US Announces Visa Restrictions on Cuban Officials 

The U.S. State Department has announced new visa restrictions on Cuban officials linked to what Washington says is Havana’s ongoing repression of opposition voices in the small Caribbean nation.

In a statement released Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said nine high-ranking officials from Cuba’s Interior Ministry and armed forces are no longer welcome in the United States after they helped target journalists and activists gathering earlier this month for pro-democracy protests. 

Plans for a “Civic March for Change” on November 15 fell through after the Cuban government arrested key dissidents and surrounded the homes of the protest’s organizers ahead of the march, calling their actions “counterrevolutionary,” Reuters reported. Cuban cities were quiet that day despite calls on social media to gather in the streets against President Miguel Díaz-Canel. Those who did turn out were shouted down by Díaz-Canel’s supporters or arrested. 

In a statement issued ahead of the protests, Blinken called for the Cuban government to listen to its people’s demands. After Cuban security forces blocked journalists, activists and organizers from showing up to the march and arrested those who did, the State Department released another statement, this time condemning the island’s “repressive regime.” 

These new visa restrictions are the strongest actions taken by the U.S. since November 15. In Tuesday’s announcement, Blinken said the nine sanctioned officials were responsible for attempting to “silence the voices of the Cuban people through repression and unjust detentions.” 

“These visa restrictions advance our goal of supporting the Cuban people and promoting accountability not only for regime leaders but also for officials who enable the regime’s assaults on democracy and human rights,” Blinken said in the statement. “The United States continues to use all our diplomatic and economic tools to push for the release of political prisoners and to support the Cuban people’s call for greater freedoms and accountability.” 

In July, Cuba saw its largest anti-government protests in decades, according to Reuters. Many people remain imprisoned after police and military forces cracked down on the peaceful protests, according to the New York Times. 

Then and now, the Cuban government blames local unrest on the United States.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla tweeted Tuesday  that Cuba would “reject foreign interference.” 

“The US is still wrongly presuming that our government will allow it to provoke social destabilization in Cuba,” Rodriguez wrote. “The hostile measures announced today do not alter that determination.” 

 

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Fauci: Existing Coronavirus Vaccines Provide ‘Some’ Protection Against Omicron Variant

The top U.S. infectious disease expert said Tuesday that vaccinated Americans have “some degree of protection” against the new omicron variant of the coronavirus, but that scientists will not know for a few weeks how vaccines may need to be altered to best fight it. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s top medical adviser, said at a White House coronavirus news briefing that the omicron “mutation profile is very different from other variants” of the coronavirus. 

While he said the three existing vaccines used in the U.S. could prevent people who have been inoculated from getting seriously ill from the omicron variant, it “remains uncertain … speculative” whether they will fully work against people getting sick. 

“We believe it is too soon to tell about the severity” of the omicron variant, he said. “We should have a much better idea in the next few weeks.” 

To date, he said, 226 cases of the omicron variant have been identified in 20 countries across the globe, but none so far in the United States. Health officials, however, say they assume the variant eventually will spread to the United States. 

“We are actively looking for the omicron variant in the U.S.,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Stephane Bancel, chief executive of Moderna, which produces one of the vaccines used in the U.S., predicted in an interview with the Financial Times that existing vaccines would be much less effective in combating the omicron variant than the previous four variants of the coronavirus. 

“There is no world, I think, where (the effectiveness) is the same level … we had with delta,” Bancel said, referring to the highly contagious variant that is the predominant strain throughout the U.S. and was first detected in India in late 2020. 

His comments sent U.S. stock indexes tumbling, as investors feared the effect of the omicron variant on the world economy, in which many countries are still struggling from the coronavirus onslaught that started in early 2020. 

Bancel said it could take months for pharmaceutical companies to manufacture effective new vaccines to deal with the specific molecular makeup of the omicron variant. 

Dutch officials said Tuesday that they detected the omicron variant in tests almost two weeks ago, days earlier than when two flights from South Africa transported infected passengers to the Netherlands. 

