Bruce Willis, Diagnosed With Aphasia, Steps Away From Acting

Bruce Willis is stepping away from acting after a diagnosis of aphasia, a condition that causes loss of the ability to understand or express speech, his family said Wednesday.

In a statement posted on Willis’ Instagram page, the 67-year-old actor’s family announced that Willis was recently diagnosed with aphasia and that it is impacting his cognitive abilities.

“As a result of this and with much consideration, Bruce is stepping away from the career that has meant so much to him,” read the statement signed by Willis’ wife, Emma Heming Willis, his ex-wife Demi Moore, and his five children, Rumer, Scout, Tallulah, Mabel and Evelyn.

“We are moving through this as a strong family unit, and wanted to bring his fans in because we know how much he means to you, as you do to him,” they said. “As Bruce always says, ‘Live it up’ and together we plan to do just that.”

There are many potential causes of aphasia. It often occurs after a stroke or head injury, but can also develop gradually due to a slow-growing brain tumor or a disease that causes degenerative damage, like Alzheimer’s disease. It’s treated primarily with speech therapy and learning non-verbal means of communication.

Willis’ family didn’t divulge what caused his aphasia. Representatives for the actor declined to comment.

The news about Willis, one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors, immediately spread online as fans reacted. His four-decade career has amassed more than $5 billion in box office worldwide.

Willis had been working steadily and frequently. Renowned for films like “Die Hard,” “Pulp Fiction” and “The Sixth Sense,” Willis has in recent years churned out straight-to-video thrillers. Last year, he starred in a staggering eight films. Most came and went quietly, including titles like “Cosmic Sin,” “Out of Death” and “Deadlock.”

Most recently, Willis starred in February’s “Gasoline Alley” and “A Day to Die,” released in early March. Willis has already shot at least six more films due out in 2022 and 2023, including “Die Like Lovers,” “Corrective Measures” and “The Wrong Place.”

EU, Chinese Leaders Meet Amid Backdrop of Ukraine Conflict

Plans for a European Union-China summit were already laid before Russia invaded Ukraine last month — although Beijing’s formal announcement it would attend only came this week. On the agenda are issues like climate change, trade and what the EU describes as “universal values.” But the Ukraine conflict tops it.

Eric Mamer, spokesman for the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, says:

“We consider that the duty or all countries in the U.N. is to work to stop this conflict, to get Putin’s troops to withdraw and to respect the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of Ukraine. This is a message which I think is addressed not just to China but to every country in the world that believes in the principles of the UN charter.”

China casts itself as a neutral party to the Ukraine conflict. While Beijing says it’s ‘grieved’ by the war, Chinese and Russian foreign ministers meeting this week reaffirmed their strategic ties.

These messages aren’t new. But they offer an awkward backdrop for Friday’s virtual summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Li Keqiang and top EU officials Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel.

“China and the EU want very different things out of this summit….”

Francesca Ghiretti is an EU-China analyst at German think-tank, the Mercator Institute for China Studies. She says China hopes the summit will offer insights into the EU’s more geopolitical nature, and its closer ties with Washington under the Biden administration.

She says the EU wants China to pressure Russia to end the war in Ukraine — or at least guarantee humanitarian corridors. Like the U.S., Europe also wants to ensure Beijing does not provide Moscow with military or economic support

“They want one thing that is common to both of them — and that one thing is keep the communication between Beijing and Brussels going.”

The EU and China are major trading partners but their ties have frayed over the years. Finalizing an investment pact between the two is on hold.

“The (EU) Commission decided in 2019 to deem China a systemic rival.”

Tara Varma who heads the Paris office for the European Council on Foreign Relations policy institute, says:

“It was not even about values, but it was the idea that our systems of governance were not compatible.”

More recently, China has blocked imports from EU member Lithuania for drawing closer to Taiwan. Earlier this month, Lithuania called for scrapping the summit, until Beijing indicates whether it stands with Russia or the West. Still, experts say the 27-member bloc is not in lock step on China.

Again, analyst Ghiretti:

“So both parties actually enter the summit knowing that there won’t be any deliverables, and they know that probably there will be no joint statement at the end of it.”

