U.S.-Israeli teen arrested in Israel for Jewish center bomb threats

U.S.-Israeli teen (2ndL) arrested in Israel on suspicion of making bomb threats against Jewish community centres in the United States, Australia and New Zealand over the past three months, is seen before the start of a remand hearing at Magistrate's Court in Rishon Lezion, Israel March 23, 2017. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

By Jeffrey Heller and Joseph Ax

JERUSALEM/NEW YORK (Reuters) – A teenager with dual Israeli-U.S. citizenship was arrested in Israel on Thursday on suspicion of making dozens of hoax bomb threats against Jewish community centers in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

The suspect, whose identity remains sealed pursuant to a court order, is 18, Jewish and a dual U.S.-Israeli national, a police spokesman said.

The teenager’s alleged motives were not immediately clear.

At a court hearing near Tel Aviv, the suspect’s defense attorney, Galit Bash, said the young man has a growth in his head that causes behavioral problems. She later told Reuters he has a brain tumor, which “may affect his behavior, his ability to understand right and wrong,” and said the teen’s father had also been held in connection with the case.

U.S. federal authorities have been investigating a surge of threats against Jewish organizations, including more than 100 bomb threats in separate waves over the past three months targeting Jewish community centers (JCCs) in dozens of states.

The threats prompted criticism of U.S. President Donald Trump for what some Jewish groups saw as an inadequate response from his administration. He condemned the incidents in a major speech to Congress in February.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday said the arrest reflected the government’s determination to prosecute those who perpetrate hate crimes.

“… we will not tolerate the targeting of any community in this country on the basis of their religious beliefs,” Sessions said in a statement.

Israeli police said the teenager is believed to be responsible for most of the threats, though the precise number was not immediately clear.

The suspect, who is accused of targeting centers in Australia and New Zealand as well as the United States, began making the calls in January using advanced masking technologies to hide his identity, police said.

Authorities also said he was responsible for a previous bomb threat against a Delta Airlines flight in January 2015 at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which took part in the probe, confirmed the arrest but declined to offer further details.

The threats forced the evacuation of many JCCs, including some with day care and school facilities for infants and young children. Coupled with other incidents such as the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, they have stoked fears of a resurgence in anti-Semitism in the United States.

In a statement, the president of the JCC Association of North America said JCC leaders were “troubled” the teenager appears to be Jewish.

The Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism in the United States, said the alleged perpetrator’s actions mattered more than his background.

“While the details of this crime remain unclear, the impact of this individual’s actions is crystal clear: these were acts of anti-Semitism,” the organization said in a statement.

Bash said her client was home-schooled and incapable of holding down a job. She added he had been found medically unfit for Israel’s compulsory military service.

A judge ruled that he be held for at least eight more days.

U.S. authorities previously made one other arrest in connection with the threats. Juan Thompson, a former journalist from St. Louis, is accused of making several threats to Jewish organizations while posing as an ex-girlfriend as part of a revenge plot against her.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Joseph Ax in New York; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem and Baz Ratner and Rami Amichay in Rishon Lezion; Editing by Daniel Wallis and James Dalgleish)

South Carolina church shooter’s friend to serve time for lying, silence

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – The South Carolina man who suspected his friend Dylann Roof was to blame for the June 2015 massacre at a historic black church but did not immediately call police and told others to stay silent was sentenced on Tuesday to more than two years in prison.

Joey Meek, 22, told authorities Roof revealed his plot during a cocaine and vodka-fueled night about a week before the shooting, which was one of several racially charged shootings in recent years that reopened debate about race relations and gun control laws in the United States.

Roof, who is white, told Meek he wanted to start a race war by killing black people at a church, court records show.

But after Roof opened fire during a Bible study meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, slaying nine parishioners, Meek, who is also white, did not promptly report what he knew, prosecutors said.

With Roof on the run, Meek also instructed others not to contact police and later denied to federal agents that he had knowledge of Roof’s plans.

