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Netanyahu Rivals Reach Coalition Deal; Cargo Ship SInking Off Sri Lanka; Volunteers Quit Weeks Before Olympics; Israeli Rivals Strike Deal which Could Oust Netanyahu; U.S. Prisoner in Russia Says, Resolve Hostage Diplomacy; Brazil Fears Third Wave of Virus as Cases Spike. Aired 2-2:45a ET

Aired June 3, 2021 - 02:00   ET




ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Hello and welcome to our viewers joining us from all around the world who are watching CNN NEWSROOM and I'm Rosemary Church. Just ahead, a History making agreement in Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu's time as prime minister may be coming to an end.

Plus, two weeks after a fire broke out, the cargo ship burning off the coast of Sri Lanka is sinking and threatening an environmental catastrophe.

And with just 50 days until the Olympics, thousands of volunteers are calling it quits.

Good to have you with us. We begin in Israel where Benjamin Netanyahu's 12-year run as prime minister looks like it's coming to an end.

Word of a unity government formed by Centrist Yair Lapid brought celebrations in Tel Aviv. Lapid has cobbled together a patchwork of political parties by the thinnest of margins committed to replacing Mr. Netanyahu.


YAIR LAPID, YESH ATID PARTY LEADER (through translator): Mr. President, I'm calling you to say that I've succeeded in forming a government with the factions of Yesh Atid, Yamina, Kahol Lavan, Raam, New Hope, Meretz and the Labor Party. So I'm calling to inform you that I succeeded in forming government.


CHURCH: That deal still needs to be approved by the Knesset, which Mr. Netanyahu will try to prevent. And for the first time in Israel's history, a coalition government would include an Arab- Israeli party.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MANSOUR ABBAS, UNITED ARAB LIST RAAM PARTY LEADER (through translator): I just signed an agreement with Yair Lapid so they can form a government after we've reached a critical mass of agreements on issues that will serve the interests of Arab society and provide solutions to urgent problems Arab society faces in various fields.


CHURCH: And Elliott Gotkine is live this hour in Jerusalem. He joins us now. Good to see you, Elliott. So, we've learned not to count Benjamin Netanyahu out but his chances of staying in power look very unlikely unless he has something planned before this new historic deal gets approved by the Knesset. What's been the overall reaction? How fragile might this diverse coalition prove to be?

ELLIOTT GOTKINE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Rosemary, as you say, Netanyahu is down but he's not out just yet. There doesn't need to be a vote of confidence in the Knesset before this coalition can come into being but certainly time is running out right now for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This coalition in waiting, let's call it, is mind boggling in its breadth ranging from, you know, far left to even to the right of Prime Minister Netanyahu.

And as you say, for the first time ever, incorporating a party representing Israel's Arab citizens. So, it is mind boggling in its breadth. And the way that they're going to try to survive is, first up, they are going to try to avoid the issues that divide them and focus on those that unite them. So, they'll focus on passing a state budget. We haven't had a budget pastor for all of 2020 for example, or for this year, for that matter.

They will focus on economic recovery after the coronavirus pandemic. And it will try to focus on healing some of the divisions that have emerged over the past few years during Prime Minister Netanyahu's tenure. And they will try to avoid issues such as the peace process insofar as there is one with the Palestinians. They will try to avoid issues like settlements. But at the same time, the other thing that will keep them together the glue, if you like, is having Netanyahu as the leader of the opposition because one of the main things that unites this rainbow coalition in waiting is their opposition to Netanyahu.

So long as he is their main opponent that could help keep them together. At the same time, Netanyahu before this coalition comes into being will be trying to lobby potential waivers from the right-wing parties within this coalition in waiting. He will also be trying to get his base out to try to encourage these right-wing lawmakers to see the errors of their ways and to not go ahead and form this coalition.

But if this does come through, if this coalition comes into being and Netanyahu goes into opposition, you can expect lots of legislation being proposed that tries to highlight the divisions among these strange ideological bedfellows from this putative coalition. Rosemary?

CHURCH: Elliott Gotkine joining us live from Jerusalem. Many thanks.

Joining me now is Natan Sachs, Director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute. Great to have you with us.



