What Repatriation of French General Might Do for Franco-Russian Ties

French President Emmanuel Macron hopes the repatriation of the body of General Charles-Etienne Gudin, who was killed in Russia more than two centuries ago, could play a symbolic role in his diplomatic courting of Russian President Vladimir Putin.Gudin, one of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s favorite generals, succumbed to gangrene three days after a cannonball destroyed his leg in an 1812 battle 20 kilometers east of the Russian city of Smolensk. Bonaparte reportedly sat at Gudin’s side as he died.If all goes according to French officials’ plan, Gudin’s remains will be returned to Paris in 2020 and reburied with great fanfare in a ceremony Macron hopes Putin will attend.Gudin’s heart is already in the French capital, having been transported there by his loyal troops. In July, a one-legged skeleton was discovered in a wooden coffin in a park in Smolensk. Subsequent DNA tests established it was Gudin’s.If the Kremlin agrees to France’s request, Gudin, who was 44 when he was killed, will be reburied in Les Invalides where the tombs of Napoleon and other military war heroes are located.Russian specialist Hélène Carrère d’Encausse told Le Figaro newspaper that Macron “has a sense of symbols” and sees a reburial ceremony as possibly helpful in his four-month diplomatic campaign to coax Russia into the Western fold.”President Macron is trying to put Franco-Russian relations back on track,” she said.FILE – Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with French President Emmanuel Macron at Fort Bregancon near the village of Bormes-les-Mimosas, France, Aug. 19, 2019.Ahead of last August’s G-7 summit in Biarritz, Macron showed how adept he is at using symbols and history when he hosted Putin at his summer residence on the French Riviera. Macron hailed the impact Russian artists and writers had on France, saying they served as a reminder of how Russia is essentially a European nation.It was a far cry from 2017, when fresh from an election victory in which he beat two pro-Kremlin challengers, Macron berated Putin at a joint press conference at the Palace of Versailles. Standing beside the uneasy-looking Russian leader, Macron blasted Russia for seeking to meddle in Western elections by spreading fake news, disinformation and falsehoods. He condemned brutal tactics, including the use of chemical weapons, allegedly employed by the Moscow-partnered Syrian government to regain control over the war-torn Middle East country.Macron’s about-face has made some of France’s allies nervous, especially Russia’s neighbors in Central Europe and the Baltic States. They fear that in his determination to move from hostility to rapprochement with the Kremlin, he risks falling into a trap of rewarding bad behavior for little in return.But Macron has countered that “Europe would disappear” if it does not rethink strategy toward Russia, and that prolonging hostility will push the Kremlin into the arms of an assertive China, which also is courting Russia.Russia reactionEarlier in December, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the Kremlin will look favorably on a request for the return of Gudin’s remains.FILE – Archaeologists work at a site of the supposed burial place of French General Charles-Etienne Gudin in Smolensk, Russia, July 7, 2019.”We know that French and Russian archaeologists indeed made such a discovery and performed a DNA analysis that proved 100% correct,” Peskov said. “So, those are indeed the remains of General Gudin. We know that it is big news for France, and we also know that the agenda has the topic of returning these remains.”He added, “If France sends an official request, Russia will respond positively to returning these remains.”French officials have confirmed that Macron raised the issue in December with Putin during the Ukraine peace talks in Paris. Le Figaro said the reburial “could become a symbol of Franco-Russian fraternity.”Before considering an official tribute to Gudin, Elysée Palace advisers researched Gudin’s life to ensure he was safe from reproach or possible historical embarrassment, French magazine Le Point reported. The advisers were mindful of the political controversy in 2018 surrounding Macron’s praise of General Philippe Pétain as a “great soldier” during commemorations of the centenary of World War I.Jewish leaders and Macron’s political foes argued that Macron’s praise was ill-deserved, as Petain became a Nazi collaborator. Macron was forced to justify the homage.Gudin appears to have passed the “honor” test. He is seen as a valiant warrior, above politics. He served the monarchy before the French Revolution and loyally commanded the armies of the French Republic.
 

