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DNY59/iStock(MOSCOW) -- A Moscow court has upheld a decision to release an American man who spent almost two years in a Russian jail after he was put on trial over a cleaning product he bought online.

Gaylen Grandstaff, a 54 year-old English teacher from Texas, was arrested in 2017 and spent 608 days in pre-trial detention in Moscow as prosecutors sought to jail him on drug smuggling charges. One of the few Americans to spend so much time in a Russian prison, he was held in grim conditions, harassed by guards, severely beaten by other inmates and denied medical assistance. ABC News chronicled Grandstaff and his Russian wife, Anna’s ordeal in a short film earlier this year.

In March, Grandstaff was unexpectedly freed after a judge suddenly acknowledged serious problems with the case. In the ruling, the judge found the prosecution had failed to gather basic evidence and sent the case back for further investigation. Grandstaff was released in the courtroom and was allowed to return to the apartment where he and Anna live in Moscow.

The prosecution, however, appealed the ruling, leaving the threat that Grandstaff could be returned to jail. With the case still open, he has been unable to leave Russia, left instead in limbo for 9 months while authorities ignored deadlines to hold a hearing.

On Monday, Moscow's highest appeals court rejected the prosecutors' request. The judge at Moscow’s City Court upheld in full the March ruling to keep Grandstaff free and confirmed that the case lacked basic evidence to go forward.

Monday’s ruling removes all charges against Grandstaff and returns the case to the stage of preliminary police investigation. That means the while the case is still not formally closed-- investigators now must decide whether to formally drop it— it at last clears a path to him finally being able to go home.

“I feel quite spectacular right now,” Grandstaff said outside the court. “It’s a very good feeling. I didn’t really let myself entertain much of the idea of going home. Right now it seems like a step closer.”

In Russia, less than 1 percent of criminal trials end in acquittal, making Grandstaff’s release extraordinary. Inherited from the Soviet Union, the Russian judicial system is most often a conveyor belt of convictions, where evidence is routinely fabricated and defendants are essentially treated as presumed guilty.

When Grandstaff will be able to leave Russia is still not clear. Grandstaff’s Russian visa expired while he was in jail and was never renewed, meaning he has been in an immigration gray zone where it is simultaneously illegal for him to work in Russia but is also impossible for him to leave. The next step is for the Grandstaffs to try to receive a visa to exit Russia. It also still unclear that he might not be stopped at the border because the police investigation is still on the books.

“Legally I think I should be able to leave but whether or not they would actually let me leave may be another,” Grandstaff said on Monday.

The case against Grandstaff held serious problems from the beginning. The cleaning product he bought from the Chinese website Ali Express turned out to contain gamma-butyrolactone or GBL, an industrial cleaner that is sometimes used as an illegal party drug or more rarely as a muscle-builder and which is banned in Russia and many other countries as a narcotic. Grandstaff said he had been upsold the cleaner by the Chinese vendor while he was shopping online for medication for his Crohn's disease and had had no way of knowing it contained the banned substance.

Police though charged Grandstaff with large-scale drug smuggling, a heavy offense that carries a maximum prison sentence of 10-20 years and is intended to prosecute major traffickers. But the case made little sense-- first they accused Grandstaff of buying the cleaner to sell, but then switched to alleging he intended to use it for personal body-building. Despite that, they continued to press the serious drug smuggling charge while arguing Grandstaff had bought the GBL for his own fitness. Needing to paint Grandstaff as a fitness obsessive, they then appeared to use crude tactics to do so, including distorting a testimony according to one witness. A judge continued to prolong Grandstaff's detention for months, despite the evidence provided by the prosecution remaining mostly unchanged.

Ultimately, rights advocates and legal experts said even if Grandstaff had known what he was buying the charge brought against him was excessively severe, likely driven by prosecutors seeking to appear effective on drugs cases and unable to reverse once charges were brought. Grandstaff’s long detention and then legal limbo after his release are typical of the Russian justice system, where prosecutors have little incentive to drop charges and are permitted to let cases languish for months.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



JadeThaiCatwalk/iStock(ATLANTA) -- Sunday saw the Miss Universe crown go to South Africa's Zozibini Tunzi. She bested 90 other women competing in the annual pageant that was filmed by Tyler Perry Studios.

People reports that Tunzi is a 26-year-old public relations professional and a gender-based violence activist. While ecstatic about her win, she's more excited how dark-skinned girls will feel when they see her wearing the iconic tiara.

"Society has been programmed for a very long time that never saw beauty in a way that was black girl magic, but now we are slowing moving to a time where women like myself can finally find a place in society, can finally know they’re beautiful," she told reporters.

She also hopes her new title will help bring "a new, fresh and different perspective of what South Africa is."

Tunzi is being credited for her inspirational response to a question from host Steve Harvey about the most important thing we should be teaching young girls today.

"I think the most important thing we should be teaching young girls today is leadership," she said. "It’s something that has been lacking in young girls and women for a very long time. Not because we don’t want to but because of what society has labeled women to be. I think we are the most powerful beings in the world and that we should be given every opportunity, and that is what we should be teaching these young girls, to take up space."

Final Word: SOUTH AFRICA#MissUniverse2019 LIVE on @FOXtv. Airing in Spanish on @Telemundo. pic.twitter.com/kk1ySPXxXU

— Miss Universe (@MissUniverse) December 9, 2019

With Tunzi's win comes South Africa's third Miss Universe crown, having won in 1978 and 2017. Miss Puerto Rico Madison Anderson was runner-up while Miss Mexico Sofía Aragón came in third.

