Assange Wins First Stage in Effort to Appeal US Extradition

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Monday won the first stage of his effort to overturn a U.K. ruling that opened the door for his extradition to U.S. to stand trial on espionage charges.

The High Court in London gave Assange permission to appeal the case to the U.K. Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court must agree to accept the case before it can move forward.

“Make no mistake, we won today in court,” Assange’s fiancee, Stella Moris, said outside the courthouse, noting that he remains in custody at Belmarsh Prison in London.  

“We will fight this until Julian is free,” she added.

The Supreme Court normally takes about eight sitting weeks after an application is submitted to decide whether to accept an appeal, the court says on its website.  

The decision is the latest step in Assange’s long battle to avoid a trial in the U.S. on a series of charges related to WikiLeaks’ publication of classified documents more than a decade ago.

Just over a year ago, a district court judge in London rejected a U.S. extradition request on the grounds that Assange was likely to kill himself if held under harsh U.S. prison conditions. U.S. authorities later provided assurances that the WikiLeaks founder wouldn’t face the severe treatment his lawyers said would put his physical and mental health at risk.  

The High Court last month overturned the lower court’s decision, saying that the U.S. promises were enough to guarantee Assange would be treated humanely.

Those assurances were the focus of Monday’s ruling by the High Court.  

Assange’s lawyers are seeking to appeal because the U.S. offered its assurances after the lower court made its ruling. But the High Court overturned the lower court ruling, saying that the judge should have given the U.S. the opportunity to offer the assurances before she made her final ruling.

The High Court gave Assange permission to appeal so the Supreme Court can decide “in what circumstances can an appellate court receive assurances from a requesting state … in extradition proceedings.”

Assange’s lawyers have argued that the U.S. government’s pledge that Assange won’t be subjected to extreme conditions is meaningless because it’s conditional and could be changed at the discretion of American authorities.

The U.S. has asked British authorities to extradite Assange so he can stand trial on 17 charges of espionage and one charge of computer misuse linked to WikiLeaks’ publication of thousands of leaked military and diplomatic documents.

Assange, 50, has been held at the high-security Belmarsh Prison since 2019, when he was arrested for skipping bail during a separate legal battle. Before that, he spent seven years holed up inside Ecuador’s Embassy in London. Assange sought protection in the embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden to face allegations of rape and sexual assault.

Sweden dropped the sex crimes investigations in November 2019 because so much time had elapsed.

American prosecutors say Assange unlawfully helped U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning steal classified diplomatic cables and military files that WikiLeaks later published, putting lives at risk.  

Lawyers for Assange argue that their client shouldn’t have been charged because he was acting as a journalist and is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees freedom of the press. They say the documents he published exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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UNESCO: World Failing to Provide Quality Education for Children

A United Nations report released Monday said the world is failing to insure that by 2030 all children are receiving an “inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities.” 

The indicators used to determine a participating country’s success included: early childhood education attendance; drop-out rates; completion rates; gender gaps in completion rates; minimum proficiency rates in reading and mathematics; trained teachers; and public education expenditure. 

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, said countries were already failing their children “even before taking into account the potential consequences of COVID-19 on education development.”  

This failure “is a wakeup call for the world’s leaders,” UNESCO’s report said, “as millions of children will continue to miss out on school and high-quality learning.” 

The education benchmarks are included in Sustainable Development Goal 4 – one of 17 goals set up in 2015 by the U.N. General Assembly. The goals are intended to be achieved by 2030. 

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French Fashion Designer Thierry Mugler Dies Aged 73

French designer Thierry Mugler, who reigned over fashion in the 1980s and died on Sunday, was as famous for his fantastical couture as for his blockbuster fashion shows. He was 73.

Mugler’s daring collections came to define the decade’s power dressing, with his clothes noted for their structured and sophisticated silhouettes, showcased by his extravagant shows.

“I always thought that fashion was not enough on its own and that it had to be shown in its musical and theatrical environment,” he once said.

In later years, he dressed Beyonce and Lady Gaga — and in 2019 came out of retirement to create Kim Kardashian’s Met Gala look.

“We are devastated to announce the passing of Mr Manfred Thierry Mugler on Sunday January 23rd 2022,” said a post on the designer’s official Facebook account.

His agent Jean-Baptiste Rougeot, who said the designer had died of “natural causes,” added he had been due to announce new collaborations early this week.

Born in Strasbourg in December 1948, as a young teen Mugler joined the Opera du Rhin’s ballet company before studying at the School of Decorative Arts.

