VICE Journalist Freed After 3 Days of Captivity in Ukraine

UKRAINE-US-RUSSIA-CRISIS-POLITICS-MEDIA-FREE
Simon Ostrovsky, who was abducted and held by pro-Kremlin rebels in east Ukraine this week, speaks on a mobile phone as he arrives in a hotel in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk after being freed, on April 24, 2014. Alexander Khudoteply—AFP/Getty Images

Simon Ostrovsky, a reporter for VICE News, was freed on Thursday evening by the militants who captured him as a punishment for his journalism in eastern Ukraine

On Monday night, a group of five journalists were traveling in a rental car through the center of Slavyansk, the town in eastern Ukraine that has been taken over by pro-Russian militants, when they came to the final checkpoint on their trip back to their hotel. At the wheel was Simon Ostrovsky, an American reporter with VICE News, who had already driven with his passengers through three checkpoints on the way into town, each one manned by separatist fighters who peered into the car at the journalists’ faces. But it was only at the final one, near the militant-controlled police station in the center of Slavyansk, that the gunmen recognized Ostrovsky.

They had a wanted poster with his photograph on it, accusing him of “distorting” the truth in his coverage of the conflict in Ukraine and “spreading the lies of the Kiev junta,” a reference to Ukraine’s central government. With guns drawn, the militants then pulled all five journalists out of the car, including this TIME correspondent, lined them up outside the police station and read out the text of the wanted poster by the light of their headlamps. It demanded Ostrovsky’s capture for the series of video reports that he and his colleague, the photojournalist Frederick Paxton, had produced since early March – “Russian Roulette: The Invasion of Ukraine.

The militants, overjoyed at their catch, then led Ostrovsky away at gunpoint and drove him to their security headquarters in the center of Slavyansk. Paxton, this correspondent and the two other journalists were also detained at gunpoint but released after a brief interrogation. The militants accused some of their detainees of being Western spies and agents of the Kiev authorities.

It would be almost three days before Ostrovsky’s colleagues would learn of his release on Thursday evening. Throughout his time in captivity, the separatist leader of the town where he was captured, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, batted away questions about his prisoner’s fate with a stream of inconsistent claims. At various points, he suggested that Ostrovsky was detained for his journalism, or for having an expired press accreditation, or for working as a spy. On at least two occasions the militant leader said publicly that Ostrovsky was being held as a prisoner of war in order to trade for other separatists who have been arrested by the Ukrainian government. During a bizarre press conference on Tuesday, Ponomaryov, a soap manufacturer who claimed the title of “people’s mayor” after seizing power last week, insisted that Ostrovsky was simply working on an “exclusive” story from inside the separatist’s security building and was not being held against his will. But dozens of requests to speak with Ostrovsky or see him were refused. His normally busy Twitter feed fell silent.

On Tuesday, VICE News confirmed that Ostrovsky was in danger. “We are aware of Simon Ostrovsky’s situation and are working to ensure the safety and security of our friend and colleague,” the statement said. Nearly two days of intensive efforts would pass before VICE News would release another statement about him, on Thursday, saying that the outlet was “delighted to confirm that our colleague and friend Simon Ostrovsky has been safely released and is in good health.”

On Twitter, some of Ostrovsky’s followers in Ukraine were quick to point out on Thursday that the militants in Slavyansk are still holding numerous prisoners, including Ukrainian journalists, highlighting the continuing danger posed by the separatist fighters who have taken over large chunks of the country’s eastern regions. “Ukraine is about to be kidnapped,” one remarked. On Thursday morning, the government forces of Ukraine mounted their first assault on a separatist checkpoint on the road leading to Slavyansk, turning it into a pile of burning tires and leaving between two and five separatists dead. Russia, which has threatened to intervene to protect the separatists, responded with a new set of military exercises at its border with Ukraine. So the fears of Ukraine’s imminent “kidnapping” may not be overblown. But whatever happens, Ostrovsky will now be able to get back to doing what he does best – reporting.

