State Department Briefing by Mark C. Toner, June 1, 2011

Washington, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–June 1, 2011.  

Index for Today’s Briefing
    • Special Briefing on the 2011 U.S. – Sub-Saharan Africa Trade and Economic Cooperation (AGOA) Forum
    • Death of Iranian Human Rights Activist Haleh Sahabi
    • Launch of the New J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program Website
    • Release of State Department Statements
    • Abduction and Killing of Reporter Syed Saleem Shehzad
    • Ambassador Ford’s Meetings / Raised Ongoing Human Rights Concerns
    • Syria Needs to Follow Up Reform Rhetoric with Action / No Confirmation that Syria Has Released Political Prisoners
    • Syria Needs to Make Meaningful Movement to Reform
    • Atrocities Committed by Qadhafi / Not Aware of Opposition Being Involved in Allegations of War Crimes
    • Trial of Former President Mubarak
    • Stringent Review Process for Keystone XL Pipeline Project
    • Israel’s Maritime Blockade of Gaza / Established Mechanisms Exist to Transfer Humanitarian Assistance to Gaza
    • North Korea Needs to Take Meaningful Steps to Improve Relations with South Korea / Change Behavior
    • Food Assistance is Separate from Policy / Assessment is Ongoing


1:22 p.m. EDT

MR. TONER: Good afternoon. Welcome to the State Department. I do want to call your attention to the fact that at 2:00 today – so in just about 40 minutes – we are going to have a special press briefing on the AGOA Forum to which the Secretary is traveling next week. The AGOA is the African Trade and Economic Cooperation Forum. And we’re going to have Ambassador Johnnie Carson, who is the assistant secretary for African Affairs here, as well as Ambassador Demetrios Marantis, who is the deputy U.S. trade representative, and additionally Patrick C. Fine, who is our vice president of Department of Compact Operations of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and they’ll be here to talk to you about the agenda for AGOA.

Just before taking your questions, we saw reports earlier today that the Iranian human rights activist Haleh Sahabi died during her father’s funeral, and that was after an intervention from Iranian security forces. Both Haleh and her father suffered in life for their political activism, including imprisonment. Ms. Sahabi was, in fact, on leave from prison for her father’s funeral when she died. We call on the Iranian Government to investigate the circumstances of her death. If reports are accurate that government security forces contributed to her death, this would demonstrate a deplorable disregard for human dignity and respect on the part of the Iranian authorities. We express our deepest condolences to the family, friends, and the supporters of the Sahabis.

I also wanted to – yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Do you have – you have some reason to believe that she was killed by the security forces?

MR. TONER: Again, I think we’ve – what we’ve seen from various press reports are that she may have suffered a heart attack after a scuffle with Iranian security forces. That’s why we’re calling for an investigation.

I also wanted to note that today the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is a launching the J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program website worldwide. Each year – it’s worth noting that each year, more than 350,000 students, professors, summer work travel participants, au pairs, and camp counselors travel to work or to study in the United States. So J-1 Visas are a critical component of our mission to promote mutual understanding worldwide, and this new site makes it easier for visitors, program sponsors, and host families to find the information that they need. This is the first phase of a comprehensive revamp of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ web presence and reflects our commitment to communicate in a way that promotes broader participation in these valuable cultural exchange opportunities. And just to note, the new web address is

That’s it. I’ll take questions if –

QUESTION: Can I – I just – can I go back to the Iran thing for a second?

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: I mean, you’re – so you think that they caused her to have a heart attack?

MR. TONER: Matt, it’s unclear –

QUESTION: Which is exactly why I’m wondering why you’re saying –

MR. TONER: — the events that happened on the ground, which is why we’re calling into question what exactly happened and we’re asking for an explanation. From what we’ve seen from media reports or news reports, and what we’ve heard from observers, was that there were some – excuse me, there were security forces present, that there was a scuffle, and that her apparent heart attack may have been related to that.

QUESTION: Right. But you said that if those reports are true that this would demonstrate a deplorable –

MR. TONER: Well, again, she was on – she was released from prison to attend her father’s funeral first and foremost.


MR. TONER: So why Iranian security forces would have been at this event is question number one. And question number two is whether they – there was some kind of physical altercation that caused her to suffer.

QUESTION: All right. Okay.

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Can I – I have one logistical question.

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: What time was the Secretary’s statement about the Pakistani journalist being killed released last night?

MR. TONER: I don’t have the –

QUESTION: Really? I can tell you right here.

MR. TONER: I don’t have the log in front of me. It was probably after 10:00 p.m.

QUESTION: It was significantly after 10:00 p.m. I’m just wondering why these things – it came out at 11:52 p.m. At least, that’s when I got it. I think it was sent at 11:51.

