UK Hopes to Pick up Brexit Talks Pace With Raab-Barnier Meeting on Tuesday

Britain’s Brexit minister Dominic Raab will travel to Brussels on Tuesday in a bid to pick up the pace of Brexit talks with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, Prime Minister Theresa May’s office said on Saturday.

“On the agenda will be resolving the few remaining withdrawal issues related to the UK leaving the EU and pressing ahead with discussions on the future relationship,” May’s Downing Street office said.

On Thursday, Britain will also publish the first of a series of technical notices, designed to help people and businesses prepare for a no-deal scenario.

Raab will also give a speech outlining how the government plans to mitigate the potential risks of leaving the EU without a deal and ensure continuity and stability. 

Suspect in UK Parliament Crash Charged With Attempted Murder

A driver whose car collided with several people before crashing outside Britain’s Parliament has been charged with attempted murder.

Police say 29-year-old Salih Khater was charged Saturday with trying to kill police officers and members of the public.

Three people were injured when Khater — a British citizen originally from Sudan — hit a group of cyclists before colliding with a security barrier guarded by police outside Parliament on Tuesday.

The incident sparked a huge police response. Last year London was hit by several attacks in which vehicles were used as weapons.

Police say that because of the methodology and iconic location, the case is being treated as terrorism, although Khater has not been charged with a terrorist offense.

Khater is due to appear in a London court on Monday. 

Putin Calls on Europe to Rebuild Syria so Refugees Can Return

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday called on Europe to financially contribute to the reconstruction of Syria to allow millions of refugees to return home.

“We need to strengthen the humanitarian effort in the Syrian conflict,” he said ahead of a meeting with his German counterpart Angela Merkel at the government retreat of Meseberg castle 70kms (45 miles) north of Berlin.

“By that, I mean above all humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, and help the regions where refugees living abroad can return to.”

There are currently one million refugees in Jordan, the same number in Lebanon, and three million in Turkey, Putin said.

Germany has accepted hundreds of thousands of migrants since 2015 — the height of the migration crisis — which has weakened Angela Merkel politically and split the European Union.

“This is potentially a huge burden for Europe,” Putin said.

“That’s why we have to do everything to get these people back home,” he added, emphasizing the need to properly restore basic services such as water supplies and healthcare.

Merkel said the priority in Syria was “to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe”, but did not give any further details.

Ukraine stalemate

Also on the agenda for the two leaders is the Ukraine crisis, which “unfortunately does not advance at all,” Putin said.

The Minsk agreements, a peace process sponsored by Germany and France aimed at ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine, is at a standstill, Merkel said, pointing at the absence of a “stable ceasefire.”

A United Nations mission on the ground, which will be discussed during the talks, “could perhaps play a pacifying role” in the region, she said.

Earlier, Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas said he was “relatively optimistic about the chances of a United Nations mission,” telling the Die Welt newspaper: “We want to give a new dynamic to the Minsk process.”

Russia is accused by Kiev and Westerners of militarily supporting the separatists in eastern Ukraine, which it denies.

Economic cooperation, particularly over energy, was also billed as a central theme in the discussions.

Russia and Germany are partners in the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a project criticized by US President Donald Trump due to Berlin’s reliance on Moscow.

Ukraine worries that the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea pipeline from Russia to Germany will transport gas now flowing through its territory and deprive it of crucial transit fees.

Russia has shut off gas supplies to Ukraine in the past, having knock-on effects in the European Union.

“Ukraine must, in my opinion, play a role in the transit of gas to Europe,” even after the start of Nord Stream 2 in 2019, the German Chancellor said.

Putin once again defended the project “which addresses the growing demand of the European economy for energy resources”.

“I want to stress here that Nord Stream 2 is only an economic project and it does not close the door to the continuation of gas transit through the territory of Ukraine,” he said.

In July, Putin assured that Russia was willing to keep Russian flowing through Ukraine after the pipeline was commissioned, but without going into details on volumes or tariffs. 

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan Dies

Kofi Annan, one of the world’s most celebrated diplomats and a charismatic symbol of the United Nations who rose through its ranks to become the first black African secretary-general, has died. He was 80.

His foundation announced his death in Switzerland Saturday in a tweet, saying that he died after a short unspecified illness.

