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Judicial Probe Opens Into Christchurch Mosque Shootings

Mon, 05/13/2019 - 11:29
A judicial inquiry into whether New Zealand's police and intelligence services could have prevented the Christchurch mosque attacks in which 51 worshippers died began taking evidence on Monday. The royal commission -- the most powerful judicial probe available under New Zealand law -- will examine events leading up to the March 15 attack in which a lone gunman opened fire on two mosques in a mass shooting that shocked the world. "This is a critical part of our ongoing response to the attack -- the commission's findings will help to ensure such an attack never happens here again," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said. New Zealand's spy agencies have faced criticism in the wake of the attack for concentrating on the threat from Islamic militants while underestimating the danger posed by right-wing extremism. ​The Christchurch victims were all Muslims and the massacre was allegedly carried out by a white supremacist fixated on the belief that there was an Islamist plot to "invade" Western countries. The commission is jointly headed by Supreme Court judge William Young and former diplomat Jacqui Caine. It is due to report its findings by December 10, although it may release interim recommendations before then if it regards them as crucial to public safety. Australian Brenton Tarrant, 28, a self-avowed white supremacist, has been charged over the attacks and is currently undergoing psychiatric testing to determine if he is mentally fit to stand trial. The royal commission will examine Tarrant's activities before the attack, including how he obtained a gun license, weapons and ammunition, and his use of social media. Since the attacks, the government has tightened the country's gun laws and is reviewing legislation dealing with hate speech, as well as pressuring social media giants to do more to combat online extremism. 

Philippines Votes in Polls Expected to Boost Duterte

Mon, 05/13/2019 - 07:09
Filipinos vote Monday in midterm polls that are expected to strengthen President Rodrigo Duterte's grip on power, opening the way for him to deliver on pledges to restore the death penalty and rewrite the constitution. Duterte has found international infamy for his foul-mouthed tirades, but remains hugely popular among Filipinos fed up with the country's dysfunction and elite politicians. He wants to bring back capital punishment for drug-related crimes as part of a deadly crackdown on narcotics in which thousands of suspects and drug dependents have already been killed. His tough-on-crime platform - which also includes lowering the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 12 - was key to his landslide election victory in 2016. More than 18,000 posts are at stake when polls open for the more than 61 million registered voters at 6:00 am (2200 GMT Sunday), including half of the seats in the upper house Senate. But for Duterte the key is wresting control of an independent-minded Senate while keeping the House of Representatives in the hands of his allies. Historically, the nation's 24 senators -- who serve six-year terms -- have had a reputation for being more independent-minded than the lower house.   Winning a Senate majority, something which independent national surveys indicate is well within reach, would give him legislative backing for his anti-crime proposals and his plan to rewrite the constitution. The opposition warns that could lead to the single-term limit for the presidency being lifted, allowing him to seek re-election despite his repeated statements that he would stand down at the end of his mandate. It would also allow him to expand his contentious anti-drug crackdown by bringing back the death penalty, a pledge which the UN Human Rights Council said gave it "deep alarm". The Philippines outlawed capital punishment in 1987, reinstated it six years later and then abolished again in 2006. The 73-year-old hit the campaign trail to get his supporters in the Senate, giving two-hour speeches at late-night rallies and routinely insulting their opponents -- calling one a "fa--ot" and accusing another of lawyering for communist guerrillas. The results for municipal and city mayors and councils are expected within hours after the polls close at 6:00 pm Monday, with winners for the Senate and congressional seats scheduled to be declared from Friday. Even if the presidential term limit is not lifted, the Duterte family looks well-placed to continue after him. The president's daughter Sara - tipped by many as the president's potential successor in the 2022 presidential vote - is running to keep her post as mayor in its southern bailiwick of Davao city. Her younger brother Sebastian is seeking, unopposed, the city's vice-mayoral seat, while the eldest presidential son Paolo is standing for a seat in the House of Representatives. Electoral contests in the Philippines have always been bloody, with dozens, including candidates and their supporters, getting killed in the fierce competition for posts that are a source of wealth in a nation with deep poverty. Police are on full alert to safeguard Monday's balloting as the bloody trend continued this year, with 14 dead and 14 wounded in "election-related violent incidents" since January, according to a grim official count.  

White House Economic Adviser Acknowledges US Importers, Not China Will Pay Tariffs

Mon, 05/13/2019 - 06:39
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow on Sunday acknowledged that U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods will be paid by U.S. importers, contrary to President Donald Trump’s claims that China will pay for the U.S.-imposed levies. VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports.

US Expects China Tariff Retaliation

Sun, 05/12/2019 - 22:48
The U.S. said Sunday it expects that China will retaliate with increased tariffs on U.S. exports after President Donald Trump sharply boosted levies on Chinese products headed to the United States. Chief White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told "Fox News Sunday" that "both sides will suffer" from the escalating trade war between the U.S. and China, the world's two biggest economies. In the U.S., he said that "maybe the toughest burdens" are on farmers who sell soybeans, corn and wheat to China. But he said the Trump administration has "helped them before on lost exports" with $12 billion in subsidies and that "we'll do it again if we have to and if the numbers show that out." Trump on Friday more than doubled tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods, boosting the rate from 10 percent to 25 percent, while also moving to impose tariffs on an additional $300 billion of Chinese products, although Kudlow said it could take months for the full effect of the tariffs to be felt. China had previously imposed taxes on $110 billion of American products, but has not said how it might retaliate against Trump's latest increase in tariffs. Trade talks between the two economic super powers have been going on in Beijing and Washington for months, but they recessed again in the U.S. capital on Friday without a deal being reached. "We were moving well, constructive talks and I still think that's the case," Kudlow said. "We're going to continue the talks as the president suggested." Kudlow said Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are likely to discuss trade issues at the G-20 summit in Japan at the end of June. The economic adviser renewed U.S. claims that China had backtracked from earlier agreements reached in the talks, forcing negotiators to cover "the same ground this past week." "You can't forget this: This is a huge deal, the broadest scope and scale.... two countries have ever had before," Kudlow said. "But we have to get through a lot of issues. For many years, China trade was unfair, non-reciprocal, unbalanced in many cases, unlawful." The U.S. has claimed that China steals technology and forces U.S. companies to divulge trade secrets it uses in its own production of advanced technology products. On Saturday, Trump suggested that China could be waiting to see if he wins reelection next year, but said Beijing would be "much worse" off during a second term of his in the White House. "I think that China felt they were being beaten so badly in the recent negotiation that they may as well wait around for the next election, 2020, to see if they could get lucky & have a Democrat win," he said, "in which case they would continue to rip-off the USA for $500 Billion a year." "Such an easy way to avoid Tariffs?" the U.S. leader said, "Make or produce your goods and products in the good old USA. It’s very simple!"            

