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Dutch Lawmaker Cancels Muhammad Cartoon Contest Amid Pakistan Protests

Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders (file photo)

Dutch far-right lawmaker Geert Wilders has canceled a planned contest calling for cartoon caricatures of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad amid mass protests against the event in Pakistan.

Wilders, who had received death threats over his plans, said late on August 30 that he decided to cancel the event to "avoid making people victims of Islamist violence."

"People's safety is more important," Wilders, 54, wrote on Facebook.

Physical depictions of Allah or the prophet, even positive ones, are considered blasphemous under Islam and are forbidden. In Pakistan, such blasphemy is punishable by death and the mere accusation of it can cause lynchings.

Wilders said that strong opponents "see not only me, but the entire Netherlands as a target." The organizers of street protests in Pakistan had called on Islamabad to break off diplomatic relations with the Netherlands over the event.

The lawmaker canceled the contest even as an estimated 10,000 Pakistanis continued their march from the eastern city of Lahore to Islamabad to protest the event. The protests were sponsored by Pakistan's Tehreek-i-Labaik Islamist political party.

Pakistan deployed thousands of troops to protect a diplomatic enclave in the capital on August 30 as angry protesters approached Islamabad.

Supporters of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, head of the Islamist political party Tehreek-i-Labaik, have joined a march to Islamabad prompted by Geert Wilders contest.
Supporters of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, head of the Islamist political party Tehreek-i-Labaik, have joined a march to Islamabad prompted by Geert Wilders contest.

The thousands of police and paramilitary troops that were already guarding the highly fortified enclave in the capital that houses embassies were reinforced with around 700 troops, a police official said.

Before demonstrators arrived in Islamabad, they were briefly halted by police in the town of Jhelum. But when protesters threatened to resist police in a way that could have led to violence, authorities relented and allowed them to proceed, AP reported.

"We are on roads to show to the world that we can die to protect the honor of our Prophet," Labaik party leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi told the crowd.

Taliban Urge Attacks On Dutch Troops

Reuters reported that hours before Wilders cancelled the cartoon contest, the Afghan Taliban urged Afghan soldiers to attack Dutch troops serving in the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

In a statement, the Taliban's main spokesman called the planned contest "blasphemous" and a "hostile act" by the Netherlands against all Muslims.

Members of the Afghan security forces, "if they truly believe themselves to be Muslims or have any covenant towards Islam, should turn their weapons on Dutch troops" or help Taliban fighters attack them, the statement said.

Around 100 Dutch troops are serving in the 16,000-strong NATO Resolute Support mission to train and advise Afghan forces, according to the Dutch Defense Ministry.

The controversy over Wilders' now-cancelled cartoon contest echoed a controversy over Muhammad cartoons in 2005, when the publication of pictures of the prophet in a Danish newspaper led to protests and violence in many Muslim countries.

On August 30, a 26-year-old man of Pakistani descent who had threatened on Facebook to attack Wilders was remanded in custody by a judge in the Dutch capital, The Hague. He is accused of preparing to commit a murder and inciting with terrorist intent, among other crimes.

The Dutch government had been at pains to distance itself from the contest.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte last week questioned Wilders' motive for organizing the competition.

"His aim is not to have a debate about Islam. His aim is to be provocative," the prime minister said.

However, Rutte added that people in the Netherlands have far-reaching freedom-of-speech rights and the government did not intend to seek the contest's cancellation.

The anger sparked by Wilders' plans in Pakistan had prompted the Netherlands to caution citizens about travelling there and to postpone a planned trade mission to the South Asian country.

With reporting by AP, AFP, dpa, and Reuters

Islamic State Leader Urges More Attacks In First Purported Audio In Year

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a 2014 video

The leader of the Islamic State extremist group in his first purported audio recording in a year is urging his followers to keep fighting the group's enemies around the world despite recent defeats.

The 54-minute audio was released by the group's media arm, al-Furqan Foundation, late on August 22.

Conflicting reports have emerged on the whereabouts of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and whether he is dead or alive. His group has lost 90 percent of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria, where Baghdadi declared a caliphate in June 2014.

Baghdadi's last audio message in September 2017 called on his followers to kill enemies everywhere using whatever weapons are available, and IS has claimed numerous attacks around the world since then.

In the latest recording, Baghdadi mentions current events, including the Muslim al-Ahda feast and Turkey's row with the United States over its detention of an American pastor. If the voice on the audio is confirmed to be that of Baghdadi, that would disprove reports of his death.

Baghdadi says that "America is going through the worse time in its entire existence" and says Russia is competing with the United States for influence in the Middle East.

