A day after the president’s announcement that he wants to normalize relations with Cuba, Cuban-American congressional leaders came together in Miami to condemn it as appeasement of a Communist regime.
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Part of the deal for the return of American Alan Gross from Cuba involved the release of a Cuban man who had served as a spy for the U.S. He’s said to have provided info about Cuban spies in the U.S.
Abu Zubaydah, an alleged al-Qaida operative who was reportedly subjected to waterboarding at a secret location in Thailand in 2002.
Thailand’s prime minister says his government had no knowledge of a secret location inside the country where the CIA is said to have waterboarded top al-Qaida operatives in 2002.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha was responding to the so-called “torture report” released by the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this month that detailed the treatment of terrorism suspects at secret locations — black sites— around the world.
One such center, known by the CIA code-named “Cat’s Eye,” was reportedly in Thailand. It is where Abu Zubaydah, an alleged al-Qaida facilitator, and another alleged al-Qaida figure, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, are believed to have been subjected to waterboarding and other techniques in an effort to extract information about terrorist activities. Other such sites were reportedly established by the Central Intelligence Agency in Afghanistan, Poland, Romania and Lithuania.
“The U.S. did not tell us anything. We didn’t know where it was hidden,” Prayut, an army general who seized power in Thailand in May, told reporters in the capital, according to The Bangkok Post.
“We didn’t have to take responsibility because they were already handed over,” Prayuth said.
The Bangkok Post says:
“Gen Prayut had previously denied that Thailand hosted clandestine torture facilities for the US.
“Returning from South Korea last Friday, Gen Prayut acknowledged the release of the explosive Senate report, which listed Thailand among the countries used by the CIA for the detention and torture of suspected terrorists.
“But he said the claims made within the public portion of the massive report were false, and the Foreign Ministry would explain that Thailand was not involved in the CIA’s actions.”
The Washington Post reports that after Abu Zubaydah was captured in Pakistan and handed over to the U.S., the CIA rejected placing him in U.S. military custody, settling instead “on a location in Thailand that would become the agency’s first black site.”
Once there, the alleged al-Qaida operative “was kept in a coffin-sized box for hundreds of hours and waterboarded until he ‘became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through is open, full mouth,’” the newspaper said, quoting from the 528-page Senate report that is itself a declassified version of a classified study that exceeds 6,000 pages.
However, the Washington Post says:
“Almost immediately, there were tensions with the Thai government. The day after Abu Zubaida arrived, Thai officials began placing new conditions on their acquiescence, demanding access to U.S. intelligence that officials familiar with the Senate report said had nothing to do with terrorism. The Thai officials who had approved the CIA plan were suddenly replaced by others who objected to the deal and demanded that it be closed ‘within three weeks.’
“CIA lobbying got Thai officials to relent, but by November , the location had leaked. The New York Times refrained from publishing the Thai connection, but “the fact that it had the information, combined with previous media interest, resulted in the decision to close [the site].”
A Pakistani health worker administers a polio vaccine to a child during a campaign in the northern city of Rawalpindi.
FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images
FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images
FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images
Between the rugged terrain and the constant terrorist threats, vaccinating Pakistani children against common diseases hasn’t been easy. Mountains make it hard — at times even impossible — for vaccinators to reach people in the north. In the south, health workers have to use four-wheelers and camels to travel through Pakistan’s harsh deserts.
The Taliban also stands in the way. Since 2012, the Taliban has gunned down at least 60 health workers and policemen who were guarding them. The attack this week on a school in Peshawar that killed at least 140 children and teachers is a reminder how the group can wreak havoc with the country’s sense of security.
Still, Pakistan has been making strides in vaccinating children. In 2013, the country saw between 60 and 85 percent immunization coverage against diseases like measles, tuberculosis, polio and meningitis. In 1980, the rate was almost zero.
“We’ve seen the death of children occurring even 10 years ago cut down by half because of the vaccines,” says Dr. Dure Akram, a retired professor of pediatrics at Dow Medical University in the Pakistani city of Karachi. Akram, 66, now serves as the honorary chairman of Health Education and Literacy Program, a nongovernmental organization providing primary health care in Karachi.
Akram stopped by NPR to talk about the successes — and challenges — of routine immunization programs in Pakistan.
Will the recent Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar have any effect on the immunization program?
I do not think that this would affect the routine immunization or the polio campaign because we understand that this is retaliation by the Taliban against the army. I hope that it would not in any way compromise the routine the immunization activities going on there.
But in the past the Taliban has made it impossible for health care workers to carry out regular immunization drives. In places such as North Waziristan for instance. Is that still a problem?
