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Russia releases sex worker after silence pledge about Trump

2019-Feb-15By: Rob Dennis

A Belarusian sex worker claims Russian government agents warned her to stop talking about a Russian oligarch's alleged ties to Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.

"They said to me, 'Don't touch Oleg Deripaska anymore," Anastasia Vashukevich told CNN.

Deripaska has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also has longstanding business ties with Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort.

Sex prank sparked investigation that led to connection

Vashukevich , who works under the professional name Nastya Rybka, was part of a 2017 prank that included walking into the Moscow office of anti-Putin activist Alexei Navalny wearing fetish attire.

The stunt caused Navalny to launch an investigation, culminating in a February 2018 video outlining Vashukevich's trip on a yacht in 2016 with Deripaska and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko.

Vashukevich had posted photos and video of the trip on her Instagram page - referring to herself as Deripaska's mistress.

The upshot

Shortly after the Navalny revelations, Vashukevich was arrested in Thailand for holding a sex training seminar for Russian tourists.

While in custody, Vashukevich claimed she had more recordings of Deripaska and Prikhodko - and that they demonstrated Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. She asked for asylum in America. The FBI tried to talk to her, but the Thai government refused.

In January 2019, a Thai court sentenced Vashukevich to time served and she was put on a commercial flight to Belarus. But when the plane stopped in Russia, Russian officers forcibly arrested her.

After she apologized to Deripaska and said she surrendered the recordings to him, the Russian government released her.

Trump eases sanctions on Russian companies

2019-Jan-10  (Updated: 2019-Jan-27)By: Rob Dennis

The Trump administration announced in December that it plans to remove sanctions on three Russian companies, and the House of Representatives wants to know why.

The companies are controlled by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who has close ties to the Kremlin.

Reasons the sanctions were imposed

The sanctions were imposed to punish the Russian government for interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

In imposing the sanctions, the Treasury Department noted that Deripaska "has been investigated for money laundering, and has been accused of threatening the lives of business rivals, illegally wiretapping a government official, and taking part in extortion and racketeering. There are also allegations that Deripaska bribed a government official, ordered the murder of a businessman, and had links to a Russian organized crime group."

Deripaska denies the allegations.

Deripaska also tied to Trump campaign manager

In addition to his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Deripaska has cropped up repeatedly in stories involving former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.

In 2005, Manafort secretly worked with Deripaska to influence politics, business dealings and news coverage in the United States and elsewhere to benefit Putin's government, the Associated Press reported. Deripaska denied the claims and sued the AP for libel. The suit was dismissed.

After a failed business venture, Deripaska claimed Manafort owed him millions of dollars. When Manafort joined the Trump campaign, he sought to use his new-found prominence to "get whole" with Deripaska. He offered to provide the oligarch private briefings on the campaign.

So why were they lifted?

On Jan. 10, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin gave the House of Representatives a classified briefing on why the administration wants to remove sanctions on the three companies.

The companies are Rusal, one of the world's largest aluminum companies; En+ Group, a holding company that owns nearly half of Rusal; and power company EuroSibEnergo.

Just hours before Mnuchin's testimony, the Treasury Department released a statement saying that the companies were restructuring so that Deripaska would have significantly less control over them.

The decision came after a $108,500-a-month lobbying campaign by the companies, which hired, among others, former Trump campaign aide Bryan Lanza to push their interests.

Congress can reject the actions

When an administration seeks to lift sanctions on a country, Congress has 30 days to reject the proposal.

Sen. Charles Schumer filed a joint resolution on Jan. 4 to do that.

Because the administration announced its decision in December, the Congress has until Jan. 18 to pass a resolution and have the president sign it.

Update 2019-Jan-27: On Jan. 16, the Senate failed to pass a measure to block the lifting of sanctions on Deripaska's firms. The measure would have passed 57-42, but it required 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. The next day, a similar measure in the House of Representatives passed 362-53, but that was merely symbolic because the Senate did not pass it. The Trump administration lifted the sanctions on Jan. 27.

Trump administration imposes Russia sanctions

2018-Apr-06By: Rob Dennis

The Trump administration has imposed new sanctions on Russian oligarchs and government officials in retaliation for Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, its annexation of Crimea and other "malign activity around the globe."

The Treasury Department didn't specifically mention the U.S. presidential election in its announcement of the sanctions, although it did reference Russia "attempting to subvert Western democracies, and malicious cyber activities."

The sanctions target seven of Russia's richest men, 12 companies and 17 senior Kremlin officials. They will freeze assets subject to U.S. jurisdiction and bar U.S. companies from doing business with the targets, which include oligarchs Oleg Deripaska and Viktor Vekselberg.

The sanctions stem from the 2017 Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. The Trump administration announced in February that it wouldn't impose the new sanctions, but eventually did add some in March followed by the latest round in April.