He also criticizes rebel surrenders in southern Syria to President Bashar Assad's forces, calling them traitors and urging fighters to join his group instead. He warns that Syria's Idlib Province -- the last stronghold of rebel forces -- is about to fall to an invasion by Russian and Syrian forces.

Baghdadi has only appeared in public once -- in 2014 in the Iraqi city of Mosul. There have been recurring reports of his death, but U.S. military officials have said they believe he is still alive.

Baghdadi's whereabouts are unknown but he is believed to be hiding in the desert along the Syrian-Iraqi border.

Based on reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

UN Says Record 68.5 Million People Displaced Globally In 2017

FILE: Rohingya refugees push a fishing boat from the sea at Shamlapur beach in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh in March.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) says nearly 69 million people who have fled war, violence, and persecution were forcibly displaced in 2017 -- a new record for the fifth year in a row.

The number of refugees and internally displaced people increased by 4.6 percent in 2017 as compared to the previous year, according to the UNHCR's annual Global Trends Report published on June 19.

It said nearly 70 percent of the refugees have fled from five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Burma, also known as Myanmar, and Somalia.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said the flow of refugees could be slowed down greatly if some of the wars and crises in these countries were solved.

"But we haven't seen any significant progress in peacemaking or peace-building in any of these countries," he added.

By the end of last year, Syria's conflict pushed more than 6.3 million people out of the country, accounting for nearly one-third of the global refugee population, UNHCR said. Another 6.2 million Syrians are internally displaced.

The second-largest refugee-producing country, Afghanistan, saw its refugee population grow by 5 percent in 2017 to 2.6 million people. The increase was due mainly to births and more Afghans being granted asylum in Germany, the report said.

Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iran were among the main host countries for refugees.

Based on reporting by AFP, AP, and dpa

Malala Praises G7 Pledge To Provide Billions For Girls' Education

PAKISTAN -- Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai poses for a photograph at all-boys Swat Cadet College Guli Bagh, during her hometown visit, some 15 kilometres outside of Mingora, on March 31, 2018. Malala Yousafzai landed in

Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai praised the Group of Seven industrialized nations after they pledged nearly $3 billion to help vulnerable women and girls get educations.

The 20-year-old on June 9 said the move would "give more girls hope that they can build a brighter future for themselves."

The pledge came at the end of the G7 summit near Quebec, Canada.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who hosted the event, called it "the single largest investment in education for women and girls in crisis and conflict situations."

Canada will contribute $300 million of the total, he said.

Malala was shot in the head on her school bus by Taliban gunmen in 2012 because she campaigned for the education of girls, which the militant extremist group opposes.

She wrote on Twitteron June 9 that the funds give "young women in developing countries the opportunity to pursue careers instead of early marriage and child labor."

Officials said the funds will be spent over the next three to five years and used to train teachers and improve curriculums, collect educational data, support new education methods, and raise the graduation rates for women and girls in developing countries.

With reporting by AFP

Asylum Seeker Claiming Afghan Origin Sentenced For Rape, Murder In Germany

The case triggered protests in Germany against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policies.

An asylum seeker who claims to be from Afghanistan was sentenced by a German court on March 22 to life in prison for the rape and murder of a woman.

Hussein Khavari, who arrived in Germany without identification in 2015, had admitted to attacking 19-year-old Maria Ladenburger in the southwestern city of Freiburg in October 2016.

Prosecutors said Khavari pushed the woman off her bicycle, then bit, choked, and raped her. She was left alive on the bank of a river, where she subsequently drowned.

Khavari was arrested seven weeks later after a manhunt.

Khavari had previously received a 10-year sentence for attempted murder in Greece, only to be freed in 2015 because of overcrowded prisons.

German authorities have not been able to confirm Khavari’s age and nation of origin. He originally claimed to be a teenager, but after examining dental records and X-rays, experts said they believe him to be 22 to 29 years old.

The case triggered protests in Germany against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policies.

Under German law, a life sentence means 15 years in prison with no chance of parole and the possibility of "security detention" after release.

Based on reporting by AFP and the BBC

Thousands Worldwide March For Rights, Denounce Abuse On Women's Day

Hundreds of Pakistanis rallied on International Women's Day in Karachi to denounce violence against women.

Thousands of women marched in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Kosovo, Ukraine, and elsewhere around the globe on International Women's Day, demanding equal rights and denouncing harassment and abuse.

More than a dozen people reportedly were detained in Tehran as women's rights activists attempted to stage a peaceful protest outside the Labor Ministry on March 8.

“On this one day, out of an entire year, we as women of this country should be able to make these cities our own, stay in the streets, and return to our homes at days’ end, without having our bones crushed,” the activists said in a statement issued earlier in the week.

Chanting slogans, hundreds of women rallied in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, its largest city Karachi, and the cultural capital of Lahore, denouncing violence against women in Pakistan, where nearly 1,000 women are killed by close relatives each year in so-called honor killings.

Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi addressed a gathering of women and assured them full protection.

Pakistani women at the rallies said they have been largely been deprived of their rights since the country gained independence in 1947.

In Karachi, a victim of an acid attack wearing black glasses to cover part of her badly burned face joined hundreds at a rally where activists saluted her for taking a public stand.

Hundreds of Muslims and minority Christian women stood up as a sign of respect when the acid attack victim joined the rally, which was held amid tight security.

Acid attacks are not uncommon in Pakistan, where men sometimes assault women for refusing to marry them. Victims of acid attacks tend to avoid public gatherings.

Meanwhile, in Kosovo, hundreds of women took to the streets to protest what they said were injustices ranging from job and housing discrimination to domestic violence.

Some posters held up during the demonstration in Pristina said, "We march, we do not celebrate" and "Job for me."

"We fight for our rights as women. We want our rights at the workplace. We don't want to be sexually harassed," said Luljeta Aliu of the nonprofit Justice And Equality organization.

In Pristina, three red billboards like those in the Oscar-winning movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, were placed outside the Kosovo police headquarters.

"How many more missed calls?" read the first, followed by the names of two women -- Diana Kastrati and Zejnepe Bytyqi -- who were killed by their husbands.

Kosovo's Haveit Group created the banners to criticize the police system, which failed to respond in time to save the victims.

In the Afghan capital, Kabul, hundreds of women marched to remind authorities that much remains to be done to give Afghan women a voice, ensure their education, and protect them from increasing violence.

The head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, Sima Samar, addressed women in Afghanistan's security forces.

"Your safety represents the safety of all Afghan women," she said, reminding women in uniform to report any abuse by superiors to the rights commission.

Samar said no one has the right to comment on their physical appearance or to speak to them disrespectfully.

The overall situation for Afghan women has gradually improved in the last decade, especially in the major urban areas, but those living in rural parts of the country still face major discrimination and violence.

Afghanistan in 2015 ranked 154th out of 158 countries on the UN Gender Inequality Index.

In Saudi Arabia, where women are hopeful of big changes in the deeply conservative kingdom, a group of women whooped and cheered by exercising a recently acquired freedom: the right to go for a jog.

"This is just the beginning of a revolution for women in Saudi Arabia. In jobs, in our lives, in society, everything is going to change for Saudi women," one of the joggers, university student Sama Kinsara, told Reuters.

Women in the Iraqi city of Mosul, which last year was liberated from control by the Islamic State extremist group, also ran a symbolic marathon to celebrate their freedom.

Some of the women carried placards saying, "I have the right to speak freely."

With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, RFE/RL's Radio Farda, BBC, Kalame, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, and RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

'Chelsea Bomber' Gets Two Life Sentences In New York Court

Ahmad Khan Rahami

A man convicted of planting bombs in New York City's Chelsea neighborhood in September 2016 has been sentenced to life in prison.

A Manhattan federal court on February 13 handed down two life sentences to Ahmad Khan Rahami for engineering an explosion that injured 30 people. A second bomb failed to detonate.

Rahimi, known to many as the "Chelsea bomber," is a 30-year-old U.S. citizen born in Afghanistan who grew up in New Jersey.

He was convicted in October on all eight counts brought against him, including the use of a weapon of mass destruction and bombing a public place.

District Judge Richard Berman said that Rahimi offered no explanation for his actions that would warrant imposing less than the two life sentences.

Rahimi told the court that he does not "harbor hate for anyone.”

"But through life experience, I have learned to understand why there's such frustration between the Muslim community overseas and the American people," he added.

He also said that he had been "harassed" by authorities while traveling because of his Muslim appearance.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement that "justice has been served," adding that the sentencing “sends a strong message that we will not tolerate those who seek to sow fear, hate, and violence."

Investigators said Rahimi left his home in New Jersey on the morning of September 17, 2016, with several homemade bombs.

He allegedly placed a small pipe bomb on the route of a charity running race in New Jersey, which exploded without injuring anyone, and then planted the two bombs in Chelsea.

Other devices were left in a rubbish bin at a train station in New Jersey.

Rahimi still faces charges in New Jersey over the first bombing and for shooting at police before being captured two days after the bombings.

Based on reporting by AP, Reuters, and the BBC

Many Pakistani Migrants Feared Drowned Off Libyan Coast

The bodies of 74 migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe after they washed up on a beach near Zawiyah on Libya’s northern coast, in February 2017.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says at least 90 people are feared dead after a boat carrying migrants capsized in the Mediterranean Sea.

"At least 90 migrants are reported to have drowned when a boat capsized off the coast of Libya this morning," the IOM said in a statement on February 2.

