Czechs Want to Know What’s Wrong With Their Ill President

When Vaclav Havel nearly died of a ruptured intestine as Czech president in 1998, doctors provided daily updates on his condition.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, a Czech president is again hospitalized but the public has not been told what is wrong with him.

President Milos Zeman was taken into intensive care in hospital on October 10. Since then, his spokesperson and doctors have not provided a diagnosis or said how long he will need to recover.

Politicians and members of the public are now asking whether the 77-year-old president is fit to carry out his duties in the central European country, where communists held power for over four decades until the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

It is all the more worrying, they say, because the Czech Republic has just held an election and it is the president’s duty to appoint the next prime minister.

“We are beginning to look like the Soviet Union or North Korea,” said Michael Zantovsky, a spokesperson for Havel in the early 1990s who now runs the Vaclav Havel Library, drawing comparisons with the secretive communist era.

The president’s spokesperson has said Zeman has been communicating and following developments in the country. Being in the hospital has not gotten in the way of the president’s constitutional duties, he said.

The spokesperson did not respond on Saturday to a request for comment on Zeman’s condition.

Two groups that were in opposition won a majority in the lower house of parliament in the October 8-9 election. Under the constitution, it is Zeman’s duty to accept the government’s resignation and appoint a prime minister after the new parliament convenes for its first session on November 8.

The upper house requested information about the president’s prognosis in a letter to Zeman’s office on Monday. It had received no response as of Saturday, a spokesperson for the chamber said.

‘Not in good hands’

Speaker Milos Vystrcil said on Friday the Senate could enact a constitutional clause to relieve Zeman of his duties after the lower house convenes if the situation does not change.

He questioned whether Zeman was aware of what his office was doing, telling reporters: “The president is not in good hands.”

The Czech president is directly elected. The government has most of the executive powers but the president is the chief commander of the armed forces, appoints key personnel including judges and central bank board members, and can issue amnesties.

If the president were stripped of his powers on the grounds of incapacitation, his duties would be divided, mostly between the lower house speaker — who would appoint the new prime minister — and the prime minister.

Zeman’s spokesperson said on Twitter the constitutional clause was meant for situations such as when the president is in a coma or abducted.

“If grossly abused against a person who normally communicates and thinks, the president would become a de facto state prisoner,” the spokesperson said.

Citing a lack of clearance from Zeman, the hospital has said only that the president had complications related to an undisclosed chronic illness.

Zeman’s wife said on Thursday his recovery would “take time” but gave no details.

Lower house head Radek Vondracek visited Zeman on Thursday and said the president felt better.

The hospital rebuked Vondracek for visiting without doctors’ knowledge, distanced itself from his comments on Zeman’s health and asked police to enforce a ban on visits without doctors’ consent.

Zeman, a smoker, has previously battled diabetes and neuropathy — nerve damage or dysfunction — in his legs, and he has started using a wheelchair.

He spent eight days in hospital in September, when his office said no life-threatening problems were discovered.

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Norway to Conduct Probe of Police Response to Bow-and-Arrow Attack

Norway on Saturday announced it will hold an independent investigation into the actions of police and security agencies following a bow-and-arrow attack that killed five people and injured three others. Police have been criticized for reacting too slowly to contain the massacre, acknowledging that the five deaths took place after police first encountered the attacker.

Norway’s domestic intelligence agency, known by the acronym PST, said it decided to seek the review after consulting with the country’s national and regional police commanders about the attack Wednesday night in the southern town of Kongsberg. A 37-year-old local resident, who police said has admitted to the killings, has been detained and is undergoing psychiatric evaluation.

“Given the seriousness of the matter, it is very important that learning points and any weaknesses and errors are identified quickly in order to be able to implement measures immediately,” PST said in a statement.

Norwegian media have questioned how long it took officers to apprehend suspect Espen Andersen Braathen after the regional police department received reports about a man shooting arrows at a supermarket. According to a police timeline, the first information on the attack was logged at 6:13 p.m. and Andersen Braathen was caught at 6:47 p.m. 

Authorities haven’t revealed what precisely happened within that 34-minute period.