Nigeria

Rights Group Urges U.N. To Help Free Abducted Girls

(LAGOS, Nigeria) — A Nigerian rights group is urging the United Nations to help secure the release of some 230 schoolgirls abducted by extremists 10 days ago.

More than 40 of the girls and young women kidnapped from a remote northeastern school escaped by themselves but school officials say 230 still are missing.

The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project called Thursday for several U.N. agencies to “urgently intervene” and provide “international assistance and support to the Nigerian authorities to secure the release of the children and to ensure that they get back to school.”

Nigeria’s military said it mounted a “hot pursuit” operation.

The mass kidnapping and a massive explosion that killed 75 hours earlier in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, strengthened fears the Islamic uprising is spreading and the military unable to stop it.

Malaysia

Malaysian PM: Government May Release MH370 Report Next Week

Malaysia may release a report to the public detailing the plane's unsolved disappearance

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told CNN Thursday that Malaysian officials may release a preliminary report on the disappearance of Flight MH370 next week.

“I have directed an internal investigation team of experts to look at the report, and there is a likelihood that next week we could release the report,” Najib said in an interview.

CNN says Malaysia’s report has already been sent to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations body for global aviation. However, it has not yet been made publicly available.

Malaysian and Australian officials are continuing to plan a long-term strategy to find the missing plane, which could continue for months or years. A U.S.-made Bluefin-21 submarine has been searching the southern Indian Ocean for the plane, but has not discovered a solid lead.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared in early March with 227 people on board while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

[CNN]

U.K.

London School Says Students Abused By U.S. Teacher

(LONDON) — A British private school said Thursday that images of between 50 and 60 of its students were found on the computer drive of an American suspected child predator who killed himself last month.

The FBI has asked for international help to find victims of William Vahey, who worked at 10 international schools around the world over four decades.

Graham Lacey, executive principal of the Southbank International School in London, where Vahey taught history and geography between 2009 and 2013, said staff learned of the images Thursday.

“As a staff, we feel upset, angry and betrayed,” Lacey wrote in a letter to parents. “We can only imagine what you as parents must feel.”

Vahey, 64, committed suicide March 21 in Luverne, Minnesota, two days after U.S. agents filed for a warrant to search his computer thumb drive.

The FBI said the device contained pornographic images of at least 90 boys, aged 12 to 14, who appeared to be drugged and unconscious.

In a statement, the FBI said Vahey had confessed to an administrator at his most recent school “that he was molested as a child and had preyed on boys his entire life, giving them sleeping pills prior to the molestation.”

The FBI said the photos dated from 2008 or after, but that Vahey may have abused children for decades.

The agency said Vahey was jailed for child molestation in California in 1969. Lacey said Vahey had undergone a criminal records check before he began working in London, but that it hadn’t found anything of concern.

British police said they had searched a London property in connection with the case and were working to identify and support potential victims.

Vahey had residences in London and Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia Reports 4 More MERS Deaths

Asian workers wear mouth and nose masks while on duty during a football match at the King Fahad stadium, on April 22, 2014 in Riyadh.
Asian workers wear mouth and nose masks while on duty during a football match at the King Fahad stadium, on April 22, 2014 in Riyadh. The health ministry reported more MERS cases in the city of Jeddah, prompting authorities to close the emergency department at the city's King Fahd Hospital. Fayez Nureldine—AFP/Getty Images

Nearly 300 people are infected in Saudi Arabia, and some worry that the virus could spread when millions of Muslims make the Hajj to Mecca later this year

Saudi Arabia has reported four new deaths and 36 more infections within the last day from the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the Associated Press reports.

Among the newly infected is a 65-year-old Turkish pilgrim in Mecca, one of two cities where millions of Muslims from across the world will gather later this year for the Hajj, an annual Islamic ritual. Some health experts are concerned the gatherings will exacerbate MERS’ rapid spread to other countries.

