EU Welcomes New Polish Government’s Plan to ‘Restore Rule of Law’

Warsaw — The European Union on Tuesday welcomed Poland’s plan to “restore the rule of law” and dismantle policies by the former nationalist government which led to the freezing of billions of euros in EU funds due to concerns over judicial independence.

Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party, which ruled for eight years, carried out a deep overhaul of the judiciary which the EU said damaged democratic checks and balances and brought courts under political influence.

As a result, the European Commission held back billions of euros in funds earmarked for Poland.

EU commissioners said the plan by the new pro-EU government, in power since last December, and which involves several bills rolling back PiS reforms, was well received.

“This was very impressive for the Commission to listen to so many positive comments around the table… the reactions are very positive,” European Union Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders told reporters.

The deputy head of the European Commission, Vera Jourova, called the action plan “realistic”.

Poland’s new prime minister, Donald Tusk, has vowed to restore judicial independence and get the funds released. But he faces resistance from PiS supporters and allies, who include President Andrzej Duda and some high-profile judges.

“I think that the very positive reaction from the member states is also associated with a certain level of trust that we will do it in a way that is predictable and consistent with the rule of law,” Polish Justice Minister Adam Bodnar said after presenting the plan in Brussels.

Bodnar said earlier the plan includes changes to the National Council of the Judiciary (NCJ), which appoints judges, and the Constitutional Tribunal which critics say has been politicized under PiS.

In a sign that the government is committed to implementing the changes soon, Tusk’s cabinet approved on Tuesday a bill on the NCJ proposed by Bodnar, which will now go to parliament.

The bill assumes members of the Council would be chosen by judges, not politicians as they were under changes introduced under PiS. The European Court of Human Rights and Court of Justice of the EU had pointed to irregularities in the procedure.

“On the day of announcing the results of the new election to the NCJ, those judges in the Council who were elected in an unconstitutional manner by the (parliament), on the basis of provisions adopted in December 2017, will cease to function in the Council,” the government said.

Kremlin Says Accusations Putin Had Role in Navalny’s Death ‘Unfounded’

Britain, US, EU, Allies Take Down Lockbit Cybercrime Gang

LONDON — Lockbit, a notorious cybercrime gang that holds its victims’ data for ransom, has been disrupted in a rare international law enforcement operation by Britain’s National Crime Agency, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Europol and a coalition of international police agencies, according to a post on the gang’s extortion website on Monday.

“This site is now under the control of the National Crime Agency of the UK, working in close cooperation with the FBI and the international law enforcement task force, ‘Operation Cronos,’” the post said.

An NCA spokesperson confirmed that the agency had disrupted the gang and said the operation was “ongoing and developing.”

A representative for Lockbit did not respond to messages from Reuters seeking comment but did post messages on an encrypted messaging app saying it had backup servers not affected by the law enforcement action.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The post named other international police organizations from France, Japan, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland and Germany.

Lockbit and its affiliates have hacked some of the world’s largest organizations in recent months. The gang makes money by stealing sensitive data and threatening to leak it if victims fail to pay an extortionate ransom. Its affiliates are like-minded criminal groups that are recruited by the group to wage attacks using Lockbit’s digital extortion tools.

Ransomware is malicious software that encrypts data. Lockbit makes money by coercing its targets into paying ransom to decrypt or unlock that data with a digital key.

Lockbit was discovered in 2020 when its eponymous malicious software was found on Russian-language cybercrime forums, leading some security analysts to believe the gang is based in Russia.

The gang has not professed support for any government, however, and no government has formally attributed it to a nation-state. On its now-defunct dark web site, the group said it was “located in the Netherlands, completely apolitical and only interested in money.”

“They are the Walmart of ransomware groups, they run it like a business — that’s what makes them different,” said Jon DiMaggio, chief security strategist at Analyst1, a U.S.-based cybersecurity firm. “They are arguably the biggest ransomware crew today.”

Officials in the United States, where Lockbit has hit more than 1,700 organizations in nearly every industry from financial services and food to schools, transportation and government departments, have described the group as the world’s top ransomware threat.

In November of last year, Lockbit published internal data from Boeing, one of the world’s largest defense and space contractors. In early 2023, Britain’s Royal Mail faced severe disruption after an attack by the group.

According to vx-underground, a cybersecurity research website, Lockbit said in a statement in Russian and shared on Tox, an encrypted messaging app, that the FBI hit its servers that run on the programming language PHP. The statement, which Reuters could not verify independently, added that it has backup servers without PHP that “are not touched.”

On X, formerly known as Twitter, vx-underground shared screenshots showing the control panel used by Lockbit’s affiliates to launch attacks had been replaced with a message from law enforcement: “We have source code, details of the victims you have attacked, the amount of money extorted, the data stolen, chats, and much, much more,” it said.

“We may be in touch with you very soon” it added. “Have a nice day.”

Before it was taken down, Lockbit’s website displayed an ever-growing gallery of victim organizations that was updated nearly daily. Next to their names were digital clocks that showed the number of days left to the deadline given to each organization to provide ransom payment.

