Russian soldiers who quit Putin’s war get no hero’s welcome abroad as asylum claims surge

A Russian officer who goes by Yevgeny speaks during an interview at his apartment in Astana, Kazakhstan, in late 2023. (AP)
A Russian officer who goes by Yevgeny speaks during an interview at his apartment in Astana, Kazakhstan, in late 2023. (AP)
Short Url
Updated 16 April 2024
Follow

Russian soldiers who quit Putin’s war get no hero’s welcome abroad as asylum claims surge

A Russian officer who goes by Yevgeny speaks during an interview at his apartment in Astana, Kazakhstan, in late 2023. (AP)
  • Independent Russian media outlet Mediazona has documented more than 7,300 cases in Russian courts against AWOL soldiers since September 2022; cases of desertion, the harshest charge, leapt sixfold last year

ASTANA, Kazakhstan: If the choice was death or a bullet to the leg, Yevgeny would take the bullet. A decorated hero of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Yevgeny told his friend and fellow soldier to please aim carefully and avoid bone. The tourniquets were ready.
The pain that followed was the price Yevgeny paid for a new chance at life. Like thousands of other Russian soldiers, he deserted the army.
“I joke that I gave birth to myself,” he said. “When a woman gives birth to a child, she experiences very intense pain and gives new life. I gave myself life after going through very intense pain.”
Yevgeny made it out of the trenches. But the new life he found is not what he had hoped for.
The Associated Press spoke with five officers and one soldier who deserted the Russian military. All have criminal cases against them in Russia, where they face 10 years or more in prison. Each is waiting for a welcome from the West that has never arrived. Instead, all but one live in hiding.
For Western nations grappling with Russia’s vast and growing diaspora, Russian soldiers present particular concern: Are they spies? War criminals? Or heroes?
Overall asylum claims from Russian citizens have surged since the full-scale invasion, but few are winning protection. Policymakers remain divided over whether to consider Russians in exile as potential assets or risks to national security.
Andrius Kubilius, a former prime minister of Lithuania now serving in the European Parliament, argues that cultivating Russians who oppose Vladimir Putin is in the strategic self-interest of the West. Fewer Russian soldiers at the front, he added, means a weaker army.
“Not to believe in Russian democracy is a mistake,” Kubilius said. “To say that all Russians are guilty is a mistake.”
All but one of the soldiers spoke with AP on condition of anonymity, fearing deportation and persecution of themselves and their families. The AP reviewed legal documents, including criminal case files, Russian public records and military identification papers, as well as photos and videos to verify their stories, but it was impossible to independently corroborate every detail.
Independent Russian media outlet Mediazona has documented more than 7,300 cases in Russian courts against AWOL soldiers since September 2022; cases of desertion, the harshest charge, leapt sixfold last year.
Record numbers of people seeking to desert – more than 500 in the first two months of this year – are contacting Idite Lesom, or “Get Lost,” a group run by Russian activists in the Republic of Georgia. Last spring, just 3 percent of requests for help came from soldiers seeking to leave; in January, more than a third did, according to the group’s head, Grigory Sverdlin. The numbers of known deserters may be small compared to Russia’s overall troop strength, but they are an indicator of morale.
“Obviously, Russian propaganda is trying to sell us a story that all Russia supports Putin and his war,” Sverdlin said. “But that’s not true.”
The question now is, where can they go?
German officials have said that Russians fleeing military service can seek protection, and a French court last summer ruled that Russians who refuse to fight can claim refugee status. In practice, however, it’s proven difficult for deserters, most of whom have passports that only allow travel within a handful of former Soviet states, to get asylum, lawyers, activists and deserters say.
Fewer than 300 Russians got refugee status in the US in fiscal year 2022. Customs and Border Patrol officials encountered more than 57,000 Russians at US borders in fiscal year 2023, up from around 13,000 in fiscal year 2021.
In France, asylum requests rose more than 50 percent between 2022 and 2023, to a total of around 3,400 people, according to the French office that handles the requests. And last year, Germany got 7,663 first-time asylum applications from Russian citizens, up from 2,851 in 2022, Germany’s Interior Ministry told AP in an email. None of the data specifies how many were soldiers.
As they count the days until their legal right to stay in Kazakhstan ends, Yevgeny – and the others – have watched other deserters get seized by Russian forces in Armenia, deported from Kazakhstan and turn up dead, riddled with bullets, in Spain.
“There is no mechanism for Russians who do not want to fight, deserters, to get to a safe place,” Yevgeny said. He urges Western policymakers to reconsider. “After all, it’s much cheaper economically to allow a person into your country — a healthy young man who can work — than to supply Ukraine with weapons.”
YEVGENY
Sitting in his spartan room in Astana, Kazakhstan, Yevgeny rummaged through a cardboard box that holds the things he thought to save.
“It’s like a woman’s handbag, there’s so much stuff,” he muttered, poking around real and fake passports, a letter with hearts on it, blister packs of pills.
