Christian couple can sue over Minnesota same-sex marriage video law

FILE PHOTO: A rose is seen on a giant rainbow flag at a pro same-sex marriage party after couples registered their marriages in Taipei, Taiwan May 24, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) – A federal appeals court on Friday revived a lawsuit by a Minnesota couple challenging a state law requiring that their video production company film same-sex weddings, which they say violates their Christian beliefs.

In a 2-1 decision, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Paul, Minnesota, said Angel and Carl Larsen can try to show that the law violates their rights to free speech and freely exercise their religious beliefs under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Circuit Judge David Stras, an appointee of President Donald Trump, called videos by the St Cloud, Minnesota couple “a medium for the communication of ideas about marriage,” and said the state’s law “is targeting speech itself.”

The court ordered U.S. District Judge John Tunheim in Minneapolis to decide whether the Larsens and their Telescope Media Group deserve a preliminary injunction against the law, which subjects violators to fines and possible jail time. Tunheim had dismissed the lawsuit in September 2017.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose office defended the law, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“Angel and I serve everyone,” Carl Larsen said, in a statement provided by his lawyers at Alliance Defending Freedom. “We just can’t produce films promoting every message.”

The case is among several in recent years where private business owners or individuals invoked their religious beliefs to deny services to same-sex couples.

In June, for example, the Washington Supreme Court ruled for a second time against a Christian florist for refusing to sell flowers to a same-sex couple for their wedding, setting up a potential clash at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis in 2015 cited her religious beliefs in refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Same-sex marriage became legal in Minnesota in 2013, and nationwide in 2015.

The Larsens said they wanted to use their talents to honor God, including by producing wedding videos promoting marriage as a “sacrificial covenant between one man and one woman.”

Minnesota objected, saying the Larsens had to produce videos of same-sex weddings as well as opposite-sex weddings, or else produce none.

But in Friday’s decision, Stras said the Larsens could try to show that Minnesota law interfered with their message “by requiring them to say something they otherwise would not.”

He distinguished antidiscrimination laws targeting conduct and only incidentally affecting speech, calling it “unquestionably” acceptable to require an employer to remove a “White Applicants Only” sign.

Circuit Judge Jane Kelly dissented, saying the majority’s approach could support treating customers differently based on sex, race, religion and disability.

“Nothing stops a business owner from using today’s decision to justify new forms of discrimination tomorrow,” she wrote. “In this country’s long and difficult journey to combat all forms of discrimination, the court’s ruling represents a major step backward.”

The case is Telescope Media Group et al v Lucero, 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 17-3352.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis and David Gregorio)

Special prosecutor to review actor Jussie Smollett’s case: judge

FILE PHOTO: Actor Jussie Smollett appears at a hearing for judge assignment with his attorney Tina Glandian (L), at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., March 14, 2019. E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

By Brendan O’Brien

CHICAGO (Reuters) – A judge in Chicago on Friday named a special prosecutor to probe the case involving former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett’s allegation that he was the victim of a racist attack, which authorities have ruled a hoax.

Cook County Judge Michael Toomin appointed former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb to investigate the case.

Smollett, who is black, gay and best known for his role on the Fox Television hip-hop drama “Empire,” told police on Jan. 29 that two masked men threw a noose around his neck and poured chemicals on him while yelling racist and homophobic slurs and expressing support for Republican U.S. President Donald Trump.

Toomin said Webb, who won a conviction of one of former President Ronald Reagan’s advisers for his role in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal and now serves as co-executive chairman of one of Chicago’s largest law firms, was “guided by a strong moral compass and integrity.”

Former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb takes the oath of special prosecutor during a status hearing concerning actor Jussie Smollett at the Leighton Criminal Court building in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. August 23, 2019. Antonio Perez/Pool via REUTERS.

Former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb takes the oath of special prosecutor during a status hearing concerning actor Jussie Smollett at the Leighton Criminal Court building in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. August 23, 2019. Antonio Perez/Pool via REUTERS.

“We are honored to play a role in helping, as Judge Toomin said in a recent order, to restore the public’s confidence in the integrity of our criminal justice system,” Webb said in Cook County Circuit Court on Friday.

