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France’s far left leads protests against Macron reforms

PARIS (Reuters): France’s main far left party, the hardline CGT trade union and some 80 other organisations, led several thousand people in street protests across France on Saturday against French President Emmanuel Macron’s reforms of the public sector.
Organisers hoped that the protests would grow further into a groundswell of support against Macron’s reform of France’s public service and some state enterprises such as the heavily indebted national railway company SNCF.
“We are going to carry a message (and) this message must be heard by the strong-headed Emmanuel Macron,” Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the far left France Unbowed party, told a cheering crowd before the protest set off in the southern port city of Marseille. Melenchon listed a number of grievances including staff shortages at hospitals, limited admissions at universities, and lack of police in tough neighbourhoods, because the government says it does not have the means to fund them. “We do not be-lieve you because you are ly-ing,” Melenchon said, adding that Macron’s government had given a 4.5 billion euros ($5.25 billion) tax break to the rich which could have been invested in hospitals. “The country is rich. The country must share,” Melenchon said.
In Paris, Police said some 30 people were arrested before the start of the march for various offences. Holding banners and chanting slogans, protesters are expected to hold rallies in at least 160 places across France, CGT Secretary General Philippe Martinez said.

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Ex-Panama president’s jail letter blames US

PANAMA CITY (Reuters): Former Panama president Ricardo Martinelli, jailed in Miami on spying charges while awaiting extradition to his home country, said in a letter released Friday that the United States reneged on promises from some US officials to offer him a safe-haven. “After years of friendship with this country, I did not expect to be thrown in a US jail,” he wrote in a letter dated May 14 and released by a spokesman.
Martinelli was jailed last year in the United States after Panama requested extradition on charges that he used public money to spy on more than 150 political rivals during his 2009-2014 term. A US court authorized the extradition last year, and Martinelli last month maintained his innocence but said he would stop fighting the proceedings for judgment in Panama.
In the four-page letter, Martinelli says Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela, a former ally, had sought political revenge, and that he expected the United States to offer “protection” from Varela’s government. He also detailed examples of assisting the United States to curb cross-border crime, such as halting a North Korean ship traveling from Cuba with planes, missiles and radar. “When the CIA requested that I stop a North Korean ship leaving Cuba that was crossing the Panama Canal, I did not blink an eye,” the letter states.
Martinelli, a wealthy supermarket magnate, also said he understood that high-ranking US officials had agreed to let him settle in the United States “without fear.” Reuters could not immediately verify Martinelli’s claims. “I was under the impression that promises made by such government officials could be relied upon. I was mistaken,” he added in the letter, which was addressed to the “government and people of the United States”.

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Kidnap charge spotlights justice divide in Mexico

MEXICO CITY (Reuters): An ex-member of an informal police force running for Mexico’s Senate is battling attacks labeling her a “kidnapper,” drawing attention to radical proposals by her ally, presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, to end the drug war. Nestora Salgado, who once ran a local community police force in the opium-rich southwestern state of Guerrero, said she had filed a lawsuit accusing ruling party presidential candidate Jose Antonio Meade of defamation after he called her a “kidnapper” in a televised debate.
The fight over whether Salgado is a heroic social activist or a criminal has put a spotlight on wider differences between presidential candidates over how to fix Mexico’s law and order problems, a major campaign theme ahead of the July 1 election. Meade, third placed in polls, kept up pressure against his rival and Salgado in a Tweet on Friday, writing that as president he would follow the law without exception “while others opt for amnesty and form alliances with criminals.”
Lopez Obrador is exploring a plan for criminal amnesty to quell the country’s gang-related violence, on the heels of the bloodiest year in a war against drug gangs that has tallied up at least 200,000 homicides over the past decade. The amnesty idea, along with his backing of Salgado and Jose Manuel Mireles Valverde, a former vigilante leader in the gang-terrorized state of Michoacan, is an attempt to secure votes from indigenous and other marginalized groups drawn into the drug war, said Javier Oliva Posada, a political science professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Salgado, 46, helped found her local policing group after witnessing the kidnapping and murder of a young taxi driver in 2012, part of the “autodefensa,” or self-defense, movement that grew a few years ago in towns with little trust in either armed drug gangs or the police forces sent to fight them. Salgado’s group was considered legal under a Guerrero state law allowing self-policing in certain cases. In 2013, Salgado, a dual US-Mexico citizen, was arrested after the families of six teenage girls locally accused of dealing drugs said her group had kidnapped and extorted them.
Salgado spent two years and seven months in prison but a federal judge in 2016 acquitted her of all charges. In a 2016 report, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission said that Salgado’s arrest violated her right to due process. But the entity also recognized that 12 prisoners, including four minors, in Salgado’s town of Olinala had experienced human right violations at the hands of community police groups. Lopez Obrador has said Meade’s attacks are a “dirty war.”
“She is fighting for there to be peace and tranquility and was accused in a despicable way,” Lopez Obrador said at a campaign rally in the central state of Jalisco this week. Salgado has maintained her innocence. “In the two years that I’ve been free, the campaign now attacking me hasn’t made a single sound,” she said in a radio interview on Thursday. “Now that I am a running candidate, they want to make me wear the mask of a criminal.”