MR. TONER: Well –

QUESTION: What exactly is taking so long with these things? You put them out near midnight. I mean, it’s just –

MR. TONER: Well, obviously we do it – as soon as the statement is ready to be disseminated, we put it out. And we’re a 24/7 –

QUESTION: Do you want coverage of these statements, or do you not want coverage?

MR. TONER: Look, guys, okay. I see where this is leading. We’ve had this discussion before. Our aim is to put these statements out as soon as they’re releasable. We don’t – necessarily are unable to determine – or we don’t say when the releasable – we get these things from various bureaus within the Department, and we release them as soon as they’re available. I’d rather do that than hold them overnight on what is a news event.

QUESTION: Well, that’s fine, but –

MR. TONER: But your criticism is well founded. I –

QUESTION: Well, I’m not being critical. I just want to know why –

MR. TONER: It’s not –

QUESTION: Who was it at 11:30 last night that was the last person to sign off on this?

MR. TONER: I don’t know.

QUESTION: You don’t have the statement in front of you?


QUESTION: Fair enough.

QUESTION: I have a question about the statement.

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: I mean, the statement says that the United States strongly condemns the abduction and killing of the reporter. Has the United States – we were just in Pakistan last week with the Secretary. She talked at considerable length and repeatedly about the importance of the U.S. having a long-term relationship with Pakistan. Beyond supporting the Pakistani Government investigating this, has she done anything else, or has anybody else at the Department done anything else about this? Have they called Pakistani officials and asked them to do anything about this?

MR. TONER: Well, again, there’s – we – this is – it’s unclear what happened. We’ve called on Pakistani authorities to investigate the circumstances of his death. I’m not aware that the Secretary has made any direct calls to her Pakistani counterparts about it. But at various other levels, I’m certain that we’ll raise it. We continue to raise these types of human rights and freedom of the press issues all the time with Pakistani Government officials.

QUESTION: Just one other thing. We all heard the Secretary’s comments yesterday about the reported torture of the Syrian —

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: — 13-year-old boy. Has – beyond those public comments, has the Administration, for example, raised this issue directly with the Syrian Government, either through the Embassy or here in Washington?

MR. TONER: I will double-check on that. My understanding is that Ambassador Ford was in to see his Syrian interlocutors as recently as yesterday —

QUESTION: About that topic?

MR. TONER: — and I’ll see if he raised it.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

MR. TONER: He raised – certainly raised ongoing human rights concerns, but I’m not sure if he raised this in particular.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead, Kim.

QUESTION: On Syria —

MR. TONER: Okay. Yeah.

QUESTION: — how does the – I mean, there’s a report that Syria has released hundreds of political prisoners. That’s coming from a human rights group —

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: — also on the same day that more than 30 people are killed, including an 11-year-old girl. So how does the U.S. respond to that?

MR. TONER: Well, I said yesterday that Syria has a credibility problem that they needed to follow up some of their rhetoric on reform with action. There are reports – we don’t have any confirmation of these reports that indeed political prisoners have been released. But it’s clear, just to follow on what the Secretary and others have said, that President Asad has a choice. The Syrian people are going to judge based – their government based on actions.

The release of some political prisoners is not all political prisoners. We need to see all political prisoners released and we need to see an end to the violence that Syrian forces have been continually carrying out against civilian populations. And then we need to see meaningful movement towards reform and an effort to engage the opposition in a meaningful way and listen to their concerns and attempt to address them. The gesture of releasing a hundred or so political prisoners doesn’t go far enough, and I think that the Syrian people would feel that way.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on the —

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: — about Ambassador Ford’s meeting? Can you tell us who requested that meeting and what else they might have discussed?

MR. TONER: I think he’s been – again, I don’t have all the circumstances in front of me. My understanding is that he’s routinely been going in to talk to the Syrians. Again, that’s one of the reasons he’s there in Damascus and remains there in order to go and engage with them to express our concerns. I just don’t know if he raised that specific case while he was there.

QUESTION: Okay. Can you say how his —

MR. TONER: And I don’t know at what level he met with, but —

QUESTION: I was – yeah, that was the other question then, how well received his concerns were.

MR. TONER: Well, it’s clearly not – he is there not to be Pollyannaish about our relationship with Syria. On the contrary, he’s there to express our concerns and the international community’s concerns about what’s been happening there. So I can’t characterize how the Syrians have received it. My guess is that – not very positively, but it’s a message they need to hear.

QUESTION: What happens if the Syrians don’t change their behavior? I mean, there was just this new —

MR. TONER: Well, I think —

QUESTION: — level of sanctions against —

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: — Mr. Asad personally.