On Monday, Lockbit’s site displayed a similar countdown, but from the law enforcement agencies who hacked the hackers: “Return here for more information at: 11:30 GMT on Tuesday 20th Feb.” the post said.

Don Smith, vice president of Secureworks, an arm of Dell Technologies, said Lockbit was the most prolific and dominant ransomware operator in a highly competitive underground market.

“To put today’s takedown into context, based on leak site data, Lockbit had a 25% share of the ransomware market. Their nearest rival was Blackcat at around 8.5%, and after that it really starts to fragment,” Smith said.

“Lockbit dwarfed all other groups and today’s action is highly significant.”

Putin Gave Kim Jong Un a Car Because of Their Special Ties, North Korea Says

SEOUL, South Korea — Russian President Vladimir Putin has gifted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a Russian-made car for his personal use in a demonstration of their special relationship, North Korea’s state media reported Tuesday.

The report didn’t say what kind of vehicle it was or how it was shipped. But observers said it could violate a U.N. resolution that bans supplying luxury items to North Korea in an attempt to pressure the country to abandon its nuclear weapons.

Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, and another North Korean official accepted the gift Sunday and she conveyed her brother’s thanks to Putin, the Korean Central News Agency said. Kim Yo Jong said the gift showed the special personal relationship between the leaders, the report said.

North Korea and Russia have boosted their cooperation significantly since Kim traveled to Russia last September for a summit with Putin. During Kim’s visit to Russia’s main spaceport, Putin showed the North Korean leader his personal Anrus Senat limousine and Kim sat in its backseat.

According to Russia’s state-run Tass news agency, Aurus was the first Russian luxury car brand and it’s been used in the motorcades of top officials including Putin since he first used an Anrus limousine during his inauguration ceremony in 2018.

Kim, 40, is known to possess many foreign-made luxury cars believed to have been smuggled into his country in breach of the U.N. resolution.

During his Russia visit, he traveled between meeting sites in a Maybach limousine that was brought with him on one of his special train carriages.

During an earlier Russia trip in 2019, Kim had two limos waiting for him at Vladivostok station – a Mercedes Maybach S600 Pullman Guard and a Mercedes Maybach S62. He also reportedly used the S600 Pullman Guard for his two summits with then-President Donald Trump in Singapore in 2018 and Vietnam in 2019.

In 2018, Kim used a black Mercedes limousine to return home after a meeting with South Korea’s then-President Moon Jae-in at a shared Korean border village.

Kim’s possession of such expensive foreign limousines shows the porousness of international sanctions on the North. Russia voted for the ban on supplying luxury good to North Korea, even though as a permanent Security Council member, it could have vetoed the resolution.

The expanding ties between North Korea and Russia come as they are locked in separate confrontations with the United States and its allies – North Korea for its advancing nuclear program and Russia for its protracted war with Ukraine.

The U.S., South Korea and their partners accuse North Korea of sending conventional arms to Russia for its war in Ukraine, in return for high-tech Russian weapons technologies and other support.

After its foreign minister returned home following a Russian visit in January, the North’s state media reported Putin expressed his willingness to visit the North at an early date.

WikiLeaks’ Assange Set to Begin Last-ditch Effort to Stop Extradition to US

london — WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange begins what could be his last chance to stop his extradition from Britain to the United States on Tuesday after more than 13 years battling the authorities in the English courts. 

U.S. prosecutors are seeking to put Assange, 52, on trial on 18 counts relating to WikiLeaks’ high-profile release of vast troves of confidential U.S. military records and diplomatic cables. 

They argue that the leaks imperiled the lives of their agents and that there is no excuse for his criminality. Assange’s many supporters hail him as an anti-establishment hero and a journalist who is being persecuted for exposing U.S. wrongdoing. 

Assange’s legal battles began in 2010, and he subsequently spent seven years holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London before he was dragged out and jailed in 2019 for breaching bail conditions. He has been held in a maximum-security jail in southeast London ever since, even getting married there. 

Britain finally approved his extradition to the U.S. in 2022 after a judge initially blocked it because concerns about his mental health meant he would be at risk of suicide if deported. 

His lawyers will try to overturn that approval at a two-day hearing in front of two judges at London’s High Court in what could be his last chance to stop his extradition in the English courts. His wife, Stella, last week described it as a matter of life and death. 

They will argue that Assange’s prosecution is politically motivated and marks an impermissible attack on free speech, as the first time a publisher has been charged under the U.S. Espionage Act. 

His supporters include Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, media organizations that worked with WikiLeaks, and Australian politicians, including Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who last week voted in favor of a motion calling for his return to Australia. 

Pope Francis even granted his wife an audience last year. 

‘His life is at risk’

If Assange wins permission in the latest case, a full appeal hearing will be held to again consider his challenge. If he loses, his only remaining option would be at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), where he has an appeal already lodged pending the London ruling. 

Speaking last week, Stella Assange said they would apply to the ECHR for an emergency injunction if necessary. She said her husband would not survive if he was extradited. 

