Two U.S. Diplomats Drugged In St. Petersburg, Deepening Washington’s Concern

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By Mike Eckel

WASHINGTON — Two U.S. officials traveling with diplomatic passports were drugged while attending a conference in Russia last year, and one of them was hospitalized, in what officials have concluded was part of a wider, escalating pattern of harassment of U.S. diplomats by Russia.

The incident at a hotel bar during a UN anticorruption conference in St. Petersburg in November 2015 caused concern in the U.S. State Department, which quietly protested to Moscow, according to a U.S. government official with direct knowledge of what occurred.

But it wasn’t until a dramatic event in June, when an accredited U.S. diplomat was tackled outside the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, that officials in Washington reexamined the November drugging and concluded they were part of a definite pattern.

The State Department suggested the harassment has become a particular concern in the past two years.

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Russian ‘Gun-For-Hire’ Lurks In Shadows Of Washington’s Lobbying World

By Mike Eckel

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— The hoots and jeers began the minute the movie ended and the lights went up on the seventh floor of the Newseum, a Washington museum dedicated to the free press. The film was a semifictionalized look at the story of Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian lawyer who helped uncover a massive tax fraud and later died in a Moscow jail.

B5A3BEF5-60F7-4503-B57B-4045FF385F6C_w640_r1_cx46_cy37_cw33_sIn the front of the room, a handful of Russian opposition activists shouted, “Shame!” at the director. In the back, out of the spotlight, was the event’s organizer — a fast-talking, nattily dressed man in a dark blue, double-breasted suit standing at a small table, sipping bottled water and quietly watching the commotion.

The June 13 showing was the film’s premiere. Other screenings had been canceled in Europe following protests by critics who say it is a crude attempt to smear Magnitsky’s name and that of the Western financier who employed him, William Browder.

That it was shown at all was a small coup for Rinat Akhmetshin, the man at the back of the room who for nearly 20 years has worked the shadowy corners of the Washington lobbying scene on behalf of businessman and politicians from around the former Soviet Union.

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In U.S. Money-Laundering Case, Shades Of Russian Corruption

By Mike Eckel

WASHINGTON – At first glance, it’s a case that could easily be misconstrued as a humdrum allegation of ill-gotten foreign money being laundered through dealings in American real estate.

Peel away a couple layers of The United States Of America vs. Prevezon Holdings Ltd., however, and you’ll find all the makings of a modern international spy thriller.

The mind-boggling case currently making its way through U.S. District Court in Manhattan centers A137AB18-94D3-445B-9605-69AE3B23C62B_w640_r1_s_cx0_cy2_cw0on money, power, and strange plot twists. The most eye-opening particulars of the case, however, aren’t even officially on the docket: an audacious $230 million tax-fraud scheme, allegedly carried out with the complicity of Russian government officials, followed by the posthumous conviction of а whistle-blowing tax auditor and the trial in absentia of a crusading British-American financier.

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Impasse Over Nuclear Treaty Hardens As Washington Threatens ‘Countermeasures’

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A photo taken from video published by the Russian Defense Ministry purports to show missile launches from the Caspian Sea to strike targets in Syria.

By Mike Eckel

WASHINGTON– Russia risks provoking “military and economic countermeasures” if it continues to stonewall over a U.S. accusation that it violated a bedrock of nuclear arms control, the United States’ lead arms-control negotiator says.

The comments by Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, highlight the seriousness that the U.S. administration has attached to the alleged violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Last year Washington formally accused Moscow of being “in violation of its obligations.”

Gottemoeller told RFE/RL in an interview that Russia had been engaged in a “fishing expedition” to learn “what precisely we know and how we obtained that information” instead of trying to resolve the dispute.

“We don’t make determinations on arms-control violations lightly,” Gottemoeller said. “So I want to make clear that this violation is not a technicality or a mistake as some have suggested. We are talking about a missile that has been flight-tested as a ground-launched cruise-missile system to these ranges that are banned under this treaty.”

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Atonement on the Tigris

 A Century Later, Armenians, Turks and Kurds Slowly Move Forward From a Tormented Past

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Sourp Giragos has gone through cycles of decay and rebirth. Its Gothic bell tower was destroyed in May 1915, according to the foundation’s director, after authorities deemed it inappropriate that a Christian church’s structure would rise higher than minarets of nearby mosques. (VOA/Mike Eckel)

By Mike Eckel

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — Most of the congregants at Easter Mass at the rebuilt Church of Saints Cyriacus and Julietta in this Turkish city on the banks of the Tigris were not Christian.

They were Muslim.

Among the handful of Christians was Gafur Turkay.

Five years ago, he turned away from the religion he was raised in — Islam — and openly embraced the religion of his ancestors, a choice that he said was less about being Christian and than it was about being Armenian.

It was also, he said, about honoring his grandfather, whose throat was cut in the violence that in 1915 all but wiped Armenians from the map in this and other parts of the dying Ottoman Empire.

“For my grandfather, for the massacres, for the Armenians, I did it for them,” said Turkay, whose family was forced to adopt that surname. “I wasn’t a good Muslim and I’m not a good Christian either. But I am a good Armenian.”

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In the village of Derkhist, about a two-hour drive east of Diyarbakir, headstones from an graveyard are all that remains of an hilltop Armenian church that Kurdish villagers said was demolished some 90 years ago. 

A Cry From Crimea

The story of one man’s discovery of national pride and his struggle to maintain a sense of place as leaders in distant capitals play geopolitical chess with his homeland. 