He can’t find his military medals. He has the certificates, though, commemorating his service in Syria and Ukraine.
Yevgeny seems suddenly ashamed. “I don’t care about them,” he said, shoving everything back in the box.
The son of postal workers, Yevgeny went to military school mostly because it was free. He did 41 parachute jumps, and learned to ride horses, dive, shoot and handle explosives. The cost of his education would come after graduation: five years of mandatory military service.
The night of Feb. 23, 2022, Yevgeny and his unit barely slept. Their tanks, hulking and dark, cast long shadows on a thin layer of snow beside the railroad tracks that would carry them toward Ukraine. Yevgeny was too drunk with fatigue to think much about what would happen next.
On Yevgeny’s second day at war, an officer leaned against his machine gun and shot off his own finger, he said. Later, a guy fell asleep under a military vehicle and died when it drove over him. People got lost and never came back.
In the chaos, around 10 men in his unit were accidentally killed with guns or grenades. One soldier shot another square in the chest. What were they doing, Yevgeny wondered, testing their bulletproof vests? None of it made sense in a world where life mattered. But Yevgeny wasn’t in that world anymore.
The deeper Yevgeny moved into Ukraine, the uglier things got.
“We didn’t want to kill anyone, but we also wanted to live,” explained Yevgeny, a senior lieutenant who oversaw a platoon of around 15 men. “The locals would come in civilian cars and shoot at our military. What would you do?”
He said that Ukrainian prisoners of war were executed because the Russians couldn’t get them back to Russia and didn’t want to build detention centers.
“Special people were chosen for this, because a lot of others refused,” he said. “People with a special, so to speak, psyche were appointed executioners.”
There are things Yevgeny can’t forget: A 14-year-old Ukrainian boy who seemed to be making Molotov cocktails and was executed. A 24-year-old Ukrainian woman caught with compromising information on her phone raped by two Russian soldiers.
Yevgeny was within breathing distance of Kyiv when Moscow ordered a retreat. In a single day in April 2022, around seventy people from his brigade died in an ambush, he said. The Ukrainian military released a video of the encounter with the retreating column.
Pop, pop, pop go the fireballs. Little flags bob above the tanks, giving it the feel of a video game. Shells crash a bit off to the left. Then, a hit. The video cuts to a magnified image of a Russian tank pluming black smoke, two lifeless bodies curled beside it.
“Very cool,” wrote someone in the comments.
“The best sight in my life is to see how the Russians die,” wrote another.
Yevgeny was in that column. He knows men who are dying in those balls of fire. His face is flat. He doesn’t want to see it again.
“Many of my friends have died. And these were really good guys who didn’t want to fight,” he said. “But there was no way out for them.”
He is crying.
If he could, Yevgeny would go back to 2013, the year he entered military school. He would stand sentinel at the gates of his school and tell all the boys go home, stay away, this place is not what it seems.
He wants them to understand three words: “You will die.”
It took Yevgeny less than three months at war to decide to get himself shot in the leg.
“You can only leave wounded or dead,” Yevgeny explained. “No one wants to leave dead.”
He made a pact with three other soldiers. They called it their Plan B. Yevgeny would take the first bullet, then the comms guy, then the sniper. The machine gunner said he didn’t want to leave Ukraine without his brother, who was also fighting, but he’d stand by their story.
One chill May morning, as they trudged through even columns of pine trees on their way to retrieve a drone that had landed in Ukrainian territory, Yevgeny and his friends decided it was time for Plan B. They’d already lost one man in that area and now felt like they were on a suicide mission.
When the sniper shot Yevgeny, the pain was like a strong man hammering a 9 mm metal bar into his flesh. Then the comms guy took a bullet to his thigh. After seeing the two of them crumple and scowl, the third man chickened out.
Blood kept gushing, despite the tourniquet, and Yevgeny was shocked to discover he couldn’t walk. His friends dragged him 300 meters back through the woods. He was given sweet tea and evacuated that same evening.
Yevgeny spent months in rehabilitation and figured he could ride out his injury until his contract expired in June 2023. But after Putin’s announcement of partial mobilization in September 2022, it no longer mattered what his contract said. Soldiers like him were now obliged to serve until the end of the war.
He knew he had to leave. He made it to Kazakhstan in early 2023, with the help of Idite Lesom. Russian authorities filed a criminal case against him. His relatives back in Russia were questioned, his apartment there searched.
Since then, Yevgeny has been doing his best to disappear. He found a place in Astana in an apartment that stank of cat. They were four men with only three cups, three spoons and three chairs to go around. They boiled water with an electric coil in a glass jar because no one wanted to splurge for a kettle.
He worked for a few weeks skittering around Astana on an old motorcycle delivering food. But his paychecks never arrived, possibly because his SIM card and bank account were in different people’s names.