CHURCH: So this new anti-Netanyahu governing coalition has now been formed next it needs to be approved by Israel's Knesset. But Benjamin Netanyahu will be doing all he can to derail this. How likely is it that this new historic deal that includes for the first time in our party and a governing coalition will be approved without defections or any other surprises?

SACHS: Well, the chances are high now. They finally reached a coalition agreement. They have signatures of all eight parties, including, as you said, the Raam Party, which is an Islamic party, actually. So crazy amalgam of parties from the far-right through the center, to the left, all the way to the Raam Party. Their chances are high. Still never say never. There's about 12 days left before the vote in the Knesset.

And as of now, we'll do all he can, of course, especially to convince some of the more hard right members of this date of coalition to defect. Still, even if they do defect there is another Arab party and some members of them may abstain or even helped to pass this coalition merely to see the end of the Netanyahu era.

CHURCH: And how significant is it having an Arab party involved?

SACHS: Well, it's not completely unprecedented. Back in the 1950s there were parties but they were barely independent parties. We've seen in the past Arab parties supporting coalitions from the outside. But what really is remarkable this time is the degree to which the Raam Party was part of the negotiations out in the open declaring that it wanted to be part of the coalition. In the past, they usually said they did not want to be actual parts.

And we saw a remarkable picture today. A photo of the head of the Islamic party, Mansour Abbas signing with Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, the two leaders of the new coalition. Naftali Bennett from the far right and Mansour Abbas, the Islamic party, it really is quite remarkable.

CHURCH: And how fragile will this new ideologically diverse government likely be with Netanyahu sitting in opposition watching from the sidelines and waiting for any opportunity to seize back power? And will it be able to achieve very much with so many different political views?

SACHS: This coalition really was created as a not Netanyahu coalition. That's the main thing that unites them. To the degree that they tried to do things on contentious issues. And the most prominent would be the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On that they would crumble. They simply disagree on everything and that issue. However, on other issues, there's a lot of agreement. And the first among them, and it will sound strange is that there simply needs to be a governing government in Israel.

A budget needs to pass. Israel has been operating with no state budget since 2019. And the reason is very simple. It's served Netanyahu's political personal agenda. So, in a sense, this is a government that is trying to move past the Netanyahu era. He's the longest serving prime minister in Israel's history. 12 years consecutively now and three back in the 1990s. And this government is going to try to simply get back to the business of governing, of having qualified ministers who are focusing on their jobs.

Of course, reality always comes knocking. The Palestinian issue, they can hope that it stays freezes -- freezed. That doesn't mean that reality, or the Palestinians won't unfreeze it. And they may find other challenges that cause dramatic fractures within them.

CHURCH: And how significant is that after 12 years in office, Netanyahu has now been sidelined with apparently very few allies?

SACHS: It's very significant in some important ways that again, from abroad may seem a bit mundane. And that has to do with the health of Israeli institutions. With governing, as I said, so much has been surrounding, this one individual, a person, one man, and that is a very unhealthy state for democracy. I'll give you an example. How Netanyahu simply step aside, for example, when he was indicted, he's now on trial for corruption.

If he had simply step aside, his own party, The Likud Party would even today form a coalition very easily. A much more homogenous coalition. But since everything is about the individual, the man, it has all been warped. So, just moving past that will be healthy in some ways for state institutions. On other issues of course, Netanyahu has been really a towering figure in some ways, it could change international relations to a degree.

But I'd caveat that. Naftali Bennett will be prime minister first in this new government assuming it's sworn in, is very right wing. In fact, he's to the right of Netanyahu. So in many ways, this is not a change Netanyahu line if anything, it's a hardening of it in the short term, albeit then it will not be governing alone by any means. It will be much more of a collective management than it was under Netanyahu with Yair Lapid from the center, Benny Gantz from the center as Minister of Defense and a whole host of other important figures in this new much more collective government.

CHURCH: And just very quickly you did mention Netanyahu's corruption trial. He's exposed now, he'll be vulnerable.

SACHS: He is. He was on trial even as prime minister but he was always hoping that he would get a majority of some kind. There had been four national elections in two years. And he was always hoping to get that majority that would allow him to change the law or to drop the prosecution to do something to get out of this trouble. Right now he doesn't seem to have that open avenue to him, and he may be in trouble.