MR. TONER: Yeah. And you’re right; there’s been a steady ratcheting up of sanctions of concern, international concern. There’s been an effort in the – to address it in the UN Security Council. There’s also been – it’s been referred to the Human Rights Commission. And I think that if we don’t see any movement, we’ll continue to look at ways and to – and consult with our international partners on how we can apply additional pressure.

Go ahead, and then Kim.

QUESTION: Mine’s on North Korea, so if yours is on Syria —

QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about Libya. This was breaking just as I came in here, that apparently UN investigators say both Qadhafi and opposition forces committed war crimes in Libya. Have you seen anything on that?

MR. TONER: I have not. On the first part, it’s certainly no surprise. We’ve seen atrocities committed by Colonel Qadhafi. It’s certainly no surprise that he’s being called in to question some of these human rights abuses that his regime has carried out. I’m unaware of the opposition being involved in any allegations of war crimes. I’ll have to look at it and get back to you.

We’ve been consistent in our dealings with the Transitional National Council that they need to uphold democratic standards and human rights in their dealings both with Qadhafi’s forces as well as the civilian population.

QUESTION: Just one briefly on the Middle East. Are you aware of the case of an American citizen named Munib Rashid Masri who was shot – allegedly shot in the back by Israeli troops during the Nakba?

MR. TONER: I’m not.

QUESTION: Okay. Apparently, he’s paralyzed now. He’s in a hospital in Beirut. His family has spoken to —

MR. TONER: When did this happen? I’m sorry.

QUESTION: It happened during the – two weeks ago during the Nakba day protests.

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: Apparently, they’ve been in touch with the American Embassy in Beirut and have not gotten – not been happy with what they have heard —

MR. TONER: And just to clarify, he’s an American citizen?

QUESTION: I wouldn’t be raising it if he wasn’t.

MR. TONER: Okay. I’m sorry, I just didn’t hear that.

QUESTION: Yes, he is. So —

MR. TONER: I’ll look into it.

QUESTION: — if you don’t know, can you ask around on that?

MR. TONER: Yeah. I’ll look into it, Matt.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Sure. Okay. Is that it?

QUESTION: One more on the Middle East?

MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Egypt. The Secretary said today that she – well, she mentioned the highly charged atmosphere in which the Mubarak trial may take place. Is the U.S. concerned that this could turn into a show trial of sorts and that he might not get a fair trial?

MR. TONER: Well, I think that the Secretary was clear in laying down what the international community would expect from any kind of domestic trial of any individual in Egypt, and certainly more so because this is the former president. But that – this is really a matter for the Egyptian people to address, but that any – we would look for any trial there to follow due process and transparency and meet international standards. That’s not – I don’t think that we’re particularly concerned beyond the fact that Egypt’s in the process of navigating a pretty difficult political transition now, and we stand ready to support them as they do that. But we’re also going to be clear if our concerns about human rights abuses and any other issues we may have, and I think she spoke to that as well, about – talking about some of the journalists being rounded up.

QUESTION: And she mentioned judges.

MR. TONER: And she mentioned judges, correct.

QUESTION: Thirty-four members of Congress have written to the Secretary raising their concerns about the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline. Do you know – or, and if you don’t, could you check – whether you’ve received the letter, one; and two, can you see whether you have anything to say about their environmental concerns about the project, and in particular the possibility that the kind of oil that gets – that would get transported through the pipeline tends to corrode pipes faster than regular oil.

MR. TONER: We’ll look into – I’ll look into the letter and what our response will be. But we’ve spoken a lot about this – the very stringent process of review that is ongoing on the – regarding the Keystone pipeline, and they’re looking at all various impacts on the environment. I’m certain that they’re looking at this issue as well, but I’ll try to get more for you on the letter.

QUESTION: Excellent. One last thing.

MR. TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: Israeli – Israel television’s Channel 10 is reporting that the Secretary refused to meet with Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman when they were both in Paris last week for the OECD events. Is there any truth to that?

MR. TONER: I don’t know, frankly.

QUESTION: Mark, sorry, about Israeli and Gaza aid ships. The Israeli military said it will stop new Gaza flotilla. Do you —

MR. TONER: Flotilla, yeah.

QUESTION: Yeah, do you know, flotilla. They said – and one of the reasons from last year’s raid was, they said, especially Turkey is waiting for apology and compensation. Are you talking to Israeli government? Are they going to intervene in international waters or in Israeli waters?

MR. TONER: I’m sorry, so what’s just – the question is?

QUESTION: Yeah. Israeli military says they will stop new Gaza —

MR. TONER: Who says?

QUESTION: Israeli military.

MR. TONER: Okay.

QUESTION: They said they will stop new ships, new aid ships, international —

MR. TONER: Right, right. Okay.

