Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Biden: US 'Gravely' Concerned by Ukraine Violence, Urges De-Escalation - VOA

Biden: US 'Gravely' Concerned by Ukraine Violence, Urges De-Escalation 

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As the death toll mounts in Ukraine, the United States has expressed "grave concern" about violenceand urged President Viktor Yanukovych to "de-escalate" the situation and hold immediate talks with the opposition. Latest reports say at least 18 people have been killed, including police and civilians in Kyiv. The White House says Vice President Joe Biden delivered the strong words to President Yanukovych in a telephone conversation on a day of violence in...

Listening Post: Aide’s Return to White House Shows Changing U.S. Role in Mideast 

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Robert Malley, who advised President Bill Clinton on Israeli-Palestinian talks, is returning to manage the fraying ties between the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf.

Ambassador defends U.S. role in Ukraine 

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CNN's Hala Gorani, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour, speaks with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt.
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Pussy Riot members detained near Sochi 

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Members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot were recently released after being detained near Sochi. Ivan Watson reports.
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Nugent: Obama is a 'subhuman mongrel' 

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Wolf Blitzer talks to Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News about rocker Ted Nugent's comments on President Obama.
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Soldiers Mugging Around Empty Casket Sparks Furor - ABC News

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Soldiers Mugging Around Empty Casket Sparks Furor
ABC News
The Wisconsin National Guard announced Tuesday that it had suspended a member from honor guard duties after she apparently posted to social media a photograph of soldiers mugging around an empty, flag-draped casket. The group photograph taken at ...

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US, Netherlands Lead in Sochi With 20 Medals Each

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The United States and the Netherlands surged toward the end of the day Tuesday at the Sochi Winter Olympics, leaving the two nations tied for the overall medals lead with 20. In the final event of the day, U.S. skier David Wise won the inaugural men's freestyle halfpipe competition. With heavy snow falling, he tallied 92 points to head a medals podium comprised of world champions. Canada's Mike Riddle took silver and France's Kevin Rolland earned bronze. Until the freestyle...

Turkish President Signs Law Curbing Web Use

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President Abdullah Gul signed into law a bill giving the government sweeping powers to block websites and monitor user activity, a move critics assailed as further endangering Turkey's democracy ahead of elections that could reshape the political landscape.

Ukraine: clashes escalate in Kiev as riot police attempt to break barricade - video

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Anti-government protests continue through the night on Tuesday, as riot police attempt to move into Kiev's Independence Square

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Ukraine protests: What you need to know 

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Protests in Ukraine have been going on for months. Maggie Lake breaks down the events that have lead to where we are now.
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Germany's Merkel convenes allies to restore confidence after scandal

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BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel aimed to restore public confidence in her governing coalition at a meeting of party chiefs on Tuesday to clear the air after a scandal that poisoned the atmosphere.

Obama's Satan look-alike cut from movie 

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Columnist Michael Musto examines the comeback of Bible-themed movies on the silver screen without a key figure.
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U.S. is ‘appalled’ by deadly violence in Ukraine, but no action is announced 

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The United States condemned an explosion of street violence in Ukraine that killed at least 15 people Tuesday and said the government bears primary responsibility for restoring calm.
Vice President Biden called Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich to express what the White House termed “grave concern,” and called on the embattled leader to pull back government forces after a day of chaotic street clashes and immediately resume political discussions with opponents.
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Venezuelan protest leader Lopez arrested 

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Becky Anderson speaks to the Venezuelan Embassy's Alvaro Sanchez about the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.
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Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López hands himself in to police 