Duterte Allies Seek to Dominate Philippine Midterm Polls

Sun, 05/12/2019 - 22:06
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's name is not on the ballot, but Monday's midterm elections are seen as a crucial referendum on his rise to power with a brutal crackdown on illegal drugs, unorthodox style and contentious embrace of China. Nearly 62 million Filipinos have registered to choose among 43,500 candidates vying for about 18,000 congressional and local posts in one of Asia's most rambunctious democracies. The most crucial race is for 12 seats in the 24-member Senate, which Duterte wants to fill with allies to bolster his legislative agenda. That includes the return of the death penalty, lowering the age for criminal liability of child offenders and revising the country's 1987 constitution primarily to allow a shift to a federal form of government, a proposal some critics fear may be a cover to remove term limits. Opposition aspirants consider the Senate the last bastion of checks and balances given the solid dominance of Duterte's loyalists in the lower House of Representatives. Last year, opposition senators moved to block proposed bills they feared would undermine civil liberties. Duterte's politics and key programs, including his drive against illegal drugs that has left more than 5,200 mostly urban poor suspects dead, have been scrutinized on the campaign trail and defended by close allies running for the Senate, led by his former national police chief Roland dela Rosa, who first enforced the crackdown when the president took office in mid-2016. Aside from the drug killings, Duterte's gutter language and what nationalists say is a policy of appeasement toward China that may undermine Philippine territorial claims in the South China Sea, have also been hounded by protests and criticism. "This is very much a referendum on his three years of very disruptive yet very popular presidency," Manila-based analyst Richard Heydarian said. "Are we going to affirm or are we going to reject the 2016 elections? Was that an aberration and historical accident that we have to fix, or is this actually the beginning of the kind of new era or new normal?" A May 3-6 survey by independent pollster Pulse Asia showed 11 of Duterte-backed senatorial candidates and four other aspirants in the winning circle, including only one from the opposition. The survey of 1,800 respondents had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.3 percentage points. Duterte himself remains hugely popular, topping ratings surveys with about 70 percent approval. While the election survey strongly indicated a favorable outcome for Duterte, there was a probability that the result could still change given the considerable number of undecided voters and narrow leads of some candidates. Divided, cash-strapped and without a unified leader, opposition aspirants are fighting an uphill battle to capture the few number of Senate seats they need to stymie any hostile legislation. Many Filipinos seem more open to authoritarianism due to past failures of liberal leaders, Heydarian said. Such a mindset has helped the family of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos to make a political comeback. Among many dirt-poor Filipinos, however, the concern is day-to-day survival. "Martial law is scary but we're more afraid of dying in hunger," Arturo Veles, a jobless father of six, told The Associated Press. Wiping away tears, Veles spoke outside his family's shanty in the humid squalor atop Smokey Mountain, a long-closed dumpsite in Manila's Tondo slum that remains a symbol of the country's appalling poverty. His asthma-stricken wife, Agnes, said that not one congressional candidate had treaded the fly-strewn and trash-littered path to their cluster of crumbling huts, probably because of the smell and filth. Arturo Veles said the poor always suffer the most, indicating he and his wife would not vote for administration candidates. "They only see the poor, those using and selling drugs. That's the only thing they see, not the depth of our poverty." Village guard Jose Mondejar, who lives in a Tondo community heavily festooned with elections streamers and posters, said Duterte's anti-crime campaign has reduced daytime robberies by drug addicts of passing cargo trucks by about 70 percent in his neighborhood. "Criminals once even opened fire on our village hall because we were cracking down on them," he said. "Now you can walk around here without being pestered. Duterte's campaign has worked."

Myanmar Passenger Jet Lands Safely after Landing Gear Fails

Sun, 05/12/2019 - 21:17
A Myanmar National Airlines plane made an emergency landing at Mandalay International Airport on Sunday, using only its rear wheels after the front landing gear failed to deploy. All 82 passengers and seven crew members aboard Flight UB103 from Yangon were declared safe after the Brazilian-made Embraer 190-LR touched down on its rear sets of wheels before the plane's nose tilted down to scrape the runway, sending off a shower of sparks as it slowed to a stop. Kyaw San, a spokesman for the airport, said the pilot informed the control tower before landing that he was unable to pull down the nose wheels. A statement on the airline's Facebook page explained that the plane's EICAS - Engine Indicating and Crew Alerting System - indicated a failure of the front landing gear to deploy. The pilot tried a backup emergency procedure to pull down the wheels but that was unsuccessful. The aircraft did two fly-bys past the tower for air controllers to check visually whether the wheels had deployed. The captain followed emergency procedures to dump fuel to reduce the landing weight, and made a safe landing at 9:09 a.m., said the statement. Video apparently was shot by one of the passengers and posted online showed an urgent but orderly evacuation of the passengers and crew. Passengers were seen walking away from the plane across the airfield, several of them smiling. Flight operations at the airport were temporarily suspended, and allowed to resume after about 2 hours for smaller aircraft. The runways were expected to be reopened for use by larger Boeing and Airbus aircraft by late afternoon. On Wednesday, a Biman Bangladesh Airlines aircraft skidded off the runway after landing in bad weather at Yangon's airport, injuring at least 15 passengers and crew but none critically. The fuselage of the plane, a Bombardier Dash 8, was broken in at least two spots, along with the wings.