From a young age he created his own clothes, adapting items bought at nearby flea markets. He moved to Paris aged 20, initially to work with another ballet company — but was more successful with his own wardrobe.

Mugler soon became a freelance stylist and worked for various fashion houses in Paris, London and Milan.

In 1973, he took the plunge and created his own label “Café de Paris”, before founding “Thierry Mugler” a year later.

His designs exacerbated and celebrated women’s forms: shoulders accentuated by padding, plunging necklines, constricted waists and rounded hips.

“Dancing taught me a lot about posture, the organization of clothing, the importance of the shoulders, the head carriage, the play and rhythm of the legs,” said Mugler.

A showman at heart, he organized spectacular presentations of his creations pioneering the modern spectacle of the 21st century fashion show.

“Today’s fashion shows are a continuation of what Mugler invented. The collections were pretexts for fashion shows,” recalled Didier Grumbach, former CEO of Thierry Mugler.

He had showmanship in his blood: for the 10th anniversary of his label in 1984, he organized the first public fashion show in Europe with 6,000 attending the rock concert-like show.

But nothing compared to the 20th anniversary celebration in 1995, staged at the Cirque d’Hiver.

Models including Jerry Hall, Naomi Campbell, Eva Herzigova and Kate Moss paraded alongside stars such as Tippi Hedren and Julie Newmar with the spectacle culminating in a performance from James Brown.

The 1992 launch of his company’s first perfume “Angel” — in collaboration with Clarins, which acquired a stake in the company before taking control in 1997 — was a runaway success.

Clarins shuttered Thierry Mugler ready-to-wear in 2003, a year after the designer reportedly left the brand, but continued the scent business with “Angel” rivalling Chanel’s No.5 for the top spot in sales.

Renowned for his work with celebrities, he counted Grace Jones and Hall among his muses, and had a long-running creative collaboration with David Bowie — even dressing him for his wedding to Iman.

Despite seemingly retiring from fashion’s frontlines in the early 2000s, Mugler continued to impact culture and worked with Beyonce on her “I am…” world tour. 

In later years the designer suffered a series of accidents requiring facial surgery and rebuilt his body with intensive bodybuilding while engaging in meditation and yoga.

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Taliban Talks in Norway Raise New Debate About Recognition

A Taliban delegation led by acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi on Sunday started three days of talks in Oslo with Western officials and Afghan civil society representatives amid a deteriorating humanitarian situation in Afghanistan.

The closed-door meetings were taking place at a hotel in the snow-capped mountains above the Norwegian capital and are the first time since the Taliban took over in August that their representatives have held official meetings in Europe.

The talks were not without controversy, however, reigniting the debate over whether they legitimize the Taliban government, especially since they were being held in Norway, a NATO country involved in Afghanistan from 2001 until the Taliban take over last summer. 

Speaking at the end of the first day of talks, Taliban delegate Shafiullah Azam told The Associated Press that the meetings with Western officials were “a step to legitimize (the) Afghan government,” adding that “this type of invitation and communication will help (the) European community, (the) U.S. or many other countries to erase the wrong picture of the Afghan government.”

That statement may irk the Taliban’s Norwegian hosts. Earlier, Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed that the talks were “not a legitimation or recognition of the Taliban.”

On Sunday, 200 protesters gathered on an icy square in front of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry in Oslo to condemn the meetings with the Taliban, which has not received diplomatic recognition from any foreign government.

“The Taliban has not changed as some in the international community like to say,” said Ahman Yasir, a Norwegian Afghan living in Norway for around two decades. “They are as brutal as they were in 2001 and before.”

Taliban leaders met with some women’s rights and human rights activists on Sunday, but there was no official word about those talks.

Starting Monday, Taliban representatives will meet with delegations from Western nations and will be certain to press their demand that nearly $10 billion frozen by the United States and other Western countries be released as Afghanistan faces a precarious humanitarian situation.

“We are requesting them to unfreeze Afghan assets and not punish ordinary Afghans because of the political discourse,” said Shafiullah Azam. “Because of the starvation, because of the deadly winter, I think it’s time for the international community to support Afghans, not punish them because of their political disputes.”

The United Nations has managed to provide some liquidity and allowed the Taliban administration to pay for imports, including electricity. But the U.N. has warned that as many as 1 million Afghan children are in danger of starving and most of the country’s 38 million people are living below the poverty line.