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Harvard-educated politician denies charges of terrorism for his alleged role in violent anti-government protests
Venezuela's opposition firebrand Leopoldo López has handed himself in to the authorities after coming out of hiding to attend a rally of supporters in Caracas.
After the deadly protests that left three people dead last week, there was relief on the streets that a violent repeat has been avoided at least for now, but Lopéz's defiance in recent days appears to have raised his profile as a figurehead of resistance to President Nicolás Maduro.
The Harvard-educated politician has been accused of "terrorism" for encouraging the anti-government protests in several cities last Wednesday that saw fierce clashes between opposition demonstrators, police and "colectivo" militia groups loyal to the Chavista government.
But in a megaphone speech to several thousand supporters dressed in white, López denied the charges and said he was turning himself in to a "corrupt justice" system as a means of promoting non-violent reform.
"I have nothing to hide. They want to jail Venezuelans who want peaceful, democratic change," he said from a plinth for the statue of 19th century Cuban independence hero Jose Marti in Plaza Brion of Chacaito. "This is the first step in the construction of the road for change and it must, by necessity, be a peaceful process."
Flanked by several members of his Popular Will party, he then walked towards a barricade where he was escorted away by
police and national guardsmen.His supporters said they had turned out
despite fears of fresh clashes.
"I am afraid because of the violence I have seen, but I am more afraid of the course my country has taken", said Ingrid Lopez, an accountant. "I am here today to tell the government they are unfit to lead this country."
When police helicopters buzzed overhead, the crowd shouted their defiance and waved their hands to show that nobody was armed.
Watched by heavily-armed security forces and blocked by barriers, protesters were prevented from reaching their final destination in the Libertador Municipality.
Although the ruling bloc notched up impressive support during municipal elections last December, discontent about the government's handling of the economy and public security remains strong. Inflation is running above 56% – the highest rate in the world.
There are shortages of many essential commodities, such as toilet paper and milk. Caracas has one of the highest murder rates in the world.
"I am not sure how we will wake up tomorrow", said Jorge Farias a motor-taxi driver from Petare, a shanty town in western Caracas.
"This country can't stand this much longer – this insecurity in the streets, and these food shortages".Tensions and suspicions are still running high in the capital after funerals were held last week for the dead, who included Juan "Juancho" Montoya, a colectivo leader from the 23 de enero (23 January) neighbourhood of Caracas.
Underlining the tension, officials said on Monday that a 17-year-old youth, Jose Ernesto Mendez, was killed by a truck during a protest in Carupano, part of an ongoing wave of demonstrations, particularly by students.
López has emerged as the most radical voice of the opposition, whose leader Henrique Capriles has adopted a less confrontational and more pragmatic approach in dealing with a government that controls parliament, the courts, the media and the military.
Maduro now faces a tricky political decision. If the case goes to trial, it could create a platform for López. If he is jailed, the opposition would have a powerful new cause célèbre.
The government blamed the US for stirring up trouble in the oil-rich nation. On Monday three US diplomats were ordered to leave within 48 hours because of their alleged involvement in the disturbances.
The foreign minister, Elias Jaua, said the expelled diplomats had met student activists at private universities "for training, financing and creating youth organisations through which violence is promoted in Venezuela". The US government denies this.

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9 Killed as Protesters, Police Fight in Kyiv

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At least nine people were killed Tuesday as Ukrainian police and protesters fought near the parliament building in Kyiv. Police officials in the Ukrainian capital were quoted as saying that seven civilians had died in the violence, some from gunshot wounds, along with two police officers apparently killed by gunfire. The heavy fighting broke out as police tried to block demonstrators marching on the parliament building in the Ukrainian capital. Earlier Tuesday, Ukraine's interior...