Walensky said 45 million adults are unvaccinated in the U.S., and millions more children, ages 5 to 18, are eligible to get shots, but their parents have yet to get them inoculated. 

In addition, Jeffrey Zients, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, said that 100 million vaccinated people in the U.S. are eligible for booster shots but have yet to get them.

He, too, said that vaccinations provide “some protection” against the omicron variant and that “boosters help that.” 

“We want to make sure Americans are doing all they can to protect themselves,” he said. 

 

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Belarus Sentences RFE/RL Journalist to 10 Days in Prison

The head of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has condemned the sentencing of a journalist who works for the independent network. 

The news network learned on Tuesday that Andrey Kuznechyk had been tried and convicted of petty hooliganism one day after his arrest, RFE/RL told VOA. 

Four men in plain clothing detained the journalist outside his Minsk apartment on November 25. The men, believed to be Belarusian security agents, searched the journalist’s home and took him away, along with electronic devices belonging to Kuznechyk and his wife, according to RFE/RL. 

When his wife called the local prison to see if Kuznechyk was being held there, she said officials denied the journalist was there. 

Kuznechyk, who denies wrongdoing, was sentenced to 10 days in prison.

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said Belarus should immediately release the journalist. 

“The regime of Alexander Lukashenka continues its effort to crush all independent media in Belarus. Andrey was kidnapped by agents of the regime for nothing more than being a journalist,” Fly said in a statement. 

RFE/RL and VOA are both independent news networks under the U.S. Agency for Global Media. 

Media crackdown 

Media in Belarus have come under increasing pressure since Lukashenko claimed victory in contested elections in August 2020. 

At least 480 journalists were detained in 2020 and a further 245 violations against the media, including arrests, fines and attacks, were recorded in 2021 by the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ).

Authorities have raided newsrooms and journalists’ homes, stripped correspondents of accreditation, blocked access to news websites for local and foreign media, including RFE/RL, Tut.by and Deutsche Welle (DW), and applied legal pressures to civil society, including the BAJ and PEN Belarus.

 

The Belarusian embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA’s request for comment. 

The country’s Information Ministry in October said it had blocked websites that were spreading extremist content. 

But DW’s director general, Peter Limbourg, said the accusations were “ridiculous.” 

“The heavy use of independent news outlets clearly shows that people in Belarus no longer trust the government-controlled media,” Limbourg said in a statement at the time. “We protest against the suspension of our offering because the people there have a right to objective information on the situation in their country.” 

Kuznechyk is not the first RFE/RL journalist to be detained in Belarus since the contested elections. 

Six of the network’s journalists were detained for 15 days while covering protests in August 2020, and a further six were briefly jailed in November 2020. In July, authorities raided the outlet’s Minsk bureau and searched the homes of some of its journalists. 

While most are detained for relatively brief periods, Ihar Losik, a blogger and consultant for the media outlet, has been in prison for more than 520 days. 

Losik is on trial with five others on accusations of using social media to “disrupt social order.” 

A verdict is expected in the closed-door trial on December 14, according to a Facebook post by one of the defendant’s relatives. 

The journalist has been allowed to see his wife only once since being detained and has been prevented from seeing his young daughter or parents, RFE/RL said. 

Separately, independent blogger Raman Pratasevich is awaiting the outcome in his case as well.

Pratasevich was arrested in May after Belarus diverted a passenger jet carrying him. 

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said in late November that Pratasevich is under house arrest at an undisclosed location. 

“The physical and psychological pressure to which Raman Pratasevich has been subjected for the past six months constitutes inhuman treatment and even torture,” Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said in a statement. 

The watchdog has referred his case to the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. 

Pratasevich is editor of the Telegram channel Nexta, which Belarus declared “extremist” in October 2020. News websites, including the popular Tut.by, have similarly been labeled extremist by authorities. 

Journalists who work for such sites and their audiences risk criminal prosecution for sharing what authorities deem as extremist content, a charge which can carry a prison term of up to seven years, RSF reported.

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Ex-Trump Chief-of-Staff Meadows Cooperating with Jan. 6 Panel, for Now 

The House of Representatives committee investigating the deadly Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot said on Tuesday that Mark Meadows, who served as former President Donald Trump’s chief-of-staff, has provided it with records and agreed to appear soon for a deposition. 