Critics of Indonesian President Face Treason Charges

Sun, 05/12/2019 - 20:26
The lead-up to the May 22 official announcement of the results of the Indonesian presidential and legislative elections has been colored by disbelief, attempts at de-legitimization and denials of loss. Now two critics of incumbent President Joko Widodo are being charged with treason. On Friday, Indonesia’s National Police Criminal Investigation Department released a letter barring former military officer Kivlan Zen from travelling overseas for six months. “[Kivlan] has allegedly committed the criminal act of spreading hoaxes or treason,” wrote the department’s vice deputy director Agus Nugroho in the letter obtained by VOA. Kivlan will face interrogation on Monday, according to the department. “Our client has never committed treason,” Pitra Romadoni Nasution, one of Kivlan’s attorneys, said Saturday. Pitra said Kivlan was handed the letter at the Jakarta airport as he was leaving for the Indonesian city of Batam. But Sam Fernando of the Immigration Directorate General said Kivlan’s travel ban was revoked on Saturday. “For the reasons why it was revoked, you can ask the investigators,” Sam told VOA. No specific act was noted in the letter, but the travel ban followed a mass demonstration Thursday that Kivlan, a noted critic of Joko and an ardent supporter of his opponent, former general Prabowo Subianto, had initiated in front of Indonesia’s Elections Supervisory Agency. The demonstration called for the disqualification of Joko and his running mate, cleric Ma'ruf Amin, because of a number of violations. Shortly after the election Indonesia media reported "credible" pollsters say Joko won by a wide margin. Also named as a treason suspect last week was law practitioner Eggi Sudjana, another protest leader, who called for a “people power” movement to monitor and ensure the win for Prabowo during a speech last month to a crowd in front of Prabowo’s residence “This may be God’s way to speed up Prabowo’s inauguration,” he said. Eggi has denied that calling for the “people power” movement is grounds for a treasonous action. Ace Hasan Syadzily, spokesman for Joko’s campaign, said the unwillingness to concede is a part of an attempt to de-legitimize the elections. “The structural, systematic and massive violations were in fact committed by them because they spread hoaxes against Jokowi,” he said in a written statement, referring to Joko’s nickname. Prabowo Subianto has refused to concede. He said on election day he had won the presidency with 62 percent of the votes. In the 2014 presidential election that was also contested by Joko and Prabowo, the latter accused the former’s camp with a series of words that have picked up some degree of social notoriety: the aforementioned “Structural, systematic, massive” violations. “For the good of democracy, I want to be a good sport, though this time the violations are too much,” he told reporters last month. Law against treason Arsil, a researcher at the Institute for Research and Advocacy for Independent Courts, told VOA the meaning of treason has been commonly misunderstood. In Kivlan’s case, he thinks the case of treason is too far off from the law. “If, however, he is found to incite violent demonstrations that would result in the toppling of the government, it may be considered treasonous,” he said. Historically, treason charges have been used against supposed separatist groups. In 2015, members of the South Maluku Republic (RMS) separatist movement went to prison on treason charges for raising their flag. “The treason itself doesn’t have to be over or succeed. It can be a proven intention, as well,” Arsil said. He added treason charges can also been seen as a political tool. “It can be interpreted that way, three years ago, there were arrests of several opposition figures to Jokowi ..." Arsil was referring to 10 people who were thought to have incited attempts at a coup. There have been many attempts at a coup in Indonesian history, the most notable of which was the September 1965 killing of military generals that led to an unresolved genocide of communists or anyone with ties to Indonesia’s Communist Party. It was believed the events led Indonesia’s authoritarian second president, Suharto, to take the presidency from President Sukarno.  

5 Dead in Attack on Luxury Hotel in China-Run Pakistani Port

Sun, 05/12/2019 - 18:51
Pakistan's military’s media wing says security forces have completed “clearance operation” at the Zaver Pearl Continental hotel, killing all “three terrorists” who participated in the attack Saturday. It said two army officers, two naval personnel, and two hotel employees were among those injured during the gunfight. A separatist group known as the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA) claimed responsibility for plotting the attack on the heavily guarded hotel, which is located on a hilltop overlooking the deep-water Arabian Sea port. It is the city’s only five-star facility and often hosts senior government officials as well as Chinese visitors, among others. Prime Minister Imran Khan denounced the deadly raid as part of efforts to “sabotage” Chinese-funded economic projects, especially those in Balochistan province, where Gwadar is located. “We shall not allow these agendas to succeed. Pakistani nation and its security forces shall defeat them all,” Khan vowed, paying “rich tributes to shaheeds [martyrs] and injured security personnel,” according to a statement issued by his office. The attack began late in the afternoon Saturday when three heavily armed militants wearing security force uniforms stormed the multi-story hotel, spraying security guards on duty with bullets as they tried to stop them from entering the building. Pakistani military said personnel of its “Quick Reaction Forces”, navy and police immediately reached the hotel, secured guests and duty staff, and cornered attackers in within the corridor of the fourth floor. Local officials said a helicopter also dropped navy commandos on the roof of the hotel. The ensuing gunfight lasted several hours, the military statement said all the attackers were killed. The military noted in its statements that the assailants had made hotel security cameras dysfunctional and planted improvised explosives devices at entry points leading to the fourth floor. A search operation for others who may have been involved in the attack, local officials said. The BLA militant group also released pictures of four gunmen through social media accounts, saying they carried out the attack.   In a statement late Saturday, the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad strongly condemned the terrorist attack and praised the Pakistani military for its “heroic action”. Beijing has built and operates the massive Gwadar port under a multi-billion-dollar bilateral mega-project, known as China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The port, described as the heart of CPEC, is located at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and officials anticipate it soon will become a hub of regional commercial and transit activities. China is also fully funding ongoing construction of an international airport in Gwadar with a landing strip capable of accommodating the biggest aircraft. Pakistan has deployed specially trained military and paramilitary troops in Gwadar and other parts of Baluchistan for the security of CPEC projects and Chinese experts working on them. Beijing considers CPEC a flagship of its ambitious global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Last month, 14 Pakistani security personnel were forced out of passenger buses near Gwadar on the main coastal highway and shot dead in an attack claimed by a different Baloch militant group. Islamabad alleged the attackers had come from hideouts in border areas of Iran and demanded the neighboring country take action against them. Baloch militants routinely target security forces and government installations in the most underdeveloped Pakistani province, which is rich in natural resources and gas.