“Wherever there was suffering or need, he reached out and touched many people with his deep compassion and empathy,” the foundation said in a statement.

Annan spent virtually his entire career as an administrator in the United Nations. His aristocratic style, cool-tempered elegance and political savvy helped guide his ascent to become its seventh secretary-general, and the first hired from within. He served two terms from Jan. 1, 1997, to Dec. 31, 2006, capped nearly midway when he and the U.N. were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.

Turbulent periods

During his tenure, Annan presided over some of the worst failures and scandals at the world body, one of its most turbulent periods since its founding in 1945. Challenges from the outset forced him to spend much of his time struggling to restore its tarnished reputation.

His enduring moral prestige remained largely undented, however, both through charisma and by virtue of having negotiated with most of the powers in the world.

When he departed from the United Nations, he left behind a global organization far more aggressively engaged in peacekeeping and fighting poverty, setting the framework for the U.N.’s 21st-century response to mass atrocities and its emphasis on human rights and development.

“Kofi Annan was a guiding force for good,” current U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. “It is with profound sadness that I learned of his passing. In many ways, Kofi Annan was the United Nations. He rose through the ranks to lead the organization into the new millennium with matchless dignity and determination.”

Even out of office, Annan never completely left the U.N. orbit. He returned in special roles, including as the U.N.-Arab League’s special envoy to Syria in 2012. He remained a powerful advocate for global causes through his eponymous foundation.

Darkest moment Iraq war

Annan took on the top U.N. post six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and presided during a decade when the world united against terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks, then divided deeply over the U.S.-led war against Iraq. The U.S. relationship tested him as a world diplomatic leader.

“I think that my darkest moment was the Iraq war, and the fact that we could not stop it,” Annan said in a February 2013 interview with TIME magazine to mark the publication of his memoir, “Interventions: A Life in War and Peace.”

“I worked very hard — I was working the phone, talking to leaders around the world. The U.S. did not have the support in the Security Council,” Annan recalled in the videotaped interview posted on The Kofi Annan Foundation’s website.

“So they decided to go without the council. But I think the council was right in not sanctioning the war,” he said. “Could you imagine if the U.N. had endorsed the war in Iraq, what our reputation would be like? Although at that point, President (George W.) Bush said the U.N. was headed toward irrelevance, because we had not supported the war. But now we know better.”

Despite his well-honed diplomatic skills, Annan was never afraid to speak candidly. That didn’t always win him fans, particularly in the case of Bush’s administration, with whom Annan’s camp spent much time bickering. Much of his second term was spent at odds with the United States, the U.N.’s biggest contributor, as he tried to lean on the nation to pay almost $2 billion in arrears.

Born in Ghana

Kofi Atta Annan was born April 8, 1938, into an elite family in Kumasi, Ghana, the son of a provincial governor and grandson of two tribal chiefs.

He shared his middle name Atta — “twin” in Ghana’s Akan language — with a twin sister, Efua. He became fluent in English, French and several African languages, attending an elite boarding school and the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi. He finished his undergraduate work in economics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1961. From there he went to Geneva, where he began his graduate studies in international affairs and launched his U.N. career.

Annan married Titi Alakija, a Nigerian woman, in 1965, and they had a daughter, Ama, and a son, Kojo. He returned to the U.S. in 1971 and earned a master’s degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. The couple separated during the 1970s and, while working in Geneva, Annan met his second wife, Swedish lawyer Nane Lagergren. They married in 1984.

Annan worked for the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa in Ethiopia, its Emergency Force in Egypt, and the office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, before taking a series of senior posts at U.N. headquarters in New York dealing with human resources, budget, finance, and staff security.

Special assignments

He also had special assignments. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, he facilitated the repatriation from Iraq of more than 900 international staff and other non-Iraqi nationals, and the release of western hostages in Iraq. He led the initial negotiations with Iraq for the sale of oil in exchange for humanitarian relief.

Just before becoming secretary-general, Annan served as U.N. peacekeeping chief and as special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, where he oversaw a transition in Bosnia from U.N. protective forces to NATO-led troops.

Rwanda and Srebrenica

The U.N. peacekeeping operation faced two of its greatest failures during his tenure: the Rwanda genocide in 1994, and the massacre in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995.

