Former President Jimmy Carter Marks 95th Birthday

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Four years after battling life-threatening cancer in his liver and brain, and four months after falling and breaking his hip, requiring surgery and weeks of intense physical therapy, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter took the stage September 18, unassisted, here for the Annual Jimmy Carter Emory University Town Hall, which he’s participated in, uninterrupted, for 38 years.

Standing without assistance for more than 30 minutes, addressing topics ranging from current polarized U.S. politics to his favorite animal, Carter, a distinguished professor at Emory, showed no signs of fatigue or pain as he enthusiastically answered question after question from those who gathered in the cavernous campus gymnasium by the thousands to hear him speak.

“Before this I really didn’t know much about President Carter,”  freshman Stephanie Teng said. “I feel so fortunate to be here.  I know that many students won’t have this opportunity in their lifetime, and this is a uniquely Emory thing, and something I’ll remember the rest of my life.”

“I think it’s a problem when we overly lionize political figures, but I do have a great deal of respect for Jimmy Carter,” another freshman, Gian-Luigi Zaninelli, said. 

“I’ve heard a great many conservatives being credibly critical of Jimmy Carter and basically view him as an ineffectual president,”  he said. However, Zaninelli said that comes from Carter’s presidential term, from 1977 to 1981.

“Because of the good works he’s been doing over the course of the last 30 or more years, we have a high opinion of him as a human being,” Zaninelli said.  “What is indisputable is that Jimmy Carter cares about other people and devotes himself to service, and when he did serve as a president, regardless of the success of his policies, he was doing so as a servant leader and not someone who was intending to enrich himself.”

“I would say I still adhere to the advice my school principal gave me, ‘You must accommodate to changing times – and these are really changing times – but cling to principles that never do change,’” Carter told VOA in an exclusive interview at the Atlanta-based Carter Center.

WATCH: VOA interview with President Carter


President Jimmy Carter Interview September 2019 video player.
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“So I have faith in those principles, like telling the truth, and helping other people.”

Carter this year became the oldest living former president in U.S. history, surpassing George H.W. Bush for the record, and October 1 becomes the first former occupant of the White House to reach 95.

He reaches the milestone while continuing to engage with new and younger audiences born years after his presidency, and to work on the sorts of projects that have characterized his post-presidency life.

He is still involved in the Carter Center, which he leads with Rosalynn, his wife of 73 years, and which “wages peace, fights disease, and builds hope” around the world through programs including election monitoring, the elimination of river blindness, and the eradication of Guinea worm disease, among others, he told VOA.

“We still have in the neighborhood of 25 cases of Guinea worm, but we started out with three and a half million,” Carter said, with most of those cases in Africa.

During an August 2015 press conference here, when Carter told the world he was battling cancer that had spread to his brain, he said his one key hope was to witness the eradication of Guinea worm disease in his lifetime. 

There have been setbacks in the Guinea worm fight, including new cases of transmission between dogs, which can pass the worm to humans through water sources, that could ultimately jeopardize his hopes.

“We think we’ve prevented maybe 80 million people from having Guinea worm who may have had it otherwise,” Carter said, “So we’ve made very good progress but we still have a little ways to go.”  

While staff and volunteers around the world continue to work on the various peace and health initiatives that President and Mrs. Carter have championed since establishing the center in 1986, the former peanut farmer continues to participate in the annual weeklong Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project with Habitat for Humanity, a global nonprofit housing organization, building homes for those who need them most.  This year’s event is in Nashville, Tennessee, occurring soon after Carter’s birthday.

While there are no further signs of cancer and Carter says he is in relatively good health, he concedes age may finally be catching up with him.

“I still feel just about as active as I ever was, but my overseas movements are restrained because of age and health.  I used to travel to Africa three or four times a year, and always to China and so forth, so I’ve cut back on my foreign travel,” he said. 

Nevertheless, Carter remains an admired figure.

“President Carter is a kind of secular saint in America today,”  Joe Crespino, the Jimmy Carter professor of history and chair of the history department at Emory University, said.  He said Carter has set a high standard for what is expected of U.S. presidents once they leave office.

“His longevity, his commitment to doing as much good as he can do on the time he had left on earth is really a remarkable model, not just for his fellow Americans but for people around the globe,” he said.

