Author: Worldcrew

Barcelona fined by UEFA for fans making Nazi salutes, monkey gestures at PSG game

Nyon, Switzerland — Barcelona was fined $26,600 by UEFA on Thursday for Nazi salutes and monkey gestures by fans at a Champions League game against Paris Saint-Germain last week.

UEFA, the governing body of soccer in Europe, said the proven charge of “racist behavior” followed images circulating of misconduct by some fans at Parc des Princes on April 10.

UEFA also deferred a one-game ban on selling tickets to Barcelona fans for an away game in the Champions League next season for a probationary period of one year.

Barcelona also was ordered to compensate PSG for damage to seats by fans and pay additional fines totaling $7,500.

Barcelona won 3-2 in Paris in the first leg of the quarterfinals but was eliminated Tuesday after losing 4-1 in the home leg.

World soccer body FIFA is set to launch a new drive against racism next month at its annual congress meeting, being held in Bangkok, Thailand.

Ukraine, Russia report downing drones from overnight attacks

Germany arrests 2 for allegedly spying for Russia, plotting sabotage to undermine Ukraine aid

BERLIN — Two German-Russian men have been arrested in Germany on suspicion of espionage, one of them accused of agreeing to carry out attacks on potential targets including U.S. military facilities in hopes of sabotaging aid for Ukraine, prosecutors said Thursday.

The two, identified only as Dieter S. and Alexander J. in line with German privacy rules, were arrested Wednesday in the Bavarian city of Bayreuth, federal prosecutors said.

Prosecutors allege Dieter S. had been discussing possible acts of sabotage in Germany with a person linked to Russian intelligence since October, and that the main aim was to undermine military support given by Germany to Ukraine.

The suspect declared himself willing to carry out bombing and arson attacks on infrastructure used by the military and industrial sites in Germany, prosecutors said in a statement. They added that he gathered information on potential targets, including U.S. military facilities.

Alexander J. allegedly helped him to do so starting in March at the latest, while Dieter S. scouted out some of the sites, took photos and videos of military goods and passed the information to his intelligence contact.

A judge on Wednesday ordered Dieter S. kept in custody pending a possible indictment, and Alexander J. was ordered held on Thursday.

Dieter S. also faces separate accusations of belonging to an armed unit of pro-Russian separatist forces in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine between December 2014 and September 2016.

Germany has become the second-biggest supplier of weapons to Ukraine after the United States since Russia started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago. The U.S. has a large military presence in Germany, including in Bavaria.

Prosecutors did not name any specific locations in the suspects’ sights. German news agency dpa and magazine Der Spiegel reported, without citing sources, that the locations allegedly snooped on include the U.S. Grafenwoehr military base.

Germany’s top security official, Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, said Russia’s ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin.

She vowed that Germany will continue to thwart any such Russian threats. “We will continue to give Ukraine massive support and will not let ourselves be intimidated,” she said.

Faeser wouldn’t comment on details of the investigation. She said that Germany has increased its security measures since Russia sent its troops into Ukraine in 2022 and will keep evaluating them.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he couldn’t comment on the reported arrests, saying that he doesn’t have “any information on this matter.”

European officials have recently warned of Russia-linked interference networks trying to undermine European support for Ukraine in its war against Russia.

Georgia presses on with ‘foreign agents’ bill opposed by EU

TBILISI, GEORGIA — Georgia’s parliament gave initial approval on Wednesday to a bill on “foreign agents” that the European Union said risked blocking the country’s path to membership and triggered protests for a third straight night.

The fate of the bill is widely seen as a test of whether Georgia, 33 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, intends to pursue a path of integration with the West or move closer toward Russia.

Critics compare the bill to a law that Russia has used extensively to crack down on dissent.

As many as 10,000 opponents of the bill gathered outside the parliament, sitting atop cars and buildings — a day after police used pepper spray to clear protesters away from part of the building.

Several thousand protesters moved over to the government building, heavily guarded by police, to demand a meeting with Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze, the bill’s principal backer.

Some demonstrators, many wearing helmets and masks, scuffled with police outside the building.

Eighty-three of 150 deputies voted in favor, while opposition MPs boycotted the vote. The bill must pass two more readings before becoming law.

It would require organizations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as agents of foreign influence.

Soon after the vote, the EU said in a statement, “This is a very concerning development, and the final adoption of this legislation would negatively impact Georgia’s progress on its EU path. This law is not in line with EU core norms and values.”

It said the proposed legislation “would limit the capacity of civil society and media organizations to operate freely, could limit freedom of expression and unfairly stigmatize organizations that deliver benefits to the citizens of Georgia.”

The EU urged Georgia to “refrain from adopting legislation that can compromise Georgia’s EU path.” The United States and Britain have also urged Georgia not to pass the bill.

The prime minister, in comments quoted by the Interpressnews, said Western politicians had not produced a single valid argument against the bill, and their statements would not prompt the government to change its mind.

President Salome Zourabichvili, whose role is mostly ceremonial, said she would veto the law if it was passed. But parliament has the power to override her veto.

The ruling Georgian Dream Party, which has faced accusations of authoritarianism and excessive closeness to Russia, says the bill is necessary to promote transparency and combat “pseudo-liberal values” imposed by foreigners.

Protesters call bill ‘Russian’

The Interior Ministry said two people were detained at the latest protest. On Tuesday, 11 were detained, and one police officer was injured in altercations.

Protesters who denounced the bill as the “Russian law” appeared undaunted.

“It is very hard to predict any scenario, because the government is unpredictable, unreliable, untruthful, sarcastic and cynical,” said activist Paata Sabelashvili. “People here are just flowing and flowing and flowing like rivers.”

Parliament passed the law on first reading in a rowdy session during which four opposition lawmakers were removed from the chamber amid shouts of “No to the Russian law” and “Traitors.”

Russia is viewed with deep suspicion by many in the South Caucasus country of 3.7 million people, which in 2008 lost a brief war with Moscow over the Moscow-backed breakaway territory of South Ossetia.