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In 2019, Afghan Women Continued Their Quest for Empowerment

In 2019, Afghanistan witnessed two major events. The first was an initial step towards a possible peace deal between the Taliban and the United States. The second was a closely monitored presidential election. Both events directly affect Afghans and in particular Afghan women. VOA’s Najiba Khalil and Lima Niazi spoke to both U.S. and Afghan representatives and filed this report.

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Navalny ‘Completely Pessimistic’ About Western Curbs on Russian Corruption

After one suspected chemical poisoning, two arrests, 40 days in jail and multiple police raids on his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) offices nationwide, it’s safe to say Russia’s most prominent opposition figure has had a rough year.  But for Alexei Navalny, 2019 wasn’t without at least one small victory. His calls for mass demonstrations over the exclusion of opposition candidates from local Moscow elections sparked the largest sustained protest movement in years, prompting state investigators to launch a money-laundering probe and label his group a “foreign agent,” a move that he and others call part of a Kremlin-orchestrated campaign to stifle growing dissent.Despite house-to-house searches for FBK staffers, asset seizures and frozen bank accounts, the well-known blogger and activist says he also maintained a regular jogging routine while preparing new investigative exposes on alleged corruption that fuels the excessively lavish lifestyles at the highest echelons of Russian officialdom.Navalny recently sat down with VOA’s Russian Service to reflect on 2019, the state of the American and Russian political systems, and accusations that he’s been needlessly hard on Moscow banker Andrei Kostin, one of Russia’s most powerful civilians.Just hours after this interview was conducted, Russian officials again raided FBK’s Moscow headquarters using power tools to gain entry before dragging Navalny out by force and confiscating computer equipment. The latest raid came one day after police broke into Ruslan Shaveddinov’s Moscow flat, forcibly conscripting the 23-year-old FBK project manager to serve at a remote military base in the Arctic, a move Navalny has since called tantamount to kidnapping.The following has been edited for brevity.QUESTION: How serious are FBK’s financial losses as a result of these raids, and in what other ways did Russian authorities try to interfere with your work this year?ALEXEI NAVALNY: In order to impede, complicate, and paralyze the foundation’s work, a wide range of tools are used. First, it’s just non-stop “searches,” which are in fact planned confiscations of computers, phones, flash drives — any data-processing electronics of FBK employees, staff, their relatives, neighbors, sometimes even random people. Second, it’s the freezing of accounts, such that people can’t, for example, pay or receive a salary. All accounts and cards are blocked, even for child care and survivor benefits. And then there’s the recently launched criminal case, which allows [officials] to call in anyone in for questioning at any time, along with unending efforts to nightmare and harass people through ostensibly legal actions. And while our people are quite resilient, the pressure strongly affects their relatives.As for finances, we now have several million rubles on the account blocked. The question is not even what the financial losses are, but that we’re prevented from receiving cash inflows. … After the last [election] campaign for the Moscow City Duma, there were quite a lot of [donations], so the authorities are simply trying to block this cash flow, and the campaign to designate us as “foreign agents” means all of FBK’s monetary assets were declared “criminal.”Q: Which events of 2019 were most significant to you?NAVALNY: Undoubtedly the Moscow City Duma elections. Initially, we didn’t think it would have any great national political significance, but the actions of the authorities, which were extraordinary in their stupidity, severity and senselessness, caused these events to resonate nationally. We received, on the one hand, new independent [Moscow City Duma] deputies, and, on the other hand, a huge number of people [were blocked from voting, which only made more people sympathetic to our cause]. So we got new political prisoners, new political stars. … In this sense, the Moscow City Duma elections were the main event.Q: You do what many would call the kind of high-quality investigative journalism, which, in the West, might topple an entire government. Yet your exposes of government corruption aren’t compelling most Russians to protest. Why?NAVALNY: This is indeed a cause of frustration on our part. We grasp perfectly well the quality our investigations, and we see many examples where exposes of less impact trigger government resignations and parliamentary crises in other countries. But in Russia this doesn’t have major consequences due to the general political situation. And it’s not a purely Russian phenomenon — we see similar things in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, any number of other authoritarian countries with staggering levels of corruption. That’s where we also see this unfortunate, conditioned familiarity with corruption: the population already understands the elite stole everything, and the whole country exists only for the enrichment of this elite. And then of course there’s censorship and intimidation. Therefore, we don’t believe that the population is indifferent to our investigations — they know about them, but they’re afraid of the state aggression toward those who choose to protest.Q: You don’t suppose that since quite a lot of people are now connected with state structures in Russia, and because they have families to feed, that corruption schemes have now become the new normal for a significant part of the populace? That the fight against corruption