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In new Sudan, Women Want More Freedom, Bigger Political Role

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On her daily walks from home to her job at a primary school in the city of Port Sudan, Khalda Saber would urge people to join the protests against the three-decade rule of Sudan’s autocratic President Omar al-Bashir.
 
At school, she rallied fellow teachers to join the pro-democracy uprising.

“I was telling them that there is nothing to lose, compared with what we have already lost. I was telling them that we have to take to the streets, demonstrate and express our rejection to what’s happening,” she said.

One January morning, two months after the protests erupted, plainclothes security forces snatched Saber off a bus and took her to the feared security and intelligence agency’s local office.
 
There, she was detained in a newly built wing in a prison in the capital, Khartoum, alongside other protesters. She said security forces beat her and the other new arrivals for several hours.

Saber spent 40 days in detention. She was among many thousands of Sudanese women who risked their lives leading protests that eventually pushed the military to overthrow al-Bashir in April.

Several turbulent months followed as the protesters feared the military would cling to power, before a power-sharing deal in July. An interim, civilian-led government was sworn in last month.

Amid high hopes for a new era, many Sudanese women like Saber are looking for greater freedoms and equality. They seek to overturn many of the restrictive laws based on Islamic jurisprudence, or Sharia, that activists say stifle women’s rights.

“For sure the whole Sudanese people have an interest in this revolution, but we, the women, had a bigger interest and motivation to make it happen,” Saber said.

Al-Bashir came to power in an Islamist-backed military coup in 1989, adopting a harsh interpretation of Islamic law that diminished the ability of women to participate meaningfully in public life, Human Rights Watch said in a 2015 report.

Public order laws imposed an Islamic dress code on women and restricted their ability to move freely or, if unmarried, with male colleagues, said Jehanne Henry, an associate Africa director at the New York-based rights group. Violators faced lashing in public and hefty fines.
 
But the end of al-Bashir’s rule would lead Saber, who worked with a local NGO on women’s rights issues for years, to flee the country. She spoke to The Associated Press from her home in self-imposed exile in the Egyptian capital, Cairo.

Along with her husband and two daughters, Saber escaped Sudan just two days after al-Bashir’s ouster on April 11.

She says the family was threatened, mainly by the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group which grew out of the notorious Janjaweed militias that al-Bashir used in the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region.
 
Saber had documented the RSF’s rights violations, especially against women, through testimonies before and during the uprising.

“There were threats that they would attack my daughters,” she said.
 
Following her release in March, she had immediately joined demonstrations at the main sit-in outside the military’s headquarters in Khartoum. “At this time, the threats were increased. I found no way but to leave (the country),” she said.

Saber’s story reflects a wave of violence against women during the protests. A Sudanese rights group, Sudanese Women Action, said in a report released earlier this month that women protesters faced an “unprecedented amount of violence and human rights violations” that amounted to “serious atrocities.” Twelve women and a 7-year-old girl were killed in the protests, it said.

The group said it documented at least 26 cases of rape as security forces broke up the protest camp outside the military headquarters in early June. Dozens more rape cases weren’t reported or documented “due to fears of reprisals or stigma,” the group alleged.

During the uprising, Saber said countless women in both rural and urban areas participated in the demonstrations.

“It was not strange to see so many women at the front in the marches,” she said. “This is because of growing awareness of women’s rights. Women in time realized they have to stick to their demands.”

After five months in Cairo, Saber remains wary. “Fear and dread still exist. It is too early to go back to Sudan,” she said.

Sudan’s democratic transition remains fragile. But the appointment of several women to the interim government _ including Sudan’s first female foreign minister, and two women in an 11-member sovereign council has raised hopes that the role women played in the uprising will lead to change.

Henry, the HRW associate director, said the new government is committed to several legal reforms, including changes needed to achieve gender equality. Family and inheritance laws “clearly discriminate against women, limiting their ability to inherit property equally,” she said.

Wifaq Gurashi, a women’s rights activist in Khartoum, said the government should prioritize annulling all laws that restrict women’s movement and freedoms, and implement policies that offer broader opportunities for women.

“With a little determination, we will be represented fairly,” said Gurashi, who was herself briefly detained during the uprising in February.

But, she said, women face formidable obstacles.

‘It’s a long way (to go), especially to get rid of the traditional way of thinking in this masculine and authoritarian society,” Gurashi said.

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Next-generation F-35 Fighter Jets Go to National Guard Unit

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The Vermont Air National Guard is due to take delivery of the first two of what will become 20 F-35 fighter aircrafts, the first guard unit to receive the next-generation fighter.

The aircraft will be based at the Burlington International Airport and are being flown to Vermont on Thursday from the factory in Fort Worth, Texas.

The delivery follows years of hard work, planning and missions in the guard’s previous aircraft, F-16s that flew continuously for weeks over New York after the 9/11 attacks and in multiple combat tours in Iraq and other areas of the Middle East.

“The F-35 coming into Burlington really secures our mission and our future for, you are talking the next three or four decades, and that allows us to serve our nation, but also to be ready to serve our state as well,” Col. David Smith, the commander of the 158th Fighter Wing that is the new home to the F-35s, said before they arrived.