Faced with the Taliban’s request for funds, Western powers are likely to put the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan high on their agenda, along with the West’s recurring demand for the Taliban administration to share power with Afghanistan’s minority ethnic and religious groups. 

Since sweeping to power in mid-August, the Taliban have imposed widespread restrictions, many of them directed at women. Women have been banned from many jobs outside the health and education fields, their access to education has been restricted beyond sixth grade and they have been ordered to wear the hijab. The Taliban have, however, stopped short of imposing the burqa, which was compulsory when they previously ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.

The Taliban have increasingly targeted Afghanistan’s beleaguered rights groups, as well as journalists, detaining and sometimes beating television crews covering demonstrations.

A U.S. delegation, led by Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West, plans to discuss “the formation of a representative political system; responses to the urgent humanitarian and economic crises; security and counterterrorism concerns; and human rights, especially education for girls and women,” according to a statement released by the U.S. State Department.

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French Soldier Killed After Attack on Mali Military Base 

A French soldier has died after a rocket attack on the French army base in Gao, Mali.  

The French Armed Forces Ministry released a statement Sunday morning saying the attack occurred on the Gao, Mali, Operation Barkhane military base on Saturday.

The statement claimed the attack was carried out by “terrorists.” 

Operation Barkhane, France’s counterinsugency military operation in the Sahel, has operated in Mali since 2014. It replaced Operation Serval, the French army’s operation to regain control of northern Mali, which had been taken over by Islamists in 2012.

This year, after what French President Emmanuel Macron called a drawdown of the French military presence in Mali, Barkhane forces were withdrawn from northern Mali’s Tessalit, Kidal and Timbuktu military bases. The Gao base continues to serve as the center of Operation Barkhane.

Popular opposition to the French military presence in Mali has increased dramatically in recent years. France has backed recent sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States that were imposed following a 2026 presidential election plan proposed by Mali’s current military government.

Thousands of Malians took to the streets in cities across the country this month to denounce the sanctions, with most also denouncing France’s presence in Mali.

 

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UNESCO Lists Viking-Era Wooden Sailboats on Heritage List 

For thousands of years, wooden sailboats allowed the peoples of Northern Europe to spread trade, influence and sometimes war across seas and continents.

In December, the U.N.’s culture agency added Nordic “clinker boats” to its list of traditions that represent the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden jointly sought the UNESCO designation.

The term “clinker” is thought to refer to the way the boat’s wooden boards were fastened together.

Supporters of the successful nomination hope it will safeguard and preserve the boat-building techniques that drove the Viking era for future generations as the number of active clinker craftsmen fades and fishermen and others opt for vessels with cheaper glass fiber hulls.

“We can see that the skills of building them, the skills of sailing the boats, the knowledge of people who are sailing … it goes down and it disappears,” said Søren Nielsen, head of boatyard at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, west of Copenhagen.

The museum not only exhibits the remains of wooden vessels built 1,000 years ago, but also works to rebuild and reconstruct other Viking boats. The process involves using experimental archaeological methods to gain a deeper, more practical understanding of the Viking Age, such as how quickly the vessels sailed and how many people they carried.

Nielsen, who oversees the construction and repair of wooden boats built in the clinker tradition, said there are only about 20 practicing clinker boat craftsmen in Denmark, perhaps 200 across all of northern Europe.

“We think it’s a tradition we have to show off, and we have to tell people this was a part of our background,” he told The Associated Press.

Wooden clinker boats are characterized by the use of overlapping longitudinal wooden hull planks that are sewn or riveted together.

Builders strengthen the boats internally by additional wooden components, mainly tall oak trees, which constitute the ribs of the vessel. They stuff the gaps in between with tar or tallow mixed with animal hair, wool and moss.

“When you build it with these overlaps within it, you get a hull that’s quite flexible but at the same time, incredibly strong,” explained Triona Sørensen, curator at Roskilde’s Viking Ship Museum, which is home to the remains of five 11th-century Viking boats built with clinker methods.

Nielsen said there is evidence the clinker technique first appeared thousands of years ago, during the Bronze Age.

But it was during the Viking Age that clinker boats had their zenith, according to Sørensen. The era, from 793 to 1066, is when Norsemen, or Vikings, undertook large-scale raiding, colonizing, conquest and trading voyages throughout Europe. They also reached North America.

Their light, strong and swift ships were unsurpassed in their time and provided the foundations for kingdoms in Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

If “you hadn’t had any ships, you wouldn’t have had any Viking Age,” said Sørensen. “It just literally made it possible for them to expand that kind of horizon to become a more global people.”