[02:10:07] SACHS: I'll just qualify that to Israeli justice moves very slowly. This is a matter of years. It'll be years before we see a final verdict in that trial. And by then many things can happen in Israeli politics, as we've seen just this week.

CHURCH: Natan Sachs, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

SACHS: Thank you.

CHURCH: The cargo ship that's been burning off Sri Lanka is now sinking and the ecological disaster there is only expected to get worse. Attempts to tow the vessel into deeper water failed on Wednesday when the stern sank to the bottom of the sea. The big concern now is saving Sri Lanka's pristine beaches from further damage, as the ship holds hundreds of tons of oil, fuel and chemicals.

CNN's Anna Coren joins us now live from Hong Kong. So Anna, what is the latest on this sinking ship and of course the potential environmental impact it may have on the region?

ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Rosemary, the Sri Lankan Navy, the Indian Coast Guard monitoring this ship as you say, the rear of it has sunk to the seabed that's 21 meters deep. They tried to tow it away, tow it deeper and further offshore. Unfortunately, that's when it started to break apart. So, the government is now monitoring to see if it in fact breaks apart and there is the oil spill that many people are fearing.

I mean, environmentalist in Sri Lanka are saying this is the country's worst marine disaster. And if that 350 tons of oil actually escapes from the vessel, then that pristine marine environment that Sri Lanka has will be devastated. That is a coral reef that is home to fishing grounds for thousands upon thousands of fishermen. And we've heard from these fishermen saying that what has taken place these last couple of weeks, watching this vessel break up the debris that has been washing up on shore has been absolutely devastating.

Take a listen to what one fishermen had to say.


SUDHATH FERNANDO, SRI LANKAN FISHERMAN (through translator): I've been a fisherman for 35 years. I've never experienced anything like this. A ship carrying chemicals from nowhere has destroyed our livelihood. The government should take responsibility for this.


COREN: There's 25 tons of nitric acid on board this vessel in the 1400-plus containers that were on board. Many of them have now sunk to the seabed. They're trying to get divers down there to see what the status of these containers but you've got chemicals seeping out. You've got these tiny plastic pellets known as nurdles that are washing up on shore. There are billions of them washing up on shore. The Navy, they've got workers out there, sweeping up these pellets that are getting into fish, that are getting into turtles, they're getting into birdlife that are dying and also washing up on shore. So this is an ecological disaster unfolding before everyone's eyes. Many people are directing their anger now the government wondering why was this ship allowed into Sri Lankan waters that have been denied entry into India and into Qatar after they found out that it was leaking its -- this nitric acid.

We know that the ship's captain as well as two engineers have been detained. They are not allowed to leave the country. And the court order whilst this investigation is ongoing, Rosemary.

CHURCH: It is tragic. Anna Coren joining us live from Hong Kong. Many thanks.

Well, the main processing company hit with a ransomware attack says all of its U.S. facilities will be back up and running in the coming day. There's no word on whether JBS paid a ransom but the cyber breach is the latest from a criminal organization believed to be based in Russia. And the White House says President Biden will discuss their attacks with the Russian President when they meet later this month. Alex Marquardt has details.


ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Russian hackers at it again, this time striking another part of America's critical infrastructure food production. JBS Foods is one of the biggest meat producers in the world. All of its meat packing facilities were impacted by the attack. According to the United Food and Commercial Workers labor union, all nine of the JBS beef processing plants across the U.S. were shut down.

The Biden administration says cybercriminals, likely based in Russia, are behind the ransomware attack on JBS. And has told Moscow it's on them to help stop this.

JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: President Biden certainly thinks that President Putin and the Russian government has a role to play.


MARQUARDT: JBS says the majority of its plants are operational again. The Biden administration has called on meat producers to work to make sure there's no impact on prices or supply, unlike when a different Russian hacking group attacked the colonial pipeline last month, which led to gas shortages, a spike in prices and long lines at gas stations.