That is a very difficult area. Since June of 2012 nobody was allowed to get in there to give vaccination. So that area became a pocket of disease and illnesses of children that could have been easily prevented. This was a political move on part of the Taliban. Presently in the last 6 months, the military has opened it up [and allowed vaccinators in to Taliban controlled areas], But there are still pockets where [the military has] not reached.
Over time, how have vaccines changed Pakistan?
Let me give you a bit of historical perspective. When I was growing up, we just had the smallpox vaccine. Sometimes when there were epidemics of typhoid, there was a typhoid vaccine. Other than that we grew up totally exposed to common childhood infections. So we did not even dream that one day our children would be protected against common infections [like] pneumonia, diarrhea and measles. With GAVI’s (The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations) help, our immunization program got accelerated and we could procure vaccines that were not accessible because of the price.
During my lifetime as a teacher, I saw diseases disappear. I saw outbreaks of measles disappear. I have seen isolation wards where we used to keep cases of tetanus closing down. A couple weeks ago, I was visiting my old hospital where I used to teach and we were taking rounds in the ward. The professor there — who used to be my student — asked me to look into a case that she thought may be diphtheria. She said, “I have not seen diphtheria in my life.” But I had [seen it] growing up. So this is a very visible impact of the vaccines.
Which vaccine would you say had the greatest impact in Pakistan?
As of now, the measles vaccine because measles decreases the immunity of children. It kind of eats up the vitamin A, which is a major micronutrient that protects against infections. So we used to see outbreaks of measles followed by outbreaks of tuberculosis, vitamin A deficiency and blindness. We definitely are still seeing measles outbreaks but these are in pockets, whereas we used to see outbreaks running throughout the country.
Hopefully [in the future], the most important vaccine to decrease mortality in children would be the pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines, which would decrease the two major killers of children under 5 in Pakistan. Pneumococcal vaccine was introduced just over a year and a half ago, and the rotavirus vaccine will be introduced next year.
What are the challenges of vaccinating children in Pakistan?
We have a population that is scattered, they’re in areas where there are no roads, especially in the deserts and mountains. We have a poverty level [of] 45 to 50 percent, and they do not have easy access to health care facilities. In addition, we’ve had disasters: the earthquake in 2005 [and] the floods in 2010 and 2011, which displaced over a million people [and] caused epidemics of diarrhea, pneumonia and various infections. Then we have manmade disasters like terrorism, which plagues us almost every week. We’re always in fear as to where it’s going to hit us next.
It seems like health problems in Pakistan are intertwined with insecurity. For instance, the places in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, where you still have major disease outbreaks are often the same places that are insecure.
You’re right. In cities like Peshawar — a bustling metropolis — and in Karachi, which is the industrial hub, there are pockets where even now we cannot go to immunize or to give health care because of the fear of insurgents attacking us. But that does not apply to the major part of the country; it applies to isolated pockets in the north of Pakistan and in Karachi.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, on Thursday, where he blamed Western sanctions and falling oil prices on his country’s economic troubles.
Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out at the West in a year-end news conference today, blaming international sanctions and a steep plunge in oil prices for the precipitous drop in the value of the ruble.
Putin, speaking during a more than three-hour news conference attended by some 1,200 journalists, “promised never to let the West chain or defang his proud nation,” according to The Associated Press.
It was the second time this month that Putin has spoken in a nationwide forum about the country’s economic woes, and the Russian leader echoed and expanded on many of the points he espoused in his Dec. 4 “state of the union speech.”
He blamed “external factors,” including sanctions imposed by the U.S. and EU over the Ukraine crisis as a key factor in the decline of the ruble, which plunged 19 percent in a single day on Tuesday, but has since shown signs of firming. Putin said the sanctions were about 25 to 30 percent of the ruble’s troubles.
NPR’s Corey Flintoff reports that Putin said the worst-case scenario would mean two years of economic unease, but that the government would protect pensions and government salaries until then. He also said the crisis will force Russia’s economy to diversify away from only exporting oil and gas.
According to the AP: “Putin displayed his traditional defiant stance toward the West, which he insisted is trying to destroy Russia to grab Siberia’s great natural resources.”
Referring to the annexation of Crimea and Russian support for rebels in eastern Ukraine, Putin said “I believe that we were right,” adding, “And I believe our Western partners are not right.”
The Kremlin’s moves in Ukraine came as Kiev mulled the possibility of joining NATO. The expansion of the Western alliance, Putin said, was akin to a new Berlin Wall — dividing East and West.
But the Russian leader hinted at conciliation with Ukraine. The New York Times writes:
Mr. Putin recognized the efforts of President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine in ending the conflict in the southeast of that country, but he suggested that others in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, may be trying to prolong the conflict.