It also marks a milestone: for the first time, black women simultaneously hold the titles of Miss Universe, Miss USA, Miss Teen USA and Miss America, with Tunzi, Cheslie Kryst, Kaliegh Garris and Nia Franklin reigning, respectively.

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Echinophoria/iStock(WELLINGTON, New Zealand) -- At least five people were killed and many more remain missing after a volcano erupted on a small island in New Zealand on Monday, officials said.

New Zealand Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims told reporters that 23 people, including those with injuries, have been rescued from White Island, also known as Whakaari, which is home to the country's most active cone volcano.

Tims said the death toll is "likely" to rise.

An unknown number of people were stranded on the volcanic island hours after the massive eruption as the site, covered in ash, became too dangerous for police and rescuers to search for the missing.

Although the number of those unaccounted for remains unclear, Tims said there were fewer than 50 people on White Island at the time of the eruption on Monday afternoon.

"It is unsafe for us to go onto that island," Tims told reporters at a press conference that evening. "I've got to also consider the safety of our people and emergency services staff."

A 5-mile no-fly zone is in place around White Island, along with a 5-nautical mile maritime exclusion zone, according to Judy Turner, the mayor of Whakatane, which sits on mainland New Zealand just south of White Island.

"We have been advised that the situation on Whakaari / White Island remains extremely volatile," Turner said in a press release Monday evening. "There have been three eruptions and there is unpredictable ongoing volcanic activity. The current risk of ash fall reaching the East Coast [of mainland New Zealand] is low to very low."

New Zealand police are in "constant contact" with the country's geoscience agency regarding the level of risk of a further eruption, according to Turner.

White Island, located 30 miles offshore from mainland New Zealand, has had regular eruptions for years and remains uninhabited, but is still a popular tourist destination. The island is accessible only by boat and helicopter.

The five deaths were people who had been rescued earlier in the day and died from their injuries, according to Tims, who couldn't confirm their nationalities.

Some 30 passengers from the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship were among those visiting White Island at the time of the eruption, according to New Zealand Cruise Association CEO Kevin O'Sullivan.

“Our hope is that everyone will be recovered quickly and unharmed, but at this time we have no further information," O'Sullivan said in a statement.

Those who cannot get in touch with a friend or family member in the wake of the volcanic eruption are urged to register them by visiting the New Zealand Red Cross website or call the New Zealand Police.

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Derek Brumby/iStock(HELSINKI, Finland) -- The world's youngest prime minister is a woman.

Sanna Marin is expected to be confirmed this week as prime minister of Finland by the country's Parliament.

The 34-year-old was named prime minister by Finland's ruling Social Democratic Party after its leader, Antti Rinne, stepped down from the position, according to the BBC.

Marin has been a lawmaker since 2015 and was most recently the minister of transport and communications of Finland. She also served as deputy chairwoman of the Social Democratic Party that elected her.

In addition to her age and gender, Finland's new leader is a new mom. She gave birth to her daughter Emma last year.

The prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, who is also in her 30s, last year became only the second elected world leader in modern times to give birth in office, joining the late Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who in 1990 gave birth to daughter Bakhtawar.

One of Finland's former prime ministers, Alexander Stubb, posted on Twitter that Marin's appointment “shows that #Finland is a modern and progressive country.”

Finland was one of the first countries in the world to give women full political rights, in 1906, according to UN Women, which calls the country a leader on "issues of gender equality and the empowerment of women."

The country was named the third most gender-equal country in the world in 2017 and the second-best country in the world to be a female in 2016, according to the International Gender Equality Prize, an award established in 2017 to mark Finland’s 100th anniversary of independence and the country's focus on gender equality.

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Fredex8/iStock(WASHINGTON) --  Russia and Ukraine will hold peace talks at a summit in Paris on Monday, the first time in three years there have been high-level talks between the two countries focused on ending the war in eastern Ukraine.

The talks are taking place in the so-called "Normandy Format," with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angel Merkel mediating the negotiations. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will meet for the first time at the summit.

The Normandy group has not been held since October 2016, a reflection of how efforts to end the war have stalled, with the conflict essentially unchanged for years as soldiers and civilians continue to be killed. The war began after Russian annexed Crimea in 2014 and then seized control of two large eastern regions of Ukraine using pro-Russian separatists as proxies. Since then, 13,000 people -- about a quarter of them civilians -- have been killed more than 2 million displaced, according to the U.N.

Major fighting in eastern Ukraine has been halted since February 2015 when the sides accepted the so-called "Minsk Agreements." But shellings and exchanges of fire along the front line have never fully stopped as the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed rebels are dug into their trenches.

The summit is an effort to break the bloody stalemate and is as a result of a push by Zelenskiy, who won a landslide election in part on a pledge to end the war. While he has had to walk a tightrope after being thrust into the impeachment scandal around President Donald Trump, finishing the war has been Zelenskiy’s top priority since the election. France’s Macron has also pushed for talks -- eager for a diplomatic win with Russia.

That the summit is taking place at all is significant. The decision to meet reflects that perhaps both Russia and Ukraine are willing to bring the fighting to a complete stop.

Ahead of the meeting, though, few believe a major breakthrough toward resolving the conflict is likely. Officials in Kyiv, Moscow and Donbass -- the traditional name for the region of eastern Ukraine -- have all recently downplayed expectations.

