Return to Transcripts main page

Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Four Occupied Ukraine Regions Holding Votes on Joining Russia; Russian Flee as Fears Over Putin's Mobilization Plan Widen; Alex Jones Tells Court he's Done Saying Sorry; Mahsa Amini's Family Demands Answers, Justice After Her Death. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired September 23, 2022 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Here we go. It is Friday, September 23, 5 a.m. exactly here in New York. Thanks for getting an early start with us. I'm Christine Romans.

Voting is underway this morning in four Russian occupied regions of Ukraine. Elections that Kyiv in the West are calling a sham, the referenda hastily arranged by Russian President Vladimir Putin. They're taking place in Donetsk and Luhansk and an occupied-parts of Kherson Zaporizhzhia in the south.

Now, an Election Commission has been appointed to oversee this vote. People in these war-torn regions are being asked if they wish to join the Russian Federation. Ben Wedeman is tracking Putin's latest annexation attempt live from Kharkiv. Ukraine. How is all this expected to play out, Ben?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, it's a good question, Christine, whether even to call it a vote. This is going on from today until the 27th of September, the last day will be in-person voting before that, people will get it many people in these regions will be getting a knock on the door and be presented with a ballot box. In some regions, the ballot is only in Russian and other areas, for instance, in the Kherson region, according to Ukrainian officials, 50% of the population has fled because of the war. So, it's very dubious about how credible the outcome is, will be. You've called it a sham. Most people are calling it a sham outside those Russian occupied parts of Ukraine.

In fact, Ukrainian officials are calling on people to boycott these referenda. The result will be announced several days after the closing of the ballot boxes if we can even call them that. And the outcome is really not in doubt. Back in 2014 after Russia took over the Crimea, they also had a similar referendum. And the result, not surprisingly, was 97% in favor of joining Russia. So, the result is a foregone conclusion, but it's highly questionable if the result will be credible, Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Ben Wedeman for us in Kharkiv. Thank you so much, Ben. This morning, there's a mass exodus out of Russia, bordering countries reporting a sharp rise in the number of Russians crossing over as fears widen over Putin is mobilization plan. We get more from CNN's Matthew Chance.


MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Suddenly an exodus across Russia's borders. Social media now filled with images like these near the country's southern frontiers of vehicles backed up, out of sight.

Everyone is on the run from Russia, the male voice says. Endless cars, it's mind boggling, he asked. In the west towards Finland, border officials also reporting significantly higher traffic, nearly 5000 crossing in a single day, more expected by the weekend as Russians make for the exits.

Across Russia, there's a growing sense of alarm, even anger that the call up of reservists to fight in Ukraine. More than 1300 protesters have already been detained, many of them women, terrified their husbands and sons will be killed.

I've got two kids of conscription age, says this protester. I brought them up alone, and I don't want to lose them, she cried. And for what, asks her friend. They're just so they can kill the sons of other mothers, she answers.

But the mobilization is taking place regardless. Images of reservists like these boarding a military transporter in the Russian Far East show how many are heeding the call to arms.

At assembly points families are saying emotional goodbyes before their men, some apparently in middle age are bus their way, is what was always cast as a limited special military operation feels more and more like a full-blown war. Matthew Chance, CNN, London.



ROMANS: And that image of that child waving to somebody on a bus.

Let's bring in Mary Ilyushina, who covers Russia and the region for The Washington Post. Nice to see you, Mary, thanks for getting up early with us this morning. Talk to me about the resistance to this mobilization Russia, what are you hearing from inside the country from people who are worried about this? And is it, I wonder at admission from Vladimir Putin that this is not a limited military operation, this is a full-blown war?

MARY ILYUSHINA, REPORTER, WASHINGTON POST: Good morning, Christine, (technical difficulty), that not is going as smoothly as the Kremlin had hoped and also how it portrayed this special military operation to the people of Russia for the past seven months. And now they are feeling very direct impact the impact of that because, you know, their lives had been uprooted within a span of couple of hours. You know, some people I spoke to on Wednesday who got the summonses on the day of the mobilization. They already left for training on a Thursday night, you know how quickly that all unfolded for them. And they just had to leave their homes and go to training and then to war.