is a threat to a broad class of people?NAVALNY: That’s a good question. Does, say, the deputy head of the consumer market department of the city of Kostroma feel himself a direct part of Putin’s “power vertical”? In fact, the vast majority of officials are not corrupt, if only because corruption isn’t as lucrative in lower-level bureaucracies, [whereas theft of natural resource commodities such as oil and gas] is basically limited to maybe a thousand or so families with direct ties to Vladimir Putin at the highest level of his administration. But yes, in a certain sense, the system is built in such a way — and the belief systems of individuals within the system are built in such a way — that you live a very poor but stable life within the system. And of course you receive some informal privileges by being inside of it, such that your rational choice is to defend it rather than try to change it for the better.Q: Your recent expose showed that Andrei Kostin, president and chairman of Russia’s state-owned VTB bank, gave millions of dollars in gifts, including property, a private jet and a yacht, to his purported romantic partner, Russian state TV presenter Nailya Asker-Zade. Some commentators then accused you of prying into the personal affairs of private citizens as opposed to state officials. How do you feel about such accusations?NAVALNY: Personal life is peoples’ relationships. We are not interested in the relationships, love, passions and dramas that occur in the families of Kostin, Asker-Zade or anyone, not even Putin. However, when it comes to colossal spending from a state bank, it’s already about corruption, not about personal relationships. And if a state banker spends literally tens of millions of dollars on his mistress, providing her with a standard of living on par with Arab sheikhs, that’s already far, far beyond the limits of a private, personal affair. We try, as far as possible, not to condemn or evaluate Kostin from the point of view of public morality or “family values,” but we certainly reserve the right to discuss his morals from the point of view of corruption, from the point of view of lifestyle, from the point of view of expenditures.Q: There’s the impression that you now regularly visit the United States, where your daughter studies. What’s your impression of American political life?NAVALNY: Unfortunately, I don’t visit so often. I took my daughter to the university and went to shoot a story about Nailya Asker-Zade’s plaque on a bench in New York City’s Central Park, [which she had engraved with a declaration of her love for Kostin]. My feelings are unambiguous and probably align with those of many people, including most Americans: the country is split, the political class is split. Everyone on the left is [feeling] a kind of frustration, demoralization and rage, while those on the right are probably also furious, frustrated and demoralized, because it’s not clear what to do about it or where it’s all headed. It’s still not very clear, for example, why the newspapers consistently reported [that Hillary Clinton had a commanding lead in the race, and then Trump won]. This is a very interesting but difficult time for Americans. But overall, even though I see a lot of exasperated people, I do think checks-and-balances generally works. Nothing so terrible is happening to America. Democracy works.Q: Can Western countries somehow influence Russia’s behavior in terms of corruption and human rights? What mechanisms are effective?NAVALNY: I think we already understand empirically that, unfortunately, they can’t influence anything, and they don’t really want to. There’s always some fictitious geostrategic interests or, perhaps, short-term political interests, some ideas about “peacekeeping missions,” etc … that simply prevent us from taking steps that are long overdue. Western countries need to protect not Russian citizens but themselves from the secondary effects Russian corruption by implementing their own laws. But this isn’t happening. We repeatedly see that, despite the sanctions, despite the fact that there is a lot of talk on this subject, the entire Putin elite feels completely at ease. We haven’t seen any real examples of asset freezes or seizures. On the contrary, we see people under sanctions traveling quite freely and continuing to buy up properties and assets only to register them to their children. And regulators, including American ones, pretend not to notice. … I am completely pessimistic about the role of the West in the fight against corruption in Russia.Q: What are your political plans? The much discussed 2024 [presidential election] is still more than 4 years away; what are you going to do?NAVALNY: It’s still a long time until 2024, but we don’t plan our activities from election to election. Elections take place constantly, and we’re actively engaged in them. We also have the anti-corruption foundation, so we’re engaged in the investigations, and we’ll continue to build a nationwide system combating censorship through YouTube channels and blogs. We have a system of more than 40 headquarters, which now face the main task of learning how to survive under new conditions, in which [the state] is trying to paralyze our entire structure and funding with constant raids. We’ll continue what we are doing, and we’ll reinvent ourselves so that we can do it even more effectively in the new environment. And we’ll try to expand. We have a lot of work to do.Q: Are you going to continue trying to register a political party? You’ve been doing this for a long time, but you keep getting rejected.NAVALNY: As we’ve stated many times, this is our right. Court cases on this issue have been going on for many years, and we are constantly making new attempts to register. We’ll always do it. At the same time, of course, we’re well aware that the Kremlin simply can’t afford to register our party, because then it’s unclear what they will do with it in the elections. But it’s our right, and we’ll continue to defend it.
 