While Ukraine has urged ending the war, most observers have said it seems impossible the sides will be able to reconcile competing objectives.

To clear a path to the summit, Ukraine and the Russian-controlled rebels did take significant steps. Driven mostly by Zelenskiy, the sides traded of dozens of prisoners, including some of the most high-profile political prisoners held by Russia. Ukraine and then the rebels pulled troops back from front-line areas around three key towns.

But it is unclear where the two sides go after those concessions to actually bring the war to its conclusion.

One of the Kremlin’s conditions for holding the summit was that Ukraine commit to the "Steinmeier Formula." Named after Germany’s former foreign minister who proposed it, the formula holds that elections be held in the separatist regions and then Ukraine would regain control of the territory.

 The formula is favored by Moscow and has been highly controversial in Ukraine, because it would mean holding elections while Russia controlled the rebel areas and Russia would therefore be able to dictate the vote.

The dilemma is at the heart of what is preventing Ukraine and Russia from resolving the war. Russia’s objective has been for Ukraine to reincorporate the separatist regions as part of a federation, giving them broad autonomy. In practice, that would mean leaving two Russian puppet regions in Ukraine, giving Moscow a permanent lever to block the country from joining NATO or the European Union.

That situation has been unacceptable to Kyiv and there is no sign it isn’t still. Zelenskiy, having signed onto the Steinmeier Formula in October in order to obtain the summit, immediately said elections would not be held until Ukraine regains control of its border with Russia in the rebel territories. Russia, meanwhile, has insisted on elections first.

Kremlin officials and Zelenskiy himself in the past two weeks have both said publicly they believe the difference will likely not be resolved in Paris. Zelenskiy has said he also wants to discuss Crimea, which the Kremlin has said is non-negotiable.

"On the whole Russia and Ukraine are going to the summit in Paris with such contrary positions on keys aspects of resolving [the conflict], that serious progress in the 'Normandy Format' should not be expected. Not one of the sides has taken the decision to make strategic concessions on the status of Donbass. And they don’t have a plan B, apart from freezing the conflict as a result of the troop withdrawal," Vladimir Frolov, an analyst and former Russian diplomat, wrote in the Russian magazine, Republic.

 With a final resolution to conflict looking deadlocked, the sides instead appear to have been preparing some smaller deals that they can present as results of the summit. Another large prisoner exchange is possible. Both sides have also seemed to be gathering further bargaining chips. Ukraine detained a Russian politician on Wednesday, while Russia’s FSB security service arrested a woman in Crimea it accused of spying for Ukraine two weeks ago. On Saturday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev threatened Russia and Ukraine will not be able to agree on gas transit.

Macron’s office has said it believes the summit can help consolidate a ceasefire, define new areas of disengagement and allow for a new prisoner exchange.

An official at the Elysée Palace briefed reporters this week and said Macron thinks the summit can achieve the elections in the order proposed by the Steinmeier Formula and that Ukraine will take full control of its territory, except Crimea, the day after the vote.

Ukrainian officials have publicly said if the summit shows Russia is unwilling to make any genuine steps toward a final end to the conflict, they will essentially abandon the rebel areas as a lost cause and leave them to Russia.

 Andriy Yermak, a top aide of Zelenskiy, told an audience at a Chatham House event in London this week that if Ukraine finds Russia will not take steps toward fulfilling the Minsk agreements we’ll be "building a wall" around Donbass.

In practice though it will be difficult to simply write off the conflict. It’s also unclear what it would mean for the hundreds of thousands of people Ukraine currently still provides pensions and social payments to in the rebel zones.

Some Ukrainian officials have privately said the Zelenskiy administration’s position is that it must maximally meet its side of the Minsk conditions to show its Western partners it is willing to end the war and force Moscow to show it isn’t.

Some observers in Ukraine are concerned Zelenskiy's inexperienced team -- looking to make a deal -- will inadvertently concede too much to Russia. At home, Zelenskiy’s acceptance of the Steinmeier Formula prompted a protest by 10,000 people in Kyiv and threats from nationalist groups.

 Some also worry that Ukraine might find itself pressured into concessions by Macron and Merkel, who are both eager to improve relations with Russia and to ease some sanctions on it.

"The risk is real that in order for the Paris summit to become a 'success' from a Franco-German perspective, Mr. Zelensky will come under great pressure to be 'reasonable' and to agree to compromises that will lead to 'lasting peace,'" Willem Aldershoff, a former head of unit at the European Commission, wrote in an op-ed in The Financial Times on Saturday. In practice, he wrote that might mean holding elections without Ukraine regaining control of its border or Russian and separatist troops withdrawing.

In the long-term, a freeze of the conflict seems like the most likely outcome, with the rebel regions essentially left as unrecognized states controlled by Moscow. This has been the case in Georgia following Russia’s invasion in 2008, as well as Moldova.

"They don’t have a plan B, apart from freezing the conflict as a result of the troop withdrawal," Frolov, the former Russian diplomat, wrote in Republic.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



iStock(NASHVILLE, Tenn.) -- A third teenager, who was among the four which escaped from a juvenile detention center in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, has been captured -- leaving only one escapee on the loose, police said Saturday.

The teenager was arrested Friday night at a gas station with his mother, Tewanna Keesee, and brother, Rashon Keesee, according to the Metro Nashville Police Department.

The suspect's relatives were charged with being accessories in helping the teen evade authorities, the police said.

