Patrick Ventrell
Acting Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
March 25, 2013


Index for Today's Briefing
  • FRANCE
    • President Hollande's Statement on the Death of Abu Zeid
  • SYRIA
    • Syrian Opposition Coalition / Moaz al-Khatib's Announcement / Arab League
    • U.S. Aid and Assistance / UN Role
    • Issue of Chemical Weapons / UN Investigation
    • Constant Contact with Wide Range of Syrians
  • LEBANON
    • Caretaker Government / Secretary's Call with President Suleiman / Concerns about Hezbollah
  • RUSSIA
    • Inspections of NGOs
  • CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
    • Seleka Rebel Alliance / Libreville Agreement
  • ZIMBABWE
    • Constitutional Referendum
  • EGYPT
    • Respect for Human Rights / Freedom of Expression
  • AFRICA REGION
    • Positive Agenda for Africa
  • LAOS
    • Disappearance of Civil Society Leader
  • HONDURAS
    • Concern about Corruption / Ongoing Review Process


TRANSCRIPT:

The video is available with closed captioning on YouTube.

1:24 p.m. EDT

MR. VENTRELL: Okay. A happy, snowy Monday in Washington. Just at the top to say that we take note that on March 23rd, President Hollande of France issued a statement confirming the death of Abu Zeid. His death is a significant blow to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, an important step in the fight against terrorism in northern Mali and the Sahel. So to commend our French partners in taking this terrorist off the battlefield. And having said that, I will turn it over to all of you.

QUESTION: Can we start with Syria?

MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.

QUESTION: Last week, you appeared to – not you personally, but this Department appeared to commend the Syrian opposition for creating an interim government and selecting an interim prime minister. They seem to have had reverses since then. How do you view the decision by President al-Khatib to resign his position?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, thanks for the question, Brad, and you saw over the weekend that the Secretary addressed this in his press availability in Baghdad where he said that we’re sorry to see Khatib’s announcement. He’s been a courageous leader, we’ve appreciated his leadership, and the opposition’s been well served by his leadership. So this is somebody that we’ve worked very well with. We also mentioned the selection of their prime minister, who’s somebody who we know working through on various assistance projects as well. But the bottom line is what we’re looking for is unity. And we want the opposition – we continue to support the coalition’s vision for a tolerant, inclusive Syria. And so we want them to continue to work together to implement that vision. The Secretary said this is not about one individual or another, it’s about the opposition as a whole. So --

QUESTION: But if it’s about unity, you have to concede that this was a pretty disastrous couple of days for the Syrian opposition’s unity. There’s bickering on all fronts. There’s criticism from one side to the other. The FSA feels sidelined. The Saudis and the Qataris didn’t like the choice of Hitto. The – and al-Khatib also criticized what appeared to be you for your lack of aid, in military terms, to the opposition. Where are you going with this unity at this point?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, look, this is a democratic process and so there are going to be some differences of opinion. What’s important is that the Syrian opposition continue to work toward what they’ve laid out, which is a vision for a tolerant and inclusive Syria. And so there may be different leadership that may come and go, there may be different folks who play different roles, but we want them to continue to focus on that important vision. And this is part of a democratic process. This means that they’re working this out through – they’re going to work this out amongst themselves and as part of their process.

QUESTION: What does it do to U.S. support for the opposition? A lot of it for so many months was being held up on condition that they further their cohesiveness. This seems like a reverse of that cohesiveness. Does that mean you put the brakes on further expansion to U.S. support?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, no, Brad. We’re going to continue to work with the coalition leadership, we’re going to work with Syrians across the country to deliver assistance to those in need, to continue to prepare for the day after and the political transition. So this is something we’ve – we’ll continually work on. Some of this is still playing out. Al-Khatib himself has said that he’s going to speak for the Syrian opposition at the Arab League. We refer you to them for more information about the planning and timing of that. But some of this is still playing out. So this is one data point, we need to continue to look at this and we’ll continue to urge unity.

QUESTION: And just lastly on this: How do you respond to the implicit criticism that he gave, that the aid has been not enough? I mean, you guys keep talking about addressing things like nonlethal aid; they’re asking for other things and they’re not getting that.

