Saudi, UAE led mediation: Russia frees US basketball star in swap with arms dealer Viktor Bout

News Network
December 9, 2022

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The US and Russia have exchanged jailed US basketball star Brittney Griner for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, held in an American prison for 12 years.

UAE President His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud led mediation efforts that secured the release of Griner in a prisoner swap with Russia, a joint statement released by WAM said on Thursday.

President Joe Biden said Griner was safe and on a plane home from the United Arab Emirates.

"I'm glad to say Brittney's in good spirits... she needs time and space to recover," he said at the White House.

Bout - widely known as the "merchant of death" - has arrived back in Moscow, Russian media reports.

"In the middle of the night they simply woke me up and said 'Get your things together' and that was it," Bout said in brief remarks to a reporter from national television, after landing in Russia.

Bout reportedly came down the aeroplane steps carrying a bouquet of flowers before embracing his mother and his wife.

Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport in February for possessing cannabis oil and last month she was sent to a penal colony.

The Biden administration proposed a prisoner exchange in July, aware Moscow had long sought Bout's release.

The elaborate swap involved two private planes bringing the pair to Abu Dhabi airport from Moscow and Washington, and then flying them home.

Footage on Russian state media showed them crossing on the tarmac with their respective teams. In the video, apparently provided by Russian security services, Bout is warmly greeted by two Russian officials as Griner, who is 6ft 9in (206cm), looks on. Part of the swap is then edited out before the two parties go their separate ways.

"The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

Speaking in the Oval Office, Brittney Griner's wife Cherelle praised the efforts of the Biden administration in securing her release: "I'm just standing here overwhelmed with emotions."

According to a joint Saudi-UAE statement, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman played a leading role in mediation efforts, along with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

The heir to the Saudi throne has good relations with Russia's Vladimir Putin and in September he helped co-ordinate a complex swap of hundreds of prisoners held by Russia and Ukraine.

But the White House denied any mediation had been involved. "The only countries that negotiated this deal were the United States and Russia," said press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

When negotiations began to secure Griner's release during the summer, the US made clear it wanted ex-marine Paul Whelan to be included in an exchange.

Bout's lawyer, Alexei Tarasov, told Russian TV that from the start the US wanted two of its citizens returned, and Russia's foreign ministry complained that "Washington categorically refused to engage in dialogue".

But it became clear that Whelan, jailed in 2018 on suspicion of spying, would not be part of the Russian swap, dashing his family's hopes.

Paul Whelan told CNN he was "greatly disappointed" more had not been done to free him, as he had carried out no crime: "I don't understand why I'm still sitting here," he said.

President Biden finally signed the order for Bout's release, commuting his 25-year jail term, in a direct swap for Griner.

Bout's wife Alla told Russian TV she had spoken to him only two days ago: "He was supposed to call me tonight. Now we'll see each other and hug each other. That's better than any phone call."

Viktor Bout sold arms to warlords and rogue governments, becoming one of the world's most wanted men.

Dubbed the "merchant of death" for gun-running in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian's exploits inspired the 2005 Hollywood film Lord of War, which was loosely based on his life.

His secretive career was brought to an end by an elaborate US sting in 2008, when he was arrested at a hotel in the Thai capital Bangkok, to the anger of the Russian government.

He was extradited two years later and has spent the past 12 years in an American jail for conspiring to support terrorists and kill Americans.

Bout's circumstances could hardly be more different from that of his opposite number in the prisoner swap.

Brittney Griner, 32, is one of the best-known sportswomen in America. During the US basketball season the double Olympic champion is a star centre for Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA.

Her only reason for flying to Moscow was to play in Russia during the off-season in the US. She told her Russian trial that the cannabis oil found in her bag had been an "honest mistake".

Secretary of State Antony Blinken singled out the efforts of presidential envoy Roger Carstens, who accompanied Griner on the plane from the UAE.

Leading figures in US basketball welcomed her release, among them twice WNBA champion Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm. 

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News Network
January 23,2023

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Udupi, Jan 23: Chief of right wing outfit Sri Ram Sene Pramod Muthalik on Monday said he has decided to contest the upcoming Assembly polls in Karnataka from Karkala Assembly constituency to fight against corruption and for the cause of Hindutva.

The polls are likely by May.

"Under pressure from karyakartas, I decided to contest as an independent candidate from the Karkala Assembly segment. Already, I have travelled across the constituency seven or eight times, and everyone is of the opinion that Muthalik should contest from here as there have been injustice to Hindus and rampant corruption," Muthalik said.

Speaking to reporters, he said he is contesting so that he can work honestly for the cause of Hindutva and against corruption. "My contest will be with an aim to give the Hindus justice and respect," he added.

