Dutch psychologists helping probe over family found locked away in room

Dutch psychologists helping probe over family found locked away in room
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Dutch police called in psychologists to help them get to the bottom of what happened to a family found locked away in a farmhouse room where they appeared to have lived in seclusion for years.

Police discovered six people, who claimed to be five siblings and their ailing father, at the farm in the north of the Netherlands on Monday after a tip from a man believed to be a brother who said he had escaped.

Police detained the 67-year-old man believed to be the father of the family on Thursday on charges of unlawful detention, a form of abuse and money laundering. The last charge related to a cache of cash discovered at the farm.

On Tuesday, a 58-year-old man who paid the rent on the farmhouse was taken into custody on similar charges.

“We have called in specialized help,” police spokesman Anthony Hogeveen said on Friday, adding that more than four days after the discovery of the family, investigators were still in the dark about how the family ended up in the room.

“This is an extraordinary situation. With a team of psychologists we are trying to understand what we see,” police chief Janny Knol said in a Dutch television interview.

Police said the children were never registered at birth and had never gone to school, both of which are required by law in the Netherlands. “Basically we know nothing of them,” Knol said.

The six people found in the locked room have been moved to accommodation in a holiday park.

(Reporting by Bart Meijer; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Nigerian president vows crackdown on abusive Islamic schools after second raid

Nigerian president vows crackdown on abusive Islamic schools after second raid
By Desmond Mgboh

KANO, Nigeria (Reuters) – Nigeria’s president on Tuesday ordered a crackdown on abuse at Islamic schools, after a second police raid in less than a month revealed men and boys subjected to beatings, abuse and squalid conditions.

Nearly 300 had been held captive at a school in the Daura area of Katsina, the home town of President Muhammadu Buhari, where police said they discovered “inhuman and degrading treatment” following a raid on Monday to free the remaining students.

Late last month, police freed hundreds from similarly degrading conditions in neighboring Kaduna state.

“Mr. President has directed the police to disband all such centers and all the inmates be handed over to their parents,” said a presidential spokesman.

“The government cannot allow centers where people, male and female, are maltreated in the name of religion,” he said.

Prior to this week’s raid, hundreds of captives had escaped the center, police said on Tuesday.

The 67 inmates who were freed by Katsina police were shackled, and many were taken to hospital for treatment, police superintendent Isah Gambo told Reuters.

“I tell you they were in very bad condition when we met them,” Gambo said.

A freed captive told Reuters on Monday that the instructors beat, raped and even killed some of the men and boys held at the facility, who ranged from 7 to 40 years of age. It was not immediately possible to verify his account.

While the institution told parents it was an Islamic teaching center that would help straighten out wayward family members, the instructors instead brutally abused them and took away any food or money sent by relatives.

Police said they had arrested the owner of the facility and two teachers, and were tracking other suspects.

The more than 200 captives who escaped were still missing, Gambo said. Police were working to reunite the others with family members.

“The inmates are actually from different parts of the country – Kano, Taraba, Adamawa and Plateau States,” he said. “Some of them are not even Nigerians. They come from Niger, Chad and even Burkina Faso and other countries.”

Islamic schools, called Almajiris, are common in the mostly Muslim north of Nigeria. Muslim Rights Concern, a local organization, estimates about 10 million children attend them.

Buhari said the government planned to ban the schools eventually, but he has not yet commented on the Katsina school.

(Reporting by Desmond Mgboh in Kano; Additional reporting by Felix Onuah in Abuja; Writing by Libby George and Paul Carsten; Editing by Giles Elgood and Nick Macfie)

U.S. leads condemnation of China for ‘horrific’ repression of Muslims

By Humeyra Pamuk and David Brunnstrom

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The United States led more than 30 countries in condemning what it called China’s “horrific campaign of repression” against Muslims in Xinjiang at an event on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly that was denounced by China.

In highlighting abuses against ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims in China, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said on Tuesday the United Nations and its member states had “a singular responsibility to speak up when survivor after survivor recounts the horrors of state repression.”

The United Nations says at least 1 million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims have been detained in what China describes as “vocational training centers” to stamp out extremism and give people new skills.

Sullivan said it was incumbent on U.N. member states to ensure it was able to closely monitor human rights abuses by China and added that it must seek “immediate, unhindered, and unmonitored” access to the western region of Xinjiang for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Sullivan said Tuesday’s event was co-sponsored by Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain, and was joined by more than 30 U.N. states, representatives of the European Union and more than 20 nongovernmental organizations, as well as Uighur victims.

“We invite others to join the international effort to demand and compel an immediate end to China’s horrific campaign of repression,” he said. “History will judge the international community for how we respond to this attack on human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

China’s Foreign Ministry denounced the U.S. move.

The Xinjiang issue is not about human rights but about countering separatism and terrorism, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a daily news briefing in Beijing on Wednesday.

“All the slander and defamation of the U.S. and other countries is futile.” said Geng. “Their lies will crumble in the face of facts and truth.”