People are, you know, trying to do whatever they can to avoid it. Some people are fleeing the country, if you have a password or a visa, you're probably in a good spot. Some people are organizing for another round of demonstrations on the weekend. So, we're likely to see more protests tomorrow. Generally, there's a lot of panic here and resistance.

ROMANS: I know some of the reporting was that those earlier protests this week, protesters were being, you know, detained and then conscripted, put into the war effort. Putin has called for a partial mobilization, the number we know is 300,000 reservists call to the battlefield, you think there's a possibility, it's bigger than that? Why?

ILYUSHINA: There is a lot of concern that it is bigger than that, because of just how many people are being rounded up in not necessarily Moscow and St. Petersburg, because you know, there's a lot of people that are very -- they're more prone to protest, and they're more active politically. But there are a lot of people in far eastern regions in some smaller poor regions of Russia, that don't get much media coverage. But there are so many reports of people just rounded up and 30, 40 people from one small settlement. So, there is concerned that is way more Russian outlet. Nobody has yet to Europe reported yesterday that there is this secret decree in the presidential decree that Putin issued on Wednesday. That says it actually could be up to 1 million people. There is no other confirmation of that. But they've cited a source within the Kremlin.

So, it definitely brewing as a very much full mobilization. And also, we know from just previous experience in this war, that Russian authorities when they give a number, it's quite often is not actually true, especially when it comes to the casualties that Russia sustained throughout this campaign. They say less than 6000 people died -- 6000 soldiers, but that number is likely much, much higher.

ROMANS: Yeah. Sources telling CNN, so this is CNN is reporting Mary, that Russian officers are complaining about Moscow's decision making an intervention. And they're arguing among themselves complaining about Moscow's intervention, but arguing on the battlefield themselves. What do you make of that and what it says about who's in charge?

ILYUSHINA: That's been a problem that plagued the Russian army for months, probably from the very beginning, because the chain of command is really unclear. Russia have never publicly said, who is actually the operational commander of this whole massive operation or this frontline that stretches for kilometers, it was never clear. And from the soldiers that I spoke to, and that, you know, spoke to other media, it was clear that, you know, right when they went into this attack, or they didn't really understand what was going on. And that persisted throughout everything they did, because it was last minute calls to do something, there was complete chaos. And that seems to have culminated in this massive setback that Russian army has suffered in the previous weeks in northeastern Ukraine, where they just, you know, were annihilated there by the Ukrainian counter-offensive and had to leave a lot of the places and this is why partially, they're moving so quickly with these referendums that Ben spoke about earlier.

ROMANS: Yeah, let's talk about that quickly. Because what -- what's Putin trying to achieve there in his occupied Ukraine regions trying to solidify sort of his stake on those areas?

ILYUSHINA: Yes, it's -- you know, one thing -- one side of that is that he has to tell the Russian public that, you know, he's succeeding at something in this campaign. He did not take the entire Ukraine or Kyiv in a short amount of time, but he liberated those areas from Ukrainian via Nazis as the Kremlin likes to say, and that they are bringing these Russian speaking people home, that's the whole narrative here.


And the second thing like strategically what people are worried about that once these regions are part of Russia officially in the eyes of the Russian law, that will allow Vladimir Putin to be even more aggressive with his attack, because any attack on those territories will be already considered not just, you know, some areas in a different country, but attack on Russia. And that could potentially lead to another round of escalation. You know, he's alluded to Russia's nuclear arsenal. He has mentioned it before, it's on the first time he's threatened with that in such a manner but this is very, obviously stark and concerning development.

ROMANS: All right, Mary Ilyushina at Washington Post, thank you so much for your expertise and your time this morning. Thank you

All right, right now, Hurricane Fiona battering Bermuda, but the mainland could soon bear the brunt of it. Plus, widening protests in Iran, as the family of a woman who died in custody demands answers. And the conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones defiance on the stand.


ALEX JONES, CONSPIRACY THEORIST: I've already said I'm sorry on those times, and I'm done saying, I'm sorry.