Students Turn to Sugar Daddies for Financial Aid

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Liv first met Bill in 2016 when she was a college student and $5,000 in debt from student loans.

Making rent was next to impossible, she said, but Bill helped her manage her expenses and finances better. They saw each other a few times a week, and soon Bill was paying Liv’s tuition and rent. He sent her on exotic trips to Europe and Thailand. They moved in together.

“He taught me how to do my taxes. He taught me how to get my own car insurance. He helped me pay back student loans,” Liv said. “He just taught me so much and he didn’t have to do any of it.

“I actually grew real feelings for him.”

“Actually” because Liv was 24 and Bill was 70 when they connected on SeekingArrangement, an online sugar-dating site that promotes itself as offering “upfront and honest arrangements with someone who will cater to your needs.” 

Typically, the arrangements are between young women (sugar babies) and older men (sugar daddies) with money. Sugar babies seek financial assistance in return for company. Most of the sources VOA Student Union interviewed said financial arrangements often, but not always, include sex in return.

“Join the more than 2.7 million students in the United States who have turned to SeekingArrangement and Sugar Daddies to avoid student debt and secure a better future,” according to their website. VOA Student Union made several attempts for comment from SeekingArrangement. 

Liv said she was seeking financial support for student debt and other expenses, and Bill was happy to help. 

“On that second date, he gave me $2,000…which paid for about four or five months of campus housing,” she said. 

Bill loved to treat Liv, she said, and sent her on international vacations. When they had been dating for nine months, Bill sent Liv on a vacation to Thailand. While there, she got a call that Bill had cancer that had metastasized. After she flew home, she slept by his hospital bedside almost every night. A month later, he died.

Bill bequeathed Liv more than $60,000 in an investment fund. 

“The money is definitely a big help for me. It helped me move out of the state, helped me get my own place, helped me get a new car,” she said. 

Exchanging companionship for financial support is not novel, but the internet has allowed people to connect more easily. That, combined with record-high tuition debt for many students — $37,000 on average or $1.6 trillion combined nationwide — has some students looking for alternative methods of debt relief. Some, like Liv, become sugar babies. 

She’s not alone. At Georgia State University in Atlanta — which registered the most sugar babies of all U.S. colleges, according to SeekingArrangement — more than 1,300 students signed up in 2018. Hundreds of students have signed up at schools in Florida, Alabama, New Jersey, California, Texas and Missouri. 

Is it all about sex?

Some women, like Liv, are well compensated in a mutual relationship. 

“Sometimes it’s not about sex,” Samantha, a college senior, explained. “Some men are just lonely. Some of them really are looking for someone to hang out with.”

But for others like Helene, the sugar daddies were domineering and violent. 

“It’s very rare for sugar babies to find a man that is not looking for sex,” Helene said. When one partner pays for everything, many men feel they are entitled to dominate the relationship.

“I knew that the only way for me to make money was to either sell drugs or get a sugar daddy,” she said. 

In this Tuesday, July 16, 2019 photo a passer-by appears in silhouette while walking past the Ray and Maria Stata Center, behind, on the campus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass.

A 20-year-old international student in the United States, her visa does not allow her to work in the U.S. She says she doesn’t want to burden her family financially. Through SeekingArrangement, she met a 27-year-old man who at first seemed normal, but then became aggressive.

He asked Helene to do things outside their agreement. He told her he would send her $1,000 immediately to have sex with him. 

“I was stupid and scared, so I did what I had to do,” Helene said.

When she asked for payment, he taunted her and refused. As she tried to leave, he “took his T-shirt off, wrapped it around my head and tangled it around my neck. … I really thought he was going to keep me hostage.” 

Another man Helene met ignored sexual consent. After three months together, he became forceful and “stopped caring about what I thought was uncomfortable. … He would get rougher and more violent with me as if he liked it when I told him to stop.” 

Sugar daddies often expect babies to adopt submissive roles in exchange for the money and gifts they receive. 

“Some guys, they give you money and they think they have access to you 24/7, like you can never tell them no,” said Liv, who returned to sugaring after Bill died. 

