Moscow, Dec 9 (AP/UNB) — Lyudmila Alexeyeva, a human rights pioneer and dissident who challenged the Soviet and Russian regimes for decades, demanding that they free political prisoners and establish democratic rights, died Saturday in a Moscow hospital, a Russian official said. She was 91.
"She remained a human rights activist to the very end," said Mikhail Fedotov, head of Russia's Human Rights Council. "This is a loss for the entire human rights movement in Russia."
The gentle but courageous activist was born under dictator Josef Stalin's regime. She risked her own freedom to protest the plight of political prisoners in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s and co-founded the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia's oldest human rights organization, in 1976.
Alexeyeva faced death threats throughout her career and was forced into exile by Soviet authorities in 1977.
She returned to Russia in 1993 after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and continued her work energetically, but suspicion of non-governmental organizations under President Vladimir Putin's rule increasingly impeded her activities.
In 2014, she announced that the Moscow Helsinki Group had laid off most of its staff and cut pay for the remainder. The move followed declining foreign donations in the wake of legislation requiring groups receiving such funding to register as "foreign agents."
Alexeyeva relentlessly pressed Soviet authorities to improve human rights, through times of crushing repression and those of relative tolerance, a job that required enormous patience.
"In Soviet times, we couldn't do anything to defend human rights," she told The Associated Press in a 2009 interview. "We couldn't even defend ourselves. Our activity was confined to proclaiming that the state should respect human rights and defend them."
After the Soviet collapse, she turned into a respectful but insistent voice urging that Russia's newly elected leadership live up to its rhetoric about democracy and the rule of law.
Despite Putin's early patronage, including his naming her to an advisory council, Alexeyeva was a leading critic of Russia's second war in Chechnya, launched in 1999 during Putin's first term as prime minister, and of Putin's weakening of Russia's democratic institutions.
Government officials later accused nongovernment organizations like the Moscow Helsinki Group of spying on Russia for the West, and Alexeyeva became the target of death threats by nationalist groups. Still, she remained determined and optimistic, maintaining her ties to the Kremlin.
"I don't accuse, I explain," she said. "I say, 'You don't agree? We will speak some more.'"
While she was certain that Russia would one day embrace Western-style democracy, she did not expect that it would happen soon.
"I won't live to see Russia become a democratic state with the rule of law," she told the AP.
Still, Putin made a house call to Alexeyeva on her 90th birthday last year, complete with a champagne toast.
In the early 2000s, Alexeyeva privately urged Putin to halt plans to expel thousands of Chechen refugees from camps in the neighboring region of Ingushetia and force them to return to their war-ravaged homeland.
"He agreed, the camps existed for two years after that and the people lived in camps rather than under bombs," she said.
In December 2008, Putin proposed legislation that would have significantly broadened the definition of treason. Rights activists said the law would make anyone critical of the government liable to prosecution as an enemy of the state. After an outcry by Alexeyeva and others, the proposal was withdrawn.
But Alexeyeva and her allies lost at least as many battles as they won.
After the December 2003 parliamentary election — a watershed vote that saw most of Russia's liberal opposition leadership driven from parliament — Alexeyeva recalled bluntly telling Putin: "We don't have elections anymore, because the results are decided by the bosses and not the people."
Born in Crimea on July 20, 1927, Alexeyeva studied archaeology at Moscow State University. She was drawn into the dissident movement during the Khrushchev thaw, the period of relaxed censorship under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s and early 1960s.
She was part of the small but determined circle of Moscow dissidents that included Sergei Kovalyov, a biologist who survived a gulag labor camp, and physicist Andrei Sakharov, who won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. The dissidents often met but seldom talked about their illegal political activities, working in secret cells to deter arrests.
In the early 1970s, Alexeyeva worked on the Chronicle of Current Events, the most important of the dissident underground journals typed up on onionskin sheets backed by carbon copy paper and circulated hand-to-hand.
One night Alexeyeva grew worried as she waited in a friend's apartment for a courier to deliver the latest edition of the Chronicle for retyping. When a knock came at the door, she hid, certain it was the KGB, before hearing the voice of fellow dissident Kovalyov. Until that moment, she said, she didn't know he was one of the journal's editors.
Kovalyov later spent seven years in a Soviet labor camp for his role in the publication.
Like other dissidents, including author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Alexeyeva was threatened with arrest unless she left the Soviet Union. The mother of two fled with her younger son, Mikhail, in 1977, eventually settling in the United States. There, she co-wrote about her life in "The Thaw Generation: Coming of Age in the Post-Stalin Era" and also wrote a book called "Soviet Dissent."
In the 2009 interview, Alexeyeva recalled how Russia had changed since her dissident days. One major watershed, she said, was the 1976 Helsinki agreement, which introduced the concept of human rights to the world.
"Now every policeman knows what human rights means," Alexeyeva said. "He doesn't enforce them, but he knows. That is why I think that today is much easier for us than in the Soviet times."
Many liberal Russian have blamed the country's leaders for steering Russia toward authoritarianism. But Alexeyeva said Russia's problem wasn't its leaders, it was its weak society, which she said was incapable of holding leaders to account.