US-Seized North Korean Ship Arrives in American Samoa

Sun, 05/12/2019 - 10:27
A North Korean cargo ship seized by the U.S. because of suspicions it was used to violate international sanctions arrived Saturday at the capital of this American territory. The Wise Honest was slowly towed to the port of Pago Pago Saturday morning and docked at the main docking section of the port that afternoon. The trip from Indonesia took about three weeks, and American Samoa, in the South Pacific, was chosen because of “its central strategic location,” U.S. Coast Guard public affairs officer Amanda Wyrick said. “We also have a good strong relationship and partnership with the American Samoan government,” Wyrick said. “With that being said, we also already have the resources that are able to ensure the security of the vessel but most importantly the Port of Pago Pago.” Detained near Indonesia The ship was detained in April as it traveled toward Indonesia. Justice Department officials announced Thursday that the U.S. had seized the ship. Asked as to how long the ship will be in the territory, Wyrick said the U.S. Department of Justice is “leading the investigation so they will be conducting that. Upon the conclusion of the investigation, the ship will be moved.” But the next destination is unknown, she said. She said she didn’t have the exact number of U.S. Coast Guard personnel or people from other federal agencies who have traveled to American Samoa for the investigation. “I do know that, we have a marine and safety security team here from Honolulu,” Wyrick said. “We’re conducting random patrols, also conducting inspection of the vessel and the Port of Pago Pago, keep an eye on things such as security breaches or vandalization of the ship itself.” Protecting the port Officials are also making sure the port is protected, she said. “We especially in the Coast Guard, we understand the importance of the port. It’s a lifeline in getting goods to the islands,” Wyrick said. “So we want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can, to make sure that there’s absolutely no disruption to the flow of commerce coming in and out.” U.S. officials made the announcement of the ship’s seizure hours after North Korea fired two suspected short-range missiles toward the sea, the second weapons launch in five days and a possible signal that stalled talks over its nuclear weapons program are in trouble.

Trump to China: Trade Deal Now, or ‘Far Worse’ After 2020

Sun, 05/12/2019 - 09:43
President Donald Trump warned China Saturday that it should strike a trade deal with the United States now, otherwise an agreement would be “far worse for them if it has to be negotiated in my second term.” Washington and Beijing are locked in a trade battle that has seen mounting tariffs, sparking fears the dispute will damage the global economy. Two days of talks ended Friday with no deal. China’s top negotiator said the two sides would meet again in Beijing at an unspecified date, but warned that China would make no concessions on “important principles.” Accusations and higher tariffs Trump had accused Beijing of reneging on its commitments in trade talks and ordered new punitive duties, which took effect Friday, on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports, raising them to 25 percent from 10 percent. He then cranked up the heat further, ordering a tariff hike on almost all remaining imports — $300 billion worth, according to US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer — from the world’s second-biggest economy. Those tariffs would not take effect for months, after a period of public comment. Trump also said Saturday that firms could easily avoid additional costs by producing goods in the United States. “Such an easy way to avoid Tariffs? Make or produce your goods and products in the good old USA. It’s very simple!” he tweeted, echoing a similar message he sent Friday, and even retweeted. Poised for a deal Only a week earlier, the United States and China had seemed poised to complete a sweeping agreement. Washington wants Beijing to tighten its intellectual property protections, cut its subsidies to state-owned firms and reduce the yawning trade deficit; China wants an end to tariffs as part of a “balanced” deal. While supporters laud Trump as a tough negotiator, free-trade-minded Republicans have warned that the tariffs could do real damage to the economy, and many farmers, including Trump supporters, say the tariffs have hit their bottom line. As the trade war spread, China imposed $110 billion in duties on farm exports and other US goods. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, from the farm state of Iowa, cautiously welcomed the new tariffs but urged negotiators to reach a quick solution “so we can avoid prolonged tariffs, which we know have an impact on the US economy.”

Vietnam Jails 2 Activists for 'Spreading Propaganda' on Facebook

Sat, 05/11/2019 - 22:06
A Vietnamese court has jailed two activists on charges of publishing damaging anti-state propaganda about the communist-run country, state media reported Saturday, the latest convictions under a hardline leadership intolerant of dissent. The women, Vu Thi Dung and Nguyen Thi Ngoc Suong, were sentenced Friday to six and five years respectively for posting videos and articles on Facebook against proposed special economic zones and a beefed up cybersecurity law, the People's Police newspaper reported. The court, in the country's south, found them both guilty of "making, hoarding and spreading propaganda information, documents and materials against the socialist republic of Vietnam". Both market vendors, the two women are the latest to face harsh blowback for publicly opposing the cybersecurity law, which would require internet companies to hand over user data and remove content if requested by the government. The proposed special economic zones are also deeply sensitive and sparked rare nationwide protests last year in which police stations and government offices were ransacked. Independent media is banned in Vietnam, with online posts, comments and critics strictly monitored and bloggers, activists and rights lawyers routinely jailed. The hardline leadership in charge since 2016 has been harsh on dissidents, with nearly 60 put behind bars last year according to an AFP tally. A Vietnamese activist who also criticized both the special economic zones and the cybersecurity law was sentenced to two years in prison in March for "abusing democratic freedoms". Critics say the draconian cyber law will be used to target online dissent, but it has yet to be implemented. The draft bill on economic zones also sparked an uproar as many in Vietnam believed it would grant incentives to Chinese companies. No mention of China was suggested in the legislation but officials put off passing the bill following the protests, which hit the capital Hanoi and the commercial hub Ho Chi Minh City. Dozens of demonstrators have been jailed since taking part.  