“His health is in decline, physically and mentally,” she said. “His life is at risk every single day he stays in prison – and if he is extradited, he will die.” 

Assange’s brother Gabriel Shipton compared the WikiLeaks founder with Alexey Navalny, the Russian opposition activist who died in prison Friday while serving a 19-year sentence. 

“I know exactly what it feels like to have a loved one unjustly incarcerated with no hope,” he told the BBC. “To have them pass away, that’s what we live in fear of: that Julian will be lost to us, lost to the U.S. prison system or even die in jail in the U.K.” 

WikiLeaks first came to prominence in 2010 when it published a U.S. military video showing a 2007 attack by Apache helicopters in Baghdad that killed a dozen people, including two Reuters news staff. 

It then released thousands of secret classified files and diplomatic cables that laid bare often highly critical U.S. appraisals of world leaders from Russian President Vladimir Putin to members of the Saudi royal family. 

EU Launches Mission to Protect Maritime Traffic in Red Sea

brussels — The European Union on Monday officially launched its mission to protect maritime traffic in the Red Sea, which has been disrupted by Houthi rebel attacks, the European Commission president said.

Several countries have expressed their intention to participate in this mission, called Aspides (“shield” in ancient Greek), including Belgium, Italy, Germany and France. Spain has indicated that it will not participate.

“Europe will ensure freedom of navigation in the Red Sea, in coordination with our international partners,” EC President Ursula von der Leyen posted on X from an EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels.

“We have just approved the launch of the naval military operation Aspides, of which Italy will have command of the forces,” Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani confirmed on X. 

The mission is planned for one year but may be renewed.

It will be up to the mission’s command to determine when it will have sufficient resources to be fully operational. That should take “a few weeks,” according to a European diplomat. 

The German frigate Hessen left on February 8 for the Red Sea, with a crew of 240. It will be in a state of permanent alert and will be able to respond to possible attacks with remotely controlled missiles, drones and boats.

Greek general command  

Belgium has announced its intention to send its frigate Marie-Louise. France has said it is ready to make one of its frigates already present in the Red Sea available to the Aspides mission. 

The EU agreed in January on the principle of a maritime surveillance and patrol mission in the Red Sea, provided that its mandate was purely defensive. 

Greece will assume general command of this mission and Italy will assume operational command at sea, a European diplomatic source explained Friday. 

It will be able to fire to defend merchant ships or defend itself but will not be able to target objectives on land against Houthi rebel positions in Yemen, according to diplomats.  

The Houthis, who control large areas of Yemen, say they have been carrying out attacks on ships in the Red Sea in solidarity with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, where Israel is waging war against Gaza’s Hamas rulers in retaliation for an October 7 attack on Israel.  

These attacks in the Red Sea triggered retaliatory strikes by U.S. and British forces, the latest of which took place Saturday.  

US Stealth Jet Offer to Turkey Puts Future of Its Russian S-400 Missiles in Doubt

With Turkey-U.S. relations improving rapidly, Washington offered to allow Ankara to buy its advanced F-35 military jet if it removes to a third country the S-400 missiles it purchased from Russia. But as Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul, the missiles remain a potent symbol of deepening Turkish-Russian ties.

Ukraine Ambassador: Russian Aggression Against Ukraine Threatens Sovereignty of Other Nations

GENEVA — Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Yevheniia Filipenko, warned Monday that “Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine two years ago poses a major threat to multilateralism and the U.N. Charter,” which upholds the rule of law and fundamental freedoms around the world. 

Ahead of this grim anniversary, Filipenko told journalists that Russia’s aggression against her country actually began 10 years ago with its attempt to annex and occupy Ukraine’s territory, including the autonomous Republic of Crimea. 

“If Russia’s aggression remains unaddressed, it will lead to further violations,” she said. “The world must remain united in countering this major threat to multilateralism, the U.N. Charter and the principle of international law.” 

Filipenko said Ukraine planned to draw international attention to the systematic, gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Russian Federation in Ukraine at the U.N. Human Rights Council, which begins a six-week session next Monday. 

She said her delegation would highlight “the indiscriminate, continued attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, perpetrated on an almost daily basis,” noting that “dozens of missiles are being thrown on Ukrainian cities, with the only purpose to destroy the country and its people.” 

“But we know that Russia will never succeed, because we are fighting for the existence of Ukraine as a sovereign nation, and we are also fighting for every U.N. member state, for their sovereignty and territorial integrity,” she said. 

Since the start of the war, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, reports that at least 10,000 civilians have been killed and more than 18,000 injured, 3.6 million people are displaced inside Ukraine, and another 6.3 million have fled as refugees to other countries. 

The World Health Organization has verified 1,552 attacks on health care, including health facilities, ambulances, health workers and health providers. 

Filipenko said Russia has destroyed 40% of Ukraine’s economy and has planted landmines on one-third of its territory, “making Ukraine one of the most mined lands in the world.” 

A report released February 15 by the government of Ukraine, the World Bank Group, the European Commission, and the United Nations estimates that “the total cost of reconstruction and recovery in Ukraine is $486 billion over the next decade, up from $411 billion estimated a year ago.” 