The quartet ran out of the Davidson County Juvenile Detention Center at around 10 p.m. on Nov. 30, officials said.

Brandon Caruthers, 17, remains on the lam, according to authorities. He was arrested for an August 2018 armed robbery case in south Nashville, according to police.

Two of the three inmates who were captured are murder suspects -- in different cases. The third captured escapee is charged with armed robbery -- a separate case from Caruthers.

ABC News does not normally name juveniles, but are doing so with Caruthers because police say he is a dangerous individual. Police have released his names and photos in hopes for his capture.

Anyone with information about the remaining two escapees are asked to call Nashville's Emergency Communications Center at 615-862-8600 immediately.

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iStock(NEW YORK) -- An American graduate student who was jailed for more than three years in Iran is headed home after a prisoner swap.

Xiyue Wang, 38, a Princeton University student, was exchanged for Iranian scientist Professor Massoud Soleimani early on Saturday as part of a prisoner exchange brokered by the Switzerland government. Wang had been held in Iran's notorious Evin prison since August 2016 on charges of espionage.

President Trump said Wang had been held under the "pretense" of espionage."

"The highest priority of the United States is the safety and well-being of its citizens," the president said in a statement. "Freeing Americans held captive is of vital importance to my Administration, and we will continue to work hard to bring home all our citizens wrongfully held captive overseas.”

A senior administration official said Switzerland had been negotiating for Wang's release for more than three weeks. Wang, who is currently in Germany, is in good spirits, the official said.

Wang, who is married with a son, was a Eurasian history scholar. He traveled to Iran in 2016 to study Persian and conduct research for his dissertation.

Before traveling, Wang wrote to the Iranian Interest Section at the Pakistani embassy in Washington, D.C., which issued his visa. He also wrote to the libraries in Iran he planned to visit, according to Princeton University.

He was transparent about what he wanted to study and why, according to the university, and about his desire to access documents housed at Iranian libraries and archives.

“He was not involved in any political activities or social activism; he was simply a scholar trying to gain access to materials he needed for his dissertation,” the school said in a statement about his case.

Wang's wife, Hua Qu, tweeted that their family was "complete once again."

"Our son Shaofan and I have waited three long years for this day and it’s hard to express in words how excited we are to be reunited with Xiyue," the tweet read. "We are thankful to everyone who helped make this happen."

In exchange for Wang's release, Professor Massoud Soleimani, who was arrested at a Chicago airport last year and charged with violating trade sanctions against Iran, was headed home, too.

A stem cell researcher who had been working in Minnesota, Soleimani was charged after he was reportedly seeking to transfer biological material back to Iran without a license.

His lawyers argued that he was innocent, saying the sanctions law was ambiguous.

Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, was there to greet him at the airport; he flew with Wang from Tehran to Switzerland.

In a tweet, Zarif said: “Glad that Professor Massoud Soleimani and Mr. Xiyue Wang will be joining their families shortly. Many thanks to all engaged, particularly the Swiss Government.”

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iStock(NEW YORK) -- Today’s highly anticipated rematch for the heavyweight champion of the world will take place in a location that has shocked fans and caused controversy: Saudi Arabia.

New York City's Madison Square Garden and London's Wembley Stadium were among the arenas that fought hard to host the fight. Saudi Arabia has never hosted a heavyweight bout, and neither of the boxers have a connection to the country -- so to lure the fight, Saudi Arabia built a new 15,000-seat stadium in the desert in just six weeks. And the fighters' purse is reportedly upwards of $60 million.

Critics say all the money is not about promoting sports; it’s about rehabilitating Saudi Arabia’s global image given the country's spotty human rights record.

Eddie Hearn, the fight’s British promoter, says the fight will make heavyweight history despite its controversial location.

“The ‘Thrilla in Manila’ in the Philippines ... and the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in Zaire at the time -- the whole world watched those fights and they went down in the history of our sport," Hearn said. "This will do exactly the same.”

Dubbed the “Clash on the Dunes,” the fight is a rematch of June's bout between Mexican-American Andy Ruiz Jr. and Britain's Anthony Joshua that ended with one of the great upsets in boxing history as Ruiz, a last-minute substitute, stunned the boxing world by knocking out Joshua, the Olympic gold medalist and defending heavyweight champ who entered the fight 22-0.

Ruiz became the first heavyweight champion of Mexican descent, and his Cinderella victory -- 11 years after failed to make the Mexican Olympic Team -- swiftly made headlines and landed him on the Jimmy Kimmel show.

Saturday's fight will air exclusively on sports streaming service DAZN at 2:30 p.m. EST.

Over the past two years, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has publicly pursued a campaign aimed at convincing the world that Saudi Arabia was changing for the better. The kingdom launched a campaign to highlight new rights for women. Movie theaters opened for the first time in more than 35 years, and women gained the right to drive.

As part of his Vision 2030 economic development program, Saudi Arabia decided to prioritize sports -- particularly ones that would make headlines.

In October, the country hosted the WWE’s Crown Jewel event in a multimillion dollar deal. February will mark the debut of the Saudi Cup, a horse race with a $20 million purse -- the richest on record. A Ladies European Tour golf tournament and a Formula One race are also in talks to be held on Saudi soil.

“They have a plan to stage the biggest sports events in that region -- and they've been very, very aggressive,” said Hearn. “We can't ignore the influx of money and power into the sport that's coming [from] that region.”

