Netherlands says Russian spy caught seeking war crimes court internship

  • Russian agent accused of posing as intern to infiltrate court
  • ICC is investigating allegations of war crimes in Ukraine
  • False Brazilian ID included tastes for trance music, bean stew

AMSTERDAM, June 16 (Reuters) – The Dutch intelligence service said on Thursday it had uncovered a Russian military agent attempting to use a false identity to infiltrate the International Criminal Court (ICC) which is investigating accusations of war crimes in Ukraine.

Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov created an elaborate cover story dating back years to try and enter the Netherlands as a Brazilian national for an internship at the Hague-based ICC in April, the agency’s head told Reuters.

“This was a long-term, multi-year GRU operation that cost a lot of time, energy and money,” said Dutch intelligence agency chief Erik Akerboom, using the acronym for Russia’s military intelligence service.

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No GRU representative could be immediately reached for comment, though President Vladimir Putin’s government has in the past frequently denied spying accusations as a Western smear campaign against Moscow.

The Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) said in a statement that the man, who went by the alias Viktor Muller Ferreira, was picked up at a Dutch airport. He was declared an undesirable alien and put on the next flight back to Brazil, it added.

Brazil’s federal police said Cherkasov was taken into custody and is being prosecuted for the use of false documents.

“It clearly shows us what the Russians are up to – trying to gain illegal access to information within the ICC. We classify this as a high-level threat,” Akerboom added, saying the ICC had accepted him for an internship.

There was no immediate comment on the case from the Russian government, or the ICC.

‘WELL-CONSTRUCTED COVER’

The Dutch agency said it had taken the unusual step of releasing detailed information on the case to expose the workings of Russian intelligence and threat to other international institutions.

It distributed a four-page document outlining what it said was Cherkasov’s invented cover story. That included a supposed troubled family history and details from a club where he liked to listen to electronic trance music and his favourite restaurant in Brasilia where he would eat cheap brown bean stew.

“Cherkasov used a well-constructed cover identity by which he concealed all his ties with Russia in general, and the GRU in particular,” the statement said.

Brazilian police said Cherkasov entered Brazil in 2010 and assumed the false identity of a Brazilian whose parents had died. Passing for a Brazilian, he lived in Ireland and the United States for several years, the police statement said, and had returned to Brazil to prepare his move to the Netherlands.

The ICC, a permanent global war crimes tribunal with 123 member states, opened an investigation in Ukraine just days after Putin sent his troops in on Feb. 24. It is examining allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

The Dutch have expelled more than 20 Russians accused of spying in recent years.

They include four people accused in 2018 of hacking the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), two accused of spying in the corporate, high-tech sector in 2020, and 17 suspected operatives accredited as diplomats who were thrown out after this year’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russia has denied all the charges and responded to the latest expulsions by also kicking out 15 Dutch embassy and consulate staff from Moscow and St. Petersburg.

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Reporting by Anthony Deutsch;
Additional reporting by Anthony Boadles in Brasilia; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Michael Perry

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Ukraine Live Updates: Russian Forces Push Ahead After Talks Failed to Make Progress

Russia’s international disinformation campaign seemed to flounder in the early days of the invasion, as narratives about Ukrainian bravery dominated the internet. But in Russia, the country’s propaganda machine was busy churning out a deluge of misinformation aimed at its own citizens.

The narrative disseminated online through state-run and unofficial channels has helped create an alternate reality where the invasion is justified and Ukrainians are to blame for violence. To control the narrative at home, Russia also shut down access to several websites and threatened the news media with long prison sentences for criticizing the war. There’s some evidence that the effort has mollified at least some Russians.

Here is what the war looks like to Russians, based on a review of state news articles, channels on the popular chat app Telegram, and input from several disinformation watchdogs who are monitoring Russia’s propaganda machine.

After Russian shellings killed Ukrainian civilians, Russia blamed ‘neo-Nazis.’

A headline from the Russian state news website Tass.
Translated into English. TapHover for the original.

Some of the most disturbing images from the war have come from Mariupol, a port city in the southeastern coast. Shelling battered the region, killing several civilians who were trying to flee the area, during what was supposed to be a cease-fire.

