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COVID-19: Serbia Declares State Of Emergency; Iran Warns Of Overwhelmed Health System

Workers in Iran disinfect streets in central Tehran against the novel coronavirus.

The latest on the coronavirus crisis in RFE/RL's broadcast countries:


Serbia has declared a state of emergency to contain the coronavirus outbreak, shutting down schools and universities and deploying the military to guard hospitals.

"We will close down to save our lives, to save our parents, to save our elderly," President Aleksandar Vucic said in a televised address on March 15.

Vucic said the details of the measures will be announced on March 16, adding that "there will be limitations of all sorts."

The president said that from March 16 the military will be guarding state hospitals, while police will be monitoring those quarantined or in self-isolation for 14 or 28 days.

Those who violate quarantine may face jail terms of up to three years, he warned.

Earlier on March 15, Serbia announced it was closing the borders to foreigners coming from the worst-hit countries.

Vucic, however, said the border entry ban does not apply to people from China, praising Beijing for helping Serbia amid the COVID-19 crisis.

He criticized the European Union for allegedly failing to provide adequate support.

After Vucic's address, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic told state TV that borders will be open only “for Serbians, foreign diplomats, and foreign nationals with residence permits.”

The Balkan state has so far recorded 48 coronavirus infections. There have been no fatalities, but two patients are in a serious condition, health authorities say.


Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian ended his two-day self-isolation in Sevan and returned to the capital, Yerevan, after testing negative for the coronavirus for the second time.

Pashinian underwent another test for the potentially deadly infection after one of the individuals he had contact with during his trip to a southern Armenian province last week had tested positive.

“The answer to our tests is negative again. Coming back to Yerevan in the morning,” Pashinian wrote in a Facebook post on March 15, referring to the results of his test and the test of his wife, Anna Hakobian.

The couple decided to isolate themselves in a government villa at Lake Sevan late on March 13 and undergo coronavirus tests after local media raised concerns about Hakobian’s contacts with the wife of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during a visit to that Latin American country on March 7.

An aide to Bolsonaro and another senior Brazilian government official tested positive for coronavirus, raising questions about the president's health. The Brazilian leader has since said he tested negative for the virus.


Amid the quarantine, Pashinian suspended his political campaigning ahead of next month’s constitutional referendum.

He said his government will discuss this week whether to move ahead with the national referendum scheduled for April 5 amid the spread of the virus.

He said his government will discuss this week whether to move ahead with the national referendum scheduled for April 5 amid the spread of the virus.

Armenians will be asked to vote on a constitutional amendment that would lead to the dismissal of seven of the Constitutional Court’s nine members installed before nationwide protests swept Pashinian to power in 2018.

As of March 15, Armenia’s health authorities confirmed 28 cases in the country with more than half located in one region. They said the first patient hospitalized on March 1 had already recovered from the disease.

Armenia shut down the city of Vagharshapat in a bid to curb the spread of the virus, Pashinian said on March 15. Vasharshapat, also known as Echmiadzin, is located 21 kilometers to the west of the capital, Yerevan.

Vagharshapat, which has a population of 46,000 people, has accounted for more than half of the 28 registered coronavirus cases in Armenia. Pashinian said residents will be able to leave the city only after having their body temperature taken.


Afghanistan reported five new cases on March 15, bringing the total number of registered cases in the country to 16.

Officials in Kabul said that all of those infected are Afghans who have recently returned from neighboring Iran.

The officials said up to 15,000 Afghan migrants workers and refugees are returning from Iran on a daily basis.


Officials in Iran, which is battling one of the world's worst outbreaks, have warned that the county's health facilities could be overwhelmed if the current growth in new cases continues.

Iran had registered nearly 14,000 cases of coronavirus by March 15, up from about 1,000 at the start of the month.

Iran has the third-most registered cases after China and Italy. The nation's death toll reached 724 on March 15 as another 113 people died.

Kianush Jahanpur, Iran's Health Ministry spokesman, said in a televised news conference that citizens "should cancel all travel and stay at home" to halt the spread of the deadly virus.​


Pakistani President Arif Alvi is on an official visit to China on March 16-17 to hold meetings with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, and other top officials, Alvi’s office said in a statement on March 15.

The statement said the visit aims at “further solidifying historic bonds" between the two countries and described China and Pakistan as “the closest friends and staunch partners.”

It also pointed out that the visit comes as China is “engaged in efforts to contain” the spread of the new coronavirus, which has affected 157 countries and territories since it was first recorded in Wuhan, a city in central China.

It’s Alvi’s first official visit to China, a strategic partner and major investor to Pakistan’s economy.

Pakistan on March 16 announced 41 additional cases of infection with the coronavirus after 41 more cases were confirmed in the Sindh region, bringing the total tally to 94.

Dozens of people quarantined at the Pakistan-Iran border protested what they called the poor hygiene in the camps.

The quarantined include religious pilgrims who are now returning from Iran.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan and Armenian services, RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, and AP, AFP, and Reuters

See all News Updates of the Day

U.S. Urges Countries To Withdraw From UN Nuke Ban Treaty

Pakistanis attend a peace rally in Lahore on February 2019 to protest against the escalating tensions between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan.

The United States is urging countries that have ratified a UN treaty to ban nuclear weapons to withdraw their support as the pact nears the 50 ratifications needed to trigger its entry into force, which supporters say could happen this week.

The U.S. letter to signatories, obtained by The Associated Press, says the five original nuclear powers -- the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France -- and America’s NATO allies “stand unified in our opposition to the potential repercussions” of the treaty.

It says the treaty “turns back the clock on verification and disarmament and is dangerous” to the half-century-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, considered the cornerstone of global nonproliferation efforts.

“Although we recognize your sovereign right to ratify or accede to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), we believe that you have made a strategic error and should withdraw your instrument of ratification or accession,” the letter says.

The treaty requires that all ratifying countries “never under any circumstances ... develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” It also bans any transfer or use of nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices -- and the threat to use such weapons -- and requires parties to promote the treaty to other countries.

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize-winning coalition whose work helped spearhead the nuclear ban treaty, told The Associated Press on October 20 that several diplomatic sources confirmed that they and other states that ratified the TPNW had been sent letters by the United States requesting their withdrawal.

She said the “increasing nervousness, and maybe straightforward panic, with some of the nuclear-armed states and particularly the Trump administration” shows that they “really seem to understand that this is a reality: Nuclear weapons are going to be banned under international law soon.”

Fihn dismissed the nuclear powers’ claim that the treaty interferes with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as “straightforward lies, to be frank.”

“They have no actual argument to back that up,” she said. “The Nonproliferation Treaty is about preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and eliminating nuclear weapons, and this treaty implements that. There’s no way you can undermine the Nonproliferation Treaty by banning nuclear weapons. It’s the end goal of the Nonproliferation Treaty.”

The NPT sought to prevent the spread of nuclear arms beyond the five original weapons powers. It requires non-nuclear signatory nations to not pursue atomic weapons in exchange for a commitment by the five powers to move toward nuclear disarmament and to guarantee non-nuclear states’ access to peaceful nuclear technology for producing energy.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the nuclear weapons ban treaty “a very welcome initiative."

“It is clear for me that we will only be entirely safe in relation to nuclear weapons the day where nuclear weapons no longer exist," he said in an interview on October 21 with AP. “We know that it’s not easy. We know that there are many obstacles."

He expressed hope that a number of important initiatives, including U.S.-Russia talks on renewing the New Start Treaty limiting deployed nuclear warheads, missiles, and bombers and next year's review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty “will all converge in the same direction, and the final objective must be to have a world with no nuclear weapons."

“That the Trump administration is pressuring countries to withdraw from a United Nations-backed disarmament treaty is an unprecedented action in international relations,” Fihn said. “That the U.S. goes so far as insisting countries violate their treaty obligations by not promoting the TPNW to other states shows how fearful they are of the treaty’s impact and growing support.”

The treaty was approved by the 193-member U.N. General Assembly on July 7, 2017 by a vote of 122 in favor, the Netherlands opposed, and Singapore abstaining. Among countries voting in favor was Iran. The five nuclear powers and four other countries known or believed to possess nuclear weapons -- India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel -- boycotted negotiations and the vote on the treaty, along with many of their allies.

The treaty currently has 47 ratifications and needs 50 ratifications to trigger its entry into force in 90 days.

Fihn said there are about 10 countries that are trying very hard to ratify to get to 50, “and we know that there are a few governments that are working toward Friday as the date. ... We’re not 100 percent it will happen, but hopefully it will.”

October 23 has been an unofficial target because it is the eve of United Nations Day, which marks the anniversary of the entry into force in 1945 of the UN Charter. The day has been observed since 1948 and this year is the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.

Fihn stressed that the entry into force of the treaty will be “a really big deal” because it will become part of international law and will be raised in discussions on disarmament, war crimes, and weapons.

“And I think that over time pressure will grow on the nuclear-armed states to join the treaty,” she said.

Turkish And Israeli Drones' Big Impact On Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Turkish And Israeli Drones' Big Impact On Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
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U.S. Afghan Peace Envoy Says Taliban Agrees To Bring Down Violence

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (file photo)

KABUL -- The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan says he has struck an agreement with the Taliban to reduce the number of casualties in the country as a wave of violence hampered ongoing intra-Afghan peace talks in Qatar.

Zalmay Khalilzad made the comments on October 15 amid rising fears about the fate of tens of thousands of civilians caught up in battles between Afghan government forces and the Taliban in the southern province of Helmand.

Khalilzad tweeted that he and the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller, held several meetings with the Taliban during which the sides agreed to " strictly" adhere to their commitments under a peace agreement signed in Qatar in February.

"We agreed to re-set actions by strictly adhering to implementation of all elements of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement and all commitments made," he wrote.

"This means reduced numbers of operations. At present too many Afghans are dying. With the re-set, we expect that number to drop significantly," the U.S. envoy added.