Helene said her experiences “kind of ruined my relationship to sex. … I didn’t like to be touched … or hugged from behind … because of what my sugar daddies did to me.”

Still, she is not ready to abandon sugaring, she said. 

“It hasn’t changed my relationship to the sugar baby/sugar daddy world, because I need the money,” she said.

Men, too

Men are sugar babies, too. Antonio found his first sugar daddy when he was 18. 

“I tried to hang out where I knew men with money hung out, because I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. Like Liv and Helene, he needed money for college. His first sugar daddy paid Antonio’s tuition and gave him money for school books and shopping sprees. 

Antonio said he misses the perks of sugar dating. 

“I work two jobs now … I want to be able to afford the things I once had. I got accustomed to that lifestyle,” he added.

Samantha said she just wanted exciting experiences with a mature partner. “I don’t really have any real need for money. [It’s] not something that interests me.” 

She said she preferred the no-strings-attached nature of sugar dating. “[I wanted] something that wouldn’t be too normal, something that would be more casual … something that wouldn’t get boring.”

Social stigma

Many people see sugar dating as a form of prostitution, or sex work, which is defined as a consensual sexual encounter between two or more adults in exchange for payment. The legal status of sex work is debated all over the world. In the United States, public opinion on sex work appears to favor its criminalization

Sweta Patel, a criminal defense attorney in Washington, D.C., said that while there are similarities between sex work and sugar dating, the difference in a sugar relationship is sex and money may be one part of the relationship, but not all. 

Patel makes another distinction between sugar babies and sex workers.

“The sugar-daddy model is two consenting adults, while often in sex work, that is not always the case,” she said.

Patel said undercover law enforcement monitors websites like SeekingArrangement for relationships that cross into sex work. 

“I’m so naive, so I’ve never thought about that,” Helene said. 

Because of sex-trafficking and recently passed legislation to control it, such as the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), many apps like SeekingArrangement closely monitor messaging. Last year, the popular online classified site Craigslist stopped offering personal ads because they were being used by sex traffickers. 

Free to make choices

Ultimately, say some sugar babies, they are adults engaging in adult relationships on their own terms.

“So many so-called romantic relationships are based on how much money or status or how good looking someone is,” Liv said. “How is that more honest?”

“You give your girlfriends and wives money and pay their bills. The one difference here is the age,” she said. “On the other hand, I would say this lifestyle is not for everyone, and not for everyone to approve of or understand. But it works for us and that’s all that matters.” 

Helene says the economics are the last word for her. 

“Most people think that sugar babies are too lazy to work and make money or (are) gold-diggers, but that’s not always the case,” Helene said. “If I wasn’t in this situation that I’m in, I would never do this. I don’t like giving my body to strangers I don’t know, but if that’s the way for me to get an income, then that’s what I’ll do.” 

China Spurns US Criticism of Economic Cooperation With Afghanistan

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A regional Chinese diplomat has rebuked the United States for being “ignorant” about his country’s ongoing key economic contributions and cooperation with Afghanistan.

Arrangements are being worked out to enhance the cooperation with Kabul even under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Yao Jing, the Chinese ambassador to neighboring Pakistan told VOA.

He hailed Saturday’s successful Afghan presidential election, saying China hopes they will boost peace-building efforts in a country wrecked by years of conflicts.

“We hope that with the election in Afghanistan, with the peace development moving forward in Afghanistan, Afghans will finally achieve a peaceful period, achieve the stability,” said the Chinese diplomat, who served in Kabul prior to his posting in Islamabad.

Earlier this month, U.S. officials and lawmakers during a congressional hearing in Washington sharply criticized China for its lack of economic assistance to Afghan rebuilding efforts.

“I think it’s fair to say that China has not contributed to the economic development of Afghanistan. We have not seen any substantial assistance from China,” Alice Wells, U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia, told lawmakers.

Wells, however, acknowledged that Beijing has worked with Washington on a way forward on peace as have other countries, including Russia and immediate neighbors of Afghanistan.

“She is a little ignorant about what China’s cooperation with Afghanistan is,” ambassador Yao said when asked to comment on the remarks made by Wells.

