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Putin met Taliban chief for support against IS

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London: A top Afghan militant commander has claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin held an unpublicized meeting with Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the current Taliban chief, to discuss possible Russian support against the IS insurgents who in recent weeks have been advancing in Afghanistan, a media report said.

Putin is known to be concerned that the IS militants are gaining a foothold in Afghanistan, which borders the former Soviet satellite states of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

A Taliban commander told The Sunday Times that his group had been promised Russian arms and financial support only weeks before a resurgence in violence that has seen key districts in the southern province of Helmand fall under the Taliban control.

Putin is said to have met Mulla Mansour over dinner at a late night meeting on a military base in Tajikistan in September.

The Russian president was present in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, on September 14 and 15 to attend a regional counter-terrorism meeting, however, the Taliban denied reports that their representatives met Russian officials to discuss the common threat from the IS in Afghanistan.

In a statement, the Taliban said they were in contact with countries in the region but had not discussed support against the Islamic State.

“The Islamic Emirate has made and will continue to make contacts with many regional countries to bring an end to the American invasion of our country and we consider this our legitimate right,” it said, using its formal name.

“But we do not see a need for receiving aid from anyone concerning so-called Daesh and neither have we contacted nor talked with anyone about this issue,” it added.(IANS) 

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Russia celebrates 75th Victory Day amid pandemic; Large-Scale Celebrations Postponed

Many celebrations will take place virtually

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Moscow Victory Day 75th anniversary logo. Wikimedia Commons

Russia on Saturday celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s Victory over Nazi Germany in the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War amid restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Large-scale celebrations have been postponed to a later date, however, many of them will be held online, so Russians will be able commemorate the day without leaving their homes, reports TASS news agency.

Addressing the nation, President Vladimir Putin said: “We will necessarily celebrate the jubilee date as usual – widely and solemnly and will do it with dignity as our duty tells us with regard to those who went through sufferings, achieved and accomplished this Victory.

“We will have both our main parade on Red Square and the Immortal Regiment people’s march.”

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“We will have both our main parade on Red Square and the Immortal Regiment people’s march.”, President Vladimir Putin said while addressing the nation. Wikimedia Commons

Putin is slated to lay flowers at the Eternal Flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the Alexander Gardens, Moscow.

The traditional Victory Day parade this year was supposed to be larger than usual in honour of the anniversary, but due to security reasons it was postponed to a later date after restrictions were lifted.

However, celebratory military air show will still be held this year in 47 Russian cities, involving about 600 aircraft and helicopters.

Meanwhile, Immortal Regiment’s march will be held online, said the TASS news agency report.

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Everyone can upload photos of their ancestors and their war stories to the event’s website, which will be used in a video and broadcast on federal channels, screens in metro trains, online.

Firework shows will be held in 29 cities of Russia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry reported that events organized abroad by diplomatic missions will also be held online. (IANS)

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Russia: Reports of Putin Fathering Twins Test Free Speech

The private life of Russia’s leader is apparently off-limits

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FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen getting out of his limousine in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 23, 2014. VOA

Normally the delivery of twins is a cause for celebration — and when the head of government is one of the parents and the other is an aspiring politician it opens up the possibility for cute photo-opportunities. Not so in Russia under the command of Vladimir Putin, it would seem, where the private life of Russia’s leader is apparently off-limits, say analysts.

Rumors have been swirling for days in Moscow that the Russian leader’s reputed 36-year-old girlfriend, former Olympic gold medal-winning rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva and now a media executive, gave birth to twin boys earlier this month in the Russian capital.

Nicknamed “the secret first lady,” Kabaeva, three decades younger than Putin, was rumored in 2008 to have given birth to a daughter at a private Swiss clinic recommended by Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi.

Then, as now, the Kremlin has moved to scotch reports of the births. Putin, who guards his private life fiercely — possibly a habit from his days as a KGB agent — has long denied he is in a relationship with Kabaeva.

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FILE – President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks with gymnast Alina Kabaeva at a Kremlin banquet in Moscow, Russia, Nov. 4, 2004. VOA

Asked once daringly about a possible romance, Putin responded: “I’ve always had a negative feeling about people poking their snotty noses and erotic fantasies into other people’s lives.”

