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Senate Democrats call on Pentagon to halt aid to human rights abusers and coup governments

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) on Friday called for the Biden administration to halt plans for joint military exercises with military units of countries accused of human rights abuses, or democratic nations fallen to coups.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the senators expressed concern the Pentagon is inviting units from countries overtaken by coups or that have participated in internationally condemned human rights abuses, including Sudan and Azerbaijan, to join American troops in military drills.

“We therefore request that [the Department of Defense] not invite foreign security force units to U.S. military exercises from the aforementioned countries, or countries in which the duly elected government has been deposed by coup d’etat,” they wrote.

The senators are concerned the trainings violate the Leahy Law, which prohibits U.S. assistance to foreign military units suspected of human rights abuses.

In the letter, the senators referred to a report this week from The Washington Post that detailed the Pentagon’s plans to train with countries — primarily African ones — that have recently suffered coups: Sudan, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Ethiopia.

The Post reported that the Defense Department initially defended the joint training drills as not a violation of the Leahy Law, because they do not provide direct assistance to countries and primarily benefit the U.S. military.

But the Pentagon has since abandoned plans to train with those African countries, according to an update from The Post.

Cardin, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the training drills with concerned countries would violate the Leahy Law because forces receive benefits from the training.

“I am concerned that not only has the Department of Defense invited countries sanctioned for coups against their elected governments and nations with abysmal human rights records to joint military training exercises, but has also provided U.S. taxpayer dollars and support for them to attend,” he said in a statement.

Warren, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said “training operations shouldn’t be used as a backdoor to prop up militaries who wouldn’t pass our human rights vetting.”

“It violates the law and our values to fund and support countries with egregious human rights records,” she said in a statement.

The Hill reached out to the Pentagon for comment on the letter.

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