But for some members of the community, the arrival of noisier aircraft marks the failure of years-long efforts to keep the Air Force from delivering the planes to an airport located among residential neighborhoods and industrial complexes in the middle of Vermont’s most populous county.

Rosanne Greco, the former chair of the South Burlington City Council and a retired Air Force colonel, said she supported basing the plane in her home city until she learned by reading the Air Force’s environmental impact statement about how noisy the F-35 is and what she feels are the dangers of having a new, unproven weapon system at a suburban airport.

“All I had to do was read what the Air Force said about the impact it would have,” Greco said. “The evidence was overwhelming it would have a very negative effect on close to 7,000 people” who live near the airport.

Smith said the Air National Guard understands the concerns of the community. The guard has modified the traffic patterns the planes will use and checked the take-off times to minimize noise disruptions. As to safety, he said that so far more than 400 F-35s have been delivered and the planes have accumulated more than 200,000 flying hours.

“It’s really important to us too to do everything we can to mitigate the impact on the community,” he said.

The Air Force describes the F-35 as its fifth-generation fighter, combining stealth technology with speed and agility. Different models are being built for the Air Force, Navy and Marines, and are being sold to American allies across the world.

It is also the U.S. military’s most expensive weapons system of all time, with an estimated total cost of $1.5 trillion over the expected half-century life of the program. The model of the planes that will be based in Burlington cost about $94 million each.

Assigning F-35s, which are designed to replace a number of aging fighter models, to Vermont shows the days are long gone when Air National Guard units received hand-me-down aircraft while new planes went exclusively to active duty Air Force units, said Ian Bryan, a retired Tennessee Air National Guard pilot who worked in Washington as a legislative liaison with the National Guard Bureau.

He said Vermont, and the guard, are at the forefront of learning how to make the best use of the new airplanes.

“Ten years from now, we need to have figured out how to use this F-35 thing and it’s going to be the lead as the wings fall off some of these old airplanes,” Bryan said.

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Democrats to Argue Republicans Rushing Trump’s Labor Nominee

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President Donald Trump’s nominee to run the Labor Department faces a Senate confirmation hearing, even as Democrats argue that they haven’t had enough time to scour his record of legal work for corporate interests.

Although Trump tweeted in mid-July that Eugene Scalia was his pick, the committee didn’t officially receive the nomination until Sept. 11, the week before Thursday’s hearing. The Republican GOP-led Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee panel has set a vote on the nomination early next week.

A Democratic aide who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity said Democratic lawmakers see the compressed timeframe as not allowing senators to properly investigate Scalia’s history as an attorney for dozens of clients. But a Republican aide, who also requested anonymity for the same reason, said all of Scalia’s required paperwork, which would include his financial disclosure and ethics agreements, has been available for committee members to review since late August.

Trump’s nomination of Scalia is opposed by the AFL-CIO, which has described him as a union-busting lawyer who has eroded labor rights and consumer protections. But business groups are squarely behind Scalia, viewing him as a reliable opponent of regulatory overreach and red tape. If Scalia is confirmed by the Senate, he’ll be the seventh former lobbyist to hold a Cabinet-level post in the Trump administration.

Scalia, 56, served for a year as the Labor Department’s top lawyer, its solicitor, during the George W. Bush administration. But most of his career has been spent as a partner in the Washington office of the Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher firm, where he has run up a string of victories in court cases on behalf of business interests challenging labor and financial regulations.

On his financial disclosure form filed with the Office of Government Ethics, Scalia listed 49 clients who paid him $5,000 or more for legal services, including e-cigarette giant Juul Labs, Facebook, Ford, Walmart and Bank of America. Disclosure records show Scalia was registered in 2010 and 2011 to lobby for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Scalia is likely to be questioned about changes the Labor Department is making to an Obama-era rule on overtime pay. The Obama regulations were scheduled to take effect in 2016 but were put on hold by a federal lawsuit.

A revised proposal issued in March raised the annual pay threshold at which workers would be exempt from overtime to $35,308 from the current $23,660, expanding overtime pay to roughly 1 million workers. The Obama plan set the threshold at more than $47,000 and would have affected an estimated 4.2 million people.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, expressed concern Wednesday over Scalia’s record on protecting government whistleblowers. Grassley said on a call with reporters that while serving as Labor’s top lawyer Scalia argued not all disclosures made to Congress are protected under federal whistleblower laws and that the separation of powers doctrine prevents whistleblowers from disclosing certain information to Congress.

Trump’s previous labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, resigned in July. He had come under renewed criticism for his handling of a 2008 secret plea deal with financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was found dead last month in his cell at a federal jail in Manhattan after a July arrest on sex trafficking charges.

Deputy Labor Secretary Pat Pizzella has been serving as acting secretary until Scalia is confirmed.

 

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Cameroon Courts Paralyzed as Lawyers Strike Over Human Rights Violations

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Cameroon’s law courts are at a standstill as lawyers for a third day Wednesday defy government threats and continue to protest what they say are widespread unbearable rights violations that include torture, illegal and prolonged detention of accused persons.

Observers say the strike may compromise the national dialogue ordered by President Paul Biya to solve the separatist conflict rocking the country.

Three hundred and eighty cases have been on the schedule at the Ekounou tribunal in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, since Sept. 16 and none of them have been heard.

