Eastern Ukraine Standoff Continues; U.S.-Russia to Join New Talks

A standoff continues in Ukraine where pro-Russian separatists have seized government buildings in eastern areas. In the city of Luhansk, the demonstrators have barricaded themselves in and readied fuel bombs. The government in Kiev has warned of sending in troops to restore order. Testifying before a Senate panel in Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russia of direct involvement.

Secretary of State John Kerry: "Everything that we’ve seen in the last 48 hours from Russian provocateurs and agents operating in eastern Ukraine tells us that they’ve been sent there determined to create chaos. And that is absolutely unacceptable. These efforts are as ham-handed as they are transparent, frankly. And quite simply, what we see from Russia is an illegal and illegitimate effort to destabilize a sovereign state and create a contrived crisis with paid operatives across an international boundary engaged in this initiative."

Russia has denied planning military operations in eastern Ukraine. Kerry is set to hold talks with counterparts from Russia, Ukraine and the European Union next week, the first time the four sides have met since the crisis began.

Kerry, McCain Spar over Obama’s Handling of Ukraine

In his testimony, Secretary of State John Kerry sparred with his former Senate colleague, John McCain of Arizona, over the Obama administration’s handling of Ukraine and other areas of foreign policy.

Sen. John McCain: "On the issue of Ukraine. My hero, Teddy Roosevelt, used to say, 'Talk softly, but carry a big stick.' What you’re doing is talking strongly and carrying a very small stick — in fact, a twig."

Secretary of State John Kerry: "But your friend Teddy Roosevelt also said that the credit belongs to the people who are in the arena who are trying to get things done. And we’re trying to get something done. That’s a Teddy Roosevelt maxim, and I abide by it."

Drought, Funding Gap Threaten Worsening Hunger Crisis in Syria

The United Nations is warning a looming drought and a lack of international funding could worsen the hunger and refugee crisis in Syria. Key areas for harvesting wheat have received less than half the average rainfall since the fall, likely forcing the country to have to import more food. The shortfall could bring the number of Syrians reliant on food aid to 6.5 million, up from 4.2 million. The United Nations also says it has cut the size of food rations this week after receiving just 16 percent of its budget needs from international donors.

Pillay: Assad Regime Behind Bulk of Atrocities in Syria Conflict

The United Nations’ top human rights official has renewed calls for the prosecution of Syrian officials at the International Criminal Court. Speaking to reporters, Navi Pillay said the regime of Bashar al-Assad is responsible for most of the atrocities in Syria.

Navi Pillay: "Both the commission of inquiry and my office, which has our own monitors, have consistently pointed to human rights violations by both sides. But you cannot compare the two. Clearly, the actions of the forces of the government far outweigh the violations. Killings, cruelty, persons in detention, disappearances far outweigh, so you cannot compare the situation. It’s the government that is mostly responsible for the violations. And all these perpetrators should be identified, and can, if there’s a referral to the International Criminal Court."

Senate Votes to Bar Iranian Ambassador to United Nations

The United States and Iran are locked in a new dispute over Tehran’s proposed ambassador to the United Nations. The Senate has voted to bar Hamid Aboutalebi from entering the United States because he allegedly belonged to the group behind the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran. The measure would prevent Aboutalebi from taking up his new post at U.N. headquarters in New York City. At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney said the United States has informed Iran of its opposition.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney: "Well, we share the Senate’s concerns regarding this case and find the potential nomination extremely troubling. The U.S. government has informed the government of Iran that this potential selection is not viable. The legislation passed by the Senate underscores just how troubling this potential nomination would be."

Carney stopped short of saying the Obama administration would bar Aboutalebi’s entry into the country. He has previously served as Iran’s ambassador to Belgium, Italy, Australia and the European Union, and has denied playing a direct role in the hostage crisis. The spat comes as a new round of talks over Iran’s nuclear program are resuming in Vienna.

Obama Issues Executive Order on Gender Pay Ahead of Senate Vote

President Obama has taken new steps aimed at closing the gender pay gap. Two new executive actions will bar federal contractors from punishing workers who discuss their pay, and force them to disclose data about what their employees earn by race and sex. Speaking Tuesday, Obama also pressed lawmakers to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act to help end discrimination based on gender. He noted the wage gap is even wider for women of color.

President Obama: "Today, the average full-time working woman earns just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. For African-American women and Latinas, it’s even less. And in 2014, that’s an embarrassment. It is wrong. And this is not just an issue of fairness. It’s also a family issue and an economic issue, because women make up about half of our workforce, and they’re increasingly the breadwinners for a whole lot of families out there."

According to data cited by the White House, African-American women earn just 64 cents and Latina women just 56 cents for every dollar earned by a white man. But critics have pointed out the White House may have a pay gap of its own. McClatchy found women at the White House earn 91 cents for every dollar men make; the conservative American Enterprise Institute put that figure at 88 cents on the dollar. The Senate is due to vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act today.