In both cases, the U.N. had deployed troops under Annan’s command, but they failed to save the lives of the civilians they were mandated to protect. Annan offered apologies, but ignored calls to resign by U.S. Republican lawmakers. After he became secretary-general, he called for U.N. reports on those two debacles, and they were highly critical of his management.

As secretary-general, Annan forged his experiences into a doctrine called the “Responsibility to Protect,” that countries accepted, at least in principle, to head off genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes.

Annan sought to strengthen the U.N.’s management, coherence and accountability, efforts that required huge investments in training and technology, a new whistleblower policy and financial disclosure requirements.

In 1998, he helped ease a transition to civilian rule in Nigeria and visited Iraq to try to resolve its impasse with the Security Council over compliance with weapons inspections and other matters. The effort helped avoid an outbreak of hostilities that seemed imminent at the time.

In 1999, he was deeply involved in the process by which East Timor gained independence from Indonesia, and started the “Global Compact” initiative that has grown into the world’s largest effort to promote corporate social responsibility.

Annan was chief architect of what became known as the Millennium Development Goals, and played a central role in creating the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the U.N.’s first counter-terrorism strategy.

Second term, overwhelming support

Annan’s uncontested election to a second term was unprecedented, reflecting the overwhelming support he enjoyed from both rich and poor countries. Timothy Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, which disburses Ted Turner’s $1 billion pledge to U.N. causes, hailed “a saint-like sense about him.”

In 2005, Annan succeeded in establishing the Peacebuilding Commission and the Human Rights Council. But that year, the U.N. was facing almost daily attacks over allegations about corruption in the U.N. oil-for-food program in Iraq, bribery by U.N. purchasing officials and widespread sex abuse by U.N. peacekeepers, an issue that would only balloon in importance after he left office.

It emerged that Annan’s son, Kojo, had not disclosed payments he received from his employer, which had a $10 million-a-year contract to monitor humanitarian aid under the oil-for-food program. The company paid at least $300,000 to Kojo so he would not work for competitors after he left.

An independent report criticized the secretary-general for being too complacent, saying he should have done more to investigate matters even if he was not involved with the awarding of the contract.

World leaders agreed to create an internal U.N. ethics office, but a major overhaul of the U.N.’s outdated management practices and operating procedures was left to Annan’s successor, Ban Ki-moon.

Before leaving office, Annan helped secure a truce between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, and mediated a settlement of a dispute between Cameroon and Nigeria over the Bakassi peninsula.

At a farewell news conference, Annan listed as top achievements the promotion of human rights, the fighting to close the gap between extreme poverty and immense wealth, and the U.N. campaign to fight infectious diseases like AIDS.

Diplomacy in private

He never took disappointments and setbacks personally. And he kept his view that diplomacy should take place in private and not in the public forum.

In his memoir, Annan recognized the costs of taking on the world’s top diplomatic job, joking that “SG,” for secretary-general, also signified “scapegoat” around U.N. headquarters.

Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke called Annan “an international rock star of diplomacy.”

Annan foundation

After leaving his high-profile U.N. perch, Annan didn’t let up. In 2007, his Geneva-based foundation was created. That year he helped broker peace in Kenya, where election violence had killed over 1,000 people.

He also joined “The Elders,” an elite group of former leaders founded by Nelson Mandela, eventually succeeding Desmond Tutu as its chairman after a failed interlude trying to resolve Syria’s rising civil war.

As special envoy to Syria in 2012, Annan won international backing for a six-point plan for peace. The U.N. deployed a 300-member observer force to monitor a cease-fire, but peace never took hold and Annan was unable to surmount the bitter stalemate among Security Council powers. He resigned in frustration seven months into the job, as the civil war raged on.

Annan continued to crisscross the globe. In 2017, his foundation’s biggest projects included promotion of fair, peaceful elections; work with Myanmar’s government to improve life in troubled Rakhine state; and battling violent extremism by enlisting young people to help.

He also remained a vocal commentator on troubles like the refugee crisis; promoted good governance, anti-corruption measures and sustainable agriculture in Africa; and pushed efforts in the fight against illegal drug trafficking.

Annan retained connections to many international organizations. He was chancellor of the University of Ghana, a fellow at New York’s Columbia University, and professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

In his memoir, Annan recognized the costs of taking on the world’s top diplomatic job, joking that “SG,” for secretary-general, also signified “scapegoat” around U.N. headquarters.

