Detained US citizen Baquer Namazi allowed to leave Iran — State Department

The undated image shows Baquer Namazi (right) and his son Siamak. (Online)
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Updated 05 October 2022

Detained US citizen Baquer Namazi allowed to leave Iran — State Department

  • Baquer Namazi was detained in February 2016 when he went to Iran to press for the release of his son Siamak
  • UN said last week that the pair had been allowed to leave Iran, after an appeal from its Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

WASHINGTON: Detained US citizen Baquer Namazi has been allowed to leave Iran and his son has been granted furlough from prison, the State Department said Wednesday, confirming their release.

Namazi, a former UNICEF official, was detained in February 2016 when the 85-year-old went to Iran to press for the release of his son Siamak, who had been arrested in October of the previous year.

The United States has been pressing for the release of these two men and two other Americans amid efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major Western powers.

“Wrongfully detained US citizen Baquer Namazi has been permitted to depart Iran, and his son Siamak, also wrongfully detained, has been granted furlough from prison,” a State Department spokesperson told AFP.

It added that the older Namazi “was unjustly detained in Iran and then not permitted to leave the county after serving his sentence, despite his repeated requirement for urgent medical attention.”

“We understand that the lifting of the travel ban and his son’s furlough were related to his medical requirement.”

The United Nations said last week that the pair had been allowed to leave Iran, after an appeal from its Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Both were convicted of espionage in October 2016 and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Baquer Namazi was released on medical leave in 2018 and had been serving his sentence under house arrest.

At least two other American citizens are currently held in Iran.

Businessman Emad Sharqi was sentenced last year to 10 years in prison for espionage, and environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, who is also a British national, was arrested in 2018 and released on bail in July.

A drive to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal resumed in late November last year, after talks were suspended in June as Iran elected ultra-conservative President Ebrahim Raisi.

The 2015 deal — agreed by Iran, the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany — offered Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

But the United States unilaterally withdrew in 2018 under president Donald Trump and reimposed biting economic sanctions, prompting Tehran to begin rolling back on its commitments.

On Sunday, the United States rejected Iranian reports that Tehran’s release of US citizens would lead to the unfreezing of Iranian funds abroad.

“With the finalization of negotiations between Iran and the United States to release the prisoners of both countries, $7 billion of Iran’s blocked resources will be released,” the state news agency IRNA said.

But the State Department dismissed any such link as “categorically false.”

Billions of dollars in Iranian funds have been frozen in a number of countries — notably China, South Korea and Japan — since the US reimposed sanctions. 


Frustration in Romania and Bulgaria after Schengen rejection

Updated 08 December 2022

Frustration in Romania and Bulgaria after Schengen rejection

  • Now some observers warn that both countries face a rising tide of euroscepticism as they remain outside the coveted zone
  • At Giurgiu, on the Romanian-Bulgarian border, a queue of trucks several kilometres begins forming from dawn

GIURGIU, Romania: After more than 10 years waiting to be admitted into the Schengen zone, Bulgaria and Romania were once more turned away after two EU countries vetoed their admission.
Now some observers warn that both countries face a rising tide of euroskepticism as they remain outside the coveted zone through which passport checks are not normally required.
Romanian Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca spoke of his “profound disappointment” after Austria blocked their admission.
In Bulgaria, President Rumen Radev regretted what he described as the “internal borders” he said were being put up with the European Union bloc.
Their failure to win admission to the Schengen’s vast zone of free movement means that the long lines at various border crossings will continue.
At Giurgiu, for example, on the Romanian-Bulgarian border, a queue of trucks several kilometers begins forming from dawn.
Jaded long-haul drivers speaking to AFP in early December in Giurgiu, on the Romanian side, told of long hours waiting for the customs checks before they could enter Bulgaria.
Alexandru Birnea, 36, a long-haul driver for 13 years, said joining the Schengen zone would improve the lives of thousands of truckers.
“We would like to avoid losing all this time and therefore money in endless queues so that we can get back to our families more quickly,” he said.
But his pessimism about the outcome of the vote turned out to be well founded.
The European Commission has long expressed its wish for a widened Schengen zone.
But while tourist hotspot Croatia received the green light on Thursday, Romania and Bulgaria were left out in the cold.
Both countries joined the European Union back in 2007, before Croatia. Both countries met the technical criteria set out by Brussels.
But both countries were asked to make progress on judicial reform and anti-corruption efforts and were monitored for improvements.
When that process ended, both countries were hopeful that they had cleared the final hurdle. improvements.
But Austria hardened its stance, denouncing an influx of asylum seekers that it said could grow if the Schengen zone expanded.
“The migratory flows do not pass through Romania,” but mainly through Serbia, Romanian Interior Minister Lucian Bode argued.
He pointing to the nearly 140,000 migrants on the western Balkan route recorded by the European agency Frontex since January.
Prime Minister Ciuca said Austria’s refusal was based on “incorrect” figures.
But for political analyst Sergiu Miscoiu, Austria’s veto was more a reflection of internal political pressures, given the rise in polls of the far right there.
The Netherlands finally changed its position and gave Romania the green-light after long being opposed. But it maintained its concerns about “corruption and human rights” in Bulgaria.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said last week that he wanted to be assured that no-one could “cross the border with a 50-euro note.”
Bulgarian Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev rejected what he described as “insulting” remarks, especially given the “exceptional efforts” they had made to meet Brussels’ demands.
Bulgarian weekly magazine Capital commented: “We expect the impossible from the poorest and most corrupt country in the EU: don’t let migrants pass through (the country), but give asylum to every migrant who enters,” it remarked.
And analyst Miscoiu warned that a negative vote could “strengthen the euroskeptics, especially in Bulgaria, which has already had four elections in the past two years.”
Romanian president Klaus Iohannis also warned that rejection “might compromise European unity and cohesion, which we so need, especially in the current geopolitical context.”