Russia defends legislation as ‘normal’

Russia said on Wednesday it had nothing to do with the law and defended it as a “normal practice.” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said it was being used by outside actors to stoke anti-Russian sentiment.

The bill was initially introduced in March 2023. but was shelved after two nights of violent protests and has increased divisions in a deeply polarized Georgia.

A coalition of opposition groups, civil society, celebrities and the president have rallied to oppose it.

US prepared to ‘take further steps’ as it warns China against enabling Russia

state department — The United States warned China on Wednesday against helping Russia in its war on Ukraine and said it is “prepared to take further steps as necessary.” In Italy, foreign ministers from the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations gathered to reaffirm their support for Ukraine’s defense.

“We believe that the PRC is supporting Russia’s war effort and is doing so by helping ramp up its defense production,” State Department principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters during a briefing in Washington.

“Specifically,” he said, “the PRC is providing Russia with significant quantities of machine tools, microelectronics, optics, UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones] and cruise missile technology, and nitrocellulose, which Russia uses to make propellants for weapons.”

Patel said the United States believes these materials “are filling critical gaps in Russia’s defense production cycle” and helping to revitalize Russia’s defense industrial base.

“China’s support is actively enabling Russia’s war in Ukraine, and it poses a significant threat to European security,” he added. “We’ve sanctioned relevant firms in the PRC and are prepared to take further steps as necessary.”

Blinken, G7 leaders talk

In Capri, Italy, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is holding talks this week with foreign ministers from the other G7 countries — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom — as well as representatives from the European Union. Topics include Ukraine support, the Middle East crisis, Haitian instability and global partnerships.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Wednesday said the G7 ministers would discuss how to get more air defense to Ukraine as Kyiv faces increasing pressure from Russia.

“We and our partners around the world must now be just as resolute in our defense against Russian terror from the air,” Baerbock said in a statement.

Blinken will later visit China, where he is expected to bring up Washington’s concerns about China’s support for Russia’s defense industrial base.

On the margins of the G7 meeting Wednesday, Blinken and Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani signed a memorandum of understanding to counter the manipulation of information by other countries.

Blinken said the two nations are collaborating on “all of the most critical issues,” including aiding Ukraine in defending itself against Russian aggression, addressing challenges in the Middle East and sharing approaches to challenges posed by China.

Beijing rejected what Chinese officials described as Washington’s “smear.”

“China regulates the export of dual-use articles in accordance with laws and regulations. Relevant countries should not smear or attack the normal relations between China and Russia and should not harm the legitimate rights and interests of China and Chinese companies,” Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said during a briefing.

China continues supporting Russia

After Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Beijing last week, Chinese officials said China would “continue to support Russia in pursuing development and revitalization under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin.”

They said the two nations “have committed themselves to lasting friendship” and a deepened comprehensive strategic partnership.

Russian missile kills at least 17

In Washington, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal. The two discussed the U.S. Commerce Department’s work with partners to coordinate export controls and restrict sales of advanced technologies to Russia.

Deputy U.S. Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said G7 finance leaders have been working toward a plan to unlock the value of frozen Russian sovereign assets to aid Ukraine in the near term. But he noted the talks are still a work in progress.

In Ukraine, officials said earlier Wednesday that a Russian missile attack hit the northern city of Chernihiv, killing at least 17 people and injuring 61 others.

Denise Brown, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine, condemned the latest wave of strikes. She also emphasized that under international humanitarian law, civilians and hospitals must be protected.

In Chernihiv, aid workers provided on-the-ground support to those affected by the strikes, including psychosocial and legal assistance. Their efforts complement the work of first responders and rescue services.

Some information for this report came from Reuters.

Security agencies warn election officials to brace for attacks on US presidential race

washington — U.S. intelligence and security agencies are trying to prepare election officials for a wave of new attacks aiming to destroy voter confidence in November’s presidential election, just as a series of reports warn some familiar adversaries are starting to ramp up their efforts.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), along with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the FBI, issued a new warning on Wednesday that “the usual suspects” — Russia, China and Iran — are looking for ways to stoke tensions and divide American voters.

All three countries, the guidance said, are “leveraging influence operations exploiting perceived sociopolitical divisions to undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions.”

The new guidance warned that the three countries are using fake online accounts and various proxies, including state-sponsored media organizations, to spread disinformation and sow doubt.

It also cautioned that Russia, China and Iran are using real people, including social media influencers, “to wittingly or unwittingly promote their narratives.”

“The elections process is the golden thread of American democracy, which is why our foreign adversaries deliberately target our elections infrastructure with their influence operations,” CISA senior adviser Cait Conley said in a statement to reporters. “CISA is committed to doing its part to ensure these [state and local] officials — and the American public — don’t have to fight this battle alone.”

Agency warns of new tactics

The latest guidance, posted on CISA’s website, warns that in addition to resorting to familiar tactics, Russia, China and Iran are likely to employ new tricks to try to  confuse U.S. voters and erode confidence in the election process.

One such technique is voice cloning — using a fake recording of a public official or figure to try to cause confusion. The agencies cited an example from last year’s election in the Slovak Republic, when a fake recording of a key party leader purported to show him discussing how to rig the vote.

The guidance also warned that Iran could try to employ “hack and leak” cyberattacks in the U.S., using lessons learned from similar operations against Israel in recent months.

And it said Russia and China have separately sought to spark alarm among voters by spreading fake documents alleging to show evidence of security incidents impacting physical buildings or computer systems.

China denied the allegations.

“China has always adhered to noninterference in other countries’ internal affairs,” Liu Pengyu, the spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said in an email to VOA.

“Speculating or accusing China of using social media to interfere in the U.S. politics is completely groundless and malicious,” Liu added.

VOA also contacted representatives for the Russian and Iranian governments, who have yet to respond.

For now, CISA, ODNI and the FBI are advising U.S. election officials that they can try to mitigate the impact of election meddling attempts by creating trusted portals for information, such as official U.S. government websites, and by proactively debunking false information.

But the challenge is likely to grow.