But Russians got a different explanation online: Ukrainians had fired on Russian forces during the cease-fire, and neo-Nazis were “hiding behind civilians as a human shield,” according to the Russian state news website Tass.

Neo-Nazis have been a recurring character in Russian propaganda campaigns for years, used to falsely justify military action against Ukraine in what Russian officials have called “denazification.” Those claims have only continued during the conflict. To explain away attacks on other Ukrainian apartment buildings, the same article by Tass claimed that neo-Nazis had placed “heavy weapons in apartment buildings, while some residents are forcibly kept in their homes,” providing no evidence.

Russian social media accounts have used a mix of fake and unconfirmed photos showing Ukrainian soldiers holding Nazi flags or photos of Hitler. An analysis by the Center for Information Resilience, a nonprofit focused on identifying disinformation, showed that the number of tweets connecting Ukrainians to Nazis soared after the invasion began.

“Propaganda works when it coincides with your existing assumptions,” said Pierre Vaux, a senior investigator at the Center for Information Resilience. “The stuff that chimes into the Nazi stuff is really effective.”

After a nuclear facility caught fire, Russians claimed they were protecting it.

A headline from the Russian state news website Tass.
Translated into English. TapHover for the original.

After Russia attacked an area near the nuclear complex in Zaporizhzhia, leading to a fire, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine called it “nuclear terrorism.”

But according to a Kremlin statement reported in Tass, the military seized the facility to prevent Ukrainians and neo-Nazis from “organizing provocations fraught with catastrophic consequences.” Even though Ukrainians heavily fortified the region against an attack, Russian officials claimed they already had control of the compound before Ukrainians opened fire. They added that Ukrainians set fire to an adjacent building before fleeing, providing no evidence. Western experts said controlling the Zaporizhzhia complex would allow Russia to trigger blackouts or shut down the entire power grid.

The image of Russia as a world protector surfaced again after the country’s officials claimed they discovered evidence that Ukraine was working on a nuclear bomb. According to Russian officials, plans for the bomb were uncovered at the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

“It doesn’t even make sense, because if you’re going to develop a nuclear weapon, you don’t do your secret development in a nuclear power plant,” Mr. Vaux said. “But that kind of thing is just being beamed out on Russian state TV.”

After Russia shelled a residential neighborhood, Russians claimed Ukrainians did it.

An attack on Kharkiv, a northeast Ukraine city bordering Russia, provided additional evidence that Russia had indiscriminately bombed residential neighborhoods and killed civilians, according to the Atlantic Council, an American research group. The International Criminal Court opened an investigation into war crimes after the assault.

In one attack that included heavy shelling, 34 civilians were killed and 285 were injured, according to the Ukrainian State Emergency Service.

A post from the Telegram channel for the Russian news site Readovka.
Translated into English. TapHover for the original.

But Russians listening to state media or browsing channels on Telegram heard another story: The missiles, those sources claimed, came from Ukrainian territory.

On a Telegram channel for the Russian news site Readovka, one post described how “Ukrainian missiles” had “arrived from the northwest” — an area controlled by the Ukrainian military.

Russia’s defense department said that it never attacked cities, instead targeting “military infrastructure” with “high-precision weapons,” according to an article in the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti.

After attacks bloodied civilians, Russians called injured Ukrainians crisis actors.

A woman who survived a blast at her apartment building became the focus of disinformation efforts after her bloodied and bandaged photograph spread widely through newspapers and Western media.

The woman was a resident of an apartment complex in Chuhuiv, near Kharkiv. The photojournalist Alex Lourie captured her portrait after the attack, and the image was soon featured on the front pages of newspapers around the world.

A post from the Telegram channel War on Fakes.
Translated into English. TapHover for the original.

But Russian social media channels falsely described her as a member of Ukraine’s psychological operations unit, according to an analysis by the Ukrainian fact-checking website StopFake.