“Mr. Meadows has been engaging with the Select Committee through his attorney. He has produced records to the committee and will soon appear for an initial deposition,” Democratic Representative Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House select committee, said in a statement. 

Thompson did not rule out future action against Meadows. Noting that the panel expects all witnesses to provide all the information requested that it is lawfully entitled to receive, Thompson said: “The committee will continue to assess his degree of compliance with our subpoena after the deposition.” 

Trump has urged his associates not to cooperate with the committee, calling the Democratic-led investigation politically motivated and arguing that his communications are protected by executive privilege, although many legal experts say that legal principle does not apply to former presidents. 

On Jan. 6, Trump supporters stormed the Capitol in a bid to prevent Congress from formally certifying his 2020 presidential election loss to Democrat Joe Biden. Shortly before the riot, Trump gave a speech to his supporters repeating his false claims that the election was stolen from him through widespread voting fraud and urging them to go to the Capitol and “fight like hell” to “stop the steal.” 

‘An understanding’ 

Meadows’ lawyer George Terwilliger did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Terwilliger said in a statement to CNN that the two parties had reached an understanding on how information can be exchanged moving forward, stating that Meadows and the committee are open to engaging on a certain set of topics as they work out how to deal with information that could fall under executive privilege. 

Meadows was a Republican House member until he left in 2020 to join Trump’s administration. 

Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon already has been criminally charged with contempt of Congress, pleading not guilty, after defying a committee subpoena. The select committee is meeting  on Wednesday to consider seeking similar charges against Jeffrey Clark, who served as a senior Justice Department official under Trump. 

Meadows was called to appear before the committee this month, but did not do so. 

Agreeing to appear for a deposition does not guarantee that Meadows will provide all the information requested in the committee’s subpoena. Clark appeared, but committee members said he did not cooperate with investigators. 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters on Tuesday that he expects the Democratic-led chamber to vote on Clark’s contempt recommendation this week, if the panel approves it as expected. 

 

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Migrant Advocates Accuse EU of Flagrant Breaches of Geneva Convention

The migrant crisis on Poland’s border, which Western powers accuse Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko of engineering, caught international attention in November. But asylum seekers on the Poland-Belarus border aren’t alone in being shunted back and forth across Europe’s land and sea borders, say rights organizations and other monitors.

Throughout the year, irregular migration to Europe has been increasing, with more than 160,000 migrants entering the European Union this year, mostly through the Balkans and Italy. That’s a 70% jump from 2020, when pandemic travel restrictions are thought to have impacted the mobility of would-be migrants, and a 45% increase over the previous pre-pandemic year.

And with irregular migration picking up again, rights campaigners say the EU and national governments are increasingly skirting or breaking international humanitarian laws in their determination to prevent war refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants from entering or remaining on the continent.

They say European leaders appear determined to avoid a repeat of 2015, when more than a million asylum seekers from the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and central Asia arrived in Europe, roiling the continent’s politics and fueling the rise of anti-migrant political parties.

Reports have multiplied of refugees and migrants being forcibly pushed back over the EU’s external borders. So, too, have reports of refugees being prevented from filing asylum applications. Poland passed a law in August stipulating that migrants who cross the border are to be “taken back to the state border” and “ordered to leave the country immediately,” preventing them from making an asylum application.

Pushbacks breach both European human rights laws and the 1951 Geneva Convention, which outline the rights of refugees as well as the legal obligations of the 146 signatory states to protect them.

Signatory states aren’t allowed to impose penalties on refugees who enter their countries illegally in search of asylum, nor are they allowed to expel refugees (without due process). Under the convention, refugees should not be forcibly returned, technically known as “refoul,” to the home countries they fled. Asylum seekers are meant to be provided with free access to courts, and signatory states are required to offer refugees administrative assistance.

The EU, its border agency, Frontex, and the bloc’s national governments, say they do observe international humanitarian law, but according to several recent investigations by rights organizations, the rules are now being flouted routinely and systematically.