Under the February U.S.-Taliban deal, foreign forces would leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the militant group.

Peace talks between Afghan government representatives and Taliban negotiators began last month in the Qatari capital, Doha, but there has been no apparent progress in the negotiations meant to end Afghanistan's decades-long war.

“Attacks have been on the rise in recent weeks - threatening the peace process and alarming the Afghan people and their regional and international supporters,” Khalilzad tweeted on October 15.

The secretary-general of NATO, which is leading a mission to train, advise, and assist Afghan forces, said the Doha talks “offer the best chance for peace, but Taliban must keep their promises and reduce the unacceptable level of violence."

Jens Stoltenberg made the remarks on Twitter after discussing the situation in Afghanistan with Khalilzad.

This week in Helmand, the U.S. military took part in air strikes to support Afghan forces defending the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, from a Taliban assault.

Around 35,000 people are believed to have left their homes and taken refuge in the city since heavy clashes erupted in the area on October 11.

United Nations agencies say the heavy fighting has taken out electricity and telecommunication lines in Lashkar Gah, interrupted critical health services, and blocked all exit routes.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Afghanistan reported on October 15 that the main trauma hospital for war-wounded in the provincial capital remains “under pressure.”

The nearby Boost provincial hospital, which is supported by the Geneva-based charity, has received 52 war-wounded patients between October 11 and 14, wrote hospital coordinator Mariana Cortesi.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and human rights groups have called on both sides to protect civilians and give civilians safe passage for those wishing to leave.

Australian Police Will Not Charge ABC Journalist Over 'Afghan Files'

Australian Special Forces task group soldiers take part in a training exercise in Afghanistan. (file photo)

A journalist with Australia's national broadcaster ABC will not be charged over 2017 reports that revealed the country's involvement in potential war crimes in Afghanistan, federal police confirmed on October 15.

Daniel Oakes was facing three potential charges over a series of reports called the Afghan Files, which were based on leaked documents exposing Australian special forces troops' role in the alleged crimes. The charges were linked to obtaining classified information.

After the the Australian Federal Police (AFP) submitted evidence to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecution (CDPP), it was determined that it would not be in the public interest to charge Oakes.

"In determining whether the matter should be prosecuted, the CDPP considered a range of public interest factors, including the role of public interest journalism in Australia’s democracy," the AFP said in a statement. "The CDPP determined the public interest does not require a prosecution in the particular circumstances of this case.

"The AFP concluded that it had finalized its investigation into Oakes. The AFP made the same decision in regard to ABC journalist Sam Clark in July.

The Afghan Files led to raids on the ABC's Sydney headquarters last year and sparked calls for media law reforms to protect journalists and their sources.

The ABC on October 15 said the "whole episode has been both disappointing and disturbing."

"While we welcome this decision, we also maintain the view [that] the matter should never have gone this far," ABC Managing Director David Anderson said. "Journalists in this country should not be prosecuted for doing their jobs, and legislation needs to be changed to provide proper protection for journalists and their sources when they are acting in the public interest."

Oakes told the ABC that after waiting three years the news was a "considerable relief."

"It doesn't come as a surprise to me that it's taken this long to resolve this matter, but look, it's obviously not ideal and it has been a very difficult three years," he said.

He added that whistleblower David McBride was still facing persecution for allegedly leaking the secret defense force documents that revealed the involvement of special forces in possible unlawful killings of Afghan civilians, including children.

"I am justified in doing so because our government was breaking the law. ... If the government commits war crimes, it is the duty of an officer or a lawyer to speak up about it," McBride told dpa last year.

McBride, who served in Afghanistan as a military lawyer, is facing five charges including theft of Commonwealth property and unauthorized disclosure of information. If found guilty, he could be jailed for up to 50 years.

"The Afghan Files is factual and important reporting which exposed allegations about Australian soldiers committing war crimes in Afghanistan," Anderson said. "Its accuracy has never been challenged, and it remains online for audiences to read."

G-20 Suspends Poor Nations' Debt Payments For Six More Months

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and the leaders of some other countries have called for an outright cancellation of debt payments. (file photo)

The Group of 20 nations, representing the world’s biggest economies, agreed on October 14 to extend the suspension of debt payments by an additional six months to support the most vulnerable countries in their fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

The suspension of what the G-20 says could provide relief of $14 billion in debt payments had been due to expire at the end of the year. The October 14 decision gives developing nations until the end of June 2021 to focus spending on healthcare and emergency stimulus programs rather than debt repayments.

The G-20 announcement was made initially on Twitter during a meeting of the group’s finance ministers and central bank governors and later confirmed at a news conference. The virtual discussions are being held at the start of this week's meetings of the 189-nation International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which are also being conducted virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.

International aid groups expressed disappointment that more debt relief isn't being provided by extending the moratorium on debt payments for a full year or by forgiving part of the debt rather than merely suspending payments.

“This pandemic has laid bare a glaring and unjust double standard: The world's wealthiest countries play by one set of rules, and the world's poorest by another,” said David McNair, executive director for global policy at ONE, an international aid group.

G20 officials argued that the relief provided is helping 46 of the 73 countries eligible with efforts under way to expand the help.

Some critics have also complained that China objected to portions of the debt relief plans that have been advanced.

“It is unfortunate that the pressing need for broader debt relief for poor countries is being stymied by the apparent recalcitrance of China, which has become a major creditor,” said Eswar Prasad, an economics professor at Cornell University and a former head of the IMF’s China division. “China has proven a reluctant participant in multilateral debt relief efforts, putting its narrow economic and geopolitical interests ahead of a collective approach to easing the burden on poor countries.”

“We still need to do more," Mohammed al-Jadaan, the finance minister for Saudi Arabia, this year’s chair of the G-20, acknowledged at a news conference after the October 14 meeting. "We must ensure these nations are fully supported in their efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. ... We have agreed to extend the debt service suspension initiative by six months.”

Al-Jadaan said there will be further discussions at April’s meetings to decide whether the suspension should be extended for an additional six months. He stressed that the pandemic has threatened the fiscal stability of many countries, particularly the poorest.

Al-Jadaan said that another finance ministers’ meeting will be held virtually next month, before the leaders’ summit on November 21-22. He said the goal will be to agree on a framework that goes beyond even the current debt suspension initiative. He did not elaborate. The United States is represented at the G-20 finance meetings by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell.

Transparency International, Amnesty International, and a collective of groups called CIVICUS had written to the G-20 finance ministers ahead of their meeting to warn that the world is facing a crisis unlike any in the last century and that debt suspension is only a first step. Though the global economy has begun a gradual recovery with the reopening of businesses and borders, the recovery has been sharply uneven.

The groups said that many of the poorest countries are still spending more on debt payments than on life-saving public services. They urged the G-20 nations to suspend debt payments at least through 2021. Some countries, like Pakistan, have called for an outright cancellation of debt payments.

Oxfam International said it believes the six-month extension was “the bare minimum the G-20 could do.”

“The failure to cancel debt payments will only delay the tsunami of debt that will engulf many of the world’s poorest countries, leaving them unable to afford the investment in health care and social safety nets so desperately needed,” said Jaime Atienza, an Oxfam official who manages debt policy.

Oxfam and other groups are also calling for private lenders and investment funds to make similar concessions for the poorest countries by suspending their debt repayments.

The G-20, in a final communique, also urged private lenders to join its initiative for debt suspension.

“We are disappointed by the absence of progress of private creditors’ participation” in the debt relief “and strongly encourage them to participate on comparable terms when requested by eligible countries,” it said.

Fighting Over Nagorno-Karabakh Spells Spike For Twitter And Its Hashtag Narratives

Smoke rises behind houses after shelling in Nagorno-Karabakh. The recent escalation in hostilities in the breakway region has also seen a surge in tweets about the conflict.

Nearly as quickly as the deadly fighting burst out around Azerbaijan's breakaway region late last month, the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides' Twitter defenders were out in force and tagging with a vengeance.

Take Anush Ghavalyan.

To the casual Twitter user, she's simply "a woman from #Artsakh (#NagornoKarabakh)." It's a coy tipoff for those in the know: "Artsakh" is Yerevan's official term for Nagorno-Karabakh under Armenia's breakaway authorities.

Ghavalyan's first tweet at the latest onset of hostilities on September 27 was a clip of a puff of smoke above mountainous terrain that cited "a new aggression" by Azerbaijan against "the people" in a tense region at the center of a three-decade conflict. Stepanakert, the main city in Nagorno-Karabakh, was "under fire," she said.

She tagged the foreign ministries of outside powers like France, Russia, as well as the U.S. State Department, and the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has led decades of fruitless talks to settle Nagorno-Karabakh's fate.

Accounts with handles like "Armen" and "Shoushan" responded with Armenian flags and appeals like "where is the world coverage" while tagging major U.S. and international media to draw their attention.

Since then, Ghavalyan's tweets are an emotionally charged, pro-Armenian account of events and tributes to the troops and civilians caught up in the fight.

Ghavalyan is no bot. She's a real person but she also happens to be a former adviser to the head of the de facto leadership's pro-Armenian parliament in Nagorno-Karabakh.

That information is publicly available on LinkedIn and elsewhere in English on the web, although those sources suggest she is still on the job.

In a tweet that has since been deleted, Thomas Theiner, a film executive and former Kyiv resident whose twitter posts on events in former Soviet republics has earned him more than 10,000 followers, called out Ghavalyan's apparent omission from her social-media profile as "disingenuous."

"If you are a government official, who presents that government's views, you need to say so," Theiner tweeted on October 11.

Ghavalyan replied the next day that she had "resigned from that position" in May and Armenian media had reported on it.

"I'm not pretending to be a woman, I am a woman," she quipped.

The episode highlighted the frequently fuzzy -- or hidden -- line between individual actors and coordinated or even official online efforts on both sides of the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict.

