Tag Archives: u.s. state department

Walker threatens to ignore law and refuse Syrian refugees in Wisconsin

Gov. Scott Walker on Nov. 16 called on President Barack Obama not to allow any Syrian refugees into the United States pending a full review of security and acceptance procedures.

Walker also said that “Wisconsin will not accept new Syrian refugees,” although he didn’t explain how the state could prevent them from relocating here. Since the start of the Syrian Civil War in March 2011, two Syrians have settled in the state, according to the U.S. State Department.

Walker’s announcement came on the heels of similar statements from the governors of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. All of them cited concerns raised by the Paris terrorist attacks, especially the fact that a Syrian passport was found near one of the attackers.

But despite their objections, governors do not have the power to close their state boarders to refugees. Lavinia Limon, president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigration, said governors are prohibited under the Refugee Act of 1980 from blocking refugees from settling in their communities.

Stacy Taeuber, director of the Immigration Justice Clinic, told The Associated Press, “Once you’re lawfully admitted to the U.S. as a refugee, you have the same rights of anybody else that is lawfully in the U.S.”

After living in the U.S. for several years, refugees who meet certain requirements and pass an additional background check are allowed to apply for a green card, Taeuber added.

Republican leaders of the Wisconsin state Assembly echoed Walker, saying they don’t want Syrian refugees in the state either. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said no refugees should be allowed in Wisconsin until steps are taken to ensure no terrorists slip through.

In September, the Obama administration said it would accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees as the nation’s European allies deal with the influx of migrants fleeing war-torn regions in the Middle East and Africa.

“The people who are fleeing Syria are the most harmed by terrorism, the most vulnerable as a consequence of civil war and strife,” the president said at the conclusion of the G20 summit in Turkey.

Ben Rhodes, the Obama administration’s deputy national security adviser, said on NBC’s Meet the Press that the massacre in Paris would not alter the U.S. policy toward taking in Syrian refugees.

See ACLU’s response to Walker.

State Department issues travel alert for Olympics in Russia

The U.S. State Department on Jan. 10 issued a travel alert for U.S. citizens planning to attend the Olympic Games in Sochi that includes a caution for LGBT people because of Russia’s anti-gay law.

The alert says U.S. citizens should remain “attentive regarding their personal security at all times” during the Olympics and the Paralympic Games that will take place Feb. 7-March 16.

The alert, which expires March 24, states:

MEDICAL CARE: The Olympics are the first large-scale event to be held in Sochi and medical capacity and infrastructure in the region are untested for handling the volume of visitors expected for the Olympics.  Medical care in many Russian localities differs substantially from Western standards due to differing practices and approaches to primary care.  Travelers should consider purchasing private medical evacuation and/or repatriation insurance.

TERRORISM:  Large-scale public events such as the Olympics present an attractive target for terrorists.  Russian authorities have indicated that they are taking appropriate security measures in Sochi in light of this.  Acts of terrorism, including bombings and hostage takings, continue to occur in Russia, particularly in the North Caucasus region.  Between October 15 and December 30, 2013, there were three suicide bombings targeting public transportation in the city of Volgograd (600 miles from Sochi), two of which occurred within the same 24-hour period.  Other bombings over the past 10-15 years occurred at Russian government buildings, airports, hotels, tourist sites, markets, entertainment venues, schools, and residential complexes.  There have also been large-scale attacks on public transportation including subways, buses, trains, and scheduled commercial flights, in the same time period.  In July 2013, Doku Umarov, the head of the Caucasus Emirate (an organization the United States designated as a terrorist organization in 2010, and known in Russian as the Imirat Kavkaz or IK) released a video message rescinding prior directions not to attack civilians and calling for attacks on the Winter Olympics in Sochi.  The Caucasus Emirate is responsible for many of the aforementioned attacks.  The group has targeted civilians, as indirect supporters of the government, including through attacks on a ski resort, metro system, high-speed rail, airport, and a theater.  Westerners have not specifically been targeted, but are viewed by IK as complicit in the Russian government’s efforts to control the North Caucasus region. 

Travelers to Sochi should expect increased police presence and enhanced security measures in and around the Olympic venues.  There is no indication of a specific threat to U.S. institutions or citizens, but U.S. citizens should be aware of their personal surroundings and follow good security practices.  U.S. citizens are urged to remain vigilant and exercise good judgment and discretion when using any form of public transportation.  When traveling, U.S. citizens may wish to provide a friend, family member, or coworker a copy of their itinerary.