Rights Groups, Family Demand Answers on Missing Thai Activists

Sat, 05/11/2019 - 21:26
Three Thai activists in exile and accused of insulting the country's powerful monarchy have gone missing, rights groups and a family member told AFP Saturday, as demands mount for answers on their whereabouts. The activists, Chucheep Chiwasut, who broadcasts political commentary online, and two colleagues, Siam Theerawut and Kritsana Tupthai, were arrested in Vietnam early this year and sent back to Thailand this week, according to rights groups. The mother of Siam, 34, said he was last heard from a few months ago. "He said he is fine, and talked about what he has eaten and places he has visited, but did not say where he was," Kanya Theerawut told AFP, adding she had visited police this week but was told there was no information available. "I want to know where my son is," she said. A senior official with Thailand's special branch police confirmed the three men were in Vietnam but had no information about the arrests. Thailand's deputy prime minister denied they were in Thai custody on Friday. Scores of dissidents, academics and pro-democracy activists have been pressed into self-exile since the junta seized power in a 2014 coup, in what analysts say is one of the biggest waves of political flight in Thailand's troubled recent history. The majority fled to neighboring Laos and Cambodia to avoid charges and jail terms. But Chucheep, Siam and Kritsana moved from Laos following the disappearance of three other dissidents who had also sought shelter there. Two of those men were found in late December in the Mekong river with concrete stuffed into their stomachs. The government has denied any responsibility. Prosecutions under Thailand's lese-majeste law, which carries penalties of up to 15 years for insulting the wealthy monarchy, soared after the junta took over. But activists say the military has also stepped up its pursuit abroad. "The long arm of repression also reaches across the border as exiled dissidents have been pursued", said Sunai Phasuk, senior Thai expert for Human Rights Watch. "Nowhere is safe." Amnesty International has called on the Thai government to provide answers. Lese-majeste prosecutions within the country have fallen since newly-crowned Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn ascended the throne in 2016 following the death of his father Bhumibol Adulyadej. On Friday a prominent pro-democracy activist who was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for sharing an unflattering BBC profile of the king on Facebook was freed in a royal pardon a little more than a month shy of his sentence ending.  

Hong Kong Lawmakers Brawl Over Extradition Bill

Sat, 05/11/2019 - 18:04
A session Saturday in Hong Kong's legislative assembly about a controversial extradition law ended in a brawl between lawmakers, with one member of the assembly hospitalized. Neither the pro-democracy lawmakers nor the pro-Beijing politicians are budging from their disapproval or support of the proposed law that would allow Hong Kong to extradite people to other jurisdictions where it lacks a permanent extradition agreement, including China and Taiwan, on a case by case basis.  Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said that such changes would close legal "loopholes." It follows a high profile murder case last year where a Hong Kong man murdered his pregnant girlfriend on holiday in Taiwan, where the autonomous Chinese city also lacks a long term extradition agreement.  The government has said speed is necessary as the murder suspect, who is serving a prison sentence on related money laundering charges, could be released as early as October. Taiwan officials have said they would not seek the Hong Kong man's return, even if the law is approved.   Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Hong Kong last month to show their disapproval for the extradition bill. The International Chamber of Commerce sent a scathing letter to lawmakers Wednesday questioning why Hong Kong is fast-tracking such significant changes to its legal system with limited public consultation – calling the move “most unbecoming in terms of public governance.” The ICC’s letter follows similar concerns echoed by the European Union, the American Chamber of Commerce, the Hong Kong Bar Association and US Consul General Kurt Tong. The bill was introduced in April and is set to be voted on in July by Hong Kong's semi-democratic legislature, in which the majority is held by pro-establishment legislators. Hong Kong, an autonomous special administrative region until 2047, has a dramatically different legal system from the mainland due to its former status as a British colony. Its strong rule of law has led dozens of multinational firms to make the city their Asia headquarters, although the ICC said that could change if the extradition law is put in place.  

Hong Kong Reports a Case of African Swine Fever

Sat, 05/11/2019 - 16:42
A case of African swine fever has been detected in a Hong Kong slaughterhouse, prompting the culling of all 6,000 pigs at the facility. Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said in a statement Friday that the incurable virus was found in a single pig imported from a farm in Guangdong province in mainland China, where the monthslong outbreak has devastated herds. Pork is China’s staple meat and its price and availability is considered a matter of national concern. Shortfalls in supply have increased demand for pork from producers in the U.S., with whom China is locked in an increasingly acrimonious tariff battle. 6,000 pigs culled Chan said the culling was necessary so that “thorough cleansing and also disinfection could be conducted.” Operations at the Sheung Shui Slaughterhouse would be suspended until the disinfection work is completed, she said. “We will enhance the surveillance and also testing of pigs, and currently we collect samples from pigs with ASF symptoms for testing, and in the future we will step up the sampling of other pigs for testing,” Chan said. She said the territory’s fresh pork supply would be reduced in the near future but there would still be a limited supply of live pigs available from another slaughterhouse. Unlike swine flu, African swine fever cannot be transmitted to humans, and Chan said well-cooked pork is safe for consumption. Worldwide concerns Concerns about the spread of Africa swine fever to the U.S. recently led organizers to cancel the World Pork Expo scheduled for June in the state of Iowa. Denmark, meanwhile, has begun erecting a 70-kilometer (43.4-mile) fence along the German border to keep out wild boars in an attempt to prevent the spread of African swine fever, which could jeopardize the country’s valuable pork industry. Russia has also been hit hard by African swine fever and some have speculated the Chinese outbreak may have originated among pigs from that country.

