Executions ‘rampant’ in Philippine drug war, U.N. probe needed: Amnesty

FILE PHOTO: Activists and families of drug war victims display placards during a protest against the war on drugs by President Rodrigo Duterte in Quezon city, Metro Manila in Philippines, August 28, 2018. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

MANILA (Reuters) – Impunity and unlawful killings are going on unabated in the Philippines, three years into a war on drugs, with a pattern of executions under the guise of police sting operations and a state unwilling to investigate, a rights group said on Monday.

London-based Amnesty International urged the United Nations Human Rights Council to approve a resolution calling for an investigation into the Philippines, where there was a “perilous normalization” of illegal executions and police abuses.

A vote on the resolution by the 47-member council is expected later this week.

The exact number of dead in President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs is impossible to independently verify, but many thousands have been killed, about 6,600 of those during operations in which police said suspects were armed and fought back.

Amnesty, in a report titled “They Just Kill”, said the authorities used “deliberate obfuscation and misinformation” to make it impossible to monitor the full extent of killings, which overwhelmingly targeted poor and marginalized communities lacking the means or support to mount legal challenges against police.

Amnesty’s report, compiled in April, focused on Bulacan province, the new epicenter of the crackdown, examining 27 killings there during 20 incidents, 18 of which were official police operations.

In three-quarters of incidents, those killed were on “watch lists” of people in communities with suspected use or involvement in drugs, Amnesty found.

It viewed those lists as unreliable and illegitimate “seeming to guide decisions about whom the police are targeting for arrest, or in some cases, to kill”.

Based on witnesses and other information, it concluded half were extrajudicial killings. It said the other incidents pointed broadly to previous patterns of executions, but it could not obtain sufficient evidence and information to be certain.

The police narrative that undercover officers posing as drug buyers had killed only in self-defense “doesn’t meet the feeblest standards of credibility”, Amnesty concluded.

Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, said Amnesty’s basis for calling for an international investigation was wrong, and there were no such illegal killings.

“They are saying that there have been murders in this country as if all those who were killed in police operations have been intentionally slaughtered or killed,” he said during a regular new briefing.

“As we have repeatedly said, these are the result of legitimate police operations.”

Panelo last week described the call for a U.N. investigation as interference by foreign governments “misled by false news and untruthful narratives”.

(Reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

Rights campaigners seek U.N. probe on China’s Xinjiang camps

FILE PHOTO: Residents at the Kashgar city vocational educational training centre dance for visiting reporters and officials in a classroom during a government organised visit in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, January 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ben Blanchard/File Photo

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Rights activists urged European and Muslim nations on Monday to take the lead in establishing a U.N. investigation into China’s detention and what they call its “forced indoctrination” of up to one million Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang province.

Beijing, which faces growing international concern over its “de-radicalisation” program for Muslims in its far western province, said last month it would welcome U.N. officials if they avoided “interfering in domestic matters”.

Groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International appealed to the United Nations Human Rights Council, which opens its main annual session on Feb. 25, to send an international fact-finding mission to Xinjiang.

FILE PHOTO: 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. REUTERS/Ben Blanchard/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: 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. REUTERS/Ben Blanchard/File Photo

“The abuse in Xinjiang today is so severe that it cries out for international action,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told a briefing at the Geneva Press Club.

“The purpose of this detention is to erase the ethnic and religious identities of Turkic Muslims and ensure their loyalty to only the Chinese government, the Communist Party and the would-be leader for life, (President) Xi Jinping,” he said.

China denies such accusations. In January, Beijing organized a visit to three facilities, which it calls vocational education training centers, for foreign reporters including Reuters. In the centers, Turkic-speaking Uighur students learned in Mandarin about the dangers of Islamist ideas.

“OPEN-AIR PRISON”

Campaigners say one million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities – nearly 10 percent of Xinjiang’s total population – are being held in mass detention, deprived of any legal rights and subjected to mistreatment.

“Today Xinjiang has become an open-air prison – a place where Orwellian high-tech surveillance, political indoctrination, forced cultural assimilation, arbitrary arrests and disappearances have turned ethnic minorities into strangers in their own land,” Kumi Naidoo, secretary-general of Amnesty International, said by video.

“Member states must not be cowed by China’s economic and political clout,” he said.

China says it protects the religion and culture of its ethnic minorities and that security measures in Xinjiang are needed to counter groups that incite violence there.

