TIME Qatar

American Couple Sentenced to 3 Years in Qatar Adoption Case

Matthew and Grace Huang, a U.S. couple who were accused of murdering their adopted daughter Gloria, stand outside the entrance of the Court of First Instance after their trial in Doha
Matthew and Grace Huang, an American couple charged with starving their 8-year-old adopted daughter to death, stand outside the entrance of the Court of First Instance after their trial in Doha, March 27, 2014. Mohammed Dabbous—Reuters

The judge did not say which crime the couple had committed

An American couple in Qatar charged with starving their 8-year-old adopted daughter was sentenced to three years in prison amid concerns that cultural misunderstandings surrounding adoption fueled the prosecution.

Prosecutors had called for the death penalty for Matthew and Grace Huang, alleging that they denied food to their daughter, Gloria, and locked her in her room at night, the Associated Press reports.

But the couple, banned from leaving Qatar since they were arrested and imprisoned for months in Jan. 2013, says Gloria, who was born in Ghana, died of medical problems complicated by unusual eating habits.

“We have just been wrongfully convicted and we feel as if we are being kidnapped by the Qatar judicial system,” Matthew Huang, an engineer who was working on the state’s water and sewer systems, said in a statement outside the courthouse and posted on the family’s website. “This verdict is wrong and appears to be nothing more than an effort to save face.”

Western-style adoption is uncommon in conservative Muslim countries. The police investigation questioned why the couple would adopt children with different “hereditary features” and suspected them of participating in child trafficking to sell their organs, the couple says on their site.

The U.S. State Department said Wednesday that the court did not consider all evidence in the case. It also said it had brought the situation up with Qatar officials, the AP reports.

A lawyer for the couple told the AP that the judge did not say what the couple was guilty of when he sentenced them to three years in prison and ordered them to pay $4,100. He said he would appeal the decision in a process that’s expected to take up to a year.

[AP]

TIME Capital Punishment

Global Executions Rise With Help From Iran and Iraq

China is still the world leader in executions

A steep rise in the number of people executed in Iran and Iraq caused the total number of executions worldwide to rise 15 percent last year, Amnesty International said Thursday.

Almost 80 percent of all known executions were recorded in only three countries: Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia. In 2013, the number of executions in Iraq went up to 169, while Iran saw them rise to 369. At least 778 people were put to death in 2013, the rights group said, compared to 682 in 2012.

China is still thought to execute the most people, though exact numbers are kept secret.

Kuwait, Nigeria, Indonesia and Vietnam last year all resumed their use of capital punishment. But there has been a general decline in the total number of countries using capital punishment in the last 20 years. Many countries who executed people in 2012 did not do so in 2013, including Gambia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

Salil Shetty, the Secretary-General for Amnesty International, described the statistics as “shameful,” but also said the small number of countries that carried out mass killings shows “the death penalty is becoming a thing of the past.”

TIME Vatican

Inside Obama’s Meeting With Pope Francis

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks with Pope Francis during their meeting at the Vatican March 27, 2014.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks with Pope Francis during their meeting at the Vatican March 27, 2014. Stefano Spaziani

The Obama administration had billed the meeting as an opportunity to share common ground over the gap between the rich and the poor

The private meeting between President Barack Obama and Pope Francis had been scheduled to run for half-an-hour. It lasted 52 minutes. The president had been escorted into the Vatican by a line of Swiss guards, dressed in purple and yellow, wearing helmets and carrying pole arms. The cameras clicked as the president and the Pontiff shook hands, and then they sat at a small wooden table in the Papal Library, exchanging greetings through translators. “It’s wonderful to be here,” Obama said. “I’m a great admirer. Thank you so much for receiving me.” Francis answered: “Thank you.”

The rest of their meeting took place behind closed doors. The Obama administration had billed the meeting, the first between the two leaders, as an opportunity to share common ground over the gap between the rich and the poor. “The Holy Father has inspired people all over the world, including me, with his commitment to social just and his message of love and compassion, especially for poorest and most vulnerable among us,” Obama said the day before in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. “When the Pope speaks, his words have an enormous weight.”