Patrick Mbella, 45, who is in pre-trial detention for aggravated theft, says when he arrived at the court on Wednesday morning, his lawyer was not there.

The Ekounou Tribunal is seen in Yaounde, Cameroon, Sept. 18, 2019. (M. Kindzeka/VOA)

Mbella says he does not know what to do after the judge asked that he be taken back to detention because the government had not succeeded in convincing the lawyers to call off their strike.

Peter Seme of the Cameroon Bar Association, outside the Ekounou tribunal, read out what he called a statement from the country’s lawyers explaining why they stopped working.  He listed rights violations that included the cruel humiliation of detainees by authorities.

“The appearance of naked detainees at public hearings, the extortion of confessional statements through torture and fraud, prolonged illegal detentions, situations of abusive detentions despite release orders, silence concerning some complaints made by lawyers, the refusal to acknowledge receipt of correspondences with written proof thereof,” Seme said.

Members of the Cameroon Bar Association ignored a Sept. 5 resolution adopted during a meeting convened by the government for them to call off the strike action.

Cameroonian President Biya had given instructions for judicial processes to be sped up after a prison protest last July over poor conditions that included overcrowded detention centers.

Cameroon’s minister delegate to the Minister of Justice Jean de Dieu Momo speaks at his office in Yaounde, Cameroon, Sept. 18, 2019. (M. Kindzeka/VOA)

A delegate at Cameroon’s Ministry of Justice, Jean de Dieu Momo, says nearly a million cases that were to be heard in courts all over the country this week have been affected. He offered reassurances to the lawyers, saying the government has called on the military, the police and others in the judicial system to immediately address the lawyers’ concerns.  

“It is our job to make sure that the lawyers are independent, working freely without any disturbance from anyone. Lawyers, magistrates, military, people involved with security are together to work, to find out sustainable solutions,” Momo said.

Government officials expect the lawyers to call off their action soon.

Pierre Bayo, political analysts and lecturer at the University of Yaounde says the lawyers’ strike may affect the national dialogue Biya announced Sept. 10 to resolve issues in his country, which is in the midst of a separatist conflict that pits its French and English-speaking populations against each other.

He says most of the lawyers who initiated the strike had defended separatist leaders who had been sentenced to life in prison by a military tribunal and also Maurice Kamto, the man who claims he won last year’s elections – a victory he alleges was stolen by Biya.

“Besides the Anglophone problem today, even more acrimonious in this country is the Kamto political leadership,” Bayo said.

Many had expected Kamto – who is now facing eight charges amounting to treason at a military tribunal in Yaounde – and some separatist leaders to be granted clemency by Biya to take part in the national dialogue.  Biya declined, saying justice would take its course.

 

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Pakistan Rules Out Talks With India Over Kashmir

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Pakistan has ruled out talks with India until India reverses recent controversial actions in the disputed Kashmir territory. Pakistan also turned down India’s overflight request for its prime minister’s upcoming visit to the United States.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan alleged while speaking to reporters Wednesday that “extremist nationalist Hindu racists” are currently in control of the government in India.

“Only an extremist and not-normal mind would place Kashmir under curfew for 45 days,” Khan said. “It is not a normal government, and until they lift the curfew in Kashmir and reverse the revocation of (Article) 370, there is no chance of talks with them,” Khan said of India.

Last month, India revoked a decades-old constitutionally provided special autonomy for its part of the divided Himalayan region and placed millions of Kashmiris under tight curfew restrictions, as well as a total communications blackout, to suppress protests and dissent.

India’s crackdown has detained hundreds of politicians, activists, doctors and lawyers in Kashmir without being charged

Khan said that in his upcoming address to the United Nations General Assembly next week, he will raise the Kashmir humanitarian crisis stemming from the Indian actions.

Pakistan also administers a part of Kashmir and claims the territory in its entirety. The recent Indian steps have raised military tensions between the nuclear-armed rival nations.

Indian leaders defend their latest actions in Kashmir, saying they will improve security and bring economic prosperity to India’s only Muslim-majority state, where separatist armed groups have waged a violent insurgency for over three decades.

In a statement Tuesday, Amnesty International condemned India for its Kashmir lockdown and detention of people under the region’s controversial “repressive Public Safety Act (PSA).

“The continued use of draconian laws against political dissidents, despite promises of change, signals the dishonest intent of the Indian government. Thousands of political leaders, activists and journalists continue to be silenced through administrative detention laws,” said Aakar Patel, the watchdog’s country head.

Overflight request rejected

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi confirmed the denial of New Delhi’s request for allowing Prime Minister Narendra Modi to use Pakistani airspace for his official trip starting Friday to Germany and the U.S.

“Keeping in view the situation in occupied Kashmir, and India’s attitude witnessed in the tyranny and oppression (facing Kashmiris), and the violations of rights in the region, we have decided not to grant this request,” he said.

Indian officials insisted their request for the use of Pakistani airspace was in line with international “protocol for VIP” flights.  

Islamabad’s overflight refusal means Modi will have to undertake a relatively longer alternate route for his flight.

Currently, Islamabad allows only civilian flights from India to use its airspace.