In 2013, Putin announced the end of his 30-year marriage to wife Lyudmila Shkrebneva, with whom he has two grown-up daughters. He appeared in public for the announcement with his estranged wife, a former Aeroflot flight attendant and languages teacher, during the interval of a performance by the Kremlin Ballet. During their marriage, Shkrebneva, who since her divorce with Putin has remarried, kept a low public profile and her appearances were kept to a minimum.

The Kremlin moved swiftly last week to stop news stories of the delivery of twins, say media insiders — a further example of their strict management of top newspapers and news-sites, especially when it comes to coverage of Putin. In 2016, three editors at Russia’s RBC media group, were fired over an article on the sources of Putin’s wealth in what media watchdogs feared would mark the demise of investigative reporting in Russia.

The website of newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, which is owned by one of the Russian leader’s oligarch friends, Arkady Rotenberg, reported the alleged Kabaeva births. But the report was quickly removed. Russian officials decline to comment.

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But reports here and there on Kabaeva, an Uzbek by birth, have continued amid accusations by Putin loyalists that they are being encouraged by Ukrainian enemies of the Russian leader. One site, dni.ru, announced in a headline: “Alina Kabaeva gave birth to twins and disappeared.” A showbiz website, Dom2Life, which is owned by another oligarch close to Putin, Alexander Karmanov, first reported the births on May 12, Kabaeva’s 36th birthday.

And according to Russian investigative journalist, Sergei Kanev, Kabaeva gave birth to twin boys by Caesarean at the Kulakov maternity clinic, where the VIP floor had been cleared in advance. He told Britain’s Daily Mail a doctor from Italy helped with the C-section delivery.

Kabaeva became a model on leaving competitive sport and was a Russian lawmaker until 2014. She now heads the National Media Group.

The mystery surrounding Kabaeva coincides with a further crackdown on the media in Russia amid rising complaints about shrinking press freedom and the Kremlin’s increasing determination to manage coverage.

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FILE – Former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabaeva, at the time deputy chair of the State Duma Committee for Youth Affairs is seen during a session of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, in Moscow, April 20, 2011. VOA

Earlier this month, nearly a dozen journalists quit their posts at Kommersant, a liberal business-focused newspaper, and at one time a trailblazer for press freedom, in protest at the firing of two star reporters, Ivan Safronov and Maxim Ivanov. They co-wrote an article that ran afoul of the Kremlin, they say.

The newspaper is owned by billionaire Alisher Usmanov, another oligarch with close ties to Putin. One of the sacked reporters, Maxim Ivanov said on his Facebook page: “I’m no longer employed at the Kommersant publishing house. To avoid waxing lyrical: formally, my resignation from Kommersant is a mutual agreement between parties, but the decision to terminate my employment was made by the publishing house’s stakeholder.”

In March, another Kommersant journalist, Maria Karpenko, was fired over her reports on political developments in St. Petersburg.

The unfolding events at Kommersant have prompted the condemnation of the media watchdog and NGO Reporters Without Borders, which said in a statement May 20 that it is “dismayed” but the firings, dubbing them a “terrible blow to what is left of journalistic independence” in Russia.

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According to The Bell, an independent news outlet, Kommersant had been accorded by the Kremlin some independence, unlike many rival outlets, “but is subject to censorship on political topics. The mass resignation of journalists will now call this arrangement into question.”

It added that “it is not entirely clear why the article [by Ivanov and Safronov] upset the authorities so much.” The story reported that Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, would resign soon and be replaced by Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service.

Russian journalists fear the curtailing of editorial independence will only get stricter. In March, Putin signed new laws against the spreading “fake news” and showing “blatant disrespect” to the state with fines or jail sentences for offenders. Observers warned that the laws’ vague language could be abused to stifle free speech. (VOA)

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Taliban-Era Repressions May Return: Taliban’s Women Activists Fear The Day

Even without the Taliban in power in Herat, Khorsand says, many hard-fought gains for women since the collapse of the Taliban regime already are under threat.

