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

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner speaks with her lawyers Alexander Boykov and Maria Blagovolina prior to hearing in Khimki district court. (AP/File)
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Updated 09 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.


Ten children killed in northwest Pakistan boat capsize

Updated 29 January 2023

Ten children killed in northwest Pakistan boat capsize

PESHAWAR: Ten children died when their boat capsized on Sunday in northwest Pakistan, a local police official said.
All of the dead so far recovered from Tanda Dam lake, near Kohat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, were between seven and 14-years-old, according to local police official Mir Rauf.
Rauf said 11 children had been rescued from the water, with six in critical condition. The boat was carrying between 25 and 30 students on a daytrip from a local madrassa when it overturned.
“A rescue operation is underway,” Rauf told AFP.
Mass drownings are common in Pakistan, when aged and overloaded vessels lose their stability and pitch passengers into the water.
Many in the country do not know how to swim, particularly women who are discouraged from learning owing to conservative social mores. Their all-covering clothes also weigh them down once they become sodden.
In July, 18 women drowned when an overcrowded boat carrying a wedding party across the Indus river in Punjab province capsized.


At least 40 killed in southwest Pakistan bus crash

Updated 29 January 2023

At least 40 killed in southwest Pakistan bus crash

  • Passenger buses are frequently crammed to capacity and seatbelts are not commonly worn

QUETTA: At least 40 people died when a bus plunged off a bridge in southwestern Pakistan and burst into flames, a government official said Sunday.
“The dead bodies...are beyond recognition,” Hamza Anjum, a senior official of Lasbela district in Balochistan province, said at the accident site.
Anjum said three survivors had been rescued and the bus was reportedly carrying 48 passengers when it hit a pillar on the bridge and careened off course.
Ramshackle highways, lax safety measures and reckless driving contribute to Pakistan’s dire road safety record.
Passenger buses are frequently crammed to capacity and seatbelts are not commonly worn, meaning high death tolls from single vehicle accidents are common.
According to World Health Organization estimates, more than 27,000 people were killed on Pakistan’s roads in 2018.


Death toll in Afghanistan cold snap rises to 166, official says

Updated 29 January 2023

Death toll in Afghanistan cold snap rises to 166, official says

  • Afghanistan has been frozen by temperatures as low as -33 degrees Celsius since Jan 10
  • Aid agencies had earlier warned more than half of 38 million Afghans were facing hunger

KABUL: At least 166 people have died in a wave of bitterly cold weather sweeping Afghanistan, an official said Saturday, as extreme conditions heaped misery on the poverty-stricken nation.

Afghanistan has been frozen by temperatures as low as -33 degrees Celsius (-27 degrees Fahrenheit) since January 10, combined with widespread snowfall, icy gales and regular electricity outages.

Aid agencies had warned before the cold snap that more than half of Afghanistan’s 38 million people were facing hunger, while nearly four million children were suffering from malnutrition.

The disaster management ministry said on Saturday the death toll had risen by 88 over the past week and now stood at 166, based on data from 24 of the nation’s 34 provinces.

The deaths were caused by floods, fires and leaks from gas heaters that Afghan families use to heat their homes, ministry official Abdul Rahman Zahid said in a video statement.

Some 100 homes were destroyed or damaged and nearly 80,000 livestock, a vital commodity for Afghanistan’s poor, also died in the cold.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said this week 17 people had died in a single village in northeastern Badakhshan province due to an outbreak of “acute respiratory infection.”

“Harsh weather prevents help from reaching the area,” the WHO said.

Afghanistan is enduring its second winter since US-backed forces withdrew and the Islamist Taliban surged back into Kabul to reclaim government.

Foreign aid has declined dramatically since then and key central bank assets were seized by the United States, compounding a humanitarian crisis considered one of the world’s worst.

The Taliban government banned Afghan women from working with humanitarian groups last month, leading many to suspend operations.

Women NGO workers in the health sector were then granted an exemption and some organizations restarted their programs.


Unified global effort to repair Earth’s ozone layer infuses new life into climate change fight

Updated 29 January 2023

Unified global effort to repair Earth’s ozone layer infuses new life into climate change fight

  • Scientists say the hole in the planet’s shield, first detected in the 1980s, will return to normal by around 2066 
  • Same cooperation seen under the 1987 Montreal Protocol needed to slow global warming, say experts

LONDON: You cannot see it with the naked eye but high over your head, just above the altitude at which the highest-flying passenger jets cruise, there is a fragile layer of naturally occurring gas that shields all life on Earth from the deadly effects of the ultraviolet radiation emitted by the sun.

