State Department Briefing by Jen Psaki, Feb. 23, 2015

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–February 23, 2015.

TRANSCRIPT:

1:01 p.m. EST

MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone. Happy Monday.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. PSAKI: Okay. I have a couple of items for all of you at the top. The United States is deeply troubled by the new harsh sentences of three or five years in prison issued yesterday against 20 Egyptian activists, including Alaa Abdel Fatah, for organizing an unauthorized protest under Egypt’s demonstrations law. We urge defendants to pursue all legal avenues to contest this verdict, including the right to appeal. As a matter of principle, the United States believes that a country’s long-term stability is strengthened by protecting the right of its citizens to peacefully express dissent. These sentences and others under the law have had a chilling effect on key freedoms of expression and assembly. We encourage Egypt’s leadership to quickly complete its review of the demonstrations law and all court verdicts issued under it and to release an amended version that will enable full freedom of expression and association.

On Libya, the United States Government continues to strongly support the efforts of the United Nations and Special Representative to the Secretary-General Bernardino Leon in Libya to facilitate formation of a national unity government and bring a political solution to the ongoing political, security, and institutional crisis in the country. We reiterate our call for all Libyan stakeholders to participate in the UN-led political dialogue. Those who choose not to participate are excluding themselves from discussions which are critical to combatting terrorism as well as to the overall peace, security – stability and security of Libya.

Only Libyans can resolve their conflict through dialogue, and Libyan stakeholders being convened by Leon will have to choose their own national unity government. The United Nations-led process provides the best hope for Libyans to return to building the strong and representative state institutions that can most effectively address the terrorist threat and to confront all violence and instability that impedes Libya’s political transition and development.

The Secretary is on travel today; he’s on his way back, having spent the weekend in London and Geneva. In London, he met with UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, and in Geneva, he met with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and the negotiating teams. He will return to Washington tonight.

Finally, today the Secretary will announce that Randy Berry will serve as our first-ever special envoy for the human rights of LGBT persons. Randy is currently the consul general in Amsterdam, and in his new capacity will lead efforts underway by the White House and the State Department to advance our strategy on the human rights of LGBT persons. Despite the progress made by governments and institutions from all regions to affirm the universal human rights of all persons, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, more than 75 countries still criminalize consensual same-sex activity. Randy brings over 20 years of Foreign Service experience to this new leadership position. The Secretary will host a reception in Randy’s honor later this week. Watch for a notice in the press in the coming days.

With that, Matt.

QUESTION: Well, just on that briefly before we get to Iran, two on what you just mentioned.

MS. PSAKI: On Randy Berry?

QUESTION: Well, one on him. You said “progress made in all regions,” and then you said 75 countries still criminalize homosexual behavior – I mean, or acts? How can you possibly claim that there’s been progress in all regions?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think, Matt, that we have seen progress in all regions, but as I mentioned, I’ve highlighted the 75 countries because obviously there’s still a great deal of work to be done and that’s one of the reasons we’re naming someone to this position.

QUESTION: Okay, fair enough. Is it your understanding that these countries are receptive to an envoy coming and telling them that they need to do more to protect human rights?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m not going to speak for these countries. I’m sure some will be more receptive than others in the world, but part of his role is going to be coordinating and shepherding the implementation of the Department’s strategy on human rights for LGBT persons, adopted in 2011, and the presidential memorandum issued later that year with like-minded countries and working to continue to highlight these issues globally.

QUESTION: Okay. And then on your Egypt statement.

MS. PSAKI: Yes.

QUESTION: You said that you urge the defendants to pursue all available avenues, including appeal – I mean, does that mean that you think that these people are not guilty?

MS. PSAKI: We believe, as I noted, that going – the fact that these individuals were arrested and charged, some for speaking out publicly, is something that we think we wanted to highlight. But there’s a legal process that will be seen through. We just wanted to highlight the stories and the cases of these individuals.

QUESTION: Well, but do you believe that the Egyptian judicial system is independent and that —

MS. PSAKI: Well —

QUESTION: — they should – that, in fact, their best option is to pursue —

MS. PSAKI: We’ve spoken about our views on the Egyptian legal system, as you know, and – as well as our views on mass arrests and mass sentencing. And certainly, these cases that go after individuals for using freedom of expression and freedom of speech are of concern to us.

QUESTION: Despite all those concerns, though, you’re still sending them Apache helicopters and trying to find ways to get them the aid that’s – so you’re still supporting them. So is this a case where your national security interest has outweighed or trumped your human rights concerns?

MS. PSAKI: As you know, Matt, we have not certified the final tranche of money. That’s still on hold. We obviously watch what happens on the ground. We think there is reason to highlight concerns when we have them. But also, we know Egypt has important strategic and security needs. We have an important strategic relationship with Egypt. That’s why we released the Apache helicopters.

QUESTION: If there’s no more on Egypt, I just want to ask you —

MS. PSAKI: Okay.

QUESTION: — very briefly on Iran —

MS. PSAKI: Yes.

QUESTION: — because I’m sure you won’t be able to tell us anything. But there’s all sorts of speculation at the – or not even speculation; I guess it’s confirmed that talks will resume next week. Are these talks that the Secretary would take part of? How close are you to a deal?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we made some progress, as I believe my colleagues on the ground informed reporters traveling. We’re planning for the teams to meet at the political directors’ level starting next Monday to continue these discussions. As has been true and the case all along, the Secretary could certainly participate at some point in those discussions, but I don’t have anything to announce at this point. These talks have been productive. There’s still more work to do. And obviously, I’m not going to outline for you or give an assessment of where things stand at this point.

QUESTION: Why not?

MS. PSAKI: Because, as you know, we want to keep these discussions private in order to continue to make progress.

QUESTION: And private from the American people, private from Congress, and private from Israel?