Trump won't impose required Russia sanctions

2018-Feb-02By: Rob Dennis

The Trump administration won't implement new sanctions against Russia that were mandated by Congress in July. The decision appears to be based on a provision in the law that allows for delays if individuals scale back business with Russian defense and intelligence entities.

The Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act codified into law existing sanctions punishing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The bill also gave the Trump administration six months to impose new sanctions on people who do business with Russian military and intelligence organizations.

When Trump signed the bill into law, he claimed it contained "clearly unconstitutional provisions" that he might choose not to enforce. The bill passed overwhelmingly, and Congress had indicated it would have overridden Trump had he vetoed it.

On Jan. 29, the deadline for imposing the new defense and intelligence sanctions, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement that the administration would not comply because the legislation itself is deterring Russian defense sales. State Department officials refused to disclose examples, but reportedly did provide Congress with a list of 10 such deals in a classified briefing.

Deterring Russian defense sales was not the aim of the sanctions, which were imposed by Congress to punish Russia for its interference in the presidential election. However, the law allows Trump to delay new sanctions on individuals if the targets are "substantially reducing the number of significant transactions" with Russian military and intelligence entities. Any delays must be reauthorized every six months

The administration did meet one provision of the law, as the Treasury Department met its deadline to issue a report naming 114 Russian senior political figures and 96 oligarchs.

Compiling that list likely didn't take much effort. The members of Russia's presidential administration on the list appear to have been copied directly from the Kremlin's website, and the oligarchs list is an exact replica of the Russians on Forbes' 2017 list of the world's billionaires.

Bill limits president's power to lift Russian sanctions

2017-Aug-02  (Updated: 2017-Aug-10)By: Rob Dennis

President Trump has signed into law a bill that would toughen sanctions against Russia - and stop the president from unilaterally lifting them.

The Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act codifies into law existing sanctions punishing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and interference in the U.S. presidential election. The bill also adds sanctions against key Russian officials, and imposes sanctions against Iran and North Korea for those countries' weapons programs.

Trump signed the bill, even though it restricts his power to remove the Russia sanctions. Had he not signed it, the overwhelming support in both the House and the Senate gave good reason to believe a veto would have been overridden.

Was Trump seeking to remove sanctions on Russia?

Trump reportedly explored lifting sanctions just days after taking office.

The New York Times reported in February that Michael Cohen, Trump's personal lawyer, hand-delivered a pro-Russia peace plan for Ukraine to then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, outlining a way for Trump to remove sanctions.

The Washington Post reported in May that the administration still was considering handing back two Russian diplomatic compounds seized in retaliation for interference in the presidential election.

Trump said he discussed "adoptions" during a private meeting July 7 with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Germany. Putin had banned American adoptions of Russian children in response to sanctions imposed under the Magnitsky Act. Removing these sanctions has been a priority for Putin, and a Russian lawyer pitched the idea to top Trump campaign officials in a secret meeting at Trump Tower before the election.

Trump can't lift sanctions imposed by the Magnitsky Act, because it is a law passed by Congress. Other sanctions, though, were imposed by executive order, and could be changed or eliminated by Trump.

When Trump signed the bill, he also issued a signing statement claiming that parts of the law violate the Constitution.

Trump reinstates Cuba travel restrictions

2017-Jun-25By: Rob Dennis

It soon will be more difficult for Americans to visit Cuba and for U.S. companies to do business there, as President Trump has announced new restrictions to the Obama administration's policy toward the country.

Individual Americans no longer will be able to travel there on people-to-people visits - booking their own accommodation and setting their own itinerary. Instead, they will need to travel in groups on a strict schedule with a licensed tour operator.

Travel still will be permitted for other reasons, including family visits and humanitarian projects.

The new policy also will bar American transactions with companies owned by the Cuban military - which runs much of the tourism industry.

The policy could prohibit Americans from riding state-run buses, buying from state-run stores or eating at state-run restaurants. It's unclear how travelers would determine which businesses fall under the prohibition. The military enterprise for state-run businesses controls an estimated 60 percent of the Cuban economy.

This will affect not only travelers, but Cubans who offer private accommodation to American visitors. According to Airbnb, 560,000 Americans have paid $40 million to Cuban hosts since April 2015. Also, while U.S. airlines still can offer flights to Cuba, the individual travel restriction could affect the demand for them.

The policy also could have an effect on Trump's personal finances. Trump has expressed an interest in opening a hotel in Cuba. Though his company said it would not pursue that while he is president, the new policy would prevent his competitors from doing so also.

The Treasury Department says the policy won't affect existing business deals. Still, once the policy takes effect, Americans no longer will be able to stay at hotels such as the Four Points by Sheraton Havana, the first U.S.-run hotel in Cuba in nearly 60 years. The hotel is owned by the Cuban military but run by a subsidiary of Marriott. Future business deals also are in jeopardy.