“RELIGIOUS LIBERTY”

Paola Pampaloni, deputy managing director for Asia of the European External Action Service, said the EU was “alarmed” by the situation and also urged “meaningful” access to Xinjiang.

“We are concerned about … information about mistreatment and torture,” she said. “China is always inviting us to the camps under their conditions, we are in negotiations right now for terms and conditions for free access.”

On Monday U.S. President Donald Trump called for an end to religious persecution at another event on the sidelines of the U.N. gathering. He reiterated his comments in a speech to the General Assembly gathering of world leaders on Tuesday.

“Americans will never … tire in our effort to promote freedom of worship and religion. We want and support religious liberty for all,” he said.

Trump, who has been cautious about upsetting China on human rights issues while making a major trade deal with Beijing a major priority, said religious freedom was under growing threat around the world but fell short of specifically mentioning the Uighur situation.

“Volume is coming up at a pace that we hope that the Beijing government recognizes not only U.S. but the global concern about this situation,” David Stilwell, U.S. Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs told reporters.

“We will see how that plays out and how Beijing reacts and take it from there.”

A representative for the Chinese delegation to the U.N. General Assembly accused Washington of violating the U.N. Charter by criticizing China.

Sullivan said the United States had received “credible reports of deaths, forced labor, torture, and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment” in the camps.

He said there were also many reports that the Chinese government forces detainees to renounce their ethnic identities as well as their culture and religion.

Though U.S. officials have ramped up criticism of China’s measures in Xinjiang, it has refrained from responding with sanctions, amid on-again, off-again talks to resolve a bitter, costly trade war.

At the same time, it has criticized other countries, including some Muslim states, for not doing enough or for backing China’s approach in Xinjiang.

Rishat Abbas, the brother of Uighur physician Gulshan Abbas, who was abducted from her home in Urumchi in September 2018, told Tuesday’s event that “millions of Uighurs are becoming collateral damage to international trade policies, enabling China to continue to threaten our freedoms around the world, enable it to continue its police state.”

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has repeatedly pushed China to grant the United Nations access to investigate reports of disappearances and arbitrary detentions, particularly of Muslims in Xinjiang.

China’s envoy in Geneva said in June that he hoped Bachelet would visit China, including Xinjiang. Bachelet’s office said in June that it was discussing “full access” with China.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Humeyra Pamuk; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)

West African slavery lives on, 400 years after transatlantic trade began

A woman, who says she was a victim of sexual exploitation and calls herself Claudia Osadolor to protect her identity, works as a tailor after training with the support of Nigerian charity Pathfinders Justice Initiative in Benin City, Nigeria July 20, 2019. Picture taken July 20, 2019. REUTERS/Nneka Chile

By Angela Ukomadu and Nneka Chile

LAGOS (Reuters) – Blessing was only six years old when her mother arranged for her to become an unpaid housemaid for a family in the African Nigerian city of Abuja, on the promise they would put her through school.

In her home town in southwest Nigeria, her mother had trouble making enough money to feed her three children. But when Blessing arrived in Abuja, instead of going to school, the family worked her round-the-clock, beat her with an electrical wire if she forgot one of her chores and fed her rotten leftovers.

When her mother later moved to the city to be closer to her daughter, Blessing was unable to be alone with her when she came to visit.

“They would tell me that my mother was coming, that I should not tell her what was happening to me, that I should not even say anything,” she says of the family.

“If she asks me how am I doing I should say I am doing fine, they said.”

As the world marks 400 years since the first recorded African slaves arrived in North America, slavery remains a modern-day scourge. Over 40 million people are estimated to be trapped in forced labor, forced marriages or other forms of sexual exploitation, according to the United Nations.

Blessing, now 11, is one such victim. She was rescued in 2016 by the Women Trafficking and Child Labour Eradication Foundation (WOTCLEF), an anti-human trafficking group, after two years of isolation and abuse. She is still under the care of WOTCLEF, which gave consent for her to be interviewed for this story.

Africa has the highest prevalence of slavery, with more than seven victims for every 1,000 people, according to a 2017 report by human rights group Walk Free Foundation and the International Labour Office. The report defines slavery as “situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power.”

Trafficking of sex workers, many of them tricked into thinking they will get employment doing something else, is one of the most widespread and abusive forms of modern-day slavery.

The experiences of Claudia Osadolor and Progress Omovhie show how poverty increases women’s vulnerability to exploitation.

After Osadolor’s family in Benin City in southern Nigeria hit hard times, she dropped out of university and headed to Russia after a cousin told her about someone who could help her get work there, with travel expenses paid. She left Nigeria with three other girls she did not know in June 2012. When she got to Russia a “madam” came to pick her up.

Osadolor, now 28, says she was forced into prostitution and suffered internal injuries after being made to sleep with up to 20 men a day. She was trapped for three years, with the madam coming round every two weeks to take almost all of her money.