MR. VENTRELL: Well, the American people are giving hundreds of millions of dollars to the Syrian people. Some of that’s in humanitarian aid, where we’re the largest donor. But it’s tens of millions of dollars of nonlethal assistance, too. So our aid has been very generous. You heard the President talk about it when he was in Jordan as well. We’re also giving money to some of the neighboring countries whose resources are strained.

QUESTION: They say it’s not enough to help them win the battle.

MR. VENTRELL: We’re doing everything we can to accelerate the transition and to support them and their vision of a unified, peaceful and democratic Syria. So they have that vision. They’re working toward it, and we’ll continue to work with them as they – the leadership – the opposition is not defined by one individual or another.

QUESTION: I wonder how clear-cut it is that Mr. al-Khatib is actually stepping down, though. Because, as you said, he’s going to represent the Syrian opposition when they take up the seat for Syria at the Arab League. And I believe there’s been quite a campaign among some of the Syrian opposition to say that they won’t let him go, that he has to stay on. Does the U.S. understand that he’s no longer the head of the SOC?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, I mean, we’ve seen the news of the announcement but we haven’t had independent confirmation that he’s completely stepped down or left his role. Again, he said he’s going to speak. You’ve heard him say he’s going to speak on behalf of the Syrian opposition at the Arab League. Let’s wait and see what happens there and look forward to – I mean, we said he’s somebody we can work with and has been a really courageous leader. So let’s see where this goes going forward.

QUESTION: Has someone from the State Department or maybe Ambassador Ford been in touch with him since this weekend maneuvering?

MR. VENTRELL: My understanding is that we are reaching out to him but have not yet spoken to him since this announcement.

QUESTION: So you’ll be seeking a sort of clarification of his position?

MR. VENTRELL: We are reaching out to him.

QUESTION: Okay. And could I ask about the reports today from the United Nations that they’re moving quite a lot of their international staff out of Syria because of the dangers? What is the United States feeling on that?

MR. VENTRELL: We’ve seen those reports. Obviously, refer to the UN for the details on exactly who they’re moving. The UN does play a valuable role in Syria in terms of humanitarian assistance and some of the technical staff, but really refer you to them for their security posture. Obviously, Syria is very dangerous. So we’ve long removed our staff, but we applaud the courageous UN staff members who have stayed behind and continued to do important work.

QUESTION: But what effect, practically, do you think this will have on the distribution of aid on the ground?

MR. VENTRELL: This – we just saw the announcement before coming. We’ll have to seek some further clarity from the UN about who they might be pulling out and what the scope is. I mean, I think they said they’re going to still be able to complete the core pieces of their mission. But really refer to the UN for more details.

QUESTION: Well, I wondered if you could let us know how the investigation into the allegations of the chemical weapons used are going on the U.S. side.

MR. VENTRELL: Well, the UN is still – this is on the --

QUESTION: Well, on the U.S. side. Yeah.

MR. VENTRELL: On the U.S. side for the chemical weapons.

QUESTION: Because the U.S. is doing their own investigation as --

MR. VENTRELL: Well, you heard Toria say on Friday that we’re going to feed the information that we have from our contacts and our sources into the UN investigation. The UN obviously has some unique capabilities as well in terms of investigating. So we’ll continue to feed that in, as Toria said on Friday.

QUESTION: Do you know of anybody who’s been able to get to ground to make some of these determinations?

MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware of an update since Friday.

QUESTION: Have you fed anything in? Or are you just talking about feeding things in?

MR. VENTRELL: I’d have to look that – I mean, we maintain a wide range of contacts. We obviously have our own intelligence as well that we monitor, so – I mean, I’d have to look into see.

QUESTION: But contacts don’t really tell you whether a Sarin compound was found. You need to do tests.

MR. VENTRELL: Look, we have a large Syria team here at the State Department who reaches out to a wide range of contacts. Obviously, we’re not able to have our embassy open in the country right now, so that limits our ability to have a window into what’s going on the ground. But we reach out very widely and on a daily basis to as many Syrians as we can.