In general, police officials say the first officers on the scene observed the suspect but took cover and called for reinforcements when arrows were fired at them. The officials have acknowledged the armed suspect got away and then likely killed the five victims between the ages of 52 and 78 both outdoors and inside some apartments.  

Norway is one of the few dozen countries in the world where law enforcement officers don’t automatically carry guns though they have a rapid access to guns and other weapons, depending on the situation. Authorities in a statement said police were unarmed during their first encounter and armed during later encounters with Andersen Braathen.

Authorities said one of the wounded was an off-duty police officer struck inside the supermarket, and that all the wounded have been released from the hospital. 

The alleged attacker was known to police before the deadly attack. Norwegian public broadcaster NRK reported that PST security officials received information about Andersen Braathen in 2015 and agents interviewed him in 2017 to determine if he posed a threat. The following year, the agency contacted Norwegian health authorities about him and concluded that he suffered from a serious mental illness, NRK said.

The VG newspaper also reported the agency thought Andersen Braathen might carry out a “low-scale attack with simple means in Norway.” PST did not comment on that report.

Police said Saturday that their suspicion that the suspect’s apparent mental illness caused the attack had strengthened further, while Andersen Braathen’s statement of being a convert to Islam had become a less important investigation line.

“He himself has said that he has converted to Islam. It’s a hypothesis but is also a hypothesis that he hasn’t done so. The investigation so far shows that he hasn’t done this [converting] seriously,” police inspector Per Thomas Omholt told a news conference Saturday. 

Omholt said Friday that three weapons, including the bow and arrow, were used in the attack, but declined to identify the weapons further or reveal how the five victims were killed due to the ongoing investigation. 

A spokesman for Norway’s Muslim community told NRK that it was irresponsible for the police to publish the suspect’s self-acclaimed conversion to Islam, as they did Thursday. 

“It hurts, it’s very painful,” Waqar Dar told NRK. “There are a lot of young Muslims who write to me and say they have a nasty feeling. They love Norway but feel they are not loved back.”

Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl, who assumed the post on Thursday along with the rest of Norway’s new center-left government, has so far not commented on the police handling of the attack. 

“Now it is important that the police get a review and investigate the matter thoroughly,” she told the Swedish public broadcaster SVT.

Norwegian police on Saturday identified the four female victims as Andrea Meyer, 52; Hanne Englund, 56; Liv Berit Borge, 75; and Gun Marith Madsen, 78. The male victim was identified as Gunnar Erling Sauve, 75. 

Several of them were part of Kongsberg’s thriving artists’ community, Norwegian media reported. NRK described Englund as a much-respected potter and artist who ran a gallery and lived in Kongsberg. Madsen was a self-taught painter and Borge held board positions in local nonprofit art organizations. 

Sauve had a long career as a local judge and earlier worked for Norway’s environment ministry. He was Borge’s partner, NRK said. Meyer had moved to Norway from her native Germany several years ago.

Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette Marit will visit Kongsberg on Sunday and attend a memorial service for the victims at the town’s main church.

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Court Upholds New One-Year Sentence for Iranian-British Woman

An Iranian appeals court has upheld a verdict sentencing an Iranian-British woman long held in Tehran to another year in prison, her lawyer said Saturday.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has already served a five-year prison sentence in the Islamic Republic. Her lawyer, Hojjat Kermani, told the Associated Press that the appeals court upheld a verdict issued earlier this year sentencing her to another year.

The verdict additionally includes a one-year travel ban abroad, meaning she cannot leave Iran to join her family for nearly two years.

In April, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced for allegedly spreading “propaganda against the system” when she participated in a protest in front of the Iranian Embassy in London in 2009.

Kermani said Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “concerned” when he informed her about the appeals court decision. He said his client is in touch with her family.

State media in Iran did not immediately acknowledge the ruling, apparently issued after a closed-door hearing.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted of plotting the overthrow of Iran’s government, a charge that she, her supporters and rights groups deny. While employed at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency, she was taken into custody at the Tehran airport in April 2016 as she was returning home to Britain after visiting family.