A survey commissioned by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies finds Russia’s war in Ukraine is exacting a heavy financial and mental toll on the civilian population both inside and outside the country. 

“The urgent needs are growing and are more intractable for every Ukrainian, whether they are near the front lines of Ukraine, whether they are displaced throughout the country, or whether they have been forced to flee to other countries,” Birgitte Bischoff Ebbesen, IFRC regional director for Europe, said Friday from Budapest. 

She said the survey of 10,000 people found that “more than half of Ukrainians in Ukraine and around Europe experience financial hardship, which after two years has led to an increase in debt and to people accepting jobs that are underpaid and also dangerous.”

Ebbesen said a third of Ukrainians in neighboring countries reported having to borrow money to get by, with some families having to spend more than 20% of their income on servicing their debt.

“Many people inside and outside Ukraine have had to start over from zero,” she warned. “For marginalized groups like the elderly, the needs skyrocket further, as they are more isolated and struggle to access services and income opportunities.”

Ebbesen warned that soaring inflation and economic uncertainty have depleted people’s savings, pushing them further into debt, which risked creating unstable futures for millions of people.

Meanwhile, Filipenko, who is aware of the bleak outlook facing her country, told journalists, “We refuse to be the victims of the Russian aggression. Our government is working hard to make sure that our economy keeps going.”

She said that Russia’s daily attacks on Ukraine show that it does not intend to talk about peace. 

“Their only intention is to destroy,” she said, adding, “Talks will come after the full, unconditional withdrawal of Russian troops from our entire territory.”

While acknowledging the difficulty in achieving that result, the Ukrainian ambassador remained defiant in her response.

“The magnitude of the destruction and suffering that Russia is inflicting on Ukraine on a daily basis … is beyond any human comprehension,” she said.

“But this suffering brings us more strength, determination and resilience to stop Russia, to defeat Russia, and to liberate our land, restore the rule of law and the strength of the U.N. Charter.” 

Navalny’s Widow Addresses Husband’s Death, Vows to Lead Anti-Putin Opposition

Navalny Team Says Mother Barred From Morgue

Moscow — The mother of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is being refused access to his body for a third day, his team said on Monday as his widow prepared to meet European foreign ministers.

Navalny’s death in an Arctic prison last week has shocked the country’s exiled opposition which — along with the West — pointed the finger at the Kremlin.

Navalny’s allies said investigators told his mother, Lyudmila, the investigation into his death in prison “has been extended.”

Russia’s prison service said Navalny, 47, died on Friday after a walk in his remote prison above the Arctic Circle.

His mother travelled to the isolated prison colony in the town of Kharp — around 2,000 kilometers away from Moscow — Saturday but was told his body was not there.

She was then sent to a morgue in the regional hub of Salekhard, but officials there also denied her access to the body.

“Alexei’s mother and his lawyers arrived at the morgue early in the morning. They were not allowed to go in,” Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said on social media.

“One of the lawyers was literally pushed out. When the staff was asked if Alexei’s body was there, they did not answer,” she added.

She later said the mother — who has not spoken publicly — was told a probe into his death was being prolonged.

“It is not known how long it will continue. The cause of death is still ‘undetermined.’

“They’re lying, playing for time and do not even hide it,” Yarmysh said.  

Navalny’s team, which have operated from outside Russia for more than two years, have demanded his body be handed over to relatives.

They have accused authorities of “covering up their tracks.”

Putin has not yet commented on the death, despite making public appearances after it was announced.

Authorities detained hundreds of mourners who brought flowers to local monuments in Russia over the weekend, rights groups said.

Navalnaya headed for Brussels

As his relatives and lawyers searched for his body in the Russian Far North, his widow Yulia Navalnaya will head for Brussels Monday to meet EU foreign ministers.

She has held Putin personally responsible for her husband’s death.

“I want Putin and all his entourage, Putin’s friends and his government to know: they will bear responsibility for what they did to our country, to my family, to my husband,” she said when the death was announced on Friday. 

The West has blamed Putin and his government for Navalny’s death.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he would welcome Yulia Navalnaya to the bloc’s Foreign Affairs Council on Monday.

“EU Ministers will send a strong message of support to freedom fighters in Russia” and “honor” Navalny’s memory, he added on X, formerly Twitter, on Sunday.

Navalnaya was by Navalny’s side throughout his more than decade long fight against the Kremlin.

She managed to fly him out of Russia when he was poisoned in 2020 with what doctors said was a nerve agent and defiantly returned with him to Moscow, knowing he would go to prison, in 2021.

As the West mounted pressure on Russia, blaming Putin for the death, the Kremlin remained silent.

Russia’s foreign ministry decried “sweeping accusations” by the West in the hours after the death, but no high-placed officials have since commented.  

Russia’s prison service said in a short statement that Navalny had died “after a walk” in the IK-3 colony — known as the “Polar Wolf.”

In a message from prison on January 9, Navalny described the walking cell as “11 steps from one wall and three steps to another.”