QUESTION: But you’re dealing with people who have no technical capacity to actually make --

MR. VENTRELL: Again, the UN has some unique capabilities. That’s why we --

QUESTION: But they’re not there.

MR. VENTRELL: -- said we’d support their investigation, and they’re working on it.

Jill.

QUESTION: Patrick, in terms about the Russians now, the Deputy Foreign Minister is saying that he wants Russians and Chinese – Russian and Chinese experts to be in that investigation because it’s the only way it can be credible. What do you say to that?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, this is really a decision for the UN, but we’ve said that we want the UN to bring its technical expertise to bear, and if the Russians and Chinese are able to do that then that would be a good thing.

QUESTION: All right. And then, now I know you have a difficult job trying to defend everything that’s going on here, but if you look at – talking about there may be different leadership as al-Khatib stepped down. Who is the U.S. now talking to? I mean, they seem in such disarray, I just wonder who you’re picking up the phone to?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we talk to a wide range of – a wide array --

QUESTION: But in the leadership?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean --

QUESTION: Absent Mr. al-Khatib, who is the leader? Who are you talking to?

MR. VENTRELL: Again, we’re still watching this as this develops. He’s about to give a speech so we need to let that go forward. But they have offices in Cairo; Ambassador Ford and his team are in constant contact with a wide range of not only political leadership, but technical experts as well. And so part of it is building capacity at a technical level, too. We’re trying to get them to be in a place where they can help govern the space that they take, and that’s a key component of it, too.

So part if it is getting organized at a technocratic level, and part of it is at a political level. And this is a democratic process; there’s going to be some ups and downs. But we’re going to continue to push and work with them to try to get them as organized as possible.

QUESTION: But you have – up on the Hill, you have a growing chorus of people who are saying this policy simply isn’t working. I mean, what are you telling them, realistically, to assure them that in your eyes, somehow it’s working?

MR. VENTRELL: Look, I mean, you heard the President talk extensively while he was traveling. You had the Secretary talk about the work that we’re doing, the pressure that we continue to put – to bring to bear on the regime, meeting the humanitarian needs, and the tens of millions of dollars that we’re working with on the opposition so that they can present a shared, effective strategy that’s an alternative for the Syrian people.

And so we’re going to continue to work with the opposition so that they can deliver those – they can deliver services to the people in the areas that they’re liberating and provide an alternative.

QUESTION: What was the result of the last Syrian opposition election?

MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure what you’re referring to by --

QUESTION: You keep saying it’s a democratic process. What’s democratic about it?

MR. VENTRELL: What I’m saying is --

QUESTION: Where is the proof in any of this being democratic?

MR. VENTRELL: They’re working through this in a political manner.

QUESTION: They have a process, but I mean, you keep – you said multiple times it was democratic, and I don’t see any pillars of democracy on display here. Do you?

MR. VENTRELL: Look, the point is this is political negotiation. There’s give and take and there’s going to be advances and there’s going to be moments where there are bumps along the road as well. But again, the opposition doesn’t rely on one individual or another. This is a group we’ve been working with of many Syrians who are from a wide array of society, who have a vision of a free, democratic, prosperous Syria, and they’ve been very clear in demonstrating that that’s their interest, and we’re going to continue to work with them and to get through these hiccups and these bumps along the road to get them as united as possible.

QUESTION: But don’t – after two years, it’s not united. I mean, really, where do you even begin? Right now, what it seems – what seems to be happening is on every level, it’s fracturing – politically, militarily – in dangerous ways. And the people who have the most influence are the radicals.

MR. VENTRELL: Look, we are concerned about the influence of extremists. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to build up and empower the folks who have this vision of a democratic and prosperous and free and unified Syria. I will say, you talk about where we are in terms of the different Syrians that are involved, and just yesterday there was a Syrian Alawite meeting in Cairo where – and we applaud the important, courageous step that the Syrians took yesterday in this Alawite group to say that it’s time for Assad to go and it’s time for Alawi regime soldiers to rebel against the regime. And so there are people – there are Sunnis, Alawis, Christians, Kurds, Druse, men and women who are going to be a part of this future Syria. And Assad will go, and we are going to continue to work with this opposition so that they can provide an alternative. And it’s not going to rest on one individual or another. It’s going to be the result of not only our work, which is tens of millions of dollars, but that of our allies and partners. And so when you saw Rome, when you saw the Secretary there with all of our partners, that’s really bringing to bear the effort of a lot of friends of Syria, a lot of different partners who can really help sort of change the calculus and change the results on the ground.

