Catalan protesters flood Barcelona on fifth day of rallies

Catalan protesters flood Barcelona on fifth day of rallies
By Jon Nazca, Jordi Rubio and Isla Binnie

BARCELONA (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of demonstrators waving pro-independence flags and chanting “freedom for political prisoners” poured into Barcelona on Friday, the fifth day of protests over the jailing of Catalan separatist leaders.

Roads leading into the city were packed as marchers from across the region joined a mass rally against this week’s verdict by Spain’s Supreme Court, which sentenced nine separatists to jail over a failed, 2017 secessionist bid.

The ruling set off the worst sustained street violence Spain has seen in decades, with anger running high in Catalonia. Unions in the wealthy region called for a general strike on Friday and students boycotted classes for a third day running.

The interior ministry has dispatched police reinforcements to the Mediterranean city, which is a major tourist magnet, and warned that troublemakers would be swiftly dealt with.

“Throughout this week, as you well know, there have been violent incidents in Catalonia. They have been organised … by groups who are a minority but are very organised,” Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska told a news conference. “Their actions, as we have already said, will also not go unpunished.”

Some masked youths hurled stones at police late in the afternoon on one city street, but the vast majority of Friday’s rallies were peaceful, with Barcelona’s broad boulevards packed with people draped in the Catalan independence flag.

“We have always been peaceful people, but you get to a point where you get treated in such a way that people are getting angry,” said Carlota Llacuna, a 19-year old student from the Maresca region near Barcelona. “They put our leaders in prison.”

One of the main ringleaders, Catalonia’s former chief Carles Puigdemont, has so far escaped trial after he fled to Belgium in 2017 when the independence drive was thwarted.

Spain this week renewed its bid to get him extradited and he was briefly detained by Belgian police on Friday before a judge ordered his release pending a decision on the Spanish arrest warrant. A court is meant to hear the case on Oct. 29.

EL CLASICO POSTPONED

Several main streets in Barcelona were closed to traffic because of Friday’s marches, while regional trains and the city’s metro were running on a reduced timetable.

Barcelona’s main landmark, the multi-spired Sagrada Familia cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudi, was closed due to the protests, an official told Reuters.

The Spanish soccer federation (RFEF) said in a statement on that Barcelona’s Oct. 26 home match against Real Madrid, which is known as “el clasico” and is one of the biggest rivalries in world sport, had been postponed due to security concerns.

Barcelona’s El Prat airport cancelled 57 flights on Friday, airport operator Aena said.

Barcelona town hall said 700 garbage containers had been set ablaze since protests began on Monday and estimated that the city had suffered damage totalling more than 1.5 million euros ($1.67 million).

In an apparent effort to hamper the protesters, a Spanish judge ordered on Friday the closure of web pages linked to a pro-independence group, Democratic Tsunami, which has been deftly directing its followers to various demonstrations.

However, as soon as its site was shuttered, the group migrated its homepage to a new url, sidestepping the ruling.

Democratic Tsunami is a new, secretive group that emerged in September and has drawn thousands of followers on both its website and social media.

Although it says it is committed to non-violent protests, many young demonstrators have battled police over the past three nights in Barcelona in scenes reminiscent of the some of the urban unrest that has rocked France over the past year.

Regional police said 16 people were arrested across Catalonia on Thursday, while health officials said 42 people needed medical attention.

(Reporting by Jose Elías Rodríguez, Clara-Laeila Laudette, Ashifa Kassam, Emma Pinedo and Paola Luelmo in Madrid, Andrea Ariet Gallego; Marine Strauss in Brussels; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Crispian Balmer; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Toby Chopra)

Americans divided: Neighbors turn enemies over Trump in swing-vote Michigan suburbs

By Tim Reid

LIVONIA, Mich. (Reuters) – At first glance, Cavell Street in Livonia, Michigan, looks tranquil enough – until the subject of the Democratic-led impeachment probe of President Donald Trump comes up.

A kind of suburban trench warfare is simmering amid the small detached houses and neatly trimmed lawns where diehard Trump lovers live next to Trump haters, and both sides are dug in.

Tensions run so high that nobody on the street displays a political yard sign, says Josh Robinson, 35, a steelworker who voted for Trump in 2016.

“I’m sick and tired of the Democrats bitching and moaning,” Robinson says, noting that the impeachment probe of Trump makes him want to fight harder for the president.

A few doors up, sitting on her front step, Kristine Flaton says she cannot stand Trump. “I wish he’d been impeached a long time ago,” said the 39-year-old, who is currently unemployed.