But the two men are likely to have touched on subjects on which they disagreed. Vatican officials have said that Francis would bring up the concern of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over the requirement that birth control be covered under the new health care reform law. And on Thursday, Francis met briefly with a group of immigration activists, who asked him to raise the issue of deportations in the United States. According to Jersey Vargas, a 10-year-old elementary school student from Los Angeles whose father is facing deportation, the Pope promised he would raise the issue when the two men met. “I told him to pray for my family and to ask the president to stop deportation because it’s separating my family,” Vargas told Fox News Latino. “He blessed me and told me he would bring this up with President Obama.”

At the end of the visit, the two men emerged to pose for pictures and exchange gifts. Obama gave the pope a wooden box made of reclaimed wood from one of the oldest Cathedrals in America, containing fruit and vegetable seeds from the White House Garden. “If you have the chance to come to the White house, you’ll also see our garden,” said Obama. “Of course,” answered the pope. The Pope, in return gave Obama a copy of the encyclical he published in June. “I actually will probably read this at the Oval Office when I’m deeply frustrated,” Obama said, eliciting a chuckle from the pontiff. “I’m sure it will give me strength and calm me down.”

Rome was in a state of partial lockdown during Obama’s visit, with traffic diverted in many parts of the city center to make way for Obama’s Chevrolet SUV and his 50-car motorcade. The broad boulevard leading from the edge of the Tiber River to St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican was cleared of cars. On the other side of town, yellow police tape lined the long lane that runs between Rome’s ancient forums to the Coliseum, where Obama was expected to tour in the afternoon.

After his visit with the Pope, Obama was expected to meet with the Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, followed by a “working lunch,” with Italy’s President, Giorgio Napolitano, and a meeting and a news conference with the country’s recently elected Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi. After his tour of the Coliseum, he was scheduled to meet with embassy staff and their families.

TIME Asia

China Looks to Strengthen Internet Security After Spying Reports

Tensions increase amid reports that U.S. hacked into top telecommunications firm

China announced Thursday that it will boost its Internet security in the wake of reports that the United States spied on the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.

Defence Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng stated that reports of the National Security Agency hacking into Huawei servers exposed “the United States’ hypocrisy and despotic rule,” Reuters reports.

The White House says the NSA does not spy for commercial advantage, but accusations of espionage against both sides have soured relations between the two countries. The New York Times and the German magazine Der Speigel, citing documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, reported on the NSA hacking of Huawei servers on Saturday.

The Defence Ministry did not say exactly what it would do to strengthen cyber security.

[Reuters]

TIME europe

IMF Agrees on $27 Billion Lifeline for Ukraine

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk addresses the parliament in Kiev, March 27, 2014.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk addresses the parliament in Kiev, March 27, 2014. Reuters

Ukraine's prime minister had said his government is on the edge of bankruptcy.

The International Monetary Fund said Thursday it give Ukraine access to $27 billion in financial support to help keep the embattled nation afloat.

The deal, which still must be approved by the leaders, includes an IMF loan of up to $18 billion that will require economic reforms and unlock further aid from the international community.

“Following the intense economic and political turbulence of recent months, Ukraine has achieved some stability, but faces difficult challenges,” Nikolay Gueorguiev, the IMF’s mission chief for Ukraine, said in a statement.

The funds are a much-needed boost for the new pro-Western government that ousted Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovich last month amid a showdown for influence over the Eastern European country. His ouster led Russia to annex the southern pro-Russian region of Crimea, spawning a war of words and economic sanctions between Russia and the United States and its Western European allies.

Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk had lobbied for the financial lifeline, taking initial steps—including reducing subsidies on domestic gas—to demonstrate his government’s commitment to economic reform, Reuters reports.

“Ukraine is on the edge of economic and financial bankruptcy,” he told Parliament before the deal was reached.

TIME Asia

Southeast Asia Declared Free of Polio

The world's second most-populous nation, as well as the whole of southeast Asia, has been officially certified as free of the disease

The World Health Organization will certify India as free of polio on Thursday, after the country went three years without an endemic case of the disease.

