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State Department Briefing, March 24

24 March 2006

Belarus, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Israel/Palestinians, Syria

State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli briefed reporters March 24.  Following is the State Department transcript:

(begin transcript)

U.S. Department of State
Office of Public Affairs
Friday, March 24, 2006

Adam Ereli, Deputy Spokesman

-- Statement on Detentions and Violence Against Peaceful Demonstrators
-- US Support for Uniform Application of Universally Accepted Standards

-- Case of Abdul Rahman / US Discussions with Afghan Government
-- Importance of Applying Principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
-- Next Steps

-- International Religions Freedom Report / Actions of Government

-- Formation of National Unity Government
-- Expectations for the Political Process to Move Forward
-- US Support of Iraqi Efforts

-- Discussions on Statement to Address Iran's Violation of NPT Obligations

-- Meetings and Discussions on Ways to Move Six-Party Talks Forward
-- Commitment of the United States to Six-Party Talks

-- UN Security Council Review of UN Mission in Sudan / UNMIS
-- Support for African Union Mission in Sudan
-- Possible Sudan Presidency of Arab League

-- Readout of Secretary Rice's Phone Call to President Abbas
-- US Seeking Negotiated Settlement Leading to Creation of Viable Palestinian State
-- Humanitarian Assistance to the Palestinians

-- Increased Repression of Democracy & Human Rights Activists


12:50 p.m. EST

MR. ERELI:  Good morning, everyone; afternoon, rather.  Let me begin with a statement on the detentions and violence against peaceful demonstrators in Belarus.

"The United States condemns the actions by Belarusian security services in the early morning hours of today, March 24th, in which they forcibly seized and detained Belarusian citizens who were peacefully demonstrating against the fraudulent March 19th election results.  The United States calls on Belarusian authorities to release without delay the hundreds of citizens who have been detained, not only in the past 24 hours but in recent days and weeks, simply for expressing their political views.

The United States is imposing targeted travel restrictions and is planning financial sanctions against individuals responsible for the recent electoral fraud and human rights abuses in Belarus, including Aleksandr Lukashenko.  We welcome the statement issued today by the European Council that it has decided also to take restrictive measures against those responsible for violations of international electoral standards, also including Aleksandr Lukashenko.

The United States and the European Union remain united in our response to the situation in Belarus.  We urge all members of the international community to demand that Belarusian authorities respect the rights of their citizens to express themselves peacefully and to condemn any and all abuses."

Any questions on this or other topics?

QUESTION:  Well, on Belarus.  I guess the Europeans have weighed in, you guys have weighed in, what do you think the Russians ought to be doing at this point?

MR. ERELI:  Well, every country's, obviously, free to decide what it wants to do.  The Russians have obviously taken a position regarding the elections in Belarus, I think that differ from ours.  This is an issue which the OSCE has been seized with as well.  Russia is a member of the OSCE.  I think that what we would like is a uniform application of universally accepted standards and that's what we'll continue to work for.


QUESTION:  On a different issue in the Afghanistan case of the -- Rahman.  Can you tell us whether any U.S. official from the Secretary Rice in her call yesterday with Mr. Karzai or Ambassador Neumann or anybody on the ground there has been given assurances by any Afghan official that the man won't be put to death as some other foreign officials apparently have been given?

MR. ERELI:  I don't really have much more to add to what the Secretary said about this yesterday, what Sean said about this yesterday.  I would note that our Ambassador to Kabul, Ambassador Ron Neumann, has spoken with President Karzai subsequent to the Secretary's conversation to press for action on this.  We believe the message has been delivered and received and we certainly hope and look forward to this issue being resolved, consistent with fundamental freedoms and Afghan's constitution.

QUESTION:  Well, you don't have anything to say on the specific question of whether any assurances were given?

MR. ERELI:  I'm not prepared to speak for the Government of Afghanistan.

QUESTION:  Well, I'm asking you to speak for the Government of the United States and whether any U.S. official has been given that assurance?

MR. ERELI:  By a government official -- the Government of Afghanistan?


MR. ERELI:  I would say that we have raised it at as senior a level as it can be raised.  They're aware of our concerns and I'll leave it to them to speak for what they're going to do about it.

QUESTION:  But, Adam, you haven't raised it at the highest level --

MR. ERELI:  I said it's been raised at the highest levels of the Government of Afghanistan.

QUESTION:  Has President Bush called?