“I'm going out there to fight,” Joshua told ABC News. “From a fighting aspect, I know the country is making progression towards different things, and boxing is a great way to kind of showcase their country.”

But the kingdom's kinder, gentler makeover was shattered last year when news broke that the Saudi government was responsible for the murder of Washington Post columnist and outspoken Saudi citizen Jamal Khashoggi. Since then, the country has been offering even more lavish deals to Western entertainers and sports figures.

“I didn’t coin the phrase -- but this is ‘sportswashing,’” Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch, told ABC News. “The world heavyweight championship is just another example of Saudi Arabia’s PR attempt to gloss over human rights abuses.”

Saudi Arabia’s attempts to cultivate Western sports and entertainment has been met with both success and failure. In July, rapper Nicki Minaj withdrew from a music festival following an outcry from critics of Saudi Arabia’s ban on homosexuality and its treatment of women. Earlier this week, Tiger Woods reportedly turned down a multimillion-dollar offer to play in the Saudi International tournament.

For all its efforts, the country remains a monarchy ruled with firm adherence to a strict interpretation of Islamic law. A Human Rights Watch report published last month claims that numerous women’s rights advocates continue to be detained, charged with criminal offenses, and tortured for speaking out.

“There have been important reforms that loosen the chokehold on women in Saudi Arabia, but women still find themselves as targets, along with dissidents and critics of the Saudi government,” said Worden.

But Hearn, the boxing promoter, says those concerns can’t compete with the lure of Saudi millions.

“Every promoter over the last few years has been talking to not just Saudi Arabia, but other countries in the Middle East,” he said. “Our job is to provide the best opportunities for our clients, our fighters -- the most amount of money.”

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Tasos Katopodis(NEW YORK) -- As the U.S. assumes the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council for December, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft said Friday she would focus members on "credibility through assessment and resolution."

"We do face a credibility problem in the eyes of the world when we're talking without acting, but at the same time, we argue that we are essential to global peace," she said at a news conference at the U.N. she held to explain her goals. "We have to prove that by our actions within the council."

Craft, a longtime GOP activist from Kentucky, who along with her husband is a major donor to Trump and other Republicans, was the U.S. ambassador to Canada before being confirmed U.N. ambassador in a 56-34 vote in July, but not before several lawmakers questioned her experience.

On Friday, she outlined the council's schedule for December -- from meetings on Afghanistan, Yemen and South Sudan to inviting members on a first-of-its-kind overnight retreat in Kentucky. But one item she said the U.S. has not yet decided on is whether to hold a council meeting on Dec. 10 to specifically address human rights abuses in North Korea.

"I care about human rights around the world," Craft said, fielding several questions on North Korea. "I can promise you that the council is very unified in the fact that we are all very concerned. It doesn't matter whether it's Christmas or it's tomorrow or it's February."

Craft's remarks come ahead of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un's end-of-the-year deadline to President Donald Trump to show more flexibility in nuclear talks -- or else it will end all diplomacy -- and on the heels of several warnings by North Korean officials directed at the U.S. this week.

On Wednesday, North Korea’s U.N. ambassador Kim Song warned the council in a letter that a discussion of the country’s human rights situation would be a "serious provocation" and Pyongyang would "respond strongly."

"I have read the letter. We care about human rights," Craft responded, "None of us can stand by and allow human rights to be abused."

At least eight members of the 15-member council support a meeting on North Korea -- but Craft emphasized that the council does stand united in its concern over the country's ballistic missile program.

Craft also stressed U.S. support for the council's mission to find a political solution to the crisis in Syria as opposed to a military one. The council has scheduled meetings on Dec. 19 and 20, the final day of the U.S. presidency, devoted to Syria.

"Over the next 12 months, the council's best efforts should be directed toward keeping the entry points through which the humanitarian agencies is delivered. This is essential to creating peace for the people in Syria," said Craft, referring to a U.N.-mandated cross-border aid delivery scheme operating from Turkey which is set to expire in January. "There is no Plan B, so this has to happen. There is no alternative."

When asked about reports of Turkey engaging in ethnic cleansing of the Kurds in Syria, Craft avoided criticizing the Turkish intervention. Instead, she thanked Turkey for opening a new fifth crossing to deliver humanitarian aid to the Syrian people and repeated that her primary concern is with people of Syria.

"We support Turkey adding the fifth border," she said. "That is very important in order to access the growing number of humanitarian needs."

Regarding Iran, Craft said that the country's problems of instability are due to the actions of oppressive leadership and blamed the government for supplying weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen. Subsequently, she said the U.S. will continue its maximum pressure campaign on Iran and hold a session on Dec. 19 related to its non-proliferation and the implementation of Resolution 2231.

"Iran has not changed its behavior, as it is interfering in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. What concerns me is the well-being of the Iranian people and the rejection of the Iranian state’s actions to offend its people and the peoples of the region," she said. "I confirm that we have many means and we will use these means with Iran."

And in a first for the council, Craft confirmed she will host members in her home state of Kentucky next weekend. Activities on their agenda include dining at the governor’s mansion, attending a University of Kentucky basketball game and bottling bourbon.

Craft echoed the sentiments of her boss when asked about the potential for the U.S. to help cover outstanding debts of other nations.

"Whether it be NATO paying their two percent or whether it be the U.N. burden sharing, we are the number one donor, the number one contributor both to the NATO and the U.N., she said. "We expect countries to pay their fair share."