ROMANS: All right, right now Hurricane Fiona is lashing Bermuda, its waves could impact the eastern seaboard today with Canada bracing for the brunt of it later. Let's get to CNN's Derek Van Dam. Derek, the 5 a.m. update is just in. What's the latest?

DEREK VAN DAM, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yeah, all right. So, here's the latest on Fiona. And it is going to bring some strong waves to the eastern seaboard of our country, the U.S. just because of its sheer proximity to the U.S., but it is going to be pushed away from the eastern seaboard of the country. But as we look into the Canadian Maritimes that's a whole another story because that is where it is headed.

Fiona right now lashing Bermuda with strong hurricane force winds. This is now a category three Atlantic hurricane equivalent, it was a four overnight, but with the 5 a.m. update, it has changed. So, some weakening but there is a lot of momentum behind the storm. A lot of upper-level dynamics here and that means it will impact places like Nova Scotia, Western Newfoundland as well as Prince Edward Islands. That's why we have hurricane warnings, in effect for these areas storm surge as well as hurricane force winds likely.

Now, the other big story for us is the latest addition, Tropical Depression Nine just forming across the central Caribbean, 35 mile per hour storm. And now look at this official forecast track from the National Hurricane Center, potentially impacting Jamaica by the end of the weekend and then into western Cuba by early Monday and into Tuesday and Wednesday a potential impact into the southern Florida peninsula. So, we have to keep a very close eye on this. What's new overnight is that the consensus, the various computer models that we look at as meteorologists have all honed in on southern Florida. So, we're going to keep a close eye on again, the differences here between the global model and the European model showing very little spread whereas a few hours ago, there was several 100 miles between the two outcomes of these two particular computer models. Christine?

ROMANS: All right, good to know, good to know especially if you're in Florida.

VAN DAM: Right.

ROMANS: All right, thank you so much for that Derek.

OK, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones warned by the judge for instigating this explosive exchange in court. During his trial on Thursday CNN's Erica Hill has more.


ERICA HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Alex Jones on the stand for the first time in Connecticut, where a jury will decide how much he owes in damages for lying about the Sandy Hook school shooting that left 20 children and six educators dead. Among his claims that it was all a hoax that the grieving families and victims, many of them in the courtroom on Thursday were just actors.

CHRISTOPHER MATTEI, PLAINTIFF'S ATTORNEY: Robbie Parker is right here. He's real, is he?


MATTEI: And for years, you put a target on his back, didn't you?

JONES: Objection (inaudible) of that guy.

MATTEI: You have families in this courtroom that lost children, sisters, wives, moms --

JONES: Is this a struggle session; are we in China? I've already said I'm sorry on those times. And I'm done saying I'm sorry.

HILL: And explosive end to a day that grew more contentious with each hour as Jones struggled to stick to the question.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you can answer the question. Mr. Jones, the answer is yes or no.

HILL: Or remember past statements. The plaintiff's attorney repeatedly jogging Jones memory with clips from an earlier deposition.

MATTEI: This was basically just a fake set on which this hoax could play out, right? That's what you're saying?


MATTEI: You acknowledge that among the things that you said about Sandy Hook was that it was fake? Yes.


MATTEI: Synthetic?


MATTEI: Manufactured.


MATTEI: With actors?


HILL: The emotional toll of those lies on full display in the first two weeks of testimony.

JENNIFER HENSEL, PLAINTIFF, DAUGHTER MURDERED AT SANDY HOOK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL: It makes it hard to just push that away. Because you have to push that away. That continual noise of -- of all of the people saying that we faked this and that it never happened.

HILL: Outside the courtroom, Jones has used his platform to rail on this trial, referring to the judge as a tyrant, his website posting this image of her, though on the stand, Jones denied any involvement.

MATTEI: You know who did that?

JONES: I didn't direct that first time ourselves in court.

HILL: Thursdays soul witness uncharacteristically quiet when leaving the courthouse just moments after this final reminder from the judge. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is not a press conference, this is clearly not your show, and you need to respect the process.