MR. ERELI:  We called Karzai -- I said at the level of the Government of Afghanistan.

QUESTION:  But that's not the highest level of the Government of the United States?

MR. ERELI:  Well, we've -- Secretary Rice has raised it.  The President has spoken to it.  I would leave it to the White House to talk about presidential conversations.

QUESTION:  Sean, the German Government, though, has not been shy to say that -- Merkel says that she was assured that he would not be put to death.  Why -- if you got those assurances, why --

MR. ERELI:  I'm not --

QUESTION:  -- would you hesitate to give them?

MR. ERELI:  Like I said, I'm not aware that we've gotten those assurances.

QUESTION:  Are you satisfied with Karzai's response?  You don't have to speak to what he said.  Are you satisfied with his response?

MR. ERELI:  We have -- I think the important point for us is what happens to this individual and that the fundamental freedoms are respected.  And we'd look to the Government of Afghanistan to take action consistent with those principles and consistent with the constitution.  I'm not going to characterize the Government of Afghanistan's response beyond that.

QUESTION:  Why would Neumann have to -- Ambassador Neumann have to make a follow-up call if the highest official in the State Department has already spoken with Karzai?

MR. ERELI:  Because we want to continue to press the issue so that it's resolved as soon as possible.

QUESTION:  Which means you -- it seems to indicate --

MR. ERELI:  It's not resolved yet.


MR. ERELI:  So, we're continuing to press the issue.


QUESTION:  Would the possibility of essentially declaring him criminally insane and --

MR. ERELI:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  -- and now that --

MR. ERELI:  Yeah.  Sean, I think, spoke to that yesterday and I have the same answer that he had, which is we look to this to be resolved, consistent with respect for fundamental freedoms and Afghanistan's constitution.

QUESTION:  That's my question -- is that consistent with the fundamental freedoms?

MR. ERELI:  I think Sean spoke to that and said no, it wasn't.

QUESTION:  Adam, concerning this Mr. Rahman has been threatened by religious Islamic groups in Afghanistan.  Would we consider, for instance, asylum and to get him away from -- out of the country --

MR. ERELI:  Yeah.  I'm not going to get into a long speculation of possible scenarios.  Our position has been made clear by everybody from the President on down.  And this is a case of people's freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, being respected.  These are principles that are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  They are principles that are enshrined in the Afghan constitution and they should be applied in this case.

QUESTION:  Just a follow-up.  President Bush, as we know, in his inaugural speech said that respect for human rights and democracy is going to be a test of relations with any country, friend or foe.  Now has this been made clear to the Afghan Government at all that their conduct on this particular issue is going to have some consequence on U.S. relations?

MR. ERELI:  I think the Secretary has given you a readout of her conversation with President Karzai.  Sean's given you a readout of her meeting with Foreign Minister Abdullah.  It has been made abundantly clear to the Government of Afghanistan how the United States feels about this issue and the importance that we attach to its positive resolution.  That's as much as I have for you on it.


QUESTION:  Rice said yesterday that she expects this will be resolved in the very near future.  So can we infer from that that this guy will not be executed?

MR. ERELI:  I think you can infer from that that we have made our position clear, that we look to the Government of Afghanistan to take -- to resolve it consistent with its constitution and with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which it has adhered, and that we expect it to be done in the -- we look forward to it being done quickly.  That's -- I think it's self-explanatory.

QUESTION:  What is the next step, as far as you know?

MR. ERELI:  The next step is for -- is for the issue to be resolved by the Government of Afghanistan.

QUESTION:  Rather than the courts?

MR. ERELI:  Government, broadly speaking.  The Afghan authorities, I should say.

QUESTION:  Regarding the International Religious Freedom Act, Secretary Rice in 2004 designated Saudi Arabia as a Country of Particular Concern for its severe violations of religious freedom.  In light of the Rahman case, do you consider the situation --

MR. ERELI:  I'm sorry.  In light of Saudi Arabia in light of this case?

QUESTION:  Right, just making the connection.

MR. ERELI:  That doesn't make sense.

QUESTION:  Well, do you consider the situation in Saudi Arabia for Christians and non-Muslims to have improved since the 2004 report?

MR. ERELI:  I think we've spoken to that on the record numerous times since 2004, particularly with regard to the 2005 report and actions that the Government of Saudi Arabia has taken.  The Government of Saudi Arabia has engaged with us on this.  They have taken certain steps, but for the latest detailed opinion on that as far as the State Department, I would refer you to the report itself.