Michigan is a crucial presidential battleground. Trump carried the state by less than 11,000 votes in 2016, an unexpected victory, which along with wins in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, propelled his ascent to the White House.

The precinct that includes Cavell Street in the city of Livonia, a suburb northwest of Detroit, split its votes 358-358 for Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, according to the non-partisan data organization OpenElections.

Fast-forward three years, there is little sign that either side has changed its mind about Trump.

If anything, attitudes appear to have been hardened by the House of Representatives’ decision to launch a formal impeachment inquiry three weeks ago after a whistleblower complaint that Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate 2020 Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden.

In interviews with nearly 50 voters in Livonia and in two other swing suburbs in Michigan, where the vote was also evenly split between Trump and Clinton in 2016, Reuters found only one person who had flipped: Charles Pettyplace, 34, from Livonia, who voted for the Republican but now regrets it.

The impeachment investigation “just adds to the turmoil around him. It’s not what his office should be,” Pettyplace said.

Recent national polls indicate rising support in favor of the impeachment investigation, with the latest Oct. 7-8 Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll showing that 45% of Americans wanted to impeach Trump, versus 39% who opposed it.

But the clean split over the issue in the Michigan suburbs suggests another close battle in the state in the November 2020 election.

Which side is more energized and turns out in greater force next year will decide the election, said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California San Diego who has studied the partisan divides in U.S. politics.

“This election will come down to turnout. In 2020, both parties are in a huge battle to mobilize the base and I think we’ll see the highest turnout in 100 years. The impeachment will feed into that and further that,” Jacobson said.

SPLIT AND ANGRY

About 100 miles (160 km) north of Livonia, in Saginaw Township, Michigan, two precincts were split 876-876 and 765-764 between Trump and Clinton in 2016.

Three years later, voters seemed just as split, and angry.

Trump supporter Ray Kirby, 48, a chef taking a stroll along quiet residential Ann Street, says he was shocked to receive a totally split response when he recently sent a Facebook post supportive of the president.

“I’ve never seen that before. People either love him or hate him.”

Rob Grose, the manager of Saginaw Township, says many people in his town “have agreed to stop talking politics because of their opposing views, because they get into arguments.”

Hank Choate, a district chair of Michigan’s Republican Party and a member of its issues committee, expects the impeachment issue to cause huge voter turnout on both sides.

On one level, it helps his party to turn out more Republican votes, because Trump’s supporters are so energized. Yet he also worries that the same goes for the Democrats.

But the longer the inquiry goes on, the more alienated independent voters will become, predicts Choate, 69.

Politically independent Americans are nearly evenly split over what Congress should do about Trump, even as a majority of them disapprove of the president in general, according to the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll.

But Geoff Garin, a veteran Democratic pollster, said even the voters who do not necessarily support impeachment agree that Trump is a figure of chaos. He also believes that Trump’s support among Republicans is not as intense as Democratic voters’ support appears to be for his eventual opponent.

“There are a lot of people ambivalent about impeachment but nonetheless are disapproving of his conduct, which I expect is what will really matter electorally,” Garin said.

Sipping coffee at a cafe in Saginaw Township, Carlee Giordano, 23, says she is afraid of discussing her political views in such a charged environment.

“People are either diehard blue or diehard red and it’s starting to bleed into everything else,” said Giordano, who wrote her college thesis on “Toxic Masculinity” and wants to see Trump impeached. “Your political views are becoming a personality trait.”

(Reporting by Tim Reid; Additional reporting by Chris Khan in New York; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Peter Cooney)

France braces for trouble, Macron to address ‘yellow vest’ anger

A trash bin burns as youths and high school students attend a demonstration to protest against the French government's reform plan, in Paris, France, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

By Richard Lough and Sudip Kar-Gupta

PARIS (Reuters) – France hunkered down for another wave of potentially violent protests on Saturday as embattled President Emmanuel Macron planned to address the nation next week over public fury at the high cost of living, senior allies said.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said the three-week-old “yellow vest” revolt had “created a monster” and vowed police would have no tolerance for violence, with much of Paris in lockdown and tens of thousands of police deployed nationwide.

Named after the fluorescent safety vests that all French motorists must carry, the protesters are billing their planned action on Saturday as “Act IV” of worst unrest seen in the capital since the 1968 student riots.

Castaner warned that radicals would likely again infiltrate the protest movement – a backlash against high living costs but also, increasingly, a revolt against Macron himself, including his perceived loftiness and reforms favoring a moneyed elite.

