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News Brief: Taliban's Charm Offensive, Airport Evacuations, R. Kelly Trial

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Much of the world is waiting to see how the Taliban may rule Afghanistan this time.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The armed group is giving its first answers to those questions days after taking Kabul. In the 1990s, they were known for barbaric executions, the repression of women and sheltering al-Qaida. And on Tuesday, a Taliban spokesperson gave a press conference. He promised no reprisals for their enemies and no global terror attacks. Female journalists asked some of those questions.

INSKEEP: Afterward, a Taliban spokesman came on the line with us to continue the conversation. Suhail Shaheen insisted Afghans who worked with Americans will be allowed to leave the country.

SUHAIL SHAHEEN: No any kind of reprisal, no revenge on those people who are working with the foreign troops.

INSKEEP: In a moment, we'll hear how that promise compares with the situation in the streets so far. We begin with NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam. Jackie, good morning.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: You know, the last time the Taliban captured Kabul in the 1990s, they seized a former president and hung him from a lamp post. What impression are they trying to create this time?

NORTHAM: Well, the Taliban is on a bit of a charm offensive right now. You know, it's trying to show to the world that they're more inclusive, gentler than when they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s. You know, back then, the Taliban was ruthless and terrorized Afghans. And there's a lot of skepticism that they've actually changed.

INSKEEP: Well, in that interview, I asked Suhail Shaheen about that. And then specifically, I asked if the Taliban would allow women to remain in government positions. There are women in the Afghan government now. And of course, this is something that did not happen at all in previous Taliban times. Here's how he responded.

SHAHEEN: Yes, the women, they have a right to education and to work. Right now the doctors, they have started to serving. The teachers have started teaching. In other fields, the women are working. On - the journalist women, they have started working by observing hijab.

INSKEEP: By observing hijab - he does say they'll be forced back under cover. How's that compare to the '90s?

NORTHAM: Well, you know, this is a reversal of how women were treated back then. You know, they were not allowed to go to school or work, and they always had to be covered from head to toe whenever they left their homes. Steve, women's rights in Afghanistan have come a long way since then, and it'll be very tough for women if they have to revert to life as it was back in the '90s.

INSKEEP: They do say, though, it's changing. But when I spoke with Shaheen, he suggested that they will be different without really directly saying that the Taliban are different. I want to play some of this. At one point, we discussed public executions and other practices from the '90s. Let's listen.

In the 1990s, when the Taliban were last in power, it was said that people's hands were cut off when they were accused of stealing and that the hands were held up for display. Is that something the Taliban intends to do again?

SHAHEEN: So I'm not a religious scholar, but I can say that Islamic rules that is interpreted by the judges, it is referred to the judges. So everyone has the right of defense. So then they can issue their ruling as part of the law, the Islamic law. So I have no comment on that.

INSKEEP: Jackie, I just want to note - he says cutting off hands, that will be up to an Islamic judge. He doesn't say, we won't do that anymore. What would show if they are any different?

NORTHAM: Well, first and foremost, what the new government will look like - will it be inclusive? - how it'll interpret Islamic law, and, you know, Steve, how they're going to treat Afghans.

INSKEEP: NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam, thanks so much.

NORTHAM: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Now, the initial statements from the Taliban amount to a kind of marker. They put down that marker of what they say they will do.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. And the proof, though, comes day by day in what they actually do. Now, right now, Taliban gunmen are patrolling the streets of Kabul while the U.S. military conducts flights from the airport. About 1,100 American citizens, permanent residents and their families were flown out yesterday.

INSKEEP: Charlotte Bellis of Al-Jazeera is in Kabul. Welcome to the program.

CHARLOTTE BELLIS: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is the situation around the airport as people try to reach it today?

BELLIS: Well, the Taliban are controlling the perimeter of the airport. They've put a lot of men with guns and other heavy weaponry around where you traditionally enter to go to the departures area. They are shooting into the air. They are pushing people back. After the airport was overrun on Monday - thousands of people ran onto the tarmac, and no evacuation flights could take place. Since then, they've put a heap of the fighters around to push the crowds back. And then behind them, there's kind of a no man's land on the commercial side of the airport. And then on the far side of the airport, there's a big military base where thousands of Americans are currently stationed along with other foreigners. And they are desperately trying to get their people out on C-17s, C-130s. And so you've got this kind of couple of hundred meters between Taliban fighters and U.S. forces.

INSKEEP: I want to understand what the Taliban forces are doing. What you describe would be consistent, perhaps, with crowd control, maybe rough crowd control, but attempting to be helpful. At the same time, though, we have heard reports about individual Afghans who want to leave and feel they have been blocked by the Taliban. They've been turned away. What's your best understanding about whether the Taliban are letting people leave?