MS. PSAKI: As you know, Matt, we have been briefing both Israel and Congress —

QUESTION: Apparently not —

MS. PSAKI: — quite consistently.

QUESTION: You would accept, though, that your briefings to both have not been received – they haven’t been well received; is that not correct?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think it depends on the individual you’re talking to.

QUESTION: Can I ask on that —

MS. PSAKI: On Iran?

QUESTION: On Iran, yes.

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: There was a report in one organization today that you’re looking at some kind of phased agreement under which if Iran basically could assure the international community that it was abiding by the rules and abiding by the deal that was set out, that at some point in time it would be given a greater uranium enrichment program. I know that the briefers in Geneva have talked about something they mentioned before about a double-digit kind of program, but could you just outline exactly what it is that – or give us a bit more clarity, if you like, on what you mean by that?

MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s unlikely I can give you too much more because we’re – we’ve always said we’re not going to negotiate publicly and I’m not going to change that policy now. I would point out —

QUESTION: Why not, Jen? Why not?

MS. PSAKI: I know. It would be so much more fun for all of us in here. But time – we only have a limited amount of time left here. So I would point out that it’s not news that the final version of what we are seeking, the comprehensive joint plan of action, would have a duration of a number of years. As you mentioned, some of my colleagues on the ground have spoken to that, but we’re not going to speak to where that stands or how long or how that will work. And obviously, that’s part of what’s being discussed.

QUESTION: But if at the end of this double-digit or whatever that double-digit is, whether it’s 10, 20, or whatever, is it the understanding that then you would agree to allow Iran to have a greater uranium enrichment program?

MS. PSAKI: Well, again, there are a lot of details that are being discussed. As we’ve said before, there are pieces that need to work together like a puzzle, so I’m just not going to outline more about the discussions.

QUESTION: But it is correct – and I believe, actually, your colleague on the ground said this too – that you’re looking at a sort of a year breakout time.

MS. PSAKI: That’s been something the Secretary, I think, has also talked about in open testimony.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: But you have a certain, like, percentage that you would allow Iran to have, like 2 percent, 5 percent, under 5 percent —

MS. PSAKI: Obviously, enrichment capacity is one of the issues being discussed. I’m not going to talk about it in more detail.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: I’m sure you’ll remember the contract between Russia and Iran regarding the S-300 missile defense systems. Now today there is news saying that a Russian official has suggested that – they say – he says that they have offered another, a more advanced version of that system to Iran, but there’s no answer from Iran yet. I thought maybe this whole thing was finished, the contract, maybe with the U.S. pressure that was put on the Russians. Any comments on this new —

MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve seen these reports, the ones you’re referencing. And once we have more details – and as you mentioned, it’s just some reports; I don’t think a lot of it has been confirmed from both sides – we’ll certainly raise this at the appropriate levels as needed. If the reports are true that Russia has decided not to sell the S-300 system to Iran, we would certainly welcome that, but we would have similar objections to a sale of the Antey-2500 system. So we’ll wait for more details and comment on it at that point in time.

QUESTION: Does the Secretary talk to the Russian team on the ground whenever they’re at the talks – for example, today?

MS. PSAKI: Well, again, without more details, we’ll wait for more details and then we’ll raise it at the appropriate level.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) the 2,500 range, whatever? Is that because they have a certain range that these missiles might have?

MS. PSAKI: We’d also object to it for a range of reasons.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: A two-part question on the talks: First of all, an official said earlier today that in the talks – that negotiators managed to sharpen up some of the tough issues that need resolving.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: I know you can’t go too much in the way of details, but can you talk in general about what this entails? And then secondly, can you confirm reports that negotiators are looking at meeting in Geneva, specifically next week on the sidelines of the UN Human Rights Council meeting?

MS. PSAKI: So on the first question I’m just not going to go farther than what my colleagues on the ground briefed, and that would require me going into details, which we just aren’t going to do from here or publicly. On the second question, I think I answered in the beginning that we are planning for the teams to meet again at the political directors level starting next Monday. In terms of location, that’s still being determined.

QUESTION: Could I ask whether Energy Secretary Moniz will also be included in those next talks next week?

MS. PSAKI: I’m not sure that’s been determined yet, Jo. As you know, he was there this week. He – there’s been an official from the Energy Department participating in these talks all along. Obviously, it’s a reflection of how technical these discussions are, so I think over the coming days we’ll determine who will be in the delegation.

QUESTION: Why was the decision made to ramp it up to the Energy Secretary level? What was it that he could bring that the other people who’ve been involved couldn’t?

MS. PSAKI: Well, it just is – it indicates that this is an incredibly technical nature – there’s an incredibly technical nature of the discussions. Obviously, we all know that we’re working towards a framework, and that’s our goal in the coming weeks. It was necessary and appropriate to have technical people sit with Iran’s technical people at the highest level in order to try to resolve any differences that may exist. While there have certainly been people, colleagues from the Department of Energy with us in the talks from the beginning, the – Secretary Moniz has had several one-on-one meetings with the head of the Iran Atomic Energy Organization, and obviously having someone at a higher level enables you to have a discussion at a higher level.

QUESTION: Can we change topics?

MS. PSAKI: Well —

QUESTION: Wait, I still have one more thing. And I apologize if this has been cleared up again —

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: — but I’m – your target date, end of March – is it the 24th or the 31st? Has this been decided?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve said —

QUESTION: Is there an official position on this?

MS. PSAKI: — the end of March, Matt.

QUESTION: I know, but the —

MS. PSAKI: I think Congress had said the 24th —

QUESTION: Right.

MS. PSAKI: — but we’re looking to the end of March.

QUESTION: So —

MS. PSAKI: We’ve said the 31st from here.

QUESTION: You said the 31st.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: So despite the fact that the last talks in – or the talks in Vienna at which this target was announced finished on the 24th and it was described – the extension, if you will, was described in terms of months —

MS. PSAKI: Four months.

