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Ukraine’s Zelenskiy Plays Hot and Cold With Trump Team

Ukraine’s president appears to be playing to both sides of the American political divide, hedging his bets to ensure U.S. financial and military aid keeps flowing no matter who wins next year’s election.First, a point for U.S. President Donald Trump’s team: Ukraine’s top prosecutor agreed to revisit past investigations into a gas company executive who recruited Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son to his board.And now, a nod to the anti-Trump camp: Ukraine has appointed a man who exposed under-the-table payments to Trump’s onetime campaign chairman Paul Manafort as a senior prosecutor.So which team is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on? He’s not taking that bait — not at a time when he needs American support to fend off pro-Russia separatists but also prove himself an independent leader to his own people. Instead, he insists that he’s maintaining separation of powers and not interfering in prosecutors’ decisions.Analysts say the Ukrainian leadership is trying to keep its options open, by showing that Zelenskiy is not Trump’s yes-man, and not his enemy either. Zelenskiy is central to the impeachment inquiry against Trump, who pressed the Ukrainian president in a July phone call to investigate Democratic political rivals.
 
The appointment of Viktor Trepak as deputy national prosecutor Tuesday was Ukraine’s latest chess move.Anti-corruption campaigners — whose cause Zelenskiy championed when seeking the presidency — welcomed the news.Viktor Trepak 
 
Trepak has never worked as prosecutor before, but he’s got the chops for the job. As first deputy chief of the SBU, a security agency that’s like Ukraine’s CIA and FBI combined, he pursued two senior prosecutors accused of corruption in what’s dubbed the “diamond prosecutors’ case” because of jewels found in one of the prosecutor’s homes.FILE – In this May 23, 2018, file photo, Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, leaves the Federal District Court after a hearing in Washington.But the case went nowhere, and a frustrated Trepak alleged political interference.A month later, he handed to anti-corruption investigators a now-infamous “black ledger” of secret payments from former President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions to legions of prominent people — including Manafort.The payments, which came years before Manafort became involved in Trump’s campaign, played a role in a U.S. case against Manafort, who’s now serving seven years in prison on charges related to his years as a political consultant in Ukraine. In a statement to The Associated Press in 2017, Manafort did not deny that his firm received the Ukrainian money but said “any wire transactions received by my company are legitimate payments for political consulting.”
 
Trepak hasn’t spoken publicly about Manafort himself but has vigorously defended his decision to hand over the “black ledger” to investigators as part of his career-long campaign against bribery and other dirty political dealings.It’s exactly that hard-charging reputation that makes Trepak’s appointment useful to Zelenskiy, who has taken flak from domestic opponents for being obsequious in the call with Trump and wants to signal to his voters and international partners that he’s setting corruption-plagued Ukraine on a clean, independent path.Daria Kaleniuk of anti-corruption group Antac described Trepak as “probably the only well-known officer with background from the security service of Ukraine who is regarded as a reformer.”Trepak’s appointment “is a clear signal to the Americans, and especially to Trump, of (Zelenskiy’s) wish to distance himself and maintain independence,” said Vadym Karasyov, head of the Institute of Global Strategies. “Zelenskiy is softly showing that he doesn’t want to be Trump’s hand puppet or whipping boy and is capable of leading an independent game and policy.”Joe Biden and sonZelenskiy himself says he can’t be pressured to do Trump’s bidding. But his government isn’t entirely pushing Trump away, either.FILE – U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, right, and his son Hunter point to some faces in the crowd as they walk down Pennsylvania Avenue following the inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama in Washington, Jan. 20, 2009.In the July call with Zelenskiy, Trump sought help on two fronts. The first involves Trump’s claims that Ukraine allied with the Democrats in a plot to derail his 2016 presidential campaign. No evidence of such a plot has emerged, but Trump urged Zelenskiy to “get to the bottom of it” as he tries to prove the allegation ahead of the 2020 U.S. elections.At the same time, Trump is also pushing Ukraine to investigate any potential wrongdoing by former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Trump has said that the United States has an “absolute right” to ask foreign leaders to investigate corruption cases, though no one has produced evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the Bidens.On this case, Ukraine seems to have thrown Trump a bone. Prosecutor General Ruslan Ryaboshapka announced Friday that his office is reviewing investigations related to the owner of gas company Burisma. That’s the company that hired Hunter Biden in 2014, when his father was in charge of the Obama administration’s diplomatic dealings with Ukraine.The prosecutor insisted he did not feel any pressure over the Burisma case and said he wasn’t aware of any wrongdoing by either Biden. He said his office was “auditing” relevant cases that were closed, dismissed or put on hold by his predecessors, including several related to Burisma’s founder.Political analysts in Kyiv saw the announcement not as a new attempt to dig up dirt on the Bidens but rather an effort to stay in the good graces of the White House.Zelenskiy may explain his strategy himself Thursday: He’s holding a “media marathon,” amid growing questions about where his allegiances lie.
 