Annan is survived by his wife and three children. Funeral arrangement weren’t immediately announced.

Greece Officially Ends International Bailout Program Monday

Greece officially ends its international bailout program on Monday, after eight years of massive loans and relentless austerity measures.

The completion of the loan program is a major accomplishment for Greece, but the country still faces an uphill battle to regain its economic stability.

The office of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras described the final bailout loan last week as the “last act in the drama. Now a new page of progress, justice and growth can be turned.”

“Greece has managed to stand on her feet again,” his office said.

Economic growth, but challenges

Economic growth in Greece is slowly growing again, tourism is up nearly 17 percent in Athens this year, and once-record levels of joblessness are finally receding.

However, the country still faces massive challenges, including weak banks, the highest debt load in the European Union at 180 percent of GDP, and the loss of about a half-million mostly younger Greeks to Europe’s wealthier neighbors. Greece will also need to continue to repay its international loans until 2060.

By the time Greece completes the bailout program Monday, the country will have had three international bailouts, which took Europe to the brink of crisis.

The financial troubles exposed dangers in the European Union’s common currency and threatened to break the bloc apart. The large debt that remains in Greece and an even larger debt in Italy continue to be a financial danger to the EU.

​Demonstrations

The bailouts also led to regular and sometimes violent demonstrations in Athens by citizens angry at the government’s budget measures required by international lenders in return for the bailouts.

While Greece has begun to make economic progress, economics say the bulk of the austerity measures will likely need to remain in place for many years for the country to tackle its massive debt.

Some international economists have called for part of Greece’s loans to be written off in order for Greece to keep its ballooning debt payments in check. However, any kind of loan forgiveness would be a tough sell in Germany where the initially bailouts were unpopular.

The austerity measures included massive tax hikes as high as 70 percent of earned income and pension cuts that pushed nearly half of Greece’s elderly population below the poverty line.

Pensioner Yorgos Vagelakos, 81, told Reuters that five years ago he would go to his local market with 20 euros in his pocket, while today, he has just 2 euros. He says for him, the bailout will never end.

“It’s very often that just like today, I struggle, because I see all the produce on display at the market and I want to buy things, but when I don’t have even a cent in my pocket, I get really sad,” Vagelakos said.

Economic Fears Grip Turkey

Turkey’s currency this month has suffered heavy falls triggered by U.S.-Turkish tensions over the ongoing detention of an American pastor. Washington’s threat to impose new economic sanctions sparked another steep currency drop Friday. Dorian Jones reports on the economic fall out for people in Istanbul.

Kosovo, Serbia Mull Territorial Swap to End Dispute

A decade-long dispute between Kosovo and Serbia is compelling both countries to consider a territorial swap along ethnic lines — a move that has long been opposed by both Brussels and Washington. But the leaders of both Balkan countries say redrawing the borders could help them resolve their differences and advance in their quest for European integration.  

Experts have mixed opinions over whether such a deal is workable or even desirable. 

Ten years after Kosovo declared independence, there has been little to no progress between the two countries in settling their disputes. Kosovo considers itself a sovereign nation, though Serbia refuses to recognize it as such. Both countries want to join the European Union, but Brussels will not allow it until disagreements over Kosovo’s sovereignty are settled. 

WATCH: Trade of territory by Kosovo, Serbia brings concerns

Now, Kosovo’s President Hashi Thaci and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic have suggested a deal to trade territory or change borders that could spark a breakthrough. Some experts caution, however, such a move could create myriad problems. 

“It would create instability, it would be dangerous. It could spark violence in Kosovo as well as in Serbia,” said David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. 

The proposed exchange would involve Serbia getting part of northern Kosovo, an area with a mostly Serb population, and Kosovo getting Serbia’s Presevo Valley, inhabited by a majority of ethnic Albanians. It also would mean the change would be along ethnic lines — anathema in Western thinking. 

“The principle of pluralism and democracy is something that is a cornerstone of U.S. policy. It’s also a cornerstone of Europe’s approach to countries that aspire to membership,” Phillips said. 

But David Kanin, adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former CIA senior analyst, notes that Europe has a history of changing borders and population movements. 

“That has not stopped. Every change in Yugoslavia since the old Yugoslavia collapsed has been about changing borders, moving people around, some supported by the West, some opposed,” he said.