She cries as she recounts the trauma and her relief at escaping thanks to a chance meeting with a representative of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) at a metro station.

“I feel like I paid the ultimate price for my family,” she says. “But I thank God that I came back alive.”

Osadolor has been able to reintegrate into society after training as a tailor back in Benin with the support of Nigerian charity Pathfinders Justice Initiative.

Omovhie, 33, also found herself enslaved after leaving Nigeria in 2015 in search of work. She paid an agent 700,000 naira ($2,290) – money she had borrowed – to smuggle her on a journey across the Sahara desert to Libya, hoping eventually to go to Europe.

The intended final destination of people smuggled across Africa like this is often Europe, but few make it that far. Many are jailed or sold as indentured laborers when they get to Libya. Some are even sold on slave markets, according to aid groups – a chilling echo of the trans-Saharan slave trade of centuries past.

Once in Libya, Omovhie says she started working long hours as a cleaner for a well-off Arab family in Tripoli, often on an empty stomach.

“I worked three months and they did not pay me in that house,” she said.

Another agent promised to help Omovhie escape by sending her to Italy, but she was rounded up by police on the Libyan coast and detained there for six months. She returned to Nigeria in July under a state program to help refugees and migrants. It has helped over 14,000 Nigerians return home since 2017.

Blessing and Claudia Osadolor are pseudonyms requested to protect their anonymity.

(Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Tim Cocks and Susan Fenton)

Outpouring of support in Russia for sisters who killed abusive father

A woman holds a placard during a rally in support of three Khachaturyan sisters, who accused of killing their father, in Moscow, Russia July 6, 2019. Picture taken July 6, 2019. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

By Anna Rzhevkina

MOSCOW (Reuters) – One summer night last year, sisters Krestina, Angelina and Maria Khachaturyan went into the room where their 57-year-old father Mikhail was sleeping and attacked him with pepper spray, a knife and a hammer.

The sisters are now on trial for his murder, but thousands of people have come out in support of them, saying the sisters were defending themselves from an abusive father after being failed by a Russian legal system that, critics say, turns a blind eye to domestic abuse.

The outpouring of support – over 230,000 people signed a petition asking to free the sisters from criminal charges – was in part because many women believe unless the system is changed, anyone could end up in their same situation.

“I feel solidarity with the sisters,” said Anna Sinyatkina, a translator who was in a Moscow nightclub last week when about 200 people, mostly young women, gathered for a poetry evening in support of the sisters.

“I feel that like them I can at any moment be put in a situation when there will be no one but me to protect my life, and I won’t get protection or a fair trial afterwards.”

After killing their father in their Moscow apartment on the night of July 27, the Khachaturyan sisters, now aged 18, 19, and 20, called the police. Initially, they said they killed their father in self-defense when he was attacking them.

YEARS OF ABUSE

Later, the investigation found that was not true, but that they had been subject to years of abuse by their father, including systematic beatings and violent sexual abuse, according to investigators’ documents seen by Reuters.

The case has emerged at a time when many Russians believe protections for women abused in the home are being weakened.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday Russia failed to protect another victim of domestic violence – a woman, who was assaulted, kidnapped and stalked by her former partner.

In 2017 Russia decriminalized some forms of domestic violence. Under the new rules, the maximum punishment for someone who beats a member of their own family, causing bleeding or bruising, is a fine, as long as they do not repeat the offense more than once a year.

The sisters’ lawyer, Alexei Parshin, said they were not demanding anonymity as victims of sexual abuse because the allegations about abuse were already in the public domain.

The lawyer said the sisters, at the time of the killing, were suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. He said they considered running away but feared his retribution if they were caught. Their mother and father were separated.

“NOT AN ISOLATED CASE”

Parshin said the girls’ neighbors went to the police several times to report his violence against the sisters, but no criminal prosecution was ever brought against him.

Moscow police and Russia’s Investigative Committee did not immediately reply to Reuters request for comments.

“The situation in which the girls found themselves living with a father for a rapist is familiar and scary,” Alyona Popova, a lawyer and organizer of the petition told Reuters.  

“Many people, not only women but also men in the Russian Federation realize that this is not an isolated case.”

On July 6, activists staged protests in a square in the center of Moscow, holding posters with the tag “I/We are the Khachaturyan sisters”.

“In any civilized country, these girls would be in a psychotherapy clinic… but not in prison, no way,” said one of the protesters, Zara Mkhitaryan.

Nearby there were counter-protesters. A handful of men standing with posters that read “Killers have no gender” and “Men’s state” the name of a nationalist movement whose members believe men should dominate society.

 

(Reporting by Anna Rzhevkina, Editing by William Maclean)

‘No regrets’: Saudi sisters hope for bright future after hiding in Hong Kong

Sisters from Saudi Arabia, who go by aliases Reem and Rawan, are pictured in Hong Kong, China March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Yuyang Wang

By Anne Marie Roantree and James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Two Saudi Arabian sisters are hoping for a “bright, beautiful future” after being granted asylum, fleeing what they describe as an abusive family and a repressive society.