In November last, Muthalik said 25 Hinduwadis, including him, would contest the 2023 Assembly polls as independent candidates to protect Hindus, while alleging that the BJP which came to power with their support has failed to protect them and Hindutva. Karkala in Udupi district is now being represented by V Sunil Kumar (BJP), who is now Minister for Energy, Kannada and Culture in the Basavaraj Bommai-led Cabinet. He has represented thrice in the constituency and won in 2004, 2013 and 2018.

Earlier a Congress bastion, former Chief Minister and ex-Union Minister M Veerappa Moily had won from there six times from 1972-1994 polls.

After him H Gopala Bhandary of the party had twice represented the seat by winning the 1999 and 2008 polls. 

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News Network
January 28,2023

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Udupi, Jan 28: The Parashuram theme park, with a 33-foot-bronze statue of Lord Parashuram, was inaugurated atop Umikal hill at Bailur in Karnataka's Udupi district by Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai.

Speaking after the inauguration on Friday evening in Karkala taluk, the chief minister said a masterplan will be drawn to promote culture and temple tourism in coastal Karnataka. Bommai said the coastal region has immense potential for attracting tourists and the government is chalking out a number of schemes to promote tourism.

The government aims to bring in overall development in the region by developing ports and roads. The government does not want to offer promises on packages, but is trying to improve the lives of the people, he said.

Bommai added that the inauguration of the park is historic as Lord Parashuram is said to be the creator of Tulunadu. He was brave and strong and received the blessings of Lord Shiva, the chief minister said. 

State Minister for Kannada and Culture V Sunil Kumar, who represents Karkala in the assembly, Union Minister of State for Agriculture and Farmers' Welfare Shobha Karandlaje who represents Udupi-Chikkamagaluru in the Lok Sabha, Fisheries Minister S Angara, MLAs Lalji Mendon and Raghupati Bhat and noted actor Rishabh Shetty were present on the occasion.

The Parashuram statue installed atop Umikal hill in Bailur, located by the side of National Highway between Udupi and Karkala, is already attracting thousands of tourists from various parts of the country. The theme park has a bhajan mandir, museum, open air amphitheatre, drawings depicting life of Lord Parashuram, audio-visual gallery and a restaurant. The park was set up by the Nirmiti Kendra in Udupi district.

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News Network
January 15,2023

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Will the 2023 Karnataka assembly polls be a battle of political survival for former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda-led JD(S), or will the regional party once again emerge as a kingmaker, like it did in 2018, in the event of a hung verdict?

Plagued by desertions, internal rifts, and with the image of a "family party", it remains to be seen how Gowda's son and former Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy, who is in a way single handedly managing the JD(S)' affairs with aging father taking the back seat, would steer the party in the upcoming Assembly polls.

Since the time of its formation in 1999, JD(S) has never formed a government on its own, but had been in power twice in coalition with both national parties- for 20 months with BJP from February 2006 and with Congress for 14 months after the May 2018 assembly polls- with Kumaraswamy as the Chief Minister.

This time however, the party has set an ambitious target of "mission 123" to independently form a government on its own by winning at least 123 out of total 224 seats going for polls by May, and has been seeking votes repeatedly invoking regional Kannadiga pride and asserting itself to be the only Kannadiga party.

There are however doubts among political observers and within a section of the party itself about JD(S) meeting this ambitious target, as the party's best ever performance so far has been in the 2004 assembly elections, when it won 58 seats, and 40 seats in 2013 was its second best.

In the 2018 polls, JD(S) had managed to win 37 seats. However, some party leaders are hopeful about the JD(S)' prospects of coming to power, by winning a few more seats than they did last time, and once again using the knack of power politics, by holding the key for government formation, in the event of a hung verdict.

"If such a situation arise we will certainly push for our Kumaranna (Kumaraswamy) to become the Chief Minister, but we will be more cautious on our choices and the bargain with the probable alliance partner this time after last time's bad experience," a JD(S) functionary not wanting to be named said, as he maintained that if not 123, the party will at least better its tally this time.

The party’s vote share is stagnant, if not shrinking. It has been ranging between 18-20 per cent, as the party has managed to continue its hold on a sizable number of constituencies, predominantly in the Vokkaliga belt of Old Mysuru region. It is this Gowda family’s hold over the Vokkaliga community that dominates the Old Mysuru region comprising 61 seats (excluding the 28 constituencies in Bengaluru), which the ruling BJP and Congress are looking forward to breaking and improving their prospects.

Congress is considerably strong in Old Mysuru region and has been a traditional rival for the JD(S) in the belt, the BJP however is weak here and is aiming to make swift inroads with an aim to get a clear majority.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah during his recent visit had asked his party leaders to concentrate on the region.