The summit’s biggest takeaway may be that the EU and China have agreed to keep talking.

Putin Demands Western Countries Pay for Gas in Rubles

Foreign buyers of Russian gas could have to pay in rubles starting April 1, according to a decree signed Thursday by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Refusing to pay in the Russian currency will result in the suspension of contracts, Putin said.

The decree targets the United States, the United Kingdom and European Union countries, which Putin calls “unfriendly.”

“In order to purchase Russian natural gas, they must open ruble accounts in Russian banks. It is from these accounts that payments will be made for gas delivered starting from tomorrow,” Putin said in a television appearance.

“If such payments are not made, we will consider this a default on the part of buyers, with all the ensuing consequences,” the Russia leader said. “Nobody sells us anything for free, and we are not going to do charity either — that is, existing contracts will be stopped.”

Despite the strong words, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz reportedly said they had spoken to Putin and were told existing contracts will remain in place.

Western governments and companies have called the proposed move a breach of already existing contracts, which stipulates payments should be made in euros or dollars.

The move to force ruble payments is seen as retaliation for the vast array of sanctions the West and other countries have placed on Russia since its invasion of Ukraine last month.

Europe gets about one-third of its gas from Russia.

The value of the ruble plummeted at the beginning of the war but has rebounded to near pre-war levels.

Some information in this report comes from Reuters.

Georgia Denounces South Ossetia’s Planned Vote on Joining Russia

Georgia on Thursday denounced as “unacceptable” plans announced by pro-Moscow separatists in the breakaway South Ossetia region to hold a referendum on joining Russia.

South Ossetia was in the center of the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 after which the Kremlin recognized the territory — along with another separatist region, Abkhazia — as an independent state and stationed military bases there.

On Wednesday, South Ossetian separatist leader Anatoly Bibilov said the statelet would hold a referendum on joining Russia shortly after the April 10 “presidential election” there.

Georgian Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani said Thursday “it is unacceptable to speak of any referendums while the territory is occupied by Russia.”

“Such a referendum will have no legal force,” he told journalists. “The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the Georgian region is occupied by Russia.”

Also on Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow hasn’t taken any “legal” steps on the matter.

“But at the same time, we are talking about people of South Osseita expressing their opinion and we treat it with respect,” Peskov told reporters.

Bibilov’s spokeswoman Dina Gassiyeva told Thursday Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency that the decision to hold the referendum was “linked with the window of opportunity that opened in the current situation”, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Last week, Bibilov said that South Ossetia had sent troops to fight alongside the invading Russian troops in Ukraine, where thousands of people were killed and more than 10 million displaced.

In August 2008, Russia launched an assault against Georgia which was battling pro-Russian militia in South Ossetia, after they shelled Georgian villages.

The fighting ended after five days with a European Union-mediated ceasefire but claimed more than 700 lives and displaced tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians.

Ukrainian President Says Defense Is at a ‘Turning Point’

Ukraine’s president said his country’s defense against the Russian invasion was at a “turning point” and again pressed the United States for more help, hours after the Kremlin’s forces reneged on a pledge to scale back some of their operations.

Russian bombardment of areas around Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv and intensified attacks elsewhere in the country further undermined hopes for progress toward ending the bloody conflict that has devolved into a war of attrition. Civilians trapped in besieged cities have shouldered some of the worst suffering, though both sides said Thursday they would attempt another evacuation from the port city of Mariupol.

Talks between Ukraine and Russia were set to resume Friday by video, according to the head of the Ukrainian delegation, David Arakhamia.

A delegation of Ukrainian lawmakers visited Washington on Wednesday to push for more U.S. assistance, saying their nation needs more military equipment, more financial help and tougher sanctions against Russia.

“We need to kick Russian soldiers off our land, and for that we need all, all possible weapons,” Ukrainian parliament member Anastasia Radina said at a news conference at the Ukrainian Embassy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made the case directly to U.S. President Joe Biden.