“Undoubtedly, the president of Ukraine certainly wants a settlement, and I have no doubt that he is striving for this,” Mr. Putin said.
“But he’s not alone there,” he added, referring to more hawkish officials.
The Guardian notes that Putin: “said that it was illogical to blame him for current frosty relations with the west. Referring to the number of US military bases around the world and its deployment of anti-ballistic missiles in Europe, he asked how Russia could possibly be seen as the aggressor.”
The Russian leader said it was too early for him to decide if he would run for president in 2018.
Michael J. Garcia, head of FIFA’s investigatory chamber of the ethics committee, resigned Wednesday in protest.
Walter Bieri /EPA /LANDOV
Walter Bieri /EPA /LANDOV
Walter Bieri /EPA /LANDOV
Soccer’s governing body is meeting Thursday in Morocco, a day after the American lawyer, who spent two years investigating allegations of corruption in the bidding process for the World Cup, quit in protest at how FIFA handled his report.
Michael Garcia’s resignation stems from events that began last month. That’s when German judge Hans-Jochaim Eckert released a report that cleared Russia and Qatar of corruption in their successful bids for the soccer World Cup in 2018 and 2022, respectively. Eckert’s report was based, in part, on Garcia’s work. The German judge released a 42-page version of Garcia’s report, which the American lawyer said contained “numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations.” He called upon Eckert to release his full 430-page work, which FIFA has sealed. On Tuesday, FIFA rejected that appeal on a technicality.
“No independent governance committee, investigator, or arbitration panel can change the culture of an organization,” Garcia wrote in his resignation letter. “And while the November 13, 2014, Eckert Decision made me lose confidence in the independence of the Adjudicatory Chamber, it is the lack of leadership on these issues within FIFA that leads me to conclude that my role in this process is at an end.”
Today’s FIFA meeting in Morocco, which will go on until Friday, will discuss preparations for the 2018 World Cup. But it will also discuss Garcia’s full 430-page report. FIFA’s executive committee will vote on a measure that could lead to the publication of an edited version of the report.
The Associated Press reports that the 27 members on the panel are divided over releasing all or even part of the report. But the fact more of it hasn’t been released only adds to speculation about what it contains. It also raises questions about FIFA, an organization long plagued by allegations of opacity.
The AP adds:
“Prosecutions launched by Garcia against five senior football officials for wrongdoing in the World Cup campaigns will continue. Those cases can be led by his ethics investigation deputy, Zurich-based former public prosecutor Cornel Borbely.
“Former Germany great Franz Beckenbauer, a voting member of the FIFA executive committee in 2010, is the highest profile of the five accused men.
“Three current board members — FIFA vice president Angel Maria Villar of Spain, Michel D’Hooghe of Belgium and Worawi Makudi of Thailand — also face sanctions for their actions during contests marred by claims of bribery, collusion and favor-seeking.”
You can find our previous coverage of this story here.
Aides say Obama will sign a bill authorizing new economic sanctions against Russia in retaliation for its ongoing interference in Ukraine. Russia’s economy is reeling from earlier western sanctions.
Alan Gross, the American who has spent five years imprisoned in Cuba, has been released.
James L. Berenthal/AP
James L. Berenthal/AP
James L. Berenthal/AP
Updated at 11:03 a.m. ET
The U.S. will start talks with Cuba on normalizing relations and on opening an embassy in Havana, senior administration officials said. The move would mark the resumption of diplomatic relations that were severed in 1961, shortly after Fidel Castro came to power.
President Obama, in Washington, and Cuban President Raul Castro, in Havana, are scheduled at noon to make announcements about relations between the two countries.
The developments come hours after news emerged that Alan Gross, the American contractor who spent five years in a Cuban jail, had been freed on humanitarian grounds.
U.S. officials also said three Cuban spies, part of the so-called Cuban Five spy ring, will be released in exchange for an unnamed U.S. intelligence asset jailed in Cuba for 20 years. That individual, U.S. officials said, identified the Cuban Five, Cuban intelligence agents in the U.S. who were caught in the 1990s. He also identified former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Ana Belen Montes and former State Department official Kendall Myers and his wife, Gwendolyn, as Cuban agents.
U.S. officials said the two countries will also normalize banking and trade relations. They said the U.S. expects to have differences with Cuba on issues such as democracy and human rights, but the move toward normalization is a “better way of advancing out interests and our values.”
Obama, the officials said, approved high-level talks with Cuba over the spring, and meetings were held in Canada. The Vatican also played an important role, the officials said, with Pope Francis appealing for Gross’ release in letters to both leaders.
