Blinken Highlights Perseverance of Women in Iran and Afghanistan in Fighting for Rights

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised women in Afghanistan and Iran for standing up for freedoms as he spoke Tuesday at an event highlighting the role of women in democracy. 

Blinken praised women who have protested in Iran in response to the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini last year, saying they have courageously demonstrated “under great threat to themselves, to call for ‘woman, life, and freedom.’” 

And in Afghanistan, Blinken said women are fighting for a better future in their country despite efforts by the Taliban “to erase them from daily life.” 

“The United States stands in solidarity with these women and all who are working for women’s full, free, and equal participation around the world. Through our diplomacy, we’re committed to supporting them and advancing gender equality worldwide,” Blinken said. 

The top U.S. diplomat said women face these challenges not only in autocracies, but also in far too many places where they lack equal opportunities to study and work. 

“Women journalists, advocates, politicians, and others are subject to persistent online harassment and abuse. Women who are victims of violence often do not have equal access to justice. Women are subject to discrimination that often puts them at a disadvantage – whether through double standards they face in the workplace, in access to reproductive rights, or in nationality laws, which can result in barriers to accessing education, health care, and property for themselves and for their families,” Blinken said. 

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Top US Military Officer Warns of Arms Race in Western Pacific

The top U.S. military officer is warning of a growing arms race in the western Pacific, as nations become increasingly concerned about China’s military buildup in the region following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

“There’s a really an underreported arms race going on in the western Pacific right now. These countries are arming themselves up, and they very much, with very few exceptions, want the United States there,” Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. 

Australia this month unveiled a $200 billion plan for nuclear-powered submarines. Japan has also increased its offensive capabilities and doubled its defense investments, all while announcing new deployments of U.S. troops on Japan’s southern islands that will bring with them mobile anti-ship missiles meant to counter any first strike from Beijing.   

Meanwhile, Beijing has asserted its desire to control access to the South China Sea and bring Taiwan under its control, by force if necessary. Milley said China was “trying to become the regional hegemon,” disadvantaging other countries like the Philippines as part of that effort. 

“That’s why the secretary traveled to the Philippines. That’s why we’re looking at access basing and oversight. That’s why we’re looking at a re-posturing in the western Pacific. It is a design there to be forward deployed in order to deter armed conflict with a great power, great power being China in this case,” Milley said. 

In February, the Philippines designated four additional bases for U.S. forces to operate in. The announcement marked a sharp turn back toward the United States, after former Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte had distanced himself from Washington. 

“Two years ago, we were about to get kicked out of the Philippines,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said. 

The U.S. has continued to expand its military partnerships with South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia and others in hopes of keeping international waterways open and building what officials, including Milley, have called a “strategic advantage over China.” 

But Republican lawmakers Tuesday sharply criticized the Pentagon’s proposed budget as inadequate, especially in the Pacific region. 

“For the third year in a row, President [Joe] Biden has sent to Congress a budget request that cuts military spending amid a more dangerous and complex threat environment,” said the committee’s ranking member, Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi. 

“This year’s budget is the last one that funds capabilities that are likely to be fielded before 2027. That’s the year by which [Chinese President] Xi Jinping says he wants the People’s Liberation Army to be ready to take Taiwan. That makes our work here very urgent,” he warned. 

Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska questioned the budget cuts at a time that Milley and Austin agreed was the most dangerous since World War II.  

“This current budget shrinks the Army, shrinks the Navy, shrinks the Marine Corps. Doesn’t that embolden … Xi Jinping and Putin, not deter them?” asked Sullivan. 

Milley said the budget represents “essentially a one-war strategy” that focuses resources on the Navy and the Air Force, the two military branches the Pentagon says are most needed in a potential fight with China.  

He said the Navy would indeed decrease its hull numbers in the short term in order to shed some ships that are “costing way more money just to repair than worthwhile,” but would submit a shipbuilding plan with the number of ships increasing “in the not too distant future.” 