Webb said he intends to request a special grand jury to hear evidence on whether any people or offices previously handling the case had committed wrongdoing and whether there are further grounds to prosecute Smollett.

A month after Smollett made the allegation, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx charged him with filing a false police report and accused him of paying $3,500 to two men to stage the attack to generate public sympathy.

Smollett has denied staging the attack.

In March, to the shock and dismay of local politicians and police officials, Foxx’s office dropped the charges, saying an agreement by Smollett to forfeit his $10,000 bond was a just outcome.

Foxx recused herself from the case because of conversations she had about the incident with one of Smollett’s relatives.

Smollett was written out of the final two episodes of “Empire” this season after he was charged with staging the hate crime.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Scott Malone and Paul Simao)

Myanmar troops’ sexual violence against Rohingya shows ‘genocidal intent’: U.N. report

FILE PHOTO: Aerial view of a burned Rohingya village near Maungdaw, north of Rakhine state, Myanmar September 27, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -Sexual violence committed by Myanmar troops against Rohingya women and girls in 2017 indicated the military’s genocidal intent to destroy the mainly Muslim ethnic minority, United Nations investigators said in a report released on Thursday.

The panel of independent investigators, set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2017, accused Myanmar’s government of failing to hold anyone accountable and said it was responsible “under the Genocide Convention for its failure to investigate and punish acts of genocide”.

A military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that began in August 2017 drove more than 730,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Myanmar denies widespread wrongdoing and says the military campaign across hundreds of villages in northern Rakhine was in response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.

“Hundreds of Rohingya women and girls were raped, with 80 percent of the rapes corroborated by the Mission being gang rapes. The Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) was responsible for 82 percent of these gang rapes,” the report said.

At a news conference in Myanmar on Friday, military spokesman Major-General Tun Tun Nyi called the accusations “groundless” and based on “talking stories”.

“I cannot read out what they mentioned in their report, because it is not suitable to say in front of women in polite society,” he said.

Myanmar has laws against sexual assault, he added, and soldiers were warned against it at military schools.

“If you look at these experts, don’t they know our country’s law or respect it?” he asked.

The Myanmar government has refused entry to the U.N. investigators. The investigators traveled to refugee camps in Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia, and met with aid groups, think-tanks, academics and intergovernmental organizations.

In an August 2018 report, the investigators laid out five indicators of genocidal intent by the Myanmar military: the use of derogatory language; specific comments by government officials, politicians, religious authorities and military commanders prior, during and after the violence; the existence of discriminatory plans and policies; evidence of an organized plan of destruction; and the extreme brutality of the campaign.

“The mission now concludes on reasonable grounds that the sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls that began on 25 August 2017 was a sixth factor that indicated the Tatmadaw’s genocidal intent to destroy the Rohingya people,” the new report said.

The conclusion was based on “the widespread and systematic killing of women and girls, the systematic selection of women and girls of reproductive ages for rape, attacks on pregnant women and on babies, the mutilation and other injuries to their reproductive organs, the physical branding of their bodies by bite marks on their cheeks, neck, breast and thigh.”

It said that two years later no military commanders had been held accountable for these and other crimes under international law and that the government “notoriously denies responsibility.”

“Myanmar’s top two military officials remain in their positions of power despite the mission’s call for them to be investigated and, if appropriate, prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide,” the panel said.

The investigators said they had collected new information about alleged perpetrators and added their names to a confidential list to be given to U.N. Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet and another U.N. inquiry charged with collecting and preserving evidence for possible future trials.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Leslie Adler and Clarence Fernandez)

Fed’s Bullard says a ‘robust debate’ is coming over steep interest rate cut

FILE PHOTO: St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President James Bullard speaks at a public lecture in Singapore October 8, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su

(Reuters) – Federal Reserve policymakers will have a “robust debate” about cutting U.S. interest rates by a half percentage point at their next policy meeting in September, St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank President James Bullard said on Friday.

The Fed cut rates by a quarter point at its July policy review although the minutes of that meeting showed a couple OF policymakers favored a 50 basis point reduction.

Bullard said there would be a hardy discussion about a steep cut next month.