Mavis Gallant obituary 

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Masterly Canadian short story writer and novelist who settled in Paris where she perfected her meditative, wry and lyrical style
'Like every other form of art, literature is no more and nothing less than a matter of life and death," observed the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant, who has died aged 91. Gallant's body of work – a dozen collections of short stories, two novels, a play and numerous essays and reviews – more than fulfilled her belief that style is "not a last-minute addition to prose, a charming and universal slipover, a coat of paint used to mask the failings of a structure".
Her own style – meditative and allusive, dry yet lyrical – had been honed in a newspaper office. She arrived at the Montreal Standard in 1944. Had it not been for the second world war, such men's work would not have been available. She thrived on it. She was particularly adroit at captions for photo stories, but everything was her beat and her ideas were always bubbling, galvanised by her vivid conversation combined with an ability to listen.
Having published short stories locally, she decided within a couple of years at the Standard that fiction had to take first place. "The distinction between journalism and fiction," she considered, "is the difference between without and within." When the newspaper's editor advised her against it, she countered that the New Yorker's editor, William Maxwell, although having declined one story, had asked her for another, which had netted her $600. Starting from 1951, the New Yorker would eventually publish more than 100 of her stories.
Drawn to Paris, she moved there before taking in London and settling for a period in Spain. While in Europe, she did not realise that the work she had left with her agent at home had continued to appear in the New Yorker; the agent had pocketed the cash while informing the magazine that she was a recluse and telling her she had been rejected. But after Gallant had re-established contact with Maxwell and discovered the truth, her career picked up momentum. She set up home in Menton, in the south of France, later in Paris, and from then on made her living by her fiction.
She was born Mavis de Trafford Young in Montreal, to English-speaking, Protestant parents. Aged four, she was bundled off to a Jansenist boarding school where French was the main language; she was bilingual by the age of eight. Her father died young and her mother soon remarried, moving to the US, where Gallant received a peripatetic education. She passed through 17 boarding schools until she fetched up with a guardian in New York, and eventually returned to Montreal aged 18. In the early 1940s, she worked for the National Film Board and married a musician, John Gallant, but their relationship foundered amiably and she was divorced by the end of that decade.
Her first collection of stories, The Other Paris, was published in 1956. In the titular story, Carol has come to work in Paris, where glamour proves elusive, and has become engaged to a colleague. "If anyone had asked Carol at what precise moment she fell in love, or where Howard Mitchell proposed to her, she would have imagined, quite sincerely, a scene that involved all at once the Seine, moonlight, barrows of violets, acacias in flower, and a confused, misty background of the Eiffel Tower and little crooked streets. This was what everyone expected, and she had nearly come to believe it herself. Actually, he had proposed at lunch, over a tuna-fish salad." Carol reflects that all will be well across the Atlantic in suburbia and the story forms an acute meditation upon illusion and reality. Gallant described her work as starting from an image around which characters evolved, with dialogue and scenes following. How it would turn out she would not be sure, sometimes putting material aside for years and, on returning to it, finding that an opening was now the ending. She likened the process to editing a film, and always urged that her stories not be read one after another.
One of her longest stories, The Pegnitz Junction (1973), opens in Paris, but belongs to a period that Gallant spent in Germany. Christine, who "a few years ago would have been thought plain", is engaged to a theology student but is staying in Paris with another lover, Herbert, and his son Bert. Events soon turn surreal, with the news of an airport strike and a return to Germany by train. Voices overlap, officials strut and the past comes to the fore.
John Updike once noted "how easily [Gallant] assumes the dry, wry, faintly harried voice of a woman-baffled male". In the story Lena (1983), an 80-year-old woman is visited in hospital by the younger husband, Edouard, whose desire for divorce she has long thwarted. It is a small masterpiece about the ties that bind; in lesser hands, its nine pages would be the stuff of a novel. Gallant's own two novels, Green Water, Green Sky (1959) and A Fairly Good Time (1970), contain, or spring from, stories.
In 1981 Gallant was made an officer of the Order of Canada; and in 1993 a companion of the order. In her 80s, several anthologies of her tales were published – including Paris Stories (2002), selected by Michael Ondaatje, and Montreal Stories (2004), selected by Russell Banks. In 2004, The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant brought together 52 stories written between 1953 and 1995. Reviewing the book for the Guardian, Hermione Lee called Gallant "a paragon and a delight, a writer of the utmost subtlety, curiosity and attentiveness".
Towards the end of her life, she revisited her journals for publication. The New Yorker published her Parisian diary of 1968 as The Events in May; she described that memoir as a "collective dream in which an entire city played at being on the brink of civil war". As such, it was not so far from some of her stories.
• Mavis Gallant, writer, born 11 August 1922; died 18 February 2014

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Pussy Riot members arrested over theft in Sochi

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Russian police on Tuesday detained the two most famous members of the Pussy Riot punk protest group in Sochi, currently hosting the Winter Olympics, question...
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Venezuela Opposition Leader Surrenders

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Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López, facing accusations of inciting violence that left threedead, surrendered after giving a fiery speech at a rally.