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By Mike Eckel

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — The last free person to see Mikhail Vdovchenko before his descent into nine days of Russian hell was the co-owner of a local musical instrument store. For much of the past year, she’s been scared, so much so that she drops her voice to a whisper on the boulevard outside her store when talking to strangers. She glances nervously over her shoulder at passersby.

Too frightened to disclose her full name, Natalya is the mother of two teenagers and a four-decade resident of the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia summarily annexed in March, then launched an insurgency in eastern Ukraine sparking the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War. What happened in Simferopol—the Crimean capital where her store is located—and the entire nation has terrified her.

On March 11, she first made eye contact with Mikhail—Misha, his friends and relatives call him—on a sidewalk a few blocks outside the city center, a little before 4 p.m. She was walking home from the bank.

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In Central African Republic, Diamonds Fuel A Cycle of Violence and Poverty

For decades, the riches of the earth have been the boon and the bane of CAR. Now they may also be leading to its disintegration.

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By Bagassi Koura and Mike Eckel

BOMANDORO, Central African Republic — For the past two years, Guillaume Benam has spent most of his days doing back-breaking labor, hunting for the riches that so many of his countrymen have fought over for so long. With three partners, he shovels heavy, wet clay soil into wooden sieves and baskets, then hunches in shin-deep water, sloshing the dirt and turning the stream the color of chocolate milk.

“It’s a gamble. Sometimes you get one, sometimes you get nothing,” Benam said. “We have been searching. I have been around for more than two years.” CAR21-MenPanning-5_1100px

Deep in the forests of one of the poorest countries on the planet, Benam’s quest for diamonds is a search for livelihood. It is also a symptom of the country’s woes, where the government’s absence has left a vacuum in the countryside, where sectarian and criminal bloodletting continues.

Central African Republic has become a nation whose borders exist only on maps, where governmental authority is limited mostly to the 25 square miles occupied by the capital, Bangui, if that.

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Why He Chose To Leave This Good Land?

Islamic State Beckons and Somali Americans Again Struggle With Radicalization

By Mike Eckel and Harun Maruf 

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota _ When Dayib Ahmed Abdi and his family arrived in the United States in 1996, his son Abdifatah already had an independent streak. The family settled in Minnesota along with thousands of other refugees from Somali’s civil war and Abdifatah, known also as Abdirahman Muhumed, went in his own direction.

He frequented gyms, lifted weights and played basketball. He wasn’t particularly religious. He liked going out to night clubs and was considered handsome, “a heartthrob,” his father said. Abdifatah ended up marrying three times, having eight children in all. His father hoped he would join the military.

Late last year, Abdifatah, 29, abruptly left his families, and traveled to Britain, then Syria, joining the radical militants of the Islamic State as they began sweeping across parts of Syria and Iraq. He posted photographs to Facebook and elsewhere earlier this year, showing him holding the Quran and AK-47s. In August, he was reportedly killed in Syria.

He was the second American to die there.

“I was very sad when I heard it. ‘Why he would go to an Arab land?’ I asked myself,” Abdi told VOA. “They [Arab countries] don’t help us; instead the United States helped us. ‘Why he chose to leave this good land?’ I asked. I was very unhappy.

“What I would say to the crazy youth who went to the Arab countries for harmful things is they are wrong,” he said. “This is like madness.”

The issue of Americans being radicalized, recruited to fight in the cause of radical Islamic terror groups, is capturing national attention, sowing fear that some could return unnoticed to commit attacks at home. With more than 100 Americans having traveled to Syria since 2011, President Barack Obama gave open voice to those fears on September 10: “Trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”

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Of those who have traveled to Syria, at least 13 Somalis were from Minnesota, according to a VOA tally, a number that includes at least two girls. Two more Somali girls, and a Sudanese girl, all from the Denver area, were stopped in Germany on October 19, as they headed to Syria.

For Minnesota’s Somali community, the largest in the United States, this isn’t a new phenomenon: between 2007 and 2010 some two dozen men traveled to Somalia to fight “jihad” there. As before, the issue is bringing unwanted scrutiny from the FBI and local police; a federal grand jury is nearing the end of its investigation into the recruiting and who’s responsible.

The Somali community’s experience is a window: into how difficult it is to counter radicalization; into the mistrust and alienation that recruiters thrive on to draw people to radical jihad: in Somalia, Syria or elsewhere.

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In The Home of Peace, A Siege of Fear

Dears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter the carnage and mayhem inflicted by Boko Haram. Or may in fact be making things worse.

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Boko Haram has shown increasing sophistication in its ability to mount coordinated attacks. This attack in the northeast town of Bama in May 2013 killed at least 42 people. (AP)

By Ibrahim Ahmed and Mike Eckel

MAIDUGURI, NIGERIA _  At the moment when the soldier slits the first throat, one body is already crumpled in the shallow grave, blood staining the sandy soil on the grave’s rim. In the background a line of victims sits patiently, as if waiting for a haircut at a barber shop.

The grainy video, shot on a cell phone the last week of May 2014, shows three men, wearing camouflage fatigues issued by the Nigerian military, some carrying AK-47 rifles and machetes, who are joined by two others wearing civilian clothes. In all, three executions are shown. The victims are believed to be either sympathizers or members of the violent Islamist terror group Boko Haram, or possibly innocent civilians. The soldiers appear to be Nigerian military.

Another soldier serving in the specially-created military task force struggling to contain the threat posed by Boko Haram provided the video to VOA. The soldier described the video, and others, as illustrative of the tactics being used to fight Boko Haram: “the military way.”