"I don't think the leaders of Western democracies are really such strong democrats," she said, but added that Western leaders have to support human rights and the rule of law or risk being voted out.
Alexeyeva said she often received death threats — and sometimes wondered if she dismissed them too lightly.
She recalled having tea in her kitchen in 2008 with Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer who represented Chechen families with grievances against the government. Markelov said someone was threatening his life, but Alexeyeva tried to be reassuring.
"I told him we all get them," she said, her eyes misting.
Markelov, however, was shot and killed on a snowy Moscow street in January 2009 along with Anastasia Baburova, a young journalist.
Still, Alexeyeva said neither she nor her colleagues would give up their human rights cause.
"I don't know of a single person who works with me who would stop doing what they are doing because of threats," she said. "If I stopped what I am doing now, life wouldn't be interesting to me."
She is survived by her two sons, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Italy, Dec 9 (AP/UNB) — Teenagers panicked before a rap concert at a jammed Italian disco, setting off a stampede that killed five of them and a mother who had brought her daughter to the event, authorities and survivors said. Fifty-three people were reported injured, including 13 in very serious condition.
Several survivors said panic spread through the late-night crowd after someone unleashed an irritant spray. Investigators said they were checking those reports.
Video on state TV RaiNews24 showed scores of teenagers rushing out a door and surging toward a low wall near an exit at the Blue Lantern disco in the central Italian town of Corinaldo, near Ancona on the Adriatic coast. The barrier then gives way and a cascade of teenagers tumble over it, falling on top of each other.
The bodies of the trampled victims were all found near a low wall, Ancona Firefighters Cmdr. Dino Poggiali told Sky TG24 News. State radio said most of the dead had their skulls crushed in the melee.
The victims — three girls and two boys — ranged in age from 14 to 16 and the mother who was killed was 39, said Col. Cristian Carrozza, commander of the Ancona province Carabinieri paramilitary police.
"Close down the place, convict someone. Who's going to give me back my son?" Giuseppe Orlandi, fighting back tears, told reporters after he had identified the body of his son, Mattia, 15, in a hospital morgue.
The stampede occurred shortly after 1 a.m., less than 30 minutes before the concert by Italian rapper Sfera Ebbasta was to begin.
Authorities said organizers had sold far too many tickets for the space. Ancona Chief Prosecutor Monica Garulli told reporters that about 1,400 tickets were sold but the disco was only able to hold about 870 people.
Later, Premier Giuseppe Conte, who visited the scene, said the disco had three rooms but inexplicably only used one for the concert, and it only holds 469 people.
While prosecutors investigate "the government must ask itself what to so that such tragedies must never happen again," Conte said.
The woman who was killed, Eleanora Girolimini, had four children and had accompanied her 11-year-old daughter to the concert, her husband, Paolo, told reporters. The girl was treated for a knee injury.
Outside the hospital where the bodies were brought, he lashed out at the event's organizers, saying that many at the event were drunk.
"Four children now are without their mother, and one of them is still nursing," he said. "It was way overcrowded and alcohol abounded."
ANSA said hospital doctors treating the injured said some survivors had burns apparently caused by an irritant spray.
An 18-year-old survivor, who left the hospital in a wheelchair due to a leg injury, was asked by RAINew24 about the spray. She replied that whatever it was, it left her and others unable to breathe, and people started to panic and flee.
Doctors at Ancona's main hospital said the most critically injured from the concert, all between 14 and 20 years old, suffered cranial and chest traumas, while others had arm or leg injuries.
Sfera Ebbasta wrote on Twitter that he was "deeply pained" by the tragedy, thanked rescuers and offered his "affection and support" to the families of the dead and the injured. Out of respect to them, he cancelled some promotional appearances.
The rapper added he wanted everyone to "to stop and think how dangerous and stupid it is to use pepper spray in a discotheque."
Italian high schools, which are usually open on Saturdays, were closed this weekend for the Dec. 8 national holiday, which made it more likely for teenagers to attend such a late concert.
Fire commander Poggiali said it was too early in the investigation to know if any safety violations at the site might have played a role in the tragedy. He said when rescue workers arrived, all the doors to the disco were open.
Interior Minister Matteo Salvini vowed that responsibility would be determined for "six broken lives — whoever out of nastiness, stupidity or greed transformed an evening of partying into tragedy."
Italian President Sergio Mattarella demanded a full investigation.
"Citizens have the right to safety wherever they are, in workplaces as well as places of entertainment," Mattarella said.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis bowed his head in silent prayer after he told 30,000 pilgrims and tourists in St. Peter's Square that he was praying "for the young people and the mamma" as well as for the many injured at the concert.
Mexico City, Dec 9 (AP/UNB) — The Mexican president is butting heads with the Supreme Court just one week into office after judges suspended a law that would cap public sector salaries, one of his key campaign promises.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador accused the judges of looking after their own pocketbooks and of failing to grasp the "new reality" that his administration represents. The salary cuts are part of a rebalance in government that aims to raise wages for lower income workers while chopping those of top officials.
