Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing – April 29, 2015

1:42 p.m. EDT
MS HARF: Good afternoon, and welcome to the daily press briefing. I have a couple items at the top, so bear with me. First, in the State Department’s Free the Press campaign – and I think we have some photos, hopefully, coming up – we have two cases for today’s Free the Press campaign.
The first comes from Russian-occupied Crimea, where de facto authorities have shut down 11 of the 12 Crimean Tatar media outlets, including ATR TV – I think it’s up behind me now – the last independent television station serving the Crimean Tatar population. Occupation authorities also have banned most Ukrainian language programming, replacing content with Russian programming. These restrictions on media freedom are part of a worsening situation that demonstrates Russia’s disregard for the population of Crimea. Occupation authorities are systematically closing the space for freedom of expression and leading an intimidation campaign that targets independent journalists for detention and prosecution. All residents of Crimea should have access to a wide range of news, opinion, and information. We condemn Russia’s abuses and call for the end of its occupation of Crimea, which is part of Ukraine, as we’ve said.
I think the screens have gone on to our second case, which comes from Maldives, where an investigative journalist named Ahmed Rilwan has remained disappeared since August of last year. Mr. Rilwan, who wrote often about politics, criminal gangs, and Islamic extremism, was reportedly forced at knifepoint from his residence. We call on the Government of the Maldives to credibly investigate the disappearance of Ahmed Rilwan and to take steps necessary to create space for independent journalists to work without fear of violence or harassment.
And along the same lines here, moving on to the next item at the top, we congratulate Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent, on being named the United Nations Educational – I think, yeah, let’s stay with the map – Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, goodwill ambassador for freedom of expression and journalist safety. As UNESCO’s goodwill ambassador, Amanpour will keep freedom of expression and journalist safety on the global agenda and serve as a voice to governments, reminding them of their obligation to assure that a free press flourishes and combat the culture of impunity that leads to fear and self-censorship among all media professionals. We look forward to her work.
QUESTION: She’s going to leave her position with CNN?
MS HARF: I think you’d probably ask CNN, but I doubt it.
QUESTION: Don’t think so.
MS HARF: And two more items at the top. Just a quick update on what we’re doing when it comes to our assistance to Nepal.
Today, members of USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team, or DART, reached the hard-hit city east of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur. There the DART urban search and rescue worked closely with the Nepali army and members of the community to determine where people might be trapped and to conduct searches.
Also today, a U.S. military joint humanitarian assistance survey team arrived in Nepal to support this USAID DART response effort. This is a 20-person team. It will be working with the USAID team to make recommendations on how the U.S. military can enable humanitarian access to hard-hit areas and to speed up the delivery of critical emergency supplies.
And finally, currently a USAID airlift of emergency shelter materials is headed to Nepal from the agency’s warehouse in Dubai. The cargo consists of 700 rolls of plastic sheeting to help an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 people. The USAID-chartered cargo plane is expected to land in Kathmandu early morning on April 30th.
And the last item at the top, and then, Brad, I promise I am turning to you.
Today, we at the State Department, including Secretary Kerry and the rest of our team, honor the service of the longest serving foreign minister of any country, certainly a friend of the Secretary, Saud al-Faisal, who will departing his position as the Saudi foreign minister. In his 40 years of service, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal has worked closely with numerous secretaries of state, including Secretary Kerry, of course. And I know folks remember him as a skilled diplomat, a wise counselor on regional issues, and a good friend to the United States.
At the same time, we look forward to working closely with his successor, Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel Al-Jubeir, who I know the Secretary has come to know particularly well during his time in Washington. He was actually at the Department today meeting with the Secretary on a host of issues. They speak quite frequently as well. The alliance, as we all know, between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is historic and enduring, and we will continue to maintain our close, productive relationship as we work together to address a number of serious challenges.
Brad, kick us off.