Saudi Arabia has seen a spike in MERS infections in recent weeks, with many health workers among the sick and the dead. The Saudi Health Ministry says there have now been 297 cases and 85 deaths related to the virus since it first appeared in the country two years ago.

MERS is in the same family of viruses as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and the common cold. MERS has no vaccine or treatment. It’s unclear how the virus is being transmitted, though some scientists theorize that the virus may have spread from camels. The virus does not spread as quickly as SARS. It’s possible MERS will die out on its own, though some are worried it could mutate into a more easily-spreadable disease.

[AP]

VICE Journalist Released by Separatist Captors in Ukraine

U.S. journalist Simon Ostrovsky, who was abducted and held by pro-Kremlin rebels in east Ukraine this week, arrives in a hotel in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk after being freed, on April 24, 2014.
U.S. journalist Simon Ostrovsky, who was abducted and held by pro-Kremlin rebels in east Ukraine this week, arrives in a hotel in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk after being freed, on April 24, 2014. Alexander Khudoteply—AFP/Getty Images

Simon Ostrovsky was said to be in good health after being released from captivity, three days after he and four other journalists, including TIME's Berlin Correspondent Simon Shuster, were detained Monday evening by Pro-Russia separatist militia

An American journalist for VICE News detained by separatists in eastern Ukraine has been released and is in good health, the outlet confirmed on its website Thursday.

Simon Ostrovsky and four other journalists, including TIME’s Berlin Correspondent Simon Shuster, were detained Monday evening by Pro-Russia separatist militia, in an incident that highlighted the increasing threat to journalists working in the region. The other four were released after about an hour, but New York-based Ostrovsky was held because he was “suspected of bad activities,” said Stella Khorosheva, a spokeswoman for the militia in the separatist-held town of Slavyansk.

The journalists—including Ostrovsky, Shuster, a Ukrainian photographer, a British photojournalist, and a Russian photographer—were traveling in a car in Slavyansk when they were stopped at a separatist checkpoint.

The full statement from VICE News:

VICE News is delighted to confirm that our colleague and friend Simon Ostrovsky has been safely released and is in good health. We would like to thank everyone for their support during this difficult time.Out of respect for Simon and his family’s privacy, we have no further statement at this time.

India

Youth Vote Key In India’s Marathon Elections

India is one of the world's youngest countries with 50% of its population still under 30, something that is reflected in the 150 million first time voters aged between 18 and 23 in the ongoing national elections. The polls, which commenced on April 7 and end on May 12, are spread out over nine phases, with young people set to play an important role in determining who ends up leading the world's largest democracy

Photographs by Sumit Dayal for TIME

U.N. Security Council Expresses ‘Horror’ at South Sudan Massacre

(NAIROBI, Kenya) — The U.N. Security Council on Thursday expressed “horror” at the recent massacre of several hundred civilians in South Sudan, while the U.S. ambassador to the world body said she fears a deepening human catastrophe.

The strongly worded Security Council statement deplored the killings last week in Bentiu, the capital of oil-producing Unity state, as well as the use of radio broadcasts to “foment hate and sexual violence.” It said council members may be willing to impose sanctions if attacks on civilians continue.

“The world’s newest state is clearly on a precipice,” said U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, who demanded that the nation’s leaders end the violence. “Failure to take bold action now very well could push South Sudan into a cycle of retaliatory ethnic killing, a deepening civil war, and an even more devastating humanitarian catastrophe.”

The condemnations come about 10 days after rebel fighters from the Nuer ethnic group took control of Bentiu and slaughtered non-Nuer civilians in the town mosque, the hospital and on streets, leaving “piles and piles” of bodies, according to the U.N.’s top aid official in the country.

Melker Mabeck, the outgoing head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in South Sudan, called the conflict’s ethnic component worrying.

“Because it can reach a point where the political efforts that we hope make progress might be overrun by these kinds of dynamics, so that even if a political solution is found the rifts between the different ethnic groups is too wide to bridge,” he said.