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Struggling in parliament, German far right takes to streets

BERLIN (AP): A German far-right party that swept into parliament last year on a wave of anti-migrant sentiment is staging a march Sunday through the heart of Berlin to protest against the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, accusing it of ruining Germany by allowing the mass immigration of refugees. Alternative for Germany, or AfD, took 12.6 percent of the vote in September’s national election, coming third behind Merkel’s conservative Union bloc and the center-left Social Democrats. After those two agreed to continue their governing coalition, AfD became the largest opposition party, a role that traditionally accords parties in Germany a prominent platform to promote their positions in Parliament.
AfD’s novice lawmakers have struggled to grasp basic parliamentary procedures and have stood out mainly with blunt attacks on minorities, particularly Muslims, who made up the majority of the more than 1 million asylum-seekers to enter Germany in 2015 and 2016. Co-leader Alice Weidel was formally censured by parliament earlier this month for describing girls who wear Islamic headscarves as “useless people.” Sunday’s rally, starting at Berlin’s main train station and ending at the landmark Brandenburg Gate, is highly unusual for a German political party. While other parties have in recent years supported protests on a variety of issues from animal rights to opposing free trade AfD is the sole organizer of the march headlined “Germany’s Future.” David Bebnowski, an expert who studies political protest, says AfD appears to be trying to portray itself as a champion of popular anger against the government in Europe’s biggest economy. “A demonstration is a classic expression of discontent outside parliament,” he told The Associated Press.
Its move to the streets may also be an attempt to align itself more closely with the anti-Islam group PEGIDA, which has held weekly rallies in Dresden in recent years, said Bebnowski, a historian at the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam. It also reflects the party’s tactic of provoking opponents to gain attention, he said. AfD has threatened lawsuits against journalists, rival politicians and officials who have criticized it, even as it accuses opponents of using “Nazi methods.” On Wednesday, party officials warned that far-left extremists could try to violently stop its rally in Berlin.
“This isn’t a family excursion where you take your kids along,” said Guido Reil, an AfD official organizing the rally. More than a dozen groups have announced plans to stage counter-protests Sunday, including artists and a coalition of Berlin music clubs hoping to “blow away” AfD with loud techno beats. Berlin police are reportedly planning to put some 2,000 officers on the streets to keep the peace. Bebnowski said the march could turn into a public relations disaster for AfD if it fails to prevent neo-Nazi groups and other extremists from joining its event. Party officials say some 100 stewards will watch out for banned symbols and chants.
Yet while the party publicly distances itself from extremism, German media have uncovered that dozens of regional and national lawmakers and AfD staff have links to neo-Nazi groups such as Blood & Honor and the Identitarian Movement, a white nationalist group that’s under surveillance by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency. Observers have noted a clear rightward drift in the party in recent years, with prominent members expressing anti-Semitic and revisionist views not heard in German mainstream politics for decades. At least two AfD lawmakers have been convicted of incitement to hatred over the past year and its former leader, Frauke Petry, cited concerns about the party’s direction when she quit AfD just after last year’s election.
Georg Pazderski, a regional leader in Berlin, said he hopes a large turnout will demonstrate that the party is supported by ordinary people. Having secured seats in 14 state assemblies and the national parliament since its founding in 2013, AfD is setting its sights on a double-digit result in the Bavaria and Hesse state elections this fall. The party has told Berlin police to prepare for 10,000 people. This week, senior AfD officials sought to lower the bar, saying they expect at least 2,500 participants and 5,000 would be a “great success.”