“EU member states have adopted increasingly restrictive and punitive asylum rules and are focusing on reducing migration flows, with devastating consequences,” Amnesty International warned recently.

“We are witnessing tremendous human suffering caused by the EU-Turkey deal and by the EU-Libya cooperation, both of which are leaving men, women and children trapped and exposed to suffering and abuse,” the rights organization says in reference to deals struck with Turkey and Libya to block migrants heading to Europe and readmit them when they are ejected from Europe.

In the case of Libya, migrants are often returned to detention camps run by militias where Amnesty International and others have documented harrowing violations, including sexual violence against men, women and children. In a report published earlier this year, Amnesty noted, “Decade-long violations against refugees and migrants continued unabated in Libyan detention centers during the first six months of 2021 despite repeated promises to address them.”

Lighthouse Reports, a Dutch nonprofit journalism consortium, has documented dozens of instances in which Frontex surveillance aircraft were in the vicinity of migrant boats later intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard. “There is a clear pattern discernible. Boats in distress are spotted, communications take place between European actors and the Libyan Coast Guard,” Lighthouse researchers said in a report this year.

Frontex has routinely denied the allegations but lawmakers in the European Parliament accused the agency, after a four-month investigation, of failing to “fulfill its human rights obligations.” In the Balkans, the Border Violence Monitoring Network and other NGOs say they have gathered testimony from hundreds of refugees who allege they have been beaten back into Bosnia-Herzegovina across the Croatian border by baton-wielding men whose uniforms bear no insignia.

Europe’s peripheral countries have also been erecting border fences and building walls with the prospects of more Afghan refugees appearing on their borders acting as a spur. Greece has completed a 40-kilometer wall along its land border with Turkey and installed an automated surveillance system to try to prevent asylum seekers from reaching Europe. Other countries are following suit and have been pushing the EU to help with funding.

Critics say the wall-building now contrasts with the criticism European leaders leveled four years ago against then-U.S. President Donald Trump over his plan to build a wall on America’s southern border with Mexico. “We have a history and a tradition that we celebrate when walls are brought down and bridges are built,” admonished Federica Mogherini, then the EU’s foreign policy chief.

While migrant advocates complain of rights violations, calls are mounting in Europe for changes to be made to both the Geneva Convention and the bloc’s humanitarian laws. Critics of the convention say it was primarily drawn up to cope with population displacement in Europe in the wake of the Second World War. They say it fails to recognize the nature and scale of the much more complex migration patterns of the 21st century, which could see numbers swell because of climate change.

Last week in Budapest, Balázs Orbán, a deputy minister in the Hungarian government, said the current EU migration laws should be replaced. The current legal system is “catalyzing the influx of illegal migrants, and not helping to stop them on the borders,” he said. “This framework was created during the time of the Geneva Convention in 1951, when refugees from the Soviet Union needed to be accommodated for. Now, times have changed,” he added. 

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German Court Convicts Ex-IS Member of Murder, Role in Yazidi Genocide

A German court Tuesday convicted a former Islamic State member of the 2015 murder of a 5-year-old Yazidi girl.

Taha al-Jumailly, an Iraqi national, was also sentenced to serve life in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity. He was ordered to pay the victim’s mother, who survived captivity, $57,000.

It is the first genocide verdict against an Islamic State member.

“This is the moment Yazidis have been waiting for,” said lawyer Amal Clooney, who acted as a counsel for the mother. “To finally hear a judge, after seven years, declare that what they suffered was genocide. To watch a man face justice for killing a Yazidi girl — because she was Yazidi.”

German prosecutors said al-Jumailly bought the mother and child as slaves in Syria in 2015. He then took them to Fallujah in Iraq where he beat them and didn’t give them enough food.  

In 2015, al-Jumailly chained the girl to window bars in a room where the temperature reached 50 degrees Celsius. The girl died.

In 2019, al-Jumailly was arrested in Greece and extradited to Germany, where authorities took the case using the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Al-Jumailly’s German wife was sentenced last month to 10 years in prison for her involvement in the case. She was a witness for the prosecution in al-Jumailly’s trial.