QUESTION: — flotilla. Yeah. Are you talking to the Israeli government? Are they planning to intervene these ships in international waters? Is it okay with U.S. Government? Or in Israeli waters?

MR. TONER: We have made clear through the past year that groups and individuals who seek to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza are taking irresponsible and provocative actions that entail a risk to their safety. I think I’ve talked about this specifically. We’ve raised our concerns with the Turkish Government as well, and we’ve also met and said publicly as well as privately, meeting with some of these NGOs, that – about our concerns, about the risk for attempting to break this blockade. We want to just reiterate that there are established and efficient mechanisms for getting humanitarian assistance through to Gaza, and that’s been our message consistently. You’re asking me if we’ve raised it with the Israelis?

QUESTION: The Israelis, and if they’re going to intervene these ships in international waters (inaudible).

MR. TONER: You have to – I mean, I’d have to refer you to the Israeli Government as to what their actions may be if people attempt to break the blockade. Our message has been consistent, that there established mechanisms for getting humanitarian assistance into Gaza and that flotilla actions are indeed provocative, and we don’t want to see anybody harmed.

QUESTION: And you contacted NGOs, right, the special NGOs?

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you, Mark.

MR. TONER: Go ahead. Sorry.

QUESTION: You’re fine. Well, sources out of North Korea have leaked that South Korea asked for – allegedly asked for some, I guess, secret summits or meetings. And the North Korean response to this has been that they will refuse to apologize for last year’s incidents, and is this an escalation of tension with them? Is this going to kind of – hurt the situation even more or what’s kind of the U.S. response to this? Do we have a hand in what’s going on here, in mediating, or —

MR. TONER: Well again, we’ve been pretty consistent about saying that North Korea needs to improve North-South relations and demonstrate a change in behavior before we can move forward, and this includes ceasing provocative actions. But also I talked about its belligerent behavior, and the sinking of the Cheonan would certainly be evidence of that. So I don’t know if it’s a ratcheting up of tensions. I would just say that it’s more of the same we’re hearing, more of the same rhetoric that we’ve heard before from North Korea, and it’s not getting us any closer to improving those North-South relations. And so that would help move this process forward.


QUESTION: A follow-up on that?

MR. TONER: You bet. Lauren —

QUESTION: Quick follow-up.

MR. TONER: Why don’t we go in the back, and then to you, Lauren.


MR. TONER: I’ll get to you. Sorry.

QUESTION: Do you think this situation is a factor of food aid assessment, the U.S. food aid assessment?

MR. TONER: The first part of your question?

QUESTION: The North Korean – the Korean peninsula situation is – do you think it’s affect —

MR. TONER: Is affected by the food aid?


MR. TONER: You mean —

QUESTION: The other way around.

QUESTION: To Robert King or —


QUESTION: Is the refusal affected by the situation in North Korea —

MR. TONER: Thank you. No. I mean, I’ve said very clearly that our food assistance program is a separate piece altogether from the policy side of that. What we’re looking for on the policy side is not at all affected or has an effect on our food assistance program. Food assessment team remains in North Korea, they’re conducting an assessment. We’ll study the results of that assessment. One of the key priorities there is to – beyond that assessment is to make sure that there’s mechanisms in place that we can ensure our food aid is getting to the people who need it. So those are really the elements that are brought to bear on that issue.

QUESTION: Do you expect the team to leave North Korea before Ambassador King testifies on Thursday?

MR. TONER: I believe they’re there till the 2nd, and tomorrow is the —


QUESTION: The 2nd.

QUESTION: I’m sorry, going back to the last question.

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure, Lauren.

QUESTION: I think the thrust of the question was, was the U.S. behind or helping with North – or South Korean proposals to the North. So there were stories that South Korea was making these proposals for some summits.

MR. TONER: Were making proposals for summits?

QUESTION: For summits. Was the U.S. —

MR. TONER: Look, I’m not going to – I mean, these are —

QUESTION: — involved in those decisions, too?

MR. TONER: These are based on media reports. I can’t confirm them or verify them. We’ve been crystal clear in our dealings with South Korea. And we’re of one mind that the essential first step is for North Korea to take meaningful steps to address North-South relations.

QUESTION: Assistant Secretary Campbell yesterday said the U.S. State Department is looking for, like, China and can have, like, released any readout of the meeting with Kim Jong-il. Do you have like further update?

MR. TONER: No. No, update.

QUESTION: One more?

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure, go ahead.

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton this morning delivered remarks at the U.S.-China business council, do you have a readout or any information of what she talked —

MR. TONER: Who spoke at the China —

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton.

QUESTION: Your boss.

MR. TONER: Oh – (laughter) – sorry. I have a hard time hearing in the back. I apologize. I do not have a readout.


(The briefing was concluded at 1:43 p.m.)