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European Union Finds Ransomware Is Top Cybercrime

The European Union’s 2019 cybercrime report said the number of online attacks is going down but criminals are targeting more data and profits.The European Union’s law enforcement agency developed the report that shows that ransomware remains the top cybercrime threat. Ransomware attacks block access to vital data and are described as being targeted, more profitable for the attackers and causing greater economic damage to private and public entities.The report, called the Internet Organized Crime Threat Assessment, cited the 2019 “GermanWiper” ransomware as an example of the harm it can bring. That ransomware replaced the files of German companies, making them unrecoverable.The report identified concerns of governments becoming victims to ransomware attacks. Local governments in the United States, like the cities of Atlanta and Baltimore, have fallen victim to it.  According to the report “every state in the U.S. has been hit with an attack, with the exception of Delaware and Kentucky.”The IOCTA said the United States has seen more damage from ransomware than the European Union, but that could change as cybercrime “evolves.”Europol also highlighted online sexual exploitation of children.  A report says cybercriminals can use the internet to access sexually explicit content of minors. It says a growing number of juveniles have been sharing sexual pictures or videos with peers, which could be stolen and reposted.Cybercriminals can also make content themselves. The report targeted deepfakes as being used to create videos of children using their own material. Deepfakes create false images and have been used to produce explicit content from celebrity websites. A comedian used Artificial Intelligence to generate a deepfake of former U.S. president Barack Obama.Other developments in cybercrime like decentralized, unregulated internet marketplaces and phishing scams that steal personal data, remain concerns for Europol because of their potential to continue to evolve even as law enforcement works to prevent it.”Some threats of yesterday remain relevant today and will continue to challenge us tomorrow,” said Europol’s Executive Director, Catherine De Bolle.  


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Hong Kong Protesters Remain Defiant in Standoff with Pro-Beijing Government

In Hong Kong, protests that erupted nearly four months ago to oppose a controversial extradition law have developed into a disruptive pro-democracy movement, led to increasingly violent clashes between protesters and police, and poses a serious challenge to China’s rule over this former British colony. VOA’s Brian Padden reports on how Hong Kong got to this point. 


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NBA Postpones Nets-Lakers Media Sessions in Shanghai