Pakistan blocked its airspace for all flights from India in February when the two countries came close to the brink of a third war over Kashmir. The airspace was reopened by the Pakistani government in July, but not for flights carrying Indian leaders since New Delhi canceled Kashmir’s autonomy.

U.S. President Donald Trump says he has meetings scheduled with both Khan and Modi next week, asserting his contacts with both the leaders have helped ease the latest tensions between their countries.

“I’ll see Prime Minister Modi, and we’ll be meeting with India and Pakistan (prime ministers),” Trump told reporters on Monday. “And I think a lot of progress has been made,” he said, without further elaboration.  

 

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How Will No-Deal Brexit Chaos Affect Developing Economies?

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Developing economies could face disruption from the shock waves of Britain crashing out of the European Union with no deal, according to analysts.

Brexit will affect not only Britain’s relations with the European Union, but also with hundreds of other countries with which Britain currently trades on EU terms, as Brussels sets trade policy for the entire EU bloc.

London has negotiated new post-Brexit trade arrangements with several countries, including Central American nations, Switzerland and South Korea, among others. That leaves hundreds of states — from smaller economies to relative giants like Japan and Canada — with whom trade would revert to World Trade Organization terms after a no-deal Brexit.

Striking new trade deals won’t be easy, said professor Anand Menon at a “Changing Europe” program at Kings College London.

FILE – A fruit stall displays fruit at a market in London, Aug. 7, 2019. Among Kenya’s exports to Britain are fruits and vegetables.

“Many countries with whom we try and do trade deals will say to us, ‘Yes, that would be great. We’d quite like to know what your relationship with the European Union is going to be before we sign anything with you, though.’ So, all roads lead to Brussels,” Menon said.

Such uncertainty doesn’t help countries that sell goods to Britain. For example, Kenya exports cut flowers, fruits and vegetables, with total exports to Britain estimated at $400 million per year.

Bangladesh exports nearly $4 billion worth of goods to Britain, which are currently traded under the EU’s preferential rules of origin that allocate zero or low tariffs on goods from developing countries. A no-deal Brexit will likely mean disruption, said Max Mendez-Parra, a trade expert at the Overseas Development Institute.

“The problem is that that will erode the preference that some of these countries receive. So for example, the advantage that a country such as Bangladesh and Cambodia have on certain products because they have access with a lower tariff, that would be removed.”

Speaking last month, Akinwumi Adesina, head of the Africa Development Bank, warned that the combination of a no-deal Brexit and the U.S.-China trade war were hitting African economies.

FILE – African Development president Akinwumi Adesina gives a press conference in Ouagadougou, Sept. 13, 2019.

“The industrial capacity has fallen significantly, and so the demand, even for products and raw materials from Africa, will only fall even further. So, the effect of that could have a ripple effect on African economies as the demand for their products weaken from China,” Adesina said.

Britain, meanwhile, is stepping up its search for new trade deals. International Trade Secretary Liz Truss is visiting New Zealand, Australia and Japan this week. Many of these nations’ companies have large investments in Britain and fear the chaotic fallout of a no-deal Brexit.

For smaller economies, the impact is likely to be less severe, Mendez-Parra said.

“African countries seem to be more relaxed, developing countries are more and more relaxed — except some specific countries that trade a lot with the U.K. — about the prospect of a no-deal [Brexit]. And this is because the U.K. has lost over many years the sort of importance as a destination of exports for many of these countries.”

A no-deal Brexit would hit the economies of many EU states like Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands. But it is in Britain where the impact will inevitably be hardest-felt.

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Police Suspect Arson in Attack on Kyiv Home of Ex-National Bank Chief

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This story originated in VOA’s Ukrainian Service.

Police have opened a criminal investigation in the apparent arson of a home belonging to the family of former National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) chief Valeria Gontareva, which was razed early Tuesday in Kyiv.

Gontarevа, who recently spoke with VOA’s Ukrainian Service from her home in London, has warned that a series of unfortunate events are evidence that her life and the lives of family members are being threatened as a result of financial reforms she oversaw during her tenure as NBU chief from 2014-2017.

FILE – Valeria Gontareva, former chair of the National Bank of Ukraine, speaks during an interview in London, Britain, Sept. 14, 2019.

Currently a senior policy fellow at the London School of Economics, Gontareva told VOA that she was hospitalized with broken bones after being struck by a car while walking through the streets of London on Aug. 26.

Ten days later, her daughter-in-law’s vehicle was set on fire in front of the family home in Kyiv, which was burned to the ground Tuesday. On Sept. 12, one week after the car was torched, Ukrainian police raided another of Gontareva’s Kyiv residential properties.

Gontarevа has told various news outlets that all of these events are tied to grievances held by banking tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky, the former owner Privatbank, the country’s largest lender, which was nationalized in 2016 as a part of Gontarevа-led reforms under former president Petro Poroshenko.

Gontarevа and her Ukrainian colleagues elected to nationalize Privatbank under Ukraine’s Finance Ministry after an audit revealed $5.5 billion in unaccounted funds. The move to nationalize was strongly supported by the International Monetary Fund, which saw nationalization of banks engaged in fraud as a key step to eradicating corruption.

An oligarch’s return

Kolomoisky, who returned to Kyiv after the April 2019 election of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, had been living in Switzerland and Israel since Privatbank was nationalized.