He recounted that Beijing late last year established a trade corridor with Kabul, which Afghan officials say have enabled local traders to directly export thousands of tons of pine nuts to the Chinese market annually, bringing much-needed dollars. Yao said a cargo train was also started in 2016 from eastern China to Afghanistan’s landlocked northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

China is also working on infrastructure projects, including the road linking Kabul to the eastern city of Jalalabad and the road between the central Afghan city of Bamiyan and Mazar-e-Sharif. Chinese companies, Yao, said are also helping in establishing transmission lines and other infrastructure being developed under the CASA-1000 electricity transmission project linking Central Asia to energy-starved South Asia nations through Afghanistan.

Ambassador Yao noted that China and Afghanistan signed a memorandum of understanding on BRI cooperation, identifying several major projects of connectivity.

“But the only problem is that the security situation pose a little challenge. So, that is why China and Pakistan and all the regional countries, we are working so hard trying to support or facilitate peace in Afghanistan,” he said.  

For her part, Ambassador Wells told U.S. lawmakers that China’s BRI is a “slogan” and “not any reality” in Afghanistan. “They have just tried to lockdown lucrative mining contracts but not following through with investment or real resources,” she noted.

Wells said that Washington continues to warn its partners, including the Afghan government about “falling prey to predatory loans or loans that are designed to benefit only the Chinese State.”

U.S. officials are generally critical of BRI for “known problems with corruption, debt distress, environmental damage, and a lack of transparency.” The projects aims to link China by sea and land through an infrastructure network with southeast and central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

But Yao rejected those concerns and cited the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a pilot project of BRI, which has brought around $20 billion in Chinese investment to Pakistan within the past six years. It has helped Islamabad build roads and power plants, helping the country overcome its crippling electricity shortages, improve its transportation network and operationalize the strategic deep-sea Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea.

 

Pope Decries World’s Indifference to Migrants, Refugees

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Pope Francis on Sunday decried “the culture of comfort” that leads to indifference in the face of a global migration and refugee crisis.

The pope who has made caring for migrants a hallmark of his papacy spoke during a Mass for the World Day for Migrants and Refugees.

“We cannot be indifferent to the tragedy of old and new forms of poverty, to the bleak isolation, contempt and discrimination experienced by those who do not belong to ‘our group,'” Francis said. “We cannot remain insensitive, our hearts deadened, before the misery of so many innocent people. We must not fail to weep. We must not fail to respond.”

The pontiff has often spoken of the need to be welcoming to migrants, traveling to the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2013 on his first trip as pope to comfort refugees. His message found political resistance in Italy’s previous populist government, during which the former hard-line interior minister, Matteo Salvini, campaigned to prevent the arrival in Italy of migrants rescued at sea by humanitarian groups.

During his homily Sunday, the pope also noted the weapons that fuel wars are often produced and sold in other regions “which are then unwilling to take in the refugees generated buy these conflicts.”

Many migrants and refugees from conflicts throughout the world attended the Mass in St. Peter’s Square, which closed with the unveiling of a bronze statue by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz depicting migrants packed on a boat.

“This statue depicts a group of migrants from various cultures and over different historic periods. I wanted this artistic work here in St. Peter’s Square to remind everyone of the evangelical challenge of hospitality,” Francis said.

During the Mass, a multiethnic chorus sang and the incense burned came from a refugee camp in southern Ethiopia, where refugees are rekindling a 600-year-old tradition of collecting incense. The Vatican said the incense “reminds us that refugees can also thrive, not just survive.”

 

Russian Opposition Stages New Moscow Rally After Summer of Protests

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Thousands of protesters jammed a central Moscow square on September 29 as opposition groups sought to regain momentum following a summer of demonstrations that targeted both local elections but also Russia’s broader political system.

The rally was the first major effort by liberal political groups and allied parties since elections earlier in the month that ended up being a catalyst for the biggest wave of sustained anti-government rallies in nearly a decade.

Instead of elections, the Moscow event was focused on “political repression,” as activists demanded that authorities halt a campaign of raids and arrests targeting anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny and his network of supporters nationwide.

Activists were rallying against harsh police tactics used in earlier demonstrations as well as what many Muscovites say were harsh jail sentences handed down against those detained by police.

Under a cold rain on September 29 , demonstrators walked through metal detectors installed along Sakharov Boulevard before gathering under umbrellas and flags of political parties near a sound stage where leaders were expected to speak.