“These last three weeks have created a monster,” Castaner told reporters. “Our security forces will respond with firmness and I will have no tolerance for anyone who capitalizes on the distress of our citizens.”

Some 89,000 policemen will be on duty nationwide to forestall a repeat of last Saturday’s destructive mayhem in exclusive central districts of Paris. Police in Paris will be backed up by armored vehicles equipped to clear barricades.

Senior allies of Macron said the president would address the nation early next week. Navigating his biggest crisis since being elected 18 months ago, Macron has left it largely to his prime minister, Edouard Philippe, to deal in public with the turmoil and offer concessions.

But the 40-year-old is under mounting pressure to speak more fully as his administration tries to regain the initiative following three weeks of unrest in the G7 nation.

“The President will speak early next week. I think this is what the French people want, they want answers,” Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne told Sud Radio on Friday.

Macron has not spoken in public since he condemned last Saturday’s disturbances while at the G20 summit in Argentina and opposition leaders accused him of turning the Elysee Palace into a bunker where had taken cover.

“Is Macron still in Argentina? He must surely have an opinion,” hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said on Twitter on Tuesday.

“The president himself must speak,” main opposition conservative Republicans leader Laurent Wauquiez told Europe 1 radio on Thursday.

Yellow vests are hung outside windows of an apartment building in support of the "yellow vests" movement in Marseille, France, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

Yellow vests are hung outside windows of an apartment building in support of the “yellow vests” movement in Marseille, France, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

“FORGOTTEN FRANCE”

After the Dec. 1 riots in central Paris and sometimes violent demonstrations in dozens of other cities and towns across France, the government offered a rush of sweeteners to soothe public anger.

It started by scrapping next year’s planned hikes to fuel taxes, the first major U-turn of Macron’s presidency and costing the Treasury 4 billion euros ($4.5 billion).

But protesters want Macron to go further to help hard-pressed households, including an increase to the minimum wage, lower taxes, higher salaries, cheaper energy, better retirement provisions, and even Macron’s resignation.

But, mindful of France’s deficit and not wanting to flout EU rules, Macron will have scant wriggle room for more concessions.

The “gilets Jaunes” (yellow vest) movement remains amorphous and hard to define, with a rapidly shifting agenda and internal divisions.

One faction, which dubs itself the “Free Yellow Vests”, called on protesters not to travel to Paris on Saturday but criticized Macron for refusing to hold direct talks.

“We appeal for calm, for respect of public property and the security forces,” Benjamin Cauchy declared in front of the National Assembly. His group are seen as moderates within the broader movement.

“The forgotten France is the France of the regions and it is in the regions that France will show peacefully their anger,” Cauchy said.

Youths and high school students attend a demonstration to protest against the French government's reform plan, in Paris, France, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Youths and high school students attend a demonstration to protest against the French government’s reform plan, in Paris, France, December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

“SMASHING THINGS UP”

The Eiffel Tower, opera house, and Louvre are among dozens of museums and tourist sites in Paris that will close on Saturday to pre-empt feared attacks by yellow vest militants.

Luxury boutiques and restaurants in fancy neighborhoods and near the presidential palace erected barricades and boarded up windows. Department stores Galerie Lafayette and Printemps said they would not open in the capital on Saturday.

The trouble is jeopardizing a timid economic recovery in France just as the Christmas holiday season kicks off. Retailers have lost about 1 billion euros in revenue since the protests erupted, the retail federation said.

On the French stock market, retailers, airlines and hoteliers suffered their worst week in months.

Patrick Delmas, 49, will shut his “Le Monte Carlo” bar next to the Champs Elysees on Saturday, blaming hoodlums from anarchist and anti-capitalist groups, as well as the yellow vest movement’s violent fringe.

“We have lost 60 percent of business over the last 15 days,” he said. “The problem is all those people who arrive with the sole intention of smashing things up.”

(Reporting by Emmanuel Jarry, Dominique Vidalon, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Richard Lough and Marine Pennetier; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Macron makes U-turn on fuel-tax increases in face of ‘yellow vest’ protests

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe attends the questions to the government session at the National Assembly in Paris, France, December 4, 2018. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

By Simon Carraud and Michel Rose

PARIS (Reuters) – France’s prime minister on Tuesday suspended planned increases to fuel taxes for at least six months in response to weeks of sometimes violent protests, the first major U-turn by President Emmanuel Macron’s administration after 18 months in office.

In announcing the decision, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said anyone would have “to be deaf or blind” not to see or hear the roiling anger on the streets over a policy that Macron has defended as critical to combating climate change.