QUESTION: Right.

MS. PSAKI: Yes.

QUESTION: But not four months and one week; four months.

MS. PSAKI: Well, I don’t think it got into that level of specificity, Matt.

QUESTION: Well, right. So I want to be – make perfect – understand perfectly clear that when you talk about this target date, it’s March 31st, not March 24th. Is that correct?

MS. PSAKI: We’ve – yes. We’ve referred to it as the end of March, yes.

QUESTION: Can I just ask on that, actually?

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Because you’ve also said the technical details, the final technical details, you’re giving yourselves until June the 30th. Correct?

MS. PSAKI: Well, the annexes and – yes. But our goal is to achieve a framework by the end of March.

QUESTION: Because it would seem to me that all along – and you’ve mentioned it several times today – that this agreement has hinged on the technical difficulties. So —

MS. PSAKI: We haven’t called it technical. We’ve said obviously there are a lot of technical details that would need to be worked through, and annexes and things along those lines. So a framework is something that would certainly give you a path forward.

QUESTION: Because it seems to me you could have a framework – I mean, you could have a political deal on March 31st which could just be, “We agree we will reach by June 30th a technical, full, comprehensive agreement.”

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think we envision something more than that in terms of a framework. I’m not in a position to outline what that means at this point. Obviously, we have several weeks to go here.

QUESTION: So you do envisage a sort of – a bigger framework deal which would say there will be annexes on this, this, and this issue?

MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to outline what it will look like. We’re obviously still talking through that, so – but a framework means agreement on some of the key components, yes.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: Can we go to the Palestinian issue?

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: Okay. First of all, a New York jury just found the Palestine Liberation Organization liable for an attack that took place in Jerusalem some 10 years ago, a decade ago, and so on. Do you have any comment on that?

MS. PSAKI: The – say that again? Who found them —

QUESTION: A jury found the PLO liable for an attack that took place in Jerusalem 10 years ago or so. Do you have any comment on that?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. PSAKI: I can check with our team and see if we have a comment for you.

QUESTION: Is – now, do you expect that, like, a proliferation of these cases now? Because there were a number of attacks and so on by either the PLO directly or affiliates of the PLO over the past —

MS. PSAKI: I would ask the Government of Israel that question.

QUESTION: Okay. And while staying on the topic, the – everybody is warning that the PA is on the verge of collapse. Even the Secretary of State himself, he has stated —

MS. PSAKI: And I talked about this a bit last week as well.

QUESTION: And I understand. You did. But since then, has there been any steps taken to sort of avert such a disastrous outcome like this?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve consistently engaged with key stakeholders at a range of levels, including the Israelis, the Palestinians, the EU, UN, Russians, the Arab League, and others over the past few weeks. We will continue to do so, and so that is certainly ongoing.

QUESTION: Why do you think the Israelis are not heeding your advice? Today, they cut off electricity to the West Bank, and in fact, they made an announcement that it will be cut off regularly to the West Bank because they owe back bills.

MS. PSAKI: And we’ve seen those reports. We’re concerned about the impact on the ground of any cuts to basic services, including electricity. We remain very concerned about the continued viability of the Palestinian Authority if they do not receive funds soon, either in terms of the resumption of monthly Israeli transfers of Palestinian tax revenues or additional donor assistance.

QUESTION: Is it expected that the Israelis will release – and I know I asked you this before – will release the tax money before the elections? Do you expect that?

MS. PSAKI: You should ask the Government of Israel that question.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Just on the jury verdict, can you – because the jury has awarded the plaintiffs in this case $218 million of damages. So it would seem that if you’re out trying to raise money or get other people to give money to the Palestinian Authority to prevent it from collapsing, they’re going to have to – if they decide that they’re going to respect this court – the jury’s decision, they’re going to have to have at least another $218.5 million. Is this – can you find out if it’s – if money that you would like to go to the Palestinian Authority could be used to pay such damages?

MS. PSAKI: Sure, I’m happy to.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. PSAKI: Any more on this issue before we continue? Okay.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. PSAKI: Iraq, Kurds?

QUESTION: Yeah, absolutely.

MS. PSAKI: Okay, go ahead.

QUESTION: Iraqi Kurdish officials have accused Baghdad – I’m not sure if you’ve seen the reports – of having failed to abide by the most recent agreement over oil and budget. Prime Minister Abadi says, because partly of the oil price drop, Iraq has no money to send to the KRG. KRG says why does Iraq – why is Iraq able to pay the salaries of all of the Iraqis, including the residents of Mosul, except for Kurdistan.

Is that your assessment that the agreement between Baghdad and Kurdistan is unraveling?

MS. PSAKI: It is not. We understand that both Baghdad and Erbil remain committed to seeking implementation of the deal that is enshrined in the budget law. We recognize that Iraq writ large is facing financial difficulties due to low oil prices, the large refugee and IDP population, and the need to focus on defense spending because of the fight against ISIL. I would refer you to the Government of Iraq, but I do also recall news reports that Baghdad transferred two payments totaling $1 billion late last year as part of the agreement that was reached. So certainly, it’s not accurate to suggest that —

QUESTION: But this year, they haven’t done it according to the top Kurdish officials. They were just in Baghdad last week. Baghdad said —

MS. PSAKI: Well, the Iraqi parliament also just recently passed its $103 billion 2015 budget, which includes payments to the KRG. So I would point you to the Government of Iraq to ask that question.

QUESTION: So would you be concerned as the United States – if that is true, which is really true, that Iraq has not paid or is not going to pay KRG —

MS. PSAKI: I don’t see what you’re presenting as evidence that it’s true.

QUESTION: Why is —

MS. PSAKI: Or do you have more information you want to provide us?