It said that the bodies of 10 people -- eight Pakistanis and two Libyans -- were "reported to have washed up on Libyan shores."

Two survivors swam to shore while another was rescued by a fishing boat, IOM said.

Most of the migrants onboard were from Pakistan, according to the survivors.

The agency has warned repeatedly over the extreme dangers facing migrants who try to reach Europe via the so-called central Mediterranean route, which connects Libya to Italy.

Based on reporting by AP and dpa

Former Taliban Hostage Freed In Pakistan Faces Assault Charges In Canada

FILE: Joshua Boyle speaks to the media in Toronto in October.

A Canadian man recently rescued in Pakistan with his American wife and children after five years of captivity by the Taliban has been arrested and faces assault charges in Canada, his lawyer says.

In a 15-count indictment, Ottawa police have charged Joshua Boyle, 34, with eight counts of assault, two counts of sexual assault, two counts of forcible confinement, and one count of uttering death threats.

A publication ban has been imposed, preventing the alleged victims from being identified.

A hearing on Boyle's case is scheduled for January 3 in Ottawa, the Canadian capital. His lawyer, Eric Granger, said on January 2 that Boyle was in custody, though he had never been in trouble with the law before and was innocent of the charges.

Boyle, his wife Caitlan Coleman, and their three children were rescued last year in Pakistan, five years after the couple was abducted by a Taliban-linked militant group while on a backpacking trip in neighboring Afghanistan. The children were born in captivity.

Pakistan said its troops rescued the family on October 11 from their captors, the Taliban-linked Haqqani group, after they had been moved across the border from Afghanistan.

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said the operation was based on a tip from U.S. intelligence.

U.S. officials gave a different account of the family's captivity and rescue, saying the family spent almost all of their five-year confinement in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan.

The parents of Caitlan Coleman, who is from Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, said after the rescue that they were elated she had been freed, but they also expressed anger at their son-in law for taking their daughter to Afghanistan.

Based on reporting by AP and Reuters

Migrants Cluster Near Serbian Border Day After Police Break Up Protest

Migrants sit around a fire inside an abandoned warehouse near Serbian border with Croatia on December 23.

More than a hundred refugees and migrants were still wandering around the Serbian border town of Sid on December 27 one day after Serbian police broke up a protest there.

A few dozen people had protested at the border line between Serbia and Croatia on December 26 and were demanding to continue their trip toward Western Europe.

After police and officials of the Commissariat for Refugees broke up the protest, many migrants went to sleep in the nearby woods. They were provided with food and medical care by humanitarian organizations.

More than 4,000 refugees and migrants are settled in camps provided by the state throughout Serbia.

Humanitarian groups say there are about 500 people living under the open sky throughout the country, avoiding registration with the authorities out of fear that they will be deported to Macedonia and then sent back to their home countries -- mainly Afghanistan and Pakistan.

UN Votes 128-9 To Reject U.S. Recognition Of Jerusalem As Israel Capital

Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas called the vote a "victory for Palestine." (file photo)

The UN General Assembly has voted 128-9 in favor of a draft resolution rejecting Washington’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The December 21 vote during a rare emergency assembly session was seen as a strong rebuke against U.S. President Donald Trump, who had warned of potential cuts in foreign aid to nations that went along with the resolution.

Thirty-five countries abstained, including Australia, Canada, Mexico, and the Philippines.

Along with the United States and Israel, those voting against the resolution were: Guatemala, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Togo.

Key U.S. allies, including Britain, France, Germany, and Japan, voted for the resolution.

Russia also voted in favor of the resolution.

The nonbinding UN resolution called for the assembly to declare U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital “null and void.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas called the vote a "victory for Palestine."

But Israel rejected it, and thanked Trump for his "unequivocal" stance.

"Israel rejects the U.N. decision and at the same time is satisfied with the high number of countries that did not vote in its favour," said a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office.

"Israel thanks (U.S.) President Trump for his unequivocal position in favour of Jerusalem and thanks the countries that voted together with Israel, together with the truth," it said.

Ahead of the vote, Israel's envoy to the UN, Danny Danon, vowed that "no General Assembly resolution will ever drive us from Jerusalem."

Trump had said he would scrutinize the outcome and suggested that Washington could cut off financial aid to countries that supported the text.

"We're watching those votes," the president said on December 20. "Let them vote against us, we'll save a lot. We don't care."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on December 21 called on countries not to be swayed by Trump's threat, and expressed hope that the world would "give a very good lesson" to the United States.

A similar draft resolution was vetoed by the United States at the UN Security Council on December 18, as all other 14 council members voted in favor.

Trump announced on December 6 to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv, triggering international condemnation and protests across the Muslim world.