He and Privatbank’s original investors have been closely watching a series of new reforms being undertaken by Zelenskiy to see whether the nationalization may be reversed.

FILE – Ukrainian business tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky speaks with journalists on the sidelines of the Yalta European Strategy annual meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sept. 13, 2019.

“Kolomoisky wants the withdrawal of all Privatbank lawsuits against him all over the world, and the National Bank is hindering him,” Gontarevа told VOA, explaining that she has also been named as a key witness in various international fraud cases against Zelenskiy over his former ownership of Privatbank.

It was also reported that the search of Gontarevа’s home came 48 hours after Kolomoisky met privately with Zelenskiy.

On Tuesday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk told the Financial Times that the president is seeking a settlement with Kolomoisky over Privatbank’s nationalization, which would contradict Zelenskiy’s vigorous reform agenda and possibly upset Western backers.

FILE – People walk past a branch of PrivatBank, the country’s biggest lender, in Kyiv, Ukraine, April 18, 2019.

According to the Financial Times, IMF officials have warned that a reversal of Privatbank’s nationalization would endanger nearly $4 billion in standby funding reserved to help Ukraine recover the $5.5 billion it lost recapitalizing Privatbank.

“Whatever solution we find, we have to find it together with the IMF,” Honcharuk was quoted as saying.

On Tuesday morning, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov took to Twitter to note that the fire coincides with a Kyiv visit by IMF officials.

Although Gontarevа said she has been criticized by some Ukrainians who say the alleged threats are part of an effort to bolster her asylum claims in the West, she told VOA the issues are much bigger than her life alone.

Old-school intimidation tactics

“Independence of the National Bank guarantees the independence of monetary policy, exchange rate policy, and the macro stability of the Ukrainian economy,” she said, apparently warning that Kolomoisky’s efforts to seek compensation for the loss of Privatbank represents a return to the old-school intimidation tactics of the oligarchic era.

Kolomoisky, who denied any involvement in the injuries or property damages sustained by Gontareva or her family, spoke with reporters on the sidelines of the Yalta European Strategy conference in Kyiv on Sept. 13.

Asked about the London hit-and-run that left Gontareva temporarily wheelchair-bound, Kolomoisky reportedly said with a smug grin: “I promised to send her a plane, not a car.”

London police said they were not treating the incident as suspicious.

Official statements

FILE – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during a meeting with law enforcement officers in Kyiv, Ukraine, July 23, 2019.

On Tuesday, Zelenskiy’s office issued a statement calling the fire at Gontarevа’s home “a brutal crime, the rapid investigation of which should be a priority in the work of the law enforcement agencies.”

“Everyone should feel protected in Ukraine, regardless of their past or current positions and political views,” he said.

On Sept. 5, NBU board members issued a statement supporting Gontarevа’s claims that the car and house fires and London car accident are part of an organized intimidation campaign.

“Kolomoisky wants the withdrawal of all Privatbank lawsuits against him all over the world,” the former chairman of the NBU says. “And the National Bank is hindering him.”

“We regard this as a real threat to the personal integrity of the regulators who have implemented and continue to reform the financial sector, and in this way endeavor to undermine the central bank’s ability to fulfil its purpose,” the statement said.

The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine has expressed support for Gontarevа, calling for “a prompt and impartial investigation into incidents involving former NBU chairman Gontareva and her family.”

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Tunisian Outsiders Set for Runoff Elections Amid Voter Discontent

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Tunisia’s independent electoral commission Tuesday confirmed the stunning victories of two political outsiders in the first round of presidential voting — results seen as a major rebuff of the post-revolution political establishment.

Final results place law professor Kais Saied and business tycoon Nabil Karoui in first and second place respectively, capturing more than 18% and 16% of the vote. They now face a runoff in what is Tunisia’s second-only free and democratic presidential election.

Tunisian presidential candidate and law professor Kais Saied speaks during a press conference in Tunis, Sept. 17, 2019.

But the bigger story may be the losers, starting with Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who received just over 7% of the vote. Defense Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi also scored in the single digits. Turnout was less than 50% — another marker of voter disaffection.

Tunisian journalist Tarek Mami of France Magreb 2 radio says Tunisians got rid of one system during the revolution — that of autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Now, they’re getting rid of the system that replaced him. Widespread corruption and soaring food prices helped to fuel voter anger.

Saied and Karoui have one thing in common — both are newcomers when it comes to running for office. Both also kept low profiles during campaigning these past weeks, but for different reasons.

FILE – Nabil Karoui, Tunisian media magnate and would-be presidential candidate, submits his candidacy to Tunisia’s electoral commission in the capital, Tunis, Aug. 2, 2019.

Karoui was jailed in August on corruption allegations — a move his supporters claim was politically motivated. Saied rejected state election funds and large rallies, favoring door-to-door campaigning. Saied is a social conservative and a frequent legal commentator on television. Karoui scored points with the poor for his foundation’s charitable works.

Social entrepreneur Wala Kasmi didn’t vote for Saied and was surprised by the results.

“But at the end, I think I’m happy about not the full results, but the results, because I think we are back to eight years ago, challenging the status quo, claiming a new model, a new system. … I think he’s the new voice of the revolution,” Kasmi said.