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry seemed to suggest yesterday that actually al-Khatib’s resignation wasn’t a surprise, that he’d threatened to go several times since he was elected – I think just in December. Why continue working with somebody who perhaps wasn’t able to work in the same way with the United States towards the end, which I presume you both want?

MR. VENTRELL: Look, I mean, first of all, this is up to the Syrians as they decide their leadership and who it’ll be and how long they’ll serve and in what capacity. But this is frustrating. I mean, this is something where you have a ruthless dictator slaughtering his own people, and all they want is a chance to build a new day. And so there’s no doubt that this is a deeply frustrating situation, and we really applaud Khatib for being so courageous. You saw him go into northern Syria. You saw some of the very emotional appeals he’s given. And so we’ll continue to – we think he can continue to provide leadership and guidance, maybe in this capacity, maybe in another.

QUESTION: Patrick, you had a guy who went out on a limb and took up your position that the opposition should speak to members of the Assad regime to get to a political transition. That was very unpopular. And now he’s kind of been pushed aside, and the people who look like they might fill his place all are against that. So how do you address that setback? What is this going to mean for hopes of a political transition when nobody is going to take that risk again because they don’t even get supported when they kind of get pushed aside?

MR. VENTRELL: Look, Brad, this is still playing out. Let’s see what happens at the Arab League summit. And we’re going to continue to watch this closely.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: What is fueling the confidence that Assad will in fact go?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, we said – we’ve long said that he’ll go. We can’t give a timeframe to it, but the opposition – people – this is – what started as a peaceful, democratic movement – it started as people expressing their free will and their rights as peaceful protesters. We just think that they will continue – their urge for a free day in Syria will be victorious. And we think that the Assad regime, in terms of slaughtering their own people, the people will not stand for that. Even those who have been on the fence, who have long been concerned about what the alternative might be, will see that there is a way forward and that there is a way to have a free and prosperous Syria.

QUESTION: Patrick you said, let’s see what Arab League is going to take – to make a decision regarding Syria. What do you expect from Arab League regarding this crisis or the issue that you have in front of you?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, look, we’re watching to see what happens at the Arab League. I don’t want to predict --

QUESTION: No expectations?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, look, let’s let the meetings play out and we’ll see how they go.

Any other topics?

QUESTION: Just one more on Syria before we move on.

MR. VENTRELL: Sure.

QUESTION: Do you have any update on the status of Riad al-Assad? There’s differing reports with some saying he lost a limb, some saying other things.

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we’ve seen the same reports you have that there was an attack and that he’s at a hospital in Turkey. But we don’t have independent confirmation yet of his status other than the reports that we’ve all seen.

Go ahead, Samir.

QUESTION: Lebanon?

MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.

QUESTION: What is your reaction to the resignation of the government in Lebanon?

MR. VENTRELL: Thanks. So just, first of all, to say that Secretary Kerry did call yesterday President Suleiman to thank him for his leadership and efforts to ease sectarian tensions in Lebanon. The Secretary also thanked him for his efforts to ensure elections occur on time. And he thanked him for his leadership and generosity in assisting refugees from Syria. So this was a chance for them to talk about the refugee situation. Earlier, Brad had mentioned. We talked about providing aid to some of the countries that are having the spillover effects of so many refugees, and so they discussed U.S. assistance and the multiple million dollars that we’re spending to assist the Lebanese as well.

But in terms of the resignation, we understand that the president will now take action to appoint a new prime minister who will then form the next cabinet. And until then, Prime Minister Mikati has agreed to lead the current government in a caretaker status. So this must be a Lebanese process. We’ll watch closely, but this is really for the Lebanese to decide, and what we want for them is a government that reflects their aspirations and will strengthen Lebanon’s stability, sovereignty, and independence.