Russia already interfering, says Microsoft

Tech giant Microsoft warned on Wednesday it is seeing signs that Russia, at least, is already ramping up its election interference efforts.

“The usual Russian election influence actors kicked into gear over the last 45 days,” according to a report by Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center.

The Russian effort so far, the report said, “employs a mix of themes from 2020 with a renewed focus on undermining U.S. support for Ukraine.”

Microsoft further warned that Russia, China and Iran have “leveraged some form of generative AI [artificial intelligence] to create content since last summer.”

“We anticipate that election influence campaigns will include fakes — some will be deep, most shallow — and the simplest manipulations, not the most complex employment of AI, will likely be the pieces of content that have the most impact,” the report added.

At the same time, there is concern about domestic extremists impacting the presidential election.

“There is a serious risk of extremist violence,” the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in a report issued Wednesday.

“While the risk of far-right election-related violence is greater, the possibility of far-left extremist violence cannot be dismissed,” it said, pointing to the possibility of attacks on pre-election political events or gatherings, on polling places during Election Day, and against election offices in the days following the election.

Such warnings are consistent with those issued by U.S. officials in recent months.

“Some DVEs [domestic violent extremists], particularly those motivated by conspiracy theories and anti-government or partisan grievances, may seek to disrupt electoral processes,” the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned in a threat assessment issued this past September.

“Violence or threats could be directed at government officials, voters, and elections‑related personnel and infrastructure, including polling places, ballot drop box locations, voter registration sites, campaign events, political party offices and vote-counting sites,” it said.

United States to reimpose oil sanctions on Venezuela 

UK, EU face significant medicine shortages, study says

LONDON — Patients in the U.K. and European Union are facing shortages of vital medicines such as antibiotics and epilepsy medication, research published Thursday found.

The report by Britain’s Nuffield Trust think-tank found the situation had become a “new normal” in the U.K. and was “also having a serious impact in EU countries.”

Mark Dayan, Brexit program lead at the Nuffield Trust think tank, said Britain’s decision to leave the European Union had not caused U.K. supply problems but had exacerbated them.

“We know many of the problems are global and relate to fragile chains of imports from Asia, squeezed by COVID-19 shutdowns, inflation and global instability,” he said.

“But exiting the EU has left the U.K. with several additional problems -– products no longer flow as smoothly across the borders with the EU, and in the long term our struggles to approve as many medicines might mean we have fewer alternatives available,” he said.

Researchers also warned that being outside the EU might mean Britain is unable to benefit from EU measures taken to tackle shortages, such as bringing drug manufacturing back to Europe.

It said that this included the EU’s Critical Medicines Alliance which it launched in early 2024.

Analysis of freedom of information requests and public data on drug shortages showed the number of notifications from drug companies warning of impending shortages in the UK had more than doubled in three years.

Some 1,634 alerts were issued in 2023, up from 648 in 2020, according to the report, The Future for Health After Brexit.

Paul Rees, chief executive of the National Pharmacy Association (NPA), said medicine shortages had become “commonplace,” adding that this was “totally unacceptable” in any modern health system.

“Supply shortages are a real and present danger to those patients who rely on life-saving medicines for their well-being,” he said.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the U.K. was not alone in facing medical supply issues.

It said most cases of shortages had been “swiftly managed with minimal disruption to patients.” 

France opens judicial investigation into journalist’s death in Ukraine

Microsoft finds Russian influence operations targeting US election have begun

SAN FRANCISCO — Microsoft said on Wednesday that Russian online campaigns to influence the upcoming U.S. presidential election kicked into gear over the past 45 days, but at a slower pace than in past elections. 

Russia-linked accounts are disseminating divisive content aimed at U.S. audiences, including criticizing American support of Ukraine in its war with Russia, researchers at the tech giant said in a report. 

The Russian embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment, but the Kremlin said last month it would not meddle in the November U.S. election. It also dismissed U.S. allegations that it orchestrated campaigns to sway the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections. 

While the Russian activity Microsoft observed is not as intense as around the previous elections, it could increase in the coming months, the researchers said.  

“Messaging regarding Ukraine — via traditional media and social media — picked up steam over the last two months with a mix of covert and overt campaigns from at least 70 Russia-affiliated activity sets we track,” Microsoft said. 

The most prolific of such Russian campaigns is linked to Russia’s Presidential Administration, they added. Another one is aimed at posting disinformation online in various languages, with posts typically starting with an apparent whistleblower or citizen journalist posting content on a video channel. That content is then covered by a network of websites that include DC Weekly, Miami Chronical and The Intel Drop. 

“Ultimately, after the narrative has circulated online for a series of days or weeks, U.S. audiences repeat and repost this disinformation, likely unaware of its original source,” Microsoft said. 

A “notable uptick” has been seen in hacking by a Russian group Microsoft calls Star Blizzard, or Cold River, which is focused on targeting western think tanks, the company said. 

“Star Blizzard’s current focus on U.S. political figures and policy circles may be the first in a series of hacking campaigns meant to drive Kremlin outcomes headed into November.” 

Malicious use of artificial intelligence by foreign rivals targeting the U.S. election is a key concern cited by American political observers, but Microsoft said it found that simpler digital forgeries were more common than deepfakes. Audio manipulations have a bigger impact than video, it added. 

“Rarely have nation-states’ employments of generative AI-enabled content achieved much reach across social media, and in only a few cases have we seen any genuine audience deception from such content,” the researchers said.  

“The simplest manipulations, not the most complex employment of AI, will likely be the pieces of content that have the most impact.”

Biden on campaign trail, Trump at criminal trial

U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump is in a New York courtroom this week for jury selection in a case about his allegedly falsifying business records. Meanwhile, his Democratic opponent President Joe Biden is on the campaign trail talking about the candidates’ competing visions of economic fairness. VOA’s Scott Stearns has our story.

Schumer says he’ll move to end Mayorkas’ impeachment trial in Senate as soon as it begins

Washington — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday that he will move to dismiss impeachment charges against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, a move that would end the Senate trial before arguments even begin.

