Category: EU

Russia reports downing Ukrainian drones, missiles in western regions

Blinken: Gaza cease-fire still possible, but ICC’s move complicates efforts  

state department — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that a cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas militants in return for the release of hostages remains possible, but the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrants for Israeli leaders hindered ongoing efforts.  

“There’s been an extensive effort made in recent months to get that agreement. I think we came very, very close on a couple of occasions. Qatar, Egypt, others participating in the efforts to do this — we remain at it every single day. I think that there’s still a possibility,” Blinken told lawmakers during a hearing at the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.    

But Blinken said the “extremely wrongheaded decision” by the ICC prosecutor to seek arrest warrants for Israel’s prime minister, defense minister and three Hamas leaders in Gaza for war crimes and crimes against humanity in connection with the Israel-Hamas war complicated the prospects of reaching such a deal.    

On Monday, U.S. President Joe Biden denounced the ICC prosecutor’s decision to equate Hamas terror attacks and civilian abductions in southern Israel with Israel’s military practices in Gaza, calling the ICC prosecutor’s application for arrest warrants “outrageous.”  

Blinken said he will be happy to work with the Congress “on an appropriate response.”    

Some lawmakers are considering legislation to sanction ICC officials for prosecuting U.S. citizens or allies, including Israel.  

The top U.S. diplomat began two days of congressional testimonies, which were immediately interrupted by protesters holding signs that read “war criminal.” They were escorted out of the hearing room by Capitol Police.  

Military operation in Rafah   

In the nearly three-hour hearing, Blinken also said the Biden administration remains “very concerned” about a major military operation by Israel in Rafah.  

The U.S. has opposed a full-scale military assault by Israel in Rafah, situated in the southern part of Gaza. Such an operation would endanger the lives of 1.3 million civilians who evacuated from the northern and central areas of the territory to seek safety from Israel’s military response to Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel.  

Israel’s military campaign has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians and wounded nearly 80,000, most of them civilians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The offensive was launched following a Hamas terror attack into Israel that killed 1,200 people.  

US-Saudi defense pact     

U.S. officials said the United States and Saudi Arabia are nearing a final agreement on a bilateral defense pact.   

Once complete, it will be part of a broader deal presented to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who must decide whether to make concessions to his opposition regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state to secure normalization with Saudi Arabia.  

On Tuesday, Blinken admitted that Israel might be reluctant to accept a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia if it requires them to agree to a Palestinian state.    

In his testimony before the U.S. Congress, Blinken told Democratic Senator Chris Murphy “the overall package could not go forward, absent other things that have to happen for normalization to proceed.”

“And in particular,” he said, “the Saudis have been very clear that would require calm in Gaza. And it would require a credible pathway to a Palestinian state. And it may well be, as you said, that in this moment, Israel is not able or willing to proceed down that pathway.”    

Blinken added that Israel must “decide whether it wants to proceed and take advantage of the opportunity” to achieve something that it has sought since its founding: normal relations with the countries in the region.  

Netanyahu has rejected the two-state solution and the return of the Palestinian Authority controlling Gaza, demands that are widely supported by the international community.  

The Saudis have demanded, as a prerequisite to normalizing ties with Israel, to see an Israeli commitment to the two-state solution. 

UK infected blood scandal victims to start receiving final compensation

Briton charged in Hong Kong foreign intelligence case found dead

Behind Putin and Xi’s embrace, Russia is junior partner, analysts say

LONDON — Chinese President Xi Jinping is not known for public displays of affection.

So Xi’s double embrace of his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, last week — broadcast by Chinese and Russian state television — was widely seen as a calculated signal to the world of a blossoming personal and geopolitical relationship.

Putin’s visit to China underlined burgeoning economic ties between Moscow and Beijing as the two countries signed a series of agreements aimed at forging closer cooperation, even as the West tries to isolate Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine.

Personal warmth

The show of personal warmth was matched by a series of lavish state ceremonies, ostensibly marking the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations.

“It is a shared strategic choice of both countries to deepen strategic cooperation, expand mutually beneficial cooperation and follow the general historical trend of multipolarity in the world and economic globalization,” Xi told Putin during the talks in Beijing on May 16.

Putin praised increased bilateral trade between Russia and China, which had, he said, reached an annual $240 billion — and touted his ambitions to sell more oil and gas to Beijing.

“Russia is ready and capable of uninterruptedly and reliably supplying the Chinese economy, enterprises, cities, towns with environmentally friendly, affordable energy, light and heat,” Putin said following a visit to the northern Chinese city of Harbin.

Deepened cooperation

The Russian leader’s visit to China achieved its aims, according to Liana Fix of the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

“(Coming) shortly after Putin’s inauguration, it had a legitimizing effect for his fifth term as president on the international stage, demonstrating that even if the West does not accept his elections as free and fair, China sees him as the legitimate leader.

“Second, it served the purpose of deepening defense cooperation between these two countries, especially by circumventing U.S. sanctions on Chinese financial institutions for financing Russia‘s war effort, and by facilitating further Chinese deliveries to Russia‘s war machine,” Fix told VOA in an email.

European snub

Putin’s visit to China came days after Xi traveled to Europe, where EU leaders tried to persuade him to end support for Russia’s war on Ukraine. It’s clear they failed, said analyst Velina Tchakarova, founder of the FACE geopolitical consultancy.