Diplomatic gap?

In the past, both Brussels and Washington have shot down the idea of redrawing borders along ethnic lines, but this time it appears they are not in agreement. 

The European Union has not openly commented on this issue. The office of the EU’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, has not responded to VOA questions about this issue. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has rejected any changes to the borders, saying, “The territorial integrity of the states of the Western Balkans has been established and is inviolable.”

The U.S. position has been more ambiguous. In a statement to VOA’s Albanian Service, the State Department said the solution should come from the parties themselves. It also said the parties should show flexibility, but stopped short of rejecting the idea of a border change. 

“If Kosovo and Serbia were able to agree on a settlement that would allow for permanent peace that would allow for mutual recognition, I think that would help settle politics in Serbia in some ways. It would give Kosovo a way forward,” said Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. 

Phillips, a former State Department senior adviser, suggested a lack of clarity does not signal a new policy.

“The U.S. government does not have a coherent policy toward Kosovo. It doesn’t pay any attention to the Western Balkans. I don’t think we should read too much into these vague and ambiguous statements. Right now U.S. policy remains as it always has been. It recognizes Kosovo within its current frontiers. That hasn’t changed.”

Benefits, ramifications

Even if the idea is officially included in the EU-mediated Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, many questions remain, including whether Serbia should recognize Kosovo first and what that would portend.

“The discussion right now around partition, as noisy as it is, is dealing with the secondary issue of who gets what territory,” said Kanin. “The question of Kosovo’s sovereignty is the central issue and that will remain open as long as it is not recognized by Serbia and by the five outstanding EU members. And I see no sign that this is going to change.”   

EU members Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania and Greece still have not recognized Kosovo’s independence.

“Here it is a disservice to everybody in the Balkans, first of all the Kosovars, that their state is not recognized by Serbia, that they are not recognized by all members of the European Union and therefore they’re blocked in some of their relationships with the EU,” said Volker.

Experts and former diplomats warned that rethinking borders in the Balkans would pose a risk to stability in the region. 

“If the EU isn’t prepared to mediate a deal that allows Serbia to recognize Kosovo within its current frontiers, then Albanians will start thinking of unification of Albanian territories and creating an Albanian state that encompasses lands where all Albanians live,” Phillips predicted.

That concern is amplified, given the sizable Albanian minority in Macedonia, a country dealing with its own agreement about a name change with Greece. And Serbs in Bosnia already have said if Kosovo gets a U.N. seat, they will request the same.

The latest debate suggests there are no clear-cut prescriptions for a region attempting to shed the vexing legacy of the 1990s conflicts.

First a Wedding, Then Hard Work: Putin to Visit Germany’s Merkel

Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday for talks about the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, as well as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project that has drawn U.S. ire.

Putin arrives in Germany after a stop at an Austrian vineyard to attend Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl’s wedding to entrepreneur Wolfgang Meilinger.

Merkel warned on Friday against expecting too much from her discussions with Putin at the government’s Meseberg palace, but said the two countries needed to remain in “permanent dialogue” on the long list of problems they face.

“It’s a working meeting from which no specific results are expected,” she told reporters. The two leaders last met in Sochi in May and struggled to overcome differences.

But both Juergen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman for Merkel’s conservative bloc, and Achim Post, a senior member of the Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in the coalition government, were more upbeat.

“We can be cautiously optimistic,” Hardt told the Stuttgarter Zeitung and Stuttgarter Nachrichten newspapers in an interview published Saturday. “The Russian president has maneuvered himself into a dead end on Syria and eastern Ukraine, and needs international partners. For that he has to move.”

A senior German official told the papers: “There has been some movement,” but gave no details.

Post said in a statement that he expected both Merkel and Putin to look for pragmatic solutions based on common interests. “In a world that is increasingly uncertain, we must speak particularly with difficult partners like Russia,” he said.

Russia and the West remain at loggerheads over Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine in 2014 and the ensuing conflict between Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east and the Ukrainian army.

On Syria, Germany wants Putin to finalize a lasting cease-fire there in agreement with the United States. Merkel on Friday said a four-way meeting on Syria involving Germany, Russia, Turkey and France was possible.

Germany is also under strong pressure from the United States to halt work on the planned Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will carry gas from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea.