Schumer, D-N.Y., said that the two articles of impeachment brought against the secretary over his handling of the U.S.-Mexico border “fail to meet the high standard of high crimes and misdemeanors” and could set a dangerous precedent. 

“For the sake of the Senate’s integrity and to protect impeachment for those rare cases we truly need it, senators should dismiss today’s charges,” Schumer said as he opened the Senate. 

An outright dismissal of House Republicans’ prosecution of Mayorkas, with no chance to argue the case, would be an embarrassing defeat for House Republicans and embattled House Speaker Mike Johnson, who made the impeachment a priority. And it is likely to resonate politically for both Republicans and Democrats in a presidential election year when border security has been a top issue. 

Republicans argue that President Joe Biden has been weak on the border as arrests for illegal crossings skyrocketed to more than 2 million people during the last two years of his term, though they have fallen from a record-high of 250,000 in December amid heightened enforcement in Mexico. Democrats say that instead of impeaching Mayorkas, Republicans should have accepted a bipartisan Senate compromise aimed at reducing the number of migrants who come into the U.S. illegally. 

The House narrowly voted in February to impeach Mayorkas for his handling of the U.S.-Mexico border, arguing in the two articles that he “willfully and systematically” refused to enforce immigration laws. House impeachment managers appointed by Johnson, R-La., delivered the charges to the Senate on Tuesday, standing in the well of the Senate and reading them aloud to a captive audience of senators. 

As Johnson signed the articles Monday in preparation for sending them across the Capitol, he said Schumer should convene a trial to “hold those who engineered this crisis to full account.” 

Schumer “is the only impediment to delivering accountability for the American people,” Johnson said. “Pursuant to the Constitution, the House demands a trial.” 

Once the senators are sworn in on Wednesday, the chamber will turn into the court of impeachment, with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington presiding. Murray is the president pro tempore of the Senate, or the senior-most member of the majority party who sits in for the vice president. 

The entire process could be done within hours after the trial is called to order. Schumer said he will seek an agreement from Republicans for a period of debate — an offer they are unlikely to accept — and then allow some Republican objections. He will them move to dismiss the trial and hold a vote. 

To win that vote, Schumer will need the support of all of the Senate’s Democrats and three independents. 

In any case, Republicans would not be able to win the support of the two-thirds of the Senate that is needed to convict and remove Mayorkas from office — Democrats control the Senate, 51-49, and they appear to be united against the impeachment effort. Not one House Democrat supported it, either. 

While most Republicans oppose quick dismissal, some have hinted they could vote with Democrats. 

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said last week he wasn’t sure what he would do if there were a move to dismiss the trial. “I think it’s virtually certain that there will not be the conviction of someone when the constitutional test has not been met,” he said. 

At the same time, Romney said he wants to at least express his view that “Mayorkas has done a terrible job, but he’s following the direction of the president and has not met the constitutional test of a high crime or misdemeanor.” 

Mayorkas, who was in New York to launch a campaign for children’s online safety, reiterated that he’s focused on the work of his department. “The Senate is going to do what the Senate considers to be appropriate as that proceeds,” he said. “I am here in New York City on Wednesday morning fighting online sexual exploitation and abuse. I’m focused on our mission.” 

The two articles argue that Mayorkas not only refused to enforce existing law but also breached the public trust by lying to Congress and saying the border was secure. The House vote was the first time in nearly 150 years that a Cabinet secretary was impeached. 

Since then, Johnson delayed sending the articles to the Senate for weeks while both chambers finished work on government funding legislation and took a two-week recess. Johnson had said he would send them to the Senate last week, but he punted again after Senate Republicans said they wanted more time to prepare. 

House impeachment managers previewed some of their arguments at a hearing with Mayorkas on Tuesday morning about President Joe Biden’s budget request for the department. 

Tennessee Rep. Mark Green, the chairman of the House Homeland Security panel, told the secretary that he has a duty under the law to control and guard U.S. borders, and “during your three years as secretary, you have failed to fulfill this oath. You have refused to comply with the laws passed by Congress, and you have breached the public trust.” 

Mayorkas defended the department’s efforts but said the nation’s immigration system is “fundamentally broken, and only Congress can fix it.” 

Other impeachment managers are Michael McCaul of Texas, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Ben Cline of Virginia, Andrew Garbarino of New York, Michael Guest of Mississippi, Harriet Hageman of Wyoming, Clay Higgins of Louisiana, Laurel Lee of Florida, August Plfuger of Texas and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. 

If Democrats are unable to dismiss or table the articles, they could follow the precedent of several impeachment trials for federal judges over the last century and hold a vote to create a trial committee that would investigate the charges. While there is sufficient precedent for this approach, Democrats may prefer to end the process completely, especially in a presidential election year when immigration and border security are top issues. 

If the Senate were to proceed to an impeachment trial, it would be the third in five years. Democrats impeached President Donald Trump twice, once over his dealings with Ukraine and a second time in the days after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Trump was acquitted by the Senate both times. 

At a trial, senators would be forced to sit in their seats for the duration, maybe weeks, while the House impeachment managers and lawyers representing Mayorkas make their cases. The Senate is allowed to call witnesses, as well, if it so decides, and it can ask questions of both sides after the opening arguments are finished. 

25 years after massacre in Kosovo, survivors appeal for justice

Twenty-five years ago this week, Serbian forces killed 53 Albanians in the Kosovar village of Poklek, making it one of the worst massacres of the war in Kosovo. Today, some survivors still seek justice for their families. VOA’s Keida Kostreci reports. Camera: Burim Goxhuli, Bujar Sylejmani.

G7 foreign ministers meet in Italy amid calls for sanctions on Iran

CAPRI, Italy — Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) major democracies gathered on the Italian island of Capri on Wednesday for three days of talks overshadowed by expectations of an Israeli retaliation against Iran for missile and drone attacks.

The continuing escalation of tensions between Israel and Iran and the wars in Gaza and in Ukraine will dominate the agenda of the ministers from the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Canada and Japan.  