Following the deadly attack at a coalition base in Syria by Iranian-backed forces last week, Austin told senators that Iran or its proxies have carried out 83 attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East since President Biden took office in 2021. 

The United States has retaliated by launching four major strikes against the attackers.  

The Iranian attack on Thursday killed a U.S. military contractor and wounded five soldiers and another contractor. The U.S. fired back with “precision” strikes against facilities of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the area, which the secretary confirmed had “people,” presumably militants, inside during the attack. 

But Iranian proxies were not deterred, launching another attack on U.S. forces hours later that injured a U.S. citizen. The U.S. has “not yet” responded to that attack, according to Austin. 

“What kind of signal do we think this sends to Iran when they can attack us 83 times since Joe Biden has become president, and we only respond to four? Maybe it’s because they know that until, that we will not retaliate until they kill an American, which emboldened them to keep launching these attacks which kill Americans,” Senator Tom Cotton said during the hearing. 

The United States has about 900 troops in eastern Syria to help Syrian Kurdish forces prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State terror group. 


Austin repeated the U.S. vow to “support Ukraine’s defense for as long as it takes,” praising Ukraine’s fighters for having the upper hand against the Russians and “depleting their inventory of armored vehicles in a way that no one would have ever imagined.” 

But the top Pentagon leaders were blunt in their pushback against calls to provide F-16 fighter jets and MQ-9 drones to Ukrainian forces. 

Austin said F-16s are a capability that would take about 18 months to provide.

“That won’t help them in this current fight,” he said. 

Chairman Milley, when asked about whether Ukraine should receive MQ-9 drones, responded, “It’s not survivable. It’s big and slow. It’s going to get nailed by the Russian air defense systems.” 

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UN Chief Urges Creation of Entity to Clarify Fate of 100,000 Missing Syrians 

The U.N. secretary-general urged the international community on Tuesday to create an international body that would assist families of the estimated 100,000 missing persons in Syria to find out the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones.

“The Syrian people deserve a measure of hope for the future,” Antonio Guterres told the General Assembly. “They deserve peace and security, and they deserve to know the truth about the fate of their loved ones.”

He said the international community has a moral obligation to help ease the plight of Syrians, who have suffered through 12 years of civil war and now the added devastation of the recent earthquake.

“People in every part of the country and across all divides have loved ones who are missing, including family members who were forcibly disappeared, abducted, tortured and arbitrarily detained,” he said, noting the majority are men.

The term “missing persons” includes Syrians and foreigners; those who have disappeared on their journeys as refugees; and people detained, abducted or kidnapped by all parties to the conflict, including pro-government forces, opposition armed groups and terrorists.

Hope, dignity, justice

The secretary-general said the new entity must be independent, impartial and transparent, and focus on the needs and rights of victims, survivors and their families. He called for cooperation from the Syrian government and all parties to the conflict.

“Let us heed their demands for truth,” Guterres said of the victims and their families. “Let us restore a measure of hope, dignity and justice to the Syrian people.”

Searching for missing relatives is very difficult. The U.N. said in a report that Syrian families do not have meaningful access to official facilities where people are detained or to intelligence and unofficial or secret detention sites, where most detention-related disappearances occur, especially enforced disappearances, as documented by the U.N.’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria. They may be asked to pay bribes or are extorted.

Women are especially at risk. Often left as sole breadwinners, they are also often the ones doing the searching for male relatives, exposing them to danger and exploitation.

In December 2021, the General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on Guterres to conduct a study in conjunction with the U.N. Human Rights Office on how to improve efforts, including through existing ones, to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing people in Syria, identify human remains and provide support to their families.

“The continuing absence of many tens of thousands of people, from small children to elderly men and women, cries out for strong action,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk told the meeting.

He said the new institution should not replicate services provided by existing organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Commission on Missing Persons, or several Syrian associations, and must work cooperatively with them. The new body should also be guided by the presumption that the missing person is alive and in urgent need of help.

Türk said funding and a timeline for creation of the international body would be determined in consultation with member states.