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah. The prime minister of Kurdistan, he just talked to the media, and he’s —

MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m just referring to the fact that last year there were two payments reportedly made. I would certainly have you confirm that with the relevant authorities. The budget just passed. It includes payment to the KRG – payments to the KRG. Both sides have said they’re committed to the plan. So I’d suggest you pose your questions to the Iraqi Government on this issue.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: On Venezuela?

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: There was a statement on Friday about – from the Department of State talking about the incarceration of the opposition leaders, and also you were urging some other countries to also adhere to the situation and put their claim against the Government of Venezuela. Did you hear any comments from other governments from Latin America that also are following this proposal?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m not going to outline private diplomatic discussions, as I’m sure doesn’t surprise you at all. We certainly did raise our concern about these accusations, highlighted the fact that they’re false, they’re ludicrous, and the Government of Venezuela needs to focus more on their own challenges in their own country and this is just an effort to distract. So I’d reiterate those points.

QUESTION: Because also if you see Telesur – that is the state channel of Venezuela that is aired in all Latin America – all the time they are accusing the U.S. 24 hours about this idea to make a plot against the government of Maduro. So I want to know if the U.S. also is working with other countries to explain the situation with them.

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think we’re making clear in all of our discussions the same points we’re making publicly, which is that these accusations are ludicrous. There absolutely is – the Venezuelan Government should stop trying to blame the United States and other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela. The Venezuelan Government needs to deal with the grave situation it faces. So part of what we do is convey that publicly and part of what we do is convey that privately.

QUESTION: Is the U.S. worried that this situation will escalate and also other leaders can be also arrested, or something like that? Is information on the ground?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve certainly seen and unfortunately had to speak about these accusations, but as I spoke about last week, some recent arrests on the ground that are certainly concerning to us. That’s one of the reasons we talk about it publicly and why we raise it with our partners in the region.

QUESTION: Move on to —

QUESTION: Jen, just one more question.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm, go ahead. On Venezuela?

QUESTION: Yes.

MS. PSAKI: Okay.

QUESTION: A follow-up to that, because it was part of the discussion we had with you last time. And you then said that the political – that the U.S. does not support coups, but – state coups, and that political transitions must be democratic and constitutional. And I just wanted to ask about Syria. Does that mean that you support a democratic and constitutional transition in Syria?

MS. PSAKI: In Syria we’ve long supported a political transition that would be worked out with the parties on the ground. I don’t – I think we’ve had a pretty consistent position on that.

QUESTION: And it must be democratic and constitutional?

MS. PSAKI: Well —

QUESTION: According to your rules that you said (inaudible), that it was also democratic, constitutional, peaceful, and legal.

MS. PSAKI: Well, let me just be clear for you on our position on Syria. We’re talking about a brutal dictator who’s killed tens of thousands of his own people. I’m sure you’re not suggesting that that is similar to what’s happening in other parts of the world. It’s a situation where also thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of refugees have flown into neighboring countries, and we’ve seen the brutality of what’s happening there. We don’t see a future for a brutal dictator who’s killed thousands of his people in Syria, and I think that’s no surprise to the international community. That’s long been our position.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: United States and international coalition provided a lot of support for Peshmerga and Iraqi army to fight ISIS, to defeat ISIS.

MS. PSAKI: Yep.

QUESTION: Is that correct that this amount of money and also the weapons, ammunitions provided for even the tribals in Anbar to defeat ISIS? This is – is that correct, right? I mean, in the recent.

MS. PSAKI: Correct, through the Government of Iraq has long been our policy, yeah.

QUESTION: Okay. So that means this is conditioned to any forces, including Peshmerga, to participate in the offense against ISIS. If they said we are not participating in that, will that stop like —

MS. PSAKI: I don’t believe they’ve said that, and there’s a number of countries —

QUESTION: — especially in the Sunni areas.

MS. PSAKI: Let me finish. There’s a number of countries that have also provided assistance to the Peshmerga through coordinating with the Government of Iraq. And they have obviously played an important role fighting against ISIL.

QUESTION: What if they stop going offensive on ISIS?

MS. PSAKI: They haven’t, so I’m not going to talk about a hypothetical.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: On the same issue, could I?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS. PSAKI: Sure, go ahead.

QUESTION: Can I stay with the coalition, please? There’s a couple of details coming out of France today on various issues to do with the coalition. One is that there’s a French aircraft carrier which has now launched operations in the Gulf alongside of the USS Carl Vinson as part of the operation against the Islamic State. I wondered if I could have your reaction to that.

And then I have another question, actually, as well.

MS. PSAKI: Sure. I don’t – obviously, we’ve been working with coalition partners, including France, on specific military operations, several components of the coalition. I would certainly point you to DOD, who would be coordinating that.

QUESTION: Okay. And I just wanted to ask, following up on the counterterrorism conference last week, France today confiscated the passports of six French citizens, and another 40 are also going to be barred from leaving. They were heading out of the country towards the – part of the flock of foreign fighters towards Syria and Iraq. This is the first time France has done this. What would be your reaction to that? And is this something that other countries, including the United States, needs to do more of?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve certainly seen countries, including France, talk about specific steps they want to take to prevent foreign fighters from leaving their country and coming back, having fought with extremist groups, and putting people in their country in danger. And so they’re taking a number of steps. We support them with – in those endeavors. I’d have to look into this more specifically and talk to our counterterrorism team about their thoughts on this.

QUESTION: Now, have the American authorities – have you actually taken any passports off people who were planning to leave the country to go and join the jihadist fight?

MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I think some of this we don’t typically confirm publicly because we have our own laws in terms of what we do. We have a range of tools at our disposal, including those that are related to travel documents. But I can certainly talk to our – other officials in the interagency about whether there’s more we can share about what we’ve done from here. It’s not something from the State Department necessarily.

QUESTION: On Iraq?

QUESTION: Well, but it would be —

QUESTION: Passports would be also.

QUESTION: Well, not the actual revocation of them.