QUESTION: Great. Just something from yesterday. Do you have any update on the Maersk ship that was apparently being held near or at Bandar Abbas in Iran?
MS HARF: Yes. Our understanding is that as of this morning, the Maersk Tigris remains in the custody of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy. It is currently anchored off the northeast coast of Larak Island, Iran. We’re continuing to monitor the situation. As we’ve said, we have not received any reports of injuries to crew members. And as we noted yesterday, according to information received from the vessel’s operators, there were no – or there are no, excuse me, Americans aboard.
QUESTION: Do you have an update on the discussions between the United States and the Marshall Islands?
MS HARF: I do. We are in communications with officials from the Republic of the Marshall Islands as well as with the shipping company to determine the best steps forward to ensure the peaceful resolution of this incident and the safe passage of the ship and crew. The Republic of Marshall Islands has requested assistance for the release of the Maersk ship, and again, we’re in communication with them about how best to affect that outcome.
QUESTION: And then yesterday there were some questions about what is actually entailed by the security compact between the United States and —
QUESTION: Could you elaborate on how – whether shipping is covered by that and what that would mean in terms of possible military assistance?
MS HARF: Yes. So I got a little bit on this. And I think as Jeff said, the U.S. of course remains committed to freedom of navigation through international waterways, and to ensure that the vital shipping lanes in the region remain open and safe.
Under the U.S.-Republic of Marshall Islands Compact of Free Association, the U.S. has full authority and responsibility for security and defense matters in or relating to the Marshall Islands, including matters relating to vessels flying their flag.
So right now, as I said, we’re in communications with officials from the Marshall Islands to determine the best steps forward here.
QUESTION: I think – and yesterday I think your colleague said that there had been no request up to this point regarding any military – specifically military assistance. Is that still the case?
MS HARF: I do know they’ve requested assistance for the release. I haven’t heard the nature of that request, though.
QUESTION: Can we go back to Saudi Arabia?
MS HARF: We can.
QUESTION: We have a story saying that the Saudis are training Houthi fighters – sorry, training fighters to fight the Houthis in Yemen, training Yemeni fighters to fight the Houthis. Do you have a view on whether that is a useful policy on the part of Saudi Arabia?
MS HARF: I actually hadn’t seen that story, Arshad. I’m happy to look into it.
QUESTION: Okay. No, I’ll flag it to you.
MS HARF: Thank you.
QUESTION: That’s publicly, I think, acknowledged even by the Saudis.
MS HARF: Well, I know the Saudis have spoken at length to what they’re doing there, so I don’t have more to say than what they’ve said. Obviously, they can speak about what they’re doing. But I’m happy to check with our team.
QUESTION: Just one follow-up on that.
MS HARF: Yeah.
QUESTION: I think whenever it’s been asked, I think even – who you mention – Ambassador Al-Jubeir recently at a press conference was asked about the vetting for their training operations. And he only said, “As best as we can.” Is that sufficient for the United States in terms of vetting fighters in a very dangerous part of the world?
MS HARF: Well, again, they can speak more specifically to what they’re doing in terms of that issue. In general, we have called on all sides to comply with international humanitarian law, which is obviously a part of what goes into vetting – right? – because it includes the obligation to distinguish between military objectives and civilian objects, to take all feasible precaution to minimize harm to civilians. Those are, I think, things that are part of a vetting process. So I’m happy to check and see if there’s more, but we’ve certainly called on all sides to take those things into account.
QUESTION: One more —
QUESTION: Can we stick with Saudi for a second?
QUESTION: Yeah, it was Saudi. Yeah.
QUESTION: Go ahead, then.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask about Saudi and Yemen thing, about – today the Secretary mentioned that he was going to be talking with High Representative Mogherini about Yemen.
MS HARF: He did.