Italy, which holds the G7’s rotating presidency, is pushing for a ceasefire in Gaza and a de-escalation of Middle East tensions, but Israel looks very likely to retaliate against Iran’s weekend attacks despite Western calls for restraint.

“Against a background of strong international tensions, the Italian-led G7 is tasked with working for peace,” Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said in a statement.

The G7 nations pledged support for Israel after the attack, which came in response to a presumed Israeli airstrike on Iran’s embassy compound in Damascus on April 1 which killed two generals and several other Iranian officers.

The U.S. said on Tuesday it was planning to impose new sanctions on Tehran’s missile and drone program in the coming days and expected its allies to follow suit. Tajani told Reuters this week that any sanctions might just focus on individuals.

The Iranian missiles and drones launched on Saturday were mostly shot down by Israel and its allies, and caused no deaths. But Israel says it must retaliate to preserve the credibility of its deterrents. Iran says it considers the matter closed for now but will retaliate again if Israel does.

Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will also be a major topic in Capri, with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg scheduled to join the talks on Thursday.

Germany said on Wednesday the G7 ministers would discuss how to get more air defenses to Ukraine as Kyiv faces increasing pressure from relentless Russian air strikes on its energy network.

Another key issue will be ways of utilizing profits from some $300 billion of sovereign Russian assets held in the West to help Ukraine, amid hesitation among some European Union member states over the legality of such a move.

The opening session of the meeting on Wednesday evening will focus on Gaza and Iran, with the situation in the Red Sea under scrutiny on Thursday morning. Before turning to Ukraine, the ministers will look at ways of strengthening ties with Africa.

The G7 ministers will also discuss stability in the Indo-Pacific region, Italy has said, and hold debates on issues including infrastructure connectivity, cybersecurity, Artificial Intelligence and the fight against fake news.

Republican leader announces Ukraine, Israel war aid vote

Washington — The Republican leader in the House of Representatives announced Wednesday a vote on renewing long-delayed US military aid to Ukraine, as well as to Israel.

The move sets up a showdown with his own far-right wing that for months has blocked helping the outgunned Ukrainian forces.

“We expect the vote on final passage on these bills to be on Saturday evening,” Speaker Mike Johnson announced.

With Ukraine struggling to hold back Russia in the third year of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, Johnson faces huge pressure from the White House and much of Congress to allow the lower house to vote for aid already approved in the Senate.

However, with loyalists to Donald Trump holding the balance of power in his party, the speaker’s own position hangs by a thread.

The announcement by Johnson came shortly after President Joe Biden described Ukraine and Israel as two US allies desperate for help in their conflicts.

“While both countries can capably defend their own sovereignty, they depend on American assistance, including weaponry, to do it. And this is a pivotal moment,” Biden wrote in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.

Biden called the Senate-approved version of the Ukraine and Israel aid package “strong and sensible.”

“It shouldn’t be held hostage any longer by a small group of extreme Republican House members,” he said.

Investing in America

Biden argued in the Journal that the aid is needed to help Ukraine, which is running out of ammunition, and Israel in the wake of last weekend’s mass Iranian drone attack.

But he said the assistance is just as important for US security.

“Both Ukraine and Israel are under attack by brazen adversaries that seek their annihilation. Mr Putin wants to subjugate the people of Ukraine and absorb their nation into a new Russian empire. The government of Iran wants to destroy Israel forever — wiping the world’s only Jewish state off the map,” Biden wrote.

“America must never accept either outcome — not only because we stand up for our friends, but because our security is on the line, too.”

In an attempt to address Republican criticism that the United States cannot afford to spend money on Ukraine’s fight against Russia, Biden said it would not be “blank checks.”

The weaponry for Ukraine would be built in US factories, he said.

“We’d be investing in America’s industrial base, buying American products made by American workers, supporting jobs in nearly 40 states, and strengthening our own national security. We’d help our friends while helping ourselves,” Biden said.

He also sought to allay concerns about the aid to Israel within his own Democratic party, where growing numbers of members oppose arming Israel during its devastating war against Hamas in civilian-packed Gaza.

The bill approved by the Senate, Biden said, includes funding to “continue delivering urgent humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza.”

New TikTok Lite app raises concerns in EU

Swedish Parliament votes to make it easier for people to legally change their gender

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The Swedish parliament passed a law Wednesday lowering the age required for people to legally change their gender from 18 to 16.

Young people under 18 will still need approval from a guardian, a doctor, and the National Board of Health and Welfare.

However, a gender dysphoria diagnosis — defined by medical professionals as psychological distress experienced by those whose gender expression does not match their gender identity — will no longer be required.

Following a debate that lasted for nearly six hours, 234 lawmakers voted for the plans, 94 against and 21 were listed as absent.

The center-right coalition of Sweden’s conservative prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, has been split on the issue, with his own Moderates and the Liberals largely supporting the law while the small Christian Democrats were against it. Sweden Democrats, the populist party with far-right roots that support the government in parliament but are not part of the government, also opposed it.

Denmark, Norway, Finland and Spain are among countries that already have similar laws.

Last Friday, German lawmakers approved a similar legislation, making it easier for transgender, intersex and nonbinary people to change their name and gender in official records directly at registry offices.

In the U.K., the Scottish parliament in 2022 passed a bill allowing people aged 16 or older to change their gender designation on identity documents by self-declaration. It was vetoed by the British government, a decision that Scotland’s highest civil court upheld in December. The legislation set Scotland apart from the rest of the U.K., where the minimum age is 18 and a medical diagnosis is required.

Jimmie Akesson, the leader of the Sweden Democrats, told reporters it was “deplorable that a proposal that clearly lacks the support of the population is so lightly voted through.”

But Johan Hultberg, of Kristersson’s Moderates, said that the outcome was “gratifying.”

The newly approved law was “a cautious but important reform for a vulnerable group. I’m glad we’re done with it,” he said.

Peter Sidlund Ponkala, chairman of the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex Rights, known by its Swedish acronym RFSL, called Wednesday’s news “a step in the right direction” and “a recognition for everyone who has been waiting for decades for a new law.”