Jo.

QUESTION: Can I just ask (inaudible) on Lebanon? How concerned are you, the United States, about the continuing political role of Hezbollah in all these political shufflings?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean – you know what the longstanding U.S. position is on Hezbollah as a terrorist group, and that hasn’t changed, and our concerns about Hezbollah have remained.

QUESTION: Did the Secretary raise this with President Suleiman when they talked?

MR. VENTRELL: In terms of Hezbollah specifically?

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR. VENTRELL: We always raise our concerns about Hezbollah, but they talked very broadly about the political process and U.S. aid in terms of refugees.

Jill.

QUESTION: In --

QUESTION: So he did? I mean, if you always raise it, he raised Hezbollah in this conversation? Just to confirm that.

MR. VENTRELL: We consistently raise Hezbollah with our Lebanese counterparts.

QUESTION: But you --

MR. VENTRELL: I’m not sure if that specific line came up.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: In Russia, the government is continuing this investigation crackdown on NGOs. The latest, Amnesty International, raiding new offices – I presume you have something to say about that.

MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. And Jill, we did also see – I saw news reports that Amnesty International was one of those this morning. But we’ve seen this last week as well. But we’re following closely these reports that Russian authorities have been conducting inspections of thousands of non-governmental organizations across Russia in recent weeks. We’re very concerned about this. You know that this goes back to the series of laws that were passed by the Russian Government in – last year in 2012 that impose harsh restrictions on civil society and could be used to target NGOs across the board. So this is something we’ve been consistently raising our concerns about. We were concerned when the law was passed; we’re concerned now with the implementation and this uptick, the scope of many thousands of NGOs being examined by the Russian Government. So we’re going to continue to raise it with the Russian authorities.

Okay.

QUESTION: Afghanistan?

MR. VENTRELL: Go ahead, Jo.

QUESTION: The Bagram prison was transferred today to full control of the Afghan authorities with the arrival of Secretary Kerry today.

MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.

QUESTION: I wondered if you could give us a few more details about some of the guarantees that have been put into how that transfer will work, and what kind of control, if any, the Americans will have over who is released and when.

MR. VENTRELL: Jo, I’m going to disappoint you but this is really an ISAF and a DOD issue. So I don’t think here from the State Department I can offer.

QUESTION: So State had no input into the making of those arrangements?

MR. VENTRELL: In terms of the logistics of it, it’s absolutely a DOD thing and has been an ISAF lead. So I’d really refer you to them.

QUESTION: Patrick, the Central African Republic?

MR. VENTRELL: Yes.

QUESTION: Do you consider what happened a coup?

MR. VENTRELL: So, Brad, you did see our statement yesterday where we expressed our concern. Just to say that we do condemn the seizing of power by force by the Seleka rebel alliance and the appointment by Seleka of a president outside of any constitutional framework. We call on the Seleka leadership and other parties to recognize the continued legitimacy of the Libreville agreement, ensure its implementation, and provide full support to Prime Minister Tiangaye and his government, which was appointed pursuant to that agreement.

So in terms of whether this is a coup or not, that’s something that we’re reviewing. You know that there’s always a legal review before the U.S. makes that determination, and we’ll continue to look at it. But we do condemn the actions over the weekend. There was some movement on the ground as we were reviewing exactly what happened. And our concern is that: Can they get back to the Libreville agreement, and leave the way for the Prime Minister and his government to continue to run the country? And it appears that they’re now appointing their own president, so that’s where our concern is.

QUESTION: You’re not calling for the president to be restored, it sounds like. You’re okay with Bozize out of the picture?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we’re not sure of his whereabouts and what his posture is at this point, but as you saw from our statement yesterday, we did hold out some hope that there is a way to keep the agreement alive. Whether that’s now going to be possible, we have to continue to review the activities on the ground carefully.

QUESTION: If you’re condemning the action of them kind of ousting him, why aren’t you saying that he should be restored expediently? What’s the rationalization?