In 2014, IS rampaged through the Yazidi heartland in northern Iraq. In many cases, it forced young women into sex slavery. Many in the Yazidi community, which numbers more than half-a-million, were displaced.

In 2016, a U.N. commission declared the IS treatment of the Yazidis inside Syria as a genocide.

“We can only hope that [this case] will serve as a milestone for further cases to follow,” Zemfira Dlovani, a lawyer and member of Germany’s Central Council of Yazidis, told The Associated Press, noting that thousands of Yazidi women were enslaved and mistreated by the Islamic State group. “This should be the beginning, not the end.”

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters. 

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Biden Heads to Minnesota to Promote Infrastructure Plan

U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday visits a Minnesota technical college to sell Americans on his recently approved $1 trillion infrastructure plan, which the administration says will train millions of Americans “for the high-growth jobs of the future” that will build the massive infrastructure Biden says the U.S. needs to compete globally.

This is Biden’s first visit to the state known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” since he was elected president. He plans to visit Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, Minnesota, to speak to students about the legislation and how it affects them. 

“The majority of jobs supported by the president’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill will not need a four-year college degree,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday, ahead of the trip. “And the programs provided by community and technical colleges like Dakota County Technical College will provide the training and skill development needed to help workers access the jobs created.”

The public, two-year technical college serves nearly 13,000 students across multiple disciplines, including construction and manufacturing.

The White House estimates that under the new law, Minnesota will receive $4.5 billion for federal-aid highways; $302 million for bridges; $818 million for public transportation; $680 million to improve water infrastructure; and $100 million that aims to cover every resident with high-speed internet. 

The legislation also will provide about $68 million to expand the state’s electric vehicle charging network, and Minnesota will receive a slice of the $50 billion the law allocates to strengthening infrastructure against the impacts of climate change.

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Nigerian Authorities Search for Over 250 Inmates Freed in Prison Attack

Nigerian authorities are searching for more than 250 inmates still at large after an armed group attacked a prison in the central city of Jos. Prison authorities say nine escapees were killed in clashes with security forces.

An unspecified number of heavily armed men invaded the medium security prison yard in the city of Jos on Sunday evening, shooting sporadically.

Nigerian Prison Services officials say one soldier was killed during an exchange of gunfire with the armed men and one prison staffer was shot in the hand. 

Officials say one attacker was killed and more than 250 inmates were freed. They say six inmates were injured during the attack and are receiving treatment.  

This was the fourth major attack on prisons this year in the West African nation.

Nigeria Prisons Services public relations officer Francis Enobore described the incident as unfortunate.

“Unfortunately, we’re now faced with this new sheriff in town – armed men coming to invade the facilities with military-based weapons, including explosives and all of that, but we’re not folding our hands,” Enobore said.

Last month, a similar attack on a prison in southwestern Oyo state freed about 392 inmates. 

In April, correctional service authorities in southeastern Imo state said 1,844 inmates escaped after a prison attack that was blamed on a separatist group known as the Indigenous People of Biafra or IPOB. The group denied the accusation.

Enobore said authorities are taking steps to prevent further jailbreaks.

“We are trying to upgrade the training of our arms corps personnel. The military is assisting us in that regard, so that we’ll be able to deploy military weapons to be able to withstand those attackers. We’re also working on reclaiming our buffer zones to enable [us to] profile whoever is encroaching into your territory,” Enobore said.

Last week, Nigerian authorities designated certain armed groups in the country as terrorist organizations. 

Experts praised the move, saying that charging the groups with terror-related offenses will make it easier to crack down on their activities.

But security expert and former defense spokesperson John Agim says there’s more to be done.

“The prison officials should be able to study the pattern of the breaks and know where the problem is from. What they’re supposed to do is to look at the caliber of prisoners they have. Then they will know what level of security they’ll require to safeguard the prison,” Agim said.

There were some 1,060 inmates in the Jos prison before Sunday’s attack. Prison authorities and the police are searching for 252 escapees who have been missing since the break.

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