“In terms of structure, I suggest two main sections: one focused on search, and the second focused on victim support and participation,” he said. “Search work would include prioritizing cases and consolidating existing claims and data into a searchable database.”

The human rights chief said it is impossible to know with certainty how many people have been disappeared in Syria, underscoring that it could be “far more” than the 100,000 estimate.

Families ‘devastated’

“What is certain is that families on every side of this conflict have been devastated,” Türk said. “Families on every side of this conflict want to know what has happened to their loved ones. I stand here before you to amplify their voices.”

He stressed that a new body would not be an accountability mechanism but strictly humanitarian in nature.

More than 90 missing-persons groups from around the world have expressed support for a new international body to assist families of missing Syrians.

The reaction in the General Assembly was mixed. The European Union and several Western countries, including the United States and Canada, expressed strong support. Some countries with poor human rights records questioned the need for, as Russia’s delegate put it, “another pointless mechanism of a political nature.”

Syria’s envoy did not address the meeting. But in the Security Council last week, Ambassador Bassam Sabbagh said Damascus has worked for the past decade to locate those who have gone missing at the hands of terrorists or were killed in airstrikes by international forces. But he mentioned nothing of the tens of thousands of Syrians whom activists say the regime has forcibly disappeared.

A General Assembly vote on creating the institution is expected in the coming weeks.

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US Sanctions Syrian Leader Assad’s Cousins, Others Over Drug Trade 

The United States on Tuesday imposed new sanctions against six people, including two cousins of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for their role in the production or export of captagon, a dangerous amphetamine, a Treasury Department statement said. 

It said the trade in captagon was estimated to be a billion-dollar enterprise and that the sanctions highlighted the role of Lebanese drug traffickers and the Assad family dominance of captagon trafficking, which helped fund the Syrian government. 

“Syria has become a global leader in the production of highly addictive captagon, much of which is trafficked through Lebanon,” said Andrea Gacki, director of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. 

“With our allies, we will hold accountable those who support Bashar al-Assad’s regime with illicit drug revenue and other financial means that enable the regime’s continued repression of the Syrian people,” she said.  

Assad’s government denies involvement in drugmaking and smuggling and says it is stepping up its campaign to curb the lucrative trade. 

Among those hit with sanctions were Samer Kamal al-Assad, a cousin of the Syrian president who the Treasury said oversees key captagon production facilities in Latakia, Syria; and Wassim Badi al-Assad, another cousin whom the Treasury accused of supporting the Syrian military and of having been a key figure in the regional drug trafficking network. 

Also sanctioned were Khalid Qaddour, who the Treasury said was a Syrian businessman and close associate of Bashar al-Assad’s brother, the head of the army’s Fourth Division. A former commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army was also sanctioned. 

The Treasury further targeted Lebanese affiliates, some with ties to Lebanon’s heavily armed Hezbollah group, a close ally of Assad in his more than decade-old conflict with opposition and rebel forces. 

Among them were Noah Zaitar and Hassan Daqqou. Zaitar faces dozens of arrest warrants in Lebanon but remains on the loose, according to a security source.  

Zaitar put out a written statement saying he was “not surprised” by the sanctions and that he considered them a “badge of honor.” He criticized U.S. authorities for their “lies and defamation” but did not directly deny the allegations.  

Hassan Daqqou was sentenced in 2021 to seven years in prison in Lebanon on charges of captagon trafficking, according to the same security source.  

Tuesday’s action froze any U.S. assets of those targeted and generally barred Americans from dealing with them. Those that engage in certain transactions with them also risk being hit with sanctions. 

Regional officials say the Iranian-backed Hezbollah as well as Syrian armed groups linked to the Damascus government are behind the surging trade of captagon, smuggled either through Jordan to the south or Lebanon to the west.  

Hezbollah denies the accusations.  

There is a thriving market for captagon in the Persian Gulf, and U.N. and Western anti-narcotics officials say Syria, shattered by a decade of civil war, has become the region’s main production site for a multibillion-dollar drug trade that also exports to Europe. 