BELLIS: They say that they really want people to have the freedom to leave if they have all the right paperwork. I - I've seen both sides of it. They've been helping some people get through. They were helping Americans actually into the airport and pushing others back so Americans could make their evacuation flights. They were helping even government leaders make evacuation flights. But then in other instances, when people were showing up to embassies with paperwork, trying to get on various flights, they're pushing them back. So I think there's an element of chaos and kind of anarchy at the moment as the Taliban want to look like they're in control, that they have everything - that security is improved under them and that they're facilitating this, but at the same time trying to deal with crowds and just feeling, I think, pretty overwhelmed with the thousands of people who are making a run for the airport.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing from people who want to stay in Kabul?

BELLIS: It's mixed. Some people are really anxious, especially those who've been in Kabul for a long time, who've worked with - even like my colleagues who work with international media, interpreters. They're very anxious. There's a lot of distrust there because they've - they lived through it in the '90s. And they don't want to take the chance that this could be the Taliban of the '90s.

So yeah, there's a lot of distrust at the moment. But still, when the Taliban came to town, there were people out in the throngs taking selfies, chasing them down the road like they were football stars. So you know, there's this kind of element of mystique and a mix of kind of hesitation from some. And also, there's a strange energy with others of being kind of curious about this group.

INSKEEP: Charlotte Bellis of Al-Jazeera is in Kabul. Thanks very much for your reporting. Really appreciate it.

BELLIS: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Be safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Some other news now - opening statements begin today in the latest criminal trial of the R&B superstar R. Kelly.

MARTINEZ: Now, before we get into the details, we should note that this story includes allegations of sexual assault and physical abuse. He stands accused of sex trafficking and racketeering. And, of course, the case is being closely watched, in part because of a recent documentary series detailing the allegations against him.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas is with us and is covering the trial. Good morning.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I guess we should begin by noting this is one of his trials.

TSIOULCAS: That's right. He's actually facing accusations from two separate sets of federal prosecutors, one in New York, which we're about to start, and one in Illinois. He was arrested back in July 2019, and he's been in custody ever since. And there was a lot of back-and-forthing, who should go first. Finally, it was decided New York would go first. But even after this trial ends, he'll face another set of federal charges. And he's pleaded not guilty to all the accusations and charges.

INSKEEP: OK. Noting the not-guilty plea, let's talk about the accusations, first in this New York City trial.

TSIOULCAS: Right. The New York prosecutors are alleging that Kelly ran a criminal enterprise along the lines of the mob. In this case, the prosecutors say the mission of this enterprise was to, quote, "prey upon young women and teenagers." And that enterprise, they say, allegedly included sexually exploiting children, kidnapping and forced labor. And I should note, there are six alleged victims in the New York charges. Prosecutors also say that he bribed a public official to make a fake ID for his former protege, the singer Aaliyah. They were married in 1994 the day after the ID was made. He was 27, and she was just 15 years old.

INSKEEP: OK. And then there's the case in Chicago. How different is that?

TSIOULCAS: In the Illinois case, he's facing allegations of child pornography and obstruction. And some listeners may remember he was acquitted of child pornography charges in Chicago back in 2008. The Illinois prosecutors have accused him of actually obstructing justice in that trial, of intimidating and paying off witnesses, including the 14-year-old alleged victim.

INSKEEP: OK. So we've got these two different trials on somewhat related charges. I want to circle back to that phrase you used earlier. You said criminal enterprise. What would make these various acts a criminal enterprise, according to the prosecutors?

TSIOULCAS: Well, they're saying that he headed a whole circle of people, including an entourage of managers and handlers and publicists and gofers, who aided him in this mission in various ways. The New York prosecutors are also trying to have other evidence admitted that they say shows that this was a long-established crime circle and not just an alleged individual predator. And that evidence includes abuse of 20 teenage girls and women over a very long span, 1991 to 2018, as well as alleged sexual abuse of a 17-year-old boy.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, how do they keep the jury from being tainted by all the news coverage of this trial?

TSIOULCAS: So the judge has ordered the jurors anonymous and partially sequestered for the duration. And the judge, Ann Donnelly, has told the jurors repeatedly it's because of the intense media interest around this trial.

INSKEEP: What do you know about the people who are on the jury?

TSIOULCAS: So I was at the court for the first two days of jury selection last week. Many of the potential jurors seemed to have only a passing familiarity with R. Kelly at most. A few said that they knew his song "I Believe I Can Fly." One potential juror confused the singer with the cartoonist R. Crumb. And in the end, the selected and sworn-in jury includes seven men and five women.

INSKEEP: Anastasia, thanks so much.

TSIOULCAS: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.