“If we really are fighting for freedom and in defense of democracy together, then we have a right to demand help in this difficult turning point. Tanks, aircraft, artillery systems. Freedom should be armed no worse than tyranny,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation, which he delivered standing in the dark outside the dimly lit presidential offices in Kyiv. He thanked the U.S. for an additional $500 million in aid that was announced Wednesday.

There seemed little faith that Russia and Ukraine will resolve the conflict soon, particularly after the Russian military’s about-face and its most recent attacks.

Russia said Tuesday that it would de-escalate operations near Kyiv and Chernihiv to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.” Zelenskyy and the West were skeptical. Soon after, Ukrainian officials reported that Russian shelling was hitting homes, stores, libraries and other civilian sites in or near those areas.

Britain’s Defense Ministry also confirmed “significant Russian shelling and missile strikes” around Chernihiv.

It said Thursday that “Russian forces continue to hold positions to the east and west of Kyiv despite the withdrawal of a limited number of units. Heavy fighting will likely take place in the suburbs of the city in coming days.”

Russian troops also stepped up their attacks on the Donbas region in the east and around the city of Izyum, which lies on a key route to the Donbas, after redeploying units from other areas, the Ukrainian side said.

Olexander Lomako, secretary of the Chernihiv city council, said the Russian announcement turned out to be “a complete lie.”

“At night they didn’t decrease, but vice versa increased the intensity of military action,” Lomako said.

A top British intelligence official said Thursday that demoralized Russian soldiers in Ukraine were refusing to carry out orders and sabotaging their own equipment and had accidentally shot down their own aircraft.

In a speech in the Australian capital Canberra, Jeremy Fleming, who heads the GCHQ electronic spy agency, said President Vladimir Putin had apparently “massively misjudged” the invasion, he said. Although Putin’s advisers appeared to be too afraid to tell the truth, the “extent of these misjudgments must be crystal clear to the regime,” he said.

U.S. intelligence officials have given similar assessments that Putin is being misinformed by advisers too scared to give honest evaluations.

Five weeks into the invasion that has left thousands dead, the number of Ukrainians fleeing the country topped a staggering 4 million, half of them children, according to the United Nations.

“I do not know if we can still believe the Russians,” Nikolay Nazarov, a refugee from Ukraine, said as he pushed his father’s wheelchair at a border crossing into Poland. “I think more escalation will occur in eastern Ukraine. That is why we cannot go back to Kharkiv.”

Zelenskyy said the continuing negotiations with Russia were only “words without specifics.” He said Ukraine was preparing for concentrated new strikes on the Donbas.

Zelenskyy also said he had recalled Ukraine’s ambassadors to Georgia and Morocco, suggesting they had not done enough to persuade those countries to support Ukraine and punish Russia for the invasion.

“With all due respect, if there won’t be weapons, won’t be sanctions, won’t be restrictions for Russian business, then please look for other work,” he said.

During talks Tuesday in Istanbul, the faint outlines of a possible peace agreement seemed to emerge when the Ukrainian delegation offered a framework under which the country would declare itself neutral — dropping its bid to join NATO, as Moscow has long demanded — in return for security guarantees from a group of other nations.

Top Russian officials responded positively, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov saying Wednesday that Ukraine’s willingness to accept neutrality and look outside NATO for security represents “significant progress,” according to Russian news agencies.

But those statements were followed by attacks.

Oleksandr Pavliuk, head of the Kyiv region military administration, said Russian shells targeted residential areas and civilian infrastructure in the Bucha, Brovary and Vyshhorod regions around the capital.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the military also targeted fuel depots in two towns in central Ukraine with air-launched long-range cruise missiles. Russian forces hit a Ukrainian special forces headquarters in the southern Mykolaiv region, he said, and two ammunition depots in the Donetsk region, in the Donbas.

In southern Ukraine, a Russian missile destroyed a fuel depot in Dnipro, the country’s fourth-largest city, regional officials said.

The U.S. said Russia had begun to reposition less than 20% of its troops that had been arrayed around Kyiv. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said troops from there and some other zones began moving mostly to the north, and some went into neighboring Belarus. Kirby said it appeared Russia planned to resupply them and send them back into Ukraine, but it is not clear where.

