Turkish Referendum Is Too Close to Call

Turks will vote on a constitutional referendum Sunday on whether to transform their government from the current parliamentary system into a powerful executive presidency. The issue has split Turkey down the middle: critics accuse President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of trying to create a dictatorship, while his supporters claim the changes will protect the will of the people. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul on the last days of the campaign.

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Russia Urged to End Torture, Killing of Gays in Chechnya

International organizations are demanding Russia investigate the abduction, detention and killing of gay and bisexual men in the country’s southern republic of Chechnya.

United Nations human rights experts on Thursday called on Russian authorities to “put an end to the persecution of people perceived to be gay or bisexual in the Chechen Republic who are living in a climate of fear fueled by homophobic speeches by local authorities.”

“It is crucial that reports of abductions, unlawful detentions, torture, beatings and killings of men perceived to be gay or bisexual are investigated thoroughly,” they added.

The appeals follow reports in the respected Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta that police in the predominantly Muslim republic of Chechnya have rounded up more than 100 men suspected of homosexuality and that at least three of them have been killed.

Chechen authorities have denied the reports, while a spokesman for leader Ramzan Kadyrov insisted there were no gay people in Chechnya.

“Nobody can detain or harass anyone who is simply not present in the republic,” Alvi Karimov told the Interfax news agency. “If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them since their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return.”

Separately, the director of the human rights office at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Michael Georg Link, said Thursday that Moscow must “urgently investigate the alleged disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment” of gay men in Chechnya.

Novaya Gazeta also reported this month that Chechen authorities are running secret prisons, branded “concentration camps,” in the town of Argun where men suspected of being gay are kept and tortured.

After two separatist wars in the 1990s, predominantly Muslim Chechnya became increasingly conservative under late President Akhmat Kadyrov and then his son Ramzan.

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US Wary of Russian Role in Afghanistan as Moscow Holds Talks

As the United States and Russia clash on Syria, another war-torn nation could play out as a renewed theater for the U.S.-Russia rivalry: Afghanistan.

Thursday, U.S. forces dropped what was being called the largest non-nuclear bomb on a reported Islamic State militant complex in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar.

The U.S. strike came a day before Russia is to host multi-nation talks on prospects for Afghan security and national reconciliation, the third such round since December.

Eleven countries are set to take part in Friday’s discussions in Moscow, including Afghanistan, China, Iran, Pakistan and India. Former Soviet Central Asian states have been invited to attend for the first time.

The Afghan Taliban said Thursday that they would not take part.

“We cannot call these negotiations [in Moscow] as a dialogue for the restoration of peace in Afghanistan,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told VOA. “This meeting stems from political agendas of the countries who are organizing it. This has really nothing to do with us, nor do we support it.”

The spokesman reiterated insurgents’ traditional stance that U.S.-led foreign troops would have to leave Afghanistan before any conflict resolution talks could be initiated.

The United States was also invited to the Moscow talks, but Washington declined, saying it had not been informed of the agenda beforehand and was unclear about the meeting’s motives.

Undermining NATO

American military officials suspect Russia’s so-called Afghan peace diplomacy is aimed at undermining NATO and have accused Moscow of arming the Taliban.

“I think it is fair to assume they may be providing some sort of support to [the Taliban], in terms of weapons or other things that may be there,” U.S. Central Command Chief General Joseph Votel told members of the House Armed Services Committee in March. He said he thought Russia was “attempting to be an influential party in this part of the world.”

For its part, Moscow has denied that it is supporting the Afghan Taliban.

“These fabrications are designed, as we have repeatedly underlined, to justify the failure of the U.S. military and politicians in the Afghan campaign.There is no other explanation,” said Zamir Kabulov, the Kremlin’s special envoy to Afghanistan.

In a separate statement Thursday, the Taliban also denied receiving military aid from Russia, though the group defended “political understanding” with Afghanistan’s neighbors and regional countries.

Anna Borshchevskaya of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said reports of Moscow supporting the Taliban were not new.