“China provides the main lifeline for Russia. But China also practically set the stage for Russia to not get internationally isolated. Russia officially has announced that it’s going in the direction of a long war that it wants to win, and here we see clearly that China is taking the side of Russia,” Tchakarova told VOA.

That alliance — what Tchakarova calls the “DragonBear” — has ramifications beyond Ukraine.

“These kind of wars, as the one being waged right now in Europe [in Ukraine], and similarly the one in the Middle East [between Israel and Hamas], and obviously also the military tensions in the Indo-Pacific — these are hotspots, military conflicts and wars that are to be seen in this context of emerging ‘Cold War 2.0’ between the United States on the one hand, and China and Russia, or the ‘DragonBear’ on the other,” Tchakarova told VOA.

Democratic threat

Xi and Putin are united by geopolitical aims, and their autocratic ideals threaten democratic societies, according to author Anne Applebaum, a staff writer at The Atlantic magazine.

“What they have in common is their dislike of the democratic world, their dislike of democratic language, and the ideals of freedom and justice and rule of law and transparency,” Applebaum said. “And they are willing to join together to fight against them. It’s a full-on central challenge from the autocratic world to them, and it’s attacking both their citizens and their allies around the world, and we need to face it.”

Unbalanced relations

The relationship is tilted heavily in China’s favor, Applebaum said.

“They may have an interest in weakening Russia. A weaker Russia has to sell them oil and gas at lower prices. A weaker Russia is a more pliable ally, is a weaker player on the stage. And maybe they’re hoping for that. It’s pretty clear already that Russia is the junior partner in this alliance, which isn’t something that we would have thought possible a couple of decades ago,” she told VOA.

Putin is due to host Xi at the October BRICS summit in Russia, as both countries seek to galvanize global support for their vision of Beijing and Moscow as major players in a new, multipolar world.

VOA’s Russian Service contributed to this report.

Behind Putin and Xi’s embrace, Russia is junior partner, analysts say

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to China last week underlined the burgeoning economic and geopolitical ties between Moscow and Beijing, amid Russia’s war on Ukraine. But as Henry Ridgwell reports, analysts say China could seek to exploit its relationship with a weakened and isolated Russia.

Humanitarian needs spike as Russia escalates offensive in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region

Geneva — U.N. agencies report Russia’s escalating military offensive in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region over the past two weeks is causing an alarming spike in humanitarian needs as deaths and injuries grow and thousands flee in the wake of relentless aerial attacks on civilian and energy infrastructure.  

“Over 14,000 people have been displaced in a matter of days, and nearly 189,000 more still reside within 25 kilometers of the border with the Russian Federation, facing significant risks due to the ongoing fighting,” Jarno Habicht, World Health Organization representative in Ukraine said.

Speaking from the capital Kyiv, he told journalists in Geneva Tuesday that Russia’s escalating hostilities are having widespread harmful ramifications throughout the country.  

“Homes and civilian infrastructure are being badly damaged, and people across Ukraine, including here in Kyiv are facing electricity shortages as a result of attacks on critical power facilities,” he said noting that a major missile strike Sunday on the outskirts of Kharkiv caused 11 deaths and many injuries, including a paramedic.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, reports that “children, first responders and health personnel,” are among the multiple casualties.

Citing reports from authorities and humanitarian workers on the ground, OCHA said that “Attacks in eastern and southern Ukraine over the weekend caused scores of civilian casualties and damage to homes and civilian infrastructure.”

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, also expresses alarm about accelerating attacks by Russian forces in the northeastern Kharkiv region, which is “prolonging and exacerbating an already dire situation.”

UNHCR spokesperson, Shabia Mantoo noted that in the past week, Ukrainian authorities with the help of volunteers and humanitarian organizations have evacuated more than 10,300 people from their villages in Kharkiv region’s border areas.

“The majority of the evacuees, who had to escape their homes with only a few belongings, are already highly vulnerable and include mainly older people and those with low mobility or disabilities who were not able to flee earlier.

“Psychologists with whom UNHCR partners report that as a consequence, many are suffering from acute stress,” she said noting that a transit center has been set up by authorities and humanitarian organizations in Kharkiv city to provide basic relief, psychosocial, legal, and other aid to the internally displaced.

Mantoo adds that more people continue to flee from front-line communities in Donetsk, Sumy, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson towards central and western regions.

“UNHCR is concerned that conditions in Kharkiv — Ukraine’s second largest city, which is already hosting some 200,000 internally displaced people — could become even more difficult if the ground offense and relentless aerial attacks continue,” she said.

The World Health Organization shares these concerns.  Since Russia’s invasion more than two years ago, WHO has verified 1,682 attacks on health care in Ukraine, resulting in 128 deaths and 288 injuries of medical personnel and patients.

It reports, on average, 200 ambulances per year are damaged or destroyed in shelling attacks.  

“That is a tremendous loss, depriving the Ukrainian people of urgent care,” said Habicht.  “With the worsening security situation, humanitarian needs in the region are growing exponentially.

“The conflict has significantly increased the number of trauma patients.  We are currently funding critical care teams and ambulances to support emergency medical services,” he said.

Anticipating the possible escalation of hostilities, Habicht said the WHO has prepositioned more than 22 metric tons of medical supplies – enough for 50,000 people – for treatment of acute trauma, surgical interventions and chronic disease management.