Though Trump said he is "canceling" the Obama administration's Cuba policy, the new policy actually would leave most of it in place:

o The U.S. will retain diplomatic relations with Cuba. The U.S. Embassy that opened in Havana in 2015 will remain.

o Cuba will remain off of the last of state sponsors of terrorism.

o U.S. airlines and cruise ships won't be barred from visiting Cuba.

o The Wet foot, Dry foot policy will not be reinstituted.

The Treasury and Commerce Departments are expected to issue regulations on the policy by the end of July. The policy would not take effect until those regulations are finalized.

No funding to foreign organizations that counsel on abortion

2017-Jan-23By: Barry Shatzman

President Trump has signed an executive order that prohibits federal money going to international groups which perform abortions or provide information on abortions.

The order prevents foreign non-governmental organizations (NGO) that receive U.S. money from "providing counseling or referrals for abortion or advocating for access to abortion services in their country".

Known as the Mexico City Policy, it first was implemented in 1984 under President Ronald Reagan. Since then, it has been rescinded by every Democratic president and reinstated by every Republican president.

Obama ends Cuban immigration amnesty

2017-Jan-12By: Barry Shatzman

President Obama has terminated the immigration policy allowing Cubans who reach U.S. land to stay in the country and become legal residents.

The Wet foot, Dry foot policy had been in effect since 1995. Cubans caught trying to enter the United States before reaching land were sent back to Cuba, Those who made it onto shore were allowed to stay.

Americans now allowed to visit Cuba

2015-Jan-15By: Barry Shatzman

You can start planning for a visit to Cuba.

Starting Jan. 16, new regulations issued by the Treasury Department will allow Americans to travel to the island country 100 miles south of Florida for the first time in more than 50 years.

Technically, you still aren't allowed to go purely for tourism. However, the list of permitted reasons is broad - including journalistic, educational, or religious activities. "Support of the Cuban people" also is included in the list.

Making it easier, no pre-approval is needed from the government. And travel agents will be able to book direct flights without obtaining a special license (charter airlines for now, though commercial airlines are expected to be able to offer flights eventually).

Once in Cuba, you'll be able to use your U.S. credit card. And you'll be able bring home $100 worth of cuban cigars.

You can read the official announcement by the Department of Commerce by clicking here.

For more, read the Guardian UK story.

UN rejects proposal for independent Palestine

2014-Dec-31By: Barry Shatzman

The United Nations Security Council has rejected a proposal to recognize an independent state of Palestine within 3 years.

The nation would have consisted of what now is Gaza, the West Bank, and east Jerusalem. Israel would have been required to end its occupation of those territories.

Nine votes from 15 member countries were needed to adopt the proposal. It received 8...

YES: Jordan, China, France, Russia, Luxembourg, Chad, Chile, Argentina.
NO: United States, Australia.
ABSTAIN: United Kingdom, Lithuania, Nigeria, South Korea, Rwanda.

If the proposal had received the required number of votes, any of the Security Council's five permanent members still could have vetoed it. Therefore, the NO vote by the United States was enough to stop the proposal.

For more, read the Al Jazeera story.

Obama loosens restrictions on Cuba travel, business

2014-Dec-17By: Barry Shatzman

The United States will have an embassy in Cuba and maintain diplomatic relations for the first time since 1961, President Obama announced.

The change in policy does not end the trade embargo against Cuba. Because the embargo was created by an act of Congress, only Congress can repeal it.

The new policy likely will have little effect on most Americans.

Travel restrictions to Cuba will be loosened, but you still will not be able to simply book a flight from the U.S. Travel still must be licensed for a specific purpose - such as educational, humanitarian, or religious. Family visits also are allowed.

If you do visit Cuba, you will be allowed to bring $100 worth of Cuban cigars back with you. And you will be allowed to pay for them (as well as anything else) with your American credit or debit card.

The new policy allows companies to conduct business in Cuba. You soon may be able to drink a Pepsi, shop at Home Depot, and stay in a Marriott Hotel, according to this New York Times report.

The agreement between the two countries also will expand the internet in Cuba - where only 5 percent of the population has access, according to the White House.

For more, read the New York Times story.

For more about the history of US-Cuba relations, read this Vox.com report.

You can view the President's announcement and read the White House's description of the new policy here.

UN votes to recognize Palestine as state

2012-Nov-29

The United Nations General Assembly voted to recognize Palestine as a state. Palestine becomes a non-member observer state, the same status as the Vatican.

o 138 member nations voted in favor of the resolution.

o The United States, Israel, Canada, and six other countries opposed it.

o 41 countries - including Britain and Germany - abstained.

For more information, including some of the potential effects of the action, read the Guardian UK report.

U.S. exports to Iran increase despite sanctions

2012-Oct-15

Despite sanctions against Iran in response to its alleged nuclear weapon program, U.S. exports in food and medical equipment increased last year. Exports of pharmaceutical products decreased by almost half.

For more, read the Al Jazeera report

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