"They themselves decide that they are going to keep receiving exaggerated, stratospheric salaries - salaries of up to 600,000 pesos ($29,000) a month - those who impart justice," Lopez Obrador complained to reporters Saturday, before repeating one of his favorite mantras: "There can't be a rich government with a poor people."
The freeze throws into question the government's 2019 budget plans, which are due on Dec. 15. The suspension is pending a definitive ruling by the court.
The Mexican Congress decreed in November that, with few exceptions, no public employee should earn more than the president. Lopez Obrador's Morena party has a majority in both houses of Congress. The National Human Rights Commission then asked the court to review the law, saying it appeared to violate the constitution.
Lopez Obrador slashed the presidential salary by more than half when he took office on Dec. 1, to 108,000 pesos ($5,300) a month.
Mexico has the lowest wages of any country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, with a net income per capita of $1,281 per month.
The proposed salary cuts have caused great uncertainty for many public sector workers, with those who can leaving posts for jobs in the private sector.
Lopez Obrador said Saturday that he expects the legislative branch to have the final say on salaries, since they approve the annual budget.
Washington, Dec 7 (AP/UNB) — Senators are considering multiple pieces of legislation to formally rebuke Saudi Arabia for the slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, with momentum building for a resolution to call Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman complicit in the killing.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said Thursday that senators are looking at moving three measures — a resolution to condemn the crown prince for Khashoggi's murder, a bill to suspend arms sales to the kingdom and a resolution to call on President Donald Trump's administration to pull back U.S. help for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
"We have three different efforts underway, all of which have a lot of momentum," Corker, R-Tenn., said after meeting with other senators to negotiate on Thursday. Corker said that most senators "in some form or fashion are going to want to speak to Saudi Arabia and where they are and send a message."
It's unclear how strong that message will be. The Senate is expected to vote next week on the Yemen resolution, but senators are wrestling with how to limit amendments to prevent a freewheeling floor debate that would allow votes on unrelated issues. Corker said the Foreign Relations panel may vote on the other two measures related to Saudi Arabia, but it's unclear if there will be enough time — or willingness from leadership — to hold a Senate floor vote.
Republican House leaders haven't indicated they will take up any of the measures, meaning any action by the Senate is likely to be symbolic, for now. Democrats taking over the House in January have introduced bills similar to the Senate legislation and would be more likely to rebuke Saudi Arabia. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said the chamber will have a briefing from intelligence officials next week on Khashoggi and "we'll know more after that."
Senators in both parties have been enraged over the killing and over Trump's equivocating on who is to blame. Pressed on a response to Saudi Arabia, the president has said the United States "intends to remain a steadfast partner" of the country, touted Saudi arms deals worth billions of dollars to the U.S. and thanked the country for plunging oil prices.
Senators from both parties emerged from a CIA briefing earlier this week saying there was "zero chance" that the crown prince wasn't involved in Khashoggi's death. Their frustration with Trump's response has fueled interest in the Yemen resolution, with 63 senators voting last week to move forward on it.
Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who sponsored the resolution with Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, said he is "confident that we have the bipartisan votes to pass" the bill when the Senate is expected to take it up next week. But senators will also have to figure out how to avert dozens of amendments that could be allowed under the special rules of a resolution dealing with U.S. involvement in a war. If any of the amendments passed, the resolution's passage could be jeopardized. Negotiations on how to proceed are underway, according to several senators.
Corker also predicted the Yemen resolution will pass, but he wouldn't say whether he would vote for it and suggested it wouldn't be forceful enough as a rebuke.
"In my opinion, I'd like to do something that actually has teeth," Corker said.
Corker said he is supporting the legislation by Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Todd Young, R-Ind., that would suspend weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and impose sanctions on people blocking humanitarian access in Yemen, among other actions. Human rights groups say the war is wreaking havoc on the country and subjecting civilians to indiscriminate bombing.
Corker said he has suggested some changes to the legislation to Menendez, who is the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel.
Lastly, senators are considering a resolution condemning the crown prince over Khashoggi's death. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced a resolution Wednesday that would call bin Salman "complicit" in the slaying. Corker said he is negotiating with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to move that resolution or one that is similar.
Khashoggi was killed two months ago. The journalist, who had lived in the U.S. and wrote for The Washington Post, had been critical of the Saudi regime. He was killed in what U.S. officials have described as an elaborate plot as he visited the consulate for marriage paperwork.
U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that the crown prince must have at least known of the plot, but Trump has been reluctant to pin the blame.
"It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event," Trump said in a lengthy statement Nov. 20. "Maybe he did and maybe he didn't!"
New York (AP) — Police have given the all-clear after a phoned in bomb threat forced the evacuation of CNN's offices in New York.
Police said a man with a southern accent called CNN just after 10 p.m. Thursday and said five bombs had been placed throughout the facility inside the Time Warner building at Columbus Circle.
Police said the building was evacuated and building security did a preliminary search. Police units then swept the building with the NYPD bomb squad on standby.
Outside the building, CNN's Brian Stelter and Don Lemon continued to broadcast. Lemon said fire alarms rang and a loudspeaker told them they needed to evacuate during his live show.
In October, the building was partially evacuated after a suspicious package containing a crude pipe bomb was delivered to the company.