eligible Albanian nationals in the UK prison system.”
Rama has argued that easing visa requirements would help reduce the number of people arriving illegally.
In response to the spike in migration, some agencies are investing in programs that aim to offer opportunities to both countries — jobs for eager Albanians and a supply of remote workers for businesses in the UK
Elias Mazloum of Albania’s Social Development Investment group said that immigration is “a cancer.”
“We are offering chemotherapy after a lot of morphine used so far only has delayed immigration,” he said.
Under his project, 10 companies in Ireland will employ 10 young Albanians to work remotely in an apprenticeship paying 500 euros ($530) per month in the first year. Participants get a certificate from Ireland’s Digital Marketing Institute and then are hired remotely for 1,000 euros ($1,060) per month.
The vision is for the project to help establish a remote-work ecosystem in the region.
“Albania, and in particular the northeast region, has the advantage of working from a blank canvas” to attract digital nomads and encourage its young people to stay, said Declan Droney, a business trainer and consultant in Galway, in the west of Ireland.
A British project in Kukes supports small and midsize businesses in tourism and agriculture and will open a school teaching different professions.
The Albanian government has also offered incentives. Young couples who launch a small business will be exempt from taxes for up to three years, and couples who return from the UK will receive 5,000 euros ($5,300).
Mazloum’s organization has negotiated with Vodafone Albania to offer free high-speed Internet to remote workers.
“The eyes cannot get enough from the beauty of this place — the food, the fresh air. This added to very hospitable people, ambitious youth who like to work hard,” Mazloum said. “Imagine if you give a little hope to the people here, what they could make this place.”
Special report: Testimonies of freed Ukrainians reveal horrors of war and captivity
Capt. Oleksandr Demchenko, taken captive in May 2022 in Mariupol, recounted his experience of 127 days of incarceration
Lyudmila Huseynova, a former safety engineer in Donetsk, waived her right to anonymity as a survivor of sexual violence
Updated 24 March 2023
KYIV: When the last group of Ukrainian soldiers holed up in the Azovstal steelworks surrendered to Russian forces in May 2022, it marked the end of a ferocious three-month siege of the defenders’ last stronghold in Mariupol.
Hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers and international volunteers were transferred to a prison colony in Russian-controlled territory, where officials insisted that they would be treated in line with international norms for prisoners of war.
Among them was Capt. Oleksandr Demchenko, an anesthetist who had been working in a makeshift basement hospital during the closing weeks of the siege. He was taken captive on May 18 during a mission to bring supplies and reinforcements to Azovstal.
“I say I have three lives,” Demchenko told Arab News in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, recalling the events — the heavy shelling and falling captive to the Russian forces — almost a year after the fall of Mariupol. “One before my capture, one during, and now the one after.”
Demchenko was among around 300 POWs (including 10 foreigners) released in a prisoner swap brokered by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Turkiye on Sept. 21 last year. Now slowly recovering from his ordeal, Demchenko has shared his story with Arab News.
Mariupol became a symbol of some of the worst violence of the war to date. Moscow recognized the coastal city’s strategic importance as a stepping stone in building a land bridge from Russia to Crimea, annexed by Moscow in 2014.
The Azovstal steelworks, covering an area of about 4 square miles, including a warren of underground tunnels, became a final holdout where thousands of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers perished in some of the most brutal urban warfare of the past century.
From his underground field hospital, Demchenko operated on wounded soldiers until the Russian onslaught finally overran Ukrainian positions. “They were throwing everything they had at us,” he said.
By that point, the Ukrainian defenders were running low on food, ammunition and medicine. “If I had half a cup of water, I’d call it a good day,” said Demchenko, recalling the privation of those final days in Azovstal.
Following their capture, the POWs were taken to Olenivka, an abandoned prison only recently reopened by the pro-Russian separatist Donetsk People’s Republic. There, rooms made to house 150 people were crammed with 800 prisoners.