More Than Before

The earliest of the "frozen conflicts" midwifed by the collapse of the Soviet Union -- Transdniester in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan -- have all featured diasporas who weigh in heavily on events in their homelands.

But none of those has spawned comparable social-media campaigns -- in number or intensity -- to those of the ongoing Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute.

There are only around 3 million Armenians inside the country. But the Armenian side appears to have a jump on its Azerbaijani foes in those geographically far-flung locales by virtue of a 7-million-strong diaspora that's active on the web from places like California, Russia, France, and Argentina.

While Azerbaijan's population is nearly triple Armenia's with some 10 million people, its domestic Internet usage is a fraction of its neighbor's.

The Azerbaijani diaspora also pales in comparison, estimated at just around 1 million and concentrated mostly in former Soviet republics.

There has been extensive and legitimate debate on Twitter and other social media on the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh by outsiders as well as by representatives of all sides in the conflict, from government ministries to impassioned nationals and security analysts from around the world.

A Truce In Tatters: Fighting Flares Over Nagorno-Karabakh
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It is not new to suggest that a significant chunk of the tug-of-war over online narrative in this long-running dispute is disingenuous or worse.

Both the Azerbaijani and Armenian sides are waging the same kind of finger-pointing and shaming as they have for years, including through the past decade of considerably less deadly skirmishes in Nagorno-Karabakh.

But an almost instantaneous deluge of new Twitter accounts, tweets, and "countertweets" to promote them are at the heart of a recent report that tried to put its finger on the initial "dynamics of the shadow war taking place in social media over control of the international narrative about the conflict" that broke out two weeks ago.

Cyberbunkers And Debunkers

Elise Thomas and Albert Zhang's "quick take" for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) examined English-language posts to Twitter over a four-day window (September 27-29) and found "large numbers of suspicious accounts supporting both sides...wading in on politicized hashtags linked to the conflict."

Thomas told RFE/RL via e-mail that one of the takeaways for her was "how this kind of information battle is now an increasingly common and expected part of conflicts."

Such "online battles" have been above and beyond "long-running information campaigns on both sides," they said in their report.

"Some of that activity is undoubtedly authentic, but we've also observed evidence that suggests likely inauthentic activity, such as significant spikes in account creation and suspicious posting patterns," Thomas and Zhang wrote.

Their analysis cited numbers showing that the use of identifiably pro-Armenian Twitter hashtags in those initial days of fighting was several times that of pro-Azerbaijani ones.

Thomas and Zhang noted the use of "suspicious," newly created Twitter accounts to boost authentic, pro-Armenian content, in some cases with typos that could suggest automated or cut-and-paste redistribution.

That kind of sharing can simply distribute such content more widely or "game Twitter's engagement algorithms" by making them appear to be trending, they said.

Thomas and Zhang cited, in particular, a "significant level of inauthentic activity promoting pro-Armenian content and seeking to shape the narrative," especially for those in the United States.

They include "actors well outside the geographical scope of the conflict" and seemingly inauthentic Turkish, Pakistani, and Indian accounts "engaging in English-language skirmishes online."

They said high-profile American celebrities like Kim Kardashian West and Lady Gaga ("whose '911' music video included Armenian cultural references") were seemingly tagged in posts to encourage support.

Kardashian and other Armenian-American celebrities have condemned the latest violence, including System Of A Down front man Serj Tankian, singer and actor Cher, and Reddit co-founder Alex Ohanian.

Notably, the ASPI researchers added, "there doesn't seem to be a significant, overtly Russian contingent" in their sample.

They also stressed that some of the "shadow battle" over such a highly contentious and emotionally charged issue was "undoubtedly authentic."

"Distinguishing real people from inauthentic or 'bot' accounts is challenging in the best of times, and emerging crises and conflicts can drive real users to behave in unusual ways, making it even more complicated than normal," they said.

Acknowledging that they were "working swiftly" in their initial analysis to head off the loss of some posts to Twitter's content moderators, Thomas and Zhang encouraged more work on "the information battle playing out in parallel to the conflict on the ground."

While their intention to capture Twitter activities in those first days of fighting meant cutting off their research by about September 29, Thomas told RFE/RL: "Anecdotally, my sense is that it certainly appears that similar trends are continuing in the English-language Twitter activity, including coordinated authentic activity as well as suspicious or potentially inauthentic behavior."

Azerbaijanis Late To The Digital Draw

Josh Russell, an American journalist and notable "troll hunter" through open sources, cited on October 3 "lots of 'bot-like' activity" around the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

"Normally I wouldn't flag something like this, but these are all brand new accounts with fake profile pictures," he tweeted.

He added: "There are always upticks in account creation during major events, but not 12,000 new accounts in a few days."

Many disinformation researchers suggest that, while it has been late to the game, the pro-Azerbaijani side has been especially active this year.

The Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, which spots and tracks disinformation, reported earlier a rise in pro-Azerbaijani accounts linked to apparent "astroturfing" operations -- when a small number of seemingly coordinated accounts churn out posts to create an appearance of broader support -- around the time of a July flareup in the fighting on the Azerbaijani-Armenian border.

The Azerbaijani regime's man in charge of state relations with the diaspora, Fuad Muradov, recently told Newsweek that Azerbaijanis abroad from "Europe to America, from the Near East to Russia, raised their voices against Armenian aggression."

Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor at Qatar's Hamad bin Khalifa University, was quoted in the same article saying that "most" of the nearly 8,000 examples of the anti-Armenian hashtag #stoparmenianagreesion he spotted since 2007 had arisen during the most recent fighting -- which is the worst since the war over the territory ended in 1994.

The situation "becomes even more complex," ASPI's Thomas and Zhang wrote, as less Azerbaijani activity might be expected amid Azerbaijani authorities' reported blocking of access to social media.

There are two recent spikes in the creation of anti-Armenian Twitter accounts, they said, around renewed fighting in mid-July and again, on a greater scale, on September 27-28.

They added that a "substantial proportion of the pro-Azerbaijan Twitter activity in English appears to be coming from accounts linked to Turkey and Pakistan," potentially reflecting geopolitical and military alliances.

NATO member Turkey has provided significant amounts of military equipment, including vital unmanned drones, to its traditional ally Azerbaijan, and has been accused of funneling fighters from Syria to fight alongside Azerbaijani troops.

Outside the realm of social media, both sides reported cyberattacks that crippled or otherwise affected important sites, including government ministries and news outlets.

On September 27, reports hinted at cyberattacks that took down many Azerbaijani government websites.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijani sources boasted of sympathetic or allied hackers compromising dozens of Armenian websites, including prominent English-language ones.

Threats accompanied images of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in some cases, while in others Azerbaijani flags and other patriotic messages appeared on the Armenian pages.

Report: COVID-19 Used As Pretext To Crack Down On Internet Freedom

A protester holds a placard reading "Putin - No!" during an opposition rally in central Moscow in March 2019 to demand Internet freedom in Russia.

Internet freedom has declined for the 10th consecutive year as governments around the world are using the coronavirus pandemic as a "cover" to expand online surveillance, crack down on dissent, and build new technological systems to control society, Freedom House says in a new report.

The Washington-based human rights watchdog's annual Freedom Of The Net report, released on October 14, said the authorities in dozens of countries have cited COVID-19 "to justify expanded surveillance powers and the deployment of new technologies that were once seen as too intrusive."

As a result, Internet freedom has worsened in 26 of the 65 countries covered by the report, while only 22 registered gains.

And just 20 percent of the estimated 3.8 billion people using the Internet live in countries with a free Internet, according to the democracy research group.

Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan, India, Ecuador, and Nigeria suffered the largest declines during the coverage period -- between June 2019 and May 2020. Internet freedom worsened in the United States for the fourth consecutive year.

"The pandemic is accelerating society's reliance on digital technologies at a time when the Internet is becoming less and less free," Freedom House President Michael Abramowitz.

"Without adequate safeguards for privacy and the rule of law, these technologies can be easily repurposed for political repression."

Freedom On The Net measures the level of Internet freedom in 65 countries, based on 21 indicators pertaining to obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. Each country receives a numerical score from 100 to 0 that serves as the basis for an Internet-freedom-status designation of "free," "partly free," or "not free."

China was the worst-ranked country for the sixth consecutive year.

The report said authorities "combined low- and high-tech tools not only to manage the outbreak of the coronavirus, but also to deter Internet users from sharing information from independent sources and challenging the official narrative."

These trends are showing a growing trend toward Chinese-style "digital authoritarianism" globally and a "splintering" of the Internet as each government imposes its own regulations, it said.

Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and Iran also fell into the "not free" category.

So-called cybersovereignty -- governments' efforts to exercise control over the Internet within their own borders -- has been on the rise across the world, including in Russia, where the Russian government continued to "fine-tune its online censorship apparatus."

Russian authorities continued to persecute Internet users for their online activities and moved to restrict anonymous communications, blocking several encrypted e-mail services, Freedom House said.

In Iran, the government ordered a near-total shutdown following waves of protests across the country in November 2019, the report says.

Authorities continued to arrest and prosecute online journalists, activists, and citizens for content posted online, block access to independent news sites and a number of social media and communication platforms, and disrupt Internet access during politically sensitive events, "aided by their continued control over the internet infrastructure."

Meanwhile, legislators in countries like Pakistan "passed or considered regulations requiring companies to keep user data from leaving the country, effectively granting law enforcement agencies easier access to sensitive information."

The online environment in Pakistan is "tightly controlled" by the government, the report said, citing Internet shutdowns, blocked websites, and arrests for activity online as the authorities' "preferred tactics in their effort to suppress unwanted speech."

In Kyrgyzstan, ranked as "partly free," the violent arrest of former President Almazbek Atambaev led to a localized Internet shutdown, and several Kyrgyz journalists were "threatened or even attacked" in connection with a high-profile corruption investigation while their websites faced distributed denial-of-service attacks.