The Ukrainian military said some Russian airborne units were believed to have withdrawn into Belarus.

Top Russian military officials say their main goal now is the “liberation” of the Donbas, the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial heartland where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014. Some analysts have suggested that the focus on the Donbas and the pledge to de-escalate may merely be an effort to put a positive spin on reality since Moscow’s ground forces have become bogged down and taken heavy losses.

The Russians also are expected to try to blockade Chernihiv.

Russian forces have already been blockading Mariupol, a key port in the south, for weeks. The city has seen some of the worst devastation of the war and many attempts to implement safe evacuation corridors have collapsed. Ukraine accused Russian forces last week of seizing bus drivers and rescue workers headed to Mariupol.

The Russian military said it committed to a localized cease-fire along the route from Mariupol to the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia from Thursday morning.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said that Ukraine was sending out 45 buses to collect people. She said the International Committee of the Red Cross was acting as an intermediary.

Similar evacuation efforts have been planned before and collapsed amid recriminations over fighting along the route.

Civilians who have managed to leave the city have typically done so using private cars, but the number of drivable vehicles left in Mariupol has dwindled and fuel stocks are low.

Russia has also operated its own evacuations from territory it has captured in Mariupol. Ukraine alleges Russia is sending its citizens to “filtration camps” in separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine and then forcibly taking people to Russia.

The U.N. is looking into those allegations.

UN Chief: 2 Billion People Live in Conflict Areas Today

The United Nations chief said Wednesday that one-quarter of humanity — 2 billion people — are living in conflict areas today and the world is facing the highest number of violent conflicts since 1945, when World War II ended.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres cited conflicts from Yemen, Syria, Myanmar and Sudan to Haiti, Africa’s Sahel, “and now the war in Ukraine — a catastrophe shaking the foundations of the international order, spilling across borders and causing skyrocketing food, fuel and fertilizer prices that spell disaster for developing countries.”

He told the U.N. Peacebuilding Commission on Wednesday that last year 84 million people were forced to leave their homes because of conflict, violence and human rights violations. And that doesn’t include the Ukraine war which has already seen 4 million people flee the country and displaced another 6.5 million within the country, according to U.N. agencies.

Guterres said the U.N. estimates that this year “at least 274 million will need humanitarian assistance.” This represents a 17% increase from 2021 and will cost $41 billion for the 183 million people targeted for aid, according to the U.N. humanitarian office.

Guterres also cited the 2 billion figure of people living in conflict countries in a report to the commission in late January, which said there were a record number of 56 state-based conflicts in 2020. It doesn’t include the Ukraine war, which started with Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion and has affected almost all 40 million people in the country.

The secretary-general told the commission that conflicts are increasing “at a moment of multiplying risks that are pushing peace further out of reach — inequalities, COVID-19, climate change and cyber threats, to name just a few.”

He also pointed to an increase of military coups and seizures of power by force around the world, growing nuclear arsenals, human rights and international law under assault, and criminals and terrorist networks “fueling — and profiting from — divisions and conflicts.”

“The flames of conflict are fueled by inequality, deprivation and underfunded systems,” Guterres said, and these issues must be addressed urgently.

According to his report to the commission, the world is seeing the increasing internationalization of conflicts within countries, and this, together with “the fragmentation and multiplication” of armed groups linked to criminal and terrorist networks, “makes finding solutions arduous,” he said.

Consequently, Guterres said, “there are fewer political settlements to conflicts,” with Colombia a notable exception.

“Over the last decade, the world has spent $349 billion on peacekeeping, humanitarian relief and refugee support, he said. “And global military expenditures rose to nearly $2 trillion in 2020.”

The Peacebuilding Commission has worked to advance peace and prevent conflict in countries including Ivory Coast, Iraq, Africa’s Great Lakes region and Papua New Guinea, the secretary-general said, and the Peacebuilding Fund has grown, investing $195 million last year.

But it relies on voluntary contributions and peacebuilding needs are far outpacing resources, which is why Guterres said he is asking the U.N. General Assembly to assess the U.N.’s 193 member nations a total of $100 million annually for the fund.