“The French who have donned yellow vests want taxes to drop, and work to pay. That’s also what we want. If I didn’t manage to explain it, if the ruling majority didn’t manage to convince the French, then something must change,” said Philippe.

“No tax is worth jeopardizing the unity of the nation.”

Along with the delay to the tax increases that were set for January, Philippe said the time would be used to discuss other measures to help the working poor and squeezed middle-class who rely on vehicles to get to work and go shopping.

Earlier officials had hinted at a possible increase to the minimum wage, but Philippe made no such commitment.

He warned citizens, however, that they could not expect better public services and lower taxes.

“If the events of recent days have shown us one thing, it’s that the French want neither an increase in taxes or new taxes. If the tax-take falls then spending must fall because we don’t want to pass our debts on to our children. And those debts are already sizeable,” he said.

The so-called “yellow vest” movement, which started on Nov. 17 as a social-media protest group named for the high-visibility jackets all motorists in France carry in their cars, began with the aim of highlighting the squeeze on household spending brought about by Macron’s taxes on fuel.

However, over the past three weeks, the movement has evolved into a wider, broadbrush anti-Macron uprising, with many criticizing the president for pursuing policies they say favor the rich and do nothing to help the poor.

Despite having no leader and sometimes unclear goals, the movement has drawn people of all ages and backgrounds and tapped into a growing malaise over the direction Macron is trying to take the country in. Over the past two days, ambulance drivers and students have joined in and launched their own protests.

After three weeks of rising frustration, there was scant indication Philippe’s measures would placate the “yellow vests”, who themselves are struggling to find a unified position.

“The French don’t want crumbs, they want a baguette,” ‘yellow vest’ spokesman Benjamin Cauchy told BFM, adding that the movement wanted a cancellation of the taxes.

Another one, Christophe Chalencon, was blunter: “We’re being taken for idiots,” he told Reuters, using a stronger expletive.

GREEN GOALS

The timing of the tax U-turn is uncomfortable for Macron. It comes as governments meet in Poland to try to agree measures to avert the most damaging consequences of global warming, an issue Macron has made a central part of his agenda. His carbon taxes were designed to address the issue.

But the scale of the protests against his policies made it almost impossible to plow ahead as he had hoped.

While the “yellow vest” movement was mostly peaceful to begin with, the past two weekends have seen outpourings of violence and rioting in Paris, with extreme far-right and far-left factions joining the demos and spurring chaos.

On Saturday, the Arc de Triomphe national monument was defaced and avenues off the Champs Elysees were damaged. Cars, buildings and some cafes were torched.

The unrest is estimated to have cost the economy millions, with large-scale disruption to retailers, wholesalers, the restaurant and hotel trades. In some areas, manufacturing has been hit in the run up to Christmas.

CHANGE FRANCE?

Macron, a 40-year-old former investment banker and economy minister, came to office in mid-2017 promising to overhaul the French economy, revitalize growth and draw foreign investment by making the nation a more attractive place to do business.

In the process he earned the tag “president of the rich” for seeming to do more to court big business and ease the tax burden on the wealthy. Discontent has steadily risen among blue-collar workers and others who feel he represents an urban “elite”.

For Macron, who is sharply down in the polls and struggling to regain the initiative, a further risk is how opposition parties leverage the anger and the decision to shift course.

Ahead of European Parliament elections next May, support for the far-right under Marine Le Pen and the far-left of Jean-Luc Melenchon has been rising. Macron has cast those elections as a battle between his “progressive” ideas and what he sees as their promotion of nationalist or anti-EU agendas.

Le Pen was quick to point out that the six-month postponement of the fuel-tax increases took the decision beyond the European elections.

(Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier, Elizabeth Pineau and Richard Lough, John Irish; Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

‘Left at God’s mercy’: Greeks seek answers as wildfire toll mounts

Aerial view of the area after a wildfire, in Mati, Greece July 24, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media July 26, 2018. FLYGREECEDRONE/via REUTERS

By Renee Maltezou and Alkis Konstantinidis

MATI, Greece (Reuters) – Sorrow became tinged with anger in Greece on Thursday as rescuers searched scorched land and the coastline for survivors, three days after a wildfire destroyed a small town outside Athens and killed at least 83 people.

Aerial view of the area after a wildfire, in Mati, Greece July 24, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media July 26, 2018. FLYGREECEDRONE/via REUTERS

Aerial view of the area after a wildfire, in Mati, Greece July 24, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media July 26, 2018. FLYGREECEDRONE/via REUTERS

Desperate relatives appeared on television to plead for information on those missing, while other residents of Mati asked why authorities had been unable to prevent so many of their neighbors from getting trapped by a wall of flame in streets with no exit route.