QUESTION:  Adam, please forgive me for just reformulating just one more time, but President Bush did say -- I think it was yesterday or the day before -- we expect the Afghan Government -- we expect the Afghan Government -- to honor the principles of freedom.

MR. ERELI:  Right.

QUESTION:  If they do not and if they pursue this, what is the "or else"?

MR. ERELI:  I don't want to go down that road.  I will tell you that we have made clear what is important to us and what we want to see.  I would add that other countries have done the same.  The next steps, frankly, are in the hands of the Afghans.

QUESTION:  But other countries involved have been willing to talk about what consequences there might be, including pulling out troops and --

MR. ERELI:  Right.  And I'm not willing to do that.


QUESTION:  Change of subject?

MR. ERELI:  Uh-huh.

QUESTION:  White House officials, including the President and Mr. Hadley, Mr. Bartlett and so on, the last ten days especially, have really --

MR. ERELI:  I agree with him.

QUESTION:  That's great.  I'm sure you do.  And I know that and I appreciate it.

They've been saying it's critically important that the Government of Iraq form -- the Iraqi political leadership form a government of national unity.

MR. ERELI:  Yes.

QUESTION:  They've been using the phrase "soon," "very soon," and "critically important."

MR. ERELI:  Yes, yes.

QUESTION:  Can you tell us the very latest on that process and what you've heard and how much time is the United States willing to allow that they said they need -- I know you're going to say that we have to be patient and they've had 30 years of --

MR. ERELI:  Well, they've been at it for a couple of months, which is a long time.


MR. ERELI:  And meanwhile, the people of Iraq, having voted in January, I guess it was -- December, sorry.  Having voted in December, are, I think, ready and waiting for the government to be formed and to take over running the country.  So there's clearly a -- there are clearly expectations from everybody, starting with the Iraqi people, for the political process to take the next step, form a government and get about the business of running the country.

It is taking a long time.  I think there is a certain amount of frustration about that, particularly in Iraq.  But let's remember what they're trying to do.  They're trying to bridge differences that have been exploited and exacerbated by 30 years of authoritarian rule.  It's not easy.  There are others who continue -- terrorists who continue to sort of stoke the sectarian fires.  The political leaders, the religious leaders, are resisting that and overcoming that, but it certainly is, I think, a distraction.

Having said all that, the fact of the matter is discussions continue among all of Iraq's political leaders that have been elected to -- of groups that have been elected to the national assembly.  We are all working, I think, very intensively both within the U.S. Government and those other friends of Iraq to help support their efforts to decide and appoint a Government of National Unity.  It's taking a long time.  We want it to move faster.  We're working to help them overcome differences.  And I think that they share the sense of urgency, but they've got to, frankly, come up with a slate of ministers and a leadership that everybody finds acceptable that addresses competing interests and different needs and at the same time, bridges all the -- bridges the divides that have, I think, historically characterized the political landscape in Iraq.  That's no small task.

QUESTION:  Is the patience wearing thin on the U.S. side?

MR. ERELI:  I wouldn't put it that way.  I would say that we continue to do what we can to move the process forward as quickly as possible.


QUESTION:  Adam, can you update us on any consultations the Secretary is having vis-à-vis, Iran?  There was talk that she would call Lavrov.

MR. ERELI:  Right.  Well, let us take a step back.  There were conversations last night among P-5 members on the presidential statement.  The Secretary was able to speak with Lavrov just before I came out here today.  They, I think, reiterated and agreed on the importance of all of us working together to address Iran's persistent violation of its NPT obligations and its refusal to cooperate with the IAEA.  We all agree that Iran's actions are disturbing, are threatening, are of concern and I think they reaffirmed our common purpose in addressing those at the Security Council and elsewhere.

QUESTION:  What was the nature of that P-5 discussion?  How did it work?

MR. ERELI:  Continued discussions on the presidential statement.

QUESTION:  For all of that, can you say if you are any closer to a presidential statement or any kind of statement out of the U.N. on Iran?

MR. ERELI:  Discussions continue.  We're making progress.  I think I'd leave at that.

QUESTION:  Could we come back to the rest of Iran -- on the Rice-Lavrov call, did they talk about Belarus?

MR. ERELI:  No.  Not in the readout I got.

QUESTION:  Did they talk about a P-5 meeting?

MR. ERELI:  In general terms, yeah.