CHRISTOPHER KREBS, FORMER DIRECTOR CYBERSECURITY AND INFRASTRUCTURE SECURITY AGENCY: Make no mistake ransomware is a business right now. It is a business that is very profitable, and we will continue to see hackers overseas, criminals overseas continue to flood into the market. MARQUARDT: Ransomware attackers take control of a network and hold it hostage until they're paid. Colonial pipeline paid its attackers $4.4 million. JBS has not said whether they've paid anything. Those two attacks follow two other recent major operations by Russian government hackers. The unprecedented solar winds breach and last week's attacks targeting hundreds of government agencies and organizations.

But it's the hacking of critical infrastructure like pipelines and food plants, as well as hospitals and schools that affect ordinary people the most. Attacks that are easy, pay well and are only getting worse.

ALLAN LISKA, SENIOR THREAT INTELLIGENCE ANALYST, RECORDED FUTURE: We're seeing a massive growth in ransomware. We saw it in 2020 and it continues in 2021. They're not necessarily going after specific organizations. Instead, they're going after anybody they can get in any way they can get in.

MARQUARDT: The FBI has now named to the ransomware attackers behind this attack on JBS Foods, they go by the names REvil and Sodinokibi believed to be located in Russia. The Biden ministration says that fighting this type of ransomware is a big priority for them. They recently issued an executive order designed to get companies to tighten and modernize their cybersecurity defenses.


Among other things, the White House is saying they want to hold countries like Russia to account for harboring attackers like this. Alex Marquardt, CNN, Washington.

CHURCH: Despite COVID-19 concerns ahead of the Olympic Games in Japan, the Tokyo 2020 chief says postponing the event a second time is impossible. We will explain why he says that.

Meantime, some European countries are rolling out COVID travel certificates just in time for summer. What you need to know before making vacation plans.


CHURCH: Welcome back, everyone. Well, the President of Tokyo's Olympic organizing committees says it's impossible to postpone the games again. He says the monumental task of moving the games isn't something that can be easily repeated. Speaking with CNN, former Olympic sportscaster Bob Costas says he doesn't expect the games to be postponed even though he thinks they should be.


BOB COSTAS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think the best course of action would be to postpone it, not cancel it. Postpone it to 2022. But that may have led some people to infer that I think that's a possibility. It's not. The IOC holds the hammer here.

(END VIDEO CLIP) [02:20:09]

CHURCH: And this comes as thousands of volunteers have quit ahead of the games, but officials say the exit won't affect the Olympics.


KATSUNOBU KATO, JAPANESE CHIEF CABINET SECRETARY (through translator): The Tokyo 2020 CEO said that around 10,000 out of the roughly 80,000 Olympic volunteers declined to take part in the games. But since the games have been simplified, and there are volunteers who can register both for the Olympics and the Paralympics, there will be no particular problem and operating the games.


CHURCH: So let's go live to Tokyo with CNN's Blake Essig is standing by. And Blake, 50 days to go to the Olympics and still so many concerns.

BLAKE ESSIG, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. You know, Rosemary, there are just so many unanswered questions. And as you said there are 50 days for Olympic organizers to figure out and it's worth pointing out that losing 10,000 volunteers is significant. Officials didn't give a specific reason for the volunteers quitting but they did say that the numbers started to drop in February, around the same time that former Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori resigned after making sexist comments about women.

But according to a volunteer that I spoke with health and safety concerns are the primary reason for volunteers dropping out and of course, that's because the current COVID-19 situation. The countermeasures put in place for these volunteers is also concerned. In order to protect them all they're given are two masks, a small bottle of hand sanitizer and the request to socially distance and that request to socially distance is made more difficult because volunteers are asked to transport themselves to and from the venues using public transportation.

Volunteers aren't the only Olympic participants dropping out. And we just learned some doctors are scheduled to be in charge of medical services that competition venues are also withdrawing. These doctors are tasked with the supervision of medical staff treating both athletes and spectators. And again with 50 days to go before the games are set to begin Olympic organizers are kind of scrambling and currently in the process of trying to find those replacements.