Additionally, he said the WHO has trained 120 medical professionals in Kharkiv region in mass casualty response, including the “management of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear incidents.”

While saying that he personally did not believe that these dangerous substances are likely to be used or inadvertently discharged in the current conflict, he cautioned that “In health, we have learned that we have to be ready for any risk.”  

The bigger problem, he said, is that of funding.  He noted that the United Nations $3.1 billion appeal to provide lifesaving humanitarian assistance for 8.5 million people inside Ukraine this year is only 23% funded.

The UNHCR is running into a similar problem in that the agency has received only 16 percent of its $1.1. billion appeal targeting 2.3 million refugees and the five communities hosting them.

“The funding situation is very alarming.  We are concerned about the levels of funding for this humanitarian crisis…. The war is prolonging.  So, we also know that the needs will accrue.

“We have got winter approaching. It seems far off, but we need to start planning now and make arrangements.  More and more people are fleeing their homes that do not have shelter,” she said.

The UNHCR Official observed that the damage inflicted by Russian forces to Ukraine’s energy facilities will “significantly increase the need for humanitarian assistance during the cold season.”

  Britain, South Korea co-host two-day AI summit in South Korea

German prince on trial in far-right coup plot 

Frankfurt, Germany — A prince, a former MP and several ex-army officers went on trial on Tuesday, accused of masterminding a plot driven by conspiracy theories to attack the German parliament and topple the government.

In one of the biggest cases heard by German courts in decades, prosecutors accuse the group of preparing a “treasonous undertaking” to storm the Bundestag and take MPs hostage.

The defendants, including one who covered his face with a file, took their seats in a specially built high-security courtroom in Frankfurt.

Eight suspected members of the coup plot will take the stand in Frankfurt, as well as one woman accused of supporting their efforts to overthrow Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government.

The minor aristocrat and businessman Prince Heinrich XIII Reuss, one of the group’s ringleaders on trial, was said to be in line to become the provisional head of state after the current government was overthrown.

The sensational plan, foiled by authorities at the end of 2022, is the most high-profile example of a growing threat of violence from the political fringes in Germany.

The alleged plotters are said to have taken inspiration from “conspiracy myths” including the global QAnon movement and drawn up “lists of enemies.”

They also belonged to the German Reichsbuerger (Citizens of the Reich) — a political movement of extremists and gun enthusiasts who reject the legitimacy of the modern German republic.

Alleged ringleaders

According to prosecutors, the plotters believed Germany was run by a hidden “deep state” and were waiting for a signal from a fabricated international “Alliance” of governments to launch their coup.

The proceedings in the highly complex case, in which a total of 26 people face trial, are being held across three different courts.

Nine members of the group’s “military arm” went on trial in Stuttgart at the end of April.

A third set of proceedings is scheduled to begin in Munich in June.

Among those in the Frankfurt dock next to Reuss are former soldiers Ruediger von Pescatore, Maximilian Eder and Peter Woerner, who are said to have founded the coup plotters’ group in July 2021.

The defendants also include several members of a “council” that prosecutors say was to replace the government after the coup — notably judge and far-right former MP Birgit Malsack-Winkemann.

Malsack-Winkemann, a justice of the peace and ex-member of parliament for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, is said to have been lined up for the justice portfolio.

Investigators believe the 59-year-old had passed on her inside knowledge of the German parliament to help the group plan an armed attack on the Bundestag building.

Michael Fritsch, a former policeman from Hanover, was meanwhile allegedly in line to take over the interior ministry.

Russian contacts

The ninth defendant is Reuss’s partner, a Russian citizen identified as Vitalia B.

She is accused of “abetting” the alleged putsch plan and putting him in touch with a contact at the Russian consulate in Leipzig.

Reuss and the other alleged ringleader of the group, von Pescatore, also sought a meeting with Russian officials in the Slovakian capital Bratislava in February 2022, prosecutors said.

“How the Russian Federation responded, has not yet been clarified,” prosecutors said.

Reuss was allegedly tasked with negotiating an accord with Russia in the event of the coup succeeding.

The threat from the far right has grown to become the biggest extremist menace to Germany, according to officials.

In April, police charged a new suspect in relation to a separate coup plan, in which five others have already been indicted.

The plotters, frustrated with Covid pandemic-era restrictions, planned to kidnap the German health minister, according to investigators.

Germany has seen an increasing number of attacks against public figures in recent years, since the murder of conservative politician Walter Luebcke by neo-Nazis in 2019.

This month, the former mayor of Berlin was attacked in a library, while a German member of the European Parliament was hospitalized after being jumped while putting up campaign posters.

Slovak PM Fico has CT scan during recovery from assassination attempt 

Ukraine destroys 28 Russian drones as Kharkiv endures attacks

Russian director, playwright on trial over play authorities say justifies terrorism

TALLINN, Estonia — A Russian court on Monday opened the trial of a theater director and a playwright accused of advocating terrorism in a play, the latest step in an unrelenting crackdown on dissent in Russia that has reached new heights since Moscow sent troops into Ukraine.

Zhenya Berkovich, a prominent independent theater director, and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk have been jailed for over a year.

Authorities claim their play “Finist, the Brave Falcon” justifies terrorism, which is a criminal offense in Russia punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Berkovich and Petriychuk have both repeatedly rejected the accusations against them.