The U.S. Embassy will continue to monitor the security situation in Sochi throughout the Olympics.  In the event the U.S. government receives information of any specific and credible threat, the Department of State will immediately provide information to the public.  Information about potential threats to safety and security can be found on the Embassy’s website and the Department of State’s travel website.  Individuals who have enrolled in STEP will receive this information directly via email.

CRIME:  U.S. citizens planning to attend the Games in Sochi should remain alert regarding their personal security at all times.  Criminal activity in Sochi is similar to other cities of comparable size.  However, major events such as the Olympic Games are a prime opportunity for criminal elements to target tourists.  Travelers should avoid carrying large amounts of money or other valuables.  Since cash may be the only accepted form of payment outside Olympic venues, consider keeping money in a hotel safe or dividing money and placing it in several different locations on your person.  Purses, wallets, cell phones, and electronics should be secured while traveling on buses, trains, or other forms of public transportation.  Travelers should only use marked taxi services and prearrange transportation through hotel concierge or other reputable services whenever possible.  Photocopies of passports, visas, credit cards, and other important documents should be kept in a secure location so proper notifications can be made if original documents are lost or stolen.

PUBLIC DEMONSTRATIONS:  U.S. citizens should avoid large crowds in areas that lack enhanced security measures.  Use caution in any areas where protests, demonstrations, or other public disturbances are taking place.  Demonstrations intended to be peaceful can develop quickly and unpredictably, sometimes turning violent.

On January 10, Vice Prime Minister Dmitriy Kozak announced that the Sochi authorities have determined that the village of Khost, located seven miles from the Olympic venues, will be the designated area for political demonstrations during the Winter Olympics.  Demonstrations must be unrelated to the Olympics and the organizers must receive permission prior to the event from the regional authorities of the Ministry of Interior and the Federal Security Service (FSB).  It is also worth noting that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Charter states “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL, AND TRANSGENDER (LGBT) ISSUES:  In June 2013, Russia’s State Duma passed a law banning the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” to minors.  The U.S. government understands that this law applies to both Russian citizens and foreigners in Russia.  Russian citizens found guilty of violating the law could face a fine of up to 100,000 rubles ($3,100).  Foreign citizens face similar fines, up to 14 days in jail, and deportation.  The law makes it a crime to promote LGBT equality in public, but lacks concrete legal definitions for key terms.  Russian authorities have indicated a broad interpretation of what constitutes “LGBT propaganda,” and provided vague guidance as to which actions will be interpreted by authorities as “LGBT propaganda.”    LGBT travelers should review the State Department’s LGBT Travel Information page.

LODGING:  There may be shortages of hotel rooms during the Olympics.  While some hotels are under construction, visitors are urged to book rooms well in advance.  Advertised rates for standard rooms are currently $750-1,000 per night.  Now is the time to determine where you will stay and make your arrangements.

Liberians rally against gay marriage

A few hundred Liberians representing the Christian and Muslim faiths and civil society organizations gathered Nov. 10 to launch a campaign to press the government to ban same-sex marriage.

The campaign is seeking 1 million signatures supporting a resolution to ban gay and lesbian activities here.

More than 25,000 signatures have already been gathered, the head of the citizens’ movement spearheading the campaign, Jim Tornonlah, told The Associated Press.

The Liberian senate recently passed a bill strengthening the law against homosexuality. It must be approved by the House of Representatives before it is sent to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to sign into law.

Earlier this year Johnson Sirleaf expressed her opposition to same-sex marriage saying that if a law supporting it was brought before her she would not sign it.

However, after the U.S. State Department took exception to her stance on gay rights, she softened her position and said that her government would “guarantee people’s civil liberties.”

At the anti-gay marriage rally, an outspoken clergy, representing the Liberia Council of Churches, Rudolph Marsh, lashed out at the influence of foreign powers.

“There are good things in America that we can copy,” he said, “we don’t have to copy the bad ones; let’s leave the bad ones with Americans.”

Marsh called on Liberian Christians and Muslims to remain united “and stand together and tell the world that Liberia is a place of civilized people and will not allow same-sex marriage.”

Muslim leader Sheikh Omaru Kamara, representing his faith at the ceremony, hailed the unity of purpose that both Christians and Muslims were showing against homosexuality.

Liberia’s only known gay and lesbian rights campaigner, Archie Ponpon, insisted Nov. 10 that Liberians should be allowed to practice what they want.

Ponpon was mobbed at least twice after he announced the formation of his group, the Movement for the Defense of Gays and Lesbians in Liberia in April.