Now those health and safety concerns are the biggest reason that these games remain so deeply unpopular here in Japan. And it's worth remembering that just in the past few weeks, we've heard from multiple doctor's groups and Olympic sponsor industry leaders in the general population all calling for these games to be canceled or postponed. And of course, just yesterday, Japan's top coronavirus advisor told the lower house of Parliament that it's not normal to host these games under the current situation. Of course, the current situation being a gold a global pandemic. Now as of today, only about three percent of Japan's population has been fully vaccinated and all volunteers are not being given priority for vaccines. For now, Tokyo and nine other prefectures remained under a state of emergency order until June 20th while the daily case count has been going down, which is great news for about two weeks.

The number of patients in critical condition remains extremely high. Now despite that, Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto told Nikkan Sports Newspaper just yesterday that it's impossible to postpone the games again and that the data provided to them by Tokyo University shows that there will be no increase in the number of infections if the games are held without spectators compared to holding games with holding games at all. Excuse me.

And of course, Rosemary, we still don't know whether domestic spectators will be allowed to attend.

CHURCH: Exactly right. Blake Essig joining us live from Tokyo. Many thanks. And for any other Olympics, the final few weeks before the opening ceremony is a chaotic rush to finish stadiums and venues for hundreds of thousands of spectators with just 50 days now until the curtain goes up on the Tokyo games. There's the rush to finish construction but for venues that will have very few spectators.

CNN Selina Wang has the latest from Tokyo.

SELINA WANG, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Pressure is building for the Olympics to be canceled. But here on the ground in Tokyo final preparations appear to be underway. With just less than two months to go until the Olympics the organizers

are pushing ahead in the face of public opposition with the games very much an operational mode. So behind me here is the venue being built for BMX racing and skateboarding.

This venue can hold potentially thousands of spectators. Now we know already that foreign spectators are banned from attending the Olympics, but organizers have yet to announce how many local spectators if any can attend the games. Over there are the spectator stands being built for marathon swimming and the triathlon. This is all temporary just for the Olympic Games.

I'm here in Odaiba Marine Park which is normally open to the public but now it's been largely boarded off in preparation for the games. I spoke to one of the construction workers here who told me he does not think the Olympic Games should move ahead.


WANG: Infections are rising during the pandemic he tells me, I wonder if what I'm doing is good for the people preparing for the Olympics, he says. But it's my job to work under the assumption that the games are going ahead.

(END VIDEO CLIP) Tokyo is planning large Olympic viewing sites across the city

including one here at Yoyogi Park as this sign indicates. But amid public opposition, the government now says this will be used as a vaccination site. Japan is fully vaccinated less than three percent

of its population.


ROCHELLE KOPP, MANAGING PRINCIPAL, JAPAN INTERCULTURAL CONSULTING: People here are not protected. I don't think we should have it. I think every everyone I know in Tokyo is scared to death of people from all over the world coming.


WANG: But others in Tokyo are more optimistic.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm really looking forward to the Olympics. She says people are down because of the pandemic. We need something fun.


WANG: This National Stadium where the opening and closing ceremonies will be held was rebuilt at a cost of more than $1 billion for these Olympic Games. In fact, Japan has already spent more than $6 billion on Olympic infrastructure like venues and temporary buildings. The economic cost of canceling these games would be enormous. But at stake here is not just money and Japan's national pride, but people's lives. Selina Wang, CNN, Tokyo,

CHURCH: To the E.U. now where seven countries issuing COVID-19 certificates for travel within the block. The European Commission says Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Croatia and Poland, are handing out these digital certificates free of charge. But the rest of Europe will have to wait a little longer. Melissa Bell is in Paris with more on this.

MELISSA BELL, CNN PARIS CORRESPONDENT: A system of digital COVID certificates now I've been running in seven European countries a system that should go live in the whole of Europe by the 1st of July. It basically means that with this digital certificate people can show as they come in and out of countries and across the European Union, whether they've been vaccinated whether they've been found to be immune because they've recently had COVID or if they've had a negative test in the previous 72 hours.

The idea once again to get Europeans flowing across borders that have for too long been closed, also allowing third party nationals who for instance, Citizens United States for these seven countries so far, but for the rest of Europe by July 1st if they've been vaccinated, once again to be able to travel in and out of the European Union for the first time in more than a year. Melissa Bell, CNN, Paris.