The United States says it will increase Germany’s dependence on Russia for energy. Ukraine fears the pipeline will allow Russia to cut it off from the gas transit business. Germany’s eastern European neighbors, nervous of Russian encroachment, have also raised concerns about the project.

Merkel and Putin will each make statements at 1600 GMT on Saturday before the start of the talks. They do not plan to take questions.

Vatican: US Sex Abuse ‘Criminal and Morally Reprehensible’

The Vatican has called the sex abuse described in a U.S. grand jury report in Pennsylvania “criminal and morally reprehensible” and said “the church must learn hard lessons from its past.” The report about clergy who raped and molested children in six dioceses was made public Tuesday. 

The Vatican broke its silence with a long statement that used unusually strong language, two days after the publication of a detailed Pennsylvania grand jury report on 70 years of sexual abuse by the clergy in that state. 

The statement by the director of the Vatican’s communications office, Greg Burke, said the Vatican expressed “shame and sorrow” at the revelations that 300 priests in Pennsylvania abused at least 1,000 children over seven decades. 

“The acts were betrayals of trust that robbed survivors of their dignity and their faith,” Burke said. “The church must learn hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur.”

Pope Francis has been very clear there will be zero tolerance of sexual abuse by the clergy and cover-ups by the church hierarchy. He recently accepted the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former Archbishop of Washington, who is accused of sexual misconduct. Now there are also demands in the United States that the current Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, step down.

In the statement, Burke added that: “The Holy Father understands well how much these crimes can shake the faith and the spirit of believers, and reiterates the call to make every effort to create a safe environment for minors and vulnerable adults.”

“Victims should know that the pope is on their side,” the statement added. “Those who have suffered are his priority, and the church wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror that destroys the lives of the innocent.”

The Church has been facing accusations of sexual abuse by the clergy in many countries. Just recently, five bishops resigned in Chile in a sexual abuse scandal there.

And next weekend Pope Francis will be travelling to Ireland, which is also no stranger to sex abuse by priests. Survivors there will also no doubt expect to hear from Pope Francis on what concrete measures and action the Church will take to ensure the complete eradication of sex abuse by members of the clergy.

Azerbaijani Politician’s Release Earns Partial Western Approval

The international community is cautiously welcoming the conditional release of an Azerbaijani opposition leader after five years in prison on what human rights activists have described as trumped-up charges.

While encouraged by the release of Republican Alternative (REAL) Party chairman Ilgar Mammadov, activists and the U.S. government are calling on the Azerbaijani government to end all remaining restrictions on the political figure.

“Mammadov’s conviction and imprisonment for over five years raised serious concerns about the rule of law in Azerbaijan,” said a statement issued by U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert.

The United States urged the Azerbaijani government to drop all charges against Mammadov “in keeping with its international obligations and the rulings of the European Court for Human Rights.”

Mammadov was arrested in February 2013 after traveling to Ismayilli, where residents were protesting alleged abuses by the local governor. He subsequently was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of “incitement to violence.”

On Monday, a regional court reduced Mammadov’s remaining two-year jail sentence to a suspended term while imposing limitations on his movements.

“This is not a complete, but a partial victory,” Mammadov told a group of supporters immediately after his release.

Giorgi Gogia, Europe and Central Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch, spoke to VOA about the treatment of Mammadov and the terms of his release.

“Obviously, this is a conditional release that puts restrictions on his freedoms, which are totally unjustified under international norms,” he said.

International pressure

Gogia argued that Mammadov was released only because of growing international pressure.

“There have been at least a dozen calls by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe for his immediate release,” he said, noting the committee had decided to launch unprecedented legal proceedings against Azerbaijan.

The Baku government maintains that no one is persecuted in Azerbaijan on political grounds, and that the fundamental rights and freedoms of its citizens are respected. But Gogia said dozens of people have been arrested in the course of a brutal crackdown by the government of President Ilham Aliyev.

“There are dozens and dozens of others who have been arrested under a very vicious government crackdown against critics in Azerbaijan. Authorities have jailed dozens of human rights defenders, political activists, journalists,” he said.

Gogia called on Azerbaijan to end the crackdown on dissent and uphold its obligations as a country that aspires to a closer partnership with European institutions.

Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe, an organization founded after World War II “to protect human rights, democracy and the rule of law.” For years, the Baku government ignored demands by the Council’s leadership to release Mammadov.