Jailed U.S. Contractor Launches Hunger Strike in Cuba

An American contractor jailed for over four years in Cuba has launched a hunger strike to protest his treatment by both the Cuban and U.S. governments. Alan Gross was arrested in 2009 on suspicion of being a U.S. spy after handing out equipment to Cuban opposition groups. A spokesperson for Gross’ family said he is refusing meals to call attention to mistreatment by Cuba and inaction by his own government. The spokesperson, Jill Zuckman, also said the recent disclosure of a U.S.-backed fake social media network in Cuba had undermined Gross’ cause.

Jill Zuckman: "Alan’s been in prison over four years, and during that time he has lost 110 pounds. And that was before he started the hunger strike five days ago. He was in really frail health. I know all of his family and friends have been extremely concerned about his ability to survive the conditions in prison there before going on this hunger strike. So, at this point, we’re all very worried that he’s not going to last through this. … Alan learned about ZunZuneo before he started his hunger strike and was not happy about it. His attorney, Scott Gilbert, said he felt that USAID put Alan in greater peril by starting that program than he had been before."

USAID Denies "Cuban Twitter" was Covert Program

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) created the so-called Cuban Twitter project in what the Associated Press called an effort to undermine the Cuban government. Dubbed "ZunZuneo," it masqueraded as a Twitter-like platform to collect users’ private data and spread political content that would trigger unrest. Under questioning from Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy at a hearing Tuesday, USAID administrator Rajiv Shah denied the program was covert.

Rajiv Shah: "Working on creating platforms to improve communications in Cuba and in many other parts of the world is a core part of what USAID has done for some time and continues to do. Our administration’s policy is to continue to support efforts to allow for open communications. To the extent that the AP story or any other comment creates the impression that this effort or any other goes beyond that for other ulterior purposes, that is simply inaccurate."

Sen. Patrick Leahy: "Was there a covert program?"

Rajiv Shah: "Absolutely not."

Snowden: NSA Spied on U.S. Human Rights Groups

New testimony from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden suggests the government has spied on leading human rights groups inside the United States. Appearing by video-link before the Council of Europe, Snowden said the NSA has "targeted either leaders or staff members … of civil and non-governmental organizations" within U.S. borders. Snowden did not specify which groups, but asked whether they include Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, he replied, "Yes, absolutely." In his comments to European lawmakers, Snowden urged international action to rein in mass surveillance.

Edward Snowden: "The screening of trillions — and I mean that literally, trillions — of private communications for the vaguest indications of association, or some other nebulous, pre-criminal activity, is a violation of the human right to be free from unwarranted interference, to be secure in our communications and our private affairs, and it must be addressed."

Venezuela Gov’t, Opposition Leaders to Hold Talks

The Venezuelan government and members of the opposition have agreed to hold talks after two months of political unrest. Around 40 people have been killed from both sides in a series of protests and clashes. The talks were brokered by a group of foreign ministers from neighboring South American countries.

West Africa Faces Unprecedented Ebola Outbreak

West Africa is grappling with a deadly and unprecedented outbreak of Ebola. At least 100 people have died in Guinea and 10 in Liberia over the past several weeks. It is the first Ebola outbreak to ever hit the West Africa region. Speaking in Geneva, Keija Fukuda of the World Health Organization said the outbreak is one of the "most challenging ever faced."

Keija Fukuda: "This is one of the most challenging Ebola outbreaks that we have ever faced. And right now we have documented cases both in Guinea and in Liberia. And the reasons why this is one of the most challenging outbreaks is that, first, we see a wide geographic dispersion of cases. So this has come in from a number of districts as well as a large city in Guinea, Conakry."

Marine Shoots at Colleague at North Carolina Base

A U.S. marine has been shot dead by a colleague at the Camp Lejeune military base in North Carolina. The gunman is in custody. The shooting comes just days after the rampage by a U.S. soldier at Fort Hood, Texas, that left four dead and 16 wounded.

Wrongfully Convicted Black Prisoner Freed After 25 Years

In New York, an African-American man wrongfully convicted of murder has been released after nearly 25 years behind bars. Jonathan Fleming was convicted of a 1989 murder in Brooklyn. But he was actually more than 1,000 miles away, in Florida, visiting Disney World with his family at the time of the murder. Investigators unearthed ample evidence of his innocence, including an Orlando police report confirming workers at a Florida hotel remembered Fleming, and a receipt, found in police records, showing he paid a phone bill at the hotel just hours before the murder. Fleming said the receipt was in his pocket at the time of his arrest, but none of the evidence was turned over to the defense before his trial. Fleming spoke to CNN after his release.

Jonathan Fleming: "I waited for this day to come, 24-and-a-half years for this nightmare to be over, and this day is finally here. I dreamt about this many nights, and I’m finally a free man."


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