CHURCH: And just ahead here on CNN NEWSROOM. A new political future is on the horizon for Israel. We will meet the man who could be the country's next prime minister.

And an American prisoner at a Russian work camp has a message for President Biden on what he calls hostage diplomacy. An exclusive report ahead.



CHURCH: Welcome back, everyone. Well, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be down but he's not out just yet. His political rivals led by unlikely allies, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, have announced a deal to form a unity government. Which would mean Mr. Netanyahu would be ousted from office.

The coalition made up for political parties with very little uncommon, and what would be a razor thin majority in the Knesset. The Israeli parliament still has to approve the new government, and Mr. Netanyahu and his allies are expected to do everything they can to scuttle the deal.

So, here's a little background on Israel's parliament, the Knesset. Members are not directly elected instead voters cast their ballot for a political party. Seats are then assigned, in proportion to each party share of the vote. In principle, the party with the greatest representation would form a government. But in past elections, no single party has won a clear majority. Because of this, Israel's government usually consists of coalitions of parties that enter into political alliances.

Now, if the new government is approved the conservative, Bennett, would serve as prime minister for the next two years, followed by the centrist, Lapid, until 2025.

CNN's Hadas Gold, has more on Bennett's rise to power.


HADAS GOLD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Once a close aide to the prime minister, this may be the man to brake Benjamin Netanyahu's 12- year run as Israel's leader.

Neftali Bennett, a right-wing, ambitious self-made tech billionaire eager to stick out of personal mark in Israel's future.

NAFTALI BENNETT, YAMINA PARTY LEADER: I'm announcing today that I intent to act with all my strength to form a national unity government, together with my friend, Yair Lapid. So that God willing, together we will rescue the country from this tailspin and we will get Israel back on track.

GOLD: The 49-year-old was born in Haifa, to immigrants from San Francisco. A modern orthodox Jew, Bennett served in an elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces for six years in the 1990s. He then became an entrepreneur in the high tech sector after setting law at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. Bennett launched a tech start-up in 1999, which he later sold for $145 million. Bennett burst onto the political scene in 2013, leading the orthodox Jewish Home Party to seats in the Israeli parliament.

BENNETT: We're more realistic. We think this will be the Palestinian issue the full piece sort of or forming a Palestinian state within Israel is suicidal and it turns out the most Israelis view that. But we've put forward a realistic, practical plan.

GOLD: At his ideological core is a strong opposition to a Palestinian sovereign state. And his party came to annex parts of the West Bank.

Bennett's other position are not without controversy, saying that Palestinian terrorist should be killed rather than released. In the April 2019 election, his party did not get through the electoral threshold were left in the political wilderness.

After a merger with another party, he rebranded the party Yamina in 2019 and hold seven seats in the Knesset. He eventually returned to the corridors of power, becoming very close to the prime minister. He served in various Netanyahu government as defense, education and economic minister. But despite hearing a similar ideology, Bennett and Netanyahu have had a rocky relationship.

After four failed election in two years in the recent armed conflict with Muslim militant in Gaza, Bennett agreed to join forces to Centrist Yair Lapid to push out Prime Minister Netanyahu. The question is, will Bennett and Lapid have the parliamentary votes to unseat the longest serving prime minister in Israeli history?

Hadas Gold, CNN, Jerusalem.


CHURCH: An American prisoner and Russia is calling on President Biden to aggressively resolve what he calls hostage diplomacy. Paul Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence for an espionage charge he strongly denies. He spoke exclusively with CNN from a Russian labor camp. Matthew chance has our report.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): For more than two years, Paul Whelan has languished in Russian jails, insisting he's an innocent pawn in a political game.

PAUL WHELAN DETAINEE: I want to tell the world that I'm a victim of political kidnap and ransom.


There's obviously no credibility to the situation.

CHANCE: Now, the former U.S. Marine has spoken to CNN from his remote Russian penal colony ahead of a much anticipated summit between the U.S. and Russian presidents.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And if you could get a message to President Biden ahead of this meeting, what would it be?