Palestinians regard Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. Israel has annexed East Jerusalem and declared the city as its capital, a move never recognized by the international community.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and The Jerusalem Post

CPJ Says Number Of Jailed Journalists Hits Historic High

Journalists from The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) shout slogans during a demonstration in support of English daily newspaper Dawn in Islamabad in May.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says the number of journalists imprisoned worldwide has hit another new record, which it says reflects a "dismal failure by the international community to address a global crisis in freedom of the press."

In its annual survey of journalists in jail published on December 13, the New York-based media watchdog found 262 journalists behind bars around the world in relation to their work, a new record after a historical high of 259 last year.

The census accounts only for journalists in government custody on December 1, not those imprisoned and released throughout the year or those who have disappeared or are held captive by nonstate groups.

CPJ says that for the second consecutive year more than half of those jailed for their work are behind bars in Turkey, China, and Egypt, which are responsible for jailing 134 of the total.

It says the United States and other Western powers failed to pressure the three countries' leaderships into improving the "bleak climate" for press freedom.

"Far from isolating repressive countries for their authoritarian behavior, the United States, in particular, has cozied up to strongmen such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Chinese President Xi Jinping," the group says.

CPJ says a crackdown on the Turkish press accelerated after a failed coup attempt in July 2016. As a result, the country is the world’s worst jailer of journalists for the second consecutive year with 73 of them behind bars.

The top jailers of journalists also include Azerbaijan, where 10 of them were found behind bars.

There were five journalists incarcerated in both Iran and Russia, four in Uzbekistan, and two in both Kazakhstan and Pakistan.

The CPJ census shows that Ukraine, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan each imprisoned one journalist.

Globally, nearly three-quarters of journalists are jailed on antistate charges, many under "broad and vague terror laws," the media watchdog says.

And 35 journalists worldwide were jailed without any publicly disclosed charge.

Uzbek Suspect In New York Truck Attack Faces New Charges, Possible Death Penalty

A photo of Sayfullo Saipov is displayed at a news conference at One Police Plaza on November 1.

A U.S. grand jury has leveled 22 new charges against an Uzbek immigrant accused of running down eight people in a truck attack in New York City last month, including murder and support for the extremist group Islamic State (IS).

In an expanded indictment handed down late on November 21, Sayfullo Saipov, 29, was charged with eight counts of murder and 12 counts of attempted murder. If convicted on the murder charges, Saipov could face the death penalty.

Saipov was arrested after he emerged from a rented truck on October 21 after using it in a rampage to run down pedestrians and cyclists on a bike path in lower Manhattan near where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center once stood.

It was the most deadly attack in New York since the September 1, 2001 attacks.

Saipov was immediately charged with terrorism, but prosecutors took several weeks to collect evidence in bringing the murder and other new charges against him. Saipov's lawyer did not immediately comment on the expanded indictment.

Saipov's initial court appearance is scheduled for November 28. He is expected to enter a plea at that time.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the attack a "calculated act of terrorism in the heart of one of our great cities."

Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim said that "scores of videos and images on his cellphone" will be part of the evidence in the case against Saipov.

"Like many terrorists before him, Saipov will now face justice in an American court," Kim said. "And like New York City's response to his alleged attack, we expect that justice in this case will be swift, firm, and resolute."

William Sweeney, the head of New York's FBI office, said that despite Saipov's "intentions to inflict significant damage, death, and injury to innocent victims," the indictment shows "that the rule of law will always prevail."

Authorities said Saipov, who is being held without bail, made statements after his arrest about his allegiance to IS, which later took credit for the attack.

Authorities said in court papers that Saipov told investigators he was inspired to carry out the attack after watching a video of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi questioning "what Muslims in the United States and elsewhere were doing to respond to the killing of Muslims in Iraq."

Evidence against Saipov includes what was found on two of his phones, according to court documents. Investigators said one phone contained 90 videos and other IS propaganda, including one of a beheading and another of a tank running over a prisoner. The other phone showed a search for truck-rental outlets.

Saipov was shot by a police officer after crashing the truck into a school bus at the end of his rampage. Authorities said his injury was minor enough that he was transferred to a prison facility in Manhattan two days later.

Saipov came to the United States legally in 2010 from Uzbekistan, where officials and his family said he had no history of radicalization or trouble with the law.

He first lived in Ohio, where he was a commercial truck driver, then in Florida. He most recently lived in New Jersey with his wife and children, and worked as an Uber driver.

His sister told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service earlier this month that Saipov was "brainwashed" after he came to the United States. She said his family became alarmed when he grew a full beard in the style of some religious extremists after his 2013 marriage.

"When we first saw his picture with a beard, we got scared," Umida Saipova, 27, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview. "We don’t know who has brainwashed him."