“This shouldn’t have happened, people perished for no reason,” a tearful woman shouted at Defence Minister Panos Kammenos as he visited the town and nearby fire-ravaged areas. “You left us at God’s mercy!”

With the toll from Greece’s deadliest wildfire in decades expected to rise further, about 300 firemen and volunteers combed the area for dozens still missing.

One woman was looking for her brother, who had been returning from work when the flames took hold. “My father was the last person to talk to him on Monday evening,” Katerina Hamilothori told Skai TV. “We have had no news at all.”

The cause of the fire is still unclear, and being investigated by an Athens prosecutor who is also reviewing the way it was handled.

Local officials said high and unpredictable winds would have rendered even the best-executed evacuation plan futile, though firefighters told Reuters that some water hydrants in the area were empty.

One theory being examined is that the blaze was started deliberately in three locations at the same time.

An aerial view shows burnt houses and trees following a wildfire in the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 25, 2018. Antonis Nicolopoulos/Eurokinissi via REUTERS

An aerial view shows burnt houses and trees following a wildfire in the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 25, 2018. Antonis Nicolopoulos/Eurokinissi via REUTERS

IDENTIFYING THE DEAD

Outside the coroner’s service in Athens, the mood was grim as relatives of victims arrived to submit information and blood samples which could assist identifications.

“This is a difficult process, more difficult than other mass disasters we have dealt with,” said coroner Nikolaos Kalogrias, adding that the bodies of most of the victims were completely charred.

About 500 homes were destroyed, and the fire brigade said there were closed-up homes that had not yet been checked.

The left-led government announced a long list of relief measures including a one-off 10,000 euro payment and a job in the public sector for victims’ spouses and near relatives. But for many, that was not enough to ease the pain.

“A drop in the ocean,” read the front page of newspaper Ta Nea.

The fire broke out on Monday at 4:57 p.m. and spread rapidly through Mati, which lies fewer than 30 km (17 miles) east of Athens and was popular with local tourists.

Firefighters described a rapid change in the direction of the wind, which also picked up speed, and some suggested the thick covering of pine trees and a mood of panic was a deadly combination that would have been hard to combat.

“The main factor was the wind, its speed and its direction. It should have been looked at earlier,” said World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Greece director Dimitris Karavellas.

“These people should have been ordered out of this area… This is the only thing that could have saved them.”

(Additional reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by John Stonestreet)

Eight on trial for rape, murder of girl in India’s Kashmir amid public anger

Children attend a protest against the rape of an eight-year-old girl, in Kathua, near Jammu and a teenager in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh state, in New Delhi, India April 15, 2018. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

By Fayaz Bukhari

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) – Eight men accused of involvement in the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state appeared in court on Monday for the first hearing in a case that sparked nationwide outrage and criticism of the ruling party.

The girl, from a nomadic community that roams the forests of Kashmir, was drugged, held captive in a temple and sexually assaulted for a week before being strangled and battered to death with a stone in January, police said.

Public anger at the crime led to protests in cities across India over the past few days, with outrage fueled by support for the accused initially shown by state government ministers from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The protests have also focused on another rape allegedly involving a BJP lawmaker in the crime-ridden, most populous, poor northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

The outrage has drawn parallels with massive protests that followed the gang rape and murder of a woman on a Delhi bus in 2012, which forced the then Congress-led government to enact tough new rape laws including the death penalty.

Yet India has long been plagued by violence against women and children – reported rapes climbed 60 percent from 2012 to 40,000 in 2016, and many more go unreported, especially in rural areas.

Reports of torture, rape and murder of another child have emerged from Modi’s western home state of Gujarat.

In that case, the corpse of a girl was found near a cricket ground in the city of Surat a week ago.

The post-mortem showed she had been tortured and sexually assaulted before being strangled. The body had 86 injury marks, including some inflicted to her genitalia with hard, blunt objects, while more minor injuries suggest she had been beaten with a stick or slapped.

Doctors estimate that the unidentified girl was about 12, police said.

As the groundswell of revulsion grew, Modi assured the country on Friday that the guilty would not be shielded, but he has been criticized for failing to speak out sooner.

Before leaving for an official visit to Europe this week, Modi received a letter from 50 former police chiefs, ambassadors and senior civil servants upbraiding the political leadership over its weak response.

“The bestiality and the barbarity involved in the rape and murder of an eight-year-old child shows the depths of depravity that we have sunk into,” the former officials said.