QUESTION:  And that's what I want to ask.  Is she planning to go to New York on Monday -- to the Security Council?

MR. ERELI:  No.  Not that I'm aware of, no.

QUESTION: There's a question that came up yesterday regarding Japan's plans to develop oil fields in Iran.  Sean said that he'd try and get the specific dates of when the last conversations between the U.S. and Japan took place on this.

MR. ERELI:  I don't know if we've got that.  Let me check.

Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION:  Yes, do you have anything about a meeting between U.S. and South Korean new representative for six-party talks?

MR. ERELI:  Just a little bit.  The Republic of Korea Vice Foreign Minister, Mr. Chun Young Woo is in Washington, March 23rd through 24th -- yesterday and today.  Yesterday he met with Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph, as well as with his counterpart in the six-party talks Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill.  They discussed ways to move the six-party talks forward.  This afternoon, the Vice Minister will meet with our counselor Philip Zelikow for further discussions.

QUESTION:  Do you have any timetable toward six-party talks?

MR. ERELI:  I do not.  We'd like to see them resumed as soon as possible.

Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION:  Yesterday after his meeting here, one of his comments was there is not much optimism right now.  I wonder if this is how the U.S. see the situation on the six-party talks?

MR. ERELI:  The United States remains committed to the six-party talks as the most effective means of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.  We think that a good basis has been established and needs to be continued and we remain fully engaged in trying to bring that about.

Yeah, Mr. Lambros.

QUESTION:  Mr. Ereli, any readout on the yesterday meeting between the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Greek Foreign Minister Madame Dora Bakoyannis?

MR. ERELI:  Not beyond what the two ministers said in their comments to the press after their meeting.

QUESTION:  During the yesterday's press conference in Franklin Room between Secretary Condoleezza Rice and the Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, the latter said, "We discussed developments in the western Balkans, a region of strategic importance for Greece."  Since, by practice, your guest, in this case Minister Bakoyannis, could not say what your position on this particular subject, may we know what your side said exactly in the meeting?

MR. ERELI:  I don't have anything more for you than what was said in the press availability.


QUESTION:  Do you have any update on efforts to quell the tension in Chad or the cross-border tension between the Darfur area and Chad?  Phone calls?  Anybody doing anything?

MR. ERELI:  The focus today, frankly, is in New York where there is -- the Security Council is discussing renewing the mandate of UNMIS, the UN Mission in Sudan.  As part of the discussions for the resolution, they are looking at ways to support -- to build on the March 10th decision by the African Union to support a transition of the AU mission in Sudan, particularly looking at ways that AMIS can help support -- I'm sorry, UNMIS, the UN Mission in Sudan, can help support the African Union mission in Sudan right now as well as ways that the UN and the Secretary General can work with AMIS to strengthen its mandate.

So the short answer to your question, Teri, is the unacceptable violence in western Darfur and on the Chad border has influenced the discussions in New York about the renewal of the UNMIS mandate in a way that we are looking to help facilitate the transition to a re-hatted UN force by putting in language and procedures to strengthen that now and not have to wait for six months.

QUESTION:  What about any phone calls though to Khartoum to urge the government --

MR. ERELI:  Don't have anything.  Let me check and see if there's been anything to report to you.

QUESTION:  Reports out of Khartoum today say that Sudan may assume the presidency of the Arab League next week when Arab leaders meet there.  What would be the U.S. reaction if that does happen?

MR. ERELI:  Well, it's up to the Arab League to choose its leadership.  The United States, I think, has made it clear to the international community, I think we're also making it clear to the Arab League, our view and the international community's view, frankly, that we all have a responsibility to do what we can to help the people of Darfur and to work to prevent the continued death and destruction in that part of the world.  I think it's important to underscore, particularly as it relates to the Arab League, that these are Muslim populations we're talking about and so there's a natural convergence of responsibilities and mandates between the international community and the Arab League to help protect the people and address the downward slide in violence in that part of the world.


QUESTION:  Change of subject.  Adam, there's a second commercial deal involving Chinese with international shipping security.  Will the Secretary be speaking to both the Chinese and the Bahamian Government?  The firm Hutchinson Whampoa is involved --

MR. ERELI:  Yeah, I think -- I don't have anything new on that beyond what Sean said yesterday --

QUESTION:  -- with shipping --

MR. ERELI:  It's not a level -- it's not an issue that rises to that level.