Russian TV program links United States to treason at home

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“Their aim,” said a historian named Yuri Zhukov, “is to create as many traitors as possible, who would be able to cooperate with the new occupiers.”
Coming in the midst of a winter sports festival designed to promote international harmony, and just days after President Vladimir Putin’s amicable visit to the American Olympic house here, the prime-time film on nationwide TV portrayed the United States as an implacably hostile and astonishingly competent foe.
Anti-Americanism is par for the course on state-supported Russian TV, but the airing of the film on a night of Olympic action made an especially unsubtle point.
To prove its case, the film interspersed clips of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels with snippets from 1950s American TV ads, paused briefly on the punk protest group Pussy Riot, and cut from the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad by U.S. troops in 2003 to the toppling of a statue of Lenin in Kiev, Ukraine, by protesters in December.
The film opened with a long segment on Gen. Andrei Vlasov, who was captured by the Germans in 1942 and became a turncoat. What marked him as a traitor, it suggested, were the same characteristics that distinguish members of the Russian opposition today.
“You can recognize Vlasov in any of today’s traitors,” said another historian, Boris Yulin.
The film didn’t mention that Vlasov was captured by U.S. troops in 1945 and turned over to the Soviets, who hanged him. It did show a memorial to him in Nanuet, N.Y. “Of course,” said the producer and narrator, Konstantin Syomin, “the memorial is protected by the American flag.” (It was erected by the Russian church, which also wasn’t mentioned.)
The film included numerous clips of Russians making approving comments about Vlasov — the gist being that he was against Joseph Stalin and therefore a patriot — and about the United States. “The United States is the leader of world civilization,” said a Russian nationalist, Ilya Lazarenko. “Americans are kind by nature,” said an emigre named Yuri Mosha.
These moments were apparently designed to get viewers’ blood boiling, but they brought to mind a sly Soviet-era trick, in which a less-than-enthusiastic propagandist would ostensibly denounce an enemy or renegade by quoting him at length and laying out all of his arguments — leaving the audience to read between the lines.
The U.S. aim for more than 60 years, Syomin argued, has been to destroy first the Soviet Union and then Russia by stirring up ethnic hatreds. He blamed Radio Liberty, financed by Congress, for creating animosity between Armenians and Azerbaijanis before they fought a war two decades ago. The same technique is evident today with U.S. support for Ukrainians protesting their country’s pro-Russian government, he said.
Syomin concluded by saying that Russia needs heroes. “The war for memory continues all the time,” he said. “History is one of the fronts of the war.”
A memory Russian viewers won’t have is that of watching the short program in Olympic ice dancing live, because it was preempted by the film. Just as well — an American couple, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, took the gold.
How underhanded were they? The music they danced to, in a nod to their hosts of the evening, was by the Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
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Afghanistan frees suspected Taliban prisoners over U.S. objections