MS. PSAKI: But you’d work with a range of agencies, a range of other government entities on that. It’s not something we have the lead on.

QUESTION: Can you find out, though – I don’t know that the State Department is actually involved in taking, physically taking a passport off of someone. But you are involved in revoking them or making them invalid so that they can’t be used for travel, so if someone tried to use it if they still had it in their possession —

MS. PSAKI: Right.

QUESTION: — they would be stopped, because —

MS. PSAKI: Yes, and we’ve talked about this a bit in here and haven’t been able to confirm specifics.

QUESTION: Have you talked – you have or have not?

MS. PSAKI: We have not.

QUESTION: Well, I’m just wondering if it’s possible to go back and see if we can find out —

MS. PSAKI: Sure. I’m happy to check.

QUESTION: — how many, if any, have been.

MS. PSAKI: Unlikely we’ll be able to confirm that, but I’m happy to check with the relevant agencies. Again, it’s not the State Department that has the lead.

QUESTION: Jen, on —

QUESTION: Right. But, I mean, other countries are more than happy to talk about this. It might behoove you to —

MS. PSAKI: Understood. Every country has different laws.

QUESTION: Well, given that also there was a big —

QUESTION: Well, but we’re not talking about specific names or anything like that, but a number.

MS. PSAKI: I understand. We still have different laws and policies.

QUESTION: I mean, given that it was one of the big things at the summit last week —

MS. PSAKI: I certainly understand why you’re all interested. We have different policies and laws. Every country has different policies and laws.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Can I ask you about – have you read or heard about former Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki putting the blame for the creation and the growth of ISIS on the United States of America?

MS. PSAKI: I have not seen his comments, so —

QUESTION: Would you look at his comments and see what is your reaction?

MS. PSAKI: — we’ll take a look and see if there’s something we want to offer.

Go ahead, Laura.

QUESTION: Do you have any readout on UN Envoy’s – de Mistura’s meeting last week with Deputy Secretary Blinken?

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Deputy Secretary Blinken met with UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura to discuss the ongoing crisis in Syria and prospects for implementation of de Mistura’s Aleppo freeze plan ahead of the envoy’s upcoming trip to Damascus. The deputy secretary welcomed de Mistura’s efforts to reduce violence, especially against civilians, and to make credible progress toward a sustainable political solution in Syria, starting with a local freeze proposal for Aleppo.

The special envoy also is scheduled to meet later today with U.S. Special Envoy for Syria Daniel Rubinstein and other U.S. officials. And, as I think you may have seen from the NSC, he met with Susan – National Security Advisor Susan Rice and they put out a readout about that as well.

QUESTION: In light of his freeze proposal and his discussions with the Administration on that, is there any change in policy as far as whether the U.S. could work with President Assad on a solution to the violence there?

MS. PSAKI: No. Our policy has long been that we support his efforts – the UN special envoy’s efforts – to reduce the suffering of the Syrian people. We’ve seen these ceasefires tried around Syria before, and the result has been, unfortunately, that the regime has not abided by these ceasefires, and that has been the issue time and time again. So we support these efforts. We’re clear-eyed about the challenges, and we’ll see what happens when he has his meetings on the ground.

QUESTION: Let me just follow up on that very issue in terms of who would represent who among the Syrians and so on. You certainly do agree that Mr. Assad does represent a large portion of the – a large minority, let’s say, in Syria, including Christians and Alawites and others. You do.

MS. PSAKI: I’ll let the Syrian people speak for who they think represents them.

QUESTION: How would they speak? I mean, in your estimation —

MS. PSAKI: I would go —

QUESTION: — how would they do it?

MS. PSAKI: I would encourage you to report on that, Said.

QUESTION: Jen, just —

MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Sorry, the question about Iraq.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: The – we’ve seen a lot of protests. That’s why I said it is true that Baghdad hasn’t paid the salaries of the KRG residents for at least the past two months, because the teachers and other civil servants were protesting for not having received their salaries this week. And also, the prime minister of Kurdistan reportedly said that he borrowed half a billion dollars from Turkey in order to pay their salaries.

MS. PSAKI: Well, again, I don’t know if you have a new question here.

QUESTION: So this is the situation.

MS. PSAKI: I’m just encouraging you, given they just passed their budget, to ask the Government of Iraq about that. There are payments to the KRG in their budget and they did two payments, reportedly, last year.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Do you have any reaction to al-Shabaab’s threats to attack shopping malls in the U.S. and Britain, et cetera?

MS. PSAKI: I do. We are aware of the recent al-Shabaab propaganda video urging its supporters to undertake Westgate-style attacks against shopping centers around the world, to include in the United States. In recent months, the FBI and DHS have worked closely with our state and local public safety counterparts and members of the private sector, to include mall owners and operators, to prevent and mitigate these types of threats. Over the weekend, the FBI and DHS also provided law enforcement and other first responders, as well as our private sector partners, with relevant information regarding the propaganda video. As a general matter, however, we are not aware of any specific credible plot against the Mall of America or any other domestic commercial shopping center.

More on this before we continue? Okay. Go ahead, Laura.

QUESTION: In light of the fact that this is a threat not just against malls in the United States but abroad as well, is there any consideration being put into changing travel warning guidance for Americans that might be going to these sort of soft target locations?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we don’t predict that in advance, but obviously, we’re always weighing information, whether the threats are credible and whether it raises our concern enough to change our travel warnings. I don’t have anything to predict for you on that front.

QUESTION: Did you say against Mall of America or any other mall?

MS. PSAKI: Or any other domestic commercial shopping center, so – or any other mall, yes, is a shorter way of saying it, Jo. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Sorry, I was writing it down. I wasn’t quick enough. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Can I —

MS. PSAKI: Thank you for the translation.

QUESTION: You said that there is no specific threat?