This is the first round in the election season. October’s legislative vote comes next, offering another test of whether Tunisians will continue to sanction the political establishment.

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Gates Foundation Says Billions ‘Mired in Inequality’

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Living conditions have improved greatly since 2000 even for the world’s poorest people, but billions remain mired in “layers of inequality.”

That is the assessment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s third annual report on progress toward U.N. Sustainable Development Goals – 17 measures that most countries have pledged to try to reach by 2030. Those efforts are falling short, says Bill Gates.

“As much progress as we’re making, a child in many countries still over 10% are dying before the age of five. And in richer countries it is less than 1%. So the idea that any place in the world is still 10%, some almost 15%, that’s outrageous, and it should galvanize us to do a better job,” Gates told VOA.

The 63-year-old Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist sat down with VOA at the foundation’s offices in advance of the report, which was released to coincide with the opening of the United Nations General Assembly.

This year’s report uses geography and gender as lenses for examining progress, particularly in terms of health and education.

It finds “an increasing concentration of high mortality and low educational attainment levels” in Africa’s Sahel region as well as in parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan and northern India. People in those regions experience “multiple deprivations, including some of the highest fertility rates in the world, high levels of stunting and low vaccine coverage,” the report says.

Disadvantages fall more heavily on women than on men. Girls generally get less formal education than boys; those in sub-Saharan Africa average two fewer years of education. And even when girls obtain a good education, they’re less likely to parlay it into paid work. 

“Globally, there is a 26 percentage point gap between men’s and women’s labor force participation,” according to the report.

Monitoring progress on these fronts aligns with the Gates Foundation’s commitments, which include improving global health and aiding development in low-income countries. Since its start in 2000, the foundation has spent billions on efforts such as improving vaccines and nutrition, combatting malaria and other diseases, supporting innovative toilet designs to improve sanitation, and ensuring good data collection to identify problems.

As the news site Vox has pointed out, the Gates Foundation each year outspends the World Health Organization and most individual countries on global health. It has built the world’s largest trust — $46.8 billion as of December, according to its website.

That has led some to question philanthropy’s role in development.

“The billions of dollars available to Gates, Rockefeller and Wellcome might be spent with benevolent intent, but they confer extensive power. A power without much accountability,” Wellcome communications director Mark Henderson wrote last week in Inside Philanthropy, announcing that the London-based health charity – second in spending after Gates – would increase its transparency.

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Netanyahu Faces Tough Re-Election Fight Against Rival Gantz

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Israelis are voting Tuesday in general elections as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a challenge from former military chief Benny Gantz.

Polls show Tuesday’s contest too close to call, with Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party tied with Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party, with neither predicted to win a majority of seats in the 120-member Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Ten parties could win seats in the legislature.

That could possibly leave Avigdor Lieberman, a former defense minister and one-time Netanyahu ally but now a rival, as the kingmaker to form a coalition government. Lieberman, the head of the Israel Beitenu party, could double his seats in parliament from five to 10. His campaign slogan is to “make Israel normal again,” a motto aimed at combating what he says is the undue influence of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties on political life in the country.

Netanyahu made a last-day nationalist campaign pitch Monday saying if he wins re-election, he would annex all the Jewish settlements in the West Bank over the protests of Palestinian leaders.

He told Israeli Army Radio, “I intend to extend sovereignty on all the settlements and the (settlement) blocs,” including “sites that have security importance or are important to Israel’s heritage.”  

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, is facing his toughest political fight to win a record fifth term to stay in power even as he is confronting possible corruption charges. Israel is staging its second national vote in less than six months, with Netanyahu unable to cobble together a parliamentary majority to form a government after the April vote.

A man hangs up an Israeli flag at a polling station as Israelis begin to vote in a parliamentary election in Rosh Ha’ayin, Israel September 17, 2019.

Gantz has presented himself as an honorable alternative to Netanyahu.

“Blue and White under my leadership will change the direction of the ship of state of Israeli democracy,” he wrote in the Maariv newspaper. “No more instigating rifts in an attempt to divide and conquer, but rather quick action to form a unity government.”

In the run-up to the election, Netanyahu has tried to bolster his nationalist support, along with an assist from his long-time friend, U.S. President Donald Trump, who last weekend floated the possibility of a mutual defense pact between the decades-long allies.

Trump said such a treaty “would further anchor the tremendous alliance between our two countries.”

The U.S. also has another link to the Israeli election, with the Trump administration expected to release its long-delayed Israeli-Palestinian peace plan soon after the vote. The U.S. in June unveiled a $50 billion plan to boost Palestinian economic fortunes, but neither the Palestinians nor Israelis attended the announcement in Bahrain.

Netanyahu has made several campaign pledges in an attempt to win over nationalist voters. He vowed to annex the Jordan Valley, an area Palestinians consider as key farmland in any future Palestinian state. In protest, the Palestinian Authority held a cabinet meeting in the Jordan Valley village of Fasayil on Monday, a day after Israel’s Cabinet met elsewhere in the valley.

“The Jordan Valley is part of Palestinian lands and any settlement or annexation is illegal,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said at the start of the meeting. “We will sue Israel in international courts for exploiting our land and we will continue our struggle against the occupation on the ground and in international forums.”