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Former US Vice President Pence Must Testify Before Grand Jury, Judge Rules

A federal judge has ruled that former Vice President Mike Pence will have to testify before a grand jury in the Justice Department’s investigation into efforts by former President Donald Trump and his allies to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

Two people familiar with the ruling spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because it remains under seal.

The two sources said, however, that Pence would not have to answer questions about his actions on January 6, 2021, when a mob of Trump’s supporters violently stormed the U.S. Capitol as Pence was presiding over a joint session of Congress to certify the vote.

Pence and his attorneys had cited constitutional grounds in challenging the subpoena. They argued that, because he was serving in his capacity as president of the Senate that day, he was protected from being forced to testify under the Constitution’s “speech or debate” clause, which is intended to protect members of Congress from questioning about official legislative acts.

Pence’s team is evaluating whether it will appeal.

The sealed ruling from U.S. District Judge James “Jeb” Boasberg sets up the unprecedented scenario of a former vice president being compelled to give potentially damaging testimony against the president he once served. And it comes as Pence has been inching closer to announcing a run for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, which would put him in direct competition with his former boss.

Pence was subpoenaed earlier this year to appear before the grand jury in Washington investigating election interference.

A Justice Department special counsel, Jack Smith, is investigating attempts by Trump and his allies to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election to keep Trump in power. Multiple Trump aides have already appeared before the grand jury, as well as another panel examining Trump’s potential mishandling of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago club.

A spokesman for the special counsel’s office declined to comment.

Pence has spoken extensively about Trump’s pressure campaign urging him to reject President Joe Biden’s victory in the days leading up to January 6, including in his book, “So Help Me God.” Pence, as vice president, had a ceremonial role overseeing the counting of the Electoral College vote, but did not have the power to impact the results.

Pence has said that Trump endangered his family and everyone else who was at the Capitol that day and said history will hold him accountable.

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US Renewable Electricity Surpassed Coal in 2022

Electricity generated from renewables surpassed coal in the United States for the first time in 2022, the U.S. Energy Information Administration announced Monday.

Renewables also surpassed nuclear generation in 2022, after first doing so last year.

Growth in wind and solar significantly drove the increase in renewable energy and contributed 14% of the electricity produced domestically in 2022. Hydropower contributed 6%, and biomass and geothermal sources generated less than 1%.

“I’m happy to see we’ve crossed that threshold, but that is only a step in what has to be a very rapid and much cheaper journey,” said Stephen Porder, a professor of ecology and assistant provost for sustainability at Brown University.

California produced 26% of the national utility-scale solar electricity followed by Texas with 16% and North Carolina with 8%.

The most wind generation occurred in Texas, which accounted for 26% of the U.S. total followed by Iowa (10%) and Oklahoma (9%).

“This booming growth is driven largely by economics,” said Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy. “Over the past decade, the levelized cost of wind energy declined by 70%, while the levelized cost of solar power has declined by an even more impressive 90%.

“Renewable energy is now the most affordable source of new electricity in much of the country,” he added.

The Energy Information Administration projected that the wind share of the U.S. electricity generation mix will increase from 11% to 12% from 2022 to 2023 and that solar will grow from 4% to 5% during the period. The natural gas share is expected to remain at 39% from 2022 to 2023, and coal is projected to decline from 20% last year to 17% this year.

“Wind and solar are going to be the backbone of the growth in renewables, but whether or not they can provide 100% of the U.S. electricity without backup is something that engineers are debating,” said Porder, of Brown University.

Many decisions lie ahead, he said, as the proportion of renewables that supply the energy grid increases.

This presents challenges for engineers and policymakers, Porder said, because existing energy grids were built to deliver power from a consistent source. Renewables such as solar and wind generate power intermittently. So battery storage, long-distance transmission and other steps will be needed to help address these challenges, he said.

The EIA report found the country remains heavily reliant on the burning of climate-changing fossil fuels. Coal-fired generation was 20% of the electric sector in 2022, a decline from 23% in 2021. Natural gas was the largest source of electricity in the U.S. in 2022, generating 39% last year compared to 37% in 2021.