MR. VENTRELL: Again, we’re not aware of his whereabouts and we’re not --

QUESTION: That has nothing to do with his whereabouts.

MR. VENTRELL: Right.

QUESTION: He’s not dead.

MR. VENTRELL: It’s our assessment, Brad, that there is a way to keep the Libreville – the integrity of the Libreville agreement if the Prime Minister and his government are --

QUESTION: But that --

MR. VENTRELL: -- and actually run the government day to day. Whether the – my understanding is the position of president wasn’t necessarily a day-to-day governing position. And so – again, it’s clear now, though, that they’ve appointed somebody else and are trying to take full power, and that’s what the concern is.

QUESTION: I don’t think it is clear because it sounds like different factions are saying different things regarding the replacement. But why would you even grace their unconstitutional – why would you even refer to that? Because there’s nothing in their constitution that’s been followed in determining how they’ve chosen a new president.

MR. VENTRELL: And that’s where we’re very concerned. Obviously, there were developments happening over the weekend.

QUESTION: Why wouldn’t you call on his position to be respected? I don’t understand.

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again --

QUESTION: He was ousted by force. Don’t you think he should be restored?

MR. VENTRELL: Again, we’re not sure of his whereabouts; we’re not sure of his desire to return.

QUESTION: Very strange.

MR. VENTRELL: We would like the agreement to be respected, and that principally means letting the Prime Minister and his government run the affairs of the country. So we’ll continue to urge calm. We know that there were some cut-offs to electricity and water in the city, in Bangui overnight, and obviously we’re concerned about the residents there and we’re expressing our concern.

QUESTION: Do you agree with the rebels’ frustrations that the accord hadn’t been followed by the previous president, who you apparently no longer recognize or address in any specific way?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, we had concerns that – on both sides, that they had to maintain the agreement. And now that’s apparent that that’s not happening.

QUESTION: By both sides, you felt it wasn’t happening?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, we wanted both sides to live up to the agreement.

QUESTION: And were they, or were they not?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, it’s now – now, clearly not.

QUESTION: Okay. So both sides haven’t lived up to the agreement.

MR. VENTRELL: Now they’ve not.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: Cameroonian authorities are saying (inaudible). Is that something you --

MR. VENTRELL: It’s possible. We don’t have confirmation ourselves one way or another.

QUESTION: Patrick, what about your diplomatic ties with the Central Africa? Are they – are you putting them on hold right now? How about your cooperation, aid?

MR. VENTRELL: We have that all under review right now. We continue to recognize the Government of the National Unity led by Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye. So we’re going to review our aid, obviously. We have a very limited amount of international military assistance and training, which we’re reviewing.

QUESTION: But nothing has been put on hold right now?

MR. VENTRELL: We’re currently reviewing it.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Egypt?

QUESTION: Stay still on this?

MR. VENTRELL: Sure.

QUESTION: Do you know, are any American trainers in the country right now? There were American trainers helping with the hunt against LRA and just Joseph Kony.

MR. VENTRELL: Yeah, so, Brad, you do know, first of all, to say that our Embassy, back in December, was closed when – for security concerns in Bangui. We had withdrawn our Embassy staff. There are some American trainers in the eastern part of the country, way over in the corner much closer to the Congo and South Sudan. Our understanding is that they’re very far away from what’s happening in Bangui and they continue to be there. I refer you to DOD in terms of their – any more information about --

QUESTION: But the new rebel --

MR. VENTRELL: -- the scope of that.

QUESTION: -- junta leadership, whatever, I think they’ve asked that all foreign troops – well, not asked, demanded that all foreign troops leave the country. Are you aware of this, and are you going to (inaudible) that?

MR. VENTRELL: I’ve seen these news reports. I’d refer you to DOD in terms of any actions we’re going to take there.

QUESTION: Okay, how many trainers are in the country?

MR. VENTRELL: I don’t have an exact number.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. VENTRELL: I think it’s 70 to 80, but I’d have to get back to you with an exact number.

QUESTION: Can we stay on the continent?

MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.

QUESTION: Zimbabwe?

MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.