China is currently a member of the 47-nation Geneva forum, where it often leads opposition to setting up investigations into allegations of rights abuses in specific countries.

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which acts as the collective voice of the Muslim world, worked with the European Union last September to launch a U.N. body to prepare evidence of crimes in Myanmar against Muslim Rohingya, including possible genocide, for any future prosecution.

“In our view Xinjiang demands a similar response,” Roth said.

Michael Ineichen of the International Service for Human Rights said: “It is really a test of the credibility of the Human Rights Council… We think it is time that membership also comes with scrutiny.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Zimbabwe pastor’s bail bid deferred; Amnesty says children being held

By MacDonald Dzirutwe

HARARE (Reuters) – Zimbabwe’s High Court deferred until next week a decision on whether to free an activist pastor detained over violent anti-government protests.

Evan Mawarire, who led a national shutdown in 2016 against Robert Mugabe, is accused of stoking the unrest which was countered by a violent crackdown reminiscent of the actions of security forces under the former president.

Prosecutors argued against the bail application, saying Mawarire posed a flight risk and could re-offend if released.

Judge Tawanda Chitapi said he would rule on Tuesday but hinted he could ban Mawarire from posting videos similar to the one that the state says encouraged unrest until the trial is over.

Protests erupted in mid-January following a hike in fuel prices and lasted for several days.

Security forces dispersed demonstrations by force and cracked down on activists, leading to fears that President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government is reverting to the strong-arm politics seen during Mugabe’s 37-year rule.

Amnesty International said children as young as 11 had been detained along with hundreds others.

“The authorities must immediately stop this merciless crackdown on activists, civil society leaders and others who are guilty of nothing more than exercising their right to freedom of expression,” Amnesty’s Deprose Muchena said in a statement.

“The authorities must ensure that those who violated and continue to violate human rights face justice.”

Zimbabwe’s independent Human Rights Commission has accused security forces of systematic torture. The opposition says soldiers are apparently able to shoot and kill without being held accountable. An official inquiry said the army shot civilians to quell post-election violence last August.

Mnangagwa, who replaced Mugabe after a de facto coup in November 2017, promised this week to investigate security services’ actions against protesters.

Courts in the capital Harare and other towns heard cases of more than 100 people accused of public order offenses linked to the demonstrations, lawyers said.

Mawarire, who denies the charges remains in detention at Chikurubi Maximum Prison in Harare and was not present at Friday’s hearing.

Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions Peter Mutasa, who called for a peaceful stay-at-home strike in a video post with Mawarire, presented himself to police in Harare in the company of his lawyer. The union’s secretary general is already detained on subversion charges.

(Editing by James Macharia and Robin Pomeroy)

Shells hit Syria’s Idlib as rebels brace for assault

FILE PHOTO:A general view taken with a drone shows the Clock Tower of the rebel-held Idlib city, Syria June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah/File Photo

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian military shelled the last stronghold of active rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday as a war monitor said insurgents blew up another bridge in anticipation of a government offensive.

Damascus, backed by allies Russia and Iran, has been preparing an assault to recover Idlib and adjacent areas of the northwest and resumed air strikes along with Russia on Tuesday after weeks of lull.

Idlib’s fate now appears likely to rest on the results of Friday’s Tehran summit between the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran – a meeting that Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov on Wednesday said would make the situation “clearer”.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said Tuesday’s air strikes had only targeted militants and not struck populated areas. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said they had killed 13 civilians, including children, but no fighters.

The ministry said it had targeted buildings used to store weapons and explosives including a facility used to assemble explosive-packed drones that rebels have used to attack Russian planes stationed at Hmeymim air base.

Syrian state media and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that pro-government forces focused their shelling overnight and on Wednesday on the western and southern edges of the rebel enclave.

The countryside around Jisr al-Shughour in the west of the enclave was also the main target for Tuesday’s air strikes, rescue workers, a rebel source and the British-based Observatory said.

Turkey, which has a small military presence in observation posts it has erected along the frontlines between rebels and government forces, reiterated its warnings against an offensive.

Its president, Tayyip Erdogan, was quoted by a Turkish newspaper saying an attack on Idlib would be “a serious massacre” and he hoped for a positive outcome from a summit with Russian and Iranian leaders on the matter on Friday.

ALARM

The prospect of an offensive in Idlib has alarmed humanitarian agencies. The United Nations has said displaced people already make up about half of the 3 million people living in rebel-held areas of the northwest.