MS. PSAKI: Not aware of any specific, credible plot against the Mall of America.

QUESTION: You don’t regard this video saying – encouraging attackers to go and commit Westgate-type attacks as —

MS. PSAKI: It’s – our view is it’s propaganda. Of course, we need to remain vigilant —

QUESTION: Right.

MS. PSAKI: — as always is the case, but the point of this video —

QUESTION: In other words, you don’t —

MS. PSAKI: — was to instill fear.

QUESTION: So you don’t take this video as a credible threat. It is a threat, though, right?

MS. PSAKI: Well, certainly there’s a threat in the video, but there’s not a credible threat against malls and —

QUESTION: You don’t have – is what you’re trying to say here is that you don’t have any information to corroborate that someone is out there who has taken them up —

MS. PSAKI: Correct, yes.

QUESTION: — who has seen this video and decided to go ahead and do it? All right.

MS. PSAKI: Yes.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. PSAKI: Go ahead, Elliot.

QUESTION: Ukraine?

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: First, do you have any new assessment of the status of the ceasefire?

MS. PSAKI: Sure. While the Ukrainian Government and Russian-backed separatists exchanged some prisoners over the weekend, the United States remains troubled by the continuing violations of the ceasefire around Debaltseve, the coastal city of Mariupol, and other locations in eastern Ukraine, all of which lie beyond the ceasefire line agreed to by all sides in Minsk in September and again in February.

The OSCE has also confirmed that ceasefire violations continue and that the Russia-backed separatists still have not allowed OSCE monitors access to Debaltseve and other areas.

QUESTION: So with the Ukrainians now saying that they cannot withdraw their heavy arms, which would apparently be a violation of the Minsk agreements – well, first, would you consider that a violation of Minsk agreements? They’re saying that it’s because they continue to receive fire.

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think we need to remember the context here, Elliot. Obviously, in terms of withdrawal of arms and moving back and de-escalating, a large percentage of that and the needs are from the Russian-backed separatist side. They’re in a country that is not their own that is a sovereign country. And so that is where we have the greatest concern.

I would also remind everybody that exactly a year ago on Sunday, the people of Ukraine cast off an authoritarian regime and chose a future based on democracy, free trade, and rule of law. For these actions, Russia occupied and attempted to annex a sovereign country’s territory, and that since then, that’s left more than 5,000 people dead and displaced several hundred thousand times more. There are many times over the course of the last several months where Ukraine has even put in place ceasefires where they’ve abided by it, and the Russian side has not, the Russian-backed separatists have not. And they need to protect themselves. I think their preference certainly is to see both sides abiding by the ceasefire.

QUESTION: I understand all the context that you just raised, but I guess – so you would say that the decision by the Ukrainian Government is justified to maintain the presence of their —

MS. PSAKI: They’re defending their own sovereign country. They have not shown an unwillingness to abide by the ceasefires in the past.

QUESTION: Jen, did you say it overthrew an authoritarian regime? The former regime was authoritarian and not elected?

MS. PSAKI: Well, Said, I think you know the history here.

QUESTION: I understand. I have – no, I mean —

MS. PSAKI: Do we have any more on Ukraine? We’re moving on, thank you. Go ahead, Pam.

QUESTION: I have one on —

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry in his weekend comments talked about – raised the possibility of more sanctions against Russia. In light of these latest developments and the fact that it does not appear there has been a satisfactory pullback by pro-Russian forces, is there a stepped-up timeline on when these possible sanctions may come through?

MS. PSAKI: Well, as you mentioned, the Secretary did talk about this a bit this weekend. As we’ve also talked about, Russia and the separatists are only complying in a few areas selectively – not in Debaltseve, not outside of Mariupol, not in other key strategic areas. This is clearly unacceptable. We have a range of options that remain on the table. If this failure continues there will be further consequences, but I’m not going to put a timeline or a date on that.

QUESTION: Jen, you said the separatists are not in their own country. What did you mean?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think we’ve seen Russian-backed separatists backed by the country of Russia with equipment, with support, coming in and victimizing people around eastern Ukraine. That’s what I was referring to.

Any more on Ukraine?

QUESTION: The people —

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MS. PSAKI: Libya? Okay, whoa. We have a lot.

QUESTION: Wait, wait. I —

QUESTION: The people there are Ukrainians.

QUESTION: Just – I just want to —

MS. PSAKI: And there are Russians who are supporting them.

QUESTION: It’s your position that the ceasefire, although it is – remains – it is still being violated, can still pave the way for a political resolution to this?

MS. PSAKI: Our focus remains on pursuing a durable solution through diplomatic means. As you know, there’s going to be a meeting – a discussion – a dialogue, I should say, happening tomorrow between France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia in Paris.

QUESTION: But based on this agreement —

MS. PSAKI: Yes.

QUESTION: — and the original Minsk agreement?

MS. PSAKI: Yes, mm-hmm.

QUESTION: So it’s not a lost cause, (inaudible)?

MS. PSAKI: Correct.

QUESTION: All right.

MS. PSAKI: Let’s go in the back.

QUESTION: Libya.

MS. PSAKI: Okay.

QUESTION: The foreign minister of Libya was here last week for the CVE summit and had talks with officials here. They’d asked for some arms and some backing and support. I mean, in your statement earlier today, you said that you support the efforts of the UN, but obviously the situation on the ground is not conducive to talks succeeding. Do you foresee the U.S. supporting them with some sort of arms? And what is the point that you would move to supporting them with some sort of military backing or just sending them arms like the government has asked for?

MS. PSAKI: Well, nothing has changed since I spoke about this a bit last week, which is that we continue to support the UN arms embargo approval process currently in place for Libya, which permits transfer, as necessary, to support the Libyan Government while allowing the Security Council to guard against risks that weapons may be diverted to non-state actors. So it’s not a ban on weapons. It is a – it has to go through a process, a process that we continue to support. We continue to believe, no question, it’s a difficult situation; it’s one of the most difficult out there. But we believe that the process that’s being led by Bernardino Leon is one that the international community support, and we believe that’s the right process forward.