He said he was brought for a walk “normally after lunch” or, if he was in solitary confinement, “at 6.30 am” despite polar nights.

“So far, it has not been colder than -32 (Celsius),” he said.

“There are few things that strengthen you as a walk in the (Arctic region) Yamal at 6.30 am,” the politician joked, in his usual sarcastic style.  

Navalny had continued from behind bars to call on Russians to fight against the regime, calling on them “not to be afraid.”

He also watched on in despair as Russia launched its Ukraine offensive, denouncing it from his prison.

Keeper of Vatican’s Secrets Is Retiring – Here’s What He Wants You to Know

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has been trying for years to debunk the idea that its vaunted secret archives are all that secret: It has opened up the files of controversial World War II-era Pope Pius XII to scholars and changed the official name to remove the word “Secret” from its title.

But a certain aura of myth and mystery has persisted — until now.

The longtime prefect of what is now named the Vatican Apostolic Archive, Archbishop Sergio Pagano, is spilling the beans for the first time, revealing some of the secrets he has uncovered in the 45 years he has worked in one of the world’s most important, and unusual, repositories of documents.

In a new book-length interview titled “Secretum” to be published Tuesday, Pagano divulges some of the unknown, lesser-known and behind-the-scenes details of well-known sagas of the Holy See and its relations with the outside world over the past 12 centuries.

In conversations over the course of a year with Italian journalist Massimo Franco, Pagano delves into everything from Napoleon’s sacking of the archive in 1810 to the Galileo affair and the peculiar conclave — the assembly of cardinals to elect a pope — of 1922 that was financed by last-minute donations from U.S. Catholics.

“It’s the first time and it will also be the last because I’m about to leave,” Pagano, 75, said in an interview with The Associated Press in his archive office, ahead of his expected retirement later this year.

Pope Leo XIII first opened the archive to scholars in 1881, after it had been used exclusively to serve the pope and preserve documentation of the papacies, ecumenical councils and Vatican offices dating from the 8th century.

With 85 kilometers of shelving, much of it underground in a two-story, fireproof, reinforced concrete bunker, the archive also houses documentation from Vatican embassies around the globe as well as specific collections from aristocratic families and religious orders.

While often the source of Dan Brown-esque conspiracies, it functions much as any national or private archive: Researchers request permission to visit and then request specific documents to review in dedicated reading rooms.

Pagano keeps a close eye on them from a giant television screen perched to the side of his desk, which provides a live, closed-circuit feed to the reading rooms downstairs.

Most recently, scholars have been flocking to the archive to read through the documents of the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, the wartime pope who has been criticized for not having spoken out enough about the Holocaust.

Pope Francis ordered the documents of his pontificate opened ahead of schedule, in 2020, so scholars could finally have the full picture of the papacy.

The Vatican has long defended Pius, saying he used quiet diplomacy to save lives and didn’t speak out publicly about Nazi crimes because he feared retaliation, including against the Vatican itself.

Pagano is no apologist for Pius and stands out among Vatican hierarchs for his willingness to call out Pius’ silence. Specifically, Pagano says he cannot square Pius’ continued reluctance to publicly condemn Nazi atrocities even after the war ended.

“During the war we know that the pope made a choice: He could not and would not speak. He was convinced that an even worse massacre would have happened,” Pagano said. “After the war, I would have expected a word more, for all these people who went to the gas chambers.”

Pagano attributes Pius’ continued, post-war silence to his concerns about the creation of a Jewish state. The Vatican had a long tradition of supporting the Palestinian people and was concerned about the fate of Christian religious sites in the Holy Land if the territories were turned over to the newly created state of Israel.

Any word from Pius about the Holocaust even after the war “could have been read in political terms as a support for the foundation of a new state,” Pagano said.

In the book, Pagano doesn’t hold back about his disdain for the incomplete research behind Pius’ sainthood cause, which is now apparently on hold as scholars dissect the newly available documentation.

The two Jesuit researchers who compiled Pius’ sainthood dossier, the late Revs. Peter Gumpel and Paolo Molinari, relied only on the partial, 11-volume compilation of the papacy’s documents that was published in 1965, Pagano revealed.

“Neither Father Gumpel nor Father Molinari ever set foot in the Apostolic Archive,” he says in the book. He said he believed Pius’ sainthood cause should have waited until the full archive of the pontificate was catalogued and available, and scholars had time to draw conclusions.

“Written documents must weigh heavily on the life of a servant of God, you can’t ignore the archives,” Pagano told Franco, the journalist. “But the postulation by the Jesuits wanted to bypass it.”

Aside from the well-known stories of Vatican intrigue, the book also reveals some novelties, including the origins of the important financial relationship between the U.S. church and the Vatican that continues today and dates back to the 1922 conclave.

Pagano said that after Pope Benedict XV died, the camerlengo — the cardinal in charge of the papal treasury and accounts — went to his safe and discovered it was “literally empty. There wasn’t a paper, bank note or coin.” It turns out Benedict wasn’t terribly responsible fiscally, and left the Holy See somewhat in the red when he died on Jan. 22 of that year.