Rights groups accuse Iran of holding dual-nationals as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West, something Tehran denies. Iran does not recognize dual nationalities, so detainees like Zaghari-Ratcliffe cannot receive consular assistance.

Authorities furloughed Zaghari-Ratcliffe from prison because of the surging coronavirus pandemic and she has been restricted to her parents’ Tehran home since.

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Killing of UK Lawmaker Shocks Nation; Security Reviews Ordered

Britain’s interior minister has ordered an immediate review of the security arrangements for the country’s lawmakers following the slaying Friday of Conservative Member of Parliament David Amess, who was stabbed multiple times in a suspected Islamist terror attack while meeting with constituents east of London.

The 69-year-old Amess is the second British MP to have been killed in the past five years, and his death has prompted nationwide horror and outrage, with politicians across political divides praising him as a hard-working “gentleman MP,” one who eschewed a ministerial career in favor of focusing on the needs of his constituents.

Home Secretary Priti Patel, who chaired a meeting overnight of the country’s security and law-enforcement agencies, on Saturday ordered all police forces to review security arrangements for MPs, according to a spokesperson.

Speaker of the House of Commons Lindsay Hoyle has also said he wants to “examine” parliamentary safety measures for lawmakers following Amess’ killing inside a church hall in the town of Leigh-on-Sea, an hour’s drive east from the British capital.

Patel said questions are “rightly being asked about the safety of our country’s elected representatives.” She said the MP’s death was “a senseless attack on democracy itself.”

Friday’s stabbing attack by a lone assailant bore striking similarities to the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in June 2016. Cox was about to hold meetings with constituents when she was shot and stabbed by a subsequently convicted far-right militant.  

Paramedics battled for nearly two hours to save Amess, one of the British parliament’s longest-serving lawmakers, a devout Catholic and father of five, as he lay on the floor of the hall of Belfairs Methodist Church in Leigh-on-Sea, in the county of Essex.

Ben-Julian Harrington, chief constable of Essex police, said Amess had “suffered multiple injuries.” Local media reported Amess had been stabbed more than a dozen times and that a Roman Catholic priest who offered to administer the last rites was turned away by police because it might interrupt the work of the paramedics.

Police arrested a suspect, whom they identified as a 25-year-old British citizen of Somali descent, on suspicion of murder. The suspect is being questioned by counter-terrorism officers, who are examining possible ties to Islamist extremists.

In a statement, Britain’s Metropolitan Police said, “Senior national co-ordinator for counter-terrorism policing, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Dean Haydon, formally declared the incident as terrorism. The early investigation has revealed a potential motivation linked to Islamist extremism.”

The suspect’s computers and cellphone have been seized, and police have been searching two homes in London linked to the alleged attacker, officials said. 

A local Conservative party official, John Lamb, told reporters near where the attack occurred that constituents were “waiting to see him [Amess], and one of them literally got a knife out and just began stabbing him.” Lamb said Amess was accompanied by two female members of his staff.

“They are devastated. I’ve no idea of the motive. He had no known enemies. I’m told the man was waiting calmly to be seen. It’s horrendous. So awful,” Lamb told The Sun newspaper.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was clearly stunned by the attack, described Amess as “one of the kindest, nicest, most gentle people in politics” with an “outstanding record of passing laws to help the most vulnerable.” He declined to speculate about the motives of the assailant when asked by British broadcasters, saying, “I think what we need to do now is let the police get on with the investigation.”

Politicians, including all of Britain’s living former prime ministers, and the lawmaker’s constituents were quick to praise Amess, with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby describing the murder as “a deep blow” to Britain and to democracy. 

Keir Starmer, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party said, “This is a dark and shocking day. The whole country will feel it acutely, perhaps the more so because we have, heartbreakingly, been here before.”

Johnson, Starmer and Hoyle were among lawmakers who traveled Saturday to the church in Leigh-on-Sea to pay tribute to Amess.

Local residents also laid floral tributes, with a note on one reading “David Amess. RIP. Such a Gentleman XXX.”

“He’s very well thought of in our area — he fights for good causes and sticks up for people around here,” electrician Anthony Finch told reporters.