QUESTION: Could you give us a readout on that portion of the talks and whether there is – I know there are some kind of moves to try and get these negotiations going. The Iranian foreign minister in New York, Zarif, again today was talking about it. He ruled out the UAE as a possible choice of venue for such talks. So I wondered if there was anything that came up in the talks with the Secretary and High Representative Mogherini about a possible venue in somewhere outside the conflict, like Europe for instance.
MS HARF: Right. I don’t have a lot of details to share about that part of the conversation. They did talk about the need to, as quickly as possible, move to a political dialogue, to get Yemenis at the table, to move this process forward. They talked about possible ways that could happen, but I just don’t have more to share.
QUESTION: And what about – I ask about Europe because Foreign Minister Zarif in his speech in New York specifically mentioned or made reference to the Bonn conference, which, of course, was fundamental in resolving conflicts in Afghanistan at that time. And I wondered whether in principle whether a Europe-based negotiation will be something that will be acceptable for the United States, or if it’s something that’s been floated.
MS HARF: We’re looking at what the possible options might be. I don’t have much more to share.
QUESTION: The other thing that was interesting about the Bonn conference of course was that Iran participated in it directly. Has your position on the possibility of Iran participating in such a conference in this instance evolved?
MS HARF: Well, as I’ve said repeatedly, that we have always been open to them having a role in discussions about issues where they can play a role – we talked about Syria in the past – and as the Secretary said in his press availability in New York that he was going to be talking to Foreign Minister Zarif about Yemen. So this is obviously something that everyone would have to talk about as this moves forward. But I think we’ve shown in the past, under the right circumstances, an openness to Iran participating in these conversations.
MS HARF: Again, under the right circumstances.
QUESTION: Right. And that’s still your stance? You’re open to it under the right circumstances.
MS HARF: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Did you read out – sorry, I wasn’t here yesterday – did – was there a question about any readout from the Iran-Yemen —
QUESTION: There was.
QUESTION: From the Iran-U.S. – there was? Okay.
MS HARF: There was. I don’t have much more to add.
QUESTION: Can I ask one more on the Saudis?
MS HARF: You can.
QUESTION: Just does the U.S. Government have any view other than the laudatory comments that you had about Prince Saud al-Faisal and Ambassador Al-Jubeir on the whole range of changes that had been made by the Saudi royal family? And in particular, do you have any concerns that this appears to further consolidate power in the Sudairi branch of the royal family, and potentially to disadvantage the princes who are descended from other senior Saudi elders?
MS HARF: Well, I’d say a few things. First, that our strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia is longstanding under multiple administrations, many different kings, and this will certainly continue. We’re confident that we will continue to enjoy a close and productive relationship with Saudi leaders. As you know, many American officials have worked very closely with Muhammad bin Nayef who was part of this announcement, including the Secretary, including John Brennan and others who have close working relationships with him. I don’t have much analysis to do for you on the lineage or which brothers were named to which positions. I think it’s notable that this is a next-generation issue when it comes to Muhammad bin Nayef being the son of a first-generation prince. That’s something I think that analysts can talk about what the significance of it is, but I think a lot of people have mentioned that. But again, we are looking forward to working with whoever is in those positions.
QUESTION: But it doesn’t raise any concerns to the U.S. Government about stability?
MS HARF: No, it does not.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Can we stay with —
MS HARF: Saudi?
MS HARF: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: A follow-up question from yesterday. The reports of the arrests of about 100 militants: Some of them according to Saudi officials were planning attacks against U.S. embassies. Were – do you have any confirmation on that or any additional information on those alleged attacks?
MS HARF: I don’t have much more information. I know we talked about this a little bit yesterday. I think this underscores the Saudi Government’s commitment to counterterrorism. We have certainly worked very closely with the Saudis for many, many years now through multiple administrations on these issues, and they’ve been very focused on countering threats in Saudi Arabia and in the region. I don’t have much more confirmation of some of the details that have been out there.
MS HARF: Let’s move on to Iraq, yes.