She also said Israel has "no better friend that Kelly Craft" and vowed to continue the efforts of Trump's first ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, by fighting against anti-Israel resolutions.

"I'm not going to accept the status quo where Israel is the subject or relentless and one-sided criticism," she added on Friday. "That is not okay with me."

One of the first events under Craft's Security Council presidency was a group visit to the White House and working lunch with Trump on Thursday.

Craft said she promised their work would conclude by Dec. 20, so they can all can return home for the holidays.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



(Kirill Kudryavtsevia/AFP/Getty Images)(MOSCOW) -- Russian liberal society on Monday celebrated after a Moscow court handed a student YouTube blogger an unusually lenient suspended sentence instead of prison for posting anti-Kremlin videos, a ruling they cheered as rare victory amid a crackdown by authorities following protests this summer.

Yegor Zhukov, a 21-year-old political science student at a leading Moscow university, was convicted by a court earlier this week of inciting extremism in videos on his YouTube channel where he has a sizable following and has called for demonstrations against the country's president, Vladimir Putin. Since his arrest in August, Zhukov has become a face of the wave of opposition protests that hit Moscow over the summer and his case has attracted considerable attention, with music stars and other celebrities calling for his release and attending his hearings.

On Friday, dozens of mostly young supporters gathered outside Moscow's Kuntsevsky court to demand his release, chanting "this isn't a court it's a kangaroo court" and "Russia without Putin". Inside, the judge gave Zhukov the suspended 3-year prison sentence and banned him from using the internet for two years.

Following the verdict, Zhukov walked out of the court into the now euphoric crowd and a scrum of cameras.

Raising his fist in the air, Zhukov thanked them. "I wouldn't be here, this wouldn't be happening if it weren't for you," he said. But “we mustn’t accept a suspended sentence as freedom. It all the same is not the final victory," he said.

Three other protesters on Monday were also given unusually light sentences, with judges turning down requests for long jail terms from prosecutors, although one was still jailed for a year.

The rulings were the latest is a series of trials that have become known as the “Moscow Case," where authorities have brought harsh criminal charges against two dozen protesters who took part in the summer's protests. For almost two months between late July and September, tens of thousands of people marched through Moscow’s center most weekends to protest the blocking of opposition candidates from local elections. Authorities responded with a fierce crackdown, arresting hundreds of people and roughly dispersing the peaceful demonstrations.

Following the protests, authorities opened 24 criminal cases targeting rank-and-file demonstrators, who they accused of taking part in mass riots.

So far 9 people have been convicted and given substantial jail sentences—from 2 to 3-1/2 years—for allegedly assaulting police officers, despite little and often no evidence they acted violently. Human rights groups have condemned the cases as an attempt to intimidate people from taking part in protests.

Prosecutors had again asked for long sentences in the trials on Friday, requesting that all four defendants receive between 3 to 4 years jail. Besides Zhukov, one defendant, Vladimir Yemelyanov received a two-year suspended sentence; another, Pavel Novikov was fined $1,880.

As in other cases, the sentences were still severe-- Nikita Chirtsov, who was jailed for a year, was convicted of assault on an officer for shoving a riot officer during the protests. Yemelyanov was also convicted of using violence for having pulled an officer's uniform and Novikov for throwing a plastic bottle.

The cases have provoked anger among liberal Russians, which has spread unusually wide. A 23-year-old actor, Pavel Ustinov, was jailed for 3 1/2 years after he was violently arrested while simply standing near a protest on his phone. After new protests began and the outcry spread into the elite authorities backtracked and Ustinov was released.

Zhukov's case has also stood out. His closing statement to the court on Wednesday was shared widely on Russian social media and by independent media outlets that published lengthy passages from it.

The Kremlin on Wednesday said it had taken note of Zhukov's case, but said it didn't want to attribute special importance to it. "We aren’t turning a blind eye to something, but we don’t feel inclined to overestimate anything,” Mr. Peskov said.

Police had first accused Zhukov of taking part in mass riots but then changed that to the extremism charges linked to his YouTube videos. On the channel, where he has 155,000 subscribers, Zhukov posts political lectures, often spliced with memes and video clips, where he frequently castigates the Russian state under president Vladimir Putin, condemning it as corrupt and unjust, and discusses non-violent means of political action.

Prosecutors painted four of the videos as extremist and accused Zhukov of inciting violence, despite explicit calls for peaceful protest in the videos.

Ahead of Friday's verdict it had appeared likely he would be jailed and his closing statement was picked up by many as a powerful statement of dissent.

“Let’s look at ourselves in the mirror,” Zhukov told the court in the statement. “The only traditional value that the current Russian state truly honors and strengthens is autocracy. Autocracy that tries to break the life of anyone who sincerely wishes the best for their homeland, who doesn’t hesitate to love and take responsibility.”

"The current situation in the country destroys any opportunity for human prosperity: 10% of the most affluent Russians have concentrated 90% of the country’s wealth. What’s left below is only despair," he said.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



pawel.gaul/iStock(MOSCOW) -- Russian authorities have detained a man accused of building a fake fence in the woods close to the country’s border with Finland in order to trick a group of migrants into believing he had smuggled them across into the European Union.

The man set up fake border posts and persuaded four men from South Asia that he could lead them over the border for the cost of roughly 10,000 euros (about $11,100), according to Russia’s FSB border service.

To make it even more believable, the man led the four migrants on a complicated route, taking them along a road before then marching them around a lake in the Vyborg region, the agency’s press office said in a statement. The "guide" even brought an inflatable boat with him, telling the men it was for "just in case."