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In a statement issued after the men walked out of an Afghan-controlled prison next to a massive American base north of the capital, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul condemned the release.
“The Afghan government bears responsibility for the results of its decision,” the embassy said in an uncharacteristically sternly worded statement. “We urge it to make every effort to ensure that those released do not commit new acts of violence and terror.”
Karzai said through a spokesman: “I hope that the United States will stop harassing Afghanistan’s procedures and judicial authority. Afghanistan is a sovereign country. If Afghan judiciary authorities decide to release prisoners, it’s of no concern to the U.S.”
U.S. military officials warned that the Afghan government was endangering its forces and civiliansduring a crucial year.
“Violent criminals who harm Afghans and who threaten the peace and security of Afghanistan should face justice in the Afghan courts, where a fair and transparent trial would determine their guilt or innocence,” the military said.
U.S. military officials said the detainees were “directly linked” to attacks that killed or wounded 32 NATO troops — including Americans — as well as 23 Afghan security forces and civilians.
The Afghan government, which has long viewed U.S. detainee operations in Afghanistan as an affront to its sovereignty, has said that it reviewed the evidence against 88 former U.S. inmates and concluded that the majority were innocent.
“That is why they were freed today and are on the way to their homes,” said Abdul Shokoor Dadras, a senior member of the review board that studied the cases. “Legally, we have no right to hold these people. We are studying the cases of the rest of the prisoners to see which one deserves to be punished and which one needs to be freed.”
Karzai has called the U.S. detention center at Bagram air base a Taliban “factory” where innocent Afghans have become radicalized.
On the eve of the release, U.S. officials took the rare step of disclosing the names of a handful of detainees set for release along with a summary of the evidence against them.
One, Mohammad Wali, was detained in Helmand province last May after investigators found his fingerprints on the residue of roadside bombs that targeted Afghan and foreign troops, the U.S. military said.
Another, Nek Mohammad, was captured the same month in Kandahar province in possession of several artillery rounds that U.S. military officials suspected were part of an arsenal used to target their bases, the military said.
Afghanistan’s fledgling court system has traditionally given more weight to confessions than the type of forensic analysis that U.S. military personnel see as irrefutable evidence of guilt. It has released several former U.S. detainees over the past few years, in some instances as gestures to appease political factions and power brokers.
The release comes amid an impasse between Kabul and Washington over a security pact that could keep as many as 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after the end of the year. Karzai has thus far refused to sign the document, arguing that he will do so only if Washington helps broker a peace deal between the Afghan state and the Taliban. U.S. officials have called that goal unrealistic.
Several U.S. lawmakers, exasperated by what they see as Karzai’s intransigence, saw the prisoner release as the last straw. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) threatened earlier in the week to lead an effort to suspend all aid to the Afghan government if the release went forward.
“President Karzai, in my view, is single-handedly destroying this relationship,” Graham said during a hearing. “I look forward to developing a bipartisan plan to push back as hard as possible.”
U.S. officials say the release of the men violates an agreement on detainee transfers that was reached with the Afghan government in 2012. The deal included a clause saying that the countries could hold an “exchange of views” in the event of a disagreement over the release of prisoners. The United States invoked that clause in the latest cases — to no avail.
While some Afghans hailed the release as a milestone in the country’s quest for sovereignty, others expressed fear and dismay.
A security analyst and former general, Javid Kohistani, said Karzai’s aim in freeing the detainees was to “prompt the Taliban to start talks with his government or get their support to vote for his favorite in the presidential election.”
Amina Zia Massoud, daughter of a vice presidential hopeful, called the freed men dangerous. “Taliban criminals who are released always restore back to fighting,” she wrote in a Twitter post.
Londoño reported from Washington. Tim Craig in Afghanistan contributed to this report.
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Former Pussy Riot Members Held in Sochi