QUESTION: Yes. Do you have any comment about this draft resolution at the Armed Services Committee that calls for the recognition of the Sunni fighters and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces as a country, and so they can be – directly receive aid and weapons from the U.S., not through the central government?
MS HARF: I saw that. I saw that. And to be very clear: The policy of this Administration is clear and consistent in support of a unified Iraq, and that we’ve always said a unified Iraq is stronger, and it’s important to the stability of the region as well. Our military assistance and equipment deliveries, our policy remains the same there as well, that all arms transfers must be coordinated via the sovereign central government of Iraq. We believe this policy is the most effective way to support the coalition’s efforts.
So we look forward to working with congress on language that we could support on this important issue, but the draft bill, as you noted, in the House – this is very early in the process here for the NDAA – as currently written on this issue, of course, does not reflect Administration policy.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Do you – broadly, do you support – do you believe it’s the Executive Branch’s prerogative to recognize countries?
MS HARF: I do.
QUESTION: Or is it the Senate Armed Services Committee?
MS HARF: This actually is the House —
QUESTION: House Armed Services Committee.
MS HARF: — Armed Services Committee. The Executive Branch.
QUESTION: The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the FBI facilitated ransom payment for the Weinstein family to al-Qaida in 2012. Is that a move that the State Department supports?
MS HARF: I’m happy for you to check with the FBI or the family. I’m not aware of that.
QUESTION: And then I wanted to follow up on the Maersk. Just the – so the notion that the – it’s in custody. Has the vessel been seized? Are the crewmembers hostages? What’s the status of —
MS HARF: As I said, it remains in custody. We’ve received no reports of any injuries to crewmembers. I don’t have more for you than that.
QUESTION: And then finally, is the Administration considering the transfer of Gitmo detainee Mohamedou Slahi?
MS HARF: Mr. Slahi is not currently approved for transfer. He is eligible for a hearing before the Periodic Review Board, which is an interagency administrative body that determines whether an individual’s continued detention is necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the U.S. There are currently 55 detainees eligible for review by the PRB. He’s not special or distinguishable from the other 54 detainees similarly situated insofar as his eligibility for any review by the PRB.
QUESTION: So five years ago he was recommended for prosecution for his 9/11 ties, and now he’s eligible to be considered for transfer. Is there any material – is there new evidence in his case that —
MS HARF: Well, all detainees that are not currently approved for transfer, not facing charges, of which he is one, are eligible for and will receive PRB hearings to determine whether they should be approved for transfer. This is an interagency process. This Administration put in more stringent regulations governing how we transfer detainees, and because of those regulations the recidivism rate for people we’ve transferred has actually dropped significantly.
Yes, Mesfin.
QUESTION: Okay, Marie, thank you. During her recent visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Under Secretary Wendy Sherman made some remarks regarding the Ethiopian Government and opposition. However, some people, including the opposition, have continued to criticize her for making those remarks. My question is: Did Wendy Sherman reflect the United States policy towards Ethiopia or – when she made those statements?
MS HARF: Her statements fully reflect the U.S. Government’s positions on these issues. They do. Thank you.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you, and I have one more question.
MS HARF: Okay.
QUESTION: Let me pass because – I will send an email first before; you may not have that information so I will —
MS HARF: Okay. I can come back to you.
QUESTION: No, no, no, I will send an email first —
MS HARF: Okay, perfect.
QUESTION: — so you can prepare for the —
MS HARF: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS HARF: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: I have two questions.
QUESTION: The first ones deal with Azerbaijan. The government-owned media outlets have run a long investigative article that supposedly uncovers a U.S. plot to tarnish the country’s image ahead of the European Olympic Games which take place there in June. The article portrays Secretary Kerry as pro-Armenian. Wanted to find out, first of all, what is State’s reaction. Secondly, if there are plans to lodge a formal protest to the government.