“When we consider the costs of war — to the global economy but most of all to humanity’s very soul — peacebuilding is a bargain, and a prerequisite for development and a better future for all,” he said. 

Academy: Smith Refused to Leave Oscars After Slapping Rock 

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences on Wednesday said that Will Smith was asked to leave Sunday’s Oscar ceremony after hitting Chris Rock but refused to do so. 

The academy’s board of governors met Wednesday to initiate disciplinary proceedings against Smith for violations against the group’s standards of conduct. The academy said disciplinary action for Smith could include suspension, expulsion or other sanctions. 

Many have focused on why Smith was allowed to remain seated in the front row at the Dolby Theatre after the incident. On Wednesday, the academy suggested that it attempted to remove the actor from the audience. 

“Things unfolded in a way we could not have anticipated,” the academy said. “While we would like to clarify that Mr. Smith was asked to leave the ceremony and refused, we also recognize we could have handled the situation differently.” 

A representative for the academy declined to give specifics on how it tried to remove Smith. After Smith struck Rock in response to a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, several stars including Denzel Washington, Bradley Cooper and Tyler Perry spoke with Smith, 53. 

Stronger language

The academy said Smith has the opportunity to defend himself in a written response before the board meets again on April 18. The film academy earlier condemned Smith’s onstage assault of Rock, but it used stronger language Wednesday. 

“Mr. Smith’s actions at the 94th Oscars were a deeply shocking, traumatic event to witness in person and on television,” the academy said. “Mr. Rock, we apologize to you for what you experienced on our stage and thank you for your resilience in that moment. We also apologize to our nominees, guests and viewers for what transpired during what should have been a celebratory event.” 

On Monday, Smith issued an apology to Rock, the academy and to viewers, saying “I was out of line and I was wrong.” 

Rock, who had yet to respond publicly to the incident, performed stand-up Wednesday night in Boston. He was greeted by a thunderous standing ovation. 

“How was your weekend?” began Rock, who then cautioned the crowd that he didn’t have a lot to say yet about the Oscars, according to audio posted by the Hollywood trade outlet Variety. “I’m still kind of processing what happened.” 

A representative for Smith didn’t immediately respond to messages Wednesday regarding the academy’s latest moves. 

Few expulsions

Only a very small number of academy members have ever been expelled, including Harvey Weinstein, Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby and the actor Carmine Caridi, who was kicked out for sharing awards screeners. 

Whoopi Goldberg, a member of the academy’s board of governors, said Monday on The View, “We’re not going to take that Oscar from him.” (Even Oscars won by expelled members haven’t previously been ordered to be returned.) Goldberg added that “nobody is OK with what happened.” 

Others from Sunday’s telecast also began speaking out. Co-host Wanda Sykes told Ellen DeGeneres in an interview to air April 7 that she felt physically ill after Smith slapped Rock. When he returned to his seat, Smith twice shouted at Rock to “keep my wife’s name out your [expletive] mouth.” 

“I’m still a little traumatized by it,” said Sykes in a clip released Wednesday. 

Within an hour, Smith was back on stage accepting the award for best actor for his performance in King Richard. Many in the Dolby Theatre gave him a standing ovation. 

“I was like, how gross is this? This is the wrong message. You assault somebody and you get escorted out the building and that’s it. But for them to let him continue, I thought it was gross,” Sykes said. “I wanted to be able to run out [on stage] after he won and say, ‘Uh, unfortunately, Will couldn’t be here tonight.’ ”

British Judges Quit Hong Kong Court Over Beijing-Imposed National Security Law

Two senior British judges resigned from Hong Kong’s highest court on Wednesday as part of a broader British rebuke of the territory’s claim that its courts are independent of political interference.

In a prepared statement released by Lord Robert Reed and his colleague Lord Patrick Hodge, the judges cited the territory’s Beijing-imposed National Security Law (NSL) as central to their decision, which followed discussions with Dominic Raab, the U.K. lord chancellor and justice secretary.