“When you look at the data, natural gas has been a major driver for lowering greenhouse gas emissions from electricity because it’s been largely replacing coal-fired power plants,” said Melissa Lott, director of research for the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

“Moving forward, you can’t have emissions continuing to go up, you need to bring them down quickly,” she added.

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) influenced the amount of renewable energy projects that went online in 2022, Lott said, and it’s expected to have a “tremendous” impact on accelerating clean energy projects.

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VP Harris Pledges New Era of US-Africa Partnership During Ghana Speech

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris pledged a new era of partnership between the U.S. and Africa, touting women’s empowerment, developing the digital economy and supporting democracy to 8,000 young Ghanaians who gathered under the punishing midday sun to hear her speak in Accra.

Harris, the first Black female U.S. vice president, took the stage under the arch of Black Star gate, a sweeping seaside monument to Ghana’s 1957 independence from British colonial rule.

“We are all in because there are longstanding ties between our people,” Harris said. “We have an intertwined history, some of which is painful and some of which is prideful and all of which we must acknowledge, teach and never forget.”

Her schedule Tuesday includes a visit to Cape Coast Castle, a place where enslaved Africans were once crowded onto overloaded, unsanitary ships headed on the long, dangerous ocean journey to the Americas.

But Harris stressed that her three-nation visit is forward-looking, and on Monday pledged $139 million in U.S. assistance to West Africa, most of which will support conflict prevention in the Sahel region, where Islamist extremists have expanded their footprint.

“I am more optimistic than I have ever been about the future and the future of the continent of Africa and, by extension, the world, not only because of the work we undertake in government, not only because of the investments in the private sector,” Harris said. “I am optimistic about the future of the world because of you, the woman who will shatter every glass ceiling.”

A young woman who identified herself as a student told VOA after the speech, “I thought she was great.” But, she added: “I hoped she would talk about LGBTQ” issues.

On Monday, Harris said she had raised human rights issues in her bilateral discussions with Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo. All three nations on her tour—which includes Tanzania and Zambia—have laws that criminalize homosexuality to some degree.

“Let me be clear about where we stand,” Harris said. ”First of all, for the American press who are here, you know that a great deal of work in my career has been to address human rights issues, equality issues across the board, including as it relates to the LGBT community.

“And I feel very strongly about the importance of supporting the freedom and supporting and fighting for equality among all people, and that all people should be treated equally,” she added. “I would also say that this is an issue that we consider and I consider to be a human rights issue, and that will not change.”

Beyond China competition


Speaking alongside Akufo-Addo on Monday at Jubilee House, the seat of Ghana’s presidency, Harris stressed that U.S. interests in African nations extend beyond competing with China.

“To help address the threats of violent extremism and instability, today I am pleased to announce $100 million in support of Benin, Ghana, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and Togo,” she said. “Last week, President Joe Biden announced a strategic plan for coastal West Africa as part of the United States Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability. Today, funding and the announcement that I’ve just made will help implement that plan and will address security, governance and development issues in the region.”

Harris is the fifth top U.S. official to visit the continent this year, and she deflected criticism that the U.S. sees African nations through the lens of its own competition with China, which has built massive infrastructure projects and loaned billions of dollars to African nations in what many see as a fight for influence and access.

“The president and I had a conversation on this very topic, but the conversation was not about China as much as it is about the enduring and important direct relationship that the United States has with Ghana and with African nations,” she said. “I will tell you that we are very clear—and I will speak for myself and on behalf of the Biden-Harris administration—that the relationship between the United States and this continent and African leaders is an important one. There’s a historical basis for the relationship, not to mention as we look forward, as all governments should, and recognize the unachieved—as of yet—opportunities that exist going forward.”

Akufo-Addo agreed.