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Fakhr al-Madares is one of 600 Islamist schools in the western Afghan province of Herat. Rights activist Khalida Khorsand laments the proliferation of unregistered religious schools in Herat teaching "radical Islam" to as many as 50,000 young people. RFERL

Khalida Khorsand, a 35-year-old rights activist from the western Afghan city of Herat, is skeptical about Taliban claims that it has dispensed with its strict rules against girls’ education and women working.

The militant Islamic group made the declaration in the midst of recent peace talks with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad aimed at bringing an end to the long U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

But Khorsand still remembers the notorious repressions under Taliban rule as a teenager in the western city of Herat when she risked the death penalty to study literature in a class disguised as a women’s sewing group.

“After nearly 18 years without the Taliban in power, we now see that the Taliban are coming back in Afghanistan and there haven’t been big changes for women’s lives — especially in rural areas,” says Khorsand, who has dedicated much of her life since 2001 to advancing women’s rights in western Afghanistan.

Even without the Taliban in power in Herat, Khorsand says, many hard-fought gains for women since the collapse of the Taliban regime already are under threat.

She attributes that situation to what she calls “a Taliban way of thinking” by many Afghans and a proliferation of unregistered religious schools in Herat teaching “radical Islam” to as many as 50,000 young people.

If the Taliban gets a role in the Afghan government as part of a peace deal, as Khorsand expects, she fears a floodgate will be opened for resurgent “radical Islamists” in Herat.

“I don’t know why this has been allowed to happen under the current government of Afghanistan since 2014,” Khorsand laments. “They are not paying attention to the rise of fundamentalists and radical groups in Herat.

“Now the city has become a safe haven for the radical groups that support the ideology of the Taliban,” Khorsand says. “The fundamentalist groups in Herat are very organized and have a lot of money. They take the young people into madrasahs and teach to them the principles of the Taliban, and they are having an enormous impact on the young generation.”

Those groups already have gained backing from municipal authorities for an unofficial ban on live musical performances in Herat and for a ban on celebrating Valentine’s Day — with both practices being declared “unIslamic.”

Khalida Khorsand
Khalida Khorsand. RFERL

In rural areas of Herat Province, where Khorsand worked for years to help women who are victims of domestic violence, Khorsand says she has seen disturbing signs of support for the punishments doled out by the Taliban under its strict enforcement of Islamic Shari’a law — amputating the hands of thieves, publicly flogging people for drinking alcohol, and stoning to death those who engage in adultery.

Students at Herat’s madrasahs deny being radical Islamists. But they also support a return to the prohibitions and punishments of the Taliban era.

“Allah says cut off the hands of a male thief and a female thief,” says Jan Agha Jami, a 21-year-old at the Fakhr al-Madares madrasah in Herat. “When men and women commit adultery, whip them if they are single. If they are married, they should be stoned, and the Koran’s rulings should be implemented in public.

“Music concerts are absurd because they are forbidden,” Jami tells RFE/RL. “Music is bad for the mind, memory, and even human psyche. When a girl performs in front of strangers, the whole society is corrupted.”

Reflecting on the growing popularity of such beliefs in Herat, Khorsand says “it makes no difference for women in Afghanistan if the Taliban exists or doesn’t exist.”

“The Taliban’s way of thinking about women is the way many people are thinking in Afghanistan,” she says. “A lot of Afghans have traditional ways of thinking and they believe the talk of the Taliban. Unfortunately, much of their way of thinking is against the rights of women.”

Move Forward, Step Back

To be sure, Khorsand says there have been important advances for Afghan women since 2001 — including language in the Afghan Constitution that enshrines the right to education and to work.

Women are members of parliament and can be seen on television, competing in sports, and performing in concerts in Kabul.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has refused to put a bill to a parliamentary vote that would prohibit violence against women — despite years of domestic and international focus on the legislation.

But the Afghan government since the collapse of the Taliban regime has included many conservative Islamists and former warlords whose attitudes about women are similar to the Taliban.

Sima Simar, the head of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, says the gains for women since 2001 can easily be overturned and have rarely been implemented in rural areas where most Afghans live.