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2 French ex-spies probed, charged for treason

Monitoring Desk

PARIS: Two French former spies have been charged with treason over allegations that they passed intelligence to a “foreign power”, Defense Minister Florence Parly said on Friday.

“Two French agents in our service and probably one of the spouses of these agents are accused of serious acts likely to be considered acts of treason, on suspicions of delivering information to a foreign power,” Parly told CNews television.

Asked about unconfirmed reports that China was the foreign power in question, the minister said she “can’t say much”.

“France has partners but we live in a dangerous world, and unfortunately these types of things can happen,” she added.

The two retired spies, one of whom was reportedly posted in Beijing, were arrested and indicted last December.

They are being prosecuted for “delivering to a foreign power information that undermines the fundamental interests of the nation” and “compromising the secrecy of national defence”. “One of them has also been charged for direct incitement to the crime of treason,” according to French reports quoting sources close to the investigation.

A third person — believed to be a spouse to one of them — has been indicted for “concealment of treasonable crimes” and placed under judicial control.

According to a statement by the Defense Ministry, the General Directorate for External Security (DGSE) intelligence agency alerted French prosecutors after uncovering the “extremely serious” behaviour of its former agents.

“The fact that we sounded the alert is proof of our vigilance,” Parly said.

The minister said the compromised information handed by the agents while still in service for the DGSE “could undermine the security of the state”. (AA)

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UN: French anti-terror laws risk marginalizing Muslims

Monitoring Desk

GENEVA: A UN human rights expert on Friday raised concerns about possible effects of France’s new anti-terrorism laws on fundamental human rights, especially for the country’s Muslims.

“These laws may disproportionately affect, stigmatize and further marginalize citizens of the Muslim faith,” said Fionnuala Ni Aolain, UN’s special rapporteur on the protection of human rights while countering terrorism.

In a statement, she called the French government to devise an independent body to “oversee counter-terrorism and exceptional national security powers in the country”. Her report follows a nine-day visit to the country from May 14 to 23.

France’s new anti-terrorism legislation entered into force on November 1, 2017, formally ending a state of emergency that had lasted almost two years after the Paris attacks. The law which gives authorities vastly expanded powers to search homes, restrict movement, and close places of worship, is set to replace the state of emergency.

Under the new law, police could carry out house raids and searches without a warrant or judicial oversight, including at night. It also gives officials extra powers to skip usual judicial processes and place people under house arrest.

The bill also allows for restrictions on gatherings and closing places of worship.

“It is clear that the French Muslim community has been the community primarily subject to exceptional measures both during the state of emergency and the new law in tandem with other counter-terrorism measures,” she said, underlining the closure of mosques as an encroachment on exercising religious freedoms.

“It is deeply concerning that the Muslim minority community is being constructed as a per se ‘suspect community’ through the sustained and broad application of a counter-terrorism law,” she said. (AA)







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Trump says summit with North Korea still possible

Monitoring Desk

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump said on Friday that the meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un could still go ahead, a day after his cancellation of a high-stakes summit scheduled in Singapore.

“We’re going to see what happens,” Trump told reporters at the White House, after welcoming Pyongyang’s latest statement on the talks as “very good news.”

“It could even be the 12th,” he said in a reference to the original June 12 date set for the meeting in Singapore.

“We’re talking to them now,” Trump said of the North. “They very much want to do it. We’d like to do it. We’ll see what happens.”

“Everybody plays games,” said Trump, who often boasts about his own negotiating tactics and skill.

Earlier on Friday in a tweet, he had called the North’s reaction to his letter cancelling the summit “warm and productive.”

That was far different from his letter on Thursday to the North’s leader blaming “tremendous anger and open hostility” by Pyongyang for the US withdrawal.

On Friday, US Defense Secretary James Mattis said the summit may still take place if diplomats can pull it off.

“We have got some, possibly some good news on the Korea summit, where it may, if our diplomats can pull it off, may have it back on,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon before a meeting with the Danish defence minister.

Mattis said the recent back-and-forth between Trump and North Korea was a part of the “usual give and take” that goes into putting a large summit together.