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Sudanese Praise Transitional Government for Death Sentences

Family members and friends of late Sudanese school teacher Ahmed al-Khair ululated and cheered Tuesday outside a courtroom in the city of Omdurman as 29 intelligence officers were sentenced to death for the torture and killing of al-Khair in the eastern Sudanese town of Khasum al-Girba.The 29 defendants had been found guilty of deadly abuse.The court found that al-Khair was beaten and tortured to death by officers at a detention center after he was arrested in late January. Al-Khair died on Feb. 2, 2019, after spending a week in detention.Hind Awadassaid of the Sudan Teachers Union called the sentencing a good beginning for citizens demanding justice.”It is satisfactory to some extent and it is a good point for now immunity for the people who are in charge. So, the people are now equal in front of the law,” Awadassaid told South Sudan in Focus.Sudanese protesters rally in front of a court in Omdurman near the capital Khartoum, Dec. 30, 2019, during the trial of intelligence agents for the death of teacher Ahmed Al-Khair while in custody of intelligence services.Bakhit Mohammed Ahmed, a teacher and colleague of the late al-Khair, traveled from Khasm al-Girba to Khartoum to attend the hearing.Ahmed said before the sentencing that he did not trust the Sudanese judiciary. He praised the transitional government for making sure justice was carried out.”Until this morning, I had no trust in the Sudanese judiciary. This has quenched my sorrows for my colleague and turned it into joy,” Ahmed told South Sudan in Focus.Al-Mughira Massad al-Kitiyabi, a relative of al-Khair, said he was pleased with the verdict.”This is what we were expecting. The ruling has a healing touch on our wounds and as his family members, we regard the execution as a good point for us, and just on the perpetrators and good for the whole Sudan,” al-Kitiyabi told South Sudan in Focus.Gasim Hussein, a lawyer representing al-Khair’s family, said the ruling shows the Sudanese judiciary is upholding one of the principles of the Sudanese revolution.”This is a new beginning of revising, executing a new history for Sudan, which has been produced by the revolution. Our revolution has contributed to this day and our people have been peacefully calling for a just Sudan and reforms within the judiciary system,” Hussein told South Sudan in Focus.Al-Khair’s killing touched off nationwide protests against then-president Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was deposed in April.
 