President Salva Kiir fired the country’s top military officer, Chief of Staff Gen. James Hoth Mai, further isolating the Nuer group politically. Mai is Nuer and his command position, which he held since 2009, was frequently cited as an example of the ethnic diversity of the government led by Kiir, an ethnic Dinka.

Mai’s removal further freezes a powerful minority out of top government positions, said Casie Copeland, a South Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“The move will make many Nuer who remain with the government nervous,” she said.

Kiir also relieved his director of military intelligence, a Nuer, following his testimony at a recent treason trial that appeared to politicize the army, said Copeland. The newly named replacements are Dinka, like the president, she said.

Col. Philip Aguer, South Sudan’s military spokesman, noted that chiefs of staff are posts not for life, and that the military implements the president’s decisions. It is only the second change in the top military position since 2005, Aguer said.

A spokesman for the rebels, Brig. Gen. Lul Ruai Koang, said the firing of Mai and the director of military intelligence “marks the beginning of an imminent bloodbath, escalation and regionalization of the conflict.”

“Kiir has finally unplugged the last safety valve and glue that had partially kept together his faltering regime in the last four months,” Koang said.

Aguer reported battles in Jonglei state on Wednesday around the town of Renk, which he said is in the military’s control. The rebels say they now control Renk. It was impossible to immediately reconcile the accounts.

The situation in Bentiu remains calm but the city is in rebel control, he said.

Violence has been raging in South Sudan since mid-December, when Kiir accused Machar of leading a coup. About 1 million people have fled their homes and an unknown number have been killed. Most estimates are in the thousands.

“Who knows how many are killed? Nobody knows,” Mabeck said in an Associated Press interview Thursday in Geneva, where he was briefing Red Cross officials. “I think it’s likely to get worse before it gets any better,” he said.

South Sudan became the world’s newest country in 2011 when it cleaved off from larger Sudan after a referendum. Enmities between ethnic groups have been longstanding.

___

Associated Press reporter John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.

TIME 100

The 2014 TIME 100: Italy’s Renzi Recalls Obama’s Meeting With Pope Francis

Both the U.S. President and Pope Francis feature in TIME's list of the one hundred most influential people of the year

On the morning of March 27, President Barack Obama met Pope Francis in Rome. That afternoon, on the other side of the Tiber River he paid another visit, to Italy’s newly elected prime minister, Matteo Renzi.

“I met Obama the same day that he had met the Pope, and at the end of our meeting we were alone for about 10 minutes while they were organizing the cars,” Renzi, 39, recalls in an interview with TIME. “He had told me that he had been really impressed by the meeting they had had.”

Both Obama and the Pope feature in TIME’s list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. And the President’s admiration for Francis shines through in his piece for the special TIME 100 issue of the magazine published today. Describing the Pontiff as a “leader who makes us want to be better people,” Obama said he reminds us that “we are bound by moral obligations to one another.”

“If you ask my opinion of [the] Pope, as a Catholic, I say that I’m deeply struck by the capacity that the church had of understanding and changing. Not only the resignation of Ratzinger, but also that Ratzinger was succeeded by Bergoglio—two very different models,” says Renzi. “From a political point of view, Pope Francis is a reference point that, in my opinion, is very sensitive to a several themes: social justice, fairness, a focus on the least fortunate, much more than other popes in the past. And from this point of view I share Obama’s judgment.”

Renzi’s remarks come as he attempts to revive the Italian economy. Weighed down by record levels of public debt, the country has struggled as growth across the region hit the buffers, exposing deep structural flaws in what is the eurozone’s third largest economy. Since taking over earlier this year, the telegenic former Mayor of Florence has adopted an ambitious reform agenda in a bid to pull the country out of the doldrums.

Tiny Pacific Nation Sues 9 Nuclear-Armed Powers

(NEW YORK) — The tiny Pacific nation of the Marshall Islands is taking on the United States and the world’s eight other nuclear-armed nations with an unprecedented lawsuit demanding that they meet their obligations toward disarmament and accusing them of “flagrant violations” of international law.