According to political analyst A Narayana from the Azim Premji University, how strong or weak the JD(S) actually is can be decided only after the candidates list is announced, because its survival depends on how many strong aspirants rejected by other parties join it. "It decides two things- the percentage of votes JD(S) is going to poll and the number of seats they win. In constituencies where JD(S) doesn't have strong candidates, they depend on rejects from other parties," he said.

Further, he said that the question is also whether the JD(S) is stronger or weaker in their core area of old Mysuru, when compared to 2018. It appears on the face of it that they are weak, for two reasons- one series of desertions since 2018, second Congress is in a better position among the Vokkaligas; one of the factors for it is D K Shivakumar (a Vokkaliga) as President.

"Also in the 2018 elections, JD(S) won in Mandya and Hassan districts, only because of Vokkaliga anger against Siddaramaiah, and that seems to have not disappeared now but subsided," he said, adding that how the BJP making inroads in Old Mysuru region will affect the JD(S) or Congress, is the question that cannot be answered at the moment.

Political observers are also of the view that the perception about JD(S) being too family centric is one of its major drawbacks.

Eight members of Gowda's immediate family are into active politics. Gowda, who is the JD(S) supremo, is also Member of Rajya Sabha from Karnataka, while his son Kumaraswamy is a former CM and MLA from Channapatna. Kumaraswamy's wife Anitha is MLA from Ramanagara segment, and his son Nikhil, who is the JD(S) youth wing President, had unsuccessfully contested the 2019 Lok Sabha polls from Mandya. The party supremo's elder son H D Revanna is a former minister and MLA from Holenarsipura, his wife Bhavani Revanna was a member of the Hassan Zilla Panchayat, and their sons Prajwal and Suraj are MP from Hassan and a MLC respectively.

The Gowda family has its representation in all the four major houses of public representatives- Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha, Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council.

James Manor, University of London professor, who has been a keen observer of Karnataka's politics, during a webinar recently said, family-centred politics is causing discontent and leading to desertion. "JD(S) suffers from over-centralisation and dictatorial leadership." Narayana too echoing similar sentiments said, the party is perceived to be "over family centric", even among Vokkaligas, leading to leaders deserting the party. "It was also one of the primary reasons for JD(S)' rout in 2019 Lok Sabha polls, which was its lowest point ever since the party's formation."

According to some political observers, JD(S) inability to grow beyond the Vokkaliga-dominated old Mysuru region, other than in certain select pockets of north Karnataka is seen among its other drawbacks.

Kumaraswamy on Saturday however exuded confidence that his party will grow beyond its traditional old Mysuru region in the upcoming assembly polls and form a government on its own strength in Karnataka. He also claimed that there is a strong undercurrent in favour of him and his party, especially in rural areas.

Narayana further pointed out that Vokkaliga's support for JD(S) has not been consistent. "Of all the caste groups in Karnataka, I would say that Vokkaligas are more matured voters...In one election they will support Deve Gowda and when they perceive that his government or party has not done well or have disappointed them, they don't hesitate in shifting to Congress. This has happened consistently."

Amid questions of the party's survival and "shortage" of active leaders, Kumaraswamy is on a "Pancharatna Ratha Yatre", a statewide tour that he is undertaking ahead of polls.

This Yatre is to inform people about a five-fold programme called 'Pancharatna' that the JD(S) plans to implement on coming to power, which includes quality education, farmer welfare and employment. He has already announced a list of 93 candidates for the assembly polls, and will announce the second list of 50-60 candidates in about 10 days. " I want to give opportunity to fresh faces...want to build a second line of leadership in the party," he has said.

JD(S) believes it suffered damage in 2018 polls, when the Congress repeatedly called it the BJP’s ‘B’ team, which resulted in Muslim votes going away. The party's decision to bring C M Ibrahim as its state president might be a step towards regaining minority votes. However, noting that any such impact would be marginal, Narayana said, as there a growing sense of insecurity among Muslims this time they may go for strategic voting in which they may completely vote in favour of a party or in favour of the candidate, who is most likely to win against BJP in their segment.

Whatever said and done, one needs to be careful before writing off the JD(S), as before every election since 2008, discussions have always taken place in media and political circles, about it being a battle of survival for the regional party, but it has continued to remain a relevant force, according to political analysts.

Pointing out that this is seen by some quarters as Deve Gowda’s last election, Manor had recently said, "His emotional pleas for votes may attract more support from Vokkaligas than that of Shivakumar’s. Also, some Vokkaligas resent Siddaramaiah’s emphasis on minorities, backward classes and Dalits. Perhaps, the JD(S) may not do too badly, and if it does even somewhat well, it will be bad news for the Congress." 

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