Berkovich told the court on Monday that she staged the play in order to prevent terrorism, and Petriychuk echoed her sentiment, saying that she wrote it in order to prevent events like those depicted in the play.

The women’s lawyers have pointed out at court hearings before the trial that the play was supported by the Russian Culture Ministry and won the Golden Mask award, Russia’s most prestigious national theater award.

In 2019, the play was read to inmates of a women’s prison in Siberia, and Russia’s state penitentiary service praised it on its website, Petriychuk’s lawyer has said.

Nine accused of ‘Reichsbuerger’ coup plot go on trial in Germany 

frankfurt, germany — A would-be prince, a former judge and parliamentarian, and retired military officers are among nine alleged conspirators who will stand trial on Tuesday for a suspected “Reichsbuerger” plot to overthrow Germany’s democracy. 

Prosecutors say they were ringleaders in a terrorist plot to topple the German government and install property investor Heinrich XIII Prinz Reuss, scion of a now throneless dynasty, as a caretaker head of state. 

The case, to be held in a maximum-security courtroom on the outskirts of Frankfurt, is the second to open against members of a conspiracy involving at least 27 people. 

The defendants taking their seats behind bulletproof glass on Tuesday constitute what prosecutors say would have been political and military leaders of a plot to storm parliament and detain legislators to initiate their seizure of power. 

“They knew their seizure of power would involve killing people,” prosecutors wrote.  

The defendants have denied charges of terrorism and high treason. 

Prosecutors say they are adherents of the “Reichsbuerger” (Citizens of the Reich) belief system, which holds that today’s German state is an illegitimate facade and that they are citizens of a German monarchy that, they maintain, endured after Germany’s defeat in World War I, despite its formal abolition. 

Security services say the conspiracy theory, which has parallels to the QAnon movement that fueled the January 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol, has 21,000 adherents nationwide. 

Nine accomplices who prosecutors say would have imposed martial law after a putsch went on trial in Stuttgart last month. 

Tuesday’s defendants include former army officers Maximilian Eder and Ruediger von Pescatore, and former judge and far-right ex-parliamentarian Birgit Malsack-Winkemann. 

Prosecutors say Malsack-Winkemann used her parliamentary privileges to escort several of her co-conspirators around the Reichstag building in Berlin in a scoping exercise to plan the putsch. 

Ringleaders are accused of seeking the backing of Russian officials, including during meetings at Russian consulates in Germany and in the Slovak capital, Bratislava. 

This reflected their belief that an “alliance” of victor countries, including Russia and the United States, stood ready to support the resurrection of the real, submerged Germany that would replace today’s post-World War II republic. 

The suspects reject the charges against them. Eder told Stern magazine in an interview given from prison that the parliamentary tour had been intended to find suitable locations to accost lawmakers over what he believed was their involvement in a child molestation ring. 

Prosecutors say the conspiracy had 500,000 euros in funds and had gathered over 100,000 rounds of ammunition.

‘The Apprentice,’ about a young Donald Trump, premieres in Cannes

CANNES, France — While Donald Trump’s hush money trial entered its sixth week in New York, an origin story for the Republican presidential candidate premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on Monday, unveiling a scathing portrait of the former president in the 1980s. 

“The Apprentice,” directed by the Iranian Danish filmmaker Ali Abbasi, stars Sebastian Stan as Trump. The central relationship of the movie is between Trump and Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong), the defense attorney who was chief counsel to Joseph McCarthy’s 1950s Senate investigations. 

Cohn is depicted as a longtime mentor to Trump, coaching him in the ruthlessness of New York City politics and business. Early on, Cohn aided the Trump Organization when it was being sued by the federal government for racial discrimination in housing. 

“The Apprentice,” which is labeled as inspired by true events, portrays Trump’s dealings with Cohn as a Faustian bargain that guided his rise as a businessman and, later, as a politician. Stan’s Trump is initially a more naive real-estate striver, soon transformed by Cohn’s education. 

The film notably contains a scene depicting Trump raping his wife, Ivana Trump (played by Maria Bakalova). In Ivana Trump’s 1990 divorce deposition, she stated that Trump raped her. Trump denied the allegation and Ivana Trump later said she didn’t mean it literally, but rather that she had felt violated. 

That scene and others make “The Apprentice” a potentially explosive big-screen drama in the midst of the U.S. presidential election. The film is for sale in Cannes, so it doesn’t yet have a release date. 

Variety on Monday reported alleged behind-the-scenes drama surrounding “The Apprentice.” Citing anonymous sources, the trade publication reported that billionaire Dan Snyder, the former owner of the Washington Commanders and an investor in “The Apprentice,” has pressured the filmmakers to edit the film over its portrayal of Trump. Snyder previously donated to Trump’s presidential campaign. 

Neither representatives for the film nor Snyder could immediately be reached for comment. 

In the press notes for the film, Abbasi, whose previous film “Holy Spider” depicts a female journalist investigating a serial killer in Iran, said he didn’t set out to make “a History Channel episode.” 

“This is not a biopic of Donald Trump,” said Abbasi. “We’re not interested in every detail of his life going from A to Z. We’re interested in telling a very specific story through his relationship with Roy and Roy’s relationship with him.” 

Regardless of its political impact, “The Apprentice” is likely to be much discussed as a potential awards contender. The film, shot in a gritty 1980’s aesthetic, returns Strong to a New York landscape of money and power a year following the conclusion of HBO’s “Succession.” Strong, who’s currently performing on Broadway in “An Enemy of the People,” didn’t attend the Cannes premiere Monday. 