The WHO’s Regional Certification Commission is also certifying southeast Asia as polio-free, the commission said Thursday. The commission praised India and southeast Asian countries for their public health efforts.

“South-East Asia’s remarkable achievement in ending polio was made possible by unprecedented commitment from governments to hold high-quality vaccination campaigns that reached a cumulative total of 7.5 billion children over 17 years, in every home from the busiest city street to the remotest rural corner, with the dedication of millions of community health workers and volunteers,” the commission said in a statement.

As recently as 2009, India was home to almost 50 percent of the world’s polio cases. The disease, which can lead to paralysis of the limbs and eventual death and has no cure, was considered particularly hard to eradicate from India due to the country’s high-density population and poor sanitation in many areas. But health workers were able to home in on groups particularly vulnerable to the disease, such as the children of migrants, and make sure they were vaccinated. The Indian government, United Nations organizations, celebrities and religious leaders also helped to launch outreach efforts and combat misconceptions about the disease. As a result, India’s last polio case was reported in a two-year-old girl in west Bengal in 2011.

“Ending polio in these countries forged strong systems that are now being used to advance other health priorities,” the commission said.

TIME Russian President Vladimir Putin

Putin’s Powerful Friends Rally Around Russian President Despite Sanctions

President Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, on March 26, 2014.
President Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, on March 26, 2014. Mikhail Klimentyev—AFP/Getty Images

The Russian President's childhood judo buddies, the Rotenberg brothers, felt the sting from the U.S. blacklist. But like other members of his St. Petersburg circle, as well as the Kremlin elite more generally, they're not likely to change their ways

On Friday morning, Dmitri Kalantyrsky, the president of a large Russian bank called SMP, got word of what he later called “an anomaly” in his clients’ transactions. The money had stopped flowing. The bank’s clients were getting their cards declined. Russia’s other banks were cutting off all operations with SMP, isolating it from the financial system. By the end of that day, more than $200 million would be withdrawn from SMP’s accounts as a run on the bank began. At the central office in Moscow, says Kalantyrsky, “we also became victims of the panic.”

Around lunch time, SMP’s controlling shareholders, Boris and Arkady Rotenberg, arrived at their bank’s headquarters to assess the damage. They understood where it was coming from. Both of the Rotenberg brothers are childhood friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the previous day, they had been placed on a U.S. sanctions list along with 18 of Putin’s other friends and associates. It was part of the Obama Administration’s response to the Russian annexation of Crimea last week, and even though the sanctions did not target SMP directly, the freeze placed on the Rotenberg brothers’ U.S. assets were apparently enough for Visa and Mastercard to stop processing the bank’s transactions on Friday and Saturday. “There was no joy on their faces,” Kalantyrsky tells TIME about the brothers’ reaction. “All of us were hurt that these sanctions affected the bank.”

No matter how hard Putin has tried to shrug off these sanctions, they did inflict painful and immediate damage on members of his inner circle, and they spread panic among the business empires these men have built under Putin’s rule. But will they force Putin to rethink his strategy in Ukraine or to toe the Western line?

Probably not—at least according to some of his former confidants and top advisers, the sanctions have already made his inner circle close ranks behind the Russian President. In the coming months and years, these Russian elites will only deepen their antagonism toward the West and strengthen their ties with Asian powers.

But for now, the U.S. seems to have no other recourse. “As President Obama has made clear,” wrote David Cohen, the U.S. Undersecretary of State for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, in explaining last week’s sanctions, “we will continue to impose costs in direct response to Russia’s provocative acts.”

Those costs are not only meant to be financial. They are also political and personal for Putin. As the thinking goes in Washington, Putin’s support among the Russian elite depends on his ability to protect their interests in the West. Many of them send their children to study in the West. They keep their fortunes in Western banks. They ski in the Alps, sunbathe in Miami and go shopping in Milan. All of these privileges are at risk after Putin’s adventure in Crimea, and if faced with a choice between keeping their wealth or supporting Putin, many of them will at least begin to question their loyalties, says Mikhail Kasyanov, who served as Russia’s Prime Minister during Putin’s first term as President.