The rally was authorized by the Moscow mayor’s office, meaning mass detentions by police were less likely.

The nongovernmental organization White Counter estimated about 9,000 people were in attendance at the start of the rally.

In a video posted online ahead of time, Lyubov Sobol, a human rights lawyer and Navalny supporter who was a key organizer of the summer rallies, accused the Russian government of pursuing “political cases” to “frighten the opposition.”

Harsh Crackdown

During the near-weekly rallies held in the Russian capital in July and August, more than 3,000 people were detained and many were beaten as police in some cases used force to disperse crowds. The harsh crackdown sparked condemnation from human rights groups and Western governments.

The protests were among the largest in Moscow since a wave of demonstrations in 2011-12 sparked by anger over evidence of electoral fraud and dismay at Putin’s return to the Kremlin for a third presidential term.

Moscow, along with many regions and municipalities across Russia, held local and regional elections on September 8 — a test for the Kremlin-allied United Russia party ahead of parliamentary elections in 2021.

Despite the exclusion of dozens of opposition and independent candidates, the September 8 elections delivered a stinging setback to United Russia, which lost 13 seats in the 45-member city council in Moscow.

That outcome was credited in part to Navalny’s so-called Smart Voting strategy, under which he urged Russians to back candidates with the best chance of beating United Russia politicians — all of whom ran as independents in Moscow apparently to hide their affiliation with the party.

Never very popular, United Russia has seen its support fall further amid economic uncertainty and political fallout over moves such as raising the retirement age and hiking the VAT tax rate.

Other unpopular initiatives have included a program to tax long-distance trucking, and crackdowns on protests in many cities over local issues such as waste dumps and construction.

Putin’s ratings have also suffered.

Outside of Moscow, United Russia held its own, winning all regional governorships contested on September 8.

Meanwhile, Russian authorities have used a mix of tactics in an effort to quash the protest sentiment that erupted during summer and prevent it from spreading.

Seven people detained during the protests have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to five years, but prosecutors and courts — widely believed to answer to the Kremlin — have relented to pressure in some cases.

Netanyahu, Gantz Trade Blame Over Breakdown in Israel Coalition Talks

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz traded blame Sunday over the failure so far of efforts to reach a unity government deal following deadlocked elections.
 
A new round of negotiations between Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White broke down Sunday and the two sides appeared far from reaching a compromise.
 
Likud said Netanyahu would make a “last effort” to reach a deal before informing President Reuven Rivlin he is unable to form a government.
 
That would leave Rivlin to decide whether to ask Gantz to try to do so or call on parliament to agree on a candidate for prime minister by a vote of at least 61 out of 120 members.
 
Netanyahu “will make a last effort to realize the possibility of forming a government at this stage, before returning the mandate to the president,” Likud said in a statement.
 
It called the latest round of negotiations a “big disappointment.”
 
Blue and White accused Likud of “throwing around slogans with the sole aim of generating support in preparation for dragging Israel into another round of elections at the behest of Netanyahu.”
 
This month’s poll was the second this year, after Netanyahu failed to form a coalition following April polls.
 
Israel marks the two-day Rosh Hashanah holiday beginning Sunday night and serious negotiations are not expected during that time.
 
Likud wants to negotiate on the basis of a compromise set out by Rivlin to form a unity government, which takes into account the possibility of Netanyahu being indicted for corruption in the weeks ahead.
 
The proposal could see Netanyahu remain prime minister for now, but step aside if indicted.
 
Gantz would step in as acting premier under such a scenario.
 
Netanyahu also says he will not abandon the smaller right-wing and religious parties supporting him in parliament, giving him a total of 55 seats backing him for prime minister.
 
Blue and White says Gantz must be prime minister first under any rotation arrangement, since it finished with the most seats in September 17 elections.
 
Blue and White won 33 seats, just ahead of Likud’s 32, but neither have a clear path to a majority coalition.
 
Gantz has 54 parliament members backing him for prime minister, but 10 are from Arab parties who say they will not serve in the ex-military chief’s government.
 
Rivlin tasked Netanyahu with trying to form a government Wednesday and he has 28 days to do so, with a two-week extension possible.
 