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China and US Clash Over ‘Belt and Road’ in Afghan Resolution

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China and Russia clashed with the U.S. and other Security Council members Monday over China’s insistence on including a reference to Beijing’s $1 trillion “belt and road” global infrastructure program in a resolution on the U.N. political mission in Afghanistan.

The mission’s six-month mandate expires Tuesday and council members met behind closed doors for over 2 1/2 hours Monday, unable to agree on a text because of China’s demand.

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, the current council president, told reporters afterward that diplomats were working on a new text and “we’re in the process of reaching a compromise.”

He said the council would meet again late Tuesday morning in hopes of reaching unanimous agreement.

This is the second time in six months that the resolution to keep the U.N. political mission in Afghanistan operating has become embroiled in controversy over “belt and road” language.

Resolutions extending the mandate of the Afghan mission for a year in 2016, 2017 and 2018 had language welcoming and urging further efforts to strengthen regional economic cooperation involving Afghanistan, including through the huge “belt and road” initiative to link China to other parts of Asia as well as Europe and Africa.

But in March, when the mandate renewal came up, U.S. Deputy Ambassador Jonathan Cohen objected, saying Beijing was insisting on making the resolution “about Chinese national political priorities rather than the people of Afghanistan.”

He said the Trump administration opposed China’s demand “that the resolution highlight its belt and road initiative, despite its tenuous ties to Afghanistan and known problems with corruption, debt distress, environmental damage, and lack of transparency.”

FILE – China’s Deputy Permanent Representative Wu Haitao addresses the United Nations Security Council, Aug. 29, 2018, at U.N. headquarters.

China’s deputy ambassador, Wu Haitao, countered at the time that one council member — almost certainly referring to the U.S. — “poisoned the atmosphere.” He said the “belt and road” initiative was “conducive to Afghanistan’s reconstruction and economic development,” saying that since it was launched six years ago 123 countries and 29 international organizations had signed agreements with China on joint development programs.

The result of the standoff was that instead of a one-year mandate renewal for the Afghan mission, the mandate was renewed in March for just six months in a simple text, without any substance.

Ahead of this month’s mandate expiration, Germany and Indonesia drafted a substantive resolution that would extend the mandate for a year. It focused on U.N. support for an Afghan-led and Afghan-controlled peace process, U.N. assistance in the Sept. 28 presidential election and strong backing for Afghan security forces “in their fight against terrorism.” It made no reference to China’s “belt and road” initiative.

So China and close ally Russia circulated a rival draft resolution that removes all the substantive language and simply extends the mission for a year.

Council diplomats said after Monday’s meeting that China and Russia would likely veto the German-Indonesian draft resolution, and the China-Russia draft would fail to get the required nine “yes” votes. So diplomats were meeting Monday night to draft a new resolution.

South Africa’s U.N. ambassador, Jerry Matjila, said, “I think there is a chance of a compromise.”

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Outsiders Surge in Tunisia Presidential Polls

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Two candidates who claim they will win through to Tunisia’s presidential runoff — a conservative law expert and an imprisoned media mogul —
could hardly be more different, but both bill themselves as political outsiders.

Nabil Karoui, behind bars since August 23 on charges of money laundering, is a populist showman whose political colors changed with the times, culminating in the launch of his Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia) party just months ago.

Maverick Kais Saied, meanwhile, is an academic committed to social conservatism who has ploughed his own furrow.  

Nicknamed “Robocop” due to his abrupt, staccato speech and rigid posture, the impeccably dressed Saied shunned political parties, avoided mass rallies and campaigned door-to-door.

Hours after polling booths closed in the country’s second free presidential polls since the 2011 Arab Spring, he declared he was in pole position.

“I am first in the first round and if I am elected president I will apply my program,” he told AFP in a spartan apartment in central Tunis.

On the campaign trail, he advocated a rigorous overhaul of the constitution and voting system, to decentralize power “so that the will of the people penetrates into central government and puts an end to corruption”.

With a quarter votes counted Monday, Tunisia’s electoral commission (ISIE) put Saied in the lead with 19 percent of the vote.

Often surrounded by young acolytes, he has pushed social conservatism, defending the death penalty, criminalisation of homosexuality and a sexual assault law that punishes unmarried couples who engage in public displays of affection.

Tunisia’s ‘would-be Berlusconi’

While Saied came from the sidelines with his unique approach to courting Tunisia’s voters — and did so with barely any money behind him — media magnate Nabil Karoui’s story is more flamboyant.

He has long maintained a high profile, using his Nessma TV channel to launch high-profile charity campaigns, often appearing in designer suits even while meeting some of the country’s poorest citizens in marginalized regions.

These charitable endeavors, including doling out food aid, “helped me to get closer to people and realize the huge social problems facing the country,” he once told AFP. “I have been touched by it.”

Unlike Saied, he previously threw his lot in with an established political party, officially joining Beji Caid Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes in 2016, after actively supporting the late president in his successful campaign two years earlier.

He formally stepped down from Nessma’s management after being criticized by international observers for his channel’s partisan conduct in 2014.

But he subsequently made no secret of continuing to pull the strings at the channel, while honing his political profile.    