“The Apprentice” is playing in competition in Cannes, making it eligible for the festival’s top award, the Palme d’Or. At Cannes, filmmakers and casts hold press conferences the day after a movie’s premiere. “The Apprentice” press conference will be Tuesday.

Report: Vehicles shipped to US used parts made in China with forced labor

Britain slammed in inquiry for infecting thousands with tainted blood, covering up scandal

LONDON — British authorities and the country’s public health service knowingly exposed tens of thousands of patients to deadly infections through contaminated blood and blood products, and hid the truth about the disaster for decades, an inquiry into the U.K.’s infected blood scandal found Monday.

An estimated 3,000 people in the United Kingdom are believed to have died and many others were left with lifelong illnesses after receiving blood or blood products tainted with HIV or hepatitis in the 1970s to the early 1990s.

The scandal is widely seen as the deadliest disaster in the history of Britain’s state-run National Health Service since its inception in 1948.

Former judge Brian Langstaff, who chaired the inquiry, slammed successive governments and medical professionals for “a catalogue of failures” and refusal to admit responsibility to save face and expense. He found that deliberate attempts were made to conceal the scandal, and there was evidence of government officials destroying documents.

“This disaster was not an accident. The infections happened because those in authority — doctors, the blood services and successive governments — did not put patient safety first,” he said. “The response of those in authority served to compound people’s suffering.”

Campaigners have fought for decades to bring official failings to light and secure government compensation. The inquiry was finally approved in 2017, and over the past four years it reviewed evidence from more than 5,000 witnesses and more than 100,000 documents.

Many of those affected were people with hemophilia, a condition affecting the blood’s ability to clot. In the 1970s, patients were given a new treatment that the U.K. imported from the United States. Some of the plasma used to make the blood products was traced to high-risk donors, including prison inmates, who were paid to give blood samples.

Because manufacturers of the treatment mixed plasma from thousands of donations, one infected donor would compromise the whole batch.

The report said around 1,250 people with bleeding disorders, including 380 children, were infected with HIV -tainted blood products. Three-quarters of them have died. Up to 5,000 others who received the blood products developed chronic hepatitis C, a type of liver infection.

Meanwhile an estimated 26,800 others were also infected with hepatitis C after receiving blood transfusions, often given in hospitals after childbirth, surgery or an accident, the report said.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is expected to apologize later Monday, and authorities are expected to announce compensation of about 10 billion pounds ($12.7 billion) in all to victims. Details about that payment are not expected until Tuesday at the earliest.

The report said many of the deaths and illnesses could have been avoided had the government taken steps to address the risks linked to blood transfusions or the use of blood products. Since the 1940s and the early 1980s it has been known that hepatitis and the cause of AIDS respectively could be transmitted this way, the inquiry said.

Langstaff said that unlike a long list of developed countries, officials in the U.K. failed to ensure rigorous blood donor selection and screening of blood products. At one school attended by children with hemophilia, public health officials gave the children “multiple, riskier” treatments as part of research, the report said.

He added that over the years authorities “compounded the agony by refusing to accept that wrong had been done,” falsely telling patients they had received the best treatment available and that blood screening had been introduced at the earliest opportunity. When people were found to be infected, officials delayed informing them about what happened.

Langstaff said that while each failure on its own was serious, taken “together they are a calamity.”

Andy Evans, of campaign group Tainted Blood, told reporters that he and others “felt like we were shouting into the wind during the last 40 years.”

“We have been gaslit for generations. This report today brings an end to that. It looks to the future as well and says this cannot continue,” he said.

Diana Johnson, a lawmaker who has long campaigned for the victims, said she hoped that those found responsible for the disaster will face justice — including prosecution — though the investigations have taken so long that some of the key players may well have died since.

“There has to be accountability for the actions that were taken, even if it was 30, 40, 50 years ago,” she said.

WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange can appeal US extradition on freedom of speech grounds

The US government’s attempts to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from Britain on charges of espionage took another legal twist Monday, as judges ruled that he must be given the right to a full appeal against the order — based on freedom of speech. Henry Ridgwell has more from London

UN watchdog urges ‘vigilance’ against nuclear material theft

Vienna — The UN nuclear watchdog on Monday called for “vigilance” against trafficking of nuclear and other radioactive material, saying it has recorded more than 4,200 thefts or other incidents over the past 30 years.

Last year, 31 countries reported 168 incidents “in line with historical averages,” the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said. Six of those were “likely related to trafficking or malicious use,” it added.

Since 1993, the IAEA has recorded 4,243 incidents, with 350 of them connected or likely to be connected to trafficking or malicious use.

“The reoccurrence of incidents confirms the need for vigilance and continuous improvement of the regulatory oversight to control, secure and properly dispose radioactive material,” said Elena Buglova, director of the IAEA’s nuclear security division.

Most incidents are not connected to trafficking or malicious use, involving for example scrap metal found to be contaminated.

The IAEA noted a decline in incidents involving nuclear material, such as uranium, plutonium and thorium.

But Buglova warned dangerous materials remain vulnerable, especially during transport, stressing the “importance of strengthening transport security measures.”

The Vienna-based IAEA released the data as it opens its fourth international conference on nuclear security, which runs until Friday in the Austrian capital.

The previous one was also held in Vienna in 2020.

A total of 145 states currently report to the IAEA about incidents that involve nuclear or other radioactive material lost, stolen, improperly disposed of or otherwise neglected.

Many radioactive substances are used in hospitals, universities and industry worldwide.

The big worry is that extremists could get hold of the materials and use them in a “dirty bomb” — a device whereby conventional explosives disperse radioactive materials.

Although the damage and loss of life caused by such a “dirty bomb” would be a fraction of that unleashed by a fission or fusion atom bomb, it could still cause mass panic in an urban area.

Ukraine destroys 29 Russian drones as Russia blocks attack on border regions

London court rules WikiLeaks founder Assange can appeal against an extradition order to the US 

London —  A British court has ruled that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can appeal against an order that he be extradited to the U.S. on espionage charges. 

Two High Court judges on Monday said Assange has grounds to challenge the U.K. government’s extradition order. 

The ruling sets the stage for an appeal process likely to further drag out a years-long legal saga. Assange faces 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over his website’s publication of a trove of classified U.S. documents almost 15 years ago.  

The Australian computer expert has spent the last five years in a British high-security prison after taking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for seven years. 

Assange’s lawyers have argued he was a journalist who exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sending him to the U.S., they said, would expose him to a politically motivated prosecution and risk a “flagrant denial of justice.” 

The U.S. government says Assange’s actions went way beyond those of a journalist gathering information, amounting to an attempt to solicit, steal and indiscriminately publish classified government documents. 

In March, two judges rejected the bulk of Assange’s arguments but said he could take his case to the Court of Appeal unless the U.S. guaranteed he would not face the death penalty if extradited and would have the same free speech protections as a U.S. citizen. 

The court said that if Assange couldn’t rely on the First Amendment then it was arguable his extradition would be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, which also provides free speech and media protections. 

The U.S. provided those reassurances, but Assange’s legal team and supporters argue they are not good enough to rely on to send him to the U.S. federal court system because the First Amendment promises fall short. The U.S. said Assange could seek to rely on the amendment but it would be up to a judge to decide whether he could. 

Attorney James Lewis, representing the U.S., said Assange’s conduct was “simply unprotected” by the First Amendment. 

“No one, neither U.S. citizens nor foreign citizens, are entitled to rely on the First Amendment in relation to publication of illegally obtained national defense information giving the names of innocent sources, to their grave and imminent risk of harm,” Lewis said. 

The WikiLeaks founder, who has spent the past five years in a British prison, was not in court to hear his fate being debated. He did not attend for health reasons, Fitzgerald said. 

Commuters emerging from a Tube stop near the courthouse couldn’t miss a large sign bearing Assange’s photo and the words, “Publishing is not a crime. War crimes are.” Scores of supporters gathered outside the neo-Gothic Royal Courts of Justice chanting “Free Julian Assange” and “Press freedom, Assange freedom.” 

Some held a large white banner aimed at President Joe Biden, exhorting: “Let him go Joe.” 

Assange’s lawyers say he could face up to 175 years in prison if convicted, though American authorities have said any sentence would likely be much shorter. 

Assange’s family and supporters say his physical and mental health have suffered during more than a decade of legal battles, which includes seven years spent inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London from 2012 until 2019. He has spent the past five years in a British high-security prison. 

His legal team is prepared to ask the European Court of Human Rights to intervene. But his supporters fear Assange could be transferred before the court in Strasbourg, France, could halt his removal. 

Judges Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson may also postpone issuing a decision. 

 

 

UK and Finland to deepen ties in face of ‘Russian aggression’

LONDON — Britain and Finland will sign a new strategic partnership on Monday to strengthen ties and counter the “threat of Russian aggression,” the U.K. foreign minister said.

The two countries will declare Russia as “the most significant and direct threat to European peace and stability,” according to a Foreign Office press release.

The agreement will be endorsed by U.K. foreign minister David Cameron and his Finnish counterpart Elina Valtonen in London.

“As we stand together to support Ukraine, including through providing military aid and training, we are clear that the threat of Russian aggression, following the war it started, will not be tolerated,” said Cameron.

“This strategic partnership, built on our shared values, will see the UK and Finland step up cooperation to bolster European security as well as seize new opportunities, from science and technology to closer energy ties,” he added.

The countries will work together to counter Russian disinformation, malicious cyber activities and support Ukraine’s recovery, reconstruction, and modernization, according to the Foreign Office.

Since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Finland has joined the NATO military alliance and shut off much of its border with Russia. Britain is a major military supporter of Ukraine.

Cannes film follows Egypt feminists on brink of adulthood

Cannes, France — Filmmakers Nada Riyadh and Ayman El Amir spent so much time following an all-girl theatre troupe in a remote Egyptian village that at one point someone tried to sell them a house.

“He thought we were always there so we might as well live there,” Riyadh told AFP after the premiere of their documentary at the Cannes Film Festival.

“The Brink of Dreams” follows a group of teenage girls in rural southern Egypt over four years, between rehearsals, as they navigate the tough decisions that will determine their adulthood.

Majda dreams of studying theatre in Cairo, Monika wants to become a famous singer and Haidi is being pursued by the hottest guy in the village.

In their feminist street performances, they boldly rail against the patriarchy, challenging members of the crowd on issues such as self-fulfillment and early marriage.

But soon life takes over and the teenagers from Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority find themselves confronted with these concepts for real.