“I have concluded, in agreement with the government, that the judges of the Supreme Court cannot continue to sit in Hong Kong without appearing to endorse an administration which has departed from values of political freedom, and freedom of expression,” said the statement. “Lord Hodge and I have accordingly submitted our resignations as non-permanent judges of the HKCFA with immediate effect.”

Britain, which handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, has said the security law that punishes offenses like subversion with up to life imprisonment has been used to curb dissent and freedoms. London also says the law is a breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that paved the way for the handover.

British officials on Wednesday issued comments explaining their decision to withdraw the judges from Hong Kong’s highest court, calling their presence untenable.

“The situation has reached a tipping point, where it is no longer tenable for British judges to sit on Hong Kong’s leading court and would risk legitimizing oppression,” said British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in a statement. “I welcome and wholeheartedly support the decision to withdraw British judges from the court.”

Raab said, “I thank our judges for being a bastion of international rule of law in Hong Kong over the past 25 years.”

Brian Davidson, the British Consul General to Hong Kong and Macao, also echoed the announcement in a video posted on Twitter.

Hong Kong government officials, however, were quick to respond to the resignations, calling the national security law typical for any country seeking to defend itself. In a harshly worded statement, officials called the British decision “appalling.”

“We take strong exception to the absurd and misleading accusations against the NSL and our legal system,” the statement said. “Every country around the world would take threats to its national security extremely seriously.”

Some observers not surprised

Hong Kong legal and political experts have said the action was expected because rule of law in the city has deteriorated in recent years.

Democracy advocate and political scientist Joseph Cheng told VOA in an email that the decision of the two British judges shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“This is expected as the international community becomes aware of the deteriorations in the rule of law in Hong Kong,” he told VOA. “Western societies know very well that the rule of law can hardly be maintained effectively when freedom of media and civil society are suppressed.

“Within the judiciary, the implementation of the National Security Law has been quite damaging,” added Cheng, who was secretary general of the Civic Party, a pro-democracy liberal political party in Hong Kong, and a member of various pro-democracy groups.

“A special group of judges have been chosen to adjudicate national security law cases, no juries are provided for such cases, and those prosecuted normally cannot seek bail. … The situation is expected to further deteriorate in the near future.”

Eric Yan-Ho Lai, a law analyst and fellow at Georgetown University, wrote on Twitter that the judges’ decisions were “respectable.”

“The resignations of Lord Hodge and Lord Reed from Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal are respectable moves in light of the ongoing political suppressions in the city,” he tweeted. “Yet it’s uncertain whether the remaining (Non-Permanent Judges) NPJs, who are retired judges, will follow so.”

He added that the U.K. Supreme Court’s statement “appears to imply the resignations are votes of no confidence to the city’s administration that does not respect political freedom and free speech anymore, and the Court does not want to collaborate with the Hong Kong administration anymore.”

The Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal website, which has yet to be updated, lists 12 overseas non-permanent judges including the departing Lord Hodge and Lord Reed. Judges from Britain, Australia and Canada make up the list.

Chan-Chak Ming, president of the Law Society of Hong Kong, issued a statement to regional media outlets calling the criticism of Hong Kong’s judiciary system “unfair and unfounded.”

Six-month report

Wednesday’s announcement is the latest development in an increasingly strained relationship between Britain’s legal professionals and officials in Beijing.

In December, Britain released a six-month report about Hong Kong that outlined the eroding freedoms that have taken place since the enactment of the security law. The report included the accusation that Hong Kong’s judicial independence was at risk.

But Hong Kong’s chief of justice, Andrew Cheung, hit back in January stating that Hong Kong’s judiciary independence is a “fact.” Hong Kong legal experts disputed that in interviews with VOA.

Former Democratic Party leader Emily Lau hopes the judiciary can remain uncompromised.

“The foreign judges sitting in the Court of Final Appeal as stipulated in the Basic Law has been regarded as a sign of international confidence in the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law in Hong Kong, which is vital to the city as an international financial center,” she told VOA.