Britain Fails to Assuage US Security Fears

Sat, 05/11/2019 - 15:40
The shake-of-the-hands in front of the media on a blustery, wet spring morning in central London outside the official residence of British Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt was friendly. America's secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and Hunt joked about the weather. Pompeo, on his first official visit to London as U.S. Secretary of State, had come to reaffirm the "special relationship" between Britain and the U.S., he said. "The special relationship does not simply endure, it is thriving," Pompeo announced at a news conference midweek following meetings with British counterpart Hunt and British Prime Minister Theresa May. But for all the bonhomie, and later, at a research organization event, banter about how the first-born son of Prince Harry and his American bride Meghan Markle is the latest example of Anglo-American cooperation, Pompeo's trip was anything but routine. The visit exposed strains in a relationship that is being buffeted by sharp disagreements over policy toward Iran and Britain's dealings with China. China's Huawei America's top diplomat delivered a blunt public warning in London about doing business with China and specifically about using the technology of Chinese telecom giant Huawei to develop Britain's fifth-generation (5G) wireless network. He urged Britain to rethink its provisional decision to allow Huawei to have a role in building the network, warning that China wants "to divide Western alliances through bits and bytes, not bullets and bombs." U.S. officials fear Beijing will use Huawei, which ultimately is answerable to the Chinese government, to eavesdrop and to sweep up data passing through Britain's 5G network. The prospect is alarming to U.S. security agencies. They fear Chinese spies will be able to penetrate American networks and even capture intelligence shared with Britain.  Pompeo emphasized that if Britain uses Huawei's pioneering technology for its 5G network, it would be putting at risk the longstanding intelligence-sharing arrangement it has with Washington — the rock on which the special relationship is built.  "Insufficient security will impede the United States' ability to share certain information within trusted networks. This is just what China wants — to divide western alliances," Pompeo warned. British politicians have reacted cautiously to the U.S. threat to curtail intelligence sharing, an unusually overt warning for an American diplomat to deliver on British soil. They say they think they can square the circle — have Huawei participate in the development of parts of the next generation mobile network but in a way that answers U.S. security objections. Britain has said it is planning to allow the Chinese telecom giant to participate in a limited role in developing the 5G network. Officials talk about ensuring that Huawei's participation is kept in non-core areas. The decision was made by Prime Minister May, over the objections of her security and defense chiefs. On Thursday, in an interview with a Chinese media outlet, the country's finance minister, Philip Hammond, downplayed U.S. worries, saying, "[Huawei] has responded very positively and confirmed that it is willing and able to address those concerns and ensure that those security defects are corrected for the future. So we're very pleased about that." A former British foreign minister, and onetime chairman of the British parliament's intelligence committee, Malcolm Rifkind, told Britain's Sky News that disagreements between British and U.S. leaders aren't unusual. "There's nothing new about that," he said. "Margaret Thatcher had rows with Ronald Reagan, John Major with Bill Clinton. It is the normal situation between friends. Occasionally you disagree." He believes there's a work-around, pointing out that Huawei has been highly involved in Britain's current 4G network and its role is monitored by a team of British intelligence operatives "to make sure there's no mischief." Deals with China Monitoring, though, may not be enough to assuage U.S. worries, says a former senior counter-intelligence officer, who served in the agency's clandestine service for 33 years and asked not to be named in this article. He says there's increasing alarm in U.S. intelligence circles about Britain's readiness to accommodate China, a rising power seen in Washington as determined to weaken Western alliances.  "The Chinese don't distinguish between commerce, politics and espionage — it is all the same for them," he said. "The British are not on their guard enough, partly that's because they're desperate to get a major post-Brexit trade deal from Beijing and they don't want to do anything that might wreck that from happening," he added. Britain is now the top European destination for direct investment from China, and some former and current U.S. intelligence officials worry the British are failing to scrutinize thoroughly business and infrastructure deals involving Chinese companies. China is building nuclear power plants in Britain, and Chinese companies are being encouraged by the British government to bid for contracts to build and manage HS2, a high-speed railway that, when completed, will directly link London, Birmingham, the East Midlands, Leeds and Manchester.  If Britain does give Huawei even a limited role in building its future 5G network, the fallout would be similar to a major spy scandal, the former counterintelligence officer said. "Think Kim Philby," he said, citing the top British spy who was unmasked in 1963 as a double agent for Russia's KGB spy agency and whose betrayal undermined American trust in British intelligence for decades.  "Even if there's no formal decision to curtail intelligence-sharing, the consequence will be felt all the way down the line. People at Langley and in other [intelligence] agencies will have doubts and will start withholding information by not uploading it to databases the British can access," he added. Britain is a key member of the so-called Five Eyes alliance, the U.S.-led Anglophone intelligence pact also linking Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Norman Roule, who was in the CIA's Directorate of Operations for 34 years, and served as a division chief and chief of station, says "the U.S. intelligence relationship with the British is the closest on the planet." "We share so much information with each other, and it's shared so deeply and immediately that if we have a difference of views, it's usually because one of us hasn't gotten around to seeing the other's file yet," he added. He says on the Huawei issue, the British security agencies "don't have a different view than that of the United States." He predicts there were will be weeks of technical discussions. "The devil will be in the details," he said. "The question will be, 'Can you take some of Huawei's technology and put it in places where it doesn't matter and still guarantee security?'" 

Trump Starts Process to Raise Tariffs on Remaining China Imports

Sat, 05/11/2019 - 11:18
U.S. President Donald Trump has ordered officials to begin the process of raising tariffs on “essentially all remaining imports from China,” valued at about $300 billion, according to the U.S. trade representative. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer made the announcement in a statement Friday after the United States increased tariffs from 10% to 25% on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports. He said details on the process for a public comment period on the proposal for more tariffs will be published shortly. The development comes after the United States and China ended their latest round of trade negotiations without announcing any agreement. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Lighthizer met briefly Friday with the Chinese delegation led by Vice Premier Liu He. After the talks, Mnuchin briefly spoke to reporters saying that discussions had been “constructive.” After the talks ended, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted Friday that the relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping remains “a very strong one” and that conversations “will continue” but that the U.S. is imposing tariffs on China which “may or may not be removed.” Earlier in the day, Trump sent a series of tweets on the escalating trade war with China. Beijing has vowed to retaliate for the U.S. action. “We have lost 500 Billion Dollars a year, for many years, on Crazy Trade with China. NO MORE!”  Trump went on to tweet that trade talks with China are proceeding in a “congenial manner” and “there is absolutely no need to rush” to finalize a trade agreement. ​The president noted that Washington sells Beijing about $100 billion worth of goods, and with the more than $100 billion in tariffs received, the U.S. will buy agricultural products from U.S. farmers and send them as humanitarian assistance to nations in need. While some taxes are paid directly to the government when products are imported, these taxes, also known as customs duties, are frequently added to the price of the imported product. This means the taxes are paid by those who buy the product. In this case, it would be the American consumer. Trump also chided China for trying to “redo” the deal at the last minute after the terms already had been set. Trump said he also received “a beautiful letter” from Chinese President Xi Jinping that expressed a sentiment of “let’s work together.” Trump told reporters he believes “tariffs for our country are very powerful,” and would benefit America’s economy. Some economists, however, predict such tariffs would cut the U.S. economic growth rate. David French of the U.S. National Retail Federation said in a VOA interview “a negotiating strategy based on tariffs is the wrong direction” and expressed hope the Chinese “make substantial concessions to avert this disaster.” Shanghai University economics professor Ding Jianping told VOA the tariffs would also adversely impact the U.S. financial markets, which have climbed to record highs. Jianping said the record performance makes the markets “most vulnerable” because they are “not supported by science and technology.” He added, “The peak created by fiscal and monetary policy is unsustainable.” The Trump administration hopes the new tariffs will force changes in China’s trade, subsidy and intellectual property practices. The two sides have been unable to reach a deal due, in part, to differences over the enforcement of an agreement and a timeline for removing the tariffs.