The human rights group Amnesty International said in a statement on Wednesday that the lives of “millions of people in Idlib are now in the hands of Russia, Turkey and Iran”, and urged all parties not to attack civilians.

Idlib’s rebel factions are divided, with a jihadist alliance that includes al Qaeda’s former official Syrian affiliate holding most ground. The alliance, Tahrir al-Sham, is designated a terrorist organization by the United Nations.

Russia has described Idlib as a “nest of terrorists” and a “festering abscess” that must be resolved. The United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura on Tuesday urged Russia and Turkey to find a solution and avert a bloodbath.

Several other factions in Idlib, including some that fought under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, this year joined together into a new alliance backed by Turkey.

This grouping, known as the National Liberation Front, also holds several important areas in and around Idlib. On Wednesday, one of the factions in it, the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham group, destroyed a bridge on the western side of the enclave, the Observatory said.

Two other bridges were destroyed last week in anticipation of a government offensive, which a source close to Damascus has said is ready, and will be carried out in phases.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; additional reporting by Tom Balmforth, Andrew Osborn and Christian Lowe in Moscow and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Alison Williams)

Moaning about mosque loudspeaker not blasphemy, says Indonesian Muslim group

Meiliana, a 44-year-old ethnic Chinese Buddhist, sits in a courtroom for blasphemy charges, in Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia August 21, 2018, in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Picture taken August 21, 2018. Antara Foto/Irsan Mulyadi/via REUTERS

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia’s biggest Islamic organization called for greater tolerance on Friday as it criticized a court that jailed a mother of four for blasphemy after complaining that a mosque in her neighborhood was too loud.

The 44-year old ethnic Chinese Buddhist woman, named Meiliana, was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison by a court in Medan on Sumatra island earlier this week.

Senior members of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a moderate Islamic organization that boasts over 40 million members across the country, added their voice to a chorus of criticism denouncing the verdict.

“Saying the volume of the call to prayer is too loud, in my opinion, is not blasphemy,” said Robikin Emhas, head of the NU’s legal division.

“As Muslims, such opinions should be received as constructive criticism in a pluralistic society,” he added.

Amnesty International has described it as “ludicrous”, and an online petition calling for the woman’s release had received nearly 100,000 signatures by Friday.

Indonesia has the world’s largest population of Muslims, and sizable Buddhist, Christian and other religious minorities, but the propagation of conservative and hardline interpretations of Islam in recent years has fanned fears that the secular nation is becoming less tolerant.

Last year, Jakarta’s ex-governor, an ethnic Chinese Christian, was tried and jailed for blasphemy after several Muslim groups accused him of insulting Islam when he said his political rivals were using the Koran to deceive voters.

When asked if President Joko Widodo would intervene on Meiliana’s behalf, his spokesman Johan Budi said the president does not get involved in judicial matters.

Meiliana’s lawyers will appeal against the jail sentence.

They maintain that she had made remarks in a private conversation in 2016 on the volume of mosque loudspeakers. Those remarks were twisted to appear like she was objecting to the call to prayer itself and repeated in the community and on social media, her legal team said in a Facebook post.

There are hundreds of thousands of mosques across the vast Indonesian archipelago and most use loudspeakers to play the ‘azan’ or call to prayer, which lasts a few minutes.

But many also play lengthy versions of prayers or sermons lasting over 30 minutes, which the Indonesian Mosque Council has deemed unnecessary.

(Corrects, replacing “to” with “will” in 10th paragraph)

(Reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa and Kanupriya Kapoor; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Lawfare? Syrian development plan alarms refugees and host nations

A Syrian army soldier walks past the rubble of damaged buildings in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A new law allowing the Syrian government to redevelop areas devastated by war has alarmed refugees and the countries that host them, prompting fears that people will lose their property and be less likely to return home.

Seven years into the war that has killed half a million people, the law signals the government’s intention to rebuild areas of Syria where the rebellion has been defeated, even though large parts of the country remain outside its control.

“Law 10” came into effect last month as the army was on the brink of crushing the last insurgent enclaves near Damascus, consolidating President Bashar al-Assad’s grip over nearly all of western Syria.

The law allows people to prove they own property in the areas chosen for redevelopment, and to claim compensation. But aid groups say the chaos of war means few will be able to do so in the time specified. The law has yet to be applied.

People forced to flee their homes – more than half the prewar population – will find it hard to make such claims, aid groups say.