“I hope the legal profession and the judiciary can remain independent and professional and can resist pressure from the powerful sectors, to ensure the rule of law, due process and to safeguard the Hong Kong people’s human rights and personal safety.”

Following Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy demonstrations, Beijing implemented the national security law, arguing that it was required to bring stability to the city. Critics, however, point out that the law prohibits secession, subversion, and collusion with foreign forces, criminalizes dissent, and makes it easier to punish protesters and reduces the city’s autonomy.

Under the new law, authorities have waged a political crackdown on dozens of civil society groups and independent media outlets. At least 150 dissidents have been arrested since the law was implemented, including dozens of democratic lawmakers and political figures.

In landmark cases, some dissidents have faced trial without a jury and with specially enlisted national security judges.

British judges have long served among the foreign jurists appointed to Hong Kong’s highest court, an arrangement that London had long described as a way to maintain confidence in the city’s legal apparatus amid Beijing’s tightening political grip on the territory.

Fourteen non-permanent judges remain at the Hong Kong court, including 10 from other common law jurisdictions such as Australia and Canada.

The Hong Kong Bar Association called Britain’s decision “a matter of deep regret” and appealed to the Court of Final Appeal’s remaining overseas judges to stay and serve the city and help uphold its judicial independence.

Some information for this report came from from Reuters and The Associated Press.

Cherry Blossom Season Marks Beginning of Spring in US Capital

Washington celebrates 110 years of cherry blossoms in a festival not only marking the beginning of spring but also commemorating the birth of an international tourist destination and marking the ties between the United States and Japan. 

Each year, the National Cherry Blossom Festival draws more than 1.5 million admirers of the fluffy pink trees. Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki gifted about 3,000 of them to the nation’s capital in 1912. His act of kindness is still celebrated more than a century later. 

“This year, more than ever, you really understand why the festival is so important,” said festival President Diana Mayhew. “We recognize that it’s more than just a festival. It’s about spring and renewal and a sense of new beginnings.”

Tourists and photographers flock to the Tidal Basin, where the trees were first planted in 1912. Later in 1965, the Japanese government gifted 3,800 trees to first lady Lady Bird Johnson, and many of which were planted on the grounds of the Washington Monument. 

Awaiting the cherry blossoms is a long-held Japanese tradition. The delicate blooms symbolize the beginning of spring and last about one week, reflecting the Japanese belief that they embody the fleeting nature of life and a time of renewal.

Cherry blossom season is considered at its peak when 70% of the flowers around the Tidal Basin are open, according to the National Park Service. This year, the peak arrived about 10 days early, on March 21. 

The National Cherry Blossom Festival also marks Washington’s unofficial reemergence from two years of COVID-19 restrictions, which prevented large gatherings and crowds. 

During a recent event announcing this year’s plans, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser said, “We want D.C. to be the face of spring for the nation. Let me say, without equivocation, that D.C. is open!”

The festival includes a parade, live music, art installations, kite flying, cultural events, fireworks, a Washington Wizards basketball game, pet- and family-friendly activities, food and liquor sampling, and river cruises.

The Japanese government often exchanges about 90 old trees for new ones every year and continues to be involved in the festival.  

UN Rights Chief Tells Russia to Stop War in Ukraine Immediately

The U.N. high commissioner for human rights on Wednesday called Russia to immediately withdraw its troops from Ukraine and stop the war that she said had caused immeasurable suffering and grief for millions of people.

In a dramatic rendering of conditions in Ukraine to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Michelle Bachelet described the living nightmare Ukrainians have endured for more than a month and said the war must end.

She said at least 1,189 civilians had been killed and 1,900 injured. She said relentless bombing raids and the persistent use of explosive weapons by Russian military forces had caused massive destruction and damage to homes, infrastructure, hospitals and schools. She noted cities such as Mariupol had been nearly razed, while others had been mercilessly pummeled and no longer existed.

Bachelet said her office had credible allegations that Russian armed forces have used cluster munitions in populated areas at least two dozen times. She said her office also was investigating allegations that Ukrainian forces have used such weapons.

“Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited under international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes,” she said. “The massive destruction of civilian objects and the high number of civilian casualties strongly indicate that the fundamental principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution have not been sufficiently adhered to.”

Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Yevheniia Filipenko, condemned Russia’s unprovoked aggression against her country. She called Russia’s actions against a sovereign state an attack against the norms of the world’s rules-based order.

‘Flagrant violation’ of charter

“This step by the country occupying a seat in the U.N. Security Council and in the Human Rights Council has become a flagrant violation of the U.N. charter and fundamental principles of international law, which will have long-lasting implications for the future of the world order and humanity,” she said.

Yaroslav Eremin, first secretary at the Russian Mission in Geneva, dismissed the conclusions of multiple investigative bodies that have found Russia guilty of widespread violations and abuse.

He listed a litany of alleged crimes committed by Ukrainian soldiers. He said these included preventing civilians in Mariupol from seeking safety in Russia, using civilians as human shields, and blowing up a factory and blaming it on Russia. Speaking through an interpreter, he accused the Ukrainian military of torturing Russian prisoners of war and innocent civilians.

“All these atrocities against civilians were carried out with the use of weaponry supplied by the Western countries,” he said. “We urge the high commissioner and OHCHR [Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights] to give a due assessment of these facts.”

Nearly 50 countries that participated in the interactive discussion on Ukraine did not buy into Russia’s viewpoint. One by one they stood up and demanded that Russia stop what they called an illegal war.

Turkish Drone Industry Banks on Ukrainian Battlefield Successes

Turkish-made drones have featured prominently in Ukraine’s resistance against Russia’s invasion, taking out significant Russian targets in the first few weeks of the war. But the conflict, and any possibility of a Russian victory, have cast a shadow over the future of Turkey’s rapidly growing drone industry, which relies on Ukrainian engines.

In one of many videos released by the Ukrainian military, a Turkish-made Bayraktar drone destroys a Russian tank to the cheers of the drone operators. But with the Bayraktar drone powered by Ukrainian engines, Samuel Bennet of the U.S.-based Center for Naval Analyses warns any Russian victory in Ukraine could set back Turkey’s rapidly growing drone industry.

“Russia sees Bayraktar’s TV2s in particular as a highly competitive weapon and technology not just in the former Soviet space, but in the global aerial vehicle market. Russians are nervous that Bayraktar are penetrating the former Soviet space, the Caucasus and Central Asia and now Ukraine,” Bennet said. “And so, if Russians were to sort of exercise the full extent of their powers in the outcome of the negotiations, they would probably seek to limit Ukrainian military cooperation with Turkey so as not to further Turkish growing advantage in certain technologies like UAVs.”

Ukraine provides cutting-edge engine know-how, and does not put restrictions on Turkish companies selling to third parties. Turkish drone use in conflicts like the Ethiopian civil war has drawn international criticism from rights groups.

James Rogers, assistant professor in War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark, says the Turkish drone industry would not have the same freedom of use if it turned to its Western allies for engines.

“There are more restrictions when you deal with UK, European or American suppliers, and that is something Turkey will definitely keep in mind,” he said. “We know that the United States has been very select to who it sells drones and drone elements to around the world. This was one of the reasons why Turkey started its entire indigenous drone program because Congress wouldn’t approve the sale of Reaper-Predator generation medium altitude long endurance drones to Turkey.”

Earlier this year, a prominent Turkish military helicopter deal with Pakistan collapsed over Washington’s restrictions on the use of American engines. In addition, Congress has been enforcing increased controls on the supplies of military components to Turkey over Ankara’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system.

While Ankara has received praise from Washington over its support of Ukraine, Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, expects little change in Washington’s stance towards Turkey.

“One side is that Turkey is hostile to the United States. It’s no longer an ally, it’s (an) adversary. So, we should be treating it as such. And the other side is we misunderstand Turkey, and it needs a big hug because it’s so important. And the government is somewhere in the middle, and usually, current events reinforce positions on either side,” Stein said.

Given the challenges of finding an alternative to Ukrainian engines, Turkey’s drone industry will likely look for drones to thwart Moscow’s ambitions and secure both Kyiv and its future.