Griner for Bout: WNBA star freed in US-Russia prisoner swap

Updated 08 December 2022

Griner for Bout: WNBA star freed in US-Russia prisoner swap

  • The deal, the second such exchange in eight months with Russia, procured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad
  • “Moments ago, I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” Biden tweeted

WASHINGTON: Russia freed WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday in a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange, with the US releasing notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, American and Russian officials said.
The swap, at a time of heightened tensions over Ukraine, achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden, but carried a heavy price — and left behind an American jailed for nearly four years in Russia.
The deal, the second such exchange in eight months with Russia, procured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad. Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose monthslong imprisonment on drug charges brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.
Biden’s authorization to release a Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death” underscored the escalating pressure that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.
The swap was confirmed by US officials with direct knowledge of the negotiations who were not authorized to publicly discuss the deal before a White House announcement and spoke on condition of anonymity. Biden spoke with Griner on the phone Thursday while her partner, Cherelle, was in the Oval Office. The president was to address reporters later in the morning.
“Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” Biden tweeted.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also confirmed the swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu-Dhabi and that Bout has been flown home
Russian and US officials had conveyed cautious optimism in recent weeks after months of strained negotiations, with Biden saying in November that he was hopeful that Russia would engage in a deal now that the midterm elections were completed. A top Russian official said last week that a deal was possible before year’s end.
Even so, the fact that the deal was a one-for-one swap was a surprise given that US officials had for months expressed their their determination to bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the US government has said are baseless.
In releasing Bout, the US freed a a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. Bout, whose exploits inspired a Hollywood movie, was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that USofficials said were to be used against Americans.
The Biden administration was ultimately willing to exchange Bout if it meant Griner’s freedom. The detention of one of the greatest players in WNBA history contributed to a swirl of unprecedented public attention for an individual detainee case — not to mention intense pressure on the White House.
Griner’s arrest in February made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad. Her status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, infused racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga and made each development a matter of international importance.
Her case not only brought unprecedented publicity to the dozens of Americans wrongfully detained by foreign governments, but it also emerged as a major inflection point in US-Russia diplomacy at a time of deteriorating relations prompted by Moscow’s war against Ukraine.
The exchange was carried out despite deteriorating relations between the powers. But the imprisonment of Americans produced a rare diplomatic opening, yielding the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow — a phone call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — in more than five months.
In an extraordinary move during otherwise secret negotiations, Blinken revealed publicly in July that the US had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia for Griner and Whelan. Though he did not specify the terms, people familiar with it said the US had offered Bout.
Such a public overture drew a chiding rebuke from the Russians, who said they preferred to resolve such cases in private, and carried the risk of weakening the US government’s negotiating hand for this and future deals by making the administration appear too desperate. But the announcement was also meant to communicate to the public that Biden was doing what he could and to ensure pressure on the Russians.
Besides the efforts of US officials, the release also followed months of backchannel negotiations involving Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations and a frequent emissary in hostage talks, and his top deputy Mickey Bergman. The men had made multiple trips abroad in the last year to discuss swap scenarios with Russian contacts.
Griner was arrested at the Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February when customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty in July, though still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case.
She acknowledged in court that she possessed the canisters, but said she had no criminal intent and said their presence in her luggage was due to hasty packing.
Before being sentenced on Aug. 4 and receiving a punishment her lawyers said was out of line for the offense, an emotional Griner apologized “for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them.” She added: “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.”
Her supporters had largely stayed quiet for weeks after her arrest, but that approach changed in May once the State Department designated her as unlawfully detained. A separate trade, Marine veteran Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in the US in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy, spurred hope that additional such exchanges could be in the works.
Whelan has been held in Russia since December 2018. The US government also classified him as wrongfully detained. He was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison.
Whelan was not included in the Reed prisoner swap, escalating pressure on the Biden administration to ensure that any deal that brought home Griner also included him.