“There may be an obsession in America about the Chinese activities on the continent, but there’s no such obsession here,” he said. “China is one of the many countries with whom Ghana is engaged in the world. Your country is one of them. Virtually all the countries of the world are friends of Ghana, and we have relations in varying degrees of intensity with all of them. Our relationship with America is a relationship that has been forged over several decades, right from the time of independence up till now.”

Harris travels on from Ghana to Tanzania, and then to Zambia.

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US to Adopt New Restrictions on Using Commercial Spyware

The U.S. government will restrict its use of commercial spyware tools that have been used to surveil human rights activists, journalists and dissidents around the world, under an executive order issued Monday by President Joe Biden. 

The order responds to growing U.S. and global concerns about programs that can capture text messages and other cellphone data. Some programs — so-called “zero-click” exploits — can infect a phone without the user clicking on a malicious link. 

Governments around the world — including the U.S. — are known to collect large amounts of data for intelligence and law enforcement purposes, including communications from their own citizens. The proliferation of commercial spyware has made powerful tools newly available to smaller countries, but also created what researchers and human-rights activists warn are opportunities for abuse and repression. 

The White House released the executive order in advance of its second summit for democracy this week. The order “demonstrates the United States’ leadership in, and commitment to, advancing technology for democracy, including by countering the misuse of commercial spyware and other surveillance technology,” the White House said in a statement. 

Biden’s order, billed as a prohibition on using commercial spyware “that poses risks to national security,” allows for some exceptions. 

The order will require the head of any U.S. agency using commercial programs to certify that the program doesn’t pose a significant counterintelligence or other security risk, a senior administration official said. 

Among the factors that will be used to determine the level of security risk is if a foreign actor has used the program to monitor U.S. citizens without legal authorization or surveil human rights activists and other dissidents. 

“It is intended to be a high bar but also includes remedial steps that can be taken … in which a company may argue that their tool has not been misused,” said the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity under White House ground rules. 

The White House will not publish a list of banned programs as part of the executive order, the official said. 

John Scott-Railton, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab who has long studied spyware, credited the Biden administration for trying to set new global standards for the industry. 

“Most spyware companies see selling to the U.S. as their eventual exit path,” Scott-Railton said. “The issue is the U.S. until now hasn’t really wielded its purchasing power to push the industry to do better.” 

Congress last year required U.S. intelligence agencies to investigate foreign use of spyware and gave the Office of the Director of National Intelligence the power to ban any agency from using commercial programs. 

Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a committee hearing last year that commercial spyware posed a “very serious threat to our democracy and to democracies around the world.” He said Monday the new order should be followed by other democracies taking steps against spyware. 

“It’s a very powerful statement and a good tool, but alone it won’t do the trick,” he said. 

Perhaps the best-known example of spyware, the Pegasus software from Israel’s NSO Group, was used to target more than 1,000 people across 50 countries, according to security researchers and a July 2021 global media investigation, citing a list of more than 50,000 cellphone numbers. The U.S. has already placed export limits on NSO Group, restricting the company’s access to U.S. components and technology. 

Officials would not say if U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies currently use any commercial spyware. The FBI last year confirmed it had purchased NSO Group’s Pegasus tool “for product testing and evaluation only,” and not for operational purposes or to support any investigation. 

White House officials said Monday they believe 50 devices used by U.S. government employees, across 10 countries, had been compromised or targeted by commercial spyware. 

Despite NSO’s assertions that the program is supposed to be used to counter terrorism and crime, researchers found the numbers of more than 180 journalists, 600 politicians and government officials, and 85 human rights activists. 

Pegasus use was most commonly linked to Mexico and countries in the Middle East. Amnesty International has alleged Pegasus was installed on the phone of Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancée just four days before the journalist was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. NSO has denied the allegation that its software was used in connection with Khashoggi’s murder. 

The family of Paul Rusesabagina, credited with saving more than 1,200 lives during the Rwandan genocide, a story depicted in the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” has also alleged it was targeted by spyware. Rusesabagina was lured back to Rwanda under false pretenses and jailed on terrorism charges before his release last week. Rwanda has denied using commercial spyware. 

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