The sisters fled from their family last September while on holiday in Sri Lanka and have been stranded in Hong Kong since an aborted attempt to get to Australia, where they hoped to secure asylum.

For reasons of safety, the sisters, aged 18 and 20, who say they were beaten by their father and brothers, asked that their names and faces not be revealed, nor the country to which they have now gone.

“Oh my God, I was so happy,” the curly haired younger sister told Reuters recently, describing how she felt when told asylum had been secured.

“I screamed ‘It’s real, it’s happening’ … It was just relief and unforgettable.”

The sisters spoke to Reuters in a room on the 22nd floor of a Hong Kong hotel shortly before they left the city. Hong Kong-based rights lawyer, Michael Vidler, who has been helping them, attended.

They said they had lived in fear for six months, shuttling between 15 safe houses, staying with a nun, families and at a shelter for abused women.

They feared being intercepted by Saudi officials or relatives and forced to return home, where they believe they could be punished for renouncing Islam, which is punishable by death under the Saudi system of Islamic law.

The Saudi consulate in Hong Kong has not responded to requests for comment.

In a statement late on Monday, Vidler confirmed the sisters had successfully traveled to a third country on “humanitarian visas”.

“To ensure their future security we will not be disclosing the third country where the sisters are now living, nor will we be providing any further details,” he wrote on the Facebook page of his law firm. “The sisters will not be giving any further media interviews.”

The sisters said they were treated harshly, at times beaten, by their brothers and father.

“They were like my jailer, like my prison officer. I was like a prisoner,” the younger sister previously told Reuters.

‘NO REGRET’

They were also critical of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system that requires women to have a male relative’s permission to work, travel, marry, and even get some medical treatment.

“Women are just like slaves,” said the older sister, adding that her dream was to become a writer one day.

“I want to settle down and to feel safe, and (to know) that I have rights and I matter in that country. Just to live normal, and discover myself … because now I own my life.”

This is not the first case in Asia this year of young Saudi women fleeing what they said was repression.

In January, an 18-year-old Saudi woman was granted asylum in Canada after fleeing her family and barricading herself in a Bangkok hotel to resist being sent home.

Her case drew global attention to Saudi Arabia’s strict social rules, which rights groups say can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families.

The Saudi mission in Bangkok declined to comment on that case saying it was a family affair.

The kingdom has given women more rights in recent years. Women have been allowed to enter sports stadiums, vote in local elections, and take a greater role in the workforce as Saudi Arabia tries to diversify its oil-dependent economy.

A ban on driving was lifted last year but many women have taken to social media to push for more freedom. Campaigners say the main sticking point remains the guardianship policy.

‘FIND YOUR LIGHT’

Riyadh has also faced scrutiny from Western allies over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.

The sisters watched the news of Khashoggi’s death unfold while in hiding in Hong Kong.

“I said to my sister, ‘I’m glad we left. This is the country we left’, there is no regret at all,” said the older sister, who counts George Orwell’s “1984” as one of her favorite books and likened its dystopian society to her homeland.

“It’s a science fiction book but it’s real in Saudi,” she said.

The pair hatched their escape plan over several years, secretly hoarding about $5,000, partly by scrimping on items they were given money to buy, and had timed it to coincide with the younger sister’s 18th birthday.

They said they had been wracked with uncertainty as a deadline for them to leave Chinese-ruled Hong Kong passed last month. Amnesty International had urged Hong Kong authorities not to return the sisters to Saudi Arabia.

The younger sister, who counts Radiohead and Queen among her favorite bands, said she hoped to inspire young people to stand against social injustice.

“Don’t just stick to the wall and cry. Because if you would cry it would be worse … Fight in your own way and you will find your own light.”

Dressed in a red T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, she said she had no regrets.

“There’s a bright, beautiful future awaiting me.”

(Reporting by James Pomfret and Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Robert Birsel and Clarence Fernandez)

French TV cuts Facebook live feed from Jewish cemetery after anti-Semitic abuse

Graves desecrated with swastikas are seen in the Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim, near Strasbourg, France, February 19, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

By Luke Baker

PARIS (Reuters) – A French TV channel said on Wednesday it had been forced to cut short a live Facebook broadcast from a desecrated Jewish cemetery in eastern France because of an onslaught of anti-Semitic commentary.

France 3 said it went live from the cemetery in the village of Quatzenheim on Tuesday as President Emmanuel Macron was visiting to pay his respects after more than 90 graves were vandalized with swastikas and anti-Semitic abuse.

But as it broadcast footage online to its more than 1.3 million Facebook followers, the feed was inundated with anti-Semitic commentary and abuse.

“We are talking about explicit death threats, comments that were openly anti-Semitic and racist, including “Heil Hitler”, “dirty Jew” or “dirty Jews”, comments that were addressed at Emmanuel Macron and representatives of the Jewish community,” the channel said in a statement explaining its decision.