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Updated Feb. 18, 2014 6:44 a.m. ET
A photo dated Feb. 4, 2014, showing Maria Alyokhina, left, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, former members of the Russian "Pussy Riot" punk group, at a news conference at Amnesty International offices in New York. European Pressphoto Agency
MOSCOW—Two former members of the Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot, who became international human rights symbols after being jailed for two years for an anti-Kremlin protest, were detained Tuesday in Sochi ahead of a planned demonstration at the Olympic Games.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said by telephone from Sochi that she and Maria Alyokhina were in a police van after being detained by local police while they walked along a street in the Black Sea resort Tuesday afternoon. She said they were told they were being held in relation to an alleged theft at their hotel.
"We, Maria Alyokhina and the anonymous members of Pussy Riot, came to Sochi to organize a protest and express our political views but at the time of our detention [by the local police] we were just taking a stroll minding our own business when we got picked up by the police and shoved into a police van," Ms. Tolokonnikova said. "We've been detained like anybody who's made an attempt to criticize authorities during the Olympics. Authorities treat local guests and athletes nicely but not those who are attempting to organize a protest."
Photos on both the women's Twitter streams showed them in what appeared to be a police van. In one message on her stream, Ms. Tolokonnikova said they were in town to stage a protest called: " Putin Will Teach You To Love The Motherland," referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The detention of such high-profile rights figures in Russia could serve as a shot of adrenaline into what have been largely quiet protests surrounding the Games. In the run-up to the event, Russia came under heavy criticism internationally for a recently passed law limiting gay rights, as well as alleged environmental abuses and corruption, and officials had braced for protests.
A spokesperson for the local Interior Ministry confirmed to the Interfax news agency that the women were being questioned regarding an alleged theft at their hotel. A man who answered the phone at the Malakhit Hotel where the women were staying in Sochi said there had indeed been the theft of a purse but he didn't have any indication who was responsible and referred all further questions to the police.
The women were released from prison in late December with less than three months left on their two-year sentences as part of a sweeping amnesty supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The women said they believed their release was a "sham," done to calm criticism of Russia's human rights record ahead of the Olympic Games.
Upon their release they said they planned to become active in human rights with a focus on prison reform in Russia and that they no longer would be involved in protests involving the punk group. In January, the two women traveled to the U.S. and Russia to meet with human rights groups. In New York, they appeared onstage alongside pop star Madonna and other musicians at a benefit concert for Amnesty International.
Last month, other members of the Pussy Riot group posted a letter on their website saying Mses. Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova should no longer be referred to as members of the group.
Pussy Riot gained international attention in February 2012 when four members of group—wearing colorful balaclava masks and tube dresses—stormed into Moscow's Christ the Saviour Cathedral and acted out a performance critical of the Kremlin in front of stunned parishioners, as a wave of protests swept through the city. The performance was videotaped and uploaded to YouTube to an anti-Kremlin song called "Mother of God, Drive Putin Away," referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Weeks later, authorities arrested Mses. Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova and a third group member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and charged them with hooliganism. Other group members who played a role in the protest were never identified. The three women were convicted in August 2012 and sentenced to two years in prison. Ms. Samutsevich was released in October 2012 on appeal because she had been stopped by cathedral guards before entering the building.
The severity of the two women's sentences in August 2012 had made them some of the highest-profile prisoners in Russia, with Kremlin critics calling their prosecution politically motivated. As word of their case spread abroad, they fast became international causes célèbres, gathering support from human rights groups and musicians including Bjork, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Patti Smith and Pete Townshend.
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U.S. seeks prisoner swap with Taliban to free Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl

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To refresh the American offer, which has been on the table for more than two years, senior officials from the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies decided within the past month to allow the simultaneous release of all five men. Taliban representatives had objected to the previous plan to release the prisoners by ones or twos as a test of Taliban and Qatari intermediaries’ ability to make sure the men did not return to militancy.
Two people familiar with the decision stressed that it was the Taliban that broke off negotiations nearly two years ago and that the U.S. door to talks has been open since. The renewed offer has not been formally made, and no State Department or other officials have immediate plans to travel to Doha, Qatar, where any contact facilitated by the Qatari government would take place.
The Pentagon press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said Friday that U.S. officials are eager to get the soldier back.
“He’s been gone too long,” Kirby told reporters during a briefing. “We want him back. We’ve never stopped trying to bring that about. He’s never far from anyone’s mind here.”
Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to outline parts of a strategy they described as a last-ditch effort to engage the Taliban.
The mid-January decision by officials at the level of deputy secretary would confine any new talks to the prisoner issue. Negotiations would not attempt wider engagement with the Taliban on a host of issues related to the future of Afghanistan. U.S. officials had once hoped to use the prisoner exchange as a means to build confidence for those larger discussions, which would also have involved the Afghan government. Now, the United States is primarily focused on getting Bergdahl home.
Officials at the Pentagon said last month that they had obtained a new video of Bergdahl, the first evidence U.S. officials have seen in nearly three years that the soldier remains alive. They had long been seeking evidence that Bergdahl was still living, because of reports that he had attempted to escape once and because of concerns about his health, a U.S. official said. The United States intercepted the video before its makers intended to release or broadcast it, the official said.
Bergdahl, an Army infantryman assigned to a unit from Alaska, was taken captive after walking off his base in the eastern province of Paktika, a decision that confounded his comrades and commanders in Afghanistan. The U.S. military launched a massive manhunt, fearing it would be nearly impossible to find him if his captors smuggled him into Pakistan. The Taliban soon took credit for capturing him and offered to release him in exchange for $1 million and 21 Afghan prisoners.
The Taliban broke off talks before they ever really began in 2012, and an effort to resurrect negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government last year ended in an embarrassing shambles. A political office promised to the Taliban was readied in Doha but closed two days after it opened in June amid a row over the raising of a flag the Taliban used when it ruled Afghanistan prior to the 2001 U.S. invasion.
Taliban representatives remain in Doha, and the office is a de facto political headquarters.
Separately, the Pentagon has examined the feasibility of trying to negotiate Bergdahl’s release directly with the Haqqani network, which is part of the broader Taliban insurgency but operates separately. The network is widely believed to be holding the soldier in Pakistan, two others familiar with that exploratory effort said.
Preliminary studies have looked at whether the Haqqanis would engage in talks to trade Bergdahl for Haqqani prisoners captured by U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and held at a prison adjacent to Bagram air base, one current and one former U.S. official said.
The United States is holding a “handful” of Haqqani prisoners in Afghanistan, one official said. The exact number has not been disclosed.
At one point in 2012, U.S. officials tried to feel out the Haqqanis through a senior member of the network held at Bagram, but there was no response, one official said. Another person familiar with the effort said similar exploratory planning was done to test whether the Haqqanis might be paid off or otherwise enticed to let Bergdahl escape.
There is no “actionable” intelligence on Bergdahl’s exact location, one official said, and a U.S. military rescue mission has long been effectively ruled out.
The United States has even less traction with the Haqqanis, branded a terrorist group in 2012, than with the main Taliban organization. A State Department official met once with Haqqani representatives more than three years ago, but there has been no further contact, two officials said.
In an apparent attempt to draw Haqqani support for the separate Guantanamo-related bargain, one of the five prisoners who would be released was a relatively low-level member of the Haqqani network, one official said.
The decision to try to resume talks comes amid U.S. frustration with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has refused to sign a security pact that would allow some forces to stay in the country next year. Without it, all U.S. troops will depart this year, and the already declining U.S. leverage with the Taliban would be reduced.
Karzai has been leery and at times bitterly opposed to direct U.S.-Taliban negotiations, which he sees as an effort to undermine him and make a separate peace. The official U.S. position is still that it seeks “Afghan-led” reconciliation between the government and the Taliban insurgency.
After opposing direct engagement with the Taliban for years, the United States shifted course in President Obama’s first term. The effort led only to several secretive meetings in Germany and the Middle East.but no full-on negotiations and no real accomplishments.
The man who would head renewed negotiations if they happened, James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has been publicly skeptical that the Taliban are ready to talk again.
Adam Goldman and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.
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In Historic Step, Puerto Rico Statehood Admission Bill is Introduced in U.S. Senate