He doesn’t know what he’ll do when his savings run out. He said he’s applied for asylum in France, Germany and the United States – obviously the best place to hide from Russia, he said. He’d like to serve in a UN mission somewhere, but it’s hard for him to conceive of a path from here to there.
He wakes at 10 o’clock, steps out of the shower into another molten, formless day. That night, he will comb his hair and go out to a bar with other deserters, to pass a few sparkling hours as a normal guy.
At the bar, someone remembered that it was the one-year anniversary of Russia’s September 2022 mobilization. Putin drafted 300,000 troops to fight in Ukraine. Tens of thousands of them are now dead.
The table went quiet. Yevgeny searched for a word that meant the opposite of evil so they could drink to it.
In the end, they raised their glasses to virtue, then to peace.
FARHAD
Within hours of Putin’s September 2022 mobilization decree, threatening messages started pinging in on Farhad Ziganshin’s phone. A small man with a big voice, Farhad had abandoned a career in music for the military to please his dad. He’d tried to resign from the armed forces, but the military school where he taught rejected his application, he said.
Panicked, he piled into the family Chevrolet with his mother, sister, dog and aunt and took off for the Kazakh border near midnight. They’d try to make it look like a fun family vacation. The roads were jammed with other Russians fleeing Putin’s draft.
“Hurrah!” shouted Farhad, pumping his fists in the air, as they left Russia.
Farhad landed a job at a burger joint near the border, then followed a friend of a friend to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, where he’d been promised work as a singer. He ended up working in a banquet hall, sleeping on a vast, golden bed in a newlywed suite and eating as much leftover food as he wanted.
Life was good, but uncertain. Kazakhstan was playing a delicate game, trying to assuage Russia without distancing allies in Europe. In December 2022, Kazakhstan deported a Russian intelligence officer, Mikhail Zhilin, who had deserted. In March 2023, a Russian court sentenced Zhilin to six and a half years in prison.
That same month, Farhad decided to move to Armenia, thinking it was probably safer. But he was blocked from boarding his flight. “Are you on the wanted list?” a border agent asked as he flicked through Farhad’s passport. Farhad went pale. Cold sweat prickled over his body.
He was led to a room for questioning. A man in civilian clothes sat across from him.
“You are my Muslim brother,” he told Farhad. “I’m also against the war. Tell me everything.”
Farhad confessed.
Farhad tried to brace himself for what was to come. He slipped his toothbrush, toothpaste, socks, slippers, snacks and a book – Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” — into a transparent bag. His cell at the detention center had a metal door with a small window and slot for food, a security camera and a hole in the floor for a toilet.
Farhad stared at the ceiling all night, his panic mounting: How am I going to live here? Will I be beaten or raped? I’d kill myself first.
The morning of his third day in detention, three huge bags arrived for Farhad, packed with food, clothes and cigarettes from local human rights activists. “I lay down and thought that’s the end,” Farhad said. “Kaput.” Why would he need all this stuff if he weren’t in for a long incarceration?
Two hours later, a police officer appeared. “Take your things and get out,” he ordered.
Farhad was free.
Farhad’s lawyer told AP he was released because under the Kazakh criminal code, as well as multilateral agreements with Russia, suspects accused of military crimes can’t be extradited. Farhad was safe, at least for the moment.
“We don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” said his lawyer, Artur Alkhastov, who works with the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law in Astana. “In Kazakhstan, politics is higher than the law. . . Everything can change.”
In July, independent Russia media reported that France had rejected Farhad’s application for asylum. What actually happened was that Farhad’s application for a travel permit to France to apply for asylum had been denied, Alkhastov said.
Without an international passport, Farhad was stuck in Kazakhstan. Moreover, the publicity raised fears that Russian authorities would take fresh interest in his case. Farhad moved from Almaty to Astana, the capital, to lower his profile.
“It’s not safe to stay in Kazakhstan,” he said. “I just try to lead a normal life, without violating the laws of Kazakhstan, without being too visible, without appearing anywhere. We have a proverb: Be quieter than water and lower than grass.”
He changes his SIM card every few months, doesn’t live at his registered address and avoids employers who ask too many questions. After six weeks, he ran out of money and moved in with another Russian deserter, Yevgeny. His bed was a pile of coats and sweaters on the floor. It was impossible to sleep. His back was killing him.
He thought of the life he’d left behind in Russia. “In Kazan, I had a completely different life. I had my own apartment, I had a job there, I earned money, I had staff under my command,” he said. “Here I am living sleeping on coats, eating I don’t know what. And without any money in my pocket. It’s very depressing,” Online, people call him a coward and traitor and say he should be killed.
Farhad got a job at a real estate startup that didn’t ask for documents. Every morning, he sang Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” to his co-workers.
After work, Farhad liked to walk around Astana, singing deep slow songs to himself to fill the darkening hours. He dreamed of starting a family but couldn’t afford to take a woman out to the movies. “I can’t fall in love with someone and have someone fall in love with me,” he said. “So I just walk around and sing songs.”