“In post-Independence India, this is our darkest hour and we find the response of our government, the leaders of our political parties inadequate and feeble.”

The letter went further by blaming the BJP and likeminded right-wing Hindu groups for promoting a culture of “majoritarian belligerence and aggression” in Jammu, and in the Uttar Pradesh case it blasted the party for using feudal strongmen, who behave like gangsters, to shore up its rule.

The former officials said they held no political affiliation other than to uphold the values of India’s secular constitution that guarantees equal rights to all citizens. Some of the signatories have spoken out in the past also against Modi’s Hindu nationalist party accusing it of whipping up hostility towards India’s 172 million Muslims.

THREATS AGAINST LAWYER

Fallout from the 2012 rape case led to the resignation of Congress chief minister of Delhi. This time, Congress was quick to realize the mood of the country, with party leader Rahul Gandhi leading the first major protest in the capital last week.

On Monday, Gandhi tweeted that there had been nearly 20,000 child rapes in India in 2016, and urged Modi to fast-track prosecutions “if he is serious about providing ‘justice for our daughters'”.

Though the rape and killing of the girl in Kashmir had been known about for months, the backlash erupted after the charge sheet giving gruesome details of the crime was filed last week.

It alleged that the attack was part of a plan to drive the nomads out of Kathua district in Jammu, the mostly Hindu portion of India’s only Muslim-majority state.

The alleged ringleader of the campaign, retired bureaucrat Sanji Ram, looked after a small Hindu temple where the girl had been held and assaulted. Two of the eight on trial are police officers who stand accused of being bribed to stifle the investigation.

After Monday’s initial hearing in Srinagar, the judge adjourned the case until April 28 while the Supreme Court heard a petition from the lawyer representing the victim’s family to have the trial held elsewhere due to fears for her safety.

Ahead of the trial, the lawyer said she had been threatened with rape and death for taking up the case.

“I was threatened yesterday that ‘we will not forgive you’. I am going to tell Supreme Court that I am in danger,” said the lawyer, Deepika Singh Rawat, who has fought for a proper investigation since the girl’s body was found in January.

The Supreme Court also ordered security for the victim’s family after her father said he too feared for their safety.

Two ministers from the BJP, which shares power in Jammu and Kashmir, were forced to resign after being pilloried for joining a rally in support of the accused men.

(This version of the story corrects first paragraph below sub-head to show Delhi chief minister lost election, not forced to resign)

(Additional reporting by Suchitra Mohanty in NEW DELHI; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel)

Anger in India over two rapes puts government in bind US-INDIA-RAPE

People hold placards at a protest against the rape of an eight-year-old girl, in Kathua, near Jammu and a teenager in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh state, in New Delhi, India April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

By Krishna N. Das and Rupam Jain

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Mounting outrage over two rapes, one in the disputed region of Kashmir and another allegedly involving a lawmaker from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, gripped India on Friday, with government ministers struggling to dampen political fires.

Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi held a candlelit vigil at India Gate in New Delhi, the same site where thousands of people demonstrated in 2012 against a brutal gang-rape in the capital.

“Like millions of Indians, my heart hurts tonight,” Gandhi wrote on Twitter after addressing an estimated 5,000 people at Thursday’s midnight vigil. “India simply cannot continue to treat its women the way it does.”

Modi has yet to speak out on the rapes, which have drawn conflicted responses among the lower ranks of his own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Horrifying details of the alleged gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl, Asifa, in a Hindu-dominated area of Jammu and Kashmir state in January, emerged this week from a police charge sheet.

The BJP shares power in the state, where party members joined a rally to show support for eight Hindu men accused of the crime, including a former bureaucrat and four police officers.

“Yet again we’ve failed as a society,” Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar said in a Twitter message.

“Can’t think straight as more chilling details on little Asifa’s case emerge…her innocent face refuses to leave me. Justice must be served, hard and fast!”

Amid fears the case could escalate unrest in a region where security forces are battling separatist militants, separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq vowed to launch an agitation if any attempt was made to shield culprits or sabotage investigations.

“It is a criminal act and perpetrators of the crime should be punished,” he added.

Thousands of Kashmiris joined street protests in Srinagar this week, following the death of four protesters in a clash with security forces.

In the crime-ridden northern state of Uttar Pradesh, federal police on Friday began questioning a BJP member of the state legislature who is accused of raping a teenage woman in June.

Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a rising star in the party, asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to take over the case this week after the state’s police were heavily criticized for not acting sooner on the victim’s complaint.