The island group that was used for dozens of U.S. nuclear tests after World War II filed suit Thursday against each of the nine countries in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. It also filed a federal lawsuit against the United States in San Francisco, naming President Barack Obama, the departments and secretaries of defense and energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration.

The Marshall Islands claims the nine countries are modernizing their nuclear arsenals instead of negotiating disarmament, and it estimates that they will spend $1 trillion on those arsenals over the next decade.

“I personally see it as kind of David and Goliath, except that there are no slingshots involved,” David Krieger, president of the California-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, told The Associated Press. He is acting as a consultant in the case. There are hopes that other countries will join the legal effort, he said.

The countries targeted also include Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. The last four are not parties to the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but the lawsuits argue they are bound by its provisions under “customary international law.” The nonproliferation treaty, considered the cornerstone of nuclear disarmament efforts, requires negotiations among countries in good faith on disarmament.

None of the countries had been informed in advance of the lawsuits.

Spokespeople from the U.S. Embassy in the Netherlands said they could not immediately comment.

Paul Hirschson, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said he was unaware of the lawsuit, however “it doesn’t sound relevant because we are not members of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.”

“It sounds like it doesn’t have any legal legs,” he said about the lawsuit, adding that he was not a legal expert.

The Marshall Islands were the site of 67 nuclear tests by the United States over a 12-year period, with lasting health and environmental impacts.

“Our people have suffered the catastrophic and irreparable damage of these weapons, and we vow to fight so that no one else on earth will ever again experience these atrocities,” the country’s foreign minister, Tony de Brum, said in a statement announcing the lawsuits.

The country is seeking action, not compensation. It wants the courts to require that the nine nuclear-armed states meet their obligations.

“There hasn’t been a case where individual governments are saying to the nuclear states, ‘You are not complying with your disarmament obligations,” John Burroughs, executive director of the New York-based Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, part of the international pro bono legal team, told the AP. “This is a contentious case that could result in a binding judgment.”

Several Nobel Peace Prize winners are said to support the legal action, including South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Iranian-born rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi.

“We must ask why these leaders continue to break their promises and put their citizens and the world at risk of horrific devastation,” Tutu said in the statement announcing the legal action.

The Marshall Islands is asking the countries to accept the International Court of Justice’s jurisdiction in this case and explain their positions on the issue.

The court has seen cases on nuclear weapons before. In the 1970s, Australia and New Zealand took France to the court in an effort to stop its atmospheric nuclear tests in the Pacific.

The idea to challenge the nine nuclear-armed powers came out of a lunch meeting in late 2012 after the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation gave the Marshall Islands foreign minister a leadership award, Krieger said.

“I’ve known Tony long time,” he said. “We both have had a strong interest for a long time in seeing action by the nuclear weapons states.”

Frustration with the nuclear-armed states has grown in recent years as action toward disarmament appeared to stall, Burroughs and Krieger said.

“One thing I would point to is the U.S. withdrawal in 2002 from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; that cast a shadow over future disarmament movement,” Krieger said. The treaty originally had bound the U.S. and the Soviet Union. “One other thing, in 1995, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty had a review and was extended indefinitely. I think the nuclear states party to the treaty felt that once that happened, there was no longer pressure on them to fulfill their obligations.”

In 1996, the International Court of Justice said unanimously that an obligation existed to bring the disarmament negotiations to a conclusion, Burroughs said.

Instead, “progress toward disarmament has essentially been stalemated since then,” he said.

Some of the nuclear-armed countries might argue in response to these new lawsuits that they’ve been making progress in certain areas or that they support the start of negotiations toward disarmament, but the Marshall Islands government is likely to say, “Good, but not enough” or “Your actions belie your words,” Burroughs said.

The Marshall Islands foreign minister has approached other countries about filing suit as well, Krieger said. “I think there has been some interest, but I’m not sure anybody is ready.”

_____

Daniel Estrin and Toby Sterling contributed to this report from Jerusalem and Amsterdam.

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