But he wanted to believe that he had made a worthy choice.
“I realized that I didn’t want to serve in this kind of Russian army that destroys cities, kills civilians, and forcibly appropriates foreign land and territory,” he said. “If perhaps watching, listening to my story could bring even one person to reason, I would have made a certain contribution.”
Six months later, the real estate business has collapsed and Farhad is trying to sell flooring instead. He moved into an apartment of his own, but keeps missing rent payments. He’s been warned that his legal right to stay in Kazakhstan is coming to an end. He doesn’t know what to do next.
SPARROW
Sparrow knew from the start that money could mean the difference between life and death. The month before he was born, his father was killed in a gambling dispute over money. His mother raised him, along with his brother and sister, alone, working as a cook in an orphanage in a tiny village.
Later, he moved farther north, to work in a diamond-mining town not far from the Arctic Circle.
The company Sparrow worked for owned more than diamonds. They effectively owned the town, sponsoring its theater, schools, hospital, sports complex and apartment blocks. As it turned out, they also owned Sparrow.
Sparrow finished his shift the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 23, 2022, and was cleaning his Bobcat when his boss came by and told him to report immediately to human resources. They took his passport and military ID and locked them in a safe.
“They said, ‘You’re fired,’” Sparrow recalled. “You have one hour to get to the military recruitment point. If you don’t, you’ll have a criminal case against you.”
Sparrow obeyed. At 6 a.m. the next morning, he and hundreds of other conscripts boarded a heavy old plane bound for a military base in the regional capital.
The thought of war did not cross Sparrow’s mind. All he could think about was his job. Sparrow is delicately composed, with a pale, Asian face, ink-dark eyes and bone-china cheeks. Unable to finish university, he worked hard at laying road. Winters, he endured temperatures so extreme they could crack a backhoe. Why had they fired him?
When he arrived, the military base was chaos. Some 6,000 people were crammed into the barracks, he calculated, and no one was giving orders. Men spilled over each other, hiving off into small groups to drink. He couldn’t find a free bed, so he dropped his bag in a corner and curled up on the floor.
The next day, he found his way to an information stand to figure out who was in charge. But instead of a list of personnel, he found photographs of dead people and an exhortation to kill Ukrainian soldiers. “I saw this photo – what is all this?” he thought. “I’m not going anywhere to kill people – never!”
Sparrow pulled his commander aside to try to find a way to avoid going where he was being sent. He would serve in a different way. He could pay.
The commander was not interested in bribes and told him that if he didn’t fight with the Russian armed forces, he’d end up with a private military company, like Yevgeny Prigozhin’s then-powerful Wagner Group. “You still have just one path,” his commander told him. “Write a refusal, you will go to jail, and we know where you will end up, at PMC Wagner.”
He was 30 years old. He called his mother for help.
Sparrow’s guts couldn’t take it. He ran to the bathroom. He paced in anxious circles. Then ran to the bathroom again. And again.
“What’s wrong with you?” his commander demanded.
“I just have some stomach problems,” Sparrow said.
While the commander was at lunch, Sparrow grabbed his ID, telephone and civilian clothes and headed for a hole in the wall. His mother was waiting on the other side.
The next morning, they boarded the first flight out of town. Forty hours later, Sparrow was in Kazakhstan.
Astana felt fresh and warm. He realized he’d been cold his entire life.
“I am free,” he told himself.
Freedom for Sparrow actually meant a bigger cage.
Two weeks after he fled, Russian authorities opened a criminal case against him. Russian media reported on his case, and Sparrow felt the publicity only increased the size of the target on his back. The charges against him were soon upgraded under a tough new clause in Russia’s criminal code. Now he faces up to 15 years in prison if he gets sent back to Russia.
Security agents interrogated his mother back in Russia. Before he ditched his Russian SIM, he used to get calls from Russian police who said they knew where he was. In October, a man claiming to be a Kazakh policeman started calling him to set up a meeting. He said he’d wait for a summons. None ever came.
Sparrow is afraid of the background checks that come with permanent employment. Instead, he picks up occasional jobs collecting trash or hauling equipment at construction sites.
He was going to bed at 4 a.m. and waking at noon. He couldn’t even get back to Russia to bury his grandfather.
Sparrow’s eyes went red with tears.
“I don’t want anything in life. I have no interest in my own affairs,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t understand myself. I just sit all day on the Internet, on YouTube, and read news, news, news of what’s going on in Ukraine, and that’s it.”
He doesn’t know the status of his own asylum applications. Without a foreign passport, how could he leave Kazakhstan anyway? Every time he dared to believe something good might happen to him, it hasn’t. Why try?
Outside his bare apartment, he could hear the cries of children who are not his, the thwack of a ball from a game he is not playing, the voices of men speaking to friends he does not have.