The 2018 Women, Peace, and Security Index by Georgetown University and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo ranks Afghanistan as the second-worst place in the world to be a woman. Only Syria was ranked worse.

That study notes that only 16 percent of Afghanistan’s workforce is female and that half of all Afghan women have four years or less of education.

UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, says only half of school-aged Afghan girls now go to school, and that only one out of five girls under 15 are literate.

Nearly two out of three Afghan girls are married when they are teenagers or younger. On average, they are sent by their parents into arranged marriages between the ages of 15 and 16.

Most imprisoned Afghan women have been jailed for so-called “morality crimes,” such as leaving an abusive husband or demanding to marry a man of their own choosing.

A study issued in January by UN Women and the nongovernmental gender equality group Promundo found that 80 percent of Afghan women have experienced domestic physical violence.

That study found that only 15 percent of Afghan men think women should be allowed to work outside of their home after marriage, and that two-thirds of Afghan men think women already have too many rights in Afghanistan.

It is in this environment that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has refused to put a bill to a parliamentary vote that would prohibit violence against women — despite years of domestic and international focus on the legislation.

Ghani has appointed only five women to a 37-member council tasked with trying to pave the way for direct peace talks between his government and the Taliban at a time when the Taliban refuses to talk directly with the Kabul government.

Only 10 women were invited to be part of a 240-strong delegation for so-called “all-Afghan talks” with the Taliban, and even then, the first round of those talks was canceled over reported complaints by the Taliban over the composition of the delegation.

No Happy Ending

Khorsand was one of about 20 women who, under Taliban rule in Herat, regularly attended covert literature classes for girls and women at a place known as the Golden Needle sewing school.

The experiences of those young women were documented in a 2002 book by Sunday Times correspondent Christina Lamb called The Sewing Circles Of Herat.
The experiences of those young women were documented in a 2002 book by Sunday Times correspondent Christina Lamb called The Sewing Circles Of Herat. RFERL

Lamb tells RFE/RL that although women have fought bravely for their rights since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001, many are now concerned that those gains will be lost as U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration seeks a peace deal with the Taliban.

“Women are very unhappy because it seems as though in the rush to get out of Afghanistan, the Trump administration has prioritized only two things: that the Taliban renounce terrorism and that they stop attacking Americans and other NATO soldiers, and not that they respect the constitution and minorities and equal rights,” Lamb says.

“This has left women very exposed — which considering that women’s rights had been very much part of the initial reason for removing the Taliban, it’s very disappointing,” Lamb says.

“I’m sure that the Taliban will insist on having some share in power as part of negotiations,” Lamb says. “They are saying at the moment in these negotiations that things have changed, that they will allow girls to go to school and for women to work. But who knows what the reality will be were they to actually have power again.

“We certainly have seen in some areas [under Taliban control recently] women being lashed by Taliban because they’re not regarded as being properly covered,” Lamb says. “It’s very risky and I can see why women are extremely concerned.”

Christina Lamb: "I can see why women are extremely concerned."
Christina Lamb: “I can see why women are extremely concerned.” RFERL

As for the women Lamb wrote about in The Sewing Circles Of Herat, she says most have not seen a happy ending to their story after 18 years.

“Sadly, those particular women who bravely met under the guise of the sewing circles and who were writing stories and poems secretly, most of them have left the country or have stopped writing because they are not happy with the situation,” Lamb tells RFE/RL.

“One of them, a poet called Nadia Anjuman, was actually killed by her husband because he wasn’t happy about the fact that she was speaking publicly and writing about women’s rights,” Lamb says.

In 2016, Khorsand left Afghanistan for Ottawa, Canada, where she lives with her husband and twin 14-year-old daughters and remains in regular contact with rights activists in Herat.

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Khorsand tells RFE/RL she went to Canada for her daughters’ sake because it is her “primary duty as a mother” to ensure that they get the best education she can provide them.

Once her daughters finish school, Khorsand vows to enroll in a university human rights program in Canada — and then return to Herat “to continue the fight” for the rights of Afghan women. (RFERL)