The Central Asian country's authorities continued to prosecute users for their activities on social-media platforms, including under sometimes "spurious" charges of inciting hatred.

In the same category, Ukraine saw a number of "positive policy changes" since 2019, which "discontinued previous practices of administrative website-blocking."

However, the report warned against a draft law on regulating disinformation that would "oblige users to only share information whose authenticity they have first verified, create a state body with vast powers to remove content, and implement provisions that drew criticism as restricting the media."

The United States, Georgia, Armenia, and Hungary were among the countries ranked as "free"

The report said the United States saw its score decline in light of "enhanced government surveillance" by law enforcement against protest movements and executive orders on social-media regulations.

The Struggle To Preserve Afghanistan’s Jewish Heritage

Yu Aw, the largest synagogue in Herat and the only synagogue to undergo proper preservation of its original characteristics, has been declared a historic site.

HERAT, -- Afghanistan’s western province of Herat was once home to a thriving Jewish community that has now all but vanished from the region. Its monuments and properties have either fallen into disrepair or disappeared completely, and murky rules of tenure and stewardship of historical sites have left officials and residents arguing over their fate.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Jews escaping religious persecution in Central Asia and Iran fled to Afghanistan, the only Muslim country where they could freely practice their faith. Mostly comprising middle-class traders and artisans, they lived in harmony with their Muslim neighbors for centuries.

But over the course of the 20th century, they left the country. Compelled by the search for a better life, many of Afghanistan’s Jews started moving to Israel and the United States in the 1940s after initially immigrating to British India.

“Muslim-Jewish relations were mostly tolerant and peaceful,” says Sara Aharon, a Jewish author whose father was born in Afghanistan. “There were 5,000 to 6,000 Jews in 20th-century Afghanistan, so there was no reason to feel threatened by the Jewish community.”

Most of the Jewish community had emigrated by the early 1980s before the outbreak of Afghanistan’s civil war. As the Jewish population continued to decline in Herat over the next few decades, their houses, synagogues, and other monuments were abandoned.

Several synagogues, a cemetery, and a bathhouse remain, according to Herat’s cultural officials. But existing regulations make it difficult to determine who owns or is responsible for the properties.

One Herat resident claims he is the owner of the public bathhouse. He says he had the 250-year-old property partially demolished.

Herat's Jewish bathhouse is more than 250 years old and has been partially demolished -- without legal permission.
Herat's Jewish bathhouse is more than 250 years old and has been partially demolished -- without legal permission.

Zalmai Safa, Herat's director of historical monuments, says the man is the legal owner but was not given permission to tear down the site. “He wanted to acquire and reconstruct the bathhouse,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “But due to its antiquity, construction method, and significance to Herat’s Jewish history, we did not permit its demolition.”

Disputed Land, Neglected Property

The revolutions, large-scale displacement, and horrific violence of the past half-century have left a legacy of conflicts at all levels across Afghanistan. Disputes over land and property ownership are the most common kind of conflict between individuals and communities. The fact that Herat’s Jewish community left decades ago has encouraged some to take over the dilapidated communal properties.

Safa says these properties are relics of the Jewish community and have immense value for Afghans wishing to remember their legacy. His hope is for Afghans to preserve the remaining monuments so that they will exist for future generations as a testament to religious tolerance.

“These monuments are important because of their historic heritage. They showcase the tolerance our society had for the adherents of various faiths,” he noted. “It is our duty to preserve them for future generations just as our ancestors preserved them for us.”

Herat officials say that before they fled the country Jews transferred the ownership of synagogues, cemeteries, and other properties to the Afghan government. Others sold them outright.

This alley in Herat was once home to Jewish families.
This alley in Herat was once home to Jewish families.

Herat resident Younis, who like many Afghans goes by one name only, fondly remembers living next door to a Jewish family in the 1970s. He says in those days religious differences were never a topic of discussion.

"There were probably 70 to 80 Jewish families in the area we were living in. We had a good relationship with them,” he said. “We went to their shops, and they came to our homes. But then the revolution came, and everyone fled; they all moved to Israel,” he said of the last few families.

Gul Ahmad, another Herat resident, says Jewish history is a staple of Afghan history. “On one side lived the Jews; on the other side was us,” he said. “Both sides tolerated and respected each other. Our faith was never contentious between us, so it was not discussed,” he said.

Following Their Ancestors' Footsteps

Today, Jews travel to Herat’s old city to see where their ancestors lived for generations and what they left behind.

"Jewish families send their children to come back and visit these sites, to meet us and revisit their roots,” Ahmad said.

But many are afraid that the monuments are deteriorating due to neglect and without the proper care will erase the memory of a once-vibrant community.

The synagogues of Yu Aw, Mulla Ashur, Shamail, Golkia, and Georgia, the bathhouse, cemetery, and many mud dwellings are all hanging by a thread. In the old city, three out of the five remaining synagogues have undergone some sort of preservation. Yu Aw, the largest synagogue in Herat and the only synagogue to undergo proper preservation of its original characteristics, has been declared a historic site. Shamail was turned into a school after repairs.

The Mulla Ashur synagogue has remained in shambles without any repairs in sight because of the government’s lack of a restoration budget. And Golkia, a former place of worship for the Jewish community, has been turned into a mosque, though its architecture remains the same.

Some of the graves in the Jewish cemetery have been restored with financial assistance from the Jewish diaspora.

Like most Afghans and especially ethnic minorities in the country, Herat’s Jews were multilingual, speaking their own tongue along with the local language. They could read Hebrew and speak their version of Judeo-Persian, a dialect of the lingua franca of Afghanistan.

Homayoun Ahmadi, a cultural expert in Herat, stresses the need to rebuild and restore the remnants of the Jewish community in order to better attract foreign tourists.

"The existence of synagogues in Herat represents a degree of religious tolerance in Afghanistan,” he said. “It showcases that the Jews in Herat lived in harmony during many different periods in Afghanistan.”

Nilly Kohzad wrote this story based on reporting by Shapoor Saber.

Pakistan Blocks TikTok Over 'Immoral' Content

In July, Pakistan's telecommunications regulator issued a "final warning" to the short-form video app over explicit content posted on the platform. (illustrative photo)

Pakistan's telecom regulator says it has blocked the Chinese-owned video app TikTok for failing to filter "immoral and indecent" content.

The ban comes in view of "complaints from different segments of society,” the Pakistani Telecommunication Authority (PTA) said on October 9.

TikTok had been warned to filter such content, but the application failed to abide by the instructions, the PTA said.

The regulator said it would review its ban, subject to a satisfactory mechanism by TikTok to moderate unlawful content.

TikTok said it was committed to following the law in markets where the video-sharing application is offered.

"We have been in regular communication with the PTA and continue to work with them. We are hopeful to reach a conclusion that helps us continue to serve the country’s vibrant and creative online community," the company said.

TikTok, owned by Chinese-based ByteDance, has come under increasing scrutiny as its popularity surged across the world, including among Pakistani youth, who account for around 70 percent of the conservative country’s population.

Usama Khilji, director of the Pakistani digital rights group Bolo Bhi, called the PTI's decision “a travesty to democratic norms and fundamental rights as guaranteed by the constitution."

The TikTok app “is used by millions of people, and is a source of income for thousands of content creators, especially those coming from smaller towns and villages,” he said.

TikTok’s ban in Pakistan comes months after the Singapore-based live-streaming platform Bigo Live was blocked for the same reason and video-sharing platform YouTube was warned to filter out “vulgarity and hate speech."

These moves were seen by media freedom and human rights activists as an attempt to restrict the free flow of information online.

With reporting by dpa and Reuters

Afghan Female Peace Negotiator Nominated For Nobel Prize

One of four women representing the Afghan government in the Doha peace talks, Koofi is a women’s and human rights activist, former member of parliament, and survivor of two armed attacks. (file photo)

Afghan peace negotiator Fawzia Koofi says her nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize demonstrates global support for the women of Afghanistan amid historic talks between the country's warring sides.

One of four women representing the Afghan government, Koofi has been sitting down at the negotiating table with members of the Taliban for talks that began last month in the Arab state of Qatar.

The female members of the 21-person negotiating team have vowed to preserve women’s rights in any power-sharing deal with the hard-line Taliban. This includes the right to work, education, and participation in political life, all denied to women when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan for five years.

Afghanistan, including the government, remains deeply conservative and women are largely confined to their homes.

Koofi, a 45-year-old women’s and human rights activist, former member of parliament, and survivor of two armed attacks, says the Peace Prize nomination "gives us more strength and authority so that we can better defend and represent Afghan women.”

“The world is honoring the open struggle for peace by women in Afghanistan,” she told The Associated Press, speaking by phone from Qatar.

Amid the peace talks, the eyes of the international community are likely to be the biggest motivator for making progress for women.

Although she's just one of 318 candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize -- 211 individuals and 107 organizations -- Koofi said the emphasis on the role of women in shaping a peaceful future for Afghanistan was very important.

Koofi is the 19th daughter of a rural village leader in northeastern Badakhshan province. She holds a master’s degree in international relations and human rights from the Geneva’s University of Diplomacy.

In August, she survived an assassination attempt with light wounds to her hand. She survived another armed attack in eastern Kabul in 2010.

She has actively worked for women’s rights since the Taliban was in power, including maintaining schools for girls in her own home in Badakhshan Province and in the capital, Kabul.

In the 19 years since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban, Afghanistan has refused to pass a women’s rights bill. The situation for women is even more troubling in the roughly half of the country that the Taliban now controls or holds sway over.

Koofi was the first female deputy speaker of the Afghan parliament and worked for the inclusion of a gender budget in Afghanistan’s financial budget. She was also the country’s first female leader of a political party.

As head of the women and human affairs committee during her second round of service in the Afghan parliament, Koofi played an active role in the enactment of protective laws for women and children, particularly the Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women and the Law on the Protection of Children in Afghanistan.