This is the ozone shield, a belt of gas — specifically ozone, or O3, which is made of three oxygen atoms — formed by the natural interaction of solar ultraviolet radiation with O2, the oxygen we breathe.

Without it, we’d all be cooked. In the words of the UN Environment Program’s Ozone Secretariat, “long-term exposure to high levels of UV-B threatens human health and damages most animals, plants and microbes, so the ozone layer protects all life on Earth.”

But now, after decades of battling to save it — and us — scientists have announced that the hole in the ozone layer, which was detected in the 1980s, is healing.

The announcement this month is a victory for one of the greatest international scientific collaborations the world has ever seen. And, as the world struggles to tackle climate change, it is a timely and hugely encouraging demonstration of what the international community can achieve when it really puts its mind to something.

As the nations of the world prepare to gather at the UN Climate Change Conference, COP28, in the UAE, where in November they will be expected to account for the progress they have made toward the climate-change goals set by the 2015 Paris Agreement, the brilliant success of the ozone-saving 1987 Montreal Protocol can only be an inspiration.

A scientist launches a research balloon at Australia’s Giles Weather Station. (Shutterstock)

The ozone layer, and its role in absorbing the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, was first identified by two French physicists, Charles Fabry and Henri Buisson, in 1913, but it was not until 1974 that an article in the journal Nature warned that we were in danger of destroying it.

Chemists F. Sherwood Rowland, of the University of California Irvine, and Mario Molina, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discovered that human-created gases, such as the chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, used in appliances and products such as fridges and aerosols, were destroying ozone.

In 1995, Rowland and Molina, together with Dutch scientist Paul Crutzen, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for their work in atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone.”

But, the Nobel citation continued, “the real shock came” in 1985, when scientists with the British Antarctic Survey, which had been monitoring the Antarctic ozone layer since 1957, detected “a drastic depletion of the ozone layer over the Antarctic.”

The size of the hole identified over the survey’s Halley and Faraday Antarctic research stations seemed to vary, which at first was a puzzle.

It is now understood, the BAS explains, “that during the polar winter, clouds form in the Antarctic ozone layer and chemical reactions in the clouds activate ozone-destroying substances.

“When sunlight returns in the spring, these substances — mostly chlorine and bromine from compounds such as CFCs and halons — take part in efficient catalytic reactions that destroy ozone at around 1 percent per day.”

The discovery “changed the world.” NASA satellites were used to confirm that “not only was the hole over British research stations, but it covered the entire Antarctic continent.”

This was the so-called “ozone hole” and, as Crutzen noted in his 1995 Nobel lecture, “it was a close call.”

He said: “Had Joe Farman and his colleagues from the British Antarctic Survey not persevered in making their measurements in the harsh Antarctic environment … the discovery of the ozone hole may have been substantially delayed and there may have been far less urgency to reach international agreement on the phasing out of CFC production.”

It was the work of the survey that led to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, an agreement, adopted in 1987, that regulated the production and consumption of nearly 100 man-made chemicals identified as “ozone depleting substances.”

“There had been suggestions in the 1960s and 1970s that you could put gases into the atmosphere which would destroy ozone,” atmospheric scientist Professor John Pyle, former head of chemistry at the University of Cambridge and one of the four international co-chairs on the Scientific Assessment Panel for the Montreal Protocol, told Arab News.

“At the time there was also concern about the oxides of nitrogen from high-flying supersonic aircraft, such as Concorde, which could destroy ozone.

This time-lapse photo shows the path of an ozonesonde as it rises into the atmosphere in the South Pole. (Courtesy of Robert Schwarz/South Pole, 2017)

“But after Rowland and Molina published their paper, suggesting that CFC gases could get high enough up into the atmosphere to destroy ozone, there was about a decade during which this was just a theoretical idea before, thanks to the British Antarctic Survey, the ozone hole was discovered.”

The global reaction, choreographed by the UN and the World Meteorological Organization, was almost startlingly rapid.

The British Antarctic Survey paper was published in 1985, and by 1987 the Montreal Protocol had been agreed. In the words of the UN Environment Program: “The protocol is considered to be one of the most successful environmental agreements of all time.

“What the parties to the protocol have managed to accomplish since 1987 is unprecedented, and it continues to provide an inspiring example of what international cooperation at its best can achieve.”

Without doubt, millions of people have lived longer, healthier lives thanks to the Montreal Protocol. In 2019, the US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that in the US alone the protocol had prevented 280 million cases of skin cancer, 1.6 million deaths, and 45 million cases of cataracts.