QUESTION:  With North Korea and Iran.

MR. ERELI:  Yeah, it doesn't rise to that level.

QUESTION:  Can you give us a readout on the Secretary's call today to President Abbas?

MR. ERELI:  Yeah.  The Secretary made calls to not only President Abbas but Foreign Minister Livni and Defense Minister Mofaz.  The major purpose of those conversations was to talk to all three about how we can work together to ensure that the border remains open and that the Palestinian people continue to get the kind of trade and humanitarian supplies across the border that we've been able to assure to date, but looking ahead to continue the flow of those goods.

QUESTION:  Okay, just a follow-up on that.  We have -- obviously the Israeli elections are coming up next week.  Prime Minister -- Acting Prime Minister Olmert has made no secret of his intention to pursue almost unilaterally to sort of define Israel's borders and withdraw from certain areas and not other areas there.  My question is this:  Is the United States going to, after the elections, press the Israelis to get back to the negotiating table with the Palestinians, with President Abbas, who has said that he thinks there could be an agreement within a year, or are you going to just sort of let them just do (inaudible)?

MR. ERELI:  It depends on the political landscape.  You have to play with the hand you're dealt in this case, and so let's see what the results of Israeli elections are.  Let's see what political developments in the Palestinian Authority are.  The U.S. interests, what the U.S. wants to see, obviously remains constant, which is a negotiated settlement leading to the creation of a viable Palestinian state.  We're going to continue to push that agenda.  But obviously, we're going to -- our ability to promote that is going to be influenced by the political realities on the ground.

QUESTION:  Just two other questions on the Middle East.  Now that we know the contours of the Palestinian Government which is basically pure and simply Hamas, is there -- are we getting closer to a decision on the aid?  And the second thing is on Wolfensohn's mission and Dayton's mission.  Do you have anything more on that?

MR. ERELI:  I don't have anything more on Wolfensohn's or Dayton's mission than what we've, I think, put out previously.  As far as Palestinian aid goes, we continue our internal process of looking at what we're giving the Palestinians now, what their humanitarian needs in the future are going to be and how we can reconcile our commitment to those needs as well as our concern for not supporting terrorism or terrorist organizations.  I think that we are clearly preparing for the day when there is a Hamas government, but I don't have any decisions to announce for you today.

QUESTION:  Just one last question on an unrelated topic.  Do you have any reaction to the arrest of the American and his girlfriend down in Bolivia for trying to blow up that --

MR. ERELI:  I have not seen those reports.  Let me see if I can get you a reaction.


QUESTION:  I think you talked about yesterday.

MR. ERELI:  Okay.  Saul was asked -- you did talk about it yesterday?

QUESTION:  (Inaudible.)

MR. ERELI:  Oh, okay.

Let's go to one more over here.

QUESTION:  The communication from Morocco today to have talks in United States about the Western Sahara.  Can you tell us anything about that?

MR. ERELI:  I'll get you a good readout if I can.


QUESTION:  Do you have anything new -- I don't mean about Syria so much.  It seems like with the Iranian and the Iraqi situation and there was quite a bit on Syria for a long, long time and now it sort of seems to have gone rather quiet.

MR. ERELI:  Well, we continue to be very concerned about events in Syria, particularly the increased repression of democracy and human rights activists by the Government of Syria.  In recent days we've seen individuals who have -- peacefully advocating fundamental human rights, who have been subjected to intimidation and arbitrary detention.  In other cases, non-violent demonstrators have been attacked by mobs while Syrian security forces just watched.  So these are actions that are disturbing to us.  We believe that the atmosphere of fear is being fostered by the Syrian authorities.  And we call upon the Government of Syria to cease its harassment of Syrians who are just seeking to bring about change and peaceful democracy to their country.

QUESTION:  Anything new on the Syrian cooperation with the UN investigation?

MR. ERELI:  No, not beyond what the prosecutor reported to the Security Council a week and a half ago, I think.

Mr. Lambros, last question.

QUESTION:  One question on Armenia.  The Los Angeles Times in an editorial for the Ambassador to Armenia John Evans under the title, in quotation, "It was a genocide", wrote inter alia, "Punishing an ambassador for speaking honestly about a 90-year-old crime befits a cynical double-dealing monarchy, not the leader of the free world."

How do you respond to that?

MR. ERELI:  I haven't seen the article.  Let me just look at it.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:20 p.m.)

(end transcript)

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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