News brief: Russia accused of war crimes, Parkland shooter, Pakistan political crisis
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Russian forces pulled out of the Ukrainian town of Bucha and other small villages outside of Kyiv. Ukrainian forces have retaken that region, and what is left now is utter devastation.
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
Flattened apartment buildings, dead bodies lying in the street and mass graves. Some of the victims were found with their hands tied behind their backs. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN's "State Of The Union" that the U.S. is investigating possible war crimes by Russia.
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ANTONY BLINKEN: We will look hard and document everything that we see, put it all together, make sure that the relevant institutions and organizations that are looking at this, including the State Department, have everything they need to assess exactly what took place in Ukraine, who's responsible and what it amounts to.
MARTIN: NPR's Nathan Rott is in Ukraine and joins us now. Nate, what else can you tell us about what has transpired just north of where you are in Kyiv?
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: That, sadly, I think this is just the start, right? These images that we're seeing of bodies that appear to be badly burnt, of bodies that appear to have been tied with their hands behind their back, are going to be the conversation in Ukraine for a while. And so, you know, I think we explained a little of the chronology there. You just did. But I think it's important for people to understand, what is happening is Russian forces invaded these towns north of where I am in Kyiv in the first days of the war. They were stopped by Ukrainian forces, and last week, we started seeing them withdraw from this region altogether. Russia says it's doing this as a gesture of goodwill, as a sign that they're sincere about peace negotiations, though I think it's important to note that they continue to launch missiles at targets here. Now with Russian troops withdrawn, Ukrainian forces are moving into these suburbs and towns like Bucha, really for the first time in weeks, and what they're seeing are these horrifying scenes.
Here's Kyiv's mayor, Vitali Klitschko, who we talked to over the weekend.
VITALI KLITSCHKO: I just came in right now from north of the city. I am depressed. What I saw there - old people shoot civilian. Old, young people, woman shoot by Russian soldier, the bodies everywhere there.
MARTIN: What is Russia saying about this?
ROTT: So Russia is claiming that these images we're seeing are fake. They say Ukraine is deliberately spreading false information. This is something they continue to say through the war. I've talked to people who have been in these towns over the last couple of days. We're planning to go there tomorrow. And, you know, from what I've heard, it is very clear that there are dead people in civilian clothes in these places. Human Rights Watch released a report yesterday detailing multiple incidents that appear to be war crimes. And the sense we're getting is that more reports like this are coming as Ukrainian forces move into other towns.
MARTIN: So there are now all these calls for accountability for this from the international community. What are you hearing in Ukraine?
ROTT: The same, you know, and a lot of frustration. Ukraine has been calling for more military help from the U.S. and other Western allies since before this war started. They want anti-aircraft systems. They want fighter jets. And, you know, they are getting military support. It sounds like the U.S. is actually helping facilitate the transfer of Soviet-era tanks to Ukraine for the first time. But there's still a sense - you know, and we're hearing that if these images from Bucha, the accounts of what's still happening right now in Kharkiv in the north, in Mariupol in the south, where fighting is ongoing - if they don't move the needle for greater Western involvement, the Ukrainians say it's hard to know what will. I actually just finished talking to a man who is working with the Ukrainian Territorial Defense who believes that there starts to become culpability of Western countries if greater intervention isn't taken.
MARTIN: NPR's Nathan Rott in Kyiv. Thank you.
ROTT: Thank you.
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MARTIN: Four years after he opened fire on his high school classmates in Florida, Nikolas Cruz will now face his sentence.
MARTÍNEZ: Cruz confessed to killing 17 people and injuring 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine's Day in 2018. Jury selection gets underway today. Twelve jurors will decide if the shooter will spend the rest of his life in prison or face the death penalty for his crime.
MARTIN: NPR's Greg Allen has been following this story since the day of the shootings and joins us now from Miami. Greg, just walk us through events that have led to this day.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Well, the sentencing phase begins, you know, more than four years after this - the shootings happened. For those who don't remember, Cruz pleaded guilty to all charges last fall, which came as a surprise to some. The trial now goes to deciding whether he'll get life in prison or the death penalty. First up will be jury selection. It'll be up to them to decide what sentence he gets here. With so many people killed and injured, legal experts say this will be an extremely difficult case for the defense. The prosecution is going to ask - argue that this was a horrible, evil act. The defense is going to say their client was mentally ill.
MARTIN: Can you remind us some of the details, grim that they may be, that the jury will hear in this case, the sentencing case?
ALLEN: Right. Well, Cruz had been a student at the high school in Parkland. He'd been expelled from the school a year earlier, had a history of emotional and behavioral problems. On Valentine's Day in 2018, he entered a building and began firing his AR-15-style rifle in the hallways and into classrooms. He left behind 14 students and three adults dead. At least 17 other students were seriously injured. Cruz escaped into the crowd afterwards, evacuating from the school. He was arrested a short distance away.