“It is also their right to do what they are doing today,” Ponpon told The Associated Press of the campaign to ban same-sex marriage in Liberia. But he said the campaigners are wrong to make “verbal attacks on me and trying to kill my advocacy.”

Ponpon, whose mother’s residence was set alight and razed to the ground earlier this year when he announced the formation of his gay-rights body, said he’s still coming under attack for his beliefs.

Ponpon said over the phone that he “is trying to liberalize the minds of people about the rights of others to do what they want to do.”

U.S. denounces arrest of LGBT activists in Zimbabwe

The State Department on Aug. 23 denounced two anti-LGBT raids and the arrest of 44 LGBT civil rights activists in Zimbabwe.

State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in prepared remarks, “The United States condemns the Government of Zimbabwe’s violent arrest and detention of 44 members of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe on Aug. 11 and a second raid by police on Aug. 20. Several of these members sustained serious medical injuries from the attacks and were detained without charges. The government of Zimbabwe has also targeted these same members’ homes and singled out their families for interrogation and harassment.”

Nuland also said, “The United States stands in solidarity with Zimbabwe’s civil society, including LGBT activists. We are deeply concerned when security forces become an instrument of political violence used against citizens exercising their democratic rights.”

The U.S. is calling on the government of Zimbabwe to “end this pattern of abuse and to eradicate the culture of impunity that allows members of the security sector to continue to violate the rights of the Zimbabwean people,” Nuland concluded.

Funds withheld from Honduras as U.S. investigates claims about anti-LGBT killings, death squads

The U.S. government is withholding funds to Honduran law enforcement units directly supervised by their new national police chief until the U.S. can investigate allegations that he ran a death squad a decade ago, according to a State Department report released this week.

The report says the State Department “is aware of allegations of human rights violations related to Police Chief Juan Carlos Bonilla’s service” and that the U.S. government has established a working group to investigate.

The U.S. had pledged $56 million in bilateral security and development assistance for 2012 in Honduras, where tons of drugs pass through each year on their way to the United States. Under the new guidelines, the U.S. is limiting assistance so that it only goes to special Honduran law enforcement units, staffed by Honduran personnel “who receive training, guidance, and advice directly from U.S. law enforcement and are not under Bonilla’s direct supervision,” according to the report.

Foreign operations law requires that 20 percent of assistance to Honduras be withheld until the Secretary of State certifies that Honduras is taking steps to improve human rights conditions and investigate allegations of abuses. In an unusual twist, the report certifies the Honduran government is meeting human rights requirements, but nonetheless says the U.S. government is withholding aid to agents working under Bonilla.

State Department officials could not confirm how much funding was being withheld nor how they determined the conditions were met.

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo’s spokesman Miguel Bonilla, who is not related to the police chief Bonilla, said that the administration has repeatedly pledged full support for the police chief and that under his leadership “there has been a real improvement in the security situation.” Honduran officials did not comment on the funds being withheld but said the government “has an unconditional commitment to human rights.”

Earlier this year, The Associated Press reported that Bonilla, nicknamed “The Tiger,” had been widely accused of killings and human rights violations in a decade-old internal Honduran police report. The report named Bonilla in at least three killings or forced disappearances between 1998 and 2002 and said he was among several officers suspected in 11 other cases.

Chief Bonilla’s spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

Only one of the allegations against the now-46-year-old Bonilla led to murder charges, however, and he was acquitted in 2004. The verdict was upheld by Honduras’ Supreme Court in 2009. Bonilla took office in May.

Human rights abuses have persisted under a series of law enforcement leaders. In a 2012 human rights report issued in June, the State Department said Honduran law enforcement agents have murdered and tortured people, though it did not mention Bonilla.

“Among the most serious human rights problems were corruption within the national police force,” the report added.

This week’s decision came after a series of letters from Honduran and U.S. academics, activists and members of Congress were sent to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton asking her to reconsider security aid to Honduras because of alleged human rights violations. In recent years there have been reports of kidnappings and killings by law enforcement, more than 65 people killed during farmland conflicts and dozens of deaths of gay and lesbian activists.

“Combatting drug trafficking is not a legitimate justification for the U.S. to fund and train security forces that usurp democratic governments and violently repress our people,” said the June 7, 2012, letter signed by hundreds of academics.

The U.S. suspended $31 million in assistance to Honduras in 2009 after a coup that ousted then-President Manuel Zelaya. Clinton resumed aid in 2010 after Lobo was elected.