Last year, Koofi was dropped from the list of parliamentary candidates amid a public controversy involving some members of her family. The Afghan attorney general's press office did not immediately return calls by the AP seeking comment on the allegations.

The Afghan government and the Taliban negotiating teams are currently working out a framework to start discussing the main agenda of bringing an end to the decades-long war in Afghanistan.

Talks between Afghans on both sides of the conflict are a critical part of the U.S. peace deal signed with the Taliban in February. That deal spells out the withdrawal of U.S. troops and gives Afghanistan its best chance at peace.

US Troop Withdrawal Could Have Negative Consequences, Kabul Says

Trump's announcement to bring home U.S. troops, shown here patrolling with Afghan forces in Nangarhar Province, by Christmas undermines the peace process, according to officials.

A senior Afghan politician said on October 8 that Afghanistan needs time to analyse the U.S. troop withdrawal announcement but added that premature withdrawal would have negative consequences for the country.

Abdullah Abdullah, head of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, was responding to the surprise announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump that the remaining U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan would be home by Christmas.

"It will take a little bit [of] time for us to digest it," Abdullah said at an event at a think tank in New Delhi. "It will happen one day, of course, and Afghanistan should be able to stand on its own feet, but if it is premature, it will have its consequences."

The Afghan presidential palace has remained tight-lipped about the announcement. But NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance should decide collectively to leave together "when the time is right," based on the security situation on the ground.

"NATO is in Afghanistan to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for international terrorists," he stressed in Brussels on October 8.

Meanwhile, the Taliban militant group welcomed Trump's announcement as a "positive step."

The Taliban "welcomes these remarks and considers it a positive step for the implementation of the agreement signed between The IEA and the U.S.," spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement, using an acronym for the Taliban's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

The United States signed an agreement with the Taliban on February 29 that provides for a gradual withdrawal of all NATO forces from Afghanistan within 14 months.

In return, the Taliban agreed to peace talks with Afghanistan's government, which began on September 12. The group committed to renounce terrorism.

Since the agreement, the Taliban has not killed any international soldiers but has intensified attacks against Afghan forces. Fighting in the country persists, as the Taliban continue to reject a cease-fire with Kabul despite the start of the peace negotiations.

Harry, Meghan Team With Malala Yousafzai On Girls' Rights

Meghan Markle, who has campaigned for girls' education, and Prince Harry will join Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai on a video chat to mark International Day of the Girl Child.

Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, are joining activist Malala Yousafzai in a video chat about the challenges girls face in accessing education amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The couple’s conversation with the 23-year-old education campaigner will be released on the Malala Fund’s YouTube channel and website on October 11, to mark the International Day of the Girl Child.

The video chat covers how the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on young women’s access to education. Research by the Malala Fund has suggested that 20 million secondary-school aged girls may never return to the classroom after the health crisis is over.

Yousafzai, who survived a shot in the head after being targeted for campaigning for girls’ education in Pakistan, went on to become the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2014. She graduated with a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Oxford University in June.

Meghan, now based in California with Harry to seek financial independence from the British monarchy, has campaigned on education for girls for some time. She has spoken about gender equality at forums including the UN Women Conference in 2015.

In 2011, the United Nations declared October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child to promote girls’ rights and address the challenges girls face around the world.

South Asia Faces Worst-Ever Recession, Tipping Millions Into Poverty

Shopkeepers stage a protest at a market demanding the government allow them to reopen their businesses in July. (file photo)

Millions of people in South Asia are being pushed into extreme poverty as the region, where a quarter of humanity lives, suffers its worst-ever recession due to the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Bank said on October 7.

The multilateral lender forecast a record economic contraction of 7.7 percent for South Asia this year, and said workers in the informal sector were being hit hardest and private consumption was unlikely to recover quickly from the blow.

"The impact on livelihoods will even be larger than the GDP forecast suggests. ... This implies that the region will experience a sharp increase in the poverty rate," the bank said in its biannual report.

India, the region's biggest economy, is likely to see its economy contract 9.5 percent this year, the report said.

The report warned that South Asia's economies could end up worse than the forecast as the pandemic continues to surge, making foreign investors more wary, limiting governments' ability to increase spending, and putting more strain on banking systems already heavily burdened with bad loans.

With 6.84 million people infected, including 105,000 dead, India's COVID-19 caseload is second only to the United States, despite the country going under the strictest lockdown in the initial phase of the pandemic in March.

Pakistan and Bangladesh have recorded over 317,000 cases each, while the rest of the countries in the region have a combined total of more than 149,000 cases.

U.S. Hopeful For Afghan, Pakistan Side Agreement

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Islamabad in 2019. (file photo)

The U.S. negotiator seeking to end Afghanistan's war voiced hope on October 7 that the Kabul government can reach a side deal with Pakistan, whose historic support of the Taliban has long tested relations.

The Taliban and Afghan government have opened slow-moving peace talks in Qatar as the United States starts withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan to end its longest war.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. pointman on Afghanistan, said both Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan and its powerful military chief, General Qamer Javed Bajwa, have been "helpful" in the diplomacy.

"We are seeking an agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan as an adjunct to an internal peace," Khalilzad told a forum at the University of Chicago's Pearson Institute by video from Doha.

Both countries would "agree that their territory will not be allowed to be used against the other by extremist groups or groups that would undermine the security of the other," he said.

Pakistan had hailed the February 29 agreement between the United States and the Taliban, in which Washington declared that it would "facilitate discussions" between Kabul and Islamabad.

Critics, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan's historic rival India, see Islamabad as playing both sides and say its military and intelligence apparatus has still backed Taliban violence as a way to exert influence in its neighbor.

But Khalilzad, who visited Islamabad last month, said he saw economic incentives for Pakistan, which suffers severe power shortages and could import power from electricity-rich Central Asia if the Afghan government and Taliban reach a deal.

"There are economic reasons that would be transformative for the region should peace in Afghanistan come," Khalilzad said.

The upbeat tone by Khalilzad, who has tried to ensure that all key players support Afghan peace, comes after years of on-off tensions between the United States and its Cold War ally Pakistan.

President Donald Trump in 2018 slashed $300 million in U.S. security assistance to Pakistan, saying it was failing to fight extremists.

Trump Says He Wants All U.S. Troops Out Of Afghanistan By Christmas

Afghan National Army soldiers attend a training session in Herat on September 24.

U.S. President Donald Trump says he wants all U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan by Christmas, which would be sooner than he previously proposed and a speedier withdrawal than his national security adviser outlined in a speech earlier on October 7.

"We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!" Trump tweeted.

Trump's message comes four weeks before the U.S. presidential election and as he seeks to keep his 2016 election promise to bring "endless wars" to a close. The U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan began 19 years ago after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and has become America's longest war.

Just hours before Trump's tweet, U.S. national security adviser Robert O'Brien said the United States will reduce the number of troops it has in Afghanistan to 2,500 early next year.

The United States already has announced the number of troops would be down to about 4,000 by next month, but O'Brien's comments offered greater detail about the overall pace and scope of the drawdown.

"When President Trump took office, there were over 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan. As of today there are under 5,000 and that will go to 2,500 by early next year," O'Brien said, speaking at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

The Republican president is currently trailing challenger Joe Biden, a Democrat and the former vice president, in pre-election polls.

Washington has been moving ahead incrementally with the drawdown, which is linked to intra-Afghan negotiations that are under way in Qatar.

Even though delays have plagued the start of negotiations, Washington began withdrawing some of its troops after signing a deal with the Taliban on February 29.

Under the deal foreign forces will leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban.

A cease-fire is a top priority for the Afghan officials and Western diplomats who are facilitating the talks in Qatar.

"Ultimately, the Afghans themselves are going to have to work out an accord, a peace agreement," O'Brien said. "It's going to be slow progress, it's going to be hard progress, but we think it's a necessary step. We think Americans need to come home."

Negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban are aimed at the warring sides agreeing to a reduction of violence and a possible power-sharing agreement.

So far there has been no progress, while violence continues. Scores of Afghan soldiers and Taliban fighters have been killed in clashes and suicide attacks have left dozens of civilians dead in recent weeks.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

Pakistan To Keep Top Suspect In Daniel Pearl Murder In Jail

Pakistani police surround handcuffed Omar Sheikh as he comes out of a court in Karachi in 2002.

ISLAMABAD -- A British-born Pakistani man who has been on death row over the 2002 killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl will remain in jail for another three months despite his acquittal by a lower court earlier this year, according to a government order on October 7.

The development was announced by prosecutors during a brief hearing of the high-profile case at Pakistan’s Supreme Court, which was to decide whether the key suspect in Pearl's slaying, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, should stay in jail following his acquittal.

The court convened on an appeal by Pearl's family, seeking to keep Sheikh on death row over the beheading of the Wall Street Journal reporter.

According to Faisal Siddiqi, the lawyer representing Pearl’s family, government prosecutor Fiaz Shah, told the judges he needed more time for paperwork in connection with the case. The judges then adjourned the hearing till October 21.

Siddiqi, who had expected the court to rule against Sheikh's acquittal on October 7, said he still hopes such a decision would come before the expiration of the suspect's new, 90-day detention.

Sheikh’s defense lawyer, Mahmood Shaikh, told The Associated Press he had expected his client to walk free. “My client cannot be kept in jail for an indefinite period,” Shaikh said.

The lawyer said he has already challenged the October 7 three-month extension of Sheikh's detention in Sindh Province and that his motion would be taken up by a local court there on October 19.

Under Pakistan's flawed legal system, the appeals process against Sheikh's acquittal could take years. The government has opposed Sheikh’s release, despite his acquittal in April, saying it would endanger the public.

Sheikh had been convicted of helping lure Pearl to a meeting in the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi where he was kidnapped. Pearl had been investigating the link between Pakistani militants and Richard C. Reid, dubbed the “Shoe Bomber” after trying to blow up a flight from Paris to Miami with explosives hidden in his shoes.