Many refugees now face a major problem: whether to return home, even if they think it may be unsafe, and claim their property rights in person, or risk losing them, along with a big incentive to go back to Syria in future.

“If it is applied to areas once held by the opposition from which the residents have been displaced, or where land registries have been destroyed, it will in effect prevent the return of refugees,” said a briefing note circulated to EU states at a recent high-level meeting.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, whose country hosts more than a million Syrian refugees, said this week that the law “tells thousands of Syrian families to stay in Lebanon” by threatening them with property confiscation.

Assad says the law has been misinterpreted in order to inflame Western public opinion against his government. He told the Greek newspaper Kathimerini that the law “is not about dispossessing anyone”.

“You cannot, I mean even if he’s a terrorist, let’s say, if you want to dispossess someone, you need a verdict by the judicial system,” he said.

Assad’s opponents already accuse him of engineering “demographic change” by driving rebels and their families out of Syria’s cities, and say the law confiscates property and homes of the displaced.

Amnesty International has said it effectively deprives thousands of people of their homes and land.

WHY DID SYRIA PASS LAW 10?

Managing the reconstruction of ruined cities, vital for Syria’s economy, will grow more important for Assad if he is to turn battlefield victories into a full restoration of his rule.

Experts on post-war reconstruction have likened it to laws passed in other war zones, notably in Beirut after the 1975-90 civil war.

Assad is banking on allied countries, chiefly Russia and Iran, to help with reconstruction as Western states say they will not contribute until a political transition is in place.

Western Syria’s main cities – Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and Homs – are now entirely in his hands, but apart from Hama they each have entire districts in ruins.

However, rights groups, including Amnesty International, accuse Assad of conceiving Law 10 to push his opponents from their homes, since Syria’s most damaged areas were major centers of the uprising.

“If enacted, this law could be used to implement a breathtakingly efficient feat of social engineering. Thousands of Syrians – mostly those in pro-opposition areas or who have sought refuge abroad – risk losing their homes because their documents are lost or destroyed,” said Diana Semaan, Amnesty International’s Syria researcher.

Syrian army soldiers walk past a damaged military vehicle in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Syrian army soldiers walk past a damaged military vehicle in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

WHY WILL IT PARTICULARLY AFFECT REFUGEES?

Many refugees owned property in Syria but they will find it more difficult to stake their claims than people who stayed.

The Norwegian Refugee Council has said 67 percent of refugees it had interviewed said they owned property in Syria, but only 17 percent of them still had ownership documents.

Another big worry is the law’s time frame.

Once a local authority announces a redevelopment plan – and none have yet done so – people will have 30 days to submit ownership claims, making them eligible for compensation.

Government supporters say protections for property owners are generous: family members or people given power of attorney can make claims and appeal decisions on behalf of absent owners.

But after years of a war in which government buildings have been destroyed along with their files, and in which people have lost identity cards or land deeds as they fled, it could take months to prove who somebody is – let alone what they own.

For refugees abroad, getting power of attorney under Syrian law for a friend or relation back in Syria, even if they both have all the right documents, takes a minimum of three months. It also requires security clearance – potentially a problem for people who fled districts that were opposition centers.

Syrian army soldiers ride on a motorbike at a damaged site in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Syrian army soldiers ride on a motorbike at a damaged site in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

WHAT ARE THE OTHER CONCERNS WITH THE LAW?

Compensation is offered in the form of shares in the redevelopment company, but aid agencies suggest few original occupants will be able to afford the additional cost of new housing within such projects and might come under pressure to sell their property at low prices.

Since many of the most damaged areas were opposition strongholds, many people who left Syria – and relatives who stayed on – might be afraid to appear before government officials to prove ownership.

The law also targets settlements built without formal approval or legal deeds. Owners of such dwellings can be allocated shares on the basis of the assessed value of their building but will not be able to secure compensation for land without proof of ownership, said an expert on the law.

Many property owners have been killed in the war, sometimes without their relatives obtaining death certificates, setting up likely inheritance disputes that would complicate property claims.

Ownership paper trails were also confused after the fighting began in 2011, as families fled one front line after another, taking only what they could carry and selling their property to neighbors. Some properties were bought and sold many times, without proper documentation.

Property owners cannot challenge the designation of an area for redevelopment, and challenges over the value of their property will be settled by the appeal court.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Additional reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Palestinian killed in anti-U.S. protests after U.N. vote on Jerusalem

A Palestinian demonstrator uses a slingshot to hurl stones towards Israeli troops during clashes at a protest as Palestinians call for a "Day of Rage" in response to U.S. President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, in the West Bank city of Hebron December 22, 2017.