The U.S. will also move to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which it has been on since 1982.
Separately, Cuba also agreed to release 53 detainees whom the U.S. regards as political prisoners.
As we previously reported, Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, had been working on a program to improve Internet access for Jewish Cubans. During several trips to Cuba he had covertly distributed laptops. A Cuban court found him guilty of crimes against the state in 2011, and sentenced him to 15 years in prison.
In December 2013, Peter Wallsten of The Washington Post told NPR Gross was being detained in a 10-by-12-foot room with two other prisoners.
This month, Gross’ wife, Judy, said her husband had lost more than 100 pounds during his detention. “He can barely walk due to chronic pain, and he has lost five teeth and much of the sight in his right eye,” she said in a statement.
In an interview in June with NPR, Judy Gross said her husband was “despondent and very hopeless.” She warned that he had said he would “take drastic measures if he’s not out very shortly.”
Gross had staged a nine-day hunger strike earlier this year.
Signaling what could be a major shift in U.S. relations with Cuba, Gross, who has been jailed in Cuba for five years, will be released, while the U.S. will release three Cubans.
(This post was last updated at 9:47 a.m. ET.)
A Pakistani girl, who was injured in a Taliban attack on a school, is rushed to a hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Tuesday.
Taliban militants stormed a school in northwest Pakistan on Tuesday, leaving scores of students dead.
Quoting Pakistani officials, multiple media outlets put the death toll at 126, including 80 students in grades 1 through 10.
A little before 8 p.m. local time, police announced that the operation had ended, after the gunmen were killed. Security personnel, police official Abdullah Khan told the AFP, were now in the process of sweeping the rest of the building.
The Associated Press reports that six gunmen entered the Army Public School and Degree College in Peshawar, shooting at random. Police quickly moved in and traded gunfire with the militants. The AP adds:
“Pakistani television showed soldiers surrounding the area and pushing people back. Ambulances streamed from the area to local hospitals. …
“It wasn’t clear how many students and staff were still inside the facility. A student who escaped and a police official on the scene earlier said at one point about 200 students were being held hostage.”
The New York Times reports that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif traveled to Peshawar. A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
The spokesman tells The New York Times the Taliban said they were retaliating for a recent military offensive.
Update at 10:15 a.m. ET. U.S. Condemns Attacks:
President Obama issued this statement on the situation in Pakistan:
“The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms today’s horrific attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan. Our hearts and prayers go out to the victims, their families, and loved ones. By targeting students and teachers in this heinous attack, terrorists have once again shown their depravity. We stand with the people of Pakistan, and reiterate the commitment of the United States to support the Government of Pakistan in its efforts to combat terrorism and extremism and to promote peace and stability in the region.”
Update at 9:39 a.m. ET. Siege Is Over:
The AP, Reuters and Dawn and the Express Tribune are reporting that the siege is over, after all six attackers were killed.
The AFP quotes police official Abdullah Khan as saying “security personnel are carrying out clearance operation and hopefully they will clear the building in a while.”
Update at 7:50 a.m. ET. The Heart-wrenching Scene:
“Witnesses described how gunmen went from classroom to classroom, shooting children, after a huge blast shook the Army Public School, while some described police struggling to hold back distraught parents trying to break past a cordon and get to the school when three loud explosions went off.
“Ninth grader Kashan, son of Zaheerudin, told our correspondent, ‘We were sitting in the hall and a colonel was giving a lecture when we heard firing from the back.’
“Kashan said, ‘The sound of the firing kept moving closer when suddenly the door behind us was kicked down and two people started firing indiscriminately.’
“The ninth-grader said chaos ensued and the last thing he remembers is children and people falling to the ground. Kashan escaped but with injuries on his feet.”
Update at 7:19 a.m. ET. 6 Suspected Gunmen Killed:
Gen. Asim Bajwa, a Pakistani military spokesman, has been tweeting updates of the standoff. In his latest missive, Bajwa says that six terrorists have been killed, and children and teachers continue to be rescued.
“IEDs planted by terrorists hamper speed of clearance,” Bajwa says.
Update at 7:12 a.m. ET. Country Should Not Lose Its Strength:
Dawn newspaper reports that as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrived in Peshawar, he said the country is now experiencing the blowback of its offensive against the Taliban and other militant groups in North Waziristan.
“I feel that until and unless this country is cleansed from terrorism, this war and effort will not stop, no one should be doubtful of this. We have also spoken to Afghanistan about this and we will fight terrorism together,” Sharif said. “Such attacks are expected in the wake of a war, and the country should not lose its strength.”