“Within minutes, the number of vile and illegal comments had gone well beyond our capacity to moderate them,” it explained, adding that it would have taken 10 or 20 staff to handle the onslaught. “We refuse to traffic in hatred.”

ALARM

The attack on the cemetery is the latest in a series of incidents across France in recent weeks that have alarmed the Jewish community and prompted calls for harder hitting legislation against those responsible.

During his visit to the cemetery, Macron spoke to members of the local community and promised a tough line.

“Whoever did this is not worthy of the French republic and will be punished,” he said. “We’ll take action, we’ll apply the law and we’ll punish them.”

On Tuesday evening, some 20,000 people, joined by politicians from all parties, gathered at the Place de la Republique in central Paris to denounce anti-Semitism. Similar rallies were held in cities across the country.

While France is home to the largest Jewish population in Europe, with a community of around 550,000 people, there continues to be a steady drip-feed of anti-Semitic attacks. Commentators have blamed incitement not only from the far-right but from the far-left and fringe Islamists.

In 2018, the number of anti-Semitic incidents increased by 74 percent nationwide, figures released last week showed, despite having fallen somewhat in previous years.

(Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Gareth Jones)

France shaken by outbreak of anti-Semitic violence and abuse

French President Emmanuel Macron looks at a grave vandalised with a swastika during a visit at the Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim, France February 19, 2019. Frederick Florin/Pool via REUTERS

By Luke Baker

PARIS (Reuters) – A series of attacks across France in recent days has alarmed politicians and prompted calls for action against what some commentators describe as a new form of anti-Semitism among the far-left and Islamist preachers.

The problem was starkly underlined on Tuesday with the discovery of more than 90 graves in a Jewish cemetery in eastern France desecrated with swastikas and other abuse. It remains unclear who carried out the attack.

Graves desecrated with swastikas are seen in the Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim, near Strasbourg, France, February 19, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

Graves desecrated with swastikas are seen in the Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim, near Strasbourg, France, February 19, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

“Whoever did this is not worthy of the French Republic and will be punished,” declared President Emmanuel Macron as he paid homage at the site. “We’ll take action, we’ll apply the law and we’ll punish them.”

Politicians from across the spectrum will join marches against anti-Semitism across France on Tuesday evening, including in Paris. Macron will visit the Holocaust memorial in the city, together with the heads of parliament.

France is home to the largest Jewish community in Europe, around 550,000 people, a population that has grown by about half since World War Two. But anti-Semitic attacks remain common, with more than 500 alone in 2018, a 74 percent increase on 2017, according to figures released last week.

Almost every day over the past two weeks there has been new evidence of anti-Semitism.

A tree in memory of Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 2006, was cut in two. A bagel shop in Paris was spray-painted with the word “Juden”, German for Jews, in yellow letters. Portraits of Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and magistrate, were defaced with swastikas.

Then last Saturday, a group of around 30 ‘yellow vest’ protesters were filmed harassing Alain Finkielkraut, a well-known writer and son of a Holocaust survivor, as he walked through a Paris neighborhood, calling him a “dirty Zionist shit” and telling him to “go back to Tel Aviv”.

A French gendarme conducts their investigation as he photographs graves that were desecrated with swastikas in the Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim, near Strasbourg, France, February 19, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

A French gendarme conducts their investigation as he photographs graves that were desecrated with swastikas in the Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim, near Strasbourg, France, February 19, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

UNCHECKED INCITEMENT

Some commentators have blamed the resurgence on unchecked incitement by fringe Islamist preachers, calling it a new form of anti-Semitism, as opposed to that most commonly associated with Nazi ideology and the far-right.

Others point to the increasingly virulent criticism of Israel coming from the far-left and the rise of anti-Zionism – opposition to the existence of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people – which has morphed into hatred of the Jews.

Among those filmed hurling abuse at Finkielkraut was a Muslim on a watchlist, according to French officials.

Francis Kalifat, the head of Crif, an umbrella organization representing France’s Jewish community, said anti-Zionism needed to be regarded as akin to anti-Semitism.

“If you want to have an effective fight against anti-Semitism, you need to be able to fight against all forms of it,” he said. “It’s not enough to fight against the (anti-Semitism) of the extreme right, or that of the extreme left or the Islamists. We need to fight against all forms, and that’s what we’re waiting for from political leaders.”

The leader of France’s far-left, Jean-Luc Melenchon, defended the ‘yellow vest’ movement against accusations of anti-Semitism on Tuesday, following the video targeting Finkielkraut.

Melenchon, whose La France Insoumise party draws support from the ‘yellow vests’, criticized the “politicization” of anti-Semitism, saying people from across the political spectrum needed to stand against all forms of racism and hatred.

“No, the ‘yellow vest’ movement does not deserve to be tarred by these despicable acts,” he said.

“No, the ‘yellow vest’ movement is not a racist movement, no the ‘yellow vest’ movement is not an anti-Semitic movement.”