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Palestinians launched more anti-U.S. protests on Friday, and at least one demonstrator was killed in the Gaza Strip, a health official said, after the U.N. General Assembly rejected Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Smoke billowed from burning tires at a demonstration in Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank, two days before Christmas celebrations in the biblical town.

Israeli gunfire killed a 24-year-old Palestinian and wounded 10 other protesters during a stone-throwing demonstration in the southern Gaza Strip, a spokesman for the Palestinian Health Ministry there said. The Israeli military said it was checking the report.

One of the wounded, part of a crowd that approached the border fence chanting that U.S. President Donald Trump was a “fool” and a “coward”, was dressed as Santa Claus, witnesses said.

Protests erupted in all of the West Bank’s seven cities and in East Jerusalem. Health officials said at least five Palestinians were wounded by rubber bullets fired by Israeli security forces, who also used tear gas.

Defying the United States on Thursday, the U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution calling for the United States to drop its Dec. 6 recognition of Jerusalem, a city revered by Jews, Muslims and Christians, as Israel’s capital.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in a Christmas message, condemned Trump’s reversal of a decades-old U.S. policy on Jerusalem “an insult to millions of people worldwide, and also to the city of Bethlehem”.

“HOUSE OF LIES”

Israel considers Jerusalem its eternal and indivisible capital. Palestinians want the capital of an independent Palestinian state to be in the city’s eastern sector, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War and annexed in a move never recognized internationally.

Most countries regard the status of Jerusalem as a matter to be settled in an eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, although that process is now stalled.

Nine countries voted against the U.N. resolution and 35 abstained. Twenty-one countries did not cast a vote.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists, called the U.N. vote a defeat for Trump, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected it as “preposterous” and branded the U.N. a “house of lies”.

But Michael Oren, Israel’s deputy minister for diplomacy, seemed to play down the support for the resolution shown by many countries Israel considers friends.

“We have an interest in tightening our bilateral relations with a long list of countries in the world, and expect and hope that one day, they will vote with us, or for us in the United Nations,” Oren said on Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM.

“But I am not prepared to suspend all cooperation with important countries, such as India,” he said. Netanyahu, who hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in July, is due to visit New Delhi next month.

Palestinians have protested daily since Trump’s Jerusalem announcement, throwing stones at Israeli security forces. Gaza militants have also launched sporadic rocket fire.

Friday’s death in Gaza raised to nine the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli gunfire during the demonstrations, Palestinian health officials said, and dozens have been wounded. Two militants were killed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza after a rocket attack. There have been no Israeli fatalities or significant injuries.

“EXCESSIVE FORCE”

Amnesty International on Friday called on Israeli authorities to stop using “excessive force”.

“The fact that live ammunition has been used during protests in Gaza and the West Bank is particularly shocking,” it said.

In the run-up to the U.N. vote, Trump threatened to cut off financial aid to countries that supported the resolution. His warning appeared to have some impact, with more countries abstaining and rejecting the document than usually associated with Palestinian-related resolutions.

But most of the European Union, Israel’s biggest trading partner, and countries such as Greece, Cyprus and India, with which Netanyahu has pursued closer relations and economic ties, backed the resolution.

“I prefer we have tight bilateral relations over a situation in which we don’t have close bilateral relations, and they vote in our favor in the United Nations,” Oren said, describing India’s vote as “certainly disappointing”.

Asked if Israel wanted the United States to cut aid to countries that endorsed the resolution, Oren said: “I prefer … that if there’s room for revenge, it be directed towards the United Nations and not the U.N.’s members.”

He said he supported cutting U.S. contributions to the U.N. and perhaps relocating its New York headquarters, noting it occupies “some of the most valuable real estate in New York”.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Michelle Nichols at the U.N.; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Andrew Roche)

After four months jail, Turkey’s Amnesty director says trial is ‘surreal’

Idil Eser, the director of Amnesty in Turkey, poses during an interview with Reuters in Istanbul, Turkey, October 31, 2017.

By Ece Toksabay

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Amnesty International’s Turkey director, freed from four months detention but still facing trial on terrorism charges, said the case against her and other human rights activists was “absurd and surreal”.