With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, and RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

Germany Expels 14 Afghans Amid Protests

A Czech aircraft taxis before takeoff at Leipzig's airport on October 24, believed to be carrying the rejected asylum seekers, 11 of whom had criminal records.

Germany has expelled 14 rejected asylum seekers from Afghanistan amid angry protests that the war-wracked country is unsafe for those who return.

A chartered Czech plane with the Afghans on board, all of them men, took off late October 24 from Leipzig in eastern Germany and arrived in Kabul on October 25.

Around 150 demonstrators gathered at the airport in Leipzig to protest against the expulsions.

Eleven of those expelled had criminal records for acts such as manslaughter, causing grievous bodily harm, sexual abuse of children, fraud, and theft, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Annegret Korff told reporters on October 25.

The other three Afghans had refused to cooperate on establishing their identity, she added.

Saxony state Interior Minister Markus Ulbig told public radio that Berlin was sending a "loud and clear message" that those not granted refugee status following an official review "no longer have a right to be in Germany."

Germany has granted asylum to most refugees from war-torn Syria. But the German government has argued it can safely repatriate asylum seekers to Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan.

In Berlin, leading Greens deputy Claudia Roth urged the authorities to stop the deportations, noting that about 250 people were killed in Taliban attacks in Afghanistan in the past week.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has been struggling to bring down the numbers of asylum seekers after the arrival of more than 1 million migrants and refugees -- mainly from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan -- since 2015.

Based on reporting by AFP and dpa

U.S. To Admit Refugees Again, But With Restrictions On Iran, 10 Other Countries

U.S. President Donald Trump signing his temporary ban on refugees earlier this year

The U.S. government announced it will start admitting refugees from most countries again after a 120-day ban, but will impose new restrictions on refugees from Iran and 10 other countries where it sees security risks.

While the government allowed its temporary refugee ban to expire as scheduled on October 24, it was replaced with a restrictive new executive order that refugee agencies said would continue to make access difficult for about half of all refugees who recently have sought sanctuary in the United States.

"The security of the American people is our highest priority," said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Associate Director Jennifer Higgins.

Besides Iran, refugee agencies said restrictions -- such as requiring a 90-day review of applicants by intelligence and security agencies -- will apply to refugees from Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

All of the countries singled out except North Korea are predominantly Muslim, and together they have accounted for the largest share of refugees seeking sanctuary in the United States.

In the fiscal year ending on September 30, for example, out of 53,716 refugees accepted into the United States, 22,150 came from Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Somalia.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court on October 24 dismissed a case challenging the legality of the refugee ban, citing its expiration.

Based on reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

Medical Study Says Pollution Causes 9 Million Premature Deaths Annually

FILE: Smoke billows from two smoke stacks at the coal-based Badarpur Thermal Station in New Delhi, April 6, 2015

A major study published in a British medical journal, The Lancet, says pollution kills at least 9 million people a year and costs nearly $5 trillion annually.

The study, released on October 20, says one out of every six premature deaths in 2015 could be attributed to exposure to toxins in the air, water, or soil.

Although the estimate of 9 million deaths was described as "conservative," it is more than three times the number of people killed annually by AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined and more than 15 times the number of people killed by wars and other forms of violence.

The Lancet study is the first of its kind to assemble data on disease and deaths caused by air, water, and soil pollution.

"Pollution is a massive problem that people aren't seeing because they're looking at scattered bits of it," epidemiologist Phillip Landrigan, a lead author of the study, told AP.

India was the country with the most premature deaths caused by pollution, with an estimated 2.5 million in 2015.

China was second, with some 1.8 million deaths by pollution-related causes.

Pakistan, Bangladesh, North Korea, South Sudan, and Haiti were also featured in the report.

With reporting by AP, BBC, and The Guardian

UN: More Than 8,000 Children Killed Or Hurt In Conflicts Worldwide

FILE: A nurse consoles an injured Afghan girl.

A new United Nations report says more than 8,000 children were killed or injured in armed conflicts throughout the world last year, a number that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called "unacceptable."

The UN said in a statement that its annual Children and Armed Conflict report, presented to the UN Security Council on October 5, found that Afghanistan had the highest number of verified child casualties since the 192-nation body began documenting civilian casualties in 2009.

The report said that 3,512 children in Afghanistan were killed or maimed in 2016, up 24 percent from the previous year. In Syria the figure was 1,299, and in Yemen it was 1,340.

The report also found that hundreds of children were victims of sexual violence, targeted in attacks on schools, or recruited as soldiers.

The report included a blacklist of organizations deemed responsible for abuses against children, including groups based in Afghanistan, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Mali, Myanmar, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

The Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen's government in its conflict against Huthi rebels was also included in the list for the first time.

Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last year removed Saudi Arabia from the list following pressure from Riyadh. Human Rights Watch said Guterres did "the right thing" by adding the coalition to the list.

With reporting by AP and AFP

U.S. Says Three Men Charged With Plotting New York Terror Attacks For IS

FILE: The Times Square in New York.

U.S. authorities say three men have been arrested on charges of plotting attacks in New York City for the extremist Islamic State (IS) group.

Federal prosecutors in New York said on October 6 that the planned attacks, which were thwarted by law-enforcement authorities, included bombings in New York City's Times Square and subway system, as well as shooting people at concert venues.

The attacks were to be carried out during the Islamic holy month of Ramadhan in the summer of 2016, prosecutors said in a statement on the unsealing of the charges.

The suspects include a 19-year-old Canadian citizen accused of purchasing bomb-making materials and securing the use of a cabin to build explosive devices, and a 19-year-old U.S. citizen based in Pakistan who allegedly planned to travel to New York to help carry out the attacks.

The third suspect, a 37-year-old Philippine citizen, is accused of wiring money from the Philippines to the United States to help fund the planned attacks, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors added that all three men have been arrested, and that the Canadian man, Abulrahman El Bahnasawy, has pleaded guilty.

Saudi King Issues Order Allowing Women To Drive

Allowing women to drive comes two years after women gained the right to vote in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia's king has issued an order allowing women to drive cars for the first time.

The decree announced on September 26 on the state news agency SPA ordered the creation of a ministerial council to advise the royal palace within 30 days, and then put the order into place by next June.

"The royal decree will implement the provisions of traffic regulations, including the issuance of driving licenses for men and women alike," the Saudi Press Agency said.

The country was the only one in the world where women have been explicitly banned from driving.

Activists have been pushing for the right for women to drive since the 1990s, saying it was part of a wider struggle for women's rights in the kingdom.

The United States, one of the kingdom's closest allies, called the order "a great step in the right direction."

Based on reporting by AP, Reuters, SPA

Trump's New Travel Ban Includes North Korea, Venezuela

A member of the Al-Murisi family, Yemeni nationals who were denied entry into the United States because of a recent travel ban, shows the cancelled visa in their passport from their failed attempt to enter the country. (file photo)

President Donald Trump has issued new restrictions on people trying to enter the United States from eight nations -- adding North Korea and Venezuela to a list that also includes Iran -- to replace his expiring travel ban.

Trump signed a proclamation on September 24 implementing a range of limitations that will apply to citizens of Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, North Korea, and Venezuela.

Restrictions on citizens of Sudan were lifted while Iraqi citizens face enhanced scrutiny, or vetting, but will not be subject to travel prohibitions.

The new restrictions will go into effect on October 18, eight days after the court is due to hear oral arguments over the legality of Trump's previous ban.

"Making America Safe is my number one priority. We will not admit those into our country we cannot safely vet," Trump said in a tweet.

The measures restricting travel to the United States include an indefinite ban on visas for citizens of countries like Syria.

A suspension of nonimmigrant visas for citizens of Venezuela will apply only to certain government officials and their immediate families.

Venezuela and North Korea are the only two non-Muslim majority nations on the list.

The current ban, which sparked international outrage and legal challenges when enacted in March, expired on September 24.

The new policy may complicate the Supreme Court's review of the expired ban, which is scheduled for argument next month.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

Participation Up 30 Percent As Annual Hajj Ends In Saudi Arabia

Muslim worshippers gather outside Namrah Mosque during the Hajj pilgrimage in Arafat, near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on August 31.

Officials in Saudi Arabia declared a successful end to this year’s hajj pilgrimage, which drew 2.3 million Muslims from around the world without reports of major problems.

Prince Khalid al-Faisal, who led the government-run committee that oversaw the hajj, on September 3 said this year’s celebration attracted 30 percent more people than the event last year.

“More than 2 million pilgrims have come to this holy land in order to embody the correct humanitarian image of Muslims,” Faisal said.

He added that no significant problems were reported in the five-day event.

In recent years, the hajj has been hit by deadly riots, fires, and stampedes.

The 2015 hajj saw some 2,300 pilgrims, many of them from Iran, crushed to death in a ritual near Mecca -- a tragedy that led to rising tensions between the host Saudis and rival Iran.

Tehran ordered a boycott of the event in 2016, but they allowed participation again this year.

As host, Saudi Arabia has made great effort to make hajj rituals easier and safer for pilgrims, including widening roads and deploying more than 100,000 security personnel.

Muslims are expected to perform the hajj at least once in their lifetime if they are fit enough and have the financial means to make the pilgrimage

Based on reporting by dpa and AP

Muslims Celebrate Start Of Eid Al-Adha As Hajj Enters Final Days

People greet each other after offering Eid al-Adha prayers in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on September 1.