The NBA called off scheduled media sessions Wednesday for the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers in Shanghai, and it remains unclear if the teams will play in China this week as scheduled.The teams were practicing in Shanghai, where at least two other NBA events in advance of the start of the China games were canceled as part of the ongoing rift that started after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted a tweet last week that showed support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.“Given the fluidity of the situation, today’s media availability has been postponed,” the league said. By nightfall Wednesday in China, which is 12 hours ahead of Eastern time in the U.S., the availabilities had not been rescheduled — though having them on Thursday remains possible.An NBA Cares event in Shanghai that was to benefit Special Olympics was called off, as was a “fan night” celebration that was to be highlighted by the league announcing plans to refurbish some outdoor courts in that city. And workers in multiple spots around Shanghai were tearing down large outdoor promotional advertisements for Thursday’s Lakers-Nets game.The teams are also supposed to play Saturday in Shenzhen. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver met with players from both the Nets and Lakers on Wednesday in Shanghai, telling them that the league’s intention remains to play the games as scheduled.Chinese smartphone maker Vivo has joined the list of companies that have suspended — for now, at least — ties with the NBA, and that only adds to the uncertainty over whether the China games will be played. Vivo was a presenting sponsor of the Lakers-Nets games, and on Wednesday there was no reference to the game in Shanghai on the list of upcoming events scheduled at Mercedes-Benz Arena. Other firms such as apparel company Li-Ning announced similar moves earlier this week, as the rift was just beginning.Silver said Tuesday in Tokyo that he supports Morey’s right to free speech. Several Chinese companies have suspended their partnership with the NBA in recent days, and Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said it will not broadcast the Lakers-Nets games.“I’m sympathetic to our interests here and to our partners who are upset,” Silver said. “I don’t think it’s inconsistent on one hand to be sympathetic to them and at the same time stand by our principles.”All around China, stores that sell NBA merchandise were removing Rockets-related apparel from shelves and many murals featuring the Rockets — even ones with Yao Ming, the Chinese great who played for Houston during his NBA career — were being painted over.San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich spoke out Tuesday in Miami in support of how Silver is handling the situation.“And it wasn’t easy for him to say,” Popovich said. “He said that in an environment fraught with possible economic peril. But he sided with the principles that we all hold dearly, or most of us did until the last three years. So I’m thrilled with what he said.”Other NBA coaches have not been so willing to discuss the situation. Philadelphia’s Brett Brown said he did not wish to get into specifics of the China-NBA rift, though he said he has been to that country many times and is always blown away by how popular the game is there.“Just massive amounts of basketball courts and you’re looking out and there’s no available court,” Brown said. “It’s just people playing on a court. I took a (lower-level) Australian team to China and the story comes there was 400 million viewers watching not the true national team. You’re just reminded of the popularity of the sport.”Brown’s 76ers played a Chinese team — the Guangzhou Loong Lions — on Tuesday night, and two fans said they were removed by arena security for holding signs and chanting in support of Hong Kong. The signs read “Free Hong Kong” and “Free HK.”The sentiment was not different from Morey’s since-deleted tweet last week of an image that read, “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.”The NBA is not the first major corporation to deal with criticism from China over political differences. Mercedes-Benz, Delta Air Lines, hotel operator Marriott, fashion brand Zara and others also have found themselves in conflicts with China in recent years.After Morey’s tweet was deleted, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta said Morey does not speak for the organization. Joe Tsai, who recently completed his purchase of the Nets and is a co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, has said the damage to the NBA’s relationship with China “will take a long time to repair.”


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Invasion of Northeast Syria Carries Gain And Risk For Turkey

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long threatened to send troops into northeastern Syria to clear the border region of Syrian Kurdish fighters whom Turkey considers a serious security threat.A Turkish invasion looks more likely after President Donald Trump’s sudden announcement that U.S. troops, who had fought alongside the Kurds against Islamic State group, would withdraw from the area.
 