Combo image released by NASA's Earth Observatory on Dec. 1, 2009, showing the size and shape of the ozone hole each year in 1979 (L) and in 2009. (AFP file)

The battle is not over, however. It will take another four decades for the ozone layer to fully recover, according to the latest four-yearly report from the UN-backed Scientific Assessment Panel to the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depleting Substances, which was published this month.

But according the “Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion: 2022” report: “The phase out of nearly 99 percent of banned ozone-depleting substances has succeeded in safeguarding the ozone layer, leading to notable recovery of the ozone layer in the upper stratosphere and decreased human exposure to harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun.”

If current policies remain in place, it adds, “the ozone layer is expected to recover to 1980 values” — that is, before the appearance of the ozone hole — “by around 2066 over the Antarctic, by 2045 over the Arctic, and by 2040 for the rest of the world.”

Ozone timelines from the UNEP's Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion report of 2022.

This is “fantastic news,” Meg Seki, executive secretary of the UN Environment Program’s Ozone Secretariat, told Arab News. And it has had an additional benefit in the fight against global warming.

In 2016, an additional agreement, known as the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, resulted in the scaling down of production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, the compounds that were introduced to replace banned CFCs but which were found to be powerful climate change gases. It is estimated that by 2100, the Kigali Amendment will have helped to prevent up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of global warming.

“The impact the Montreal Protocol has had on climate-change mitigation cannot be overstressed,” said Seki. “Over the past 35 years, the protocol has become a true champion for the environment.”

Delegates converse during the 28th meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol in Kigali, Rwanda, on Oct. 13, 2016. (AFP file)

It is also a shining example of what could be achieved in the battle against climate change.

Sept. 16 each year is the UN’s International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer. As Antonio Guterres, the UN’s secretary-general, said as he marked the occasion in 2021: “The Montreal Protocol … has done its job well over the past three decades. The ozone layer is on the road to recovery.”

He added: “The cooperation we have seen under the Montreal Protocol is exactly what is needed now to take on climate change, an equally existential threat to our societies.”

 


Finnish, Swedish FMs: NATO membership process hasn’t stopped

Updated 28 January 2023

Finnish, Swedish FMs: NATO membership process hasn’t stopped

  • To admit new countries, NATO requires unanimous approval from its existing members, of which Turkiye is one
  • Hungary and Turkiye are the only countries in the 30-member Western military alliance that haven't signed off on Finland’s and Sweden’s application

HELSINKI: The foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland reiterated in separate interviews published Saturday that the process for the two Nordic nations to join NATO is continuing despite Turkiye’s president saying Sweden shouldn’t expect his country to approve its membership.
Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström acknowledged in an interview with Swedish newspaper Expressen that Turkish anger over recent demonstrations and the burning of the Qur’an in front of the Turkish Embassy in Stockholm had complicated Sweden’s NATO accession.
To admit new countries, NATO requires unanimous approval from its existing members, of which Turkiye is one. Despite this, the Swedish government is hopeful of joining NATO this summer, Billström said.
“It goes without saying that we’re looking toward the (NATO) summit in Vilnius,” Lithuania’s capital, in July, Billström told Expressen when asked of the timetable for Sweden’s possible accession.
Hungary and Turkiye are the only countries in the 30-member Western military alliance that haven’t signed off on Finland’s and Sweden’s applications.
While Hungary has pledged to do so in February, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Thursday that a planned meeting in Brussels to discuss Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership was postponed.
Such a meeting would have been “meaningless” following the events of last weekend in Stockholm, Cavusoglu said. They included protests by pro-Kurdish groups and the burning of Islam’s holy book outside the Turkish Embassy by a far right Danish politician, Rasmus Paludan.
Expressen quoted Billström on Saturday as saying that the work to get Sweden and Finland into NATO was not on hold.
“The NATO process has not paused. The (Swedish) government continues to implement the memorandum that exists between Sweden, Finland and Turkiye. But it is up to Turkiye to decide when they will ratify,” he said.
Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto echoed his Swedish counterpart and said the two countries planned to continue making a joint journey toward NATO.
“In my view, the road to NATO hasn’t closed for either country,” Haavisto said in an interview with Finnish public broadcaster YLE.
He said that Ankara’s announcement to defer trilateral talks with Finland, Sweden and Turkiye for now “represents an extension of time from the Turkish side, and that the matter can be revisited after the Turkish elections” set for May 14.
Haavisto said he was hopeful that time frame would allow for Finland and Sweden’s membership to be finalized at the July 11-12 NATO summit in Lithuania.