Papal coffers were always used to fund the conclave to elect a new pope, meaning the Holy See was in a cash crunch at a time when Europe was still reeling financially from World War I.

The book, for the first time, reproduces the encrypted telegrams in which the Vatican secretary of state asked his ambassador in Washington to urgently wire “what you have in the safe” so that the vote could take place.

According to the telegrams, the Vatican embassy sent what U.S. churches had collected from the American faithful, down to the cents: $210,400.09, allowing the vote that eventually elected Pope Pius XI.

Pagano suggests that Francis’ 2019 decision to remove the word “Secret” from the archive’s name and rename it the “Vatican Apostolic Archive” was perhaps another financial nod to the wealthy U.S. church — a rebranding to remove any negative connotations and thus encourage potential donations, primarily via “Treasures of History,” a new U.S.-based foundation that supports the archive.

At the end of the interview, Pagano proudly showed visitors one of the archive’s prized possessions, which he keeps in an otherwise nondescript wooden armoire near the entrance of his office. There, behind plate glass and illuminated with special lights, is the original 1530 letter from British nobles urging Pope Clement VII to grant King Henry VIII an annulment so he could marry Anne Boleyn.

As is well known, the pope refused and the king went ahead and got married, breaking with Rome.

“You can say that here we are at the birth of the Anglican Church,” Pagano says as he holds up a light-tipped pointer to show off the red wax seals of some of the signatories.  

Pagano delights in revealing how the document survived: When Napoleon Bonaparte famously seized the Vatican archives in 1810 and carted them off to Paris, Pagano’s predecessor as chief archivist rolled up the 1530 letter and hid it inside a secret drawer in a chair in the archive antechamber.

“The French never found it,” Pagano says proudly, keenly aware that an archivist’s main job is to preserve the archive.

Berlin Film Fest Grapples With Nazi Past, Far-Right Threat

BERLIN — This week’s Berlin international film festival is wrestling on- and off-screen with the weight of the Nazi past and the menace of a resurgent far right.

The 74th Berlinale, as the event is known, has a reputation for confronting political realities head-on with high-profile movies and hot-tempered debates.

German director Julia von Heinz brought together an unlikely pair, U.S. actor Lena Dunham and Britain’s Stephen Fry, for her drama “Treasure,” about a Holocaust survivor who returns to Poland with his journalist daughter.

Inspired by a true story, the film shows their journey following the fall of the Iron Curtain, after decades of family silence about the Nazi period.

Fry plays the seemingly jovial Edek searching for a connection with his uptight daughter Ruth (Dunham).

Their travels take them to Edek’s childhood home in Lodz, where they make the chilling discovery that a family living in his old flat is still using his parents’ porcelain tea service, silverware and a green velvet sofa they abandoned when they were deported.

Fearful it is the last chance to record his memories, Ruth convinces Edek to return to Auschwitz.

‘A new perspective’

Von Heinz, speaking after a warmly received screening, said that a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the wake of the Gaza war had spurred her to finish the film for the Berlinale.

She rejected suggestions there had been “enough” movies dealing with the Nazi period.

“There can never be enough stories to be told about this and I think we are giving it a new perspective,” she said.

Fry added: “While history may not repeat itself, as somebody once put it, (it) rhymes and there are similar feelings now as we know rising up.”

The actor, who had several relatives who were killed at Auschwitz, said it was “an extraordinary feeling” to shoot scenes outside the former death camp.

Dunham, who also lost ancestors in the Holocaust, insisted its lessons are both rooted in the Jewish experience and transcend it.

“It’s important to acknowledge that the far right, be it here or in the U.S. — there’s an incredible and shocking amount of anti-Semitic rhetoric and there’s also a shocking amount of Islamophobic rhetoric, anti-Black rhetoric, transphobic rhetoric,” she said. “The goal is to isolate people based on their identities and make them feel inhuman and that’s a universal story unfortunately.”

Resistance ‘superheroes’

“From Hilde, With Love,” starring Liv Lisa Fries of international hit series “Babylon Berlin,” also debuted at the festival over the weekend.

It tells the true story of Hilde Coppi, a member of the “Red Orchestra” anti-Nazi resistance group, who gave birth to a son in prison while awaiting her execution for “high treason” in 1942.

Director Andreas Dresen grew up in communist East Germany, a region where the far-right AfD is poised to make strong gains in key state elections later this year.

He said that in school, resistance members were often portrayed as larger-than-life “superheroes,” meaning many felt incapable of having similar courage to stand up to authority.

Fries, whose vivid portrayal impressed critics, said Coppi joined the Red Orchestra in trying to sabotage the Nazi war effort out of a basic sense of right and wrong.

“It was not only decency but also a sense of solidarity — solidarity is always worth standing up for,” she said.

Dresen stripped the movie of historical images familiar from Nazi movies such as “waving swastika flags and thumping jackboots.”

“Political terror is part of our present and unfortunately not as far away as we would like,” he said. “I really wish this film weren’t so topical.”

