Russia accused of genocide. Tuvalu declares its ongoing statehood. India denies ‘assassination’. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Iran frees jailed Americans in US$6 billion prisoner swap

A man in a suit embraces a woman holding an American flag, with a jet in the background.
Freed Iranian–American businessman Emad Shargi is embraced after disembarking an airplane at Davison Army Airfield in Virginia this week.
Credit: Jonathan Ernst / AFP

Great power rivalry

Ukraine: Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week, accusing Russia of genocide and warning that Ukraine’s defeat in the war would lead to further aggression against other countries.

“When hatred is weaponised against one nation, it never stops there,” he said.

Zelensky said Russia’s abduction and deportation of tens of thousands of children from occupied Ukraine was “clearly a genocide”. In March, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and a senior official over the abductions.

Zelensky used his visit to the United States to rally world leaders and politicians, including wavering Republicans, to support Ukraine.

Asked whether he would support Zelensky’s request for more aid, Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters this week: “Is he our president? I don’t think I have to commit anything.”

Zelensky’s trip followed an announcement by Kyiv that all six of Ukraine’s deputy defence ministers had been sacked.

The government did not give a reason for the sackings, which came two weeks after the dismissal of the defence minister. But the purge is believed to be aimed at assuring Ukraine’s Western backers it is addressing mismanagement and corruption.

The overhaul of the defence ministry came as Ukraine’s military was under pressure over the halting progress of its long-awaited counteroffensive. Ukrainian troops this week captured two small villages near the city of Bakhmut – a development some military figures claimed would help quicken its advance. 

The neighbourhood

Tuvalu: The tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu – which consists of nine low-lying coral islands and atolls spanning 26 square kilometres – has declared it will continue to exist, even if its territory disappears underwater.

The country, which has about 11,600 residents, is under severe threat from rising sea levels. Funafuti, the capital, is expected to have half its territory flooded by tidal waters within the next three decades. By the end of this century, 95 per cent of Tuvalu is expected to be uninhabitable due to routine flooding.

Earlier this month, Tuvalu enshrined a new definition of statehood in its constitution, saying the state shall remain in perpetuity, notwithstanding the impacts of climate change or the potential loss of its physical territory. The government says standard legal definitions of statehood, which involve having a defined territory, are no longer suitable as climate change threatens to reshape national boundaries.

Simon Kofe, a Tuvaluan MP, told ABC News the declaration was designed to show the nation’s statehood was “permanent”.

“It is part of our efforts to try and future-proof Tuvalu, because for us a state is more than just what’s in the physical,” he said.

“It is our culture, our history. It is a spirit of the people of Tuvalu, and that is something that could never be removed.”

Democracy in retreat

Iran: Five Americans jailed in Iran on espionage charges were released this week as part of a deal that involved the United States releasing five Iranians and unfreezing US$6 billion in oil revenue.

US President Joe Biden, who faced criticism over the decision to unfreeze the Iranian funds, announced new sanctions this week on former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the intelligence ministry for conducting wrongful detentions. The White House said the US$6 billion could be used for humanitarian purposes only and would be strictly monitored.

A US official told CNN: “When we have an opportunity to bring American citizens home, we do seek to seize it.”

But the agreement, brokered by Qatar, has raised questions about how countries should respond to Iran’s long-running practice of taking foreigners as hostages.

Siamak Namazi, an Iranian American who was released after spending almost eight years in jail, described Evin prison in Tehran as a “dystopian United Nations of hostages”.

“We must urgently … upend the cost-benefit calculations of Tehran’s foul business,” he said in a statement.

Australian–British academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who was held in Evin prison before her release in 2020, wrote in The Atlantic that she rejoiced at the freeing of the American prisoners but believed the deal would encourage Tehran to take more hostages. She said Washington and others should not pay for hostages but should develop a collective, punitive response, including sanctions and measures targeted at regime officials.

“The Islamic Republic has refined its hostage-taking business model into an extortion racket that is one of its most powerful foreign-policy levers,” she wrote.

Spotlight: India denies ‘assassination’

Canada: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week accused India of assassinating Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist leader who was shot in June by two masked gunmen outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, near Vancouver.

The claim – dismissed by India as “absurd” – led to an escalating feud between the two countries, as Trudeau rejected India’s denial and both countries expelled diplomats. India has long urged Canada to constrain the Sikh separatist movement, which is banned in India. Canada is home to the world’s largest Sikh community outside India.

Nijjar, a 45-year-old plumber, moved to Canada in the mid-1990s following a crackdown on the Sikh separatist – or Khalistan – movement in India. A prominent advocate of the creation of an independent Sikh nation in northern India, he was declared a terrorist by India in 2020 over his alleged attempt to plan a terrorist attack in India and his links to Khalistan Tiger Force, which is banned in the country. Canada’s spy agency reportedly warned him that he was at risk.

Trudeau’s claim has raised further questions about a series of mysterious deaths of Sikh leaders in Canada and elsewhere in recent years.

Last year, another prominent Sikh activist, Ripudaman Singh Malik, was killed by gunmen, also in Surrey. Malik migrated from India in 1972 but was later acquitted over his alleged involvement in a plot to bomb two Air India planes in 1985, including an attack that killed 329 people. Two Canadians in their 20s – both with criminal records – have since been arrested. No motive has been proposed.

In June, a 35-year-old activist, Avtar Singh Khanda, whose father was an activist who was killed in India in 1992, died suddenly in England, reportedly from blood cancer. Activists and family members have questioned the cause of death.

In May, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, who reportedly headed a militant Sikh separatist group, was shot by two gunmen at a park in Pakistan.

On Tuesday, Trudeau told reporters he was not seeking to provoke India.

“We are simply laying out the facts as we understand them,” he said.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government said the allegations were politically motivated, accusing Canada of failing to act against “Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 23, 2023 as "Iran frees jailed Americans in US$6 billion prisoner swap".

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