The deadlocked vote has threatened Netanyahu’s reign as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
 
If another election is called due to the standoff, it would be Israel’s third in a year.
 

 
 
 
 

Syria Demands Withdrawal of All American, Turkish Forces

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Syria’s top diplomat on Saturday demanded the immediate withdrawal of American and Turkish forces from the country and said his government reserves the right to defend its territory in any way necessary if they remain.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem’s remarks to the United Nations General Assembly were made as Turkey and the United States press ahead with a deal to create a safe zone along Syria’s border with Turkey. 

On the political front, he reaffirmed the government’s support for the recently agreed committee to draft a new constitution for the country. As has been the government’s tone since the start of the 2011 uprising in Syria, the foreign minister took a hard line, stressing there must be no interference from any country or timeline imposed on the process. 

Al-Moallem’s speech highlighted the enormous challenges to achieve reconciliation in Syria, where over 400,000 people have been killed during the conflict and millions more have fled.

The more than eight-year conflict has also drawn numerous foreign militaries and thousands of foreign fighters to Syria, many to support the now-defeated Islamic State extremist group and others still there backing the opposition and battling government forces. 
“The United States and Turkey maintain an illegal military presence in northern Syria,” al-Moallem said. “Any foreign forces operating in our territories without our authorization are occupying forces and should withdraw immediately.”

If they refuse, he said, “we have the right to take any and all countermeasures authorized under international law.”

There are around 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria on a mission to combat Islamic State militants. The United States also backs and supports Kurdish groups in the northeast that are opposed to the Syrian government and have fought against Sunni extremist groups. 

U.S. President Donald Trump had said he wants to bring the troops home, but military officials have advocated a phased approach.
Al-Moallem described Turkey and the United States as “arrogant to the point of holding discussions and reaching agreements on the creation of a so-called `safe zone’ inside Syria” as if it was on their own soil. He said any agreement without the consent of the Syrian government is rejected. 

The deal between the U.S. and Turkey keeps U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters, considered terrorists by Turkey, away from Syria’s northeastern border with Turkey. It involves an area five to 14 kilometers deep (three to eight miles), as well as the removal of heavy weapons from a 20-kilometer-deep zone (12 miles). The length of the zone has not yet been agreed to by both parties but will likely stretch hundreds of kilometers. 

Most of Syria is now under the control of the Syrian government, which is backed by Russia and Iran. However, Syrian rebels and extremists still hold Idlib in the northwest, and U.S-backed Kurdish groups hold parts of the oil-rich northeast.

The Syrian government maintains that Idlib remains a hotbed for “terrorists” and al-Moallem vowed that its “war against terrorism” will continue “until rooting out the last remaining terrorist.”

In a breakthrough on the political front, earlier this week U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced the formation of the committee that would draft Syria’s new constitution, which he said could be an important step toward ending the war.

The U.N. chief announced Saturday that the committee will meet for the first time in Geneva on Oct. 30. Its rules state that a new constitution will be followed by “free and fair elections under United Nations supervision.”  

The committee was authorized at a Russian-hosted Syrian peace conference in January 2018, but it took nearly 20 months for the sides to agree on the 150 members — particularly on a 50-member civil society of experts, independents, tribal leaders and women to serve alongside 50 members from the government and 50 members from the opposition. The U.N. was authorized to put together the civil society list but the choices faced objections, mainly from the Syrian government.

Under the newly announced terms, the “Syrian-led and Syrian-owned” committee, with U.N. envoy Geir Pedersen as facilitator, will amend the current 2012 constitution or draft a new one.

Al-Moallem stressed that the committee will operate without preconditions, its recommendations must be made independently, and “no deadlines or timetables must be imposed on the committee.” 

On another long-simmering dispute, al-Moallem accused Israel of starting “another phase of escalation” through its repeated attacks on Syrian territory and the territory of other neighboring countries.

He stressed that “it is a delusion” to think that the Syrian conflict would force the government to forfeit its “inalienable right” to recover the Golan Heights which Israel captured during the June 1967 war. The annexation is not recognized under international law.

The Trump administration in March signed a proclamation recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, reversing more than a half-century of U.S. policy in the Middle East. He also moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in recognition of Israel’s claims of the city as its capital. 