“There are moments I regret, but I did the right thing,” he said. “I’d rather sit here and suffer and look for something than go there and kill a human being because of some unclear war, which is 100 percent Russia’s fault. I don’t regret it.”
SPORTSMASTER
As a child, the boy was not particularly good at school, but he could run. His mother was raising him alone in a village in Western Russia hemmed in by busted coal mines, a place as short on hope as it was on jobs. She called a friend to get her son a spot at a military school. The family wouldn’t have to pay a cent. It looked like a ticket to a better life.
At the military academy, the boy studied engineering to become a radio technician. But his real passion was sports. He wanted to run faster than anyone else.
Now known by the nickname Sportsmaster, he ultimately commanded 30 men, but said he never went into combat. He stayed in service even after he’d fulfilled his five-year contract: He didn’t want to be a burden on his mother and who else was going to pay him to run?
The night Moscow launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Sportsmaster jolted awake for no reason at 3 a.m. and spent three sickening hours glued to the television in disbelief. By dawn, all hope had drained from his body. He knew he would be ordered to fight.
“At that moment, I immediately decided that I would not support it in any way, not even lift my little finger to support what had begun,” he said. “I understood that this was a point of no return that would change the lives of the entire country, including mine.”
Sportsmaster said he stopped showing up at his base. In October 2022, his paychecks stopped coming.
His coach, the head of military sports training, told him to report to the base, they’d find something easy for him to do and he’d get paid again. It was a tempting offer from a trusted mentor.
His commanders were waiting for him beneath a huge portrait of a legendary Russian military hero. As he entered the room, they began to speak. It took a moment for the words to become clear: Special Military Operation. Order. Luhansk.
He realized they were reading out his combat orders. He’d been tricked. They told him to sign.
He refused to touch the pen.
The brigade’s chief of staff picked up a book with a Russian flag on the cover, a copy of Russia’s Criminal Code. “You either go to jail or you go there,” he said. “You have only two options.”
Seized by panic, Sportsmaster turned to leave. He had to get out of the building before they locked him inside. His division’s chief of staff grabbed him by the shoulder, but he slipped away and did what he did best: run.
He pounded down three flights of stairs, taking six turns on a zig-zagging staircase, blew past the guards at the door and beelined for a stretch of fence far from any checkpoint. He grabbed onto the black metal bars of the fence and heaved himself over, clearing the speared tips, 2.5 meters tall, without a scratch.
“What I felt was only disgust,” he said.
Idite Lesom gave him step-by-step instructions for how to slip out of Russia. AP is withholding details of the route.
Before he left, he recorded a video, a political message for the keepers of whatever country he might end up in, a plea to convince them of his friendship.
“They wanted to force me to go fight against the free people of Ukraine,” he said to the camera. “Our freedom is taken away from us every day, but Putin wanted to steal it from them in three days.”
And he did what he could to make a grand gesture.
“Putin wanted me to be in a bag,” he said. “But it’s his uniform that will be in a bag.”
He shoved his military uniforms in two black trash bags and threw them in a dumpster.
Near midnight that same day, his mother stood in a pool of streetlight in an empty parking lot, weeping. As her son filmed her from the bus taking him away, she forced a strained, sorrowful smile.
The bus carried Sportsmaster and his girlfriend back to the town where he learned to be a soldier.
“I always thought I was being trained to protect my country and defend it, but it turned out that I was being taught to attack and conquer,” he said.
By that afternoon, they were out of Russia and beaming. He was optimistic. At the least, he would not have to show up to his court hearing in Russia, where he faced criminal charges for not participating in the war.
“The worst thing that could have happened has happened,” he said. “Now only good things are coming.”
Sportsmaster and his girlfriend found a studio apartment in one of the teeming, anonymous buildings slapped up at the edges of Astana.
Six months later, like the other deserters, he’s hiding in plain sight. No SIM card of his own. No clear path to citizenship or asylum. The gnawing peril of a knock at the door.
“There are Russian agents here who try to push Kazakhstan under Russia’s wing,” he said. “I can’t say it’s as safe here as I would like because where the wind blows, Kazakhstan will turn.”
He doesn’t have an international passport and if he tried to cross the border, he’d likely be arrested because of the criminal case against him in Russia.
While he waits for the wind to turn in his favor, Sportsmaster has found work in Astana.
“I am for people to not get stuck,” he said, bursting into an incandescent smile.
When he runs, Sportsmaster eats through 10 kilometers in 40 minutes with animal grace. His breath is even, his heartbeat slow, at ease — if only for a moment — with his place in the world.
He wants people to understand that there are Russians with dignity.
“Something new is starting,” he said. “I will not let anyone decide my destiny for me.”
 