The alleged conman's plan was to tell the migrants that when they passed through the planted fence in the woods that they were now in Finland.

But the group never made it to the fake crossing -- border agents detained them last Thursday before they arrived at the fake border. Video footage released by Russian authorities showed men standing in the dark with their hands up in the air.

"The incredible adventure of the foreigners in the night-time quiet of the Vyborg woods ended with a decision of the Vyborg district court," the FSB statement said. The court on Wednesday found the four men guilty of violating their rules of stay in Russia and ordered they be fined and deported.

The man who tried to trick them may now be charged with fraud, the agency said.

Migrants and refugees from South Asia as well as the Middle East have often traveled to Russia in an attempt to continue on to Europe. The borders with Finland and Norway have been two of the most popular routes.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



Oleksii Liskonih/iStock(WASHINGTON) --  As impeachment drama marches forward in Washington, D.C., focusing on a call between President Donald Trump and the president of Ukraine, Rudy Giuliani traveled to Kyiv.

The president's personal attorney is meeting with current and former Ukrainian officials who have served as key sources for his questionable theories about Ukrainian corruption and election meddling as part of a documentary series by far-right network One America News Network (OAN) that is intended to discredit the impeachment process.

OAN previously confirmed to ABC News that Giuliani is in Europe conducting interviews as part of their investigative documentary series, which seeks to debunk what it describes as "the impeachment hoax" and offer proof of Ukrainian corruption and 2016 election meddling, according to a spokesperson for the network.

Among those with whom Giuliani has met is pro-Russian Ukrainian MP Andriy Derkach, a former member of the Party of Regions, the political party of Ukraine's toppled pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. In recent weeks, Derkach has held a series of press conferences pushing unsupported theories attacking ousted U.S. Ambassador Maria Yovanovitch and leveling allegations without proof that Hunter Biden received corrupt payments. At the press conferences, Derkach has presented dubious documents that he has also frequently misrepresented.

Derkach posted photos Thursday with Giuliani in Kyiv, and according to Derkach, the two discussed creating an anti-corruption group in Ukraine's parliament to investigate alleged misuse of American taxpayer money in Ukraine.

"Rudolf Giuliani landed in Kyiv. We straightway met with him about the question of creating an inter-parliamentary group 'Friends of Ukraine STOP Corruption,'" Derkach wrote in a length post on Facebook. "Unfortunately our country finds itself in the center of scandals relating to international corruption."

Derkach added that he believed Giuliani's participation in creating the anti-corruption group would be "very useful for us. In particular, he can help with including in this group international experts, analysts, journalists and all those who are able to realise the tasks of the group and to benefit the strategic relations between Ukraine and the U.S."

Allegations put forth by Giuliani -- including a debunked theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election and accusations of malpractice by former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden -- helped formed the contours of an impeachment report issued this week by the House Intelligence Committee.

 In addition to his meeting with Derkach, Giuliani met with former Ukrainian prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko as part of the project, according to a spokesperson for Lutsenko. Removed from his post as the country's top law enforcement official earlier this year, Lutsenko has been one of Giuliani's key sources of information about Ukraine.

Giuliani's quest to concoct damaging narratives in Ukraine eventually played a major role in triggering the impeachment process, after Trump sought to push Ukraine's leadership into announcing investigations into the conspiracies.

In a previous episode of the OAN series that aired within the last few weeks, Giuliani said Trump had blessed his efforts in Ukraine, even as the White House continues to face scrutiny for holding up military aid to Kyiv in exchange for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's support of politically beneficial investigations, including one targeting a prospective 2020 rival, Joe Biden.

"The president of the United States, I can tell you this, is asking for this," Giuliani told OAN.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C, Democrats are moving swiftly in the impeachment of Trump. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced Thursday morning, within hours of news breaking that Giuliani had traveled to Ukraine, that she would ask relevant committee chairmen to begin drafting articles of impeachment.

"The facts are uncontested," Pelosi said. "The president abused his power for his own political benefit."

 Democrats in Congress issued a subpoena to Giuliani for documents and communication records related to his work in Ukraine. Giuliani has thus far refused to cooperate or provide the records. He is also the subject of an investigation in the Southern District of New York for his contacts with two Soviet-born associates with ties to Ukraine, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, sources have told ABC News.

Giuliani's work on matters related to Ukraine and his business dealings with two Soviet-born associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, is the subject of an on going investigation by prosecutors out of the Southern District of New York, sources have previously told ABC News.

As ABC News has previously reported, the House Intelligence Committee is in possession of audio and video recordings and photographs provided to the committee by Parnas.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



omersukrugoksu/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- A top Pentagon official confirmed on Thursday that the U.S. is considering sending additional American troops to the Middle East due to concerns about the threat stream emanating from Iran.

"The [defense] secretary, if he chooses to, can make a decision to deploy additional forces," John Rood, under secretary of defense for policy, said during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"It is possible that we would need to address our force posture," he later told senators, adding that it "could be a prudent step" to do so.

A U.S. official familiar with the planning told ABC News on Wednesday that the White House was weighing the possibility of sending thousands more American forces to the Middle East to deter continued Iranian provocations. But the source said the White House has not yet made a decision.

The idea of sending more American troops to the Middle East has been in the works for months but it is more likely given the threat from Iran right now, the source said.