A CBI spokesman said the lawmaker, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, was being questioned on Friday, but had not been arrested.

Sengar’s lawyer has said his client was innocent and the case was a conspiracy to harm his political career.

Ministers have insisted that justice will be done no matter who committed the crime, while defending the government’s record on fighting violence against women.

“We are here to safeguard the interest of our daughters, they are the daughters of the nation,” federal minister Mahesh Sharma told reporters on Thursday.

Maneka Gandhi, the minister for women and child development, said her ministry planned to propose the death penalty for the rape of children younger than 12. The maximum punishment now is life imprisonment.

Responding to the outpouring of national shame and anger after the 2012 New Delhi case, the then Congress-led government tightened laws on crimes against women.

India registered about 40,000 rape cases in 2016, up from 25,000 in 2012, the latest data show. Rights activists say thousands more go unreported because of a perceived stigma.

(Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Russia buries victims of mall blaze as flags fly at half mast

A woman reacts during a gathering to commemorate the victims of a shopping mall fire in Kemerovo on the day of national mourning in the far eastern city of Vladivostok, Russia March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Maltsev

By Polina Ivanova and Andrew Osborn

KEMEROVO/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Funerals began in Russia on Wednesday for the 64 people, most of them children, whose deaths in a fire at a Siberian shopping mall have roused public anger over official corruption and incompetence.

Flags on government buildings across Russia flew at half mast, state TV and radio stations removed light entertainment shows from their schedules, and lawmakers in Moscow observed a minute of silence.

The fire at the Winter Cherry mall in the city of Kemerovo on Sunday killed 41 children. Investigators have not confirmed the cause of the fire, but the high death toll has been blamed on reported shortcomings in the mall’s safety procedures.

At a funeral service in an Orthodox church in Kemerovo, about 3,600 km (2,200 miles) east of Moscow, women wailed as prayers were sung over three coffins, including two small caskets for children.

Sergei and Natalia Agarkov buried two school-age children, Konstantin and Maria. The children’s grandmother, Nadezhda Agarkova, was also killed.

All three had gone to see a film at a cinema on the top floor of the shopping center and had been unable to get out of the auditorium when the fire broke out. Russian media reported the doors had been locked.

“This tragedy is made even worse by the fact that children became victims of the blaze. Great grief is upon all of us and there are no words that would express our common pain,” the priest told the mourners, who held candles and repeatedly crossed themselves.

President Vladimir Putin, visiting the disaster scene on Tuesday, promised angry residents that those responsible for what he called criminal negligence would be punished and declared Wednesday a national day of mourning.

Putin on Wednesday ordered similar shopping centers across Russia to be inspected to make sure they were well prepared in the event of a fire.

Some victims’ relatives say they believe a cover-up is under way and that the death toll is higher than 64, something Putin has denied. Investigators on Wednesday said they had opened a criminal case into a Ukrainian prankster who they said had spread disinformation about the death toll.

ANTI-GOVERNMENT PROTEST

Investigators say their main theory is that an electrical short circuit caused the fire.

Almost all the bodies have been recovered, many of which could be identified only via DNA testing. A further 14 people remain in hospital.

Russia has rigorous fire safety rules and a system of regular inspections, but these efforts are undermined by endemic corruption which affects many aspects of life in the country of 144 million people.

Moscow reduced the number of inspections for certain businesses after complaints that inspectors were extorting bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye to violations.

But some business owners in Kemerovo said this meant that safety shortcomings were not being identified.

The governor of the region where the fire took place, Aman Tuleyev, sacked two senior officials on Wednesday, the RIA news agency reported.

Investigators have also detained and charged five people over the fire, including a security guard who they accuse of turning off the public address system and the mall’s manager who is accused of violating fire safety regulations.

At least one vigil held in memory of the dead in cities across Russia has turned into an anti-government demonstration.

At a Moscow gathering on Tuesday attended by several thousand people, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny, protesters held banners reading “Bribes kill children” and “We demand a real investigation”.

Some chanted “Putin – resign!”, ten days after Putin secured a comfortable election win for another six-year term in office.

(Reporting by Polina Ivanova in Kemerovo; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Grief and anger as Florida prepares to bury victims of school massacre

A handwritten note to a lost friend is surrounded by candles and flowers at a candlelight vigil the day after a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

By Bernie Woodall and Zachary Fagenson

PARKLAND, Fla. (Reuters) – As families prepared on Friday to bury victims of another U.S. mass shooting, grief mixed with anger amid signs of possible lapses in school security and indications that law enforcement may have missed clues about the suspected gunman’s plans.