Elias Fjellander, chairman of the organization’s youth branch, said it “will make life better for our members.”

“Going forward, we are pushing to strengthen gender-affirming care, to introduce a third legal gender and to ban conversion attempts,” Fjellander said in a statement.

US bars 4 former Malawi officials over corruption, State Department says 

Washington — The United States has barred four former officials of the Malawi government from entry because of their involvement in significant corruption, the State Department said on Wednesday.

The officials designated are former solicitor general and secretary of justice Reyneck Matemba, former director of public procurement and disposal of assets John Suzi-Banda, former Malawi Police Service attorney Mwabi Kaluba, and former Inspector General of the Malawi Police Service George Kainja, the department said.

The four were cited by the State Department as having “abused their public positions by accepting bribes and other articles of value” from a private business person in exchange for a government police contract.

“The United States stands with Malawians working towards a more just and prosperous nation by promoting accountability for corrupt officials, including advocating for transparency and integrity in government procurement processes,” department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement.

Matemba expressed surprise when contacted by Reuters.

“I am still in Malawi and have never traveled outside the country since 2021. I am on bail, therefore I can’t travel because my passport is technically with the police,” Matemba said.

Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera has waged a crackdown on corruption in recent years. In January 2022, he dissolved the country’s entire Cabinet on charges of corruption against three serving ministers.

Later that year, Malawi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau arrested and charged the country’s vice president, Saulos Klaus Chilima, over graft allegations.

The group has been investigating public officers in Malawi over alleged plundering of state resources by influencing awarding of contracts through the country’s public procurement system.

Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries, with nearly three-quarters of the population living on less than $2 a day. Though small in size, it features in the top 10 in Africa in terms of population density.

Ukrainian officials say deadly Russian missile attack hits Chernihiv

Bob Graham, ex-US senator and Florida governor, dies at 87

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Former U.S. Sen. and two-term Florida Gov. Bob Graham, who gained national prominence as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks and as an early critic of the Iraq war, has died. He was 87.

Graham’s family announced the death Tuesday in a statement posted on X by his daughter Gwen Graham.

“We are deeply saddened to report the passing of a visionary leader, dedicated public servant, and even more importantly, a loving husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather,” the family said.

Graham, who served three terms in the Senate, made an unsuccessful bid for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, emphasizing his opposition to the Iraq invasion.

But his bid was delayed by heart surgery in January 2003, and he was never able to gain enough traction with voters to catch up, bowing out that October. He didn’t seek reelection in 2004 and was replaced by Republican Mel Martinez.

Graham was a man of many quirks. He perfected the “workdays” political gimmick of spending a day doing various jobs from horse stall mucker to FBI agent and kept a meticulous diary, noting almost everyone he spoke with, everything he ate, the TV shows he watched and even his golf scores.

Graham said the notebooks were a working tool for him and he was reluctant to describe his emotions or personal feelings in them.

“I review them for calls to be made, memos to be dictated, meetings I want to follow up on and things people promise to do,” he said.

Graham was among the earliest opponents of the Iraq war, saying it diverted America’s focus on the battle against terrorism centered in Afghanistan. He was also critical of President George W. Bush for failing to have an occupation plan in Iraq after the U.S. military threw out Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Graham said Bush took the United States into the war by exaggerating claims of the danger presented by the Iraqi weapons of destruction that were never found. He said Bush distorted intelligence data and argued it was more serious than the sexual misconduct issues that led the House to impeach President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s. It led him to launch his short, abortive presidential bid.

“The quagmire in Iraq is a distraction that the Bush administration, and the Bush administration alone, has created,” Graham said in 2003.

During his 18 years in Washington, Graham worked well with colleagues from both parties, particularly Florida Republican Connie Mack during their dozen years together in the Senate.

Florida voters hardly considered Graham the wealthy Harvard-educated attorney that he was.

Graham’s political career spanned five decades, beginning with his election to the Florida House of Representatives in 1966.

He won a state Senate seat in 1970 and then was elected governor in 1978. He was re-elected in 1982. Four years later, he won the first of three terms in the U.S. Senate when he ousted incumbent Republican Paula Hawkins.

US Navy flies aircraft through Taiwan Strait a day after US-China defense talks

TAIPEI, Taiwan — The U.S. 7th Fleet said a Navy P-8A Poseidon flew through the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday, a day after U.S. and Chinese defense chiefs held their first talks since Nov. 2022 in an effort to reduce regional tensions.

The patrol and reconaissance plane “transited the Taiwan Strait in international airspace,” the 7th Fleet said in a news release.

“By operating within the Taiwan Strait in accordance with international law, the United States upholds the navigational rights and freedoms of all nations,” the release said.

Although the critical 160 kilometer- (100 mile-) wide strait that divides China from the self-governing island democracy is international waters, China considers the passage of foreign military aircraft and ships through it a challenge to its sovereignty. China claims the island of Taiwan, threatening to defend by force if necessary despite U.S. military support for the island.

China had no immediate response to the report, but has in past issued stern protests and activated defenses in response to the passage of ships and military planes through the strait, particularly those from the U.S.

China also regularly sends navy ships and warplanes into the strait and other areas around the island.

“The aircraft’s transit of the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the United States’ commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The United States military flies, sails and operates anywhere international law allows,” the 7th Fleet statement said.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Chinese counterpart Adm. Dong Jun on Tuesday in the latest U.S. effort to improve communications with the Chinese military and reduce the chances of a clash in the region.

It was the first time Austin has talked to Dong and the first time he has spoken at length with any Chinese counterpart since November 2022. The call, which lasted a bit more than an hour, came as Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to China this month for talks.

Military-to-military contact stalled in August 2022, when Beijing suspended all such communication after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. China responded by firing missiles over Taiwan and staging a surge in military maneuvers, including what appeared to be a rehearsal of a naval and aerial blockade of the island.

