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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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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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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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Turkey’s Internet Regulation Sparks Fears of New Censorship Wave

In Turkey, new controls regulating internet broadcasting have come into force. The government says all broadcasters need to abide by the same rules, but critics claim the new measures are an attempt to silence the last platform for independent journalism. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul.

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Migrant Deaths in Mediterranean This Year Top 1,000

The International Organization for Migration reports fatalities from a shipwreck Monday off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa has pushed the migrant death toll on the Mediterranean Sea this year to 1071.The boat, which capsized seven miles from the coast of Lampedusa, reportedly departed from Tunisia with between 50 and 55 people aboard.  Some of the 22 survivors of the accident testified passengers included 15 Tunisians, as well as West African migrants.Authorities say the Italian Coast Guard has recovered 13 bodies, all of them women, who came from Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Guinea.  International Organization for Migration spokesman Joel Millman says 17 migrants remain missing, including more women and at least two children.  He says the missing are believed to be nationals of Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Guinea Conakry and Tunisia.“IOM’s Missing Migrants Project reported Monday that these deaths bring to 15,750 the total number of dead, on this particular central Mediterranean route since 1 January 2014.  This is approximately 10 times the total lost on the Mediterranean’s eastern corridor linking the Middle East to Greece, and almost the same multiple of all deaths on the western route linking North Africa to Spain,” Millman said.  Weather conditions reportedly were bad when the overloaded vessel, an unseaworthy wooden boat, set sail from Tunisia.  U.N. refugee agency spokesman Charlie Yaxley said this tragic loss of life was predictable.  He said, once again, people anxious to reach Europe put their lives in the hands of smugglers and traffickers, whose only interest is to make money.“We cannot continue to allow these criminals to act with impunity and to allow them to prey on people’s misery and desperation by taking peoples’ services under these false promises,” he said.  Yaxley said the UNHCR is calling for a redoubling of efforts to identify those individuals responsible for this carnage and hold them accountable for their actions. 

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US Senate Panel Report Calls for Plan to Prevent Meddling in 2020 Presidential Election

The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee has issued a bipartisan report that calls on the U.S. government and private industry to prevent social media sites from being used to interfere in the 2020 presidential election, as they were in 2016.The report, released Tuesday after more than two years of investigating foreign electoral meddling, found the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency “sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election by harming Hillary Clinton’s chances of success and supporting Donald Trump at the direction of the Kremlin.”The finding is consistent with evidence uncovered by the U.S. intelligence community after the 2016 election in which Trump defeated Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.The report also said interference is likely to occur before the November 2020 elections.The bipartisan group of Senators who prepared the report recommends the Trump administration form an interagency task force to monitor social media platforms for signs of foreign interference next year.“The Federal government, civil society, and the private sector, including social media and technology companies, each have an important role to play in deterring and defending against foreign influence operations that target the United States,” committee members said.The report concluded that Russian influencers targeted African-Americans more than any other group in 2016 in a campaign to fuel domestic tensions and strengthen the election prospects of Trump.The preparation of the report, titled “Russia’s Use of Social Media,” was led by Republican committee Chairman Robert Burr and Democratic vice chairman Mark Warner. 

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