MS HARF: Well, the U.S.’s longstanding support for Azerbaijan’s sovereignty and independence is backed by much more than words, certainly, and the claims in this article are completely baseless and without merit.
QUESTION: And secondly, a journalist who has been detained there – Khadija Ismayilova – prison authorities have reprimanded her for leaking her writings to the press from prison. Has the State Department called for her unconditional release? And if not, are there plans to do so?
MS HARF: Well, we are deeply concerned by the incarceration of all those detained in connection with exercising fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan and have called for their release. We urge the Government of Azerbaijan to respect the universal rights of all of its citizens, ensure they are afforded all the fair trial guarantees to which all citizens are entitled, and allow them to freely express their views.
QUESTION: And if I could jump to another area —
MS HARF: Yeah.
QUESTION: — could I ask you a question about Sri Lanka?
MS HARF: Of course.
QUESTION: Okay. The parliament today passed legislation that would limit the president to two five-year terms as part of efforts to roll back some of the authoritarian measures of the previous president. Is the U.S. satisfied with the pace of reforms that are taking place in that country?
MS HARF: Well, we certainly welcome the news of the passage of measures that you mentioned that curb presidential powers as part of the government’s domestic reform agenda. Certainly something we welcome.
MS HARF: Sure.
QUESTION: There’s a report that’s come out that Secretary Sherman has said that, to quote her, “hold your horses” to India and other countries in their dealing with Iran.
MS HARF: I’m not sure I’ve ever heard her use that term, and I’ve spent a lot of time with her.
QUESTION: It’s a Reuters (inaudible).
MS HARF: Well, Reuters – if it’s Reuters it must be right then.
QUESTION: It says – it quotes, “I would say ‘hold your horses.’ We are not quite to an agreement yet.”
MS HARF: I certainly – I didn’t see the quote, but I have heard her speak in similar ways about – to countries, and certainly not just India. I know she’s traveling there now – but to countries around the world who inquire about whether they should move forward with trade talks or send delegations there, to say we have a lot of work left to do, we don’t have a nuclear agreement yet, there’s a lot of time between now and the end of June 30th, and a lot of things we have to get done certainly.
QUESTION: But India has sent a delegation and they have also received a delegation, so there’s – talks are quite advanced with —
MS HARF: Well, I wouldn’t say they’re advanced. There’s one thing – delegations and talking is one thing, but in terms of moving forward, all of the architecture of the major sanctions of course remain in place.
QUESTION: Can I go to Burundi please?
MS HARF: You can.
QUESTION: Assistant Secretary Malinowski is in Bujumbura today. I wondered if you could let us know the circumstances of how this visit came about. Was it something that was long planned, before the weekend demonstrations? Who is it he’s going to be meeting with and what is the purpose of the trip?
MS HARF: Yes. He is expected to arrive today on a long-planned visit. He’ll be in Burundi from the 29th to the 30th. It was scheduled prior to the current unrest in the context of the Department’s longstanding concern about the closing of political space in Burundi. He looks forward to the opportunity to talk with Burundian officials as well as other Burundian stakeholders about the current situation and ways to defuse tensions and create an environment for peaceful, inclusive, and credible elections. I think we’ll have more of a readout for you after he gets on the ground and has the meetings.
QUESTION: It’s not clear yet whether he’ll meet with the president or such —
MS HARF: I don’t have that in front – I don’t have a full list of meetings.
QUESTION: Okay. And I know that the United States has voiced disappointment about what’s happening in Burundi at the moment. Is that a message he’s also going to be bringing, that the United States wants to see the Arusha Accords met and wants to have a full and proper election take place?
MS HARF: Absolutely, absolutely. What else? A quiet day, everyone.
QUESTION: I have an Indonesia question if everybody else is quiet.
QUESTION: Marie, do you know when the coalition’s next meeting in Paris is going to be?
MS HARF: The anti-ISIL coalition?
MS HARF: I do not.
QUESTION: It’s a ministerial.