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Washington, DC—Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi announced that an identical companion bill to H.R. 2000, the Puerto Rico Status Resolution Act, is being introduced today in the U.S. Senate, marking another historic step in Puerto Rico’s fight for equality. 
The bill is being introduced by Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which has jurisdiction over the issue of Puerto Rico’s political status.  Introduction of the bill sends a powerful message that the Senate, like the House of Representatives, recognizes the importance of the November 6, 2012 referendum in Puerto Rico, in which voters rejected the current territory status and favored statehood over any other status option.   
“Those of us who seek equality and justice through statehood understand that this struggle requires passion and determination, but that it also demands strategic thought and action.  The filing of a Senate companion bill to H.R. 2000 demonstrates that the momentum in favor of statehood continues to build.  We are closer than ever before to achieving our goal.  I thank pro-statehood leaders in Puerto Rico for their support and, in particular, I want to recognize the efforts that former Governor Carlos Romero Barceló has made in the U.S. Senate,” said Pierluisi. 
“In the House and now in the Senate, Martin Heinrich has proven himself to be a leader of courage and conviction.  Based on my meetings and conversations with Senator Heinrich, I understand that his perspective on the issue of Puerto Rico’s political status has been shaped by the obstacles that New Mexico confronted—and overcame—on its own journey to statehood.  I know that Senator Heinrich recognizes the inherent flaws of territory status and respects those who want Puerto Rico to become a full and equal member of the American family,” added the Resident Commissioner.               
For his part, Senator Heinrich said:  “In 2012, 54 percent of Puerto Ricans rejected their current relationship with the United States.  We have a responsibility to act on that referendum, and this step is critical in that effort.  My home state of New Mexico spent 66 years as a territory before gaining statehood in 1912—the longest of any state.  Puerto Rico has spent nearly 116 years as an American territory.  That’s long enough.  The debate over Puerto Rico’s status needs to be settled once and for all so that its people can focus on fostering a more prosperous future.”
The Resident Commissioner also expressed his gratitude to Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who is an original cosponsor of Senator Heinrich’s bill.  Senator Wyden, the outgoing chairman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, presided over a Committee hearing on the November 2012 plebiscite last August.  He will now become the chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Finance, and will remain a member of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.    
Senator Wyden has recognized that the current territory status was rejected by the people of Puerto Rico and should not be an option in any future vote designed to resolve Puerto Rico’s status.  Senator Wyden, along with Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, has also stated clearly that status proposals like “enhanced commonwealth” are impossible.  During the Committee hearing in August, Wyden said:  “There is no disputing that a majority of the voters in Puerto Rico  . . .  have clearly expressed their opposition to continuing the current territorial status. . . . The current relationship undermines the United States’ moral standing in the world.  For a nation founded on the principles of democracy and the consent of the governed, how much longer can America allow a condition to persist in which nearly four million U.S. citizens do not have a vote in the government that makes the national laws which affect their daily lives? That is the question.”
Recently, the Majority Leader in the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, confirmed his support for statehood for Puerto Rico, demonstrating the progress that statehood has made in the highest reaches of the federal government.  
The Senate bill being introduced today is identical to the House bill that Pierluisi introduced in May 2013, which is cosponsored by 130 Members of Congress from both political parties.  The bill responds to the aspirations expressed by the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico in the November 2012 referendum.  The bill outlines the rights and responsibilities of statehood and provides for a federally-sponsored vote on the territory’s admission as a state.  If a majority of voters affirm that they want Puerto Rico to become a state, the bill requires the President to transmit legislation to Congress to admit Puerto Rico as a state after a reasonable transition period.  The bill also expresses Congress’s commitment to act on that legislation. 
“Puerto Rico is confronting the worst economic and fiscal crisis in its history, with all three credit rating agencies having downgraded our bonds to junk status.  Residents of Puerto Rico are leaving in unprecedented numbers for the states in search of the quality of life they deserve as American citizens.  Those who remain on the island face high unemployment, high crime and other challenges.  The people of Puerto Rico comprehend that this crisis is structural in nature, rooted in the unequal and undemocratic treatment that Puerto Rico receives because it is a territory.  The truth is undeniable:  Puerto Rico has remarkable potential; but to fulfill it, we must change our status,” said Pierluisi.
The introduction of a Senate companion to H.R. 2000 follows closely on the heels of another major milestone in the statehood movement.  In January, President Obama signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014, which includes $2.5 million for the first federally-sponsored status vote in Puerto Rico’s history.  The law requires the vote to be held among one or more options that would “resolve” Puerto Rico’s ultimate status and that are consistent with U.S. law and public policy.
Recently, the Resident Commissioner wrote to President Obama, urging his Administration to take an “active and assertive role” in structuring the vote that will be held pursuant to the appropriation.  Specifically, Pierluisi proposed that the federally-sponsored vote be configured as a vote on Puerto Rico’s admission as a state, precisely as H.R. 2000 prescribes.
“H.R. 2000 provides a blueprint for how the vote conducted pursuant to the recently-enacted appropriation should be structured.  The introduction of a Senate companion bill to H.R. 2000 confirms that the next step should be a vote in Puerto Rico on the territory’s admission as a state.  All that remains is for Governor García Padilla and the Puerto Rico Legislative Assembly to prove that they are not afraid of democracy by scheduling this vote,” said the Resident Commissioner.     
Finally, Pierluisi thanked the pro-statehood organization Igualdad (Equality) for its steadfast support and for its efforts to advance the statehood cause in Washington.
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