QUESTION: The foreign minister said that he doesn’t feel or he hasn’t felt in the talks that Libya is part of the strategy of the war on ISIL or ISIS. Is there a possibility that it might become, considering what’s happening in Libya now with the rise of – with the —

MS. PSAKI: In what capacity a part of the strategy?

QUESTION: In airstrikes or in the military part of the strategy.

MS. PSAKI: Not from the United States, no. That decision has not been made.

QUESTION: Turkey?

MS. PSAKI: Turkey? Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. Late Saturday, Turkish military crossed the borders of Syria in order to relocate the tomb of Suleyman Shah, and I was wondering your comments on that. And also, was there any information exchanged between Turkey and U.S. during the operation or before the operation?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we have all known for some time, often through reporting as well, but also through conversations, that the tomb of Suleyman Shah has been a priority for Turkey. Beyond that, I’m not going to get into operational details or discussions. The Secretary spoke to Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu over the weekend and discussed Turkey’s successful operation at the tomb. We express our condolences to Turkey and especially to the friends and family to the Turkish soldier who died in an accident in the course of that operation. We’re in close and ongoing coordination on developments on Syria, including intelligence and information sharing, and that will certainly continue.

QUESTION: Sorry, when was the call? What day?

MS. PSAKI: The 22nd, so yesterday.

QUESTION: Yemen?

MS. PSAKI: Any more on Turkey?

QUESTION: Yemen?

MS. PSAKI: Not Turkey, right? Okay. Let’s go to you, Lalit.

QUESTION: Okay, I have one – a few questions from South Asia, but first from Maldives.

MS. PSAKI: Okay.

QUESTION: What is your view on the arrest of the former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed on terrorism charges?

MS. PSAKI: We are concerned by reports of the arrest of former President Nasheed this weekend on terrorism charges. Assistant Secretary Nisha Biswal spoke to the Maldivian foreign minister this weekend and expressed our concern this arrest – about this arrest, as well as events in recent weeks. She urged the government to take steps to restore confidence in their commitment to democracy, judicial independence, and rule of law, including respect for the right to peaceful protest and respect for due process.

QUESTION: Have you also seen images and videos that has come out from form Maldives about the former President Nasheed being dragged out, dragged to the court by the police?

MS. PSAKI: Have I seen videos of it?

QUESTION: Yeah.

MS. PSAKI: I have not. I can certainly check with our team on that as well. Obviously, we’re concerned by reports of the arrest.

QUESTION: I have one question on Afghanistan.

MS. PSAKI: Okay.

QUESTION: The Afghan CEO Abdullah Abdullah has said that the talks with the Taliban might start soon, and also Pakistan – he’s saying that Pakistan has asked the Taliban for – Pakistan is facilitating direct talks with the Taliban.

MS. PSAKI: We have seen his comments. We certainly remain supportive of an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation process whereby the Taliban and the Afghans engaged in talks toward a settlement to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan. We don’t have confirmation of the talks, and I think even the reporting makes that clear, if I remember correctly.

In terms of the role of Pakistan, we have long encouraged Pakistan to support President Ghani’s reconciliation efforts. We, of course, remain in support and in contact with President Ghani on these matters as well as certainly countries like Pakistan who have a stake in the outcome.

QUESTION: So you are encouraged by Pakistan’s role in this?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve long encouraged them to support a reconciliation process. And President Ghani spoke about this, I believe, in his inauguration and has shown a commitment to try to move forward.

QUESTION: And there’s no update on U.S. direct talks with the Taliban?

MS. PSAKI: Nothing has changed since last week and when I said there are no direct or indirect talks.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. PSAKI: Go ahead, Pam.

QUESTION: Two questions on different topics. The first one is authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh have refused to consider the release of two Azerbaijani nationals, Dilham Askerov and Shahbaz Quliyev, who were convicted last year on charges that include the murder of a teenager. But during her recent visit to Baku, Assistant Secretary Nuland urged relevant authorities to make a humanitarian gesture concerning their case. Can you elaborate on what the gesture would be that the U.S. is seeking, and what would justify the move?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve previously advocated through Ambassador Warlick and others the release of these two prisoners to the Government of Azerbaijan. We – she also urged relevant authorities to return the two prisoners to the Government of Azerbaijan. The sides have generally found a way in the past to return prisoners as a humanitarian gesture, and such humanitarian gestures have been shown to reduce tensions and build trust between the sides. So that’s what she was referring to.

QUESTION: And a second question on Bahrain. A prominent human rights activist, Hussain Jawad, is on trial. He faces charges of insulting the monarchy. He asked the U.S. Government to send an observer to his trial to verify whether the process meets international legal standards. Does the U.S. intend to do this?

MS. PSAKI: We are closely following the case of Hussain Jawad and continue to gather more information. We do plan to observe his trial, just as we often observe open hearings in Bahrain and other countries.

Go ahead, Jo.

QUESTION: Can I go to Yemen, please?

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: There were a couple of events that happened over the weekend. President Hadi seems to have escaped from house arrest in Sana’a and is now in Aden. First, I wondered if you could speak to that and whether the United States – he remains the president of Yemen and what your position is on that.

MS. PSAKI: Well, technically speaking, it’s our understanding that until President Hadi’s resignation is accepted by the parliament, under the Yemeni constitution he remains the president and his cabinet remains the legitimate cabinet of the Yemeni Government. Now, we all are aware of how fluid and volatile the situation is on the ground, so that’s just the technical analysis.

QUESTION: He’s calling today from Aden for the talks – for any talks on the political crisis to be moved from Sana’a to Aden. Are you involved in any way, given that obviously your embassy has been shuttered for the time being? Are you involved in any way? Is this something that you would support?