Here is a look at what Turkey wants to achieve in the area, and the risks and challenges it faces by getting even more deeply involved in the Syrian crisis.What does Turkey want?Turkey wants to create what it calls a “safe zone” in a stretch of territory along its southern border with Syria that is currently controlled by Syrian Kurdish fighters, known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.Turkey considers the YPG as terrorists affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a 35-year-long battle against the Turkish state. Ankara also views the YPG-controlled zone as an “existential threat.”Erdogan has demanded a “safe zone” that is 30 kilometers (20 miles) deep and stretches more than 480 kilometers (300 miles) toward the Iraqi border. He initially had hoped to do it in collaboration with the United States but grew frustrated with what he considered to be delaying tactics by the U.S.Once secured, Turkey wants to resettle the area with 2 million Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey due to the conflict in their home country.  How such a massive resettlement would be carried out is unclear. Human rights groups have warned that any escalation of fighting in the area could displace hundreds of thousands more people.Erdogan has spoken of plans to build towns, villages, hospitals and schools but also says Turkey, which has already spent some $40 billion on the refugees, cannot afford to do it alone. He has said he will convene a donors conference to help meet the cost and has called on European nations to share the burden, warning that Turkey could be forced to open the “gates” for an influx of migrants to Western nations.Kurds vow to fight back Turkey has carried out two previous incursions into northern Syria in recent years with the help of Syrian rebels. In the first offensive in 2016, Turkey pushed back Islamic State group militants west of the Euphrates River. In the second operation last year, Turkey captured the Syrian-Kurdish controlled enclave of Afrin. Those regions are currently administered by Turkish-backed opposition groups who run them as virtual Turkish-administered towns.Analysts say this operation would likely be more complicated. Unwilling to let go of an area they wrested from the Islamic State group, the battle-hardened Kurdish fighters, trained and equipped by the U.S., have vowed to fight the Turks until the end.
 
“It’s a huge area for the Turkish military to go into and clearly there will be resistance on the part of the (Syrian Kurdish forces),” said Bulent Aliriza, of the director of the Turkey Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.Aliriza suggested the operation may be a limited one that does not stretch all the way to the Iraqi border. “That’s what we are going to look at first. How deep and how broad is it, whether it’s all the way across from the Iraqi border to the Euphrates, or just limited to two or three penetration points.”Critics of Trump’s decision fear a Turkish operation could have destabilizing consequences for the region, while both Democrats and Republicans have warned that a Turkish attack could lead to a large number of fatalities among the Kurds, who are holding thousands of captured IS fighters and their families.What about the fight against the Islamic State group? One of the big question marks surrounding Turkey’s plans is whether fighting the Syrian Kurdish forces would allow IS to make a comeback.Turkey insists that the global battle against the militants won’t suffer, and points to its 2016 incursion, which drove away IS from another border region.But Kurdish officials have warned that they would have to divert their forces away from guarding IS prisoners in case of a Turkish assault. Kurdish authorities run more than two dozen detention facilities, scattered around northeastern Syria, holding about 10,000 IS fighters.
The White House has said Turkey will take over responsibility for the imprisoned fighters, but it is unclear how that would happen, if it all.Erdogan says Turkey and the United States are working separately on plans to repatriate foreign fighters held in Kurdish prisons.


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2 People Fatally Shot in City of Halle, Germany

Federal prosecutors in Germany have assumed control of an investigation into the shooting deaths of two people in the city of Halle.The country’s federal prosecutors handle cases involving possible terrorism and national security.The shootings occurred Wednesday near a synagogue and a Turkish kabob restaurant, but police said the exact target of the attack was not clear.The shooting took place as Jews around the world observed Yom Kippur, one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar.Authorities said one of the two suspected assailants was arrested after fleeing in a car.  Authorities have not disclosed information about the detained suspect.The railway station in Halle, an eastern German city of 240,000, was closed as a precaution.Gunfire was also reported in the nearby town of Landsberg, but it was not clear if it was connected to the shootings in Halle.
 