Taliban official: 27 people lashed in public in Afghanistan

Updated 08 December 2022

Taliban official: 27 people lashed in public in Afghanistan

  • The men and women were convicted by three courts in each case and were each lashed between 25 to 39 times

ISLAMABAD: Twenty-seven people were lashed in public on Thursday in a northern Afghan province as punishment for alleged adultery, theft, drug offenses and other crimes, according to an official with the Supreme Court in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
The punishments underscored the intentions by Afghanistan’s new rulers to continue hard-line policies implemented since they took over the country in August 2021 and to stick to their interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia.
A statement from the court said the lashings took place in Parwan province, with 18 men and nine women punished in all.
Abdul Rahim Rashid, an official with the court, said the men and women were convicted by three courts in each case and were each lashed between 25 to 39 times. An unspecified number of those punished also received two-year prison terms in Charakar, the provincial capital, he added.
“There were different cases with different types of punishment, which all were approved by the courts and implemented in a public gathering of locals and officials” said Rashid.
Provincial officials and local residents attended the public lashings, during which officials spoke about the importance of implementing Sharia law in society, added the court statement.
Thursday’s lashings come a day after the Taliban authorities executed an Afghan convicted of killing another man, the first public execution since the former insurgents took over Afghanistan last year.
The execution, carried out with an assault rifle by the victim’s father, took place in western Farah province before hundreds of spectators and many top Taliban officials, according to Zabihullah Mujahid, the top Taliban government spokesman. Some officials came from the capital Kabul.
A separate court statement said that earlier this week, three men convicted of theft were lashed in public in eastern Paktika province.
During the previous Taliban rule of Afghanistan in the late 1990s, the group carried out public executions, floggings and stoning of those convicted of crimes in Taliban courts.
After they overran Afghanistan in 2021, in the final weeks of the US and NATO forces’ pullout from the country after 20 years of war, the Taliban had initially promised to allow for women’s and minority rights. Instead, they have restricted rights and freedoms, including imposing a ban on girl’s education beyond the sixth grade.
The former insurgents have struggled in their transition from warfare to governing amid an economic downturn and the international community’s withholding of official recognition.


Russia says goal of Zaporizhzhia nuclear safety zone is to ‘stop Ukraine shelling’

Updated 08 December 2022

Russia says goal of Zaporizhzhia nuclear safety zone is to ‘stop Ukraine shelling’

  • Both Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other of shelling the plant

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that the main goal of a proposed safety zone around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine was to “stop Ukraine shelling.”
Both Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other of shelling the plant, Europe’s biggest nuclear power station, risking causing a nuclear accident.
The plant has come under repeated shelling since Russia seized it shortly after launching its invasion in February, prompting the IAEA nuclear safety watchdog to call for a demilitarised safety zone around the plant.


US blacklists companies for aiding Russian army, Pakistan nuclear activities, Iranian electronics firm

Updated 08 December 2022

US blacklists companies for aiding Russian army, Pakistan nuclear activities, Iranian electronics firm

  • US uses export controls and entity list to punish companies over their support of Russian military
  • It also aims to curb flow of foreign technology to Russia since Moscow invaded Ukraine last year

WASHINGTON: The Biden administration on Wednesday added 24 companies and other entities to an export control list for supporting Russia’s military or defense industrial base, Pakistan's nuclear activities or for supplying an Iranian electronics company.

The entities, based in Latvia, Pakistan, Russia, Singapore and Switzerland, were added over US national security and foreign policy concerns, the Commerce Department said.

The Biden administration added 10 companies in Pakistan that it says pose unacceptable risks of using or diverting items for Pakistan's unsafeguarded nuclear activities or are involved Pakistan's "nuclear activities and missile proliferation-related activities."

The 24 companies also include Fiber Optic Solutions in Latvia, which produces fiber optic gyroscopes and other equipment and Russia's AO Kraftway Corporation PSC, which calls itself one of the biggest Russian IT companies. The company says it builds and sells a wide range of IT solutions including hardware manufacturing.

Also on the list are Russian AO Scientific Research Center for Electronic Computing, LLC Fibersense, and Scientific Production Company Optolin, AO PKK Milandr; Milandr EK OOO; Milandr ICC JSC; Milur IS, OOO; Microelectronic Production Complex Milandr; and Ruselectronics JSC and Swiss based Milur SA.

The Commerce Department also added four trading and supply companies in Singapore for supplying or attempting to supply an Iranian electronics company, Pardazan System Namad Arman

None of the companies was immediately available for comment.

The United States has made muscular use of export controls and the entity list to punish companies over their support of the Russian military and to curb the flow of foreign technology to Russia since Moscow invaded Ukraine in February.

Suppliers of US goods must seek a special a difficult-to-obtain license before shipping to companies added to the list.