QUESTION: The United – the EU today is suspending most of its sanctions, not all but most, against the Zimbabwean authorities, saying that they create – they held a credible referendum earlier this year. And Secretary Clinton, when she visited, said that the United States will be prepared to match action for action if Zimbabwe did go ahead and restore the political process. Is the United States reviewing its sanctions on Zimbabwe? Where are we?

MR. VENTRELL: Just as you described it, Jo, it’s still our policy that it’s something we’re willing to look at, action for action. Just to say that we – last week there was a constitutional referendum. We congratulate the people and Government of Zimbabwe for holding a peaceful and credible constitutional referendum. I guess this was back on – now we’re a little over a week – March 16th. So this was an important first step in the nation’s development of democracy, and so now what we need is to see this serve as a precedent for upcoming presidential elections. So we’re going to continue to review our sanctions, but we want to get the democratic process back on track in Zimbabwe.

QUESTION: So you want to see the outcome of the presidential elections first before you might consider lifting the sanctions?

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, I don’t have an announcement for you today, but it’s something we’re going to continue to look at as they progress in their democracy.

Yeah. Yes.

QUESTION: Egypt President Morsy yesterday warned his opponents, saying that he may use special means or measures to protect the nation. And the tone and the content of his words as it was observed, it was alarming regarding the democratic or political process. How do you see what was said, especially that you were encouraging inclusiveness and political dialogue and all these things?

MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Well, we can’t really speak to the intent of these recent comments. We saw them, but the bottom line is that we’re clearly concerned by violence that we’ve seen in Egypt and we’re following the situation closely, but our message to the Government of Egypt is that they should fully respect human rights and the rule of law in their response. So people should be able to exercise their universal rights peacefully, and the Government of Egypt should respond in a way that respects human rights and should do any investigation or response in a thorough, credible, and independent way.

QUESTION: Another issue which was recently raised even with the Committee to Protect Journalists, which is an issue of the freedom of expression. And in the recent days specifically, more warning is going on like attacking the journalists and the TV stations verbally and physically even. Do you have anything to say about this?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, I’m not sure the specific cases you’re referring to, but we stand firmly on the side of freedom of expression and the ability of journalists to do their job independently and freely in Egypt.

QUESTION: So that you’ll raise this issue again?

MR. VENTRELL: It’s something we raise routinely with the Egyptian authorities. I’m not aware of this specific case you’re referring to.

QUESTION: Which was, like, yesterday and day before yesterday and a week ago.

MR. VENTRELL: I’ll have to look into the specific case. I’ll look into the specific case.

In the back.

QUESTION: Pakistan. Former Pakistani President Musharraf, who worked with the United States Government very closely, is now back in Pakistan. He’s getting the life threats from Taliban. So I’m wondering how you’re watching the situation there.

MR. VENTRELL: We’ve seen the news that he’s returned. It’s really up to the people of Pakistan to decide who their representatives should be, and so we really refer you to the Government of Pakistan. I’d really refer you to him about his travel back. We don’t have anything specific.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Do you have anything on Cyprus – the Cyprus situation and the decision by Eurogroup to bail out the island?

MR. VENTRELL: Here’s another one where I’m, unfortunately, going to disappoint you all. This really is one that we refer you to the Department of the Treasury on.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Last Friday Toria said the U.S. is completely relaxed on the Chinese prisoner’s visit to Russia, and now he’s visiting Africa, and this will further expand the Chinese cooperation with African countries. Does this raise your concern in terms of a closer Chinese and African tie?

MR. VENTRELL: This is something we talked about last summer when former Secretary Clinton traveled to Africa, and what we’re working on with our African partners is a strong partnership on democracy, on development, on sustainable development, and so we have a really positive agenda for Africa ourselves and can’t really speak for the Chinese. They’ll continue to work with a wide number of different countries on their own interests, but we’ve got a positive agenda of our own.

QUESTION: What is your agenda?

MR. VENTRELL: Well, as I just described, we want partnerships with all of these countries, and we’re looking to promote democracy and sustainable development and really a new way forward for some of these countries to lift themselves out of poverty and to treat disease, and these are sort of our main priorities in Africa.