MARTIN: You have to imagine that for the families of the students who died that day, I mean, this is just going to be excruciating. Every day is difficult without their kids, but I imagine just having to watch the sentencing phase again is going to be so hard. Is there any idea how long it's going to take?
ALLEN: Right. Well, three weeks have been set aside for jury selection, but some legal experts I've spoken to say it's going to take much longer than that, they believe. The trial itself is expected to be a long one. I've seen estimates from 4 to 6 months. The defense may seek a change of venue if it finds it's too difficult to seat an impartial jury. That carries its own risks, though. You have to move it someplace else in Florida, and it's such a high-profile case, it may be hard to find jurors anywhere in the state that don't already have opinions on it.
The testimony, as you say, will be grueling. I talked to the father of Gina Montalto, one of the 17 who was killed, Tony Montalto. He said, yes, it will be painful, but every day is painful, and they've been waiting four years to see justice done in this case, so they will be there nearly every day, I believe. And I think many of the families will be. The jury will hear statements from those families, but also, they'll hear testimony from survivors, people who were in the classrooms, in the hallways, who saw their classmates killed. And I think that will be very moving. We also will be - the jury will see videos of the shootings. There's surveillance videos from the school and also, reportedly, videos recorded by some of the students there - so some really chilling footage, which will all be presented to the jury as they decide whether to go for life in prison or the death penalty.
MARTIN: No doubt a difficult experience for that community that's already suffered so much. NPR's Greg Allen in Miami. Thank you. We appreciate it.
ALLEN: You're welcome.
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MARTIN: OK. There is a big political standoff happening right now in Pakistan.
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, the country's prime minister dissolved Parliament and called for a new election as a vote of no confidence was set to take place. So how does this affect the United States' interests in the region?
MARTIN: NPR's Diaa Hadid joins us now from Islamabad. Hi, Diaa.
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: So if you don't like what Parliament has to say about you, then just fire them - is that what's happening here?
HADID: Ooh. Well, the Supreme Court is basically going to have to decide on this, and they're hearing the arguments today. They're going to - I mean, yes, they're going to decide on the legality of this move, which happened on Sunday. And it was the president who dissolved Parliament just as that vote was about to take place. That most likely would have thrown the Prime Minister, Imran Khan, out of power. And the Supreme Court, it's reported, will try to decide this fairly quickly because right now the country is in political limbo, and the risk is it could spill out on the streets if it's not resolved in court. But even then, it's not clear if politicians are going to accept a decision that's not in their favor. I took a drive out this morning. Already, security forces are on high alert. They've rolled out the shipping containers. It's always a sign of potential trouble here because they're used to block the roads from protesters reaching the Parliament and the Supreme Court.
MARTIN: Wow. So can you just explain for people who haven't been following Pakistani politics, what is the background of all of this? I mean, why was there a no-confidence vote in the first place?
HADID: So Prime Minister Imran Khan has ruled over a coalition government since he was elected four years ago. He has a big loyal support base, but his rule has always been tainted by allegations that the army helped propel him to power. That's Pakistan's most powerful institution, and it denies involvement. But over the years, Khan lost a lot of goodwill. He was seen as mismanaging the economy and foreign policy. He celebrated the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan. He visited President Vladimir Putin as Russian tanks were rolling into Ukraine. And analysts say the military began stepping away, and that signaled to the opposition that they could wrest him from power. That's the context of the no-confidence vote that was meant to be voted on on Saturday.
But then Khan and his allies began claiming there was an American conspiracy to oust him. Washington denies this. Khan told a local media outlet that this was made clear on March 7 in a meeting between the Pakistani ambassador and a senior State Department official. It's in that context that Imran Khan asked the Parliament to be dissolved yesterday. He and his allies argue the effort to push him out of power is illegitimate because it's part of a foreign conspiracy.
MARTIN: All right. So this sounds like it's obviously going to affect Pakistan's relationship with the U.S., which were not that great to start with, right?
HADID: That is the concern. Even Pakistan's chief of army staff alluded to this in a recent speech. He said Pakistan wanted good relations with the United States, but Khan and his allies are digging in on this American conspiracy allegation. And this is in a country where anti-American sentiment is pervasive among the religious right wing, and that could escalate.
MARTIN: And then, Diaa, what about for Pakistan itself? I mean, what's the risk of this crisis lingering?
HADID: So the pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine have caused inflation and food prices to rise here, like they've done around the world. But Pakistan's also waiting for another tranche of an IMF bailout, and if the crisis continues here and people get hungrier, political instability is more likely to happen. In that way, Pakistan is a litmus test of how a weak democracy is handling these twin global shocks of the pandemic and the Russian invasion, except this weak democracy is a nuclear-armed nation of 220 million people.
MARTIN: NPR's Diaa Hadid reporting from Islamabad on all this. Diaa, thank you. We so appreciate it.
HADID: You're welcome. Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.