“The diplomats are still at work on the summit, possibility of a summit, so that is very good news,” Mattis said. The president’s surprise exit from the planned talks on Thursday had capped weeks of high-stakes brinkmanship between the two unpredictable leaders over nuclear negotiating terms for their unprecedented sit-down.

The US announcement came not long after Kim appeared to make good on his promise to demolish his country’s nuclear test site.

But it also followed escalating frustration  and newly antagonistic rhetoric from North Korea over comments from Trump aides about US expectations for the North’s “denuclearisation.”

Pyongyang has vowed it will never give up its nuclear deterrent until it feels safe from what it terms US aggression.



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Iran seeks assurances from EU on nuclear deal

Monitoring Desk

VIENNA: Talks with European powers on an economic package aimed at salvaging the Iran nuclear deal will continue after a round of discussions that took place in Vienna on Friday, Iran’s deputy foreign minister said.

“For the time being we are negotiating … to see if they can provide us with a package which can actually give Iran the benefits of sanctions-lifting,” Abbas Araqchi told reporters.

“And then the next step is to find guarantees for that package, and we need both legal and political commitments by the remaining participants in the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) deal.”

For the first time since the accord came into force in 2015, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany gathered, at Iran’s request without the United States, which pulled out on May 8.

The other nations have all said they want to stay in the 2015 deal, which limits Iran’s enrichment and stockpiling of material that could be applied to a nuclear weapons programme.

In exchange, Tehran was granted widespread relief from international trade, oil and banking sanctions.

Earlier, an Iranian official warned the deal had been put “in intensive care” by Washington’s dramatic withdrawal earlier this month.

The official rejected any attempt to link the deal to other such issues, saying it would mean “we lose Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and we [would] make the other issues even more complicated to resolve,” adding that it was pointless for the Europeans to try to “appease” Trump.

“We have now a deal which is in the intensive care unit, it’s dying,” he said.

He added that the Europeans had promised Iran an “economic package” to maintain the benefits of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for Iran despite the reintroduction of US sanctions.

Iran expected this package by the end of May, he said, adding the country had only “a few weeks” before having to decide whether to keep participating in the deal or not.

Since the US pull-out, the other signatories have embarked on a diplomatic marathon to try to keep the agreement afloat.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned on Friday that the US exit from the nuclear deal could trigger dangerous instability and raise new threats for Israel if Tehran resumes a full-fledged nuclear programme.

“We can’t sort things out with North Korea. Do we want another problem on the same scale?” Putin asked at an economic forum in St. Petersburg.

According to a report seen by AFP  on Thursday, the International Atomic Energy Agency believes Iran is still abiding by the deal’s key restrictions on its nuclear facilities in return for relief from damaging economic sanctions.

The IAEA, however, is “encouraging [Iran] to go above and beyond the requirements” of the deal in order to boost confidence, said a senior diplomat in Vienna, where the IAEA is based.

Unusually for a meeting of the joint commission, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano was invited to brief the participants on the IAEA’s work in Iran.

Iran has threatened to restart its uranium enrichment programme at an “industrial level” if the deal falls apart.

The five signatories still committed to the agreement have said they want Iran to stay in the deal, with the European countries saying they would not rule out further talks with the Islamic Republic on an expanded text.

However, in the run-up to Friday’s meeting, several Iranian officials warned that there was no question of broadening the discussions.


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Spanish PM Rajoy faced with no confidence vote

MADRID (AP): Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will face a vote of no confidence after courts ruled that the governing Popular Party profited from a large kickbacks-for-contracts scheme, the Socialist opposition announced Friday.

A spokeswoman said the PSOE party had filed for the vote in parliament one day after the country’s National Court convicted 29 businesspeople and former PP officials for fraud, tax evasion and money laundering among other crimes. The challenge puts Rajoy’s future on the ropes, but Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez will need to convince other opposition parties to back his 84 votes in the 350-seat national congress in order to sack the conservatives from the government.

The anti-establishment Podemos party, with 67 seats, has already announced that it would vote to sack Rajoy. But with its challenge, PSOE is also pushing the pro-business Ciudadanos (Citizens) party to decide whether to back or not the vote, which needs at least 175 votes to succeed. Ciudadanos has until now supported the prime minister’s minority government in parliament, but the criticism of its leader Albert Rivera has increased in step with his party’s newfound popularity in recent polls.