Idil Eser was one of eight activists freed last week on bail, in a case which has become a flash-point in Turkey’s tense relations with Europe. Their trial has brought condemnation from rights groups and some Western governments concerned by what they see as creeping authoritarianism in the NATO member state.

The activists were detained by police in July as they attended a workshop on digital security and information management on an island near Istanbul.

The charge against them, of aiding a terrorist organization, is similar to those leveled against tens of thousands of Turks detained since a failed military coup by rogue soldiers in July 2016, in which at least 240 people were killed.

“I cannot even find words to describe the absurdity, the surreality of the situation. It’s total nonsense,” Eser said when asked about the charges. She was speaking to Reuters in her first interview since being released.

Turkey rejects foreign criticism of the trials and says its judiciary operates independently of the government.

“Turkey is a state of law and our judges are independent and impartial,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag told reporters earlier this week when asked about the case.

At the time of the activists’ detention, President Tayyip Erdogan said the eight had gathered on the island for a meeting “that might be considered as a follow-up” to last year’s failed coup, which he has cast as part of a foreign-backed plot.

Erdogan was quoted by several Turkish newspapers on Thursday as telling reporters on his plane that the judiciary was acting independently in the case. “We cannot know how the court will rule in the end,” the Hurriyet newspaper quoted him as saying.

 

JAIL SENTENCES

The indictment also brought charges against Swedish national Ali Gharavi and Peter Steudtner, a German, prompting an angry response from Berlin, which threatened to put curbs on economic investment in Turkey and said it was reviewing arms projects.

The day after their release last week, Steudtner and Gharavi left Turkey, but the trial continues on Nov. 22. Prosecutors have sought jail sentences of up to 15 years for all of the defendants.

Steudtner and Gharavi told the court during the trial that they were shocked by the allegations against them. They could not immediately be reached for further comment.

Authorities have jailed more than 50,000 people pending trial in a crackdown following the abortive coup. Erdogan says the purges across society are necessary to maintain stability in Turkey, a NATO member state bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria.

European allies fear he is using the investigations to check opposition and undermine the judiciary.

Eser said her time in jail had marked a turning point in her life. Less than a week after her release, the 54-year-old made an appointment at a tattoo parlor in central Istanbul.

“With other defendants, we had decided to go to a Turkish bath when we got out, and the other decision was to get a tattoo,” she said. “So I started right away.”

 

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun; Editing by Dominic Evans and Nick Tattersall)

 

End ‘containment’ of asylum-seekers on islands, aid groups tell Greek PM

: Refugees and migrants line up for food distribution at the Moria migrant camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece October 6, 2016.

ATHENS (Reuters) – Over a dozen human rights groups and aid organizations wrote to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Monday urging him to end the “containment” of asylum seekers in island camps.

More than 13,000 people, mostly Syrians and Iraqis fleeing years of war, are living in five camps on Greek islands close to Turkey, government figures show. Four of those camps are holding two to three times as many people as they were designed for.

Those who arrive on Greek islands following a European deal with Turkey last year to stem the flow are forbidden from traveling to mainland until their asylum applications are processed, and those who do not qualify are deported.

Applications have piled up and rulings can take weeks. A recent sharp rise in arrivals has piled additional misery on overcrowded facilities.

The 19 signatories, which include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Rescue Committee and Oxfam, said the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Kos, Chios and Leros had been “transformed into places of indefinite confinement.”

“We urge you to put an end to the ongoing ‘containment policy’ of trapping asylum seekers on the islands … and to immediately transfer asylum seekers to the mainland and meet their protection needs,” they wrote.

They described conditions as “abysmal” and said many asylum-seekers lacked access to adequate and timely procedures and protection. Some have been on the islands for 19 months.

“Reception conditions are deteriorating, and gaps in basic services, especially medical, are increasing,” they wrote.

Thousands of people, including young children, are crammed into tents with only a cloth separating one family from another, the groups said, and conditions were particularly harsh for pregnant women.

Nearly 23,000 people have arrived in Greece this year, a fraction compared to the nearly 1 million who arrived in 2015, but state-run camps are struggling to cope with the numbers.

As an emergency measure, the government has said it plans to move about 2,000 people from Samos and Lesbos to the mainland.

In recent weeks, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) its research showed a mental health emergency was unfolding in migrant camps on the islands, fueled by poor living conditions, neglect and violence.

The United Nations refugee agency called on Greece to speed up preparations at those camps, saying they were ill-prepared for winter.