The lower court’s April ruling acquitted Sheikh and three other accomplices, who had been sentenced to life in prison for their role in the plot. The lower court found Sheikh guilty of a single lesser charge of abduction, which he is also appealing.

The acquittal had stunned the U.S. government, Pearl’s family, and journalism advocacy groups. In 2002, when Pakistani police were still searching for Pearl, a video received by U.S. diplomats showed his beheading.

Pearl’s family says it received assurances from the U.S. State Department that it was closely following Sheikh’s acquittal and subsequent appeals.

Pearl, 38, of Encino, California, was abducted on January 23, 2002. In Sheikh’s original trial, emails between Sheikh and Pearl presented in court showed Sheikh gained Pearl’s confidence sharing their experiences as both waited for the birth of their first child. Pearl’s wife, Marianne Pearl, gave birth to a son, Adam, in May 2002.

Evidence entered into court accused Sheikh of luring Pearl to his death, giving the American journalist a false sense of security as he promised to introduce him to a cleric with militant links.

As Kabul Backs Azerbaijan In Conflict With Armenia, Afghans Recall Fighting In Previous War

An Armenian soldier fires artillery during the military conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh on October 4.

KABUL -- Mohammad Younas is nostalgic about his time fighting with Azerbaijani forces in the war against Armenians for the Nagorno-Karabakh territory in the early 1990s.

“If possible, I would again join the Muslims of Azerbaijan to defend them against non-Muslims,” he said, alluding to the predominantly Muslim country in its battle with Armenian forces, who are mainly Orthodox Christians. The conflict between the South Caucasian neighbors has never been considered a religious one.

But Younas’s real motivation was a mix of religious zeal and material gain.

“My real motivation in going to Azerbaijan was participating in a jihad, but I also wanted to make some money,” he told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan.

Younas was among the thousands of Afghan fighters that Hezb-e Islami, a major Afghan Islamist party, sent to Azerbaijan in the 1990s to bolster Baku's war against Armenia. The conflict between the two Soviet republics mushroomed into a full-scale war after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, which preceded the demise of Afghanistan’s communist regime in April 1992.

Mohammad Younas was among the thousands of Afghan fighters that Hezb-e Islami, a major Afghan Islamist party, sent to Azerbaijan in the 1990s to bolster Baku in its war against Armenia.
Mohammad Younas was among the thousands of Afghan fighters that Hezb-e Islami, a major Afghan Islamist party, sent to Azerbaijan in the 1990s to bolster Baku in its war against Armenia.

While far from being materially involved in the current war over Nagorno-Karabakh, Kabul still supports Baku’s position, which sees Yerevan as occupying its territory -- a position also recognized internationally.

Afghanistan’s declared support for Azerbaijan has prompted Armenia to push for an end to Kabul's observer status in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russia-led regional alliance.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an anti-Soviet guerrilla and Hezb-e Islami leader, celebrated the fall of his former enemies in Afghanistan in 1992.

But soon after he plunged his country into a civil war as he joined fighting against other Afghan Islamist and ex-communist factions. He eventually became the prime minister in a deeply divided regime in 1993 but failed to establish control over the capital.

Yet Hekmatyar still celebrates sending people like Younas and thousands more of his supporters to fight for Azerbaijan after it requested help. In a speech to his supporters last week, he said that in response to an Azerbaijani request he told Afghan refugees in Iran to join the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“A sizeable number of our mujahedin went there and scored numerous victories,” he told supporters at a Kabul mosque. “They pushed back the Armenians within the initial days and captured many territories. Their advances continued until the Azerbaijani officials approached us ahead of impending talks that resulted in a cease-fire,” he said, referring to an armistice in May 1994 that ended nearly six years of fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh.

In Kabul, Younas has vivid memories of the fighting.

He crossed into neighboring Iran from Pakistan after Hezb-e Islami leaders ordered him to go to Azerbaijan. He said he joined a group of 300 Afghans on a special flight from the southeastern Iranian city of Zahidan to Baku in early 1994 from where they were soon deployed to the front lines.

“During one battle an Armenian tank column attacked us; our comrades attempted to target them with rockets,” he said of a battle in the last days of winter 1994. “One rocket hit our comrade Bashir, who was killed instantly, but we continued fighting.”

Younas said that at the end of the battle they captured eight Armenian troops. “We later exchanged them to free our comrades,” he said. Upon his return to Afghanistan in June, Younas was paid more than $1,500 for his participation in the fighting by his party, which confirms speculation that Afghan fighters were recruited as mercenaries by Azerbaijan.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar

Humayun Jarir, Hekmatyar’s son-in-law and a senior Hezb-e Islami leader, says nearly 70 Afghans among the estimated 5,000 fighters their party sent to Azerbaijan were killed in the fighting. He says Hezb-e Islami fighters ultimately contributed to forcing the Armenians to accept a cease-fire.

Beginning in late 1993, Armenian authorities protested the recruitment of Afghans by Azerbaijan. They had warned that the role of Muslim Afghan forces in Nagorno-Karabakh could turn the territorial conflict into a religious war between Muslim Azerbaijanis and the Christian Armenians.

Yerevan is upset by Kabul’s current diplomatic support for Baku in the latest round of hostilities, which have killed hundreds and led to charges by Armenian officials of Baku receiving material support from Turkey who Yerevan says has also recruited Syrians to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Late last month, the Afghan government called for an end to the fighting between the two countries but reiterated its support for Azerbaijan.

“Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan,” said a statement by the Afghan Foreign Ministry. “Afghanistan wants the end of the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and supports the efforts of Azerbaijan's people and other nations.”

This prompted the Armenian parliament to call on the CSTO to move toward stripping Afghanistan of its observer status.

“In response to the statements supporting Turkish-Azerbaijani aggression by Afghanistan, the Republic of Armenia’s National Assembly has officially appealed to the CSTO parliamentary assembly secretary to start the process of depriving Afghanistan of its observer status,” Arat Miroyan, speaker of the Armenian parliament, said in a statement on October 2.

While suffering from a seemingly unending war for more than 40 years, Kabul has surprised many by adopting bold and controversial positions in faraway wars and territorial disputes.

In March 2104, Afghanistan joined Syria and Venezuela in backing Russia's illegal annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. The United States and its European allies, major donors to Afghanistan, had opposed the move and termed it a "land grab" by Moscow. More than 100 countries voted against Russia's takeover of Crimea in a UN General Assembly resolution.

Written by Abubakar Siddique based on reporting in Kabul by Khatir Pardes and Nusrat Parsa.

Nearly 40 Nations Demand China Respect Uyghur Human Rights

Hong Kong protesters hold East Turkestan Uyghur flags at a rally in support of Xinjiang Uyghurs' human rights. (file photo)

The US, Japan and many EU nations joined a call on October 6 urging China to respect the human rights of minority Uyghurs, and also expressing concern about the situation in Hong Kong.

"We call on China to respect human rights, particularly the rights of persons belonging to religious and ethnic minorities, especially in Xinjiang and Tibet," said German UN ambassador Christoph Heusgen, who led the initiative during of a meeting on human rights.

Among the 39 signatory countries were the United States, most of the EU member states including Albania and Bosnia, as well as Canada, Haiti, Honduras, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.

"We are gravely concerned about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and the recent developments in Hong Kong," the declaration said.

"We call on China to allow immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang for independent observers including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights," it added.

Immediately afterward, the envoy for Pakistan stood up and read out a statement signed by 55 countries, including China, denouncing any use of the situation in Hong Kong as an excuse for interference in China's internal affairs.

Addressing Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom, Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun criticized what he called their "hypocritical" attitude and demanded the three countries "put away your arrogance and prejudice, and pull back from the brink, now."

The organization Human Rights Watch praised the fact that so many countries had signed on to the declaration "despite China's persistent threats and intimidation tactics against those who speak out."

In 2019, a similar text drafted by the United Kingdom only garnered 23 signatures.

Western diplomats have said China is piling on more pressure each year to dissuade UN member states from signing such statements, threatening to block the renewal of peacekeeping missions for some countries or preventing others from building new embassy facilities in China.

On October 5, China led a group of 26 countries in a joint declaration calling for an end to U.S. sanctions which they said violate human rights during the struggle to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Last month, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) said it had identified more than 380 "suspected detention facilities" in the Xinjiang region, where China is believed to have held more than 1 million Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic-speaking residents.

In the United States, the House of Representatives passed a bill at the end of September that aims to ban imports from Xinjiang, contending that abuses of the Uyghur people are so widespread that all goods from the region should be considered made with slave labor.

Perspectives On Peace: The Afghan-American Diaspora’s Take On Talks With The Taliban

Delegates attend the commencement of talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents in Doha on September 12.

As the Kabul government sits down with the Taliban in ongoing peace negotiations in a day that many did not think would come, one group of Afghans in particular is watching the country's historic political journey unfold from a bird’s eye view.

The Afghan diaspora in the United States, exiled from their nation because of war and persecution, find themselves witnessing their home country grappling with the idea of concluding nearly four decades of war in a meaningful manner.

For many Afghan-Americans, the current peace talks elicit mixed feelings, concerns, and questions of legitimacy. Despite the distance from their homeland, diaspora Afghans are keen to voice their opinions on the future of Afghanistan. Many have lived their whole lives outside of Afghanistan, while others have only recently left.

Baktash Ahadi, an Afghan-American in Washington D.C, was born into the war, escaped the war, and later found himself going back to the war as a combat interpreter with the U.S. Marines for three years. His biggest concern about the peace talks is the need for a comprehensive reduction in violence above anything else.