“This is a cold shower for Putin,” Kasyanov tells TIME. “I saw a few of the sanctioned lawmakers the other day, and they were very worried. They did not see this coming. They’ve been named and shamed in front of the entire world by this blacklist.”

Kasyanov knows many of the sanctioned individuals personally. Though he now heads a Russian opposition party, he was the number two man in the Russian state hierarchy between 2000 and 2004, just as Putin’s clique of friends from St. Petersburg was migrating to Moscow with ambitious plans. Even then, a joke was going around the capital about a Muscovite meeting a stranger in the streets. “Where are you from?” the man asks. “St. Petersburg,” says the stranger. The Muscovite recoils: “Why do you have to threaten me right away?”

What unites all of the key figures on the U.S. blacklist is not their official rank or ever their wealth. It is their ties to Putin’s St. Petersburg circle. Some of them grew close to Putin decades ago through a shared affinity for martial arts. (Putin and the Rotenberg brothers, for instance, are all experts in judo, having sparred and trained in the same gym since they were teenagers in the 1960s.) Others were Putin’s neighbors at the Ozero Dacha Collective, a gated community that Putin and his friends established on a lakeside near St. Petersburg in 1996. Still others worked with Putin before he moved to the Kremlin, either at the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) branch of the KGB or at the office of the city’s mayor.

These men formed the core of Putin’s power base when he moved to the unfamiliar capital, and even as Putin was promoted to lead the FSB secret police in 1998, then to the post of Prime Minister in 1999, and finally to the presidency in 2000, he kept them close. In the words of Anatoly Rakhlin, who was the judo coach to Putin and the Rotenberg brothers when they were kids, the President “has maintained that healthy sense of being one of the guys.” Through his decades of mentoring, Rakhlin had encouraged Putin not to forget his old friends, and last summer, when Rakhlin passed away, Putin and the Rotenberg brothers attended his wake at a judo school in St. Petersburg. “He didn’t take the Petersburg boys to work with him because of their pretty eyes,” the coach had said about them in an interview with the Izvestiya daily in 2007, “but because he trusts people who are tried and true.”

In Moscow, the Kremlin elites once used that same term to describe the newcomers – the Petersburg boys, or pitertsy – usually with mild derision. When they showed up in Moscow at the turn of the millennium, real power was still in the hands of a clan known as the Family, the circle of oligarchs and power brokers around President Boris Yeltsin. In late 1999, as his health succumbed to the effects of alcoholism, Yeltsin entrusted Putin, an outsider, with the presidency. But he was still wise enough to hedge this gamble by surrounding Putin with officials close to the Family. Chief among them in the state hierarchy was Prime Minister Kasyanov, who held the keys to Russia’s budget.

In 2000, within six months of Yeltsin’s late-night transfer of power to Putin on New Year’s Eve, various strangers started coming to Kasyanov claiming to be Putin’s friends. “They’d come asking me to sign some papers, saying it was the President’s wish,” Kasyanov recalls. “So I’d pick up the phone to Putin and ask him, ‘Are these guys with you?’ And he’d say, ‘No, tell them to take a hike.’”

One of these early arrivals was Arkady Rotenberg, who set up SMP bank along with his brother in 2001. The previous year, just before Kasyanov was installed as Prime Minister, Rotenberg and one of his business partners managed to get a major concession from the state: control over the production of vodka and other spirits across the country. That was one of Putin’s first decisions as President – the formation of an alcohol monopoly called Rosspirtprom (the name means Russian Spirit Industry) – that incorporated the country’s biggest distilleries and put them in the hands of two obscure businessmen. Putin did this behind the backs of all the Kremlin’s key economic officials, says Andrei Illarionov, who was serving as Putin’s top economic adviser at the time.