 


Over 1 million claims related to toxic exposure granted under new veterans law, Biden announces

Over 1 million claims related to toxic exposure granted under new veterans law, Biden announces
Updated 22 May 2024
Follow

Over 1 million claims related to toxic exposure granted under new veterans law, Biden announces

Over 1 million claims related to toxic exposure granted under new veterans law, Biden announces
  • In raw numbers, more than 1 million claims have been granted to veterans since Biden signed the so-called PACT Act into law in August 2022, the administration said Tuesday

NASHUA, N.H.: President Joe Biden, aiming to highlight his legislative accomplishments this election year, traveled to New Hampshire on Tuesday to discuss how he’s helped military veterans get benefits as a result of burn pit or other toxic exposure during their service.
“We can never fully thank you for all the sacrifices you’ve made,” Biden said to the veterans and their families gathered at a YMCA. “In America, we leave no veteran behind. That’s our motto.”
In raw numbers, more than 1 million claims have been granted to veterans since Biden signed the so-called PACT Act into law in August 2022, the administration said Tuesday. That amounts to about 888,000 veterans and survivors in all 50 states who have been able to receive disability benefits under the law.
That totals about $5.7 billion in benefits given to veterans and their survivors, according to the administration.
“The president, I think, has believed now for too long, too many veterans who got sick serving and fighting for our country had to fight the VA for their care, too,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters on Monday. PACT stands for “Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics.”
The PACT Act is relatively lower profile compared to the president’s other legislative accomplishments — such as a bipartisan infrastructure law and a sweeping tax, climate and health care package — but it is one that is deeply personal for Biden.
He has blamed burn pits for the brain cancer that killed his son, Beau, who served in Iraq, and has vowed repeatedly that he would get the PACT Act into law. Burn pits are where chemicals, tires, plastics, medical equipment and human waste were disposed of on military bases and were used in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Before the law, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied 70 percent of disability claims that involved burn pit exposure. Now, the law requires the VA to assume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers were related to burn pit or other toxic exposure without veterans having to prove the link.
Before Biden’s planned remarks, he went to a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Merrimack, New Hampshire. The president met there with Lisa Clark, an Air Force veteran who is receiving benefits through the PACT Act because her late husband, Senior Master Sergeant Carl Clark, was exposed to the chemical herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, marked the milestone by praising the veterans who advocated for the law.
“For far too long, our nation failed to honor its promises to our veterans exposed to toxins in military conflicts across the globe— until we fought like hell alongside veterans to finally get the PACT Act signed into law,” Tester, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said.