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Malawi Ombudsman: Police Committed Rapes During Post-Election Unrest

A report released under Malawi’s Human Rights Commission this month has found that police raped at least eight women and sexually violated several others, including girls, during October’s post-election unrest. However, authorities are questioning the validity of the report and Malawi police say they will only act after carrying out their own inquiry. The report, released Dec. 18 by Malawi’s ombudsman, says the police assaults occurred in the homes of victims and were carried out in revenge for the stoning death of a fellow police officer.  Twenty-five-year-old “Grace,” who is not using her real name, cried as she told a reporter how two Malawian police officers stormed her house in October, looking for her husband. She said they accused him of being involved in street violence, which broke out during ongoing protests over the re-election of President Peter Mutharika in May.Grace says one of the policemen accused her of hiding her husband’s whereabouts and then attacked her, pushing her down and undressing her. He raped her, Grace said, then stepped on her with his boots.Twenty-seven-year-old “Rhoda” — also not her real name — told a reporter a similar story of being attacked by Malawian police. She said that when she told her husband about the attack, he said he could not stay with someone who was raped, for fear of contracting a sexually transmitted disease.Rights officials say Grace and Rhoda are among a number of women and girls who were raped or sexually assaulted by police sent to control post-election violence on Oct. 8.  The alleged assaults were outlined in a 62-page report released Dec. 18 by Malawi’s Ombudsman Martha Chizuma and Law Commissioner Rosemary Kanyuka.Chizuma says the investigation, carried out under Malawi’s Human Rights Commission (MHRC), uncovered evidence of the rapes.”We found out that a total of 17 women were sexually violated,” Chizuma said. “Five of them were under 18. One of the five girls was actually defiled. Eight women were raped. The rest, police found them doing their menses so were just violently beaten.”Chizuma said the alleged police assaults appeared to be in revenge for the stoning death of a fellow police officer by election protesters.  The report identified suspected officers who were posted to the areas where the assaults occurred.But observers note a lack of evidence, as victims failed to obtain medical exams after the alleged assaults and were unable to identify police officers, whose faces were covered.Police responseMalawi police have not confirmed or denied the assaults, and have taken information from the alleged victims.Police spokesman James Kadadzera says they are carrying out their own internal investigation, which started in October.”And we are saying here that whatever the MHRC report is recommending and whatever our report will recommend, will be followed to its logical conclusion,” Kadadzera said. “Nobody will be shielded but, justice will prevail.”Kadadzera was not able to say when police would finish their probe.  Meanwhile, no officers have yet been suspended or detained, and government authorities are questioning the validity of the report.Controversy over commissionersGovernment spokesman Mark Botomani told The Nation newspaper that any action by Malawi’s Human Rights Commission should be scrutinized because there were no authorized commissioners.The MHRC has been waiting for fresh commissioners since a court injunction stopped some controversial appointments by Mutharika.But Chizuma and Kanyuka argue they are still members of the commission as their appointments were not part of the injunction.They have called for immediate disciplinary action against the suspects.   Malawi has seen wave of violent protests since Mutharika secured a second term in May, which opposition leaders are challenging in court.Meanwhile, rights campaigners have threatened to hold protests should police fail to act on the recommendation of the report by Jan. 9.
 

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Arab League Opposes ‘Interference in Libya’ After Turkey Accords

The Arab League called Tuesday for efforts to “prevent foreign interference” in Libya in the wake of military and maritime agreements signed by Turkey with the U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli.Permanent representatives of the pan-Arab organization, in a meeting at its Cairo headquarters requested by Egypt, passed a resolution “stressing the necessity to prevent interference that could contribute to facilitating the arrival of foreign extremists in Libya.”They also expressed “serious concern over the military escalation further aggravating the situation in Libya and which threatens the security and stability of neighboring countries and the entire region.”On Monday, the U.N.’s Libya envoy, Ghassan Salame, said the deals signed by Turkey and the Tripoli government represented an “escalation” of the conflict wracking the North African country.Libya has been mired in conflict since a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled and killed dictator Moamer Kadhafi, with rival administrations in the east and the west vying for power.In November, Ankara signed a security and military cooperation deal and also inked a maritime jurisdiction agreement with the Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital.In addition, Turkey is preparing to hold a vote in parliament on deploying troops in support of the GNA which is battling forces of eastern military strongman Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia.Egypt, in a letter sent to the United Nations last week, said it considers the Ankara-Tripoli agreements “void and without legal effect,” adding that foreign military involvement in Libya amounted to a violation of a U.N. arms embargo in force since the uprising.     

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