While the clinker boat tradition in Northern Europe remains to this day, the ships are used by hobbyists, for festivities, regattas and sporting events, rather than raiding and conquest seen 1,000 years ago.

The UNESCO nomination was signed by around 200 communities and cultural bearers in the field of construction and traditional clinker boat craftsmanship, including Sami communities.

The inscription on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list obliges the Nordic countries to try to preserve what remains of the fading tradition.

“You cannot read how to build a boat in a book, so if you want to be a good boat builder, you have to build a lot of boats,” the Viking Ship Museum’s Nielsen said. “If you want to keep these skills alive, you have to keep them going.”

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Migrants At Hungary Border Become Part Of Election Campaign

A group of migrants huddles beside a small, smoky fire inside an abandoned building in northern Serbia, the last moments of warmth before they set out into the driving snow toward the razor wire, cameras and sensors of Hungary’s electrified border fence.

A few hours later, they return, their efforts to cross through Hungary and toward Western Europe thwarted by the 3-meter fence and heavy Hungarian police patrols which, after intercepting them, escorted them back across the border into Serbia.

“I’m going to Austria, I’m going to Germany, I’m going to the Netherlands,” says Muhtar Ahmad, a 26-year-old from Aleppo, Syria, who is squatting with around 35 other migrants in the makeshift camp outside the Serbian village of Majdan, less than 2 kilometers from the Hungarian border.

“I’m not staying in Hungary. What’s the problem?”

As migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries embark on the last stretch of their long journeys toward Europe’s wealthier nations, their efforts to cross irregularly into the European Union through Hungary — and the country’s contentious practice of returning them to Serbia when they are caught — have made them part of a political campaign with which Hungary’s nationalist leader hopes to win an upcoming general election.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who polls suggest will face his closest election in more than a decade in April, is campaigning on a strict anti-immigration platform and is keen to use the prospect of a wave of migrants amassing at Hungary’s border as a means to mobilize his conservative voter base.

“Just this year we stopped and detained … more than 100,000 people,” Orban claimed at a rare appearance before journalists in December. “If the Hungarian fence had not stood there, more than 100,000 more illegal migrants would be now first in Austria, then in Germany.”

One of the most outspoken opponents of immigration in Europe, Orban has said that migration threatens to replace the continent’s Christian culture, and that illegal migrants are responsible for bringing infections like COVID-19 variants into his country.

“We do not want to be an immigrant country,” Orban said during an interview with state radio this week.

As the April 3 election approaches, he has portrayed current migration pressures as higher than in 2015, when hundreds of thousands of refugees came into the EU fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere, and when he ordered the construction of the country’s border barrier.

But figures released by Serbian officials and the EU’s border and coast guard agency suggest that far fewer individuals are attempting to enter Hungary than the right-wing leader claims.

 

“It’s a little bit bigger number than, let’s say, two years ago, but these are not big numbers. It’s a small rise,” said Nemanja Matejic, chief officer at a migrant reception center in the northern Serbian city of Subotica, of the current level of migrants along Hungary’s border.

While Hungarian police put the number of migrants intercepted by Hungarian authorities at more than 122,000, data from EU border agency Frontex showed that there were 60,540 illegal border crossing attempts last year on the Western Balkan migration route, which includes the Hungary-Serbia border.

What’s more, since most migrants are making repeated attempts to cross, the number of individuals involved is far smaller still.

Serbia’s Commissariat for Refugees and Migration reports that there are 4,276 migrants residing in reception centers in Serbia and another 1,000 sleeping rough.

Frontex has noted that most Western Balkan crossings “can be traced back to people who have been in the region for some time and who repeatedly try to reach their target country in the EU.”

Hikmad Serat, 20, from Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, took shelter in a remote abandoned building near the Serbian border town of Horgos this month as a cold snap brought temperatures to -10 C.

 

Serat said he has been in Serbia for 15 months and has lost count of the number of times he has crossed into Hungary and been returned by police.

“Many times I try, 100 times, more than 100 times … Every time, police arrest me and deport back to Serbia,” Serat said.

This practice — where police deny migrants the right to apply for asylum and escort them back across national borders — is known as a “pushback.” It has been declared unlawful by the EU’s top court and is in violation of international asylum treaties.

Matejic, the chief of the reception center, said that migrants making dozens of crossing attempts is “typical.”

“Sometimes a guy tries one time and goes, he has luck … Sometimes they try over 50 times … They try and try again,” he said.