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Philippine Officials Consider Extending Martial Law in Mindanao

The Philippine government imposed martial law on its giant southern island of Mindanao in early 2017 to help fight a war against Muslim rebels who had seized the center of the lakeside university town Marawi. Two years after the war ended, martial law remains and officials are talking about an extension into 2020.Martial law is not new to the Philippines. Former President Ferdinand Marco ruled as dictator under martial law from 1972 until 1981.But this time some people in Mindanao are pushing back. Martial law, they argue, keeps the island safer. But it may also keep business away.Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said in July he would consider extending martial law into 2020 if local officials want it, domestic media outlet Philstar.com reported. He said the island and outlying seas were still at risk.“Ideally, it is obviously good to see Mindanao freed from security challenges by the end of 2019 and therefore martial law may not be expected to be implemented anymore,” said Henelito Sevilla, assistant international relations professor at University of the Philippines.“However, Mindanao is Mindanao, and the region should not be compared to other parts of the Philippines where security challenges are less diverse in terms of nature, area and extent as compared to Mindanao islands,” Sevilla said. “The islands of Mindanao are very diverse in terms of tribal affinity, political cleavages and even armed groupings.”National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. had said in mid-2019 via Philippine media that he would propose another year of martial law.Violent elements remainTroops declared victory against the Muslim rebels in Marawi in October 2017 after fighting killed more than 1,100. In early 2019, Marawi and surrounding areas formally became the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. It was to be administered at least in part by a rebel group that had signed a peace deal with the government in 2014.However, an armed splinter of that group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, occasionally stages deadly ambushes including an August attack that killed three military informants. Abu Sayyaf, a separate rebel group known for kidnapping and slaying foreign tourists, remains intact on islands off Mindanao’s west coast. The armed communist New People’s Army has its own camps in Mindanao.Muslim rebels believe the Philippine Catholic majority controls an unfair share of resources in Mindanao despite five centuries of Muslim settlement. Violence there has killed about 120,000 people in Mindanao and adjacent Sulu Sea since the 1960s.Light impactMartial law lets troops and police work together without normal legal checks and balances. Authorities can also enforce curfews and randomly search vehicles.But in much of Mindanao, martial law is hardly noticeable. Around the port city Cagayan de Oro, for example, cars stop only between the domestic airport and downtown for routine checks. Police do not enforce curfews in the downtown mega-malls, upscale restaurants and major high-rise hotel.Road checkpoints turn up more often on highways around the Bangsamoro region, home to some 3.8 million mostly Muslim Filipinos.In Davao, the Philippine archipelago’s second largest city after Manila, people broadly support the extension of martial law, said a scholar who just visited. Davao is on Mindanao’s east coast, removed from most rebel attacks.“I asked people, they like the army because they feel considerably safe, and it’s actually not hindering the daily life of the people,” said the visitor Enrico Cau, Southeast Asia-specialized associate researcher at the Taiwan Strategy Research Association.“Just the idea that martial law hinders investment, deters people from going, stops tourists — even not so much,” he said. “Because when I got to Davao on August 17 and when I left in September, for example, hotels didn’t have one single room.”Is Mindanao safe enough already?Davao’s mayor and city council expressed formal opposition to continued martial law after ambassadors visited the city in mid-2019 and said the law raises costs of doing business, domestic media say. Much of Mindanao’s 25 million population lives in poverty, largely for lack of investment.Protest from the mayor may roll back martial law next year to cover only parts of Mindanao where rebels are likely to strike, Cau said. The mayor is also Duterte’s daughter.Renato Reyes, secretary general of the Manila-based Bagong Alyansang Makabaya alliance of leftist causes, saidPhilippine officials should drop martial law to focus instead on a peace process that address poverty and inequality in Mindanao.The government should use martial law to “expedite the development of new growth centers” in Mindanao to meet economic needs, said Aaron Rabena, a research fellow at Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, a Manila research organization.“We cannot live in a world where martial law is the norm,” Reyes said. “It should always be the last resort for government. When all civilian agencies or institutions are unable to discharge their functions, that’s when the military will come in.” 