“I think there will be a robust debate about 50,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg TV. “I think it’s creeping onto the table.”

Bullard said a key reason for further rate cuts is the Treasury yield curve, which recently inverted again.

“The yield curve is inverted here. We’ve got one of the higher rates on the yield curve here. That’s not a good place to be,” Bullard told CNBC in a separate interview.

Bullard had said last week that he was not ready to commit to reducing rates at the Fed’s upcoming Sept. 17-18 meeting.

(Reporting by Jason Lange in Washington and Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Russia extends detention of ex-U.S. Marine accused of spying

Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who was detained and accused of espionage, stands inside a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Moscow, Russia August 23, 2019. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

By Andrew Osborn and Polina Ivanova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A court on Friday extended by two months the pre-trial detention of a former U.S. Marine who has been held in Russia on suspicion of spying since December and who accused Moscow prison authorities of injuring him.

The court ordered Paul Whelan held until the end of October, as Russian news agencies reported that authorities said they planned to wrap up their investigation into him in two weeks and present definitive accusations.

Whelan, who denies the allegations against him, said the court hearings were a waste of time.

“It’s simply a dog and pony show for the media,” he told reporters. “We are not doing anything at all. We are just sitting around and walking back and forth.”

Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports, was detained by agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service in a Moscow hotel room on Dec. 28 after a Russian acquaintance gave him a flash drive which his lawyer said he thought contained holiday photos, but which actually held classified information.

Whelan believes he was set up in a politically-motivated sting..

On Friday, he said he was the victim of “a political kidnapping,” and that he had been subjected to an isolation regime designed to force him to make a false confession.

Whelan also told reporters that he had received an injury while in jail, which his lawyer told Russian news agencies happened while he was being moved from one cell to another.

“I’m standing here in great pain,” said Whelan. “It’s inhumane.”

His lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, said Whelan was suffering from a long-standing groin hernia that his client said prison authorities aggravated by dragging him. Whelan was willing to be operated on in Russia, Zherebenkov added.

The presiding judge ordered an ambulance to be called. A Russian medic then examined Whelan before concluding there were no grounds for him to be hospitalized.

Whelan’s brother, David Whelan who lives in Canada, denounced the court proceedings as a farce and said he was worried about Paul’s physical condition. He said the two have not spoken directly since December.

“While his statement was cut off, what we heard makes us concerned about his treatment at Lefortovo prison,” David Whelan said in an email.

If found guilty, Whelan faces up to 20 years in jail.

(Additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Gareth Jones and Marguerita Choy)

Russia rocket accident likely had two explosions, Norway monitor says

FILE PHOTO: A view shows a board on a street of the military garrison located near the village of Nyonoksa in Arkhangelsk Region, Russia October 7, 2018. The board reads: "State Central Naval Range". Picture taken October 7, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Yakovlev

OSLO (Reuters) – An explosion that killed five Russian scientists during a rocket engine test this month was followed by a second blast two hours later, the likely source of a spike in radiation, Norway’s nuclear test-ban monitor said on Friday.

The second explosion was likely from an airborne rocket powered by radioactive fuel, the Norsar agency said – though the governor of Russia’s Arkhangelsk region, where the blast took place, dismissed reports of another blast.

“The aftermath of the incident does not carry any threat,” the governor, Igor Orlov, told the Interfax news agency. “Everything else is yet another round of disinformation.”

Russia’s Ministry of Defence did not immediately respond to a request for comment when contacted by Reuters on Friday.

There has been contradictory information about the Aug. 8 accident near the White Sea in far northern Russia and its consequences.

Russia’s Defence Ministry initially said background radiation remained normal, while the state weather agency said radiation levels had risen.

Russia’s state nuclear agency, Rosatom, said on Aug. 10 the accident involved “isotope power sources” but did not give further details.

Rosatom has acknowledged that five of its workers were killed. Two military personnel were also reported to have been killed.

Norway’s DSA nuclear safety authority said on Aug. 15 it had found tiny amounts of radioactive iodine near Norway’s Arctic border with Russia, although it could not say whether it was linked to the Russian accident.

Norsar’s detection of a second blast was first reported by Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten on Friday.