Amess was first elected in 1983 and built a reputation as an independent-minded and sometimes quirky Conservative. He was a leading Brexiter and opposed same-sex marriage and abortion in most circumstances, placing him on the hard right of Britain’s ruling Conservatives.

But he was also a fervent campaigner for animal rights, an advocacy that didn’t please the fox hunters among his Conservative colleagues. He also co-sponsored energy conservation legislation.

Among his many campaigns, Amess advocated for years for a memorial to be erected in London to honor Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary. The statue was eventually unveiled outside a synagogue in central London in 1997.

Amess’ slaying will revive a debate about the mounting dangers British lawmakers appear to be facing, not only when working in the British parliament, but also when going about their business in their constituencies and seeing voters. British politicians have long prided themselves on the accessibility offered to constituents.

After the killing of Labour MP Cox, there were security reviews and MPs were advised to take more precautions. The amount of money spent protecting lawmakers surged following her death.

Amess himself feared that in the aftermath of Cox’s killing the nature of the relationship between British lawmakers and constituents had altered. In an autobiography published last year, he wrote that MPs had been forced to add additional security precautions, like being “more careful when accepting appointments” and “to never see people alone.” He lamented tightened security had “rather spoilt the great British tradition of the people openly meeting their elected politicians.”

Former Conservative minister Tobias Ellwood on Saturday urged his fellow lawmakers to pause meeting voters in person and to use video conferencing instead. 

Ellwood, who tried to save the life of a police officer in the 2017 Westminster terror attack, said, “Until the Home Secretary’s review of MP security is complete, I would recommend a temporary pause in face-to-face meetings.”

But Speaker of the House of Commons Hoyle warned against any knee-jerk reactions. While promising a parliamentary security review, he told Sky News, “We’ve got to protect MPs and allow them to carry out their duties. The duties that the electorate put them there for — to speak, to meet and to make sure that their views are conveyed to parliament.”

“What we can’t do is give in to these people, people who don’t believe in our values, don’t believe in what we do,” Hoyle added.


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Stabbing Death of British MP Amess Called Terrorist Attack

A British member of Parliament died Friday after being stabbed several times at a church in what police said Saturday was a terrorist attack. 

David Amess, 69, was a member of the Conservative Party and represented Southend West in Essex, England. He was attacked Friday while visiting constituents in his home district in southeastern Britain, officials said.

In a statement Saturday, the Metropolitan Police said that while their investigation was in its early stages, it “has revealed a potential motivation linked to Islamist extremism.” 

Police have not identified a 25-year-old suspect, who is in custody. 

“All our hearts are full of shock and sadness today at the loss of Sir David Amess,” said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who called Amess one of the “kindest, nicest and most gentle people in politics” and noted his efforts to end cruelty to animals. 

Amess, who had been a member of Parliament since 1983, was married and had five children.

Amess is the second member of Parliament to be killed in five years. Jo Cox was murdered by one of her constituents, a far-right extremist, five years ago.

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




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World Donors Seek Ways to Help Afghans, Not Taliban

At an emergency conference this week, the European Union pledged more than 1 billion dollars in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and neighboring countries, as the United Nations warns millions of Afghans are facing famine. But the United States has been cautious, saying it is sending humanitarian aid, but cannot provide funds directly to the Taliban-led government until they start respecting human rights and women’s rights. VOA’s Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports.

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US Defense Secretary Heads to Europe to Focus on Black Sea Stability, NATO 

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is heading to Europe this weekend to meet with leaders in Georgia, Ukraine and Romania and to participate in a NATO defense ministers meeting in Belgium. 


“The Department of Defense steadfastly supports its European Allies and partners in the face of Russia’s destabilizing actions in the critical Black Sea region, and the Secretary looks forward to meeting with his counterparts and other senior officials to reinforce the United States’ commitment to a safe, stable, and prosperous Europe,” the Pentagon said in a statement. 


In Georgia, Austin will meet with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and Minister of Defense Juansher Burchuladze to discuss bilateral relations and regional security. 


In Ukraine, the secretary will meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Minister of Defense Andriy Taran to discuss “Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” as well as the country’s defense industry reforms. 