Blinken says he’ll work with US Congress to respond to ICC move on Gaza

Blinken says he’ll work with US Congress to respond to ICC move on Gaza
Updated 22 May 2024
Follow

Blinken says he’ll work with US Congress to respond to ICC move on Gaza

Blinken says he’ll work with US Congress to respond to ICC move on Gaza
  • The United States is not a member of the court, but has supported past prosecutions, including the ICC’s decision last year to issue an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin over the war in Ukraine

WASHINGTON: The Biden administration is willing to work with Congress to respond to the International Criminal Court prosecutor’s request for arrest warrants for Israeli leaders over the Gaza war, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday, amid Republican calls for US sanctions against court officials.
Speaking at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Blinken called the move “profoundly wrong-headed” and said it would complicate the prospects of reaching a hostage deal and a ceasefire in Israel’s conflict with the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said on Monday he had reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s defense chief and three Hamas leaders “bear criminal responsibility” for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Both President Joe Biden, a Democrat, and his political opponents have sharply criticized Khan’s announcement, arguing the court does not have jurisdiction over the Gaza conflict and raising concerns over process.
The United States is not a member of the court, but has supported past prosecutions, including the ICC’s decision last year to issue an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin over the war in Ukraine.
“We’ll be happy to work with Congress, with this committee, on an appropriate response” to the ICC move, Blinken said on Tuesday.
He did not say what a response to the ICC move might include.
In a later hearing, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told Blinken he hoped to work together with the administration to express the United States’ opposition to the ICC prosecutor.
“What I hope to happen is that we level sanctions against the ICC for this outrage, to not only help our friends in Israel but protect ourself over time,” said Graham.
Republican members of Congress have previously threatened legislation to impose sanctions on the ICC, but a measure cannot become law without support from President Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats, who control the Senate.
In 2020, then-President Donald Trump’s administration accused the ICC of infringing on US national sovereignty when it authorized an investigation into war crimes committed in Afghanistan. The US targeted court staff, including then-prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, with asset freezes and travel bans.


UK minister accused of ‘witch hunt’ against pro-Palestine movement

UK minister accused of ‘witch hunt’ against pro-Palestine movement
Updated 21 May 2024
Follow

UK minister accused of ‘witch hunt’ against pro-Palestine movement

UK minister accused of ‘witch hunt’ against pro-Palestine movement
  • Michael Gove: University encampments represent ‘antisemitism repurposed for Instagram age’
  • Palestine Solidarity Campaign: Britain ‘complicit’ in ‘genocide in Gaza’

LONDON: The UK’s secretary of state for leveling up, housing and communities has been accused of conducting a “witch hunt” after accusing pro-Palestinian demonstrators of antisemitism.
Political parties and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign condemned Michael Gove, with the Revolutionary Communist Party calling his accusations an attempt to distract from the Conservatives’ “support for genocide” in Gaza.
The Socialist Workers Party said he is conducting a “witch hunt (against) the Palestine solidarity movement.”
Gove announced plans to make protest organizers foot the cost of policing at pro-Palestinian demonstrations, saying they are not doing enough to stop some attendees spreading anti-Jewish messages.
“Many of those on these marches are thoughtful, gentle, compassionate people — driven by a desire for peace and an end to suffering. But they are side by side with those who are promoting hate,” he added.
“The organizers of these marches could do everything in their power to stop that. They don’t.”
Gove also said pro-Palestinian university encampments across the UK represent “antisemitism repurposed for the Instagram age,” and their presence has facilitated hostility against Jewish students on campuses.
Ben Jamal, PSC director, said in a statement: “Apologists for Israel’s genocidal violence and system of apartheid have lost the democratic and legal arguments, but continue to attempt to delegitimize Palestinian solidarity. They will not succeed.
“At a moment when Israel is on trial in the world’s highest court for the crime of genocide and the day after its Prime Minister has been threatened with ICC (International Criminal Court) arrest warrants for war crimes, it is grotesque that these smears continue.
“The real issues are that the UK government continues to arm Israel, refuses to resume funding to UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees), and is attempting to protect Israel from legal accountability.
“Far from stopping the genocide in Gaza as required under international law, the UK is complicit.”