“From Hilde, With Love” is one of 20 films in competition for the festival’s Golden Bear top prize Saturday.

Commitment to ’empathy’

The two films premiered amid a fierce debate over whether the Berlinale should continue to invite AfD politicians to its galas.

A bombshell revelation last month — that party members attended a meeting outside Berlin at which mass deportations of foreigners and “poorly assimilated” German citizens were discussed — raised the stakes.

After initially insisting that the elected representatives should attend, the Berlinale backtracked and disinvited five AfD officials, citing its commitment to “empathy, awareness and understanding.”

The move was widely praised by the artistic community, but dissenters argued that democratic culture meant tolerating even offensive views.

Kenyan Mexican actor Lupita Nyong’o, the festival’s first black jury president, was asked whether she would have attended the opening ceremony Thursday in the presence of far-right officials.

“I’m glad I don’t have to answer that question,” she replied. “I’m glad I don’t have to be in that position.”

‘Oppenheimer’ Wins 7 Prizes, Including Best Picture, at British Academy Film Awards

London — Atom bomb epic “Oppenheimer” won seven prizes, including best picture, director and actor, at the 77th British Academy Film Awards on Sunday, cementing its front-runner status for the Oscars next month.

Gothic fantasia “Poor Things” took five prizes and Holocaust drama “The Zone of Interest” won three.

Christopher Nolan won his first best director BAFTA for “Oppenheimer,” and Cillian Murphy won the best actor prize for playing physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb.

Murphy said he was grateful to play such a “colossally knotty, complex character.”

Emma Stone was named best actress for playing the wild and spirited Bella Baxter in “Poor Things,” a steampunk-style visual extravaganza that won prizes for visual effects, production design, costume design, and makeup and hair.

“Oppenheimer” had a field-leading 13 nominations, but missed out on the record of nine trophies, set in 1971 by “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

It won the best film race against “Poor Things,” “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “Anatomy of a Fall” and “The Holdovers.” “Oppenheimer” also won trophies for editing, cinematography and musical score, as well as the best supporting actor prize for Robert Downey Jr.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph was named best supporting actress for playing a boarding school cook in “The Holdovers” and said she felt a “responsibility I don’t take lightly” to tell the stories of underrepresented people like her character Mary.

“Oppenheimer” faced stiff competition in what was widely considered a vintage year for cinema and an awards season energized by the end of actors’ and writers’ strikes that shut down Hollywood for months.

” The Zone of Interest” — a British-produced film shot in Poland with a largely German cast — was named both best British film and best film not in English — a first — and also took the prize for its sound, which has been described as the real star of the film.

Jonathan Glazer’s unsettling drama takes place in a family home just outside the walls of the Auschwitz death camp, whose horrors are heard and hinted at, rather than seen.

“Walls aren’t new from before or since the Holocaust, and it seems stark right now that we should care about innocent people being killed in Gaza or Yemen or Mariupol or Israel,” producer James Wilson said. “Thank you for recognizing a film that asks us to think in those spaces.”

Ukraine war documentary “20 Days in Mariupol,” produced by The Associated Press and PBS “Frontline,” won the prize for best documentary.

“This is not about us,” said filmmaker Mstyslav Chernov, who captured the harrowing reality of life in the besieged city with an AP team. “This is about Ukraine, about the people of Mariupol.”

Chernov said the story of the city and its fall into Russian occupation “is a symbol of struggle and a symbol of faith. Thank you for empowering our voice and let’s just keep fighting.”

The awards ceremony, hosted by “Doctor Who” star David Tennant — who entered wearing a kilt and sequined top while carrying a dog named Bark Ruffalo — was a glitzy, British-accented appetizer for Hollywood’s Academy Awards, closely watched for hints about who might win at the Oscars on March 10.

The prize for original screenplay, went to French courtroom drama “Anatomy of a Fall.” The film about a woman on trial over the death of her husband was written by director Justine Triet and her partner, Arthur Harari.

“It’s a fiction, and we are reasonably fine,” Triet joked.

Cord Jefferson won the adapted screenplay prize for the satirical “American Fiction,” about the struggles of an African-American novelist

Jefferson said he hoped the success of the movie “maybe changes the minds of the people who are in charge of greenlighting films and TV shows, allows them to be less risk-averse.”

Historical epic “Killers of the Flower Moon” had nine nominations for the awards, officially called the EE BAFTA Film Awards, but went home empty-handed.

There also was disappointment for Leonard Bernstein biopic “Maestro,” which had seven nominations but won no awards. Neither did grief-flecked love story “All of Us Strangers” with six nominations, and barbed class-war dramedy “Saltburn,” with five.

” Barbie,” one half of 2023’s “Barbenheimer” box office juggernaut and the year’s top-grossing film, also went home empty-handed from five nominations. “Barbie” director Greta Gerwig failed to get a directing nomination for either the BAFTAs or the Oscars, in what was seen by many as a major snub.

Britain’s film academy introduced changes to increase the awards’ diversity in 2020, when no women were nominated as best director for the seventh year running and all 20 nominees in the lead and supporting performer categories were white. However, Triet was the only woman among this year’s six best-director nominees.