In Romania, Austin will meet President Klaus Iohannis and Minister of National Defense Nicolae-Ionel Ciuca to discuss bilateral relations. He also will visit U.S. forces at Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base. 


In Belgium, Austin will attend a meeting of his NATO counterparts and Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to ensure the alliance “is prepared for the challenges of the future.” 



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Turkish Media Face 18 Trials in One Week

Eighteen journalists, nearly all of whom work for Kurdish media outlets, stood trial at hearings across Turkey this week. 

Lawyers and media rights groups say the trials show how Turkey’s laws on terrorism and protests can be used to detain or harass journalists. 

Nearly all those in court this week face accusations of belonging to or creating propaganda for a terrorist organization—often a reference to the militant group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Others face charges of defying Law 2911, which regulates public meetings and demonstrations, according to the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA), a Turkey-based group that offers legal support to journalists.

Media who cover protests can sometimes be accused of organizing an illegal gathering. And in April, Turkey’s Interior Ministry issued an order requiring journalists to have permits for covering approved protests. 

Some rights lawyers have said the ruling appears designed to silence journalists.

“The order is problematic because it only recognizes journalists who are given permits by the government to cover protests,” said Erselan Aktan, an Istanbul-based lawyer who has represented dozens of journalists in recent years. 

“It doesn’t consider freelance journalists and those who work for opposition media outlets as journalists and this is against the core of the freedom of expression,” he told VOA.   

One of those in court this week on charges of defying the law on protests was freelance journalist Rusen Takva. 

The journalist, who contributes to the pro-opposition Arti TV, was charged in connection with his coverage of a protest calling for Kurdish rights, in the eastern Turkish city of Van in January. 

A prosecutor had recommended that Takva be sentenced to 18 years in prison. But at a hearing on Tuesday, a new prosecutor dropped the charges, citing a lack of evidence. 

“It was clear from the beginning that this case was not holding,” Takva said. “I was merely doing my job as a journalist. When the original prosecutor was replaced, the new prosecutor concluded that there was no evidence to support the charges against me.”

Others on trial have cases going back more than four years, like journalist Hayri Demir, who worked for outlets including the pro-Kurdish Dicle News Agency. 

In 2017, authorities charged Demir with belonging to and creating propaganda for the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization by Ankara and Washington.  

The journalist’s case has received media attention because evidence presented in the indictment included photographs from a memory stick that was stolen from Demir’s home in Ankara. 

The images were taken by Demir while he was on assignment in northeast Syria in 2015. 

“Six months after that robbery, the pictures on that card came out in the court as evidence in my case file for my conviction,” Demir told VOA.

“My previous telephone conversations with Selahattin Demirtas were also included in my court file as a crime.” 

Demirtas, a former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), has been in prison since 2016 on terror charges.  

The journalist had his ninth hearing Tuesday, but the case remains open with the hearing adjourned. If Demir is convicted, he could face up to 22 years in prison.    

Turkey’s Interior Ministry and Ankara’s High Criminal Court didn’t respond to VOA requests for comment.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last month that Turkish media is “incomparably free,” and that he does not accept the findings of media rights groups that show mass arrests.

“We don’t have any problems of that nature in terms of freedoms,” Erdogan told U.S. broadcaster CBS.

But media lawyer Aktan, who coordinates with the MLSA, said that arrests and trials are common. 

In September alone, 65 journalists had hearings across Turkey, mostly on terror-related charges, defying the protest law or insulting the head of state, Aktan said.  

The country’s media came under pressure following a failed attempted coup in 2016, after which Ankara arrested dozens of journalists it accused of supporting or being sympathetic to the coup.

As of August, data by the Stockholm Center for Freedom, an advocacy groups that documents human rights abuses with a special focus on Turkey, showed 174 journalists either detained pending trial or serving sentences and a further 167 accused of a crime but who are in exile or at large.

Turkey also ranks poorly on the World Press Freedom Index, coming in at 153 out of 180 countries, where 1 is the freest, according to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

This story originated in VOA’s Kurdish Service.

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