“The official Russian position on the Taliban is that they see it as a group that could help fight ISIS, but this is something that even some Taliban spokesmen have denied, since ISIS and the Taliban reached an understanding about a year ago,” Borshchevskaya said.

Putin’s motive

She said that if the allegations of Russian support for the Taliban were true, Russian President Vladimir Putin was most likely motivated by his desire to undermine the West.

“Certainly one motivation could be taking advantage of regional chaos, and to assert Russia’s influence at the expense of the U.S., taking advantage of a U.S. retreat from the Middle East and elsewhere and [to] undermine NATO and the U.S.” Borshchevskaya said, “This has been Putin’s pattern.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has made few public statements on Afghanistan, and his administration is still weighing whether to deploy more American troops to try to reverse the course of the war.

Thursday’s strike in Nangarhar marked a major step by the Trump administration in Afghanistan, in which there has been a U.S. military presence since 2001.

During a March 31 NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reaffirmed U.S. support for the alliance’s mission in Afghanistan.

“NATO’s work in Afghanistan remains critical. The United States is committed to the Resolute Support Mission and to our support for Afghan forces,” Tillerson said.

Some 13,000 NATO troops, including 8,400 Americans, are part of the support mission, tasked with training Afghanistan’s 300,000-member national security and defense forces.

Michael Kugelman, South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, said he expected continuity in U.S. policy toward Afghanistan between the Obama and Trump administrations.

“The statement made by Tillerson at a recent NATO meeting could well have been uttered by an Obama official,” Kugelman said. “The focus on training, advising and assisting and the call for reconciliation mirror exactly the Obama administration’s priorities.”

More troops

But the South Asia analyst noted one important policy difference: U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan.

“Obama was an anti-war president who was never comfortable keeping large numbers of troops in Afghanistan. Trump is unlikely to be as constrained,” Kugelman said.

“Look for Trump to send in several thousand more troops,” he said. “This is a request that the generals in Afghanistan have made for years, and Trump is more likely to defer to the U.S. military’s wishes on this than Obama was.”

As for Russian involvement in Afghanistan following the former Soviet Union’s occupation of the South Asian country from 1979 to 1989, Kugelman said that even if Russia were engaging the Taliban to undercut U.S. influence,  the two nations ultimately hope for the same outcome in Afghanistan.

“The ironic thing is that Washington and Moscow both want the same endgame in Afghanistan — an end to the war, preferably through a reconciliation process — but they simply can’t get on the same page about how to proceed,” Kugelman said.

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German Prosecutors Say No Evidence Linking Suspect to Bus Bombing

German prosecutors said Thursday investigators have not found evidence that a man detained in connection with the bombing of a football team bus in Dortmund took part in the attack.

But the statement said they are still seeking an arrest warrant for the man identified as Abdul Beset A. on allegations he is a member of the Islamic State group.

The prosecutors said they believe the Iraqi national led a unit of 10 militants involved in kidnapping, smuggling, extortion and killings in his home country, before crossing into Turkey in 2015 and into Germany early last year.

The series of explosions Tuesday hit the Borussia Dortmund team bus, injuring player Marc Bartra and a policeman.  A game the team was supposed to play that night against Monaco was delayed to Wednesday, when Monaco defeated Dortmund 3-2.

Prosecutors have said they are looking into a possible terrorist link to the attack.  A spokeswoman said Wednesday two suspects “from the Islamist spectrum have come into the focus of the criminal prosecution,” and that one of them – the Iraqi named in Thursday’s statement – had been detained.

According to the prosecutors, a note left at the scene of the bombing suggests the attack could have been carried out by Muslim extremists. The note also contained demands for the withdrawal of German military jets from Turkey and the shuttering of the U.S. Ramstein airbase in Germany.

The injured player, Bartra, posted a message on Instagram saying he is “doing much better” along with a photo of him giving a thumbs up with a bandage wrapped around his arm.

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Turkish Referendum Too Close to Call

Voters in Turkey will consider a constitutional referendum Sunday on whether to transform their government from the current parliamentary system into a powerful executive presidency. The issue has split the nation. Critics accuse President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of trying to create a dictatorship, while his supporters claim the changes will protect the will of the people.

Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, accounts for about one-fifth of the electorate, and how it votes will likely prove decisive in Sunday’s referendum.


Opinion polls indicate the outcome is too close to call. Both sides are feverishly campaigning. “Yes,” campaigners argue that extending the president’s powers will strengthen democracy by ensuring stability.

In the central Besiktas district of Istanbul, near the Prime Minister’s office in the city, “Yes” and “No” campaigners face off against each other, in a cacophony of competing campaigning songs.


One man shouts, “Against the terrorists, we say ‘YES!’ Against imperialist powers, we say ‘YES!’”  Another chimes in, “We vote ‘YES,’ against the games of the West and against Zionism,“ quickly adding and “against crusaders.”

 For the “No” voters the proposed reforms – extending presidential power over the judiciary and allowing rule by decree – open the door to dictatorship.


“People come and ask us why we should say ’no,’” this woman “No” campaigner says, adding, “We try to explain to them. To be honest, we say no to the one-man regime.”

For both opponents and supporters, the referendum has come down to one man: incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The “Yes” campaigners believe the proposed reforms are all about enabling the president to continue to carry out his program to develop Turkey. “When Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power with his AK party, he first fought against gangs and the deep state, took very important steps in the health sector,” declares “Yes” campaigner Hasan Gokalp. “And now, compared to the 2000s, Turkey has a 500 percent increase in progress.”


“Yes” campaigners focus on Erdogan’s achievements rather than the merits of the constitutional reforms. For many it appears a winning strategy, because after nearly 20 years in power, Erdogan still remains by far Turkey’s most popular politician.

“I have been voting for Tayyip Erdogan for 17-18 years, and he never failed me,” says retiree Ibrahim Yazka explaining why he will vote “Yes.” “If he wants, he can just sit in the presidential mansion and sign papers. But this man loves this country so much that he can’t stop. He believes he should do more. That’s why I believe in him.”

But the fairness of the referendum campaign is increasingly in question. In many areas of Istanbul, like the rest of the country, it can be difficult to find “No” flags and posters.

Numerous “No” campaign rallies were banned by state officials. In Istanbul, the city governor rejected repeated requests to allow a large “No” vote rally, citing security concerns. But last weekend allowed major rallies both on Saturday and Sunday for the “Yes” campaign.  

According to a recent study, 90 percent of media coverage was devoted to the “Yes” campaign.

The European Union and Council of Europe have voiced concern over the fairness of the campaign, highlighting the fact that it’s being carried out under Emergency Rule introduced after July’s failed coup attempt.

“Legitimate dissent and criticism of government policy are vilified and repressed,” warned Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner Nils Muiznieks about the impact of Emergency Rule ahead of the campaign.

The pro-Kurdish HDP, Turkey’s second largest opposition party and one of the most ardent opponents of the proposed constitutional reform, has faced the greatest difficulties.


“We are seeing political pressure,” says Ercan Demir a district head of the HDP in Istanbul. “Our co-leaders and 13 members of parliament are in prison, and almost five thousand of our people are facing charges or under arrest. We can’t talk about a fair vote and an honest referendum here.” He adds, “But hope never goes away, that’s what is important. We shouldn’t give up hope. As our co-leader Demirtas says: ‘Courage is contagious.’ ”


Despite such obstacles, the referendum is still too close to call, with the latest polls indicating opposite results, but both within the margin of error.

Some observers suggest that could be due, in part, to a perception that the difficulties facing the “No” campaigners only strengthen their argument that Turkish democracy is at stake on Sunday.


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Pressure Grows on Britain to Seize Assad Family Assets

Authorities in Spain and France have seized millions of dollars’ worth of assets owned by Rifaat al-Assad, the uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Prosecutors allege his property empire, worth over a half-billion dollars, was built using money embezzled from the Syrian state in the 1980s. Now pressure is growing on Britain to freeze his properties in London, as Henry Ridgwell reports.

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