A post by “War on Fakes,” a pro-Russian website and Telegram channel that appeared at the start of the invasion, suggested that the blood could be grape juice and that the woman could be “part of the territorial defense.” As evidence, the post included a shot of another woman bearing some resemblance. That image came from a New York Times photograph, which was taken in Kyiv — a seven-hour drive west of Chuhuiv.

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I.C.C. Is Watching Israeli-Palestinian Violence for War Crimes

The International Criminal Court’s main prosecutor said on Wednesday that she was closely watching Israel and Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, for potential new war crimes in the current conflict.

“I note with great concern the escalation of violence in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as in and around Gaza, and the possible commission of crimes under the Rome Statute,” the prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said in a statement. She was referring to the court’s statute on crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Ms. Bensouda’s office said in March, before the latest conflict erupted, that it had begun an investigation into mutual accusations of war crimes by Israel and Palestinian militant groups. That decision, which infuriated Israeli leaders, was largely welcomed by the Palestinian leadership and its supporters.

The court had already started a preliminary investigation six years earlier, on the heels of the 50-day Israel-Gaza conflict in 2014. It covers alleged crimes since June 13, 2014, shortly before the start of that fighting.

Israel is not a member of the International Criminal Court, which is based in The Hague, and it has maintained that the court has no jurisdiction over the area in question. But the court ruled that its jurisdiction extended to the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

On Wednesday, Ms. Bensouda said that her office would continue to monitor the situation and address “any matter that falls within its jurisdiction.” The prosecutor’s office will investigate all sides to assess whether there is individual criminal responsibility under the statute, she added.

“I echo the call from the international community for calm, restraint and a stop to the violence,” she added.

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Biden to Say Armenians Suffered Genocide. Here’s Why It Matters.

At the risk of infuriating Turkey, President Biden is set to formally announce on Saturday that the United States regards the killing of 1.5 million Armenians by Turks more than a century ago to be a genocide — the most monstrous of crimes.

Mr. Biden would be the first American president to make such an announcement, breaking with predecessors who did not wish to antagonize Turkey, a NATO ally and a strategically pivotal country straddling Europe and the Middle East.

The expected announcement, which Mr. Biden had signaled when he was a candidate last year, has been welcomed by Armenians and human rights advocates. It carries enormous symbolic weight, equating the anti-Armenian violence with atrocities on the scale of those committed in Nazi-occupied Europe, Cambodia and Rwanda.

Use of the term is a moral slap at President Tayyip Recep Erdogan of Turkey, a fervent denier of the genocide. He has fulminated at other leaders, including Pope Francis, for describing the Armenian killings that way.

a crime under international law.

Cambodia, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and atrocities including genocide in the former Yugoslavia.

The International Criminal Court, which was created in 2002 in part to prosecute such crimes, has only one pending genocide case — Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, former president of Sudan, who is wanted on two warrants for crimes including genocide in the Darfur region between 2003 and 2008. The court cannot prosecute crimes committed before its inception.

The International Court of Justice, the highest court of the United Nations, ruled in January 2020 that Myanmar must take action to protect Rohingya Muslims, who have been killed and driven from their homes in what the country’s accusers have called a campaign of genocide. The ruling, which has no enforcement power, was the outcome of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Muslim countries that wanted the court to condemn Myanmar for violating the genocide treaty.

The violence against Armenians began during the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of modern Turkey, which included an area that is now Armenia, a landlocked country ringed by Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran.

Starting in 1915, the Ottomans, aligned with Germany in World War I, sought to prevent Armenians from collaborating with Russia and ordered mass deportations. As many as 1.5 million ethnic Armenians died from starvation, killings by Ottoman Turk soldiers and the police, and forced exoduses south into what is now Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.

denial of genocide is ingrained into Turkish society. Writers who have dared to use the term have been prosecuted under Section 301 of Turkey’s penal code, which bans “denigrating Turkishness.” The denial is taught at an early age, with school textbooks calling the genocide a lie, describing the Armenians of that period as traitors and declaring the actions by the Ottoman Turks as “necessary measures” against Armenian separatism.

Some have come close. President Ronald Reagan tangentially referred to the “genocide of the Armenians” in an April 22, 1981, statement commemorating the liberation of the Nazi death camps.

But American presidents have generally avoided describing the killings this way to avoid any backlash from Turkey that would endanger its cooperation in regional conflicts or diplomacy.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Biden signaled his intentions a year ago in a speech on April 24, Armenia’s official day of remembrance of the genocide. He used the term “Armenian genocide” and asserted that “we must never forget or remain silent about this horrific and systematic campaign of extermination.” And in recent years, bipartisan anger toward Mr. Erdogan has grown. In 2019, the House and Senate passed resolutions calling the Armenian killings a genocide.

As vice president in the Obama administration, Mr. Biden never enjoyed an easy relationship with Mr. Erdogan, an autocratic leader who gave him an icy reception in August 2016. The two met a month after the failed coup in Turkey that Mr. Erdogan blamed on a Turkish cleric living in exile in the United States.

said last month that he believed Mr. Biden would make the genocide declaration despite knowing that a reset of U.S.-Turkey relations would then become “much harder.”

Mr. Erdogan’s aides have signaled that Mr. Biden’s declaration would face a hostile reaction in Turkey. The foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said in a Turkish media interview this week that “if the United States wants to worsen ties, the decision is theirs.”

According to a tally by the Armenian National Institute, a Washington-based group, at least 30 countries have done so.

The answer is more complicated concerning the United Nations, which played a central role in the treaty that made genocide a crime but has not taken a position on what happened in 1915 — 30 years before the global body was created. The website of its Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, in describing the origin of the term genocide, does not mention Armenia. António Guterres, the secretary-general, has skirted the issue.

Asked on Thursday about Mr. Guterres’s view, his spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said: “We have no comment, as a general rule, on events that took place before the founding of the U.N.” Genocide, Mr. Dujarric said, “needs to be determined by an appropriate judicial body, as far as the U.N. is concerned.”

Lara Jakes contributed reporting.

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Idriss Déby Dies at 68; Poor Herder’s Son Became Chad’s Longtime Autocrat

NAIROBI, Kenya — It was a point of pride for Idriss Déby, the leader of Chad, a vast African country at the crossroads of numerous conflicts, that he was willing to throw himself to the front line of the many battles he fought.

Mr. Déby, a poor herder’s son who rose through the Chadian military to become one of Africa’s most enduring and feared leaders, was killed as he commanded his troops during what the military said was one such battle. His death, at age 68, was announced on Tuesday.

He first distinguished himself more than three decades ago by commanding soldiers to victory against Libyan-backed rebels in the Tibesti Mountains, in the far north of Chad. After seizing power in 1990, he faced down regular uprisings in an impoverished country that often seemed to boil with revolt.

And he embraced elections that he held every five years, always winning — even if those victories were strengthened by his tight grip on Chad’s repressive security forces and its considerable oil revenue.

going to the polls for a presidential election. By last weekend, as fighting intensified, Mr. Déby had flown to northern Chad to command his forces, the army said.

On Tuesday, the army announced that the president had been killed on the battlefield, and that his 37-year-old son, Mahamat, was taking over as the interim head of state. Just a day before, provisional election results showed that Mr. Déby had won almost 80 percent of the vote.

In the capital, Ndjamena, residents scrambled for the safety of their homes, gripped by uncertainty over what might come after the abrupt departure of the man who had led them for three decades.

Mr. Déby was born in 1952, the son of a herder who scraped a living from the harsh deserts of northern Chad. After enrolling in the military, he left in the 1970s for training in France, where he qualified as a pilot, and returned to Chad in 1979 to find the country torn between rival warlords.

Mr. Déby allied with one of them, Hissène Habré, who in 1982 became president and appointed him as his army chief.

an attempted coup in 2006.

Mr. Déby had testy relations with his neighbor, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan — another wily autocrat whom Mr. Déby accused of having fomented unrest inside Chad. Mr. Déby allowed journalists and aid workers to pass through Chad into the Sudanese region of Darfur, where they documented abuses that later led the International Criminal Court to indict Mr. Bashir for war crimes including genocide.