Gallup: Confidence in US institutions continues to decline

US works on ‘comprehensive response’ on Iran, urges Israel to exercise restraint

Washington — The United States said it is working with allies on a coordinated response to Iran’s drone and missile strikes on Israeli soil over the weekend. At the same time, it continues to urge Israel to exercise restraint and avoid igniting a wider regional conflict.   

President Joe Biden is “coordinating with allies and partners, including the Group of Seven, and with bipartisan leaders in Congress, on a comprehensive response,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement 

The U.S. will impose new sanctions targeting Iran in the coming days, Sullivan said, including its missile and drone program and against entities supporting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iran’s Defense Ministry. 

The U.S. will bolster the integration of air and missile defense and early warning systems across the Middle East, he added.

Biden aides have repeatedly called for de-escalation. The president “does not want to see a war with Iran. Don’t want to see the conflict widen or deepen,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday.  

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to retaliate, but Israeli officials have not said how or when they might strike. 

“We will choose our response accordingly,” said Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi, Israel’s military chief. 

A direct Israeli strike on Iranian soil would amount to another significant escalation, with Tehran already pledging a much harsher response to such a counterattack.

Tehran launched more than 300 drones, ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, most of them intercepted by the Israeli military with the help of the U.S. and regional allies, causing only minor damage to an Israeli base. That suggests Iran may have calibrated the strikes to limit casualties or telegraphed advanced notice, which the White House denies.

Israel’s counterstrike will likely target Iranian soil without killing civilians, said Jonathan Rynhold, head of the Political Studies Department at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. 

“And it would not seek to publicly hit any very obvious public symbolic buildings of the regime,” he told VOA. “That could embarrass the regime and make them feel that they need to escalate it further.”

Rynhold said that the Iranian strikes were “very, very carefully calculated,” and predicted that a potential Israeli counterattack would be similarly calibrated. Still, they could easily lead to dangerous miscalculation, he said.

Israel could opt for covert operations targeting Iranian officials. Or it could launch a cyberattack, said Gregory Hatcher of White Knight Labs, a cybersecurity consultancy firm.

“If I was Israel, I would stick with the normal cyber warfare playbook that they’ve been using for the better part of the last 15 years, starting with Stuxnet in 2010,” he told VOA.

Under a joint operation, Israel and the U.S. created Stuxnet malware and injected it into an Iranian nuclear facility that “made the centrifuges spin uncontrollably and destroyed millions of dollars and slowed down the nuclear capabilities of Iran,” Hatcher said.

Iran said its Saturday strikes were in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike earlier this month on its diplomatic building in Damascus, Syria, that killed seven Iranian military advisers, including two generals.

Pressure on Netanyahu 

Netanyahu is facing intense international pressure to bring Israel’s war in Gaza to an end and immense domestic pressure to free the hostages held by Hamas. 

Israel’s war with Hamas began when the militant Palestinian group attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking more than 240 hostage. Israel’s response has killed nearly 34,000 Palestinians, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza. Many humanitarian organizations have warned of famine.

Some international leaders are accusing Netanyahu of intentionally escalating tensions with Iran. This includes Ayman Safadi, the foreign minister of Jordan, a U.S. ally that helped protect Israel from Tehran’s attacks.

“It’s no secret that Netanyahu’s policy aims to expand the conflict to relieve the growing pressure on him globally as a result of the killing, war and destruction he is doing in Gaza,” Safadi said Tuesday. 

Turkey, a NATO member, has also placed blame on Israel.

“The main one responsible for the tension that gripped our hearts on the evening of April 13 is Netanyahu and his bloody administration,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday, echoing de-escalation calls by regional and Western leaders.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied the Damascus attack and has not responded to the accusations from Jordan and Turkey.

It’s unclear whether Netanyahu will heed calls to de-escalate as he calculates a response that satisfies far-right members of his government and his own political instincts, said Barbara Slavin, distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center.

“He has always wanted to attack Iran, in particular to go after the Iranian nuclear sites. He may see this as his last opportunity to defeat all of Israel’s enemies — Hezbollah, Iran, you name it,” she told VOA. “And who will stop him? I’m very, very worried about that.”

Whatever option Netanyahu decides on, Biden has told him the U.S. will not participate in Israel’s counterattack.

Begum Erzos of VOA’s Turkish Service contributed to this report.

 

At 12, China-central and eastern Europe group faces growing pains

Vienna, Austria — Next week, China will mark the 12th anniversary of a group for central and eastern European countries it established to grow its influence in the EU. But when it does, there will be no high-level activities or celebrations to mark the group’s creation.

Since 2019, the frequency of meetings between China and central and eastern European leaders has decreased, and one after another, members have withdrawn.

Matej Simalcik, executive director at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies, told VOA Mandarin that when the China-Central and Eastern European Countries Cooperation Mechanism was launched on April 26, 2012, central and eastern European, or CEE states “were largely motivated as a reaction to the global financial crisis. Cooperation with China was seen as a means to provide new stimuli for economic growth.”

Since its inception, however, the initiative has been riddled with problems. 

“From the very beginning, agenda-setting within the format was largely dominated by the Chinese side. At the same time, CEE capitals often failed to not just promote, but also come up with their own ideas about what kind of cooperation with China would best serve their interests,” Simalcik said.

“With this, the format’s annual summits were reduced to mere talk shops, which also served Chinese domestic propaganda purposes.”

Also known as the 16+1, the group has included Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia. When Greece joined in 2019, it was renamed 17+1.

From 2013 to 2019, seven meetings were held: six in the capitals of Romania, Serbia, Latvia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Croatia and one in Suzhou, China.

Members have not held an in-person leadership meeting since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019, and it has been three years since Chinese President Xi Jinping attended a video conference.

During that same period, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania announced their withdrawal, while China’s relations with the Czech Republic and other central and eastern European countries deteriorated.

Ja Ian Chong, associate professor of the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, tells VOA’s Mandarin service that many central and eastern European states have grown more cautious — even suspicious — of Beijing and its projects, “especially after seeing Moscow’s aggression toward Ukraine and Beijing’s continuing support for Russia.”