One distraught mother who said she had just spent two hours making funeral preparations for her 14-year-old child expressed disbelief that a gunman could just stroll into school and open fire, and she appealed to President Donald Trump to take action.

Bob Ossler, chaplain with the Cape Coral volunteer fire department, places seventeen crosses for the victims of yesterday's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on a fence a short distance from the school in Parkland, Florida, February 15, 2018.

Bob Ossler, chaplain with the Cape Coral volunteer fire department, places seventeen crosses for the victims of yesterday’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on a fence a short distance from the school in Parkland, Florida, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Nikolas Cruz, 19, identified as a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who had been expelled for disciplinary problems, walked into the school on Wednesday and opened fire with an assault rifle, killing 17 students and facility members and injuring 15 others, police said.

The shooting has raised questions among anguished parents about the adequacy of school security measures and renewed a national debate on Capitol Hill and elsewhere about the epidemic of gun violence in American schools.

“How do we allow a gunman to come into our children’s school? How did they get through security? What security is there?” Lori Alhadeff shouted into the camera in an emotionally raw appearance on CNN.

“The gunman, the crazy person, just walks right into the school, knocks down the window to my child’s door and starts shooting, shooting her …,” cried Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa was among the dead.

Cruz, charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder, made a brief initial court appearance on Thursday, in which he was ordered held without bond.

“He’s a broken human being,” his lawyer, public defender Melissa McNeill, told reporters. “He’s sad, he’s mournful, he’s remorseful.”

Daniel Journey (C), an 18-year-old senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, attends a community prayer vigil for victims of yesterday's shooting at his school, at Parkridge Church in Pompano Beach, Florida, February 15, 2018. Journey said he lost two friends he had known and grown up with since they were seven years old in the shooting. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Daniel Journey (C), an 18-year-old senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, attends a community prayer vigil for victims of yesterday’s shooting at his school, at Parkridge Church in Pompano Beach, Florida, February 15, 2018. Journey said he lost two friends he had known and grown up with since they were seven years old in the shooting. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

“PROFESSIONAL SCHOOL SHOOTER”

Cruz may have foreshadowed the attack in a comment on YouTube, investigated by the FBI. The Federal Bureau of Investigation disclosed it received a tip in September about the message that read: “I’m going to be a professional school shooter,” by a user named Nikolas Cruz.

However, FBI agents had no information pointing to the “time, location or true identity” of the person behind the message, Robert Lasky, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Jacksonville office, told reporters.

YouTube ultimately removed the material in question, and the FBI’s inquiry was dropped until the name Nikolas Cruz surfaced again in connection with Wednesday’s massacre.

Authorities say Cruz, identified as a former student at Stoneman Douglas High who had been expelled for disciplinary problems, walked into the school shortly before dismissal time, pulled a fire alarm and opened fire as students and teachers streamed out of classrooms into the halls.

The sheriff said Cruz arrived at the school by way of the Uber ride-sharing service and left the scene on foot, mixing in “with a group that were running away, fearing for their lives.”

He walked into a Walmart, bought a beverage at a Subway outlet inside the store, then visited a McDonald’s before he was spotted and detained by a police officer in the adjacent town of Coconut Creek, Israel said.

Former classmates have described Cruz as a social outcast with a reputation as a trouble-maker, as well as someone who was “crazy about guns.” The sheriff has said some of the online and social media activity Cruz engaged in was “very, very disturbing.”

Wednesday’s shooting ranks as the greatest loss of life from school gun violence after the 2012 shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 20 first-graders and six adult educators dead.

People attend a candlelight vigil for victims of the shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

People attend a candlelight vigil for victims of the shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

“It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference,” Trump said at the White House in a speech that emphasized school safety and mental health while avoiding any mention of gun policy. “We must actually make that difference.”

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives criticized the Republican leadership on Wednesday for refusing to take up legislation on tightening background checks for prospective gun buyers.

Some gun control proponents and legal experts said Wednesday’s shooting might have been averted if Florida were among the handful of U.S. states with laws allowing police and family members to obtain restraining orders barring people suspected of being a threat from possessing guns.

Cruz had recently moved in with another family after his mother’s November death, said Jim Lewis, a lawyer representing the family, bringing his AR-15 along with other belongings.

The family believed Cruz was depressed, but attributed that to his mother’s death, not mental illness, Lewis said.

For graphic on Florida school shooting, click: http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/FLORIDA-SHOOTING/010060XH1SW/shooting.jpg

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee)