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Suriname Protests Dutch Minister’s ‘Failed State’ Remark

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Suriname issued a protest note to the Netherlands on Thursday after the Dutch foreign minister said the South American nation was a “failed state” because of its ethnic diversity.

Stef Blok, a member of the conservative VVD party of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, has faced a firestorm of criticism over comments he made July 10 in The Hague that became public this week.

“This coarse accusation against peace and stability in the Republic of Suriname can only be intended to portray Suriname and its population negatively,” Suriname’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The ministry, which summoned Dutch envoy Jaap Frederiks to receive the protest, added that the Netherlands was “seeking to isolate the Surinamese nation, with the possible agenda being the realization of a recolonization.”

Suriname, a former Dutch colony that became independent in 1975, has a mix of ethnicities including people of Indonesian, African and Dutch ancestry, as well indigenous peoples.

Blok had told a gathering of Dutch employees of international organizations that “Suriname is a failed state and that is very much linked to its ethnic composition.”

Lawmakers from several Dutch political parties, including all members of the governing coalition, demanded an explanation for Blok’s remarks.

In a statement issued through his Twitter account, Blok said his language was too strong and he regretted the offense it caused.

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US Seen Receiving Frosty Reception at G-20 Meeting

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The financial leaders of the world’s 20 biggest economies meet in Buenos Aires this weekend for the first time since long-simmering trade tensions burst into the open when China and the United States put tariffs on $34 billion of each other’s goods.

The United States will seek to persuade Japan and the European Union to join it in taking a more aggressive stance against Chinese trade practices at the G-20 meeting of finance ministers and central bank presidents, according to a senior U.S. Treasury Department official who spoke on condition on anonymity.

But those efforts will be complicated by frustration over U.S. steel and aluminum import tariffs on the EU and Canada. Both responded with retaliatory tariffs in an escalating trade conflict that has shaken markets and threatens global growth.

“U.S. trading partners are unlikely to be in a conciliatory mood,” said Eswar Prasad, international trade professor at Cornell University and former head of the International Monetary Fund’s China Division. “[U.S.] hostile actions against long-standing trading partners and allies have weakened its economic and geopolitical influence.”

At the close of the last G-20 meeting in Argentina in March, the financial leaders representing 75 percent of world trade and 85 percent of gross domestic product released a joint statement that rejected protectionism and urged “further dialogue,” to little concrete effect.

Since then, the United States and China have slapped tariffs on $34 billion of each other’s imports and U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened further tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods unless Beijing agrees to change its intellectual property practices and high-technology industrial subsidy plans.

Trump has said the U.S. tariffs aim to close the $335 billion annual U.S. trade deficit with China.

U.S. Treasury Minister Steven Mnuchin has no plans for a bilateral meeting with his Chinese counterpart in Buenos Aires, a U.S official said this week.

Growth concerns

Rising trade tensions have led to concerns within the Japanese government over currency volatility, said a senior Japanese G-20 official who declined to be named. Such volatility could prompt an appreciation in the safe-haven yen and threaten Japanese exports.

Trump’s metals tariffs prompted trade partners to retaliate with their own tariffs on U.S. goods ranging from whiskey to motorcycles. The United States has said it will challenge those tariffs at the World Trade Organization.

The EU finance ministers signed a joint text last week that will form their mandate for this weekend’s meeting, criticizing “unilateral” U.S. trade actions, Reuters reported. The ministers will stress that trade restrictions “hurt everyone,” a German official said.

In a briefing note prepared for the G-20 participants, the International Monetary Fund said if all of Trump’s threatened tariffs — and equal retaliation — went into effect, the global economy could lose up to 0.5 percent of GDP, or $430 billion, by 2020.

Global growth also may have peaked at 3.9 percent for 2018 and 2019, and downside risks have risen due to the tariff spat, the IMF said.

“While all countries will ultimately be worse off in a trade conflict, the U.S. economy is especially vulnerable,” IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde wrote in a blog post. “Policymakers can use this G-20 meeting to move past

self-defeating tit-for-tat tariffs.”

Trade is not on host country Argentina’s published agenda for the July 21-22 ministerial, which focuses on the “future of work” and infrastructure finance. But it will likely be discussed during a slot devoted to risks facing the global

economy, much as in March, according to an Argentine official involved in G-20 preparations, who asked not be named.

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UK’s New Brexit Envoy Optimistic as EU Warns of Brexit Crash

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London’s new Brexit minister said he was confident he could reach a deal, on his first trip to Brussels on Thursday as the EU warned business to get ready for Britain crashing out of the bloc without agreed terms to cushion the economic disruption.

Brexit campaigner Dominic Raab, appointed to the government last week after his predecessor quit over Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposals to stay close to EU trading rules, said Britain was ramping up preparations for a “no deal” but focused above all on selling her ideas to EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier.

The resignation of his predecessor David Davis and others, and May’s battles in parliament with pro- and anti-Brexit wings of her own Conservative Party, have led Brussels to wonder whether London is capable of agreeing any deal this year to avoid chaos when it leaves in March.

That, the EU’s executive European Commission insisted on Thursday, was not the reason for its warning on stepping up preparedness for a “no deal” or “cliff edge” Brexit.

Raab said Britain was on track and he would bring new “energy, vigor and vim” to talks as they get down to the wire to find a deal before EU leaders meet at a summit in October.

“We’ve only got 12 weeks really left to nail down the details of the agreement, so I set out our proposals,” Raab said after meeting Barnier. “I’m sure in good faith, if that energy and that ambition is reciprocated, as I’m confident it will be, we will get there.”

EU officials and diplomats still think some kind of deal, including a 21-month status quo transition period to allow further talks, is more likely than not, if only because the cost for both sides would be so high.

The International Monetary Fund said on Thursday EU countries would suffer long-term damage equivalent to about 1.5 percent of annual economic output if Britain leaves without a free trade deal.

“While the EU is working day and night for a deal ensuring an orderly withdrawal, the UK’s withdrawal will undoubtedly cause disruption, for example in business supply chains, whether or not there is a deal,” the Commission said in a statement.

“Preparedness is not a mistrust in the negotiations,” an EU official added, saying big firms seemed to be advancing in their plans but smaller companies which had never traded outside the single market before would face challenges in their paperwork.

A senior British regulator also warned Britain’s banks and insurers on Thursday to plan for a “hard” Brexit.

Barnier briefs

Barnier is due to report back on his meeting with Raab to ministers from the other 27 EU states on Friday.

Ahead of talks with Raab, Barnier said the EU was offering an “unprecedented” partnership on future trade relations and that maintaining a close partnership on security was “more important than ever given the geopolitical context.”

EU officials and diplomats have welcomed last week’s proposals as a welcome if overdue starting point for negotiations on an outline of post-Brexit relations that is to accompany a binding treaty on the immediate aspects of withdrawal. But Barnier will also be posing many questions on just how some issues, notably around customs and sharing regulatory standards would work.

Getting an outline on those is vital to solving the biggest obstacle to the urgent withdrawal treaty — how to avoid customs and other friction on the new EU-UK land border in Ireland.

Dublin and London say they are committed to avoiding a “hard border” but the EU is also determined to avoid creating a huge loophole in the external frontier of its single market and customs union.

With time running short and little sign of May quelling the revolts in her party, there has been renewed discussion among Brussels diplomats and officials about whether a deal can be done by October, or at the latest December, to allow parliaments on both sides to ratify a withdrawal treaty before March 29.

“When I see the dynamics in Westminster, I don’t think that there is, at this stage, a majority for whatever type of thing we could ever agree with them,” one senior EU official said.

However, while EU leaders have made no secret of being ready to extend the deadline for a few weeks, there are reservations about any longer delay, short of a U-turn in Britain and a call from London to call Brexit off.

Among problems for delaying Brexit is a European Parliament election in late May 2019 which would create questions over when  and how it could ratify a late Brexit deal, assuming Britain does not elect members to the new legislature.

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State Department Denounces Russia’s Demand to Interrogate Americans, Trump Does Not

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The U.S. State Department denounced Russia’s request to question several U.S. citizens in exchange for allowing a U.S. investigator to interrogate 12 Russians indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for their efforts to derail the 2016 presidential election. Among the Americans the Kremlin wants to interrogate is a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. The White House said Wednesday the president has not ruled out allowing Russian officials to question Americans. VOA’S Zlatica Hoke reports.

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Trump Demands Release of US Pastor Imprisoned in Turkey

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U.S. President Donald Trump is calling on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to release an American pastor who has been in prison for two years awaiting trial on terrorism charges.

A Turkish court Wednesday ordered Andrew Brunson to remain in jail until his next hearing on October 12. Brunson was arrested in 2016 and charged with supporting followers of U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has been blamed by Ankara for the failed 2016 coup against President Erdogan. Brunson is also accused of assisting the outlawed Kurdish insurgent group PKK.

Trump called Brunson’s continued detention “a total disgrace” in a post on Twitter hours after the court hearing. “He has been held hostage far too long,” the president tweeted. “@RT_Erdogan should do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father. He has done nothing wrong, and his family needs him!”

Trump reportedly raised the pastor’s case in a telephone call Monday with his Turkish counterpart. 

Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, Philip Kosnett, U.S. charge d’affaires in Turkey, expressed disappointment with the decision.

“I’ve read the indictment; I’ve attended three hearings. I don’t believe that there is any indication that Pastor Brunson is guilty of any sort of criminal or terrorist activity,” Kosnett said. “Our government remains deeply concerned about his status, as well as the status of other American citizens and local Turkish employees of the U.S. diplomatic mission who have been detained under the state of emergency rules.”

Kosnett, speaking before the court decision, had warned of the damaging effect of the case on U.S.-Turkish relations.

In Washington, a State Department official said the United States has been closely engaged with the Turkish government on Brunson’s case and repeated calls for his release.

“We have seen no credible evidence that Mr. Brunson is guilty of these crimes. The case against him is built on anonymous accusations and speculation,” the official told VOA in a statement. “We strongly believe that he is innocent, and we call on the Turkish government to resolve his case in a timely, transparent, and fair manner.”

Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who is chairman of the Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. government agency that monitors democracy and human rights in Europe, said, “The cruelty of today’s decision is astonishing.

“By extending Pastor Brunson’s indefinite detention and setting his next trial date for mid-October, the Turkish government has declared its intention to keep this innocent man in jail past the two-year anniversary of his arrest without conviction or any credible evidence against him. There is no room in NATO for hostage-taking. Pastor Brunson should be freed immediately,” Wicker added.

The 50-year-old Brunson has lived in Turkey for more than two decades. The North Carolina native worked as a pastor serving a small Protestant congregation in the western Turkish City of Izmir, close to the town of Aliaga, where he is now on trial. Brunson has spent much of his incarceration in solitary confinement. Brunson describes the charges against him as “shameful and disgusting.”

Last month, U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham and Jeanne Shaheen also pressed for Brunson’s release in a meeting with Erdogan in Ankara.

The U.S. Congress is threatening to introduce sanctions on Turkey if the pastor is not released. 

Several members of Congress have accused Turkey of hostage taking by seeking to use Brunson as diplomatic leverage. Adding to Congress’ anger, three local employees of U.S. diplomatic missions in Turkey are also being held on terrorism charges. Ankara strongly denies allegations of hostage taking, maintaining that the cases are a matter for the courts. 

Observers warn the continued detention of Brunson now increases the likelihood of Washington imposing measures against Ankara.

“It’s (the Brunson case) very important because it’s already an obstacle and sticking point between the countries, having prompted the discussion about sanctions against Turkey,” political columnist Semih Idiz of Al-Monitor said. “Senators are coming to Turkey and Trump referring to Brunson as a hostage. Tensions will increase, calls for sanctions against Turkey will increase, and the downward spiral in relations will continue (if the trial continues).”

The blocking of the U.S. sale to Turkey of a new F-35 fighter is a move that has been threatened by Congress. 

Turkish financial markets fell heavily on the news of Brunson’s ongoing detention. The falls reversed earlier gains stoked by the expectation of the pastor’s release and the hope of improved U.S.-Turkish relations.

Erdogan and his advisers have linked the Brunson case to calls to extradite Gulen in connection with the 2016 coup attempt. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Sunday U.S. authorities were cooperating in investigating Gulen and his followers. Observers, however, say the detention of Brunson suggests Ankara could be looking for more concessions from Washington.

Erdogan could release Brunson under the presidential power to free jailed foreign citizens if it is deemed to be in the country’s national interest.

The ongoing jailing of Brunson comes as analysts point out the two countries were making tentative progress on a number of disputes. In the past few months, there have been intense diplomatic efforts to resolve differences over Syria and Ankara’s controversial purchase of a Russian S-400 missile system. Observers warn if Congress carries out its threat to sanction Turkey over Brunson’s jailing, it will likely add to broader diplomatic tensions.

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White House, State Differ Over Putin Interview Offer

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The White House and the State Department are at odds over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer to allow the U.S. access to Russians accused of election meddling in return for interviews of Americans accused by the Kremlin of unspecified crimes.

Even as the White House said the offer, made by Putin to President Donald Trump at their summit in Helsinki on Monday, was under consideration, the State Department called Russia’s allegations against the Americans “absurd,” suggesting that any questioning of them would not be countenanced by the U.S. The Russian claims against the Americans, including former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, relate to allegations of fraud and corruption.

WATCH: State Department Denounces Russia’s Demand to Interrogate Americans, Trump Does Not

“The overall assertions that have come out of the Russian government are absolutely absurd: the fact that they want to question 11 American citizens and the assertions that the Russian government is making about those American citizens,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters.

McFaul tweeted Wednesday: “I hope the White House corrects the record and denounces in categorical terms this ridiculous request from Putin. Not doing so creates moral equivalency between a legitimacy US indictment of Russian intelligence officers and a crazy, completely fabricated story invented by Putin.”

Nauert noted that a U.S. federal court had rejected Russia’s charges regarding British businessman and vocal Kremlin critic Bill Browder. She said Russian authorities already know the U.S. position. Browder was a driving force behind a U.S. law targeting Russian officials over human rights abuses.

“We do not stand by those assertions that the Russian government makes,” Nauert said. “The prosecutor general in Russia is well aware that the United States has rejected Russian allegations in this regard. … We continue to urge Russian authorities to work with the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue those in Russia who in fact perpetrated the fraudulent scheme that Russia refers to that targeted not only Mr. Browder, but also his company and … the Russian people as a whole.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray was similarly dismissive. Speaking Wednesday at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, he said Putin’s offer was “not high on our list of investigative techniques.”

Wray and Nauert’s comments stood in sharp contrast to those of White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who held open the possibility that what Trump called “an incredible offer” is being weighed.

“The president’s going to meet with his team, and we’ll let you know when we have an announcement on that,” she said, adding that neither Trump nor anyone else in the administration had committed to accepting the offer.

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EU Regulator Fines Google More Than $5 Billion

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The European Union’s antitrust regulator fined Google a record $5 billion Wednesday for illegally exploiting the powerful market share position of its Android smartphone system.

The EU antitrust regulator concluded that Google, whose Android system operates more than 80 percent of the world’s smartphones, abused its dominant position to promote its own apps and services, especially the company’s search engine.

The regulator ordered Google to end the illegal practices within 90 days or face more penalties. Google can appeal the decision.

The decision was made Wednesday in a meeting in Brussels.


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As US-Russia Interference Controversy Simmers, NATO Tries To Boost Cyber Defenses

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Estonia was the one of the first countries to suffer a large-scale cyber-attack – and most experts say Russia was behind the 2007 strike. The Baltic country now hosts NATO’s Center of Excellence on cyber security, aimed at sharing best practices among members and allies. Japan has just joined the center, as it fears the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo could be targeted. Henry Ridgwell traveled to Tallinn and has this report.

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As US-Russia Interference Row Simmers, NATO Boosts Cyber Defenses

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As grids of lights flash red and sirens wail, teams of cyber-defense specialists snap into action as power networks and water-purification plants come under attack. They are the best in their field – and in this exercise, they are competing against one another.

Operation Locked Shields, a so-called live-fire cyber exercise, is hosted annually by NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence or CCDCOE in Estonia, is aimed at testing members’ and allies’ abilities to see off the latest hacks, malware and cyber interference.

“It is about friendly competition. But what makes it the world’s biggest is first of all the number of nations who are contributing to it. We then bring the ‘crème de la crème’ of all nations together to match each other and also learn to cooperate with each other,” said Siim Alatalu, a senior researcher at the center.

Estonia was the one of the first countries to suffer a large-scale cyber-attack back in 2007 – and most experts say Russia was the culprit. The Baltic country is now at the forefront of NATO’s cyber-security efforts. In a sign of its growing global reputation, Japan has just joined the CCDCOE, hoping to glean valuable skills and information to help defend the upcoming 2020 Olympic Games from cyber-attacks.

While Operation Locked Shields is a practice run, the threat is very real, says Alatalu. “Everything is technology dependent. And therefore everything could be hacked.”

In the winters of 2015 and 2016, Ukraine suffered hacking attacks on its power network, shutting down systems for several hours. Kyiv blamed Russia – a charge Moscow denied.

As well as hacking, governments face the growing problem of disinformation: using the web to disrupt democracies. Analyst Ben Nimmo of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab spoke to VOA at last week’s NATO summit.

“If you look at the Russian interference operation in the U.S., as far as we know it started in April 2014 and it was still going in October 2017 when it shut down,” said Nimmo. “So they’ve had a three-and-a-half-year operation running, which included a reported 100 people, several thousand accounts on social media, over 50,000 bot accounts amplifying it. This was a big, big operation, which was then further amplified by state propaganda like RT [Russia Today] and Sputnik.”

So is NATO doing enough to counter these threats?

“They appreciate them more than they did two years ago and you can see that from the summit declaration itself. For the first time, it mentions disinformation as a specific threat and as part of a bigger picture of hybrid warfare,” said Nimmo.

Since 2014, NATO’s core principle of collective self-defense, Article 5, can be invoked in the event of a cyberattack on one member. The response could include sanctions, cyber responses, or even the use of conventional forces.

While that may seem a remote possibility, NATO’s Secretary-General has warned that a cyberattack could be as destructive as a conventional military strike.

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EU Enlargement Chief Visits Macedonia, Albania

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The European Union’s enlargement commissioner has arrived in Macedonia to formally announce the start of preparations for the Balkan country to open accession talks with the bloc next year.

Johannes Hahn on Tuesday congratulated Macedonia for recently signing a deal with Greece resolving a decades-old dispute over the country’s name. He urged the public to vote in favor of the deal, which changes the name to North Macedonia, in a referendum this fall.

“This sets a strong example for others in the region to strengthen good neighborly relations,” said Hahn.

The deal was key to allowing Macedonia to start the EU accession process. The bloc’s member states agreed last month to open membership talks with Albania and Macedonia next year if the two nations continue with reform progress. Macedonia must deliver results in overhauling its judiciary, fighting corruption and promoting media freedom.

Hahn then went to neighboring Albania, welcoming its “first promising results of reform priorities” in the court system and urging “further tangible results in the fight against corruption.”

In both countries Hahn launched the screening process, a detailed exercise conducted by the European Commission “to prepare your country to start negotiations in June 2019.” It helps the countries to understand EU laws and enables the Commission to evaluate their preparedness to take on the obligations of EU membership.

Earlier this month NATO invited Macedonia to start membership talks to become its 30th member. That is also dependent on condition it finally completes the name deal with Greece.

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World Cup Victory Boosts French Morale, but Not Macron’s Popularity

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Winning the soccer World Cup has turned the French, long-time pessimists, into optimists, but has not boosted President Emmanuel Macron’s popularity, a survey showed on Tuesday.

Some 62 percent of the French polled by the Odoxa polling institute on July 16, the day after the French team’s thrilling 4-2 defeat of Croatia in Moscow, said they were now optimistic about the future.

In March 2016, when Odoxa last asked the question, 53 percent of them were “pessimistic.”

Some 82 percent of the French think Les Bleus’ victory will boost national pride, 74 percent of them think it will improve France’s image abroad, and 39 percent of them said it will have a positive impact on their own morale, Odoxa said.

However, France’s second World Cup win after the 1998 victory on home soil has not lifted Macron’s popularity, despite pictures of the 40-year old punching the air in celebration of the team’s prowess on the pitch going viral on social media.

Only 39 percent of those polled by Odoxa said Macron was a good president, a 2 percentage point decrease since Odoxa’s last poll on June 26.

“The 2018 victory will not have had the same impact on Emmanuel Macron’s popularity that the 1998 had on Jacques Chirac’s,” Odoxa president Gael Sliman said in a note.

“He may have been found sincerely likable in the victory’s festive atmosphere, but it visibly doesn’t change anything to expectations towards him on the economic and social front,” he said.

Nonetheless, the victory is good news for the French president, Sliman said, boosting morale ahead of belt-tightening measures expected in September’s budget bill.

“It’s the ideal situation for the president, who will unveil reforms that won’t necessarily be popular,” Sliman said. “Doing it while the French have their rose-tinted glasses on will be an asset.”

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Germany’s Seehofer Slammed for Deporting Suspected Former Bin Laden Bodyguard

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German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer faced accusations on Tuesday of having illegally deported a suspected Islamist militant who once served as Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard just one day after a court said he should be allowed to stay in Germany.

German authorities deported the man, identified only as Sami A., to his native Tunisia last Friday despite previous concerns that he might be tortured back home and despite the administrative court verdict a day before the deportation.

German opposition politicians criticized Seehofer’s interior ministry for its handling of the case.

“You don’t bend the rule book,” Greens party leader Robert Habeck told ZDF broadcaster on Tuesday.

Wolfgang Kubicki, deputy leader of the opposition Free Democratic Party (FDP), told broadcaster rbb: “If courts can no longer rely on the authorities telling them the truth, then things look dark in Germany.”

Sami A. told the best-selling Bild daily he had been told the decision to deport him had come “from the very top and I cannot do anything about it.”

The interior ministry said that while it was politically important to deport the suspect quickly, it had not pressured authorities in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia to accelerate the procedure. Deportations are usually a matter for individual states in Germany.

Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees said it had only learned about the administrative court’s ruling when the suspect was already on the flight bound for Tunisia.

Hard line

Seehofer, from the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, takes a hard line on immigration and asylum issues and almost toppled the government earlier this month in a dispute over migrant policy.

Sami A. applied unsuccessfully for asylum in Germany in 2006. He was accused of undergoing military and ideological training in 2000 at an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and of being at different times a bodyguard for bin Laden, leader of the group. He denied the allegations but was arrested in June.

A spokesman at Tunisia’s justice ministry told Bild the suspect only held Tunisian citizenship. He also rejected suggestions the man could be tortured in Tunisia.

Seehofer also came under fire last week when an Afghan man deported to Kabul from Germany committed suicide after returning home.

Parliament has opened an investigation into the suspected exploitation by Seehofer of his ministerial position for presenting his ‘Master Plan for migration’ to his Christian Social Union (CSU) last month for party purposes.

An RTL/N-TV survey on Monday showed Seehofer’s popularity sliding ahead of an October regional election in Bavaria. Nearly two thirds of Germans thought he should quit as interior minister, it said.

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US Reporter Forcibly Removed Prior to Trump-Putin Press Conference

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A man who identified himself as a working journalist was escorted out a room where a joint press conference in Helsinki between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin was scheduled to be held. Sam Husseini had received press credentials for the event through U.S.-based magazine The Nation. Husseini was holding up a sign that read, “Nuclear weapons test ban.”