“He knew who it was,” U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel in Charleston said before sentencing Meek to 27 months in prison. “He put his own interests ahead of the known dangers to the community.”

Prosecutors had sought a stiffer penalty than the 27 to 33 months federal sentencing guidelines called for. Meek was the only other person charged in the shooting. He pleaded guilty in April 2016 to charges of concealing knowledge of the crime and lying to investigators. He agreed to cooperate.

Meek was not called to testify at his childhood friend’s trial. Roof was sentenced to death in January after being convicted of 33 charges, including hate crimes and obstruction of religion resulting in death.

The government argued law enforcement could have tried to prevent Roof’s attack had Meek alerted them.

Meek’s lawyer Deborah Barbier said in court papers that her client, who had a ninth-grade education and history of mental health and substance abuse problems, should not be treated as though he was guilty of Roof’s crimes.

Gergel, who oversaw Roof’s trial, said Meek’s criminal behavior did not begin until after the shooting.

With about a dozen members of the victims’ families in court, Meek read a statement expressing his remorse for not taking Roof more seriously.

“I didn’t believe he could do something so awful and cruel,” he said.

(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Andrew Hay and Grant McCool)

Venezuela arrests brownie and croissant bakers in ‘bread war’

A saleswoman sells bread at a bakery in Caracas, Venezuela March 17, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela this week arrested four bakers making illegal brownies and other pastries as President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government threatens to take over bakeries in Caracas as part of a new “bread war”.

Maduro has sent inspectors and soldiers into more than 700 bakeries around the capital this week to enforce a rule that 90 percent of wheat must be destined to loaves rather than more expensive pastries and cakes.

It was the latest move by the government to combat shortages and long lines for basic products that have characterized Venezuela’s economic crisis over the last three years.

The ruling Socialist Party says pro-opposition businessmen are sabotaging the OPEC nation’s economy by hoarding products and hiking prices. Critics say the government is to blame for persisting with failed polices of price and currency controls.

Breadmakers blame the government for a national shortage of wheat, saying 80 percent of establishments have none left in stock.

During this week’s inspections, two men were arrested as their bakery was using too much wheat in sweet bread, ham-filled croissants and other products, the state Superintendency of Fair Prices said in a statement sent to media on Thursday.

Another two were detained for making brownies with out-of-date wheat, the statement added, saying at least one bakery had been temporarily taken over by authorities for 90 days.

“Those behind the ‘bread war’ are going to pay, and don’t let them say later it is political persecution,” Maduro had warned at the start of the week.

The group representing bakers, Fevipan, has asked for a meeting with Maduro, saying most establishments cannot anyway make ends meet without selling higher-priced products.

(Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Randy Fabi)

Suspect arrested after scaling White House fence, Secret Service says

FILE PHOTO: A restricted area sign is seen outside of the White House in Washington November 27, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By Emily Stephenson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An intruder carrying a backpack was arrested after scaling a fence and entering the White House grounds, the U.S. Secret Service said on Saturday, in the latest breach of security at the president’s official residence.

President Donald Trump was inside the White House when a male suspect scaled the complex’s South Grounds fence at 11:38 p.m. on Friday, and uniformed officers arrested him, the Secret Service said in a statement.

Trump was not in any danger during the incident, CNN reported, citing an unnamed source.

A 2014 intrusion at the White House prompted the resignation of Secret Service director Julia Pierson and a series of recommendations to tighten security. In 2015, a row of sharp spikes was bolted to the top of the black iron fence surrounding the property.

In the latest incident, the suspect was apprehended near the south portico entrance, where presidents often address the public, CNN said. The entrance is near the part of the White House where the president resides.

Authorities did not immediately identify the suspect but Martin Mulholland, a spokesman for the Secret Service, said he had no arrest record or history with the agency, which is charged with protecting the president, his family and other elected officials.