France’s parliament on Tuesday debated whether anti-Zionism should be classified as a form of anti-Semitism, a position President Emmanuel Macron said he was opposed to.

“Those who today want the disappearance of Israel are those who want to attack the Jews,” he said. “But nevertheless, I think that when you delve into the detail, a penal condemnation of anti-Zionism creates other problems.”

Amid the rash of attacks, Israel’s immigration minister sent a tweet calling on French Jews to leave France and move to Israel, where around 200,000 French Jews already live.

(Additional reporting by Richard Lough and Johnny Cotton in Paris; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

China says pace of Xinjiang ‘education’ will slow, but defends camps

Islamic studies students attend a class at the Xinjiang Islamic Institute during a government organised trip in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, January 3, 2019. Picture taken January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Ben Blanchard

By Ben Blanchard

URUMQI/KASHGAR/HOTAN, China (Reuters) – China will not back down on what it sees as a highly successful de-radicalization program in Xinjiang that has attracted global concern, but fewer people will be sent through, officials said last week in allowing rare media access there.

Beijing has faced an outcry from activists, scholars, foreign governments and U.N. rights experts over what they call mass detentions and strict surveillance of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority and other Muslim groups who call Xinjiang home.

In August, a U.N. human rights panel said it had received credible reports that a million or more Uighurs and other minorities in the far western region are being held in what resembles a “massive internment camp.”

Residents perform for reporters and government officials during a government organised visit to the Karakax county vocational educational training centre in Karakax, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, January 5, 2019. Picture taken January 5, 2019. REUTERS/Ben Blanchard

Residents perform for reporters and government officials during a government organised visit to the Karakax county vocational educational training center in Karakax, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, January 5, 2019. Picture taken January 5, 2019. REUTERS/Ben Blanchard

Last week, the government organized a visit to three such facilities, which it calls vocational education training centers, for a small group of foreign reporters, including Reuters.

In recent days, a similar visit was arranged for diplomats from 12 non-Western countries, including Russia, Indonesia, India, Thailand, Kazakhstan, according to Xinjiang officials and foreign diplomats.

Senior officials, including Shohrat Zakir, Xinjiang’s governor and the region’s most senior Uighur, dismissed what they called “slanderous lies” about the facilities.

Speaking in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, Shohrat Zakir said the centers had been “extremely effective” in reducing extremism by teaching residents about the law and helping them learn Mandarin.

“As time goes by, the people in the education training mechanism will be fewer and fewer,” he said.

Shohrat Zakir said he could not say exactly how many people were in the facilities.

Imams and government officials pass under security cameras as they leave the Id Kah Mosque during a government organised trip in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, January 4, 2019. Picture taken January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ben Blanchard

Imams and government officials pass under security cameras as they leave the Id Kah Mosque during a government organised trip in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, January 4, 2019. Picture taken January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ben Blanchard

“One million people, this number is rather frightening. One million people in the education mechanism – that’s not realistic. That’s purely a rumor,” he said, stressing they were temporary educational facilities.

Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based exile group the World Uyghur Congress, told Reuters the Chinese government was using extremism as an excuse to lock people up.

“What they are trying to do is destroy Uighur identity,” he said.

INSIDE THE CENTERS

Human rights groups and former detainees have said that conditions in the camps are poor, with inmates subject to abuse. They said detainees did not receive vocational training.

Seeking to counter that narrative, the government took reporters to three centers, in Kashgar, Hotan and Karakax, all in the heavily Uighur-populated southern part of Xinjiang, where much of the violence has taken place in recent years.

Security cameras are installed at the entrance to the Id Kah Mosque during a government organised trip in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, January 4, 2019. Picture taken January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ben Blanchard

Security cameras are installed at the entrance to the Id Kah Mosque during a government organised trip in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, January 4, 2019. Picture taken January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ben Blanchard

In one class reporters were allowed to briefly visit, a teacher explained in Mandarin that not allowing singing or dancing at a wedding or crying at a funeral are signs of extremist thought.

The students took notes, pausing to look up as reporters and officials entered the room. Some smiled awkwardly. Others just looked down at their books. All were Uighur. None appeared to have been mistreated.

In another class, residents read a Chinese lesson in their textbook entitled “Our motherland is so vast.”

There was plenty of singing and dancing in other rooms reporters visited, including a lively rendition in English of “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands,” that seemed to have been put on especially for the visit.

Several residents agreed to speak briefly to reporters, though all in the presence of government officials. Reporters were closely chaperoned at all times.

All the interviewees said they were there of their own accord after learning of the centers from local officials.

Many answers used extremely similar language about being “infected with extremist thought.”

Pazalaibutuyi, 26, told reporters at the Hotan center that five years ago she had attended an illegal religious gathering at a neighbor’s house, where they were taught that women should cover their faces.

“At that time I was infected with extremist thought so I wore a face veil,” she said, speaking clear Mandarin after a year at the center.