Many migrants have reported abuse by police after they leave Serbian territory for Hungary, or for Croatia or Romania. This includes having mobile phones destroyed or stolen, being made to sit or kneel in the snow for hours and receiving beatings — allegations which are very difficult to independently confirm.

Romanian police didn’t respond to questions from The Associated Press. But Hungary’s National Police Headquarters wrote in an email that they “strongly reject unsubstantiated allegations” of abuse of migrants.

Yet Matejic said 150 cases of broken limbs were recorded by the Subotica reception center in 2019.

“Sometimes they break their phones, the police. Sometimes they take their money. Sometimes they break their legs. It’s a different experience for everybody,” Matejic said.

Orban has asked the EU to reimburse Hungary for at least half of the costs related to building, maintaining and patrolling its border fence, which he has said have amounted to $1.9 billion over the past six years.

Ever at odds with the EU’s more liberal member states, he has also threatened to “open up a corridor along which migrants can march up to Austria, Germany and Sweden and whoever needs them.”

Despite the dangers, Faris al-Ibrahimi, a Moroccan migrant in the Subotica reception center who intends to travel on to Spain, said he was undeterred after being pushed back 27 times by Hungarian police.

“I’m still going to try. I will not give up now … I will try until I succeed,” he said. “It’s an adventure. We cross, we go, they catch us, we come back, we go again. It’s like a game for us.” 

 

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Humanitarian Aid Tops Agenda as Taliban Meet Western Officials

Human rights and the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, where hunger threatens millions, will be in focus at talks opening Sunday in Oslo between the Taliban, the West and members of Afghan civil society.

In their first visit to Europe since returning to power in August, the Taliban will meet Norwegian officials as well as representatives of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and the European Union.

The Taliban delegation will be led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaqqi.

On the agenda will be “the formation of a representative political system, responses to the urgent humanitarian and economic crises, security and counter-terrorism concerns, and human rights, especially education for girls and women,” a U.S. State Department official said.

The hardline Islamists were toppled in 2001 but stormed back to power in August as international troops began their final withdrawal.

The Taliban hope the talks will help “transform the atmosphere of war… into a peaceful situation,” government spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP on Saturday.

No country has yet recognized the Taliban government, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed that the talks would “not represent a legitimization or recognition of the Taliban.”

“But we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country. We cannot allow the political situation to lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster,” Huitfeldt said.

‘Have to involve the government’

The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated drastically since August.

International aid, which financed around 80% of the Afghan budget, came to a sudden halt and the United States has frozen $9.5 billion in assets in the Afghan central bank.

Unemployment has skyrocketed and civil servants’ salaries have not been paid for months in the country already ravaged by several severe droughts.

Hunger now threatens 23 million Afghans, or 55% of the population, according to the United Nations, which says it needs $4.4 billion from donor countries this year to address the humanitarian crisis.

“It would be a mistake to submit the people of Afghanistan to a collective punishment just because the de facto authorities are not behaving properly”, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reiterated Friday.

A former U.N. representative to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, told AFP: “We can’t keep distributing aid circumventing the Taliban.”

“If you want to be efficient, you have to involve the government in one way or another.”

The international community is waiting to see how the Islamic fundamentalists intend to govern Afghanistan, after having largely trampled on human rights during their first stint in power between 1996 and 2001.

While the Taliban claim to have modernized, women are still largely excluded from public employment and secondary schools for girls remain largely closed.

‘Gender apartheid’

On the first day of the Oslo talks held behind closed doors, the Taliban delegation is expected to meet Afghans from civil society, including women leaders and journalists.

A former Afghan minister for mines and petrol who now lives in Norway, Nargis Nehan, said she had declined an invitation to take part.

She told AFP she feared the talks would “normalize the Taliban and … strengthen them, while there is no way that they’ll change.”

“If we look at what happened in the talks of the past three years, the Taliban keep getting what they demand from the international community and the Afghan people, but there is not one single thing that they have delivered from their side,” she said.

“What guarantee is there this time that they will keep their promises?” she asked, noting that women activists and journalists are still being arrested.

Davood Moradian, the head of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies now based outside Afghanistan, meanwhile criticized Norway’s “celebrity-style” peace initiative.

“Hosting a senior member of the Taliban casts doubt on Norway’s global image as a country that cares for women’s rights, when the Taliban has effectively instituted gender apartheid,” he said.

Norway has a track record of mediating in conflicts, including in the Middle East, Sri Lanka and Colombia. 

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