The backpack carried by the intruder was screened and searched as a precaution, and no hazardous material was found, according the statement. The Secret Service searched the north and south grounds but nothing of concern turned up.

Neither the Secret Service nor the White House responded immediately to a request for further details.

SECURITY SHAKEUP

The most serious of the recent security incidents at the White House occurred in September 2014, when an Army veteran carrying a knife climbed the fence and pushed his way inside the building before he was stopped.

Another man wearing an American flag jumped the fence in November 2015. In April 2016, an intruder threw a backpack over the outer fence and then scaled it before getting arrested.

The Secret Service and National Park Service have been working on a new fence design and other upgrades.

Joseph Clancy, her replacement, said in February that he planned to step down in March, allowing Trump to name his own security chief.

The service’s credibility was also damaged in 2012 when it was revealed that members had hired prostitutes while in Colombia in advance of a trip by then-President Barack Obama.

(Additional reporting by Joseph Ax in New York and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Franklin Paul)

U.S. judge orders Florida nightclub shooter’s widow to remain in jail

File Photo: Investigators work the scene following a mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando Florida, U.S. June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

By Ian Simpson

(Reuters) – The widow of the gunman who killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Florida must remain in jail after prosecutors argued that she was a threat to the community and a flight risk, a U.S. judge on Thursday ordered.

The federal judge in Florida stayed another judge’s order issued on Wednesday that would have released Noor Salman, 30, from a California jail. He put the release order on hold pending further arguments in the case.

Salman was arrested in California in January on federal charges she knew before the June 2016 shootings in Orlando that her husband, Omar Mateen, was planning the attack and concocted a cover story for him.

U.S. District Judge Paul Byron in Orlando ordered Salman detained and set a Wednesday deadline for her lawyers to respond to prosecutors’ arguments that she should be jailed pending her trial in Florida.

Salman is charged with obstructing justice and aiding Mateen in his attempt to provide material support to the Islamic State militant group.

Prosecutors argued in a motion that the seriousness of the charge related to the Islamic State meant Salman should be kept in jail.

“No pretrial release condition or combination of conditions may be imposed to reasonably assure the defendant’s appearance as required or the safety of the community,” they said.

They also said that Salman was a flight risk since she was unemployed and had moved to California, where she has relatives, and had almost no ties to Florida. Her family also owns property in the Middle East, they said.

Charles Swift, Salman’s lawyer, said Byron’s order keeping Salman jailed pending the filing of more motions was routine. “It’s standard,” he said in a telephone interview.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Ryu on Wednesday had cleared the way for Salman’s release and appeared throw doubt on the government’s case against her.

Ryu had ordered her to live with her uncle in Rodeo, California, undergo GPS monitoring and leave home only for court and medical appointments. She set a $500,000 bond.

Mateen was killed in a shootout with police after a standoff at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub and carried out the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Before the shooting he called 911 and swore allegiance to the Islamic State.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

St. Louis man charged over bomb threats to Jewish groups

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A disgraced former journalist made eight bomb threats to Jewish organizations across the United States, including one in which he called for a “Jewish Newtown,” posing as an ex-girlfriend to retaliate after she had broken up with him, U.S. prosecutors said on Friday.

Juan Thompson, 31, was taken into custody on Friday morning in St. Louis, the first arrest to result from a federal investigation into a surge of threats against Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) and schools that has rattled American Jews.

Authorities are examining more than 100 threats made against JCCs by phone in five waves this year, which appear to be unrelated to the Thompson allegations. Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey met with Jewish leaders on Friday morning to discuss the ongoing investigation.

A criminal complaint filed in federal court in Manhattan accused Thompson of making threats, mostly by email, against organizations including a Jewish museum in New York and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). All occurred after the first flood of phone threats in early January.

The hoax threats against JCCs have stoked fears of a resurgence in anti-Semitism and forced many centers to be evacuated, including some with day care for young children.