“We registered two explosions, of which the last one coincided in time with the reported increase in radiation,” Norsar Chief Executive Anne Stroemmen Lycke told Reuters. She added that this likely came from the rocket’s fuel.

The second explosion was detected only by infrasonic air pressure sensors and not by the seismic monitors that pick up movements in the ground, she added.

(Reporting by Terje Solsvik, additional reporting by Tatiana Ustinova and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; Editing by Ros Russell and Andrew Heavens)

Brazil’s Bolsonaro says army may help fight Amazon fires

FILE PHOTO: A tract of the Amazon jungle burns as it is cleared in Iranduba, Amazonas state, Brazil August 22, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro said on Friday the army may be enlisted to help combat fires sweeping through the Amazon rainforest, as international condemnation and calls for tough action to quell the unfolding crisis continued to mount.

Asked by reporters in Brasilia if he would send in the army, Bolsonaro responded: “that is the expectation.”

FILE PHOTO: Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the Brazilian Steel Conference in Brasilia, Brazil, August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

FILE PHOTO: Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the Brazilian Steel Conference in Brasilia, Brazil, August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

The firebrand right-wing president added the decision would be made at a top-level meeting later on Friday.

According to the presidential agenda, Bolsonaro is set to meet with a team that includes the defense and environment ministers and the foreign minister at 3 p.m. local time (1800 GMT).

Fires in the Amazon have surged 83% so far this year compared with the same period a year ago, government figures show, destroying vast swathes of a forest considered a vital bulwark against global climate change.

The leaders of Britain and France have added their voices to an international chorus of concern, with President Emmanuel Macron’s office accusing Bolsonaro of lying when he played down concerns over climate change at the G20 summit in June.

Macron’s office added that, given this context, France would be opposed to the E.U.-Mercosur farming deal struck earlier this year between the European Union and the Mercosur countries of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

A spokeswoman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply concerned” about the fires and “the impact of the tragic loss of these precious habitats,” and that he would use the summit of G7 leaders this weekend to call for a renewed focus on protecting nature.

On Thursday, as international criticism mounted, Bolsonaro told foreign powers not to interfere.

“These countries that send money here, they don’t send it out of charity. … They send it with the aim of interfering with our sovereignty,” he said.

(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu in Brasilia, William James in London and Marine Pennetier in Paris; Writing by Jamie McGeever and Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

China strikes back at U.S. with new tariffs on $75 billion in goods

FILE PHOTO: A U.S. flag on an embassy car is seen outside a hotel near a construction site in Shanghai, China, July 31, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song

By Se Young Lee and Judy Hua

BEIJING (Reuters) – China said on Friday it will impose retaliatory tariffs against about $75 billion worth of U.S. goods, putting as much as an extra 10% on top of existing rates in the dispute between the world’s top two economies.

The latest salvo from China comes after the United States unveiled tariffs on an additional $300 billion worth of Chinese goods, including consumer electronics, scheduled to go into effect in two stages on Sept. 1 and Dec. 15.

China will impose additional tariffs of 5% or 10% on a total of 5,078 products originating from the United States including agricultural products such as soybeans, crude oil and small aircraft. China is also reinstituting tariffs on cars and auto parts originating from the United States.

“China’s decision to implement additional tariffs was forced by the U.S.’s unilateralism and protectionism,” China’s Commerce Ministry said in a statement, adding that its retaliatory tariffs would also take effect in two stages on Sept. 1 and Dec. 15.

The White House and U.S. Trade Representative’s office did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment on China’s latest tariffs.

Though Chinese and U.S. trade negotiators held another discussion earlier in August, neither side appears ready to make a significant compromise and there have been no sign of a near-term truce.

The protracted dispute has stoked fears about a global recession, shaking investor confidence and prompting central banks around the world to ease policy in recent months. U.S. stocks fell on Friday on the news of China’s tariffs, underscoring growth concerns.

In an interview on CNBC, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland President Loretta Mester said she viewed the Chinese retaliatory tariffs as “just a continuation” of the aggravated trade policy uncertainty that has begun weighing on American business investment and sentiment.