Mr. Déby’s rule might have been one of prosperity for Chadians. The country’s vast deserts cover untapped reserves of uranium, as well as oil that is currently pumped at a rate of 130,000 barrels a day, generating much of Chad’s revenue.

But under Mr. Déby, Chad frequently featured prominently in lists of the world’s poorest and most corrupt countries. The adult literacy rate is 31.8 percent; life expectancy is 54 years; and critics accused Mr. Déby of squandering the oil wealth by pouring it into the military, which he has used to repress his critics.

In 2017 the U.S. Justice Department accused Mr. Déby of having accepted a $2 million bribe from a Chinese company in exchange for oil rights in Chad.

Still, such failings were largely overlooked by Western countries that embraced Mr. Déby as an indispensable ally in a dangerous part of the world. Mr. Déby supported a French military operation against Islamist militants in neighboring Mali in 2013, and a year later he helped to end violent turmoil in the Central African Republic.

His army is one of the best trained and equipped in the semi-arid belt of Africa known as the Sahel, and it has played host to military exercises conducted by the United States.

In an email, Col. Christopher Karns, a spokesman for the Pentagon’s Africa Command, said Chad was a major partner in an effort involving several countries in the Lake Chad basin to fight Boko Haram.

France, for its part, did its utmost to protect Mr. Déby himself, deploying troops to Chad in 2008 and 2019 to defeat rebels who tried to unseat him.

After three decades in power, Mr. Déby was aiming for a fourth. In 2018, Chad’s parliament revised the Constitution to allow him to stay in office until 2033. Analysts say his sudden death will likely throw Chad’s politics into disarray.

Some were skeptical that his son Mahamat could hold on for long in the face of challenges from rivals in the security establishment or disaffected members of his own Zaghawa ethnic group, where some had bristled at the rise of Mr. Déby’s family.

“The prospects of more splits within the military is significant,” said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Others speculated that France would struggle to find a new partner in a country that French leaders long considered their African backyard.

“The French have been so associated with Déby — not just propping him up but also eliminating his enemies on his behalf — that they will have a hard time establishing any credibility with a successor regime that doesn’t have the last name Déby and isn’t a Zaghawa,” said Cameron Hudson, an Africa expert at the Atlantic Council.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.

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Reversing Trump, Biden Repeals Sanctions on Human Rights Prosecutor

In June, Mr. Trump signed an executive order authorizing sanctions on any personnel at the International Criminal Court who were investigating “allied personnel without that ally’s consent.” In 2019, the Trump administration revoked Ms. Bensouda’s travel visa for the United States.

Mr. Trump’s moves were criticized by numerous governments, scholars and human rights groups. Ms. Bensouda herself said the Trump administration’s decision to impose penalties normally reserved for “narcotics traffickers” and “notorious terrorists” on human rights lawyers would reduce the United States’ standing on the global stage and diminish the potency of its economic sanctions.

A coalition of more than eighty nongovernmental organizations, activists and human rights experts signed a letter in February telling the Biden administration that there was “an immediate need” to reverse Mr. Trump’s sanctions on Ms. Bensouda and Mr. Mochochoko, which froze any assets they may have had in the United States.

In October, the Open Society Justice Initiative, an advocacy organization focused on human rights, joined four law professors in suing the U.S. government in federal court in New York over Mr. Trump’s executive order, arguing it violated their free speech rights under the First Amendment.

James A. Goldston, the group’s executive director, said on Friday that Mr. Trump’s order “effectively prevented us and other rights defenders and scholars from collaborating with the court, and conducting advocacy on its behalf concerning cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.”

“The order was a betrayal of America’s historic commitment to international justice,” he added.

Mr. Blinken’s announcement on Friday appeared intended to preclude possible embarrassment on Monday, when the U.S. government was scheduled to provide its response to the lawsuit. Rather than defending an order that has drawn scathing reactions around the world, the government can now argue the issue has become moot, lawyers said. A separate lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union would also likely become moot.

Philippe Sands, a law professor at University College London and an international lawyer with cases at The Hague, was among those who welcomed Mr. Biden’s decision.

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