According to Demchenko, meals consisted of rotten bread and water drawn from the river. He lost 45 kilograms during his 127 days of incarceration in Olenivka, where prisoners were watched and interrogated by a rotating contingent of guards.
Demchenko said he spent his first month and a half in the prison asleep out of sheer exhaustion from the last stand at Azovstal.
“I kept my mind going, I kept making plans for the future,” he said. “My mental state was fine, but I was starting to worry that my body wouldn’t survive for long.”
Several former inmates of Olenivka, officially known as Correctional Colony No. 120, have detailed allegations of beatings, torture, forced labor, and the denial of food and medical care.
On July 29, the prison became notorious when more than 50 Ukrainian POWs were reportedly killed in a blast that both Russia and Ukraine accuse the other of carrying out, with many of the inmates burning to death.
Russia claimed Ukraine had fired US-supplied HIMARS rockets at the prison to deliberately kill its own POWs. Ukraine denied Russia’s claims, accusing Moscow of carrying out the killings to cover up its maltreatment of prisoners.
An independent inquiry is yet to take place.
In September, rumors began circulating among inmates that they would soon be transferred. When the day finally came for the prisoners to move, Demchenko’s body had been so ravaged by malnutrition that he had been reduced to skin and bone.
Following a flight, the prisoners were transferred to a train bound for Belarus. It was during this train journey that Demchenko realized he was being freed when a man walked into the carriage and told them in Ukrainian: “Guys, it’ll be over soon.”
Upon his release, Demchenko said he immediately called his family. Instead of saying hello he greeted them with the wartime salutation: “‘Slava Ukraini’ — ‘Glory to Ukraine.’
“They asked: ‘Who is this?’” said Demchenko. “I laughed and told them: ‘Have you forgotten me so soon?’”
Since the Sept. 21 prisoner swap, exchanges have become a common feature of the war, which has dragged on for more than a year now. Some 1,863 women and men have been released since Russia launched what it called a “special military operation” on Feb. 24, 2022.
Thousands, however, remain imprisoned in conditions said to be at odds with international humanitarian law, including the Third Geneva Convention on the treatment of POWs adopted in August 1949.
According to the convention, POWs must at all times be humanely treated. Any unlawful act or omission by the detaining power causing death or seriously endangering the health of a POW in its custody is prohibited, and, if it occurs, is regarded as a serious breach of the convention.
• On Sept. 21, 2022, Russia and Ukraine carried out a prisoner swap involving almost 300 people, including 10 foreigners and the commanders who led a Ukrainian defense of Mariupol.
• The swap, which involved help from Saudi Arabia and Turkiye, resulted in the release of 215 Ukrainians, most of whom were captured after the fall of Mariupol.
• The freed Ukrainians included Lt. Col. Denys Prokopenko, commander of the Azov battalion; his deputy, Svyatoslav Palamar; and Serhiy Volynsky, the commander of the 36th Marine Brigade.
The convention also obliges all parties to an international armed conflict to grant the International Committee of the Red Cross access to all prisoners of war and the right to visit them wherever they are held. Russia and Ukraine are both parties to the treaty.
Senior Russian officials and diplomats have repeatedly rejected accusations of criminal violence against civilians in Ukraine, denied use of torture or other forms of maltreatment of POWs, and countered with their own allegations of war crimes.
“The special military operation takes place in accordance with the fundamental provisions of the UN Charter, which gives states the right for legitimate self-defense in the event of a threat of use of force, which we have exercised,” Sergei Kozlov, the Russian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, wrote in an Arab News oped in February.
“As you can see, Russia follows the true spirit of international law, not some kind of ‘rules-based order,’ arbitrarily introduced by the West and its henchmen.”
While thousands of soldiers on both sides have been taken captive since February 2022, detentions and alleged maltreatment in captivity was not reserved for military personnel alone. For many Ukrainian civilians in the east of the country, the ordeal began as far back as 2014.
Lyudmila Huseynova once worked as a safety engineer at a poultry farm in Novoazovsk in Donetsk. When Russian-backed separatists seized her town in 2014, she did not conceal her opposition.