The Rising Star award, the only category decided by public vote, went to Mia McKenna-Bruce, star of “How to Have Sex.”

Before the ceremony, nominees, including Bradley Cooper, Carey Mulligan, Emily Blunt, Rosamund Pike, Ryan Gosling and Ayo Edebiri all walked the red carpet at London’s Royal Festival Hall, along with presenters Andrew Scott, Cate Blanchett, Idirs Elba and David Beckham.

Guest of honor was Prince William, in his role as president of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. He arrived without his wife, Kate, who is recovering from abdominal surgery last month.

The ceremony included musical performances by “Ted Lasso” star Hannah Waddingham, singing “Time After Time,” and Sophie Ellis-Bextor, singing her 2001 hit “Murder on the Dancefloor,” which shot back up the charts after featuring in “Saltburn.”

Film curator June Givanni, founder of the June Givanni PanAfrican Cinema Archive, was honored for outstanding British contribution to cinema, while actress Samantha Morton received the academy’s highest honor, the BAFTA Fellowship.

Morton, who grew up in foster care and children’s homes, said that “representation matters.”

“The stories we tell, they have the power to change people’s lives,” she said. “Film changed my life, it transformed me, and it led me here today.

“I dedicate this award to every child in care, or who has been in care and who didn’t survive.”

Russian Authorities Detain Mourners Paying Tribute to Navalny

Russian authorities are detaining people mourning the death of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. He died in custody at an Arctic Circle penal colony late last week. Western leaders blame Russia. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi has more.

Hungary’s Government Declines Offer to Meet US Senators Seeking Approval for Sweden’s NATO Bid 

BUDAPEST — A bipartisan delegation of U.S. senators made an official visit to Hungary’s capital Sunday and called on the nationalist government to immediately approve Sweden’s request to join NATO. 

Hungary is the only one of NATO’s 31 existing members not to have ratified Sweden’s bid. The Hungarian government faces mounting pressure to act after delaying the move for more than 18 months since admitting a new country to the military alliance requires unanimous approval. 

The visiting senators announced they would submit a joint resolution to Congress condemning alleged democratic backsliding in Hungary and urging the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to lift its block on Sweden’s trans-Atlantic integration. 

“With accession, Hungary and your prime minister will be doing a great service to freedom-loving nations worldwide,” Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, said during a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. 

The resolution, first reported early Sunday by The Associated Press, was authored by Tillis and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat. Joining them in the delegation to Budapest was Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut. 

Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, raised the prospect of imposing sanctions on Hungary for its conduct, and called Orbán “the least reliable member of NATO.” 

In the resolution, obtained by the AP, the senators note “the important role Hungary can have in European and trans-Atlantic security,” but point out its failure to keep earlier promises not to be the last NATO ally to sign off on Sweden’s membership. 

Hungary, the resolution says, “has not joined all other NATO member states in approving the accession of Sweden to NATO, failing to fulfill a commitment not to be last to approve such accession and jeopardizing trans-Atlantic security at a key moment for peace and stability in Europe.” 

Orbán, a staunch nationalist who has led Hungary since 2010, has said that he favors making Sweden part of NATO but that lawmakers in his party remained unconvinced because of “blatant lies” from Swedish politicians on the state of Hungary’s democracy. 

But in a state of the nation speech in Budapest on Saturday, Orbán indicated that Hungary’s legislature might soon relent. 

“It’s good news that our dispute with Sweden is nearing a conclusion,” he said. “We are moving toward ratifying Sweden’s accession to NATO at the beginning of the spring session of Parliament.” 

On Sunday, Shaheen said it was “disappointing” that no members of the Hungarian government had accepted invitations to meet the delegation, but that she was “hopeful and optimistic” that Sweden’s accession would be submitted for ratification on Feb. 26 when Hungarian lawmakers reconvene. 

Murphy said Orbán’s government’s refusal to meet was “strange and concerning,” but that the onus was on the long-serving leader to push forward a vote. 

“We are wise enough about politics here to know that if Prime Minister Orbán wants this to happen, then the parliament can move forward,” he said. 

The senators’ resolution criticizes Orbán’s increasingly warm relations with Russia and China, and notes that while Hungary has opened its doors to Ukrainian refugees fleeing Moscow’s invasion, it has also “resisted and diluted European Union sanctions with respect to the Russian Federation.” 

Orbán, widely considered to be the Kremlin’s closest EU ally, has long been criticized for flouting the bloc’s standards on democracy and the rule of law. The EU has withheld billions in funding from Budapest over alleged breaches of its rules. 

Hungary’s government has also adopted an increasingly adversarial stance toward the administration of President Joe Biden, accusing the U.S. of attempting to influence Hungarian public life. 

Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s foreign minister, said Friday that he welcomed the senators’ visit but that it was “not worth trying to exert pressure on us, because we are a sovereign country.” 

“We are glad they are coming here because they can see for themselves that everything they read about Hungary in the liberal American media is a blatant lie,” Szijjártó said.