HILL: After the jury was dismissed for the day, the judge once again cautioned Alex Jones about his answers and admonished the attorneys telling both the attorneys and Jones that you would hold a contempt hearing if anybody stepped out of line. Jones, uncharacteristically was quiet when leaving Court, did stop to talk to the cameras he's scheduled to take the stand again on Friday at 10 a.m. In Waterbury, Connecticut. I'm Erica Hill, CNN.



ROMANS: All right, thanks Erica for that. The special master overseeing the investigation of the Mar-a-Lago documents has once again called out Donald Trump's lawyers. Judge Raymond Dearie ordering them to submit a sworn declaration to backup claims that the FBI somehow planted evidence during the August 8 search to the property. Trump's legal team has until September 30 to submit that declaration in court.

All right, could a four-day work week improve productivity? More ahead on New Day. And next, her death sparked an uprising in Iran, now her family is demanding answers.


DIAKO AILI, MAHSA AMINI'S COUSIN: She was a good person. Her life didn't end for nothing.




ROMANS: 17 people are now dead as protests rage and Iran, 10s of 1000s of Iranians taken to the streets, women burning their hijab in anger and some even cutting their hair following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. She died in the custody of the morality police. She had been detained for questioning for violating the country's dress code. CNN's Jomana Karadsheh live in Istanbul. Jomana, you talk to a member of her family, what did they tell you?

JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Christine, it's been a week as you mentioned since the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police. And we've seen these protests turn into, you know, protests sparked by her death, turn into these massive protests across the country with young men and women demanding freedoms and rights they've never had. But for her family, they say they want justice. They want accountability. They want the truth.

We spoke to Mahsa's cousin who told us a bit more about who she was as a person. And what they say happened to her.


KARADSHEH: The world knows her as Mahsa. To her family, she was the kind of shy Zhina, that's her Kurdish name. Her cousin in Norway sharing these family photos with CNN, of happier times from their childhood in Iran.

AILI: She was very, a very happy girl, living in a not so good country, with dreams that I'll never know about but very respectful and very kind, good hearted, took care of her mother and brother.

KARADSHEH: Amini's death after being taken into the custody of the morality police last week has sparked unprecedented protests. Calls for accountability for her death have turned into cries for freedoms this generation of Iranians has never known with women at the forefront of the protests, burning the headscarf they've been forced to wear for decades.

AILI: It makes me sad and happy in one way because it's sad that someone's life has to go away for these things to start. And I know that when they demonstrate in Iran, it's not like if we demonstrate in America or in Norway or Sweden, they're risking their lives.

KARADSHEH: Amini's families demanding justice. They don't trust the government's investigation. They want the truth they accused authorities of covering up, last week police released this edited CCTV video. They say it shows a Amini this so-called Re-Education Center where you can see her collapsing.

Police so she was taken because she didn't abide by their strict Islamic dress code. They claimed the 22-year-old appeared unwell, had a heart attack and collapsed into a coma. She died in hospital three days later. Family members say they saw her beaten up by the morality police as she was dragged away. It was the last time they saw her awake. They say doctors told them she had severe head injuries, swollen limbs and had a heart attack.

AILI: She had no heart disease or anything. And it was damaged to her head like she was bleeding out her ear.

KARADSHEH: Violent acts of repression by this notorious force known as the morality police have been on the rise according to the U.N. This video from an activist group purport to show those abuses. CNN can't independently verify the circumstances of this video or when it was filmed. The fury on Iran streets has been years in the making, Amini's death appears to have been the final straw.

AILI: I want the world to know that she was a good person. Her life didn't end for nothing. I hope this is going to start something to maybe towards to get a better Iran, more free Iran. I'm going to start crying.

KARADSHEH: Diako's overcome with emotions, hopes for the homeland he hasn't seen more than 10 years and the pain of a family grieving their beloved Zhina. (END VIDEOTAPE)

KARADSHEH: And Christine, we heard from the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi speaking in New York yesterday saying that the investigation is still ongoing. But he seemed to still stand by the government's version of events that the 22-year-old died of a heart attack, saying the coroner investigation.