“It is a delusion,” al-Moallem stressed, “to think that the decisions of the U.S. administration on the sovereignty over the Golan would alter historical and geographical facts or the provisions of international law.”

“The Golan has been and will forever be part of Syria,” he said.

British-Flagged Tanker Reaches Dubai Port After Departing Iran

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The British-flagged oil tanker that was seized by Iran in July has docked in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates early Saturday, according to ship-tracking websites and pool reporters.

The Stena Impero, which had been held off Bandar Abbas for more than two months, started moving out of the Iranian port Friday and reached the coast off Dubai early Saturday.

The arrival was reported on several ship-tracking websites.

Erik Hanell, CEO of the company that owns the vessel, Stena Bulk, told the media earlier that the tanker’s crew are “safe and in high spirits” following their release from Iran.

He added that arrangements have been made for them to return to their families.

“The crew will have a period of time to be with their families following 10 weeks of detainment on the vessel. Full support will be offered to the crew and families in the coming weeks to assist with their recovery,” he said.

The company did not release the names of the crew.

Following the release of the vessel, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said his country would cooperate with its overseas partners to protect shipping and uphold international laws.

“The Stena Impero was unlawfully seized by Iran. It is part of a pattern of attempts to disrupt freedom of navigation. We are working with our international partners to protect shipping and uphold the international rule of law,” Raab said.

Iranian authorities accused the Stena Impero and its crew of failing to observe international maritime law at the time of its seizure on July 19, two weeks after British forces near Gibraltar captured an Iranian oil tanker that has since been released and renamed the Adrian Darya 1.

The operator and owner of the 183-meter-long, 50,000-deadweight-ton Stena Impero vehemently denied Tehran’s accusations.

An Iranian government spokesman said Monday that, while the vessel was then free to go, he did not know the exact timing of when it would set sail.

There were 23 crew members of Indian, Russian, Latvian, and Filipino nationalities aboard the Stena Impero when it was seized in the Strait of Hormuz on July 19.

Seven of them were released in early September, while the others reportedly remained aboard the ship off Bandar Abbas.

The Gibraltar and Hormuz seizures came with tensions already ratcheted up by confrontations between Western and Iranian naval and commercial ships in the strategic Gulf region that is a conduit for around one-fifth of the world’s oil supplies.

U.S. President Donald Trump has launched a naval escort campaign to defend commercial shipping interests in the Gulf against harassment and illegal interference, with support from Australia, Britain, and other Western and Gulf states.

Afghan Presidential Polls Close Amid Signs of Low Turnout

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Seemingly low voter turnout marked presidential elections in Afghanistan Saturday, even as security forces managed to maintain relative calm across the country, despite dire warnings from the Taliban.

At least four civilians and three security personnel were killed across the country and more than 50 civilians suffered injuries in election-related violence, mostly from small explosions. The figure is relatively small, keeping in mind past elections and the almost daily violence Afghanistan normally faces.  

“At the moment we don’t have the exact number of voter turnout. But we have created a safe environment. We do believe quite a wide range of our compatriots were present,” General Khoshal Sadat, the Afghan deputy interior minister, told VOA before polls closed.

Afghan incumbent president and presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani arrives to cast his vote in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 28, 2019.

Daryush Khan, who came to a Kabul polling center with his wife and two small children, one of them in his arms, said he was there to safeguard his kids’ future.

“We know there are a lot of problems in Afghanistan, including security. But it’s our civil duty to come out and vote and choose our destiny,” he said. His wife, Gaity, holding up the other crying child, said they could not let threats get in the way of choosing their future.  

The Taliban had threatened to attack any election related activity, block roads, and blow up communication towers, calling the elections a “fake process.”

Taliban threats, however, were not the only reason people decided to stay home. Many said they were disgruntled after five years of bad governance and false promises.


Voting in Kabul, Afghanistan (B. Hamdard/VOA) video player.
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Voting in Kabul, Afghanistan (B. Hamdard/VOA)

“In the last five years, the government didn’t deliver anything worthwhile. Especially, they didn’t do anything for women. The other candidates are also making empty promises. Nothing will change,” said Shabnam Yusufi of Kandahar, ahead of the polls.