Friday’s move comes after a roller-coaster ride this week for Rajoy’s PP, whose win on Wednesday of a key approval for the 2018 national budget had secured, in theory, enough breathing space for him to survive until the end of the term, in 2020. But the setback came less than 24 hours later in the form of a 1,687-page ruling on the so-called Gurtel case, considered one of the gravest corruption episodes in Spain’s modern history. The judges issued prison sentences totaling 351 years and a 245,000-euro fine (US$ 287,000) for the conservative party in power, which the ruling describes as a “profit-seeking participant” in the scheme. The verdict also considered that a network involving companies and party officials was established to arrange travel and organize events for PP in exchange for public contracts.

In some of the most damaging parts of the ruling, the judges also said that PP ran a slush fund at least until 2008 and questioned the credibility of Rajoy when he denied knowing that the scheme was in place during a court hearing where the prime minister testified as a witness. The convictions immediately triggered turmoil for the embattled government of the 63-year-old prime minister, who is combating separatist defiance in Catalonia and has for years defended his party against dozens of corruption allegations.

The ruling party has said it will appeal the part of the verdict that found it was a profit-seeking participant in the scheme. Rajoy has not made public comments since the court decision but the prime minister’s office said in a statement on Thursday that nobody in the current administration or in the party’s leadership was aware of any illicit practice.

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40 missing in cyclone on Socotra: Yemen official

SALALAH (AP): Officials say preliminary figures show 40 people — among them Yemeni, Indian and Sudanese nationals — are missing after Cyclone Mekunu battered the island of Socotra off the coast of Yemen. The officials said Friday that over 230 families had been relocated to shelter in sturdier buildings and other areas, including those more inland and in the island’s mountains.

They say floods swept Socotra streets, washed away thousands of animals and cut electricity and communication lines. Some humanitarian aid from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates arrived just hours after the cyclone receded. The officials say heavy rains are now pummeling Yemen’s easternmost province of al-Mahra, on the border with Oman. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The Indian Meteorological Department, which tracks a cyclone heading toward the coast of Oman, says that country’s city of Salalah is “expected to experience maximum wind and maximum rainfall and also the maximum storm surge.” Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, an official at the department, says Cyclone Mekunu is now “located about 180 kilometers south south-east of Salalah,” which is about 112 miles.

The official says the cyclone’s wind speed is at present about 160-170 kilometers per hour (100-106 miles per hour), coasting to about 190 kph, and was expected to continue at this speed till landfall over Oman.

Streets are largely empty in the Omani coastal city of Salalah ahead of Cyclone Mekunu’s expected landfall there this weekend. Heavy rains and strong winds are already lashing the city. Standing water covered some roads on Friday, causing at least one car to hydroplane and flip over. There was a sizable police presence on the road, many Royal Oman Police SUVs with chicken wire over the windows. The Port of Salalah has been closed, its cranes secured as rain pounded them. The cyclone is expected to make landfall early on Saturday near Salalah, Oman’s third-largest city and home to some 200,000 people.

Authorities in Oman have opened up local schools in the city of Salalah to shelter those whose homes are at risk as Cyclone Mekunu heads to the shores of this Arabian Peninsula country. About 600 people, mostly laborers, gathered on Friday at the city’s West Salalah School as torrential rains poured down. Some slept on mattresses on the floors of classrooms, where math and English lesson posters hung on the walls.

Shahid Kazmi, a worker from Pakistan’s Kashmir region, told The Associated Press that police had moved him and others to the school. He acknowledged being a bit scared of the storm but said: “Inshallah, we are safe here.”

Meteorologists are warning that Cyclone Mekunu is expected to be “extremely severe” when it makes landfall on the Arabian Peninsula this weekend, after earlier thrashing the Yemeni island of Socotra. At least 17 people are missing from Socotra, with one Yemeni official describing them as likely dead. Indian meteorologists tracking the cyclone said early Friday that Mekunu would see gusts of up to 180 kilometers (112 miles) per hour.

The cyclone is expected to make landfall early Saturday on the Arabian Peninsula near Salalah, Oman’s third-largest city and home to some 200,000 people. Strong waves already are crashing into its beaches early Friday morning. On Socotra, Gov. Ramzy Mahrous says one ship sank and two others ran aground in the storm. He says of the missing: “We consider them dead.”