Government officials came to her village to talk to the villagers and after that, she said, “I discovered my mistake.”

In the Kashgar center, Osmanjan, who declined to give his age, said he had incited ethnic hatred, so village police suggested he go for re-education.

“Under the influence of extremist thought, when non-Muslims came to my shop I was unwilling to serve them,” he said in unsteady Mandarin.

It was not possible to independently verify their stories. All the interviewees said they had not been forewarned of the visit.

Residents said they can “graduate” when they are judged to have reached a certain level with their Mandarin, de-radicalization and legal knowledge. They are allowed phone calls with family members, but no cell phones. They are provided with halal food.

Only minimal security was visible at any of the three centers.

Reuters last year reported on conditions inside the camps and took pictures of guard towers and barbed wire surrounding some.

‘A GOOD LIFE’

The situation in Xinjiang has stirred concern in Western capitals.

At least 15 Western ambassadors wrote to Xinjiang’s top official, Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo, late last year seeking a meeting to discuss their concerns. Chen did not meet reporters on the trip.

Diplomatic sources told Reuters the ambassadors did not get a response.

The United States has said it is considering sanctions against Chen, other officials and Chinese companies linked to allegations of rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based Human Rights Watch researcher, said international pressure needs to increase.

“The fact that they feel they need to put on a show tour is a sign that this pressure is working,” she told Reuters.

Both Wang and Dilxat Raxit noted that the tight control over the visits and interviews showed China’s concern about their true nature.

Over a lunch of lamb kebabs, horse meat and naan, Urumqi party boss Xu Hairong told Reuters that “all of the reports are fake” when it comes to foreign coverage of Xinjiang. He dismissed worries about U.S. sanctions.

“We, including Party Secretary Chen, are working all out for the people of Xinjiang to have a good life,” Xu said. “If the U.S. won’t allow me to go, then I don’t want to go there. That’s the truth.”

The government says its goal is for Uighurs to become part of mainstream Chinese society. Shohrat Zakir said in parts of southern Xinjiang people couldn’t even say hello in Mandarin.

Officials point to a lack of violence in the past two years as evidence of program’s success.

Urumqi’s Exhibition on Major Violent Terrorist Attack Cases in Xinjiang, normally closed to the public, displays graphic images and footage from what the government says are attacks.

“Only with a deeper understanding of the past can you understand the measures we have taken today,” Shi Lei, Xinjiang’s Communist Party committee deputy propaganda chief, told reporters.

One member of the Chinese armed forces, who has served in Kashgar, said the security situation had improved dramatically.

“You can’t imagine what it was like there in 2014 and 2015. There were attacks all the time, bombings, stabbings. It was chaos,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

In Kashgar, Hotan and Karakax, petrol stations are still surrounded by barbed wire and heavy security barriers. Residential areas are dotted with small police stations.

The stations have broader public service in mind, Zhang Yi, commander of one of the stations, told reporters. The one reporters visited provided pamphlets on a wide range of subjects, including how to legally change your sex.

Kashgar deputy party chief Zark Zurdun, a Uighur from Ghulja in northern Xinjiang, where many ethnic Kazakhs live, told Reuters that “stability is the best human right.”

“The West should learn from us” on how to beat extremism, he said, dismissing concerns Uighur culture was under attack.

“Did Kazakh vanish in the USSR when they all had to learn Russian?” he said. “No. So Uighur won’t vanish here.”

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Gerry Doyle)

‘We are witches’: Clerical abuse scandal divides parishes and politics in Poland

A cross is seen near trees with mistletoe near the church in Kalinowka, Poland November 25, 2018. Picture taken November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

By Marcin Goclowski and Andrew R.C. Marshall

KALINOWKA, Poland (Reuters) – The former Catholic priest of the village of Kalinowka in Poland is serving three years in jail for molesting five schoolgirls. But Marta Zezula, a mother whose testimony helped convict him, says the priest’s victims are the ones made to feel guilty.

“We are witches … because we have pointed at the priest,” Zezula fumed as she shoveled straw into a chaff cutter in her barn in the tiny settlement in eastern Poland.

Many parishioners believe she and other mothers of those molested “simply convicted an innocent man”, she said.

Home to about 170 people, Kalinowka is a short drive from the main road, but feels more remote. The Holy Cross church, built in 1880, sits on a hill overlooking rolling farmland and forests full of deer.

Krystyna Kluzniak, hurrying into the well-kept church on a chilly November evening, said people should give the jailed priest a break. “The priest was cool and we miss him,” she said.

The priest, who cannot be named under Polish law, is now on trial again, charged with molesting another child. His lawyer, Marek Tokarczyk, said he denies the allegations. “We need a fair trial,” Tokarczyk said.

Similar scandals have shaken the Catholic Church and split communities in the United States, Ireland, Australia and elsewhere.

But Poland is one of Europe’s most devout nations, where most people identify as Catholics and the Church is widely revered. Priests were active in the fight against communism and in 1989, led by a Polish pope, John Paul II, the Church helped overthrow Communist rule.