Politico: Trump Downplays N. Korea Missile Launches

Sat, 05/11/2019 - 08:53
U.S. President Donald Trump said Friday that he did not not consider North Korea's recent launch of short-range ballistic missiles "a breach of trust." In an interview with Politico, Trump downplayed the missile tests by North Korea, calling them "very standard stuff."  "They're short-range and I don't consider that a breach of trust at all. And, you know, at some point I may. But at this point, no," Trump said.  North Korea fired two short-range missiles on Thursday, its second such test in less than a week.  The Pentagon said the launches consisted of ballistic missiles that flew in excess of 300 km (185 miles) and landed in the ocean.  Trump said he might eventually lose faith in his friendly relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which he has previously described as "very strong."  "I mean, it's possible that at some point I will, but right now, not at all," Trump said.  On Thursday, Trump appeared to hold the door open for more talks with North Korea.  "The relationship continues ... I know they want to negotiate, they're talking about negotiating. But I don't think they're ready to negotiate," he told reporters. 

Warmbier: Call Kim Jong Un What He Is — ‘Criminal Kim’

Sat, 05/11/2019 - 08:41
The father of American college student Otto Warmbier who died soon after being sent home from North Korea in a vegetative state said Friday that Kim Jong Un should be called “criminal Kim” — not “chairman Kim” which “makes me sick.” Fred Warmbier told a U.N. symposium promoting international cooperation on abductions that calling the North Korean leader “chairman” gives him status on the world stage, and “if we’re afraid to tell the truth of who we’re dealing with we don’t stand a chance of making a difference.” “He’s a criminal and he’s a murderer,” Warmbier said. “Every member of Kim’s regime is a thug.” ​Stand up to Kim He said the truth is that North Korea’s leader is telling his people that they have to limit rations to 300 grams per day, the equivalent of five slices of white bread, “at the same time he’s begging for food from the (U.N.) World Food Program.” Warmbier said the Dutch government in February seized 90,000 bottles of vodka heading to Pyongyang, a violation of U.N. sanctions, at the same time “he is systematically starving the people of North Korea.” Warmbier urged the world’s nations not “to coddle” Kim but “to stand up to North Korea.” “It doesn’t mean we can’t engage them,” Warmbier stressed. “It doesn’t mean there can’t be dialogue. But when we treat them for who they are then we’ll be able to make a difference here. But until we do that, this is going to be a continued repeat.” ​Many abductees Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student from suburban Cincinnati, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in early 2016 for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster. His parents say he was tortured and he died days after being returned in a vegetative state in June 2017. During the meeting, relatives of abductees from Japan, Thailand and the U.S. whose loved ones are believed to be held in North Korea pleaded for their return. The brother of American student David Sneddon, who is from Utah and disappeared in China in 2004, said the family has collected evidence that he was abducted to North Korea. James Sneddon said “David is a victim and abductee of North Korea’s callous, cruel and inhuman regime.” “I want my brother released, and able to choose how he lives, independent and free,” James Sneddon said. “It’s time to release David. ... It’s past time.” Banjong Panchoi said his aunt, Anocha Panchoi who is from Thailand, was abducted by North Korean agents in Macao in 1978 and the family isn’t sure she’s still alive. But “our family still has hope that one day she will come back,” he said. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshide Suga, the minister in charge of the abduction issue, said as many “as 17 people have been officially recognized as abductees by the government of Japan” and “there are more than 800 people for whom the possibility of abduction by North Korea cannot be ruled out.” Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said in addition to Japanese and South Koreans taken by North Korea, there are at least 25 other foreign citizens from China, France, Guinea, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Macao, Netherlands, Romania, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the United States that been abducted. “Our ultimate goal is the get the abductees back as soon as possible,” he said.