QUESTION: Is the United States itself in competition with China in Africa?

MR. VENTRELL: I don’t know if I’d phrase it that way. We’re – our relationship is not necessarily defined by competition alone, but we may have divergent interests in various spheres of Africa, but we continue to promote our positive agenda.

QUESTION: Can I ask you about Laos?

MR. VENTRELL: Yes.

QUESTION: There was a statement about the Lao activist who’s been missing for a hundred days. Have you had any contact, any response from Lao authorities regarding this case?

MR. VENTRELL: Yeah. Just to call everybody’s attention to a statement that the Secretary made yesterday calling on the Lao Government to do everything in its power to account for the disappearance of this civil society leader, we – the Secretary expressed how concerned he is by the lack of significant information. I don’t have an update this morning about any reaction from the government, either to our private communication or this statement, but we’ll continue to press this case.

QUESTION: Okay. And now there’s another case in Thailand right now of a Hmong rebel leader who may be forcibly returned. Are you aware of this case, and are you raising concerns with the Thai and Lao authorities regarding this?

MR. VENTRELL: I’ll have to look into that one, Brad. I don’t have any information on it.

QUESTION: You don’t have anything on that?

MR. VENTRELL: But I’ll look into it after the briefing.

QUESTION: Okay. And I have a question about Honduras, if I may.

MR. VENTRELL: Okay.

QUESTION: If you were about to close the book, I’ll stop you right there.

MR. VENTRELL: Okay.

QUESTION: We had a story about the U.S. support for Honduran police --

MR. VENTRELL: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- which you’d long said had nothing to do with the police chief Bonilla, and we’re saying that every single one of the units you claim was vetted reports directly to Bonilla. How do you square that with what you told Congress and what you’ve said publicly about this?

MR. VENTRELL: Just to say, first of all, Brad, that we remain concerned about high levels of impunity and corruption in Honduras, and we’re working in partnership with the Honduran Government and civil society to address these challenges, advance citizen security, build capacity within the rule of law and judicial institutions, and protect the human rights of all Hondurans.

I can tell you right now that there is a review process undergoing. It’s standard practice for the U.S. Government to form working groups and review and evaluate institutions that receive U.S. assistance. So we review all relevant information that may affect assistance the United States can provide to Honduras, including under the provisions of the Leahy Law. So I can’t comment on the internal deliberations, but we remain in close communication with the U.S. Congress, in compliance with the legal requirements of the Leahy Law.

QUESTION: How did you vet these people if – I mean, they are police units under the police chief, and you say they have no – nothing to do with the police chief.

MR. VENTRELL: I mean, again, I can’t get into the actual vetting procedures other than to say we absolutely comply with congressional mandates and congressional requirements.

QUESTION: Are you urging the Honduran Government to relieve Mr. Bonilla of his duties, since you’ve essentially raised the allegations of extrajudicial killings and various human rights violations by him and his alleged death squads?

MR. VENTRELL: I’m not aware that we’ve taken a position before this review is finished, so I think we’re going to conduct a thorough review and then take a look and be back in communication not only with Honduras but with the U.S. Congress.

QUESTION: You specifically said that you’re withholding money from anything that he touches.

MR. VENTRELL: Right, but --

QUESTION: So I would wonder why you would not urge that he then be removed if he’s an obstacle of your cooperation.

MR. VENTRELL: We’ve got to get to the bottom of this through our review before we make any decisions.

QUESTION: Do you know how much – I can’t seem to find anywhere that says how much money you guys are actually providing the Honduran security sector. According to, I think, like, the State Department/USAID website it was zero, which can’t be correct since --

MR. VENTRELL: Yeah, we have large security cooperation with a number of Central American partners.

QUESTION: Could you get back to me with how much you provide?

MR. VENTRELL: I will endeavor this afternoon to get you --

QUESTION: I imagine it’s more than zero.

MR. VENTRELL: I will endeavor to get you an expert this afternoon.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. VENTRELL: Thanks.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:58 p.m.)

DPB # 49

[This is a mobile copy of Daily Press Briefing - March 25, 2013]