Muslims around the world are celebrating the start of the Eid al-Adha holiday on September 1 as some 2 million Muslim pilgrims carry out the final rites of the annual hajj in Saudi Arabia.

After dawn, hundreds of thousands of people began a symbolic ritual of stoning the devil amid tight security in the desert valley of Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, two years after a stampede killed some 2,300 pilgrims at the event.

The pilgrims cast pebbles at three large columns, chanting "God is the greatest" each time.

Muslim worshippers gather outside Namrah Mosque during the Hajj pilgrimage in Arafat, near Mecca, Saudi Arabia on August 31
Muslim worshippers gather outside Namrah Mosque during the Hajj pilgrimage in Arafat, near Mecca, Saudi Arabia on August 31

The final days of hajj coincide with Eid al-Ahda, the multiday festival also known as the Feast of Sacrifice. Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, are the two most important festivals in the Islamic calendar.

It is traditional to slaughter livestock for Eid al-Adha and distribute the meat to the poor.

Most pilgrims will remain in Mina until September 4 before completing the hajj. They will then circle the cube-shaped Kaaba in Mecca, Islam's most sacred site, before departing.

Following the 2015 stampede in Mina, the Saudi government has widened some roads to try to improve the safety of the hajj. More than 100,000 security forces have been deployed there during the hajj to assist pilgrims.

Based on reporting by AP, dpa

U.S., Europe Among Regions Least Hit By Terror Attacks Last Year, Report Says

FILE: Workers remove debris from a damaged area a day after a suicide bomb attack near the foreign embassies in Kabul, Afghanistan on June 1.

Terrorist attacks have riveted attention in the United States and Europe, but those regions accounted for only a tiny percentage of fatalities from such attacks last year, a new report has found.

The report issued on August 23 from the University of Maryland and based on its Global Terrorism Database found that Western Europe and North America accounted for less than 1 percent of the 34,676 people killed in terror attacks in 2016, while they accounted for less than 2 percent of all attacks.

Countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen suffered the most frequent and deadly attacks, which were concentrated by region in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, the study found.

Attacks by the Islamic State extremist group and its affiliates, while much feared in the West, were heavily concentrated in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and other Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African countries, the report found.

Iraq alone suffered nine of the 11 deadliest attacks in 2016, each carried out by IS, including the single deadliest attack, where a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden truck outside a Baghdad shopping center, killing at least 382 people.

South Asia accounted for 27 percent of all attacks and 22 percent of those killed in 2016.

With reporting by AFP

IMF: Global Economic Recovery On 'Firmer Footing'

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) says the global economic recovery is on "firmer footing" with improving growth in Europe and China even as it reduced predicted growth for the United States and Britain.

The IMF's World Economic Outlook released on July 24 said it expected the global economy will grow by 3.5 percent in 2017 and 3.6 percent in 2018.

IMF chief economist Maurice Obstfeld, who presented the quarterly update, said "there is now no question mark over the world economy's gain in momentum."

The IMF, however, warned that sluggish wage growth and growing antiglobal sentiment could leave economies worse off.

The IMF forecast improvement in the eurozone, where growth is projected at 1.9 percent this year and 1.7 percent in 2018.

The Russian economy is projected to "recover gradually" in 2017 and 2018, and inflation there has declined.

Growth in the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan, and Pakistan is projected to slow considerably in 2017 due to a decrease in activity in oil exporters, before recovering in 2018.

Malala Meets Chibok Girls, Urges Nigeria To Prioritize Education

Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai (L) speaks with Nigerian Acting President Yemi Osinbajo during her courtesy visit to the presidency in Abuja on July 17.

Nobel peace laureate Malala Yousafzai has called on Nigeria to focus on improving its education system, as she visited the country and met some of the Chibok schoolgirls whose cause she championed.

Yousafzai, 20, a Pakistani education activist who came to prominence when a Taliban militant shot her in the head in 2012, was named a UN Messenger of Peace in April to promote girls’ education around the world.

After a meeting with Nigeria’s acting president in Abuja, Yousafzai said the government should declare a “state of emergency on education in Nigeria,” where nearly half of primary-aged children are not enrolled in school.

According to UN figures, Nigeria has some 10.5 million children out of school -- the most in the world -- and 60 percent of them are girls.

Yousafzai has also taken part in global campaigns to maintain awareness of more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram Islamist militants from their school in Nigeria’s remote town of Chibok in 2014.

Some 100 of the schoolgirls still remain in captivity, while others were freed or escaped. Yousafzai met some of the freed girls in Abuja, Nigeria's capital.

Malala won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize along with Kailash Satyarthi of India.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

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