Prosecutors said Thompson aimed to portray his ex-girlfriend as an anti-Semite, a characterization he repeated on Twitter. It was unclear if he shared those sentiments, and his recent posts did not include explicit anti-Semitic thoughts.

But the ADL said he had been “on the radar” due to activities, including “rants against white people.”

Thompson was a reporter for the Intercept, a news website, until he was fired last year for allegedly inventing sources and quotes.

Intercept editor Betsy Reed said in a statement that the website was “horrified” by his arrest.

‘NASTY RACIST WHITE GIRL’

The Intercept said in February 2016 that Thompson had employed a fake email account to pose as a source in an effort to hide his fabrications.

After his girlfriend broke up with him in July 2016, prosecutors said, Thompson used the same technique in a sustained harassment campaign against her.

A day after the relationship ended, Thompson sent an email purporting to be from a producer at a national news organization to her boss at a social service company in New York, according to the complaint. The email claimed she had been pulled over for drunk driving and sued for spreading a sexually transmitted disease.

In the following weeks, the woman received messages from a supposed relative of Thompson, falsely claiming Thompson was on his deathbed after a shooting.

Thompson later threatened to publicize nude photos of her, prosecutors said. He also sent a message to a national children’s welfare organization, claiming she admitted watching child pornography.

In late January, Thompson began emailing bomb threats to Jewish groups using his own name and then accused her on Twitter of having framed him. He also sent threats pretending to be her, according to the complaint.

The “Jewish Newtown” email apparently referred to the massacre of 26 children and educators at a Connecticut school in 2012.

On Feb. 24, he posted on Twitter, “Know any good lawyers? Need to stop this nasty/racist #whitegirl I dated who sent a bomb threat in my name.”

Thompson was due to appear in federal court in St. Louis later Friday on one count of cyberstalking. It was not clear whether he had a lawyer.

The ex-girlfriend could not be reached for comment.

Authorities said they were still investigating the rash of threats against JCCs, as well as the desecration of headstones at Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia, St. Louis and Rochester, New York.

St. Louis police will question Thompson about the city’s graveyard vandalism, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen and Gina Cherelus in New York and Dustin Volz in Washington; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jeffrey Benkoe)

French police clash with youths at protest rally, arrest eight

Clouds of tear gas surround youths as they face off with French police during a demonstration against police brutality after a young black man, 22-year-old youth worker named Theo, was severely injured during his arrest earlier this month, in Paris, France, February 23, 2017. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

PARIS (Reuters) – Hundreds of French high-school students staged an unauthorized anti-police rally on Thursday, blocking the entrances to a dozen schools in Paris in the latest in a series of protests over the alleged rape of a young black man with a police baton.

Police reported eight arrests after isolated skirmishes with youths who hurled objects and damaged property on the fringes of what otherwise appeared to have been a relatively peaceful demonstration.

The protest comes two months before a presidential election where far-right leader Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant National Front party, is tipped to win the first round but lose the runoff vote that takes place on May 7.

The Paris school authority said more than 10 schools had been targeted by youths who piled up rubbish bins and other objects at the entrance gates. In one case, a deputy school director was injured when protesters hurled a fire extinguisher.

The protesters are angry over the alleged rape of the 22-year-old man during a Feb. 2 arrest in an area north of Paris where large numbers of immigrants live. The man, identified only as Theo, remains in hospital with injuries to his anus and head.

He has called for public calm and his family has said they have faith in the French justice system.

One of the banners carried at Thursday’s rally read “Revenge for Theo!”

Social media networks showed signs of skirmishes on the fringes of the rally in the Place de la Nation square in the east of Paris, where riot police in protective gear advanced on groups of mostly-hooded youths in sidestreet confrontations.

A helicopter flew overhead and tear gas clouds rose into the air above that square toward the end of the rally.

The Paris police department had warned people to stay away from the protest, saying it was not authorized and that there was a risk of violent groups causing trouble, as happened over the last three weeks.