Divisions over allegations of abuse are particularly stark here, said Marek Lisinski, the director of “Have no fear”, a group that advocates for victims of clerical abuse. Parishioners often side with priests and ostracize victims and their families, Lisinski told Reuters.

LANDMARK RULING

In October, “Have no fear” published a map that revealed the scale of the issue. It used black crosses to mark places where 60 priests had been convicted of abuses dating back to 1956.

Afterwards, Lisinski said, people called in to report another 300 cases of suspected abuse by priests which they had not raised with the Church or police for fear they would be doubted or shunned.

The same month, a Polish court of appeal upheld a landmark ruling which granted a million zloty ($260,000) in compensation to a woman abused by a priest as a child.

Jaroslaw Gluchowski, a lawyer in Poznan who represents victims of clerical abuse, said the ruling set an important precedent.

“We’re now at a moment when all victims in Poland are realizing that they’re not alone,” he said.

In a November statement, Poland’s bishops asked victims of clerical abuse for forgiveness and said the Church had begun collecting data to “identify the causes of these deeds and assess their scale”.

Archbishop Wojciech Polak, the primate of Poland, told Reuters the Church will publish its findings within six months.

Polak encouraged victims of clerical abuse to talk to their bishops, who are “obliged to report to the prosecutors’ service all credible cases they get knowledge of”.

He said he was aware the issue had caused rifts in some communities. “It is the Church’s responsibility to act in a way that doesn’t create divisions but heals them,” he said.

Senior bishops from around the world will meet Pope Francis at a conference in the Vatican in February to discuss protection of minors. Conference organizers have said everyone must be held accountable or the Church risked losing credibility worldwide.

The issue could also have political ramifications in Poland, Lisinski and other observers say. The country is due to elect a new parliament by December 2019.

The Catholic Church has long played a major political role in Poland, making its 25,000 priests not only revered but also influential with voters.

In December, a report appeared in Gazeta Wyborcza, a leading Polish daily, containing molestation allegations from a woman, Barbara Borowiecka, against the late priest Henryk Jankowski, an iconic figure in the anti-communist Solidarity movement.

The mayor of Gdansk, the birthplace of Solidarity, asked the Church to investigate the allegations. Archbishop Polak told Reuters the Jankowski allegations “should be investigated for the good of the Church” and said it was up to bishop of Gdansk to address them.

“POLAND’S COLLAPSE”

The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party won power in 2015 with a blend of patriotism and piety that echoed the religious nationalism of the Church. In October, a former PiS minister, Antoni Macierewicz, credited the Polish clergy with helping the party win local elections that month.

Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, an MP for a small opposition party called Now, is seeking an independent inquiry into child abuse by priests because she says the Church cannot be relied upon to investigate itself. She says the idea has received no support from PiS or other big parties.

A PiS spokesperson did not respond to several requests asking whether it supported the idea of an inquiry. Ryszard Czarnecki, a PiS MP for the European Parliament, responded to Reuters by asking why the Church should be singled out.

“I don’t know why we are focusing on one group, as this also concerns different groups – for example, artistic or journalistic ones,” he said.

About 12 million people, or almost a third of Poland’s population, regularly attend Mass, according to a survey by the Institute for Catholic Church Statistics, a Warsaw-based research center. The numbers slightly declined from 2015 to 2016, the survey showed.

Most children attend religious classes, but their numbers are dropping, too. In Lodz, Poland’s third-largest city, they fell from 80 percent in 2015 to fewer than 50 percent now, according to local government data quoted by the daily Dziennik Lodzki.

In November, the Church said such trends could have dire consequences. “Abandoning the Catholic faith and the Christian principles governing our national life and state’s functioning” could lead to Poland’s collapse, it warned in a pastoral letter.

In Kalinowka, Reuters spoke to seven parishioners. Most of them were sticking by the convicted priest. “I have a cousin whose son went to one of his classes and they didn’t see it,” Wieslaw Solowiej, a pensioner, said outside the Kalinowka church.

Jolanta Zych, whose nine-year-old daughter was among those molested, said neighbors spurned the family. “I always greet people but some turn their faces from me,” said Zych.

The other mother Reuters spoke to, Zezula, said her daughter began refusing food after the court case. “She didn’t want to eat because one woman told her the priest was in jail because of her.”

During Mass, Zezula said, people shrank away or refused to shake hands during a ritual greeting known as the sign of peace. She no longer goes to church.

Piotr Lenart, the current priest, referred questions to the Zamosc-Lubaczow Diocese in which the Kalinowka parish lies.

Michal Maciolek, a priest and spokesman for the diocese, said it had offered the victims and their families pastoral and psychological help, but this had been rejected. No financial compensation was offered, because “the diocese can’t take responsibility for the priest’s actions”.

(Additional reporting by Karol Witenburg; editing by Philippa Fletcher)