AGRICULTURE, AUTO SECTORS HIT

The knock-on effects of the U.S.-China trade dispute was a key reason behind the Fed’s move to cut interest rates last month for the first time in more than a decade.

“It is unclear as things stand whether the U.S.-China trade negotiations will continue as planned in early September,” said Agathe Demarais, global forecasting director at The Economist Intelligence Unit, in an e-mail statement.

“All eyes will now turn to the U.S. Fed to see whether Jerome Powell, the Fed Chairman, will react to these developments by accelerating rate cuts.”

Among U.S. goods targeted by Beijing’s latest tariffs were as soybeans, which will be hit with an extra 5% tariff starting Sept. 1. China will also tag beef and pork from the United States with an extra 10% tariff.

China is also reinstituting an additional 25% tariff on U.S.-made vehicles and 5% tariffs on auto parts that had been suspended at the beginning of the year. Carmakers such as Daimler <DAIGn.DE> and Tesla <TSLA.O> had adjusted their prices in China when the auto and auto parts tariffs had been suspended.

Ford <F.N>, a net exporter to China, said in a statement it encouraged the United States and China to find a near term solution.

“It is essential for these two important economies to work together to advance balanced and fair trade,” the company said.

White House trade adviser Peter Navarro told Fox Business News that trade negotiations with China would still go on behind closed doors.

(Reporting by Judy Hua, Min Zhang, Se Young Lee, Stella Qiu, Hallie Gu and Dominique Patton in BEIJING, Yilei Sun in SHANGHAI, Doina Chiacu and David Shepardson in WASHINGTON; Editing by Alison Williams)

Hong Kong families form peaceful human chains ahead of airport protest

Protesters light up their smartphones as they form a human chain during a rally to call for political reforms in Hong Kong's Central district, China, August 23, 2019. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

By Jessie Pang and Felix Tam

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Thousands of chanting Hong Kong protesters joined hands to form human chains on Friday in a peaceful protest, with almost three months of anti-government demonstrations showing no sign of let-up across the Chinese-ruled territory.

Demonstrators, families young and old, some people masked, some using hand wipes to stay clean, linked hands across different districts as others held up banners thanking overseas nations for supporting “freedom and democracy” in Hong Kong.

Their move echoed one on Aug. 23, 1989, when an estimated 2 million people joined arms across the three Baltic states in a protest against Soviet rule that became known as the “Baltic Way” or “Baltic Chain”.

“I joined the Hong Kong Way because it’s peaceful,” said protester Peter Cheung, 27. “This is the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way. I hope there will be a bigger chance to make an international noise.”

The protest, which included dozens shining lights from the top of Kowloon’s Lion Rock, visible from the main island of Hong Kong, showed the apparent defiance of Hong Kong people after warnings from Communist Party leaders in Beijing and Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam about violence.

Police presence was thin and the protest ended promptly at 9 p.m. (1300 GMT).

But protesters are also planning a “stress test” of the airport this weekend and some, wearing their traditional black garb, were making their way from the nearby suburban town of Tung Chung on Friday night.

The protests, triggered by a now-suspended bill that would have allowed extraditions to China, have plunged the former British colony into its worst crisis since its return to China in 1997 and pose a major challenge for Beijing.

The unrest has widened into calls for greater freedom, fueled by worries about the erosion of rights guaranteed under a “one country, two systems” formula, adopted after the 1997 handover, such as an independent judiciary and the right to protest.

The airport, reached by a gleaming suspension bridge carrying both rail and road traffic, was forced to close last week when protesters, barricading passageways with luggage trolleys, metal barriers and other objects, clashed with police.

China’s Hong Kong affairs office condemned the mayhem as “near-terrorist acts”.

“Go to the airport by different means, including MTR, airport bus, taxi, bike and private car to increase pressure on airport transport,” protest organizers wrote online on Friday.

The Airport Authority published a half-page notice in newspapers urging young people to “love Hong Kong” and said it opposed acts that blocked the airport, adding that it would keep working to maintain smooth operations.

Hong Kong’s high court extended an order restricting protests at the airport. Some activists had apologized for last week’s airport turmoil.

The Canadian consulate said it had suspended travel to mainland China for local staff, just days after a Chinese employee of the city’s British consulate was confirmed to have been detained in China.