 

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Toby Chopra)

 

Trump slaps travel restrictions on North Korea, Venezuela in sweeping new ban

International passengers wait for their rides outside the international arrivals exit at Washington Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, U.S. September 24, 2017.

By Jeff Mason and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Sunday slapped new travel restrictions on citizens from North Korea, Venezuela and Chad, expanding to eight the list of countries covered by his original travel bans that have been derided by critics and challenged in court.

Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Somalia were left on the list of affected countries in a new proclamation issued by the president. Restrictions on citizens from Sudan were lifted.

The measures help fulfill a campaign promise Trump made to tighten U.S. immigration procedures and align with his “America First” foreign policy vision. Unlike the president’s original bans, which had time limits, this one is open-ended.

“Making America Safe is my number one priority. We will not admit those into our country we cannot safely vet,” the president said in a tweet shortly after the proclamation was released.

Iraqi citizens will not be subject to travel prohibitions but will face enhanced scrutiny or vetting.

The current ban, enacted in March, was set to expire on Sunday evening. The new restrictions are slated to take effect on Oct. 18 and resulted from a review after Trump’s original travel bans sparked international outrage and legal challenges.

The addition of North Korea and Venezuela broadens the restrictions from the original, mostly Muslim-majority list.

An administration official, briefing reporters on a conference call, acknowledged that the number of North Koreans now traveling to the United States was very low.

Rights group Amnesty International USA condemned the measures.

“Just because the original ban was especially outrageous does not mean we should stand for yet another version of government-sanctioned discrimination,” it said in a statement.

“It is senseless and cruel to ban whole nationalities of people who are often fleeing the very same violence that the U.S. government wishes to keep out. This must not be normalized.”

The American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement the addition of North Korea and Venezuela “doesn’t obfuscate the real fact that the administration’s order is still a Muslim ban.”

The White House portrayed the restrictions as consequences for countries that did not meet new requirements for vetting of immigrants and issuing of visas. Those requirements were shared in July with foreign governments, which had 50 days to make improvements if needed, the White House said.

A number of countries made improvements by enhancing the security of travel documents or the reporting of passports that were lost or stolen. Others did not, sparking the restrictions.

The announcement came as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear oral arguments on Oct. 10 over the legality of Trump’s previous travel ban, including whether it discriminated against Muslims.

 

NORTH KOREA, VENEZUELA ADDED

Trump has threatened to “destroy” North Korea if it attacks the United States or its allies. Pyongyang earlier this month conducted its most powerful nuclear bomb test. The president has also directed harsh criticism at Venezuela, once hinting at

a potential military option to deal with Caracas.

But the officials described the addition of the two countries to Trump’s travel restrictions as the result of a purely objective review.

In the case of North Korea, where the suspension was sweeping and applied to both immigrants and non-immigrants, officials said it was hard for the United States to validate the identity of someone coming from North Korea or to find out if that person was a threat.

“North Korea, quite bluntly, does not cooperate whatsoever,” one official said.

The restrictions on Venezuela focused on Socialist government officials that the Trump administration blamed for the country’s slide into economic disarray, including officials from the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service and their immediate families.

Trump received a set of policy recommendations on Friday from acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke and was briefed on the matter by other administration officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a White House aide said.

The rollout on Sunday was decidedly more organized than Trump’s first stab at a travel ban, which was unveiled with little warning and sparked protests at airports worldwide.

Earlier on Sunday, Trump told reporters about the ban: “The tougher, the better.”

Rather than a total ban on entry to the United States, the proposed restrictions differ by nation, based on cooperation with American security mandates, the threat the United States believes each country presents and other variables, officials said.

Somalis, for example, are barred from entering the United States as immigrants and subjected to greater screening for visits.

After the Sept. 15 bombing attack on a London train, Trump wrote on Twitter that the new ban “should be far larger, tougher and more specific – but stupidly, that would not be politically correct.”

The expiring ban blocked entry into the United States by people from the six countries for 90 days and locked out most aspiring refugees for 120 days to give Trump’s administration time to conduct a worldwide review of U.S. vetting procedures for foreign visitors.

Critics have accused the Republican president of discriminating against Muslims in violation of constitutional guarantees of religious liberty and equal protection under the law, breaking existing U.S. immigration law and stoking religious hatred.

Some federal courts blocked the ban, but the U.S. Supreme Court allowed it to take effect in June with some restrictions.

 

(Additional reporting by James Oliphant, Yeganeh Torbati, and Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Peter Cooney)