MS HARF: I do not. I don’t think we have that locked in yet.
On Iran, I’ll just say today the experts – the P5+1, Iran, and the U.S. – started meeting in New York as part of the NPT Conference, or they were all in town for it I guess. And they’ll be meeting for a few days at the expert level.
QUESTION: And Foreign Minister Zarif actually said also that new talks are expected for Monday, in Europe, but he didn’t say where.
MS HARF: Yeah, that – I don’t think that that’s finalized —
MS HARF: — and I’m not sure that that’s what will end up happening in the schedule. I think we’ll see how the expert talks go.
QUESTION: Okay. But what level would it likely be, though?
MS HARF: I hadn’t actually heard that there was something on the schedule for Monday, so —
QUESTION: Okay. And can I go to Indonesia?
MS HARF: You can, yes.
QUESTION: I wanted to have a reaction, if possible, to the executions that happened today – yesterday, I think, time-wise – of the foreigners who had been sentenced for – on drug smuggling charges. What is the United States reaction to the —
MS HARF: We don’t have much to say on this other than we’re aware that they have executed eight foreign citizens convicted of drug trafficking. As we’ve said, none of these eight were American citizens.
QUESTION: And do you support – there was a lot of calls for clemency. Would you have supported those calls?
MS HARF: I don’t have much more on this one for you.
QUESTION: And I wondered also if I could ask, more broadly, there are some fears – or some expressions, rather – from particularly Australia that this means that they can’t really have business as usual with the Indonesian Government, given that two of their citizens were executed despite their appeals for clemency. Are you concerned that this could actually heighten tensions in a part of the world where there are already significant tensions to do with other countries, not really Indonesia?
MS HARF: Well, I’ll certainly let the Australians speak to how they’ll react here, and we certainly hope nothing raises tensions, of course.
QUESTION: Back to India?
QUESTION: Following the Ford Foundation and Greenpeace, on which the U.S. has commented —
QUESTION: — now that India has – more than 3,000 NGOs have been suspended, their activities and all. Do you have any reaction to that?
MS HARF: I hadn’t actually seen that. I’ll check and get back to you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS HARF: That’s it?
QUESTION: Sorry – oh yeah, sorry. Marie, I don’t know if you’ve seen the comments from the Ankara mayor.
MS HARF: Oh, I wasn’t sure if we were going to get through the briefing without someone (inaudible).
QUESTION: Yeah, and they’re obviously pretty inflammatory, and I wondered if I could have your comment, particularly, as I see they’re targeted exclusively at yourself.
MS HARF: They are. That is true. I think a couple points here. They were about the situation in Baltimore. First, that I don’t think there should be any question in the minds of anyone who’s paying attention here about the view of the United States Government about what’s happening in Baltimore given the President’s lengthy statement on it yesterday. You’ve heard the Attorney General and multiple other officials speak about it as well.
And I would note that the President didn’t just talk about the specific incident and the investigation, but really about the fact that we have to do some soul-searching here, and spoke, I think, very deeply and personally about an issue that is clearly one that people feel very passionately about.
And I think the final thing I would probably say is that – and I’ve said this before – but I would put our record here in the U.S. of openly, transparently addressing challenges when we have them here at home up against any other countries on the planet. I mean, when you have the President of the United States, I think, speak for, what, 12 minutes yesterday; when you have wall-to-wall news coverage of this; when you have commentators and people debating and talking; U.S. Government officials saying there’s going to be an investigation, that is a record of transparency, of self-reflection when we have challenges that I would put up against any other countries anywhere in the world.
QUESTION: And can I just ask – I mean, the remarks he actually makes, though, are, in my opinion – and I’m not supposed to have one – pretty offensive. And I’d like to give you the opportunity to respond to his criticism of you.
MS HARF: I really don’t think I’m going to dignify them with a response.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS HARF: Thanks, guys.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:09 p.m.)
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