Beijing has said that Simon Cheng, the consulate employee, was detained in the border city of Shenzhen neighboring Hong Kong. It has accused Britain and other Western countries of meddling in its affairs in Hong Kong.

Canada’s latest travel advisory on Thursday warned of reports of increased screening of travelers’ digital devices at border crossings between mainland China and Hong Kong.

“HIDDEN AIM”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Canada’s decision not to allow local staff to visit the mainland was one for Canada, which it respected. If people came to China and followed the law, they would have no problems, he told a daily news briefing.

“But if you have a hidden aim, and are hatching a sinister plot, then I fear in China you need to be in a state of apprehension and extra careful.”

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said it had received multiple reports of Chinese border officials detaining journalists and searching their digital devices when traveling between the mainland and Hong Kong.

The protests are taking a toll on Hong Kong’s economy and tourism, with the special administrative region on the cusp of its first recession in a decade.

Transport Secretary Frank Chan said airport passenger volume from Aug. 1 to Aug. 21 was down 11% from the same period last year, with cargo volume down 14%.

Commerce Secretary Edward Yau said visitor arrivals started to fall in mid-July. For Aug. 15 to Aug. 20, arrivals were down 49.6% on the corresponding 2018 period.

“It was the fastest and steepest drop in recent years, and the situation is obviously very worrisome,” he told reporters.

The protests have caused corporate casualties, most dramatically at the Cathay Pacific <0293.HK> airline, amid mounting Chinese scrutiny of the involvement of some of its staff in protests.

Cathay confirmed on Friday that Rebecca Sy, the head of Cathay Dragon’s Airlines Flight Attendants’ Association, was no longer with the company. Her departure follows the shock resignation of Cathay Chief Executive Rupert Hogg last week.

Demonstrators have five demands: withdraw the extradition bill, set up an independent inquiry into the protests and perceived police brutality, stop describing the protests as “rioting”, waive charges against those arrested, and resume political reform.

Beijing has sent a clear warning that forceful intervention is possible, with paramilitary forces holding drills just over the border.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Lukas Job, Donny Kwok, Anne Marie Roantree and Twinnie Siu in Hong Kong, Brenda Goh in Shanghai and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alison Williams)

Slovenia erects more border fence to curb migrant inflow

Workers installs a fence on the bank of the Kolpa river in Preloka, Slovenia, August 22, 2019. REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic

PRELOKA, Slovenia (Reuters) – Slovenia has begun work on an additional stretch of fence along its southern border with Croatia with which it aims to keep out a rising number of migrants entering the country illegally.

Slovenia’s police registered 7,415 illegal migrants in the first seven months of this year, a jump of 56% compared to the same period of 2018 as more people are trying to reach wealthy Western states via the Balkans.

Last month the government signed a contract with a Serbian firm Legi-SGS to put up 40 kilometers (25 miles) of fence on the border with Croatia. Once that section is completed, the total length of fence will be 219 kilometers and cover almost a third of the Slovenian border with Croatia. Slovenia’s total land and sea border is 1,370 km long.

“The fence will be erected temporarily in the areas where it is necessary to prevent illegal crossings of the state border and ensure the safety of people and their property,” said Irena Likar, a spokeswoman of the Interior Ministry.

A Reuters photographer near the village of Preloka in southern Slovenia saw construction work underway at the site.

Likar said the exact time plan and location of for the erection of the fence would not be made public.

Slovenia first began constructing a border fence during the refugee crisis of 2015 when in a period of six months about half a million illegal migrants passed through the country.

This new stretch of fence is around 2.5 meters high and is being erected on the banks of the river Kolpa which runs between Slovenia and Croatia.

The government’s immigration policy has met with little opposition in Slovenia, although some civil society groups are against the wire fence.

Most illegal migrants come from Pakistan, Algeria, Afghanistan, Morocco and Bangladesh. Only a fraction seek asylum in Slovenia, with most continuing on to neighboring Italy and Austria.

Last month Italian and Slovenian police started joint border patrols in order to curb the flow of illegal migrants.

(Reporting by Srdjan Zivulovic and Marja Novak; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)