Four police officers have been suspended pending an inquiry into the Feb. 2 incident. One has been placed under formal investigation for suspected rape and three others for unnecessary use of force.

So far the protests have not snowballed to the extent of the unrest that 12 years ago drew global attention to the stark contrast between wealthy Paris and the suburbs that surround it.

(Writing by Brian Love; additional reporting by Gerard Bon and Jean-Baptiste Vey; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Friend to plead guilty to aiding San Bernardino gunman: prosecutors

Weapons and evidence of San Bernardino shooting

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A California man accused of buying assault-style rifles used by a married couple to massacre 14 people at a government office in San Bernardino in 2015 has agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, prosecutors said on Tuesday.

Enrique Marquez Jr., 25, will plead guilty to conspiring with Syed Rizwan Farook in 2011 and 2012 to attack a community college and commuters on a Southern California freeway, prosecutors said.

Marquez, a friend and former neighbor of Farook, has also agreed to plead guilty to making false statements about his purchase of two assault rifles used in the 2015 shooting rampage at the San Bernardino Inland Regional Center.

Marquez was scheduled to enter his pleas, part of an agreement with federal prosecutors, at a hearing on Thursday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. He faces a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.

“This defendant collaborated with and purchased weapons for a man who carried out the devastating December 2, 2015 terrorist attack that took the lives of 14 innocent people, wounded nearly two dozen, and impacted our entire nation,” U.S. Attorney Eileen Decker said in a written statement announcing the plea deal.

Farook, 28, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, 29, opened fire at a holiday gathering of Farook’s co-workers on Dec. 2, 2015, killing 14 people and wounding 22.

Farook, the U.S.-born son of Pakistani immigrants, and Malik, a Pakistani native he married in Saudi Arabia in 2014, died in a shootout with police four hours after the massacre.

Authorities have said the couple were inspired by Islamist extremism. It was one of the deadliest attacks by militants in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, hijacked plane attacks.

Prosecutors say Marquez and Farook, who were childhood friends, plotted attacks together in 2011 and 2012 that were never carried out and it was during that time that Marquez purchased the two rifles that Farook and Malik ultimately used in San Bernardino.

Marquez did not take part in the San Bernardino massacre but was arrested about two weeks later and has remained in custody ever since.

He also faces immigration fraud charges in connection with his marriage to Russian-born Mariyah Chernykh, which prosecutors say was a sham.

Chernykh, 26, and Farook’s brother, Syed Raheel Farook, 31, pleaded guilty in January to immigration fraud charges stemming from the marriage.

(This version of the story corrects first paragraph to read “conspiring to provide” instead of “providing” to comply with official correction from United States Attorney’s Office, Los Angeles)

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Peter Cooney and Andrew Hay)

Malaysia detains woman, seeking others in connection with North Korean murder

Kim Jong Nam arriving at Beijing Airport

By Ju-min Park and A. Ananthalakshmi

SEOUL/KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysian police on Wednesday detained a woman holding Vietnam travel papers and are looking for a “few” other foreign suspects in connection with the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother, police said.

Lawmakers in South Korea had earlier cited their spy agency as saying it suspected two female North Korean agents had murdered Kim Jong Nam, and U.S. government sources also told Reuters they believed North Korean assassins were responsible.

The portly and gregarious Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, was assaulted on Monday morning in the departure hall of Kuala Lumpur International Airport and died on the way to hospital, Malaysian police said.

The woman detained at Kuala Lumpur airport was identified from CCTV footage at the airport and was alone when she was apprehended, police said in a statement.Media had earlier published a grainy CCTV-captured image of a young woman wearing a white shirt with the letters “LOL” on the front.

Documents she carried were in the name of Doan Thi Huong, showed a birth date of May 1998 and birthplace of Nam Dinh, Vietnam, police said.

“Police are looking for a few others, all foreigners,” Deputy Inspector-General Noor