Since the missile and drone attack on Saudi oil facilities in September, that the U.S. blames on Iran, the U.S. has continued to see provocations from Iran.

On Wednesday, it was disclosed that last week a U.S. Navy destroyer seized an Iranian dhow with missile parts headed to Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen. The New York Times also reported on Wednesday that in another provocative move, Iran has been using Iranian-backed militias to secretly flow an arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles into Iraq.

"People are not paying enough attention to the fact that ballistic missiles in the last year have been placed in Iraq by Iran with the ability to project violence on the region," Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., told the New York Times in an interview.

During a recent visit to Baghdad, the former Defense Department official cautioned Iraqi officials that if Iran launched a missile from inside Iraq it could risk continued U.S. training and support to Iraq.

Tensions with Iran have remained high since May when the U.S. perceived an imminent Iranian threat to U.S. forces and interests.

Since then, an additional 14,000 U.S. troops have been sent to the region to deter Iran including the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group, air defense forces and aircraft.

But those are temporary deployments and though some of the forces are being replaced by follow-on units, military planners have to plan for the possibility of a longer-lasting "enduring" presence.

That would mean establishing a regular rotation of forces to maintain current U.S. troop levels. It could also mean possibly sending additional capabilities that would entail sending more forces.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. was weighing sending 14,000 additional troops, including dozens of ships and new capabilities to the region. That report drew a sharp denial from Alyssa Farah, the Pentagon press secretary, who tweeted, "The U.S. is not sending 14,000 troops to the Middle east to confront Iran."

 A statement from Farah on Thursday doubled down on that denial of the 14,000 figure but did not elaborate what other options are under consideration.

"As discussed in the hearing today, we are constantly evaluating the threat situation around the world and considering our options," she said. "We adjust our force posture and troop levels based on adversary action and the dynamic security situation."

She added, "Secretary Esper spoke to Chairman [James] Inhofe this morning and reaffirmed that we are not considering sending 14,000 additional troops to the Middle East at this time."

Copyright © 2019, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



Cineberg/iStock(PARIS) -- Mass strikes taking place across the whole of France against proposed pension reforms have severely impacted transportation services and brought Paris to a near standstill on Thursday.

Nearly 6,000 police officers have been mobilized in the French capital to deal with the strike which is expected to be the largest the country has seen in years.

Strikers from a diverse range of industries, including nurses, travel operators and lawyers, are taking part in the general strike across the country. A number of “yellow vest” protesters have also been seen taking part of in the demonstrations. 245 demonstrations are taking place across France, according to the organizers, who have currently set no end date to the general strike.

The strikes are not directly linked to the yellow vest movement, which has seen anti-government protesters routinely taking to the streets, sometimes clashing violently with police, since November 2018.

Instead, workers are striking against proposed changes to the country’s pension system by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Macron promised in his election campaign to merge the dozens of different pensions' schemes for different employment sectors into one universal system, which opponents say will see certain industries lose out. Under the current system, there is no fixed retirement age with pensions instead being collected after a minimum contribution period to a pension fund.

That could change under the proposed reforms, laid out in a report in June by the high commissioner for pensions, Jean Paul Delevoye. The reforms have not yet been finalized, but a series of new proposals published at the end of November have sparked a wave of anger across the country.

“The government is doing its utmost to limit the impact of the strike,” Edouard Phillipe, the prime minister, said in a statement.

Ninety percent of train journeys were canceled nationwide ahead of the strikes, the spokesperson of the national rail service, the SNCF, said at a press conference Tuesday. There have been 285 flight cancellations and 288 delays to flights in and out of Paris, according to Flightaware.

The demonstrations have also impacted key tourist attractions. The Eiffel Tower has been closed due to the national strike at the Eiffel Tower according to its website.

Many Parisians have opted to cycle to work due to severe disruption to the city’s transport services Thursday. Huge crowds gathered in the city center carrying signs calling on the government to reverse the proposed pension changes.

Jérôme Rodrigues, one of the key figures of the yellow vest movement, told ABC News that he felt he had no choice but to join the demonstrations.

“Yellow vests invest in the present and the future,” he told ABC News. “Today we have a demonstration that corresponds to our credo … as private workers, we have so little left. We have to keep it.”

Copyright © 2019, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



Australian Federal Police(MELBOURNE, Australia) -- Australian authorities have seized the country's largest methamphetamine lot, which had a price tag of $820 million and weighed nearly 3,200 pounds, officials said.

The Australian Federal Police and Australian Border Force made the bust on Wednesday, the two agencies said in a joint statement. The methamphetamine was worth $1.197 billion in Australian dollars (or $820 million in U.S. currency).

The major seizure also included about 81 pounds of heroin that was worth $18.5 million in Australian dollars (or $12.62 million in U.S. dollars) -- marking the country's largest heroin seizure since 2017, the statement read.

The drugs allegedly came from Bangkok, Thailand, and were stashed in vacuum-sealed packages, which were hidden in stereo speakers.

Authorities said they were discovered after executing a series of search warrants throughout properties in Melbourne.

Three people have been arrested in relation to the bust, police said.

Two men, aged 37 and 38, and one woman, 37, have each been charged with one count of importing methamphetamine and one count of importing heroin.

They could face life in prison if convicted.

The country's deputy commissioner for police, Neil Gaughan, applauded his team and the border force for their efforts.

"This joint operation has identified and removed serious vulnerabilities from the Melbourne waterfront," Gaughan said in a statement.

The accused will appear in Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on Thursday.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.



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