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Rights Groups Highlight Case of Russian Journalist Facing Prison

When 40-year-old Svetlana Prokopyeva penned her column about an October 2018 suicide bombing by a 17-year-old student at the Federal Security Service (FSB) offices in Arkhangelsk, Russia, she had no inkling of what she would be bringing on herself.The perpetrator killed himself in the blast and injured three FSB officers, announcing beforehand on an anarchist chat forum that he was doing so because the security agency “fabricates cases and tortures people.”Prokopyeva tried in her commentary to enter the state of mind of the teenage bomber, to analyze his motives, arguing the Russian government’s repressive policies and its squelching of dissent and opposition was to blame. “A young citizen who has only seen prohibitions and punishments from the government in his life has not been able to invent any other means of communication. Cruelty breeds cruelty. The ruthless state has created a citizen whose only argument is death,” she wrote.Now Prokopyeva, who works in the northwestern Russian city of Pskov for the independent Moscow-based radio station Ekho Moskvy and is a freelance reporter for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, is facing a possible seven year jail term. Her apartment was raided by the security services, her laptops, phones and flash drives taken, and in July her name was added to an official list of “extremists and terrorists,” allowing the authorities to block her bank accounts and credit cards.Last month, she was charged formally with publicly justifying terrorism and banned from traveling beyond the Pskov region. Journalists covering her case have complained they have been harassed.Her case has prompted an international outcry by journalist organizations. The European Federation of Journalists dubs her case an “obvious attempt to intimidate journalists” and has called on the Russian government to stop misusing terrorism legislation to silence reporters.Rights groups are highlighting her case as yet another example of the increasingly reduced space authorities are permitting independent journalists in a media landscape dominated by outlets owned by the state or Kremlin-linked oligarchs.Last week, Russia’s few remaining independent news outlets published an open letter written by Prokopyeva in which she said that as the possibility of a criminal case against her was growing ever more likely she and her colleagues “just laughed and called the bureaucrats crazy. Where in hell was this ‘justification of terrorism’”?Speaking to VOA via an encrypted messaging app — she has been tipped off her home phone is bugged — Prokopyeva said even Russia’s independent journalists are becoming “accustomed to filter information,” or self-censorship. Now apparently “it is impossible to analyze a terrorist attack, because the government can consider it a justification of terrorism,’” she says.“My column was in accordance with the law. There’s no slander, the opinions are not formed as facts. Since we have freedom of speech in our Constitution, I thought I had rights to express my opinion and I did. Roskomnadzor (Federal Communications, Information Technologies and Mass Media Regulatory Authority) hasn’t cited any exact words or phrases, where it saw justification of terrorism,” she says.She says she was surprised by the reaction of the authorities and might think twice about writing such a commentary again. The police raid, she said, was humiliating.“They came around 12 p.m, I had just came from Moscow where I was presenting a book about the Pskov region. They didn’t talk much to me. There was a crowd in my apartment, I was just sitting on the chair, they said: ‘here’s a warrant to search, we start.’ They checked literally everything, each paper, all laptops, searched all my belongings. This procedure is nasty. It took around five or six hours,” she says.Intimidation Journalists covering her case also face difficulties. Last week, Pskov authorities summoned the editor of Ekho Moskvy’s Pskov affiliate, and the editor of a local independent news-site, after both outlets published Prokopyeva’s open letter. The editors say they were interrogated but are not able to elaborate more because of a non-disclosure agreement they were required to sign.“The prosecution of journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva and the intimidation and harassment of journalists reporting on her case shows how far Russian authorities will go to silence independent voices,” according to the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists. “The charges against Prokopyeva should be dropped and other journalists must be allowed to cover her case freely,” the organization said in a statement.Prokopyeva’s case is not the only one prompting the growing alarm of Russia’s independent media. Last week, the website of the Fergana Russian news agency, an outlet mainly covering the central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, was blocked by Roskomnadzor without any justification offered.The move was condemned by the rights group Amnesty International as “another arbitrary attack on freedom of expression in Russia.”  “The authorities may have believed that they could silence Fergana without anybody noticing, but they are wrong. Independent media outlets such as Fergana are rare in Russia but, to the authorities’ annoyance, they have a dedicated audience in Russia and beyond,” said Amnesty International’s Russia Director Natalia Zviagina.


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