China’s outward investment projects have started to decline and the economic incentives for cooperation are now no longer as great, Chong adds. 

China’s “transnational repression within Europe and diplomatic spats with Czechia and Lithuania that came with economic punishment further reduced appetite for cooperation with Beijing,” he said.

Simalcik said China’s sanctions of members of the European Parliament over the Xinjiang issue and its interference in central and eastern European states’ interactions with Taiwan, especially Taiwan-Czech Republic relations, have also made cooperation between the two sides more difficult.

Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has not ruled out the use of force to unify it with the mainland.

Xinjiang is a region of China where Beijing is accused of human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims. Beijing denies the accusations.  

Filip Sebok, a China researcher at the Association for International Affairs in Prague, told VOA Mandarin that much has changed since China initiated the 16+1 mechanism in 2012. 

While China could present itself at that time as a mostly economic actor, “It is now clear for most European nations, including those in CEE, that China also presents certain security and geopolitical challenges,” he said.

“At the same time, the authoritarian turn within China, human rights abuses, and the spillover of its authoritarian outreach abroad have also changed perceptions of China,” he added. 

However, cooperation between China and CEE countries has not been fruitless, Chong said.

“In essence, CEE states that are more authoritarian and have friendlier ties with Russia tend to be more positive about the cooperation with the PRC,” he said.

Sebok said if Beijing wants to win the support of CEE countries, it should meet these countries’ expectations for economic cooperation. The mismatch between expectations and results led to the decreasing profile of the China-CEE cooperation format. 

“However, we might yet see a reinvigoration of the format in some form. An important factor is the rising Chinese investment in electromobility supply chains, which we are seeing mainly in Hungary, but also in Slovakia and Poland. This might give the cooperation a new impetus,” he said.

Changes in the political situation in Europe and the United States may also create opportunities for restarting cooperation. 

Sebok said that Slovakia, after parliamentary elections in 2023 and presidential election this year, “is exhibiting signs of seeking a closer relationship with China, which might enlarge the group of China-enthusiastic countries.”

If the United States elects a new president and changes its approach to the EU, that “might also create new opportunities for China to take advantage of the uncertainty in the region and increase its influence,” he said.

The United States holds its presidential election this November.

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

International donors pledge more than $2.13B for Sudan

One year after Sudan’s war started, international donors pledged over $2.13 billion dollars in funding for the country at a conference in Paris. Meanwhile, the U.N. says the looming famine in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, is unprecedented, and human rights activists are calling for justice for the “coordinated” ethnic killings that continue in Darfur. Henry Wilkins reports.

Thousands rally in Georgia as parliament debates ‘foreign influence’ law

Tbilisi, Georgia — Georgian lawmakers on Tuesday agreed on an early draft of a controversial “foreign influence” bill, sparking fresh street protests against the legislation criticized for mirroring a repressive Russian law.

The bill has sparked outrage in Georgia and concern in the West, with many arguing it undermines Georgia’s bid for European Union membership.

Lawmakers voted 78 to 25 to move the draft bill on for further debate.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, who is at loggerheads with the ruling party, condemned the move as “against the will of the population.”

It “is a direct provocation — a Russian strategy of destabilization,” she said.

Thousands rallied in the evening outside the parliament building in Tbilisi, blocking traffic on the main thoroughfare of the Georgian capital, whistling, and shouting, “No to the Russian law!”

Riot police cordoned off entrances to the legislature, and demonstrators briefly scuffled with them, attempting to push against the police line, an AFP journalist witnessed.

Police used pepper spray against the crowds, and several protestors were detained. A water cannon was also on standby.

The Interior Ministry said one police officer had been injured.

In chaotic scenes past midnight, riot police chased protesters in the labyrinth of narrow streets near parliament, beating them and making arrests.

Several local media outlets said police had attacked their journalists.

University student Kote Tatishvili, one of the demonstrators, said, “Georgians will never accept this Russian law.” 

“We, peaceful demonstrators, will prevail, we will force Russian stooges in the Georgian Dream [ruling party] to withdraw the law,” he said.

A day earlier, police had detained 14 demonstrators as some 10,000 people took to the streets.

The European Union has called on Tbilisi not to pass the legislation, saying it contradicts the democratic reforms the country is required to pursue to progress on its path towards EU membership.

Renewing Brussels’ criticism of the proposals, EU chief Charles Michel said Tuesday: “The draft Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence is not consistent with Georgia’s EU aspiration and its accession trajectory.”

It “will bring Georgia further away from the EU and not closer,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Amnesty International urged Georgian authorities to “immediately stop their incessant efforts to impose repressive legislation on the country’s vibrant civil society.”

It said the draft law “poses a direct threat to the rights to freedom of association and expression.”

‘Derail from European path’

The ruling Georgian Dream party controls 84 seats in the 150-member legislature and can pass the law without opposition backing.

If adopted, the bill would require any independent NGO and media organization that receives more than 20% of funding from abroad to register as an “organization pursuing the interests of a foreign power.”

That was a change from last year’s proposal, which used the term “agent of foreign influence.”

The term “foreign agent” is rooted in the Soviet past and suggests such people are traitors and enemies of the state.

A similar law is used in Russia to punish government critics and suffocate independent media.

In December, the EU granted Georgia official candidate status but said Tbilisi would have to reform its judicial and electoral systems, reduce political polarization, improve press freedom, and curtail the power of oligarchs before membership talks are formally launched.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said last week that passing the law would “derail Georgia from its European path.”

The ruling party was forced to drop a similar measure last year, following mass protests that saw police use water cannon and tear gas against demonstrators.

Then in a surprise move ahead of October’s parliamentary elections seen as a key democratic test, it reintroduced the bill in parliament earlier this month.

A former Soviet republic, Georgia has sought for years to deepen relations with the West, but the current ruling party is accused of trying to steer the Black Sea nation toward closer ties with Russia.

Once seen as leading the democratic transformation of ex-Soviet countries, Georgia has in recent years been criticized for perceived democratic backsliding.

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