Pakistan Cracks Down on Bride Trafficking to China

Sat, 05/11/2019 - 03:52
Working as a beautician in Pakistan's capital, Mehak Parvez was earning $175 a month at a beauty parlor but wanted to do more to support her family and supplement her father's income as a rickshaw driver.    Last year, Parvez visited her hometown, Faisalabad, to attend the wedding of a female relative, who married a Chinese man. This was a turning point in the life of Parvez, 18, who is a school dropout.     "I decided to do the same. I thought this is good for my future and in this way I will be able to help my family," Parvez said.     While at the wedding, she spoke to the Pakistani assistant of one of the Chinese guests, who assured her of finding a Chinese man for marriage.      Parvez's journey through the Chinese matchmaking process did not turn out as she had hoped.   Recent raid, arrests   Last week, Pakistan's law-enforcing Federal Investigation Agency raided a similar wedding in Faisalabad and arrested several people for human trafficking.     In the days since, authorities have arrested almost a dozen people in other cities, including Chinese and Pakistani citizens. They stand accused of human trafficking, as well as arranging fake marriages between Pakistani women and Chinese men and forging documents.     Human Rights Watch has raised alarms about bride smuggling from Pakistan to China, saying many girls and women are at risk of being pushed into prostitution. The group said the allegations are similar to the pattern of trafficking women to China from at least five other Asian countries. Women's families are paid thousands of dollars, but the women themselves can end up sold into sexual slavery for years.     The Chinese Embassy in Islamabad says it has sent a task force to Pakistan to cooperate with law enforcement, and Beijing supports Pakistan's efforts to ensure cross-border marriages are legal. However, the embassy statement disputed reports that Pakistani women are subject to forced prostitution or human organ transplants in China.     Quick process    Parvez said once she indicated she was interested in a marriage, the Chinese organizers moved quickly, finding a Chinese groom and setting their marriage for Nov. 19, 2018, in Faisalabad.    It was after her marriage ceremony, while she was waiting in Lahore for their travel documents, when she became suspicious as the wait grew longer.      "I was staying in a house with other Pakistani girls and soon realized things were not right," she said. "I asked my husband through Google translation and he would tell me nothing."     Parvez told VOA that when she told the Chinese hosts that she no longer wanted to go to China, the Pakistani agent started blackmailing her.     Christian community activist Saleem Iqbal, based in Lahore, has been working with the victims and said he had heard stories of blackmail and coercion from other victims.     He estimated 700 Christian girls have been taken to China under the pretext of marriages during the last few years. The number of married women is higher, Iqbal said.  Christian families targeted   According to authorities and Christian community activists, the smuggling gangs are mostly active in Punjab province and mainly target poor Christian families for phony marriages. They had displayed banners in public places seeking young brides for Chinese men.     But media reports suggest Muslim girls have also been targeted.     "The gang members normally tell Muslim families the Chinese suitor has recently converted to Islam, and to the Christians they say the Chinese men have converted to Christianity," said Saleem, adding that all such stories are fabricated.    Christian community leader Saleem is worried for the young women, some of whom are pregnant: "What will happen to the children? Who will marry these young mothers even if they get divorced?"    The newly married Parvez is also discussing getting a divorce.     "I am not upset that I did not travel to China," she said. 

AP Fact Check: Trump's Tweets on Trade Battle With China 

Sat, 05/11/2019 - 02:47
President Donald Trump let loose with a morning round of tweets Friday that downplayed the possible consequences of his trade war with China.        Trump minimized the worth of China's purchases of U.S. goods and services, which support nearly 1 million jobs in the U.S.; misstated the trade deficit; and ignored the inevitable rise in many costs to consumers when imports are heavily taxed.     The tweets came as his tariffs kicked in on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods, with another round of tariffs in the offing, and as U.S. and Chinese officials negotiated in Washington. With trade relations between the economic giants seemingly rupturing and the stock market sinking, Trump called the talks ``congenial.''     A look at some of his statements:     Trump: ``Your all time favorite President got tired of waiting for China to help out and start buying from our FARMERS, the greatest anywhere in the World!''     The facts: The notion that China doesn't buy from U.S. farmers is false. China is the fourth-largest export market for U.S. agriculture. It bought $9.3 billion in U.S. agricultural products last year.     As for calling himself ``your'' favorite president, polls find Trump's approval rating to be high among Republicans, but it generally ranges between 35% and 45% among Americans overall.      Trump: ``We have lost 500 Billion Dollars a year, for many years, on Crazy Trade with China. NO MORE!''     The facts: That's wrong. When sizing up the trade deficit, Trump always ignores trade in services — where the U.S. runs a surplus with China — and speaks only of goods. Even in that context, he misstated the imbalance.     The U.S. trade deficit with China last year was $378.6 billion, not $500 billion. On goods alone, the deficit was $419.2 billion.       Trump is also misleading when he puts the deficit in that ballpark for many years. It's true that the imbalance has long been lopsided, but the U.S. trade representative's office notes that exports of goods to China have increased by nearly 73% since 2008 and U.S. exports to China overall are up 527% since 2001.     Nor is the trade gap a ``loss'' in a pure sense. U.S. consumers and businesses get electronics, furniture, clothing and other goods in return for their money. They are buying things, not losing cash.   Trump: ``Tariffs are NOW being paid to the United States by China of 25% on 250 Billion Dollars worth of goods & products. These massive payments go directly to the Treasury of the U.S.''     The facts: This is not how tariffs work. China is not writing a check to the U.S. Treasury. The tariffs are paid by American companies, which usually pass the cost on to consumers through higher prices. One theory in support of such tariffs is that higher prices for Chinese imports will encourage consumers to buy goods made in the U.S. or elsewhere instead. But the risk is that consumers could simply respond by spending less than they otherwise would, which would hurt growth.  The burden of Trump's tariffs on imports from China and other countries falls entirely on U.S. consumers and businesses that buy imports, said a study in March by economists from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Columbia University and Princeton University. By the end of last year, the study found, the public and U.S. companies were paying $3 billion a month in higher taxes and absorbing $1.4 billion a month in lost efficiency.     A coalition of U.S. trade organizations representing retail businesses, tech, manufacturing and agriculture said this week: ``For 10 months, Americans have been paying the full cost of the trade war, not China.'' It said: ``To be clear, tariffs are taxes that Americans pay, and this sudden increase with little notice will only punish U.S farmers, businesses and consumers.''    Trump: ``Tariffs will bring in FAR MORE wealth to our Country than even a phenomenal deal of the traditional kind. Also, much easier & quicker to do. Our Farmers will do better, faster, and starving nations can now be helped. Waivers on some products will be granted, or go to new source!''     The facts: In addition to repeating the canard that China pays the tariffs, he's failing to account for the damage that tariffs can do.     By most private estimates, a trade war leads to slower growth rather than the prosperity that Trump is promising. The president's tweet also goes beyond past claims that tariffs are simply a negotiating tactic to force better terms with China. Trump appears to be suggesting that a tariff increase would generate revenues that could then be spent on farm products and infrastructure, something that might in theory require support from Congress.     But on their own, tariffs are a clear drag on growth.     Analysts at the consultancy Oxford Economics estimate that implementing and maintaining the latest increase would trim U.S. gross domestic product by 0.3%, or $62 billion, in 2020. This would be equal to a loss of about $490 per household.     Economists at Nomura note that gross domestic product this year could take a hit of as much as 0.4% if Trump expands the taxes to all Chinese imports, as business confidence slumped and financial conditions tightened.