His supporters claim his arrest was politically motivated, but detractors cast him as a would-be Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier who they allege partly owns his channel.

The arrest of the controversial Tunisian businessman in August followed his indictment the previous month in an investigation that dates back to 2017 and the submission by anti-corruption watchdog I-Watch of a dossier accusing him of tax fraud.

The 56-year-old was still given the green light to run and hit the campaign trail by proxy, deploying his wife and activists from his Heart of Tunisia party to woo voters.

“Nabil Karoui is in the second round,” an official from the mogul’s party told AFP late Sunday, as the businessman sat in prison outside the capital Tunis.

Partial results from ISIE on Monday put him in the second spot.

Observers say that if Karoui does make it to the second round, it will be hard for authorities to justify keeping him behind bars without a trial.

Saied, meanwhile, has not been immune from discomforting scrutiny.

Confronted late last week in a broadcast debate with a photo showing him meeting an ex-member of a banned Salafi group, he asked: “Do I have to ask permission to meet someone?”

But in a sign of voters’ antipathy towards the overall field, the ISIE put turnout at 45 percent, down substantially from the 64 percent recorded for the country’s first democratic polls in 2014.

The date of a second and final round between the top two candidates has not been announced, but it must be held by October 23 at the latest and may even take place on the same day as legislative polls set for October 6.

 

 

 

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Johnson, Juncker Hold Brexit Talks; No Visible Breakthrough

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker held their first face-to-face talks Monday, without any visible signs of a breakthrough on an elusive Brexit deal.

The two men talked over a two-hour lunch of snails and salmon in Juncker’s native Luxembourg, amid claims from the U.K. — though not the EU — that a deal is in sight.
 
The European Commission said after the meeting that Britain had yet to offer any “legally operational” solutions to the issue of the Irish border, the main roadblock to a deal.
 
“President Juncker underlined the Commission’s continued willingness and openness to examine whether such proposals meet the objectives of the backstop”— a border provision rejected by Britain.
 
 “Such proposals have not yet been made,” the European Commission said in a statement, adding that officials “will remain available to work 24/7.”
 
Johnson says the U.K. will leave the EU on the scheduled Oct. 31 date, with or without a withdrawal agreement. But he insists he can strike a revised divorce deal with the bloc in time for an orderly departure. The agreement made by his predecessor, Theresa May, was rejected three times by Britain’s Parliament.
 
Johnson said in a Daily Telegraph column Monday that he believes “passionately” that a deal can be agreed and approved at a summit of EU leaders on Oct. 17-18.
 
While the EU says it is still waiting for firm proposals from the U.K., Johnson spokesman James Slack said Britain had “put forward workable solutions in a number of areas.”
 
He declined to provide details, saying it was unhelpful to negotiate in public.
 
The key sticking point is the “backstop,” an insurance policy in May’s agreement intended to guarantee an open border between EU member Ireland and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland. That is vital both to the local economy and to Northern Ireland’s peace process.
 
British Brexit supporters oppose the backstop because it keeps the U.K. bound to EU trade rules, limiting its ability to forge new free trade agreements around the world after Brexit.
 
Britain has suggested the backstop could be replaced by “alternative arrangements,” but the EU says it has yet to hear any workable suggestions.
 
Neither side expects a breakthrough Monday, but much still rests on Johnson’s encounter with Juncker, who like other EU officials is tired of the long-running Brexit drama, and wary of Johnson’s populist rhetoric.
 
The British leader has vowed to leave the bloc “do or die” and compared himself to angry green superhero the Incredible Hulk, telling the Mail on Sunday newspaper: “The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets, and he always escapes … and that is the case for this country.”
 
European Parliament Brexit chief Guy Verhofstadt branded the comparison “infantile,” and it also earned a rebuke from “Hulk” star Mark Ruffalo.
 
Ruffalo tweeted: “Boris Johnson forgets that the Hulk only fights for the good of the whole. Mad and strong can also be dense and destructive.”
 
Monday’s meeting marks the start a tumultuous week, with the Brexit deadline just 45 days away.
 
On Tuesday, Britain’s Supreme Court will consider whether Johnson’s decision to prorogue — or suspend — the British Parliament for five weeks was lawful, after conflicting judgments in lower courts.
 
Johnson sent lawmakers home until Oct. 14, a drastic move that gives him a respite from rebellious lawmakers determined to thwart his Brexit plan.
 
Last week, Scotland’s highest civil court ruled the prorogation illegal because it had the intention of stymieing Parliament. The High Court in London, however, said it was not a matter for the courts.
 
If the Supreme Court overturns the suspension, lawmakers could be called back to Parliament as early as next week.
 
Many lawmakers fear a no-deal Brexit would be economically devastating, and are determined to stop the U.K. from crashing out of the bloc on Oct. 31.
 
Just before the suspension, Parliament passed a law that orders the government to seek a three-month delay to Brexit if no agreement has been reached by late October.
 
Johnson insists he will not seek a delay under any circumstances, though it’s not clear how he can avoid it.
 
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Monday that the government would obey the law, but suggested it would try to find loopholes.
 
  “I think the precise implications of the legislation need to be looked at very carefully,” he told the BBC. “We are doing that.”