A taxi driver in Kabul, Mohsin, said he would go to the polls only to cross out all the names.

The last presidential election was marred by allegations of fraud and the country became so divided that then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had to step in and broker a power-sharing deal between the two leading candidates. The same two, incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, seemed to be leading in this year’s race as well.
 
Former warlord turned presidential candidate Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, said the elections were marked with “widespread fraud” and there would be no Kerry this time to save the day.

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah casts his vote at a polling station in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 28, 2019.

Hekmatyar, known as the “butcher of Kabul” for mercilessly shelling the Afghan capital in the 1990s, and accused of multiple other war crimes, came into the political fray when he accepted Ghani’s offer of a peace deal.  

Days before the election, he issued a veiled threat of violence if he suspected fraud in the polls.

“Don’t make us regret our return, don’t make us regret participating in the electoral process, don’t make us use other means. We can do it and we have the experience to be able to do it,” he said to his supporters at an election rally in Kabul earlier this week.

“Afghanistan is not in the 1990s. It has a professional, strong Afghan security force,” responded General Khoshal Sadat, the deputy interior minister in an interview with VOA. “We have grown up in chaos, so we know how to tackle chaos.”

Responding to allegations from multiple candidates, including Abdullah, of fraud or misuse of government resources, Ghani asked election authorities to take robust action.

“If any candidate has any evidence of fraud or corruption in this election, I request them to register their cases with the Electoral Complaints Commission. And I demand the commission to process their complaints,” Ghani said in a live TV address after the election in which he thanked security forces and the nation for a successful polling day.

Sporadic reports of voter registration problems trickled in throughout the day.

“This was a good chance for us to elect our president and choose our future. We have come from far away to vote and choose our upcoming president, but they (election authorities) are just playing with us,” said Abdul Wadood, an elderly man with a white beard who could not find his name on a voter list at a Kabul polling station.

 

US Rejects Request From Iran’s Zarif to Visit UN Envoy in New York Hospital Unless Prisoner Released

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The United States rejected a request by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to visit Iran’s United Nations ambassador in a New York hospital where he is being treated for cancer, the U.S. State Department and Iranian U.N. mission said on Friday.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said Zarif’s request would be granted if Iran released one of several American citizens it had detained.

In July the United States imposed tight travel restrictions on Zarif before a visit that month to the United Nations, as well as on Iranian diplomats and their families living in New York, which Zarif described as “basically inhuman.”

Unless they receive prior approval from Washington, they are only allowed to travel within a small area of Manhattan, Queens and to and from John F. Kennedy airport.

FILE – Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations Majid Takht Ravanchi speaks to the media outside Security Council chambers at the U.N. headquarters in New York, June 24, 2019.

Iran’s U.N. mission spokesman Alireza Miryousefi said Iran’s U.N. Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi was being treated for cancer in a hospital not far away in Manhattan’s Upper East Side neighborhood. Zarif is in New York for the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations.

“Iran has wrongfully detained several U.S. citizens for years, to the pain of their families and friends they cannot freely visit,” the State Department spokesperson said. “We have relayed to the Iranian mission that the travel request will be granted if Iran releases a U.S. citizen.”

The United States and Iran are at odds over a host of issues, including the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, U.S. accusations — denied by Tehran — that Iran attacked two Saudi oil facilities on Sept. 14 and Iran’s detention of U.S. citizens on what the United States regards as spurious grounds.

U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook speaks to VOA Persian service reporter.

Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, on Monday said that if Iran wanted to show good faith, it should release the U.S. citizens it has detained, including Xiyue Wang, a U.S. citizen and Princeton University graduate student who was detained in Iran in 2016.

At a news conference in New York on Thursday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Tehran was open to talking about prisoner swaps but that the ball was in Washington’s court after Iran’s release of a Lebanese man with U.S. permanent residency in June.

The United States deported an Iranian woman who pleaded guilty to exporting restricted U.S. technology to Iran on Tuesday. During a visit to New York in April, Zarif specifically mentioned the woman’s case when talking about possible prisoner swaps.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday declined to discuss the possibility of a U.S.-Iranian prisoner swap after the woman’s deportation.