“Reduction of violence will do many things,” Ahadi told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “It will show good will on behalf of the Taliban -- they have an interest in actual peace in Afghanistan­ -- [and] it will demonstrate that the Taliban leadership has command and control of their troops, which will give them true legitimacy and give the entire peace process legitimacy. A country without a sense of physical security will continue to live with a scarcity mindset, which will continue to halt human progress, including democratic values.”

Recounting his time as an interpreter, Ahadi says local and international interpreters sacrificed their personal safety in the hope for a conclusion in sight, which is why the current negotiations are so important.

“Our lives were in danger on and off the battlefield, especially if our identities were known,” he said. “Fortunately, I am a U.S. citizen, so I was able to come back to the United States after my service. That isn't the case for local interpreters, who risked their lives to serve the needs and interests of the U.S. government on combat missions against the Taliban and other insurgent groups across the country.”

He adds that he is hopeful about the intra-Afghan peace talks, which began in Doha on September 12. “Every war comes to an end,” he said. But others in the diaspora community aren’t as optimistic.

Ajmal Stanikzai, a civil engineer who lives in the United States, says the talks are just for show, a cat-and-mouse game with little potential to end the bloodshed in the country.

“These peace talks have only strengthened the Taliban, and we will notice this strength in their spring 2021 offensive,” he told RFE/RL Gandhara, referring to the beginning of the Taliban’s annual violent campaign, which typically sets off in April.

Instead of peace talks, he says, further military action is required. “The Taliban can only be defeated with brute force,” he said. “As long as Pakistan is allowed to harbor them, this menace will not disappear from the region.”

Islamabad, however, has mostly rejected claims that it supports the Taliban insurgency militarily. But in March 2016, Sartaj Aziz, Pakistani PM’s foreign affairs adviser, said his country had considerable leverage over the Taliban because its leaders lived in the country. In a recent op-ed, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed full support for the Afghan peace process. “Pakistan will continue to support the Afghan people in their quest for a unified, independent and sovereign Afghanistan that is at peace with itself and its neighbors,” he wrote in the Washington Post.

Protecting Rights

Lida Azim is the co-founder of the Afghan Diaspora for Equality and Progress, a grassroots nonprofit in the United States that aims to empower young Afghans toward a more equitable future. She says she and her organization are particularly concerned about the rights of the most vulnerable people amid the talks in Doha.

“We are particularly worried about the protection and rights of women, minorities, and people with disabilities,” she told RFE/RL Gandhara. “The first step toward securing rights and protections for these groups is having meaningful representation at the negotiating table, which is not currently happening.”

Azim says that if they are willing and active in the process, Afghans abroad are uniquely positioned to effect change in the peace agenda. “Afghan-Americans have a responsibility to use their position in the diaspora and as citizens of the U.S. to leverage and pressure their representatives and politicians on behalf of Afghans in the homeland whose voices are silenced or sidelined,” she said.

“It is important to uplift the voices on the ground, to ensure a seat at the table, and guarantee any peace is led and owned by the Afghan people themselves, not the United States, not the Taliban,” she added.

Azim says true peace can only be achieved alongside justice. “Afghans have seen conflict and violence for far too long now, including a failed 19-year American occupation that contributed to that violence,” she said. “We believe in a peaceful resolution of the conflict that is led and owned by the Afghan people. Any other outcome imposed by the Taliban or the West will not be legitimate or address the grievances of those most affected by violence, including the Hazaras and the dwindling Sikh population in Afghanistan.”

Afghans began to migrate to the United States in large numbers during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Washington then supported and celebrated the Islamist mujahedin as freedom fighters for taking on the Red Army. But the 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaeda once again drew the United States into another Afghan war with the avowed aim of replacing the hard-line Taliban Islamist regime with a pluralistic democracy. This prompted many from the diaspora to return to Afghanistan. Current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani renounced his U.S. citizenship to run in the 2009 presidential election.

These days, the global dialogue around Afghanistan has largely shifted, and peace has become the new buzzword. Kabul’s ongoing negotiations with the Taliban represent a new chapter for the country, and Afghans abroad are witnessing the process with desperation, hoping that perhaps one day they can return to a safe and prosperous nation that they were forced to abandon years ago.

Taliban, Afghan Negotiators Set Ground Rules To Safeguard Peace Talks

Qatari Foreign Minister Sultan bin Saad Al-Muraikhi (right) meets with Afghani President Ashraf Ghani in Doha on October 5.

Taliban and Afghan peace negotiators have agreed on a code of conduct to safeguard against the risk of any breakdown in talks that began last month in Qatar to bring an end to decades of war, three official sources said on October 6.

The breakthrough was achieved with the help of U.S. officials as the two sides drew up 19 ground rules that their negotiators should observe during talks, the sources said. While the talks have been taking place in Qatar's capital, Doha, scores of Afghan soldiers and Taliban fighters have been killed in clashes and suicide attacks in which dozens of civilians have also died in recent weeks.

"Firming up a code of conduct was extremely crucial as it proves that both sides are willing to continue talks even as we see that violence has not reduced on the ground," said one senior Western diplomat on conditions of anonymity.

The breakthrough came as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani held bilateral discussions in Doha with U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and General Austin Miller, the top commander for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

The intra-Afghan talks are part of a landmark deal signed between the United States and the Taliban in February.

Under the deal, foreign forces will leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counter terrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to negotiate a permanent cease-fire and a power-sharing formula with the Afghan government.

Diplomats say the talks had got off to a difficult start, with disagreements over how the Hanafi Islamic code could be used to guide negotiations and on whether the deal signed between the United States and the Taliban in February should be the basis for the talks, as demanded by the Taliban.

The three sources said the delegations were putting those differences to one side to move forward and agree on an agenda, but would work on resolving these issues during negotiations.

"The ground rules will serve as a foundation as both sides are making an effort to prevent a collapse," said a second senior official in Doha overseeing the talks.

A cease-fire is a top priority for the Afghan officials and Western diplomats who are facilitating the talks.

However, analysts say the Taliban would not agree to a comprehensive cease-fire since clashes with Afghan forces and violence gives it leverage at the negotiation table.

Pakistan Officially Charges Ex-President Zardari With Graft

Asif Ali Zardari (file photo)

A Pakistani court on October 5 officially charged former President Asif Ali Zardari in two corruption cases, escalating the legal challenges facing the now leading opposition lawmaker and widower of assassinated former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

The development came as Zardari's party and a key anti-government ally were preparing for a massive rally against Prime Minister Imran Khan later this month. Zardari was released on bail on medical grounds last December, six months after his arrest.

Zardari became president in 2008, after Pakistan’s former military dictator Pervez Musharraf was forced to resign. Bhutto served twice as a prime minister before she was killed by the Taliban in a bomb and gun attack in 2007. Zardari served as Pakistan’s president until 2013.

During Monday's court appearance in the capital, Islamabad, Zardari pleaded not guilty to money laundering and corruption charges. He later told reporters he was not surprised by the indictment and that charges are something he routinely faces whenever he is in the opposition.

A member of parliament, Zardari is accused of having dozens of bogus bank accounts, a charge he denies, saying he has been politically victimized by Khan's government. Since coming to power, Khan has vowed to make good on his election campaign promise to eliminate corruption.

The government says the corruption cases against Zadari began during ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's tenure.

Zardari's Pakistan People's Parry and Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League party have called for a rally in the southwestern city of Quetta on Oct. 18. During his rule, Sharif was targeted by similar mass protests by Khan.

Last week, Sharif -- speaking from his exile in London -- accused Pakistan's powerful military of rigging the 2018 election that brought Khan to power. Khan has dismissed the allegations as baseless.

The 70-year-old Sharif, who served three times as prime minister, was ousted in 2017 over corruption allegations. Khan, a world famous former cricket player, came to power in 2018.

Sharif was released on bail last year for four weeks, to seek medical treatment abroad and has been in London since November. Last month, a court issued arrest warrants for Sharif, who was previously sentenced to seven years in prison on corruption and money-laundering charges stemming from disclosures in the Panama Papers.

Meanwhile, Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League party said Monday that police initiated a treason case against Sharif and several other politicians, including a former prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, and Raja Farooq Haider, who is prime minister in Pakistan-held Kashmir, over Sharif's latest remarks about the military. Anyone charged for treason can be sentenced to death if the court finds him or her guilty under Pakistani laws.

Afghan President Arrives In Qatar Amid Peace Talks With Taliban

President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani arrives in Qatar on October 5.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has arrived in Qatar for a bilateral meeting with the leaders of the Gulf state but will not hold talks with Taliban representatives even as peace talks are under way in the country's capital city, Doha, according to officials.

Negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban that started last month are aimed at the warring sides agreeing to a reduction of violence and a possible new power-sharing agreement.

So far, there has been no progress as the two sides have become bogged down on processes and procedures, according to diplomatic sources.

The intra-Afghan talks are part of a landmark deal signed between the United States and the Taliban in February.

Under the deal, foreign forces will leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to negotiate a permanent cease-fire and a power-sharing formula with the Afghan government.

Scores of Afghan soldiers and Taliban fighters have been killed in clashes and suicide attacks that have also left dozens of civilians dead in recent weeks across the war-torn country.

Ghani and his team will be stopping first in Kuwait to attend the funeral of the late emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, before traveling to Qatar later on October 5, according to a close aide to Ghani.

"Several meetings are planned to discuss efforts for deepening Afghanistan-Qatar ties and mutual cooperation in various areas," said the official, adding that Ghani will also meet the Afghan representatives who are holding talks with the Taliban.

"But it is clear that Ghani will not meet the Taliban officials as there has been no reduction of violence and they continue to kill innocent civilians," said a senior Western diplomat overseeing the ongoing peace process.

At least eight people were killed in a car-bomb explosion on October 5 targeting the governor of the eastern Laghman Province, Rahmatullah Yarmal, officials said.

At least 30 others -- mostly civilians -- were also wounded in the attack, which took place in the provincial capital, Mehtarlam, the Afghan Interior Ministry said.