NGOs seek climate trial of French oil giant TotalEnergies

NGOs seek climate trial of French oil giant TotalEnergies
Updated 21 May 2024
Follow

NGOs seek climate trial of French oil giant TotalEnergies

NGOs seek climate trial of French oil giant TotalEnergies
  • The complaint was filed at Paris judicial court days before TotalEnergies holds annual shareholders meeting
  • The offenses carry prison sentences ranging between one year to five years and fines of as much as $163,000

PARIS: NGOs filed a criminal complaint against French oil giant TotalEnergies and its top shareholders in Paris on Tuesday, seeking a trial for involuntary manslaughter and other consequences of climate change “chaos.”
The case targets the company’s board, including chief executive Patrick Pouyanne, and major shareholders that backed its climate strategy, including US investment firm BlackRock and Norway’s central bank, Norges Bank.
In a statement, the three NGOs and eight individuals said they accused the group of “deliberately endangering the lives of others, involuntary manslaughter, neglecting to address a disaster, and damaging biodiversity.”
The complaint was filed at the Paris judicial court, which has environmental and health departments, three days before TotalEnergies holds its annual shareholders meeting.
The prosecutor now has three months to decide whether to open a judicial investigation, the NGOs said. If it does not go ahead, the plaintiffs can take their case directly before an investigative judge.
The offenses carry prison sentences ranging between one year to five years and fines of as much as 150,000 euros ($163,000).
“This legal action could set a precedent in the history of climate litigation as it opens the way to holding fossil fuel producers and shareholders responsible before criminal courts for the chaos caused by climate change,” the NGOs said.
The plaintiffs include “victims or survivors of climate-related disasters” in Australia, Belgium, France, Greece, Pakistan, the Philippines and Zimbabwe.
TotalEnergies did not immediately return a request for comment.
Oil and gas companies, other corporations and governments are facing a growing number of legal cases related to the climate crisis worldwide.
TotalEnergies is facing other legal cases in France related to climate change.
Outside the Paris judicial court, the NGOs held a banner reading “climate change kills” and “let’s put shareholders behind bars” — with the “share” in shareholders crossed out and replaced by the “death.”
The latest complaint aims to “recognize the deadly consequences of their decisions, their stubbornness in voting for fossil projects which threaten the stability of the climate and therefore of all living things,” Claire Nouvian, founding director of conservation group Bloom, said at a news conference.
Fossil fuels — oil, gas and coal — are the biggest contributors to heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.
One of the plaintiffs in the Paris case is Benjamin Van Bunderen Robberechts, a 17-year-old Belgian whose friend Rosa died in flash floods in Belgium at the age of 15 in 2021.
In Paris to file the complaint, he said he had come to “demand justice” against those “who choose profit over human lives and climate.”
In their statement, the plaintiffs said “TotalEnergies has known the direct link between its activities and climate change” since at least 1971.
“TotalEnergies followed a climate skeptic line in order to waste time, delay decision-making and protect its increasing investments in fossil fuels,” they added.
They said they hope to set a legal precedent “whereby opening new fossil fuel projects would be considered criminal.”
While the case was filed on Tuesday, TotalEnergies announced a deepwater project off the coast of Angola, with production set to start in 2028 to extract 70,000 barrels per day.


Gunmen kill around 40 people in attack in northcentral Nigeria: official

Gunmen kill around 40 people in attack in northcentral Nigeria: official
Updated 21 May 2024
Follow

Gunmen kill around 40 people in attack in northcentral Nigeria: official

Gunmen kill around 40 people in attack in northcentral Nigeria: official
  • Armed men invaded Zurak community, shooting sporadically and torching houses
  • Local youth leader Shafi’i Sambo also said at least 42 people had been killed in the raid

LAGOS: Gunmen riding motorbikes killed around 40 people in a raid on a mining community in northcentral Nigeria, opening fire on residents and torching homes, the local government said on Tuesday.
The attack late on Monday on Wase district in Plateau state was the latest violence in an area which has long been a flashpoint for disputes over resources and for outbreaks of intercommunal clashes.
Armed men invaded Zurak community, shooting sporadically and torching houses, Plateau state commissioner for information Musa Ibrahim Ashoms told AFP by telephone.
“As we speak, about 40 people have been confirmed dead. Zurak is a popular mining community,” he said.
Local youth leader Shafi’i Sambo also said at least 42 people had been killed in the raid.
Wase has deposits of zinc and lead, while Plateau as a whole is known for its tin mining industry.
Sitting on the dividing line between Nigeria’s mostly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south, Plateau often sees outbreaks of violence sparked by disputes between nomadic herders and pastoral farmers.
Climate change has also helped escalate tensions over grazing land, water access and other resources such as the state’s metal reserves.
Parts of northwest and northcentral Nigeria have also been terrorized by heavily armed criminal gangs, who raid villages to loot and carry out mass kidnappings for ransom.
In January, intercommunal clashes erupted in Plateau’s Mangu town that left churches and mosques burned, more than 50 people dead and thousands displaced.