WHELAN: Decisive action is needed immediately. The abduction of an American citizen cannot stand anywhere in the world. This is not an issue of Russia against me, it's Russia against the United States. And the United States needs to answer this hostage diplomacy situation and resolve it quickly as possible. So I would ask President Biden to aggressively discuss and resolve this issue with his Russian counterparts.

CHANCE: It was at this upscale hotel in Moscow in December 2018 where Whelan was detained by the Russian Security Services, the old KGB, accused of receiving a flash drive containing classified information. In a close trial, he was sentenced to 16 years after being convicted of espionage, a trumped up charge, he says, intended to make him a valuable bargaining chip for the Kremlin, something Russian officials deny.

WHELAN: It's pretty simple. There was no crime. There was no evidence. The secret trial was sham. As I said, you know, the judge when I was sentence said I was being sent home. This was done purely for political motive. And it's really up to the governments to sort out either an exchange or some sort of resolution. My hope is that it will be quick. It's been more than two years.

I have not had a shower in two weeks. I can't use a barber. I have to cut my own hair.

CHANCE: Ever since his arrests, there has been serious welfare concerns. The state of Russian prisons is for. Now, Whelan tells CNN he spends his days sewing clothes in a prison factory. But that health issues, especially during the COVID pandemic, are a worry.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So tell me, how are you doing, how are you feeling?

WHELAN: I'm doing okay. I have some sort of illness right now. I call it a kennel cough. It kind of comes and goes in the barracks. People have it, get better and then have it again. Getting medical care here is very difficult.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are their concerns about COVID still where you are? I imagine the vaccine hasn't reached you.

WHELAN: Yes. We have serious concerns about that. I just had one shot and I should have a second shot I think two weeks.


WHELAN: So that's a step in the right direction.

CHANCE: A step in the right direction, perhaps. But for Paul Whelan, it may still be a long road home.

Matthew Chance, CNN, Moscow.

(END VIDEOTAPE) CHURCH: And straight ahead here on CNN Newsroom, COVID cases are accelerating in parts of Central and South America. We will take a look at the worsening crises across the region.



CHURCH: Brazil's COVID crisis could get even worse. It's facing a potential third wave of the virus. More than 95,000 new COVID cases were reported Wednesday alone. Meanwhile, the Pan American Health Organization says Central America is reporting more COVID deaths than ever before, and cases are accelerating in some parts of the region.

Stefano Pozzebon, has all the details.

STEFANO POZZEBON, JOURNALIST: The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over in the western hemisphere with particularly concerning situations in Brazil, which on Wednesday reported more than 95,000 new coronavirus cases in less than 24 hours. And that's the second highest single day increase in new cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

And in Central America, which is now reporting more coronavirus deaths at any point during the pandemic, according to the Pan American Health Organization, with particularly concerning outbreaks in El Salvador, Panama and Haiti.

And Dr. Carissa Etienne, who is the Director of the Pan American Health Organization said that, while for the last few weeks, cases have been plateauing and even decreasing in some countries, cases have now risen across the hemisphere in the last week with the only exception of the United States, Mexico and Canada, where they are still reporting decreases in new cases and deaths.

In Colombia, for example, the number of new cases has almost tripled in some of the region, according to PAHO. And Etienne said what's particularly worrying is the number of people that is moving around the continent, and that the lockdown restrictions are being lifted prematurely, which is creating a perfect environment for the virus, and worrying new variants to spread without restriction.

Here in Bogota town, for example, intensive care units are yet again bordering capacity. But the local mayor have announced that a total reopening of the city starting next week in order to try to boost an economy that is being deeply affected by the COVID lockdown.

For CNN, this is Stefano Pozzebon, Bogota.

CHURCH: Help could soon be on the way for countries struggling to secure COVID vaccines, after months of deliberation U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the president will soon announce how the nation will distribute millions of doses worldwide


ANTONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We will be making available, globally, about 80 million vaccine doses that we have access to between now and the end of June. And in the next week or so, sometime in the next week to two weeks, we will be announcing the process by which we will distribute those vaccines.


CHURCH: And Blinken stressed that the Biden administration will work significantly with the World Health Organization's global vaccine program with distribution based on science and need.

And thank you so much for joining us. I'm Rosemary Church. I will be back at the top of the hour. World Sport is up next.