Yarmal escaped unharmed, a provincial police spokesperson said.

No group has claimed responsibility for the incident.

Over the weekend, at least 15 people, mostly civilians, were killed and more than 40 others wounded in a truck-bomb attack that targeted a government building in eastern Afghanistan, officials said.

No one has so far claimed responsibility for the attack. Both the Taliban and the Islamic State extremist group are active in the region.

According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), at least 1,282 civilians were killed and at least 2,176 others were wounded in the first six months of the year.

With reporting by Reuters, dpa, and AFP

Human Rights Lawyers Sue Trump Administration Over 'Unconstitutional' ICC Sanctions

The International Criminal Court at the Hague. (file photo)

Human rights lawyers launched a legal challenge on October 1 to U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order imposing economic sanctions on employees of the world's permanent war crimes tribunal, arguing it breaches the U.S. constitution.

A filing lodged at a district court in New York by the Open Society Justice Initiative, a public interest law center that specializes in war crimes cases, names Trump, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and seven other members of his administration.

It argues that the executive order violates constitutional rights, including freedom of speech, and prevents the plaintiffs from carrying out work in support of international justice.

"By issuing this outrageous order, the Trump administration has betrayed Washington's long-standing support for international justice, snubbed its allies, and violated the U.S. constitution," Open Society Justice Initiative Executive Director James Goldston said in a statement. "We are going to court to end this reckless assault on a judicial institution and the victims it serves."

Trump authorized U.S. economic and travel sanctions against employees of the Hague-based International Criminal Court and anyone supporting its work on June 12, citing their involvement in an investigation into whether American forces committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

On September 2, Pompeo said ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda had been blacklisted.

The ICC has said the measures are an attack on the court, the system of international criminal justice, and the rule of law more generally.

European Union countries and rights groups have rejected the U.S. sanctions as detrimental to efforts to secure international justice for war crimes.

Measures include freezing the U.S. assets of those who help the ICC investigate or prosecute American citizens without U.S. consent, and barring them and their families from the United States.

The main target of the move is Bensouda, who was granted approval in March to investigate possible crimes committed in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2014.

These include alleged mass killings of civilians by the Taliban as well as the alleged torture of prisoners by Afghan authorities and, to a lesser extent, by U.S. forces and the CIA.

Announcing the executive order in June, Pompeo described the ICC, established in 2002 by the international community to prosecute war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, as a "kangaroo court."

Trump administration officials also said it threatened to infringe on U.S. national sovereignty and accused Russia of manipulating it to serve Moscow's ends.

Pakistan Ex-PM Sharif Accuses Army Of Political Interference

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrives at a court in Lahore on corruption charges in October 2019.

Pakistan’s ailing former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on October 1 accused the country's powerful military of political interference, saying in a televised speech from exile in London that the military had rigged the 2018 vote that brought the country's current prime minister to power.

The 70-year-old Sharif has had a long uneasy relationship with the military, with Thursday’s tirade the latest confrontation.

“I will never reconcile with those who violate the constitution by indulging in politics,” Sharif said, listing off ways he said the 2018 was rigged to bring Prime Minister Imran Khan to power. He said interfering in politics in uniform amounts to treason under the country’s constitution.

His allegations sparked an angry response from Khan, who in his own televised remarks on October 1 said Sharif was “playing a very dangerous game” by humiliating the military and intelligence services. He dismissed the allegations of rigged elections as baseless.

Sharif served as Pakistan’s prime minister three times, first removed by a president in 1993, then by military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 1999. A court in 2017 ousted him from power over corruption allegations. Khan, a former cricketer, came to power in 2018.

Sharif spoke from London, where he has been since last November when he was released on bail to seek medical treatment abroad. At the time, a court permitted Sharif to leave the country for four weeks, but he did not return. A court last month issued arrest warrants for Sharif, previously sentenced to seven years in prison on corruption and money laundering charges stemming from disclosures in the Panama Papers.

Sharif's remarks came days after Pakistan's opposition vowed to hold rallies in October to pressure Khan to resign.

Sharif was targeted by similar mass protests during his rule by Khan, who Thursday night refused to resign. Khan said he will not withdraw the corruption cases against Sharif.

Khan said his government will bring Sharif back from London through a court order.

Pulling Back The Curtain On China's 'Project Of The Century'

Railway workers prepare the first block train for departure from Shijiazhuang, China, to Moscow in the port in Hebei Province in June 2018, just one part of the sprawling Belt and Road Initiative.

From building strategic seaports in Pakistan to connecting railways across Central Asia, perhaps no foreign-policy topic has received more attention in recent years than China's global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

But for all the bold headlines and focus from policymakers around the world, the BRI's internal machinery and how its many infrastructure deals, pipelines, railways, and roads stretching across Eurasia and Africa actually work remains poorly understood.

Pulling back the curtain on the opaque levers of China's premier foreign-policy initiative is the focus of the book The Emperor’s New Road: China And The Project Of The Century released on September 29 by Jonathan Hillman, an American analyst who serves as the director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a D.C.-based think tank.

In doing so, Hillman provides a fresh and nuanced perspective on Chinese power as it really is and presents a detailed look at the BRI that doesn't fit neatly into any of the project's prepackaged narratives, whether it be the official version of "win-win" engagement promoted by Beijing or the idea pushed by China's critics that the BRI is a political backdoor aimed at controlling developing countries.

"Some of China's activities are alarming and a cause for concern, but I don't think that's the same thing as BRI being this perfectly coordinated, uber-centralized thing," Hillman told RFE/RL in an interview. "China doesn't have the management structure in place to properly coordinate this expansive project."

Hillman paints a complicated picture that is not flattering to Chinese foreign-policy makers, revealing the estimated $1 trillion project to be more of a loose collection of poorly coordinated initiatives than an actual grand strategy.

While the BRI is a mix of development, trade, and geopolitics that is central to Beijing's rise as a global power, Hillman's portrait focuses on the mismanaged borders that hold up trade, the poorer countries desperate to accept any kind of investment, and the local governments that are harnessing Chinese mega-projects for their own political and financial ends.

The Emperor's New Road is a story of whether the BRI is actually advancing China's global ambitions, told through interviews with Chinese officials, detailed analysis and research, and on-the-ground reporting in Central Asia, Russia, and elsewhere. In the process, it is not only China using the BRI to influence and gain benefit from its neighbors, but also its neighbors using the BRI for influence with and benefit from China.

"China faces a different world today compared to what past imperial powers faced. Beijing is kind of a vampire at the door, it needs to be welcomed in," Hillman said. "This allows participating countries to decide which projects to accept and they go into them with very varying levels of experience and capacity, which leads to all kinds of different results."

Growing Pains

Central to Hillman's work is telling the story of China's rise as a great power on the world stage and the growing pains that Beijing has faced since it launched the early component of the BRI.

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping chose the Kazakh capital, Astana (since renamed Nur-Sultan), to unveil the Silk Road Economic Belt, the overland component of what would later coalesce into the BRI.

Since then, the Chinese project has become the cornerstone of Xi Jinping's foreign policy, with Beijing labeling it "the project of the century."

In the process, China has sunk hundreds of billions of dollars into ports, railways, and energy projects across Asia, Africa, and Europe to become Central Asia's top investor and the African continent's premier economic force. The goal has been not only to expand infrastructure, but also to win over local governments by funneling investment, jobs, and economic growth in their direction.

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But the BRI has also been undercut in recent years with questions regarding the commercial value of many of its projects and concerns over the initiative being a vehicle for Chinese control.

Hillman puts China alongside imperial powers that sought to use trade to further their own geopolitical ambitions, especially drawing parallels with the British Empire, whose own rise was linked to building and controlling shipping and rail links.

But Hillman is quick to note in his analysis that Beijing has often been its own worst enemy when it comes to trying to expand its influence through BRI by engaging in obtuse agreements with governments that have sparked domestic backlash, offering no official description for what qualifies as a BRI project, and relying on hard-to-complete infrastructure deals.

"Despite these imperial echoes, this is not a story about China's domination but its education as a rising power," Hillman writes in his book. "China's tool of choice, infrastructure, is appealing to developing countries but incredibly difficult to deliver."

No End In Sight

Part of this education has been coming to terms with Beijing's inexperience as a global power and how the BRI has become "a middleman's dream," with large-scale infrastructure projects -- often carried out with little transparency and accountability -- offering a wide array of opportunities for corruption.

"Infrastructure is not exactly the most effective tool to build influence," Hillman told RFE/RL. "Building big projects that are more expensive than planned and take longer than expected is not how you gain credibility."

Despite these shortcomings, the BRI and China's path forward have managed to progress.

Hillman partially attributes this to the ambiguity of the BRI, which has allowed local governments and leaders to make it suit their own interests. For former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Hillman said embracing the BRI and the Khorgos "dry port" was "poor economics but savvy politics," allowing the Kazakh leader to develop deeper ties with Beijing and gain greater leverage in balancing its relationship with Moscow.

Likewise, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an estimated $62 billion bundle of projects that forms Beijing's BRI presence in the country, has become a favorite of the Pakistani military, allowing it to increase its already formidable sway and use China's expanded economic footprint as a signal of support against India, a chief rival.

But even as China is adapting to how the BRI has mutated over the years, its core problems remain.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the economic problems facing many projects, with a June survey by the Chinese Foreign Ministry finding that 20 percent of BRI projects had been "seriously affected" by the pandemic, with a further 30 to 40 percent "somewhat affected."

Similarly, China's mass internment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in its western Xinjiang Province has strained relations with the West and hurt its credibility among populations in the Muslim world, especially across Central Asia.

Despite the BRI's many failings, the initiative still remains an attractive vision for much of the developing world and its attachment to Xi means that it will continue to be at the forefront of Chinese foreign policy.

"The need for infrastructure remains so great," Hillman said. "Countries are still eager to see what they can get out of this."

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