“This went radically against all of the economic reforms we had been working on with Putin for months,” Illarionov tells TIME. “The ideas of competition, entrepreneurship, transparency, rule of law, all of that had been violated. It was a slap in the face.” When he read about Putin’s vodka decree in the press, Illarionov called around to other members of his economic team, and none of them knew anything about it. So they decided to confront Putin with their objections. “He cut us off immediately,” Illarionov recalls of that meeting. “He said it was none of our business and that we should stay out of it.”

For Illarionov, who resigned soon after, that marked a crucial split in Putin’s approach to Russian finances. In the sphere of economics, he drove forward reforms and imposed “rules of the game” for the country as a whole. But in business, he granted “exclusive economic privileges” to his friends, says Illarionov. “These issues ran in parallel, and in Putin’s mind they did not intersect.”

Like other members of their St. Petersburg circle, Arkady Rotenberg has long denied that his success is linked in any way to his relationship with Putin. “Acquaintance with a state official of such a high rank has never hurt anyone yet in our country, but it hasn’t helped everyone,” Rotenberg said in a rare interview with the daily Kommersant in 2010. “It is no guarantee.”

But his soaring wealth in the Putin era is hard to deny. Before Putin came to power, Rotenberg was a judo coach with a hand in a few average businesses in St. Petersburg. Today Forbes magazine estimates his fortune at around $4 billion, much of it made through deals with Russia’s state-run firms, such as the natural gas giant Gazprom. In 2008, that corporation began to sell Rotenberg its subsidiaries, particularly the ones that supply and construct pipelines, and then placed huge orders with these companies once they were in Rotenberg’s control. In 2009 alone, Rotenberg’s has said that his firm won 19 of these tenders with Gazprom. In the lead up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi last month, Rotenberg’s construction companies won at least 21 separate contracts to help prepare for the Games, a set of deals worth around $7 billion in total, according to Bloomberg News.

More broadly, Putin’s reign over the Russian economy has been defined by one core trend – the creation of huge, state-supported corporations that are run by his friends from St. Petersburg. The state natural gas monopoly Gazprom is run by Alexei Miller, who worked with Putin in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office in the 1990s. Another one of their colleagues back then was Igor Sechin, who now heads the state-run oil giant Rosneft. Russian Railways, the state railroad monopoly, is run by Vladimir Yakunin, who was Putin’s neighbor in the gated community they set up outside St. Petersburg in 1996. Another co-founder of that community was Yuri Kovalchuk, who now has indirect control over the National Media Group, a sprawling conglomerate of media assets. Kovalchuk’s son Boris is chairman of Russia’s electricity export monopoly. Kovalchuk’s brother Mikhail is head of Russia’s main nuclear research center. The list goes on.

But while Yakunin and Kovalchuk now find themselves under U.S. sanctions, the energy titans Miller and Sechin have been conspicuously spared. In the coming days and weeks, they could be next in line to join the blacklist if the U.S. makes good on its threat to increase the pressure. But that would also put American allies at risk. Europe depends on Russia for about 30% of its energy needs, and a handful of E.U. and NATO members, such as the Baltic States and Poland, get practically all of their oil and gas from Russia. Jeopardizing those supplies by sanctioning the men who control them is therefore a double-edged sword.

More importantly, it wouldn’t do much good. If the goal of these sanctions was to inflict pain on Putin and his friends, then the U.S. can pronounce its mission accomplished. SMP Bank had to call in an emergency cash infusion on Friday worth one billion rubles (about $30 million), which the Central Bank provided in violation of its own rules, says Kalantyrsky, SMP’s president. “Changing and interpreting its internal rules…is the concern of the Central Bank, in part to support the stability of the banking sector as a whole,” he explained. Because of U.S. dominance over the global financial system, “they could just as easily have imposed sanctions on the whole Russian banking system, shutting it down in the course of an instant,” he says, looking exhausted on Monday after a sleepless weekend of damage control. “We got the message.”