MS. PSAKI: These are UN-led talks. He also reiterated this weekend in his public comments his commitment to the political transition process. And we also agree, as we’ve stated many times, that the parties must recommit themselves to the GCC Initiative, the National Dialogue Conference outcomes, and relevant UN Security Council resolutions. So I would refer you to the UN for any decision on that.

QUESTION: So if they agreed to move the talks, then you would be broadly supportive of that?

MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ll see what happens.

QUESTION: Jen, how come —

MS. PSAKI: On Yemen or —

QUESTION: On Yemen.

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: Frankly, I had another subject. On Yemen, how come if this president when he left his capital is still technically president in his country?

MS. PSAKI: That’s —

QUESTION: How come the Ukrainian president was not in the same position?

MS. PSAKI: That’s the Yemeni constitution and what the Yemeni constitution says, so I encourage you to take a look at the Yemeni constitution if you’re interested.

QUESTION: And the Ukrainian constitution said the same thing.

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think —

QUESTION: Until constitutional proceedings are followed, the president is the president.

MS. PSAKI: I know you like to revise history here in this case, but I’ll just reiterate that president – that Yanukovych left his own country. We all remember what happened here. I’m sure we can provide you with the specific details if you’d like.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Your government has supported the fighters in Kobani – YPG and others – and you also praised them for defeating ISIS in Kobani. And international coalitions, they – some of them, they have received, including France – president of France received one of the commanders there, Asya Abdullah. Is United States also trying to meet with the leaders, especially Asya Abdullah? She was in – commander-in-chief in that area in Kobani. Is there any plan that United States Government dealing with–

MS. PSAKI: I’m not aware of any plans, no.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. PSAKI: Go ahead, Lalit.

QUESTION: I have one on India. Two Indian Christian aid workers were released by the Taliban over the weekend. They have reached home. Now did the U.S. play any role in their release or they coordinated – did the U.S. coordinate with the Indians on this issue?

MS. PSAKI: Why don’t I take it, Lalit?

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. PSAKI: I haven’t talked to our team about that specific question, but we can see if there was any involvement on our end.

QUESTION: Jen, I wanted to ask you about your own plans. That’s the reason for my coming today. Your – the news of your upcoming departure was greeted with a lot of interest and, I would say, some sadness in Russia. (Laughter.) So I guess my first question: Will – where will you be speaking? Will you continue to be speaking publicly on policy issues from now on? When you move —

MS. PSAKI: Does that make you nervous or your foreign minister nervous?

QUESTION: (Laughter.) No, no. We are looking forward from hearing from you.

MS. PSAKI: I’m sure you are.

QUESTION: You’re —

MS. PSAKI: You will continue to.

QUESTION: You will. And if I may, how will you define your new role at the White House? My understanding is you will be overseeing the overall information policies. What is the state of those policies? Do you think they need improvement, in what way? What are your plans for that?

MS. PSAKI: Well, that’s a very big question. I will just simply say that I worked for the President before and I’m honored to be returning to his team. It’s bittersweet because I’ve really loved my time here at the State Department, and there’s a number of incredible people I get to work with and I learn from every single day. But in terms of their policies and the President’s policies, I’d certainly refer you to the White House for now.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: I understand the Secretary’s going to be testifying later this week before —

MS. PSAKI: Yes.

QUESTION: — the House. Can you —

MS. PSAKI: He is testifying – and the Senate.

QUESTION: — tell us a little bit about that, a schedule?

MS. PSAKI: We can certainly get you a schedule. He is testifying both tomorrow and Wednesday. And we’ll get you a schedule after the briefing. I don’t have it in front of me, but he’ll be testifying both tomorrow and Wednesday. We can get it for you right after the briefing.

QUESTION: I want to just ask a clarification —

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: — on Yemen, sorry. Has anybody from this Administration, or specifically this building, been in touch with President Hadi over the weekend since he arrived in Aden?

MS. PSAKI: No, we have not been.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Jen, did you about —

MS. PSAKI: I can just do a few more here. Why don’t we go to the back and see – go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay. Japanese —

QUESTION: You don’t want to take questions from me, but —

MS. PSAKI: I have taken about 10 from you. We’ll take more. I just want to make sure we get to plenty of people. Go ahead in the back.

QUESTION: Thank you. Japanese Prime Minister Abe has said he wants to speak before Congress when he visits Washington later this year. Would you welcome him doing that?

MS. PSAKI: That’s a discussion I’m sure that will happen between officials in Congress and the Administration. We certainly welcome his visit to the United States, but beyond that, I’m sure we’ll talk about that at a later date.

Do we have – go ahead.

QUESTION: I have one more.

MS. PSAKI: Okay.

QUESTION: It’s about a report. I’m sure you won’t have anything —

MS. PSAKI: Okay.

QUESTION: — to say about it, but over the course of the last several years, there have been these persistent reports about the U.S. trying to have backchannel discussions or – having backchannel discussions or talks with Hamas. There’s another report of that today. These reports in the past have all been adamantly denied —

MS. PSAKI: Correct.

QUESTION: — by both your predecessor —

MS. PSAKI: Yes.

QUESTION: — and your deputy —

MS. PSAKI: Yes.

QUESTION: — as well as others.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Is it still the case that no one from the U.S. Government has tried to or initiated backchannel contacts with members of Hamas?

MS. PSAKI: That is certainly my understanding, Matt.

QUESTION: I mean, you can comfortably speak for all agencies of the – all – the entire government or —

MS. PSAKI: I have never heard of a change in policy in that regard, Matt.

QUESTION: So it remains the case that you don’t have contacts with Hamas indirectly or directly, and there has not been such an effort?

MS. PSAKI: Our policy has not changed.

All right. Thanks, everyone.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:51 p.m.)

Source: state.gov