The camera discreetly captures conversations in the family shop, between a father and daughter, or two lovers, as neighbors and animals go about their daily lives.

“In the beginning there was a lot of people always looking at the camera. Everybody was self-conscious,” said Riyadh.

But “once the trust had been built between them and us, we had that chance to blend in.”

Riyadh said the documentary, which is screening in a sidebar section of the festival, was driven by her and co-director Amin discovering the troupe in 2017.

The film “is intentionally feminist in every way but I think it was also dictated by what this inspiring group of women was already doing,” she said.

It’s “mind-blowing because they’re demanding answers about very important things and opening a dialogue with everybody in their community.”

Co-director Amin said the main challenge was editing down 100 hours of footage to tell this coming-of-age tale and convey a seldom seen side of Egypt.

“Most mainstream films in Egypt tell stories about living in gated compounds and shopping in malls,” Amin said.

“It’s very rare to see stories that take place in the south outside of Cairo or Alexandria and see girls like those girls on screen.”

The documentary has a French distributor, but the filmmakers also hope to show the film widely in Egypt, including in the rural south.

Until then, six of the actors in the film got to attend the Cannes premiere, after a last-minute rush to get them their first passports and visas on time.

Monika, the aspiring singer, has two children now. But on the red carpet, the DJ played the catchy song that she made with a popular Egyptian producer called Molotof for the film’s final credits.

What happened in the UK’s infected blood scandal? Inquiry report due Monday

London — The final report of the U.K.’s infected blood inquiry will be published Monday, nearly six years after it began looking into how tens of thousands of people contracted HIV or hepatitis from transfusions of tainted blood and blood products in the 1970s and 1980s.

The scandal is widely seen as the deadliest to afflict Britain’s state-run National Health Service since its inception in 1948, with around 3,000 people believed to have died as a result of being infected with HIV and hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver.

The report is expected to criticize pharmaceutical firms and medical practitioners, civil servants and politicians, although many have already died given the passage of time. It’s also set to pave the way to a huge compensation bill that the British government will be under pressure to rapidly pay out.

Had it not been for the tireless campaigners, many of whom saw loved ones die decades too soon, the scale of the scandal may have remained hidden forever.

“This whole scandal has blanketed my entire life,” said Jason Evans, who was four when his father died at the age of 31 in 1993 after contracting HIV and hepatitis from an infected blood plasma product.

“My dad knew he was dying and he took many home videos, which I’ve got and replayed over and over again growing up because that’s really all I had,” he added.

Evans was instrumental in the decision by then-Prime Minister Theresa May to establish the inquiry in 2017. He said he just “couldn’t let it go.” His hope is that on Monday, he and countless others, can.

Here is a look at what the scandal was about and what the report’s impact may be.

What is the infected blood scandal?

In the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of people who needed blood transfusions, for example after childbirth or surgery, became exposed to blood tainted with hepatitis, including an as yet unknown kind that was later termed Hepatitis C, and HIV.

Those with haemophilia, a condition affecting the blood’s ability to clot, became exposed to what was sold as a revolutionary new treatment derived from blood plasma.

In the U.K., the NHS, which treats the majority of people, started using the new treatment in the early 1970s. It was called Factor VIII. It was more convenient when compared with an alternative treatment and was dubbed a wonder drug.

Demand soon outstripped domestic sources of supply, so health officials began importing Factor VIII from the U.S., where a high proportion of plasma donations came from prisoners and drug users who were paid to donate blood. That dramatically raised the risk of the plasma being contaminated.

Factor VIII was made by mixing plasma from thousands of donations. In this pooling, one infected donor would compromise the whole batch.

The inquiry heard estimates that more than 30,000 people were infected from compromised blood or blood products via transfusions or Factor VIII.

Missed chances

By the mid 1970s, there was evidence haemophiliacs being treated with Factor VIII were more prone to hepatitis. The World Health Organization, which had warned in 1953 of the hepatitis risks associated with the mass pooling of plasma products, urged countries not to import plasma.

AIDS, the biggest public health crisis since World War II, turned up in the early 1980s. Originally thought to be isolated to the gay community, it soon started appearing among haemophiliacs and those who had received blood transfusions.

Though the cause of AIDS — HIV — was not identified until 1983, warnings had been relayed to the U.K. government the year before that the causative agent could be transmitted by blood products. The government argued there was no conclusive proof. Patients were not informed of the risk and persisted with a treatment that put them in mortal danger.

Mistakes

The inquiry is expected to conclude that lessons from as early as the 1940s had been ignored.

Campaigners argue that since the 1940s it had been clear that heat killed hepatitis in another plasma product, albumin. They say authorities could have made Factor VIII safe before it was sold.

Evidence given to the inquiry suggested that authorities’ main objection was financial. Non-heated Factor VIII was prescribed by the NHS until late 1985.

Campaigners hope the inquiry’s core finding is that Factor VIII concentrates should never have been licensed for use unless heated.

Why now?

In the late 1980s, victims and their families called for compensation on the grounds of medical negligence. Though the government set up a charity to make one-off support payments to those infected with HIV in the early 1990s, it did not admit liability or responsibility and victims were pressured to sign a waiver undertaking not to sue the Department of Health to get the money.

Crucially, the waiver also prevented victims from suing for hepatitis, even though at that stage they only knew about their HIV infection. Years after signing, victims were told they had also been infected with hepatitis, mainly Hepatitis C.

There was no further group litigation until Evans, whose mother “crumbled” after his father’s death and who was called “AIDS boy” at school, brought a case claiming misfeasance in public office against the Department of Health.

Combined with political and media pressure, May announced the independent inquiry. It was, she said, “an appalling tragedy which should simply never have happened.”

Compensation

The government has accepted the case for compensation, with most estimates putting the final bill in the region of $12.7 billion. In October 2022, authorities made interim payments of 100,000 pounds to each survivor and bereaved partners.

The government is expected to announce different payments for different infections and address how and when bereaved families can apply for interim payments on behalf of the estates of people who have died.

2 dead, 5 missing after Danube River boat collision in Hungary

Budapest, Hungary — Police say two people have died and five are missing following a boat collision on the Danube River in Hungary.

Hungarian police received a report late Saturday night that a man had been found with a head injury on the shore of the Danube near the town of Veroce, around 50 kilometers north of the capital, Budapest. The bodies of a man and a woman were later discovered nearby.

Hours after the police began their search, they discovered a damaged boat in the water, which they towed to shore. They are still searching for five adults — three men and two women — who they believe were on the boat.

Police said they determined that a river cruise boat had been in the area at the time of the accident. They stopped a cruise boat with a damaged hull near the town of Komarom, more than 80 kilometers farther upriver.

Hungarian public television station M1 reported that the cruise boat, Heidelberg, is a 357-foot Swiss craft that can accommodate 110 people. No passengers on that boat sustained any injuries, M1 said.

The Danube at Veroce is roughly 460 meters wide and is in the center of an area called the Danube Bend where the river makes a sweeping, nearly 90-degree turn to the south. The area is a popular recreational and boating destination and is on a route often used by cruise boats between Budapest and the Austrian capital, Vienna, some 230 kilometers upriver.

The deadly accident comes five years after at least 27 people were killed in Budapest when a river cruise boat collided with a smaller tourist vessel, sinking it in seconds.

The tourist boat Hableany, carrying 35 people who were mostly South Korean tourists, was overtaken from behind by the much larger cruise boat, Viking Sigyn, beneath Budapest’s Margit Bridge, in May 2019.

 

The Ukrainian captain of the Viking Sigyn was last year found guilty of negligence leading to a fatal mass catastrophe and sentenced to five years and six months in prison. He has appealed the decision.

Police said Sunday they have initiated criminal proceedings against an unknown perpetrator on suspicion of endangering water transport and causing the deaths of several people.

A spokesperson for the Directorate General for Disaster Management told Hungarian news agency MTI that a group of nearly 90 people from several regional disaster management agencies were conducting the search for the missing from the land, water and sky.

Twelve boats and three drones are involved in the search, and two rescue divers are also involved, Imre Doka said.

China launches anti-dumping probe into EU, US, Japan, Taiwan plastics

Beijing — China’s commerce ministry on Sunday launched an anti-dumping probe into POM copolymers, a type of engineering plastic, imported from the European Union, United States, Japan and Taiwan.

The plastics can partially replace metals such as copper and zinc and have various applications including in auto parts, electronics, and medical equipment, the ministry said in a statement.

The investigation should be completed in a year but could be extended for six months, it said.

The European Commission, which oversees EU trade policy, said it would carefully study the contents of the investigation before deciding on any next steps.

“We expect China to ensure that this investigation is fully in line with all relevant WTO (World Trade Organization) rules and obligations,” a spokesperson said.

China’s plastics probe comes amid a broader trade row with the United States and Europe.

The United States on Tuesday unveiled steep tariff increases on Chinese electric vehicles, or EVs, computer chips, medical products and other imports.

On Friday, the European Union launched a trade investigation into Chinese tinplate steel, the latest in a string of EU trade and subsidy probes into Chinese exports.

Most notably, the European Commission launched a probe last September to decide whether to impose punitive tariffs on cheaper Chinese EVs that it suspects of benefiting from state subsidies.

Beijing argues the recent focus by the United States and Europe on the risks to other economies from China’s excess capacity is misguided.

Chinese officials say the criticism understates innovation by Chinese companies in key industries and overstates the importance of state support in driving their growth.

Armed robbers take ‘several million dollars’ of Harry Winston jewels in Paris  

Paris — Armed robbers who used a motorbike as a battering ram made off with “several million euros’” [dollars’] worth of valuables in a heist of the luxury Paris boutique of self-declared “Jeweler to the Stars” Harry Winston, the French prosecutor’s office overseeing the police probe said. 

Having refused Saturday to confirm that Harry Winston was the target, the Paris prosecutor’s office did so Sunday, saying the dazzling, by-appointment store on the tony Avenue Montaigne was robbed by a gang of at least three people. 

They “forced entry to the jewelry store using a two-wheeler. They stole jewelry from several windows, while one of them kept watch,” carrying a long-barreled firearm, the prosecutor’s office said. 

As they sped away, they pointed the firearm “in the direction of police officers, who had to put an end to their pursuit,” it said. 

“The damage, currently being assessed, is several million euros,” it said. 

Harry Winston didn’t reply to emailed questions from The Associated Press. This is not the first time the luxury store has been robbed. Eight people were convicted in 2015 in connection with a spectacular 2008 holdup in which three cross-dressing gunmen stole about $92 million in loot. 

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