But if the U.S. hopes to make Russia stop bullying its neighbors, and to return Crimea to Ukraine, these sanctions are practically worthless. “It’s like poking a bear in the paw with a needle,” says Illarionov, Putin’s former economic adviser. “Will that cause him pain? Definitely. Will it prevent him from ransacking your cooler? Probably not.”

Apart from continuing to paint the U.S. as an evil empire on state TV, the Kremlin’s reaction will be to band together, and to speed Russia’s strategic turn toward China, as it has already been planning to do for years. In 2012, Putin called Asia “the most important factor for the successful future of the whole country,” and last year, Russia signed a deal to sell $270 billion in oil to China over the next ten years.

Nor will the sanctions hurt Putin’s popularity. As recent polling has shown, his approval ratings are now higher than at any point in the last five years – a stunning 80% – and that trend has been the same among the Kremlin elites. “What I’m seeing among my acquaintances in the last few days is a desire to rally around the leader, as is common at a time of foreign aggression,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin-connected political consultant in Moscow. “Even people who had grown cool to Putin before this now want to help him in any way they can. The elites are outraged at this foreign attack, and in effect, it has helped mend the tensions that had emerged over the years.” Whatever the White House was hoping to achieve with these sanctions, that was definitely not its goal.

TIME Religion

Obama Meets the Pope

President Obama met with Pope Francis in Vatican City today, an opportunity for both world leaders to discuss their shared commitment to combatting economic inequality. "Welcome, Mr. President," the Pontiff said. "I'm a great admirer," the President told the religious leader

President Barack Obama met with Pope Francis on Thursday at the Vatican, in his second Papal visit and first with the new Pontiff.

“Wonderful meeting you,” Obama told the Pope upon being greeted outside the Papal Library following a ceremonial procession led by the Vatican’s Swiss Guards.

“It is a great honor. I’m a great admirer,” Obama said. “Thank you so much for receiving me.”

The White House said before the visit that the meeting would be an opportunity for the two world leaders to discuss their shared commitment to combatting economic inequality, an issue Pope Francis has prioritized during his first year in office. Democrats have increasingly used the Pope’s emphasis on inequality as a political cudgel against Republicans ahead of the midterm elections.

But the gathering was also seen as an opportunity for the president to smooth ties with the Vatican and the large Hispanic Catholic population in America whose support for Obama has waned since helping vote him into office. The Vatican has been critical of a measure in Obama’s health care reform law that mandates contraception coverage, and officials said before the meeting that Pope Francis would likely raise those concerns.

In a news conference after the meeting with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Obama said the Pope “did not touch in detail” on the issue of contraception. Instead, he said he discussed religious freedoms in the context of the healthcare law with Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State.

The President said his conversation with Pope Francis focused on other issues, including conflict and growing inequality worldwide as well as immigration in the United States. He also said he extended an invitation to the Pope to come to the U.S.

But he played down suggestions from a reporter that he would collaborate with the Pope on inequality.

“You know, I don’t think that His Holiness envisions entering into a partnership or coalition with any political figure on any issue,” he said. “His job is a little more elevated. We’re down on the ground, dealing with the often profane, and he’s dealing with higher powers.”

The Vatican said in its own statement that the meeting focused on social issues. “There was a discussion on questions of particular relevance for the Church in that country, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform,” the Vatican said in the statement.

Pope Francis, who was TIME’s Person of the Year in 2013, is widely popular globally and in America, where 8 in 10 Catholics view him favorably, per a recent Pew Research Center poll.

“He can cause people around to the world to stop and perhaps rethink old attitudes and begin treating one another with more decency and compassion,” Obama said in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera before the meeting.

The White House said Obama presented Pope Francis with “a custom-made seed chest featuring a variety of fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House Garden,” noting that the Pontiff said earlier this month that he would open the gardens of the papal summer residence to the public.

“I bring greetings from my family,” Obama told the Pope upon meeting him. “The last time I came here to meet your predecessor I was able to bring my wife and children.”

Obama, on a week-long tour in Europe that has primarily focused on regional security amid recent tension with Russia, is the ninth president to make an official visit to the Vatican.

-with reporting from Zeke J Miller

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45,082 other followers