Furthermore, Huseynova became heavily involved in helping to resettle families displaced by the fighting and took care of children in local orphanages.
“I saw the state of the children. They were starving,” Huseynova told Arab News at an apartment building in Kyiv, where she has since resettled.
“At the time there was no allocation of funds in the budget to help them as the budget was strained. I couldn’t fathom leaving them behind, so I stayed.”
Huseynova’s world was turned upside down in October 2019 when one evening, while her husband was away in Kharkiv, there came a knock on the door and a group of men barged into her home.
“I kept thinking why they were muddying the house I had just cleaned with their dirty boots,” said Huseynova.
With her hands bound and a bag placed over her head, she was put in the back of a car and driven to another location for interrogation.
“I thought it was absurd,” she said, recalling her abduction. “I have always been vocal, on and offline, for years now. They used my public Facebook posts, the Ukrainian flag in my home, my books, and accused me of being a ‘nationalist.’”
Huseynova was taken to Izolyatsia, a former art center, transformed in 2014 into a now notorious prison synonymous with allegations of torture and inhumane treatment. “The moment you enter Izolyatsia, you are oppressed as a human and as a woman,” she said.
Although she was almost 60 years old at the time, Huseynova was made to undress in front of her interrogators. “They kept the handcuffs on me, on one hand. The bag was still over my head. I was sexually abused,” she told Arab News.
“They were laughing, and from the sound of their laughter I can tell they were rather young.”
Huseynova, whose father is Muslim, was willing to waive her right to anonymity as a survivor of sexual violence in order to draw attention to the alleged crimes committed by Russian-backed rebels in Donbas prior to the invasion.
“Women are respected in Islam,” she said. “The way we were treated by our captors goes against every Muslim law on the treatment of women.”
After this ordeal was over, Huseynova was taken to a cell, which she shared with another woman. It contained a bunk bed, a toilet, windows painted black to block out the sunlight, and a lamp that was on 24/7. There was a surveillance camera in every cell.
Huseynova said prisoners were made to stand every day from the early morning until sundown and were subjected to routine humiliation. On one occasion, Huseynova said she was forced to eat wheat containing mouse excrement, much to the joy of her captors.
Later Huseynova was transferred to SIZO prison in Lutsk, where she said she was deprived of sleep. “There were lots of addicts,” she said. “The TV was on at all hours of the day.”
It was while incarcerated in SIZO that Huseynova learned of the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022. “I lost all hope of ever being released,” she said.
However, in October that year Huseynova was suddenly released. Rounded up with a group of other detainees, with tape placed over their eyes, she was transported by car, first to a basement cell, and then to a military airport.
“The car drove around for 7 hours almost aimlessly. When they put us in the basement, they told us we would be executed. We were given no food, no water, just one scoop of wheat.”
However, rather than killing the prisoners, their captors loaded the women onto a plane, cramming them into their seats. Huseynova said the women were told menacingly “don’t be afraid, but this will hurt a little.”
The plane then landed in Crimea, where Huseynova could see a man standing with a white flag waiting to greet them.
Months after her release and resettlement in Kyiv, Huseynova said she cannot forget the women still imprisoned and has been searching for ways to help them. “They feel forgotten,” she said. “They must know they are not so.”
Like Huseynova, Demchenko is still suffering from several health complications brought on by his captivity. He has, however, regained the weight he lost and is looking much healthier.
“Life goes on,” he said, reflecting on the past year of war, imprisonment and freedom. “I never regretted being part of the mission. Speaking as a doctor, Russia is a cancer that must be removed without anesthesia.
“The captors knew what they were doing and, even worse, they enjoyed what they were doing. I will continue my service. I will not stop until we win.”
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has accused both Russia and Ukraine of torturing prisoners of war during the conflict. The International Criminal Court is investigating war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine going back as far as 2013. Its chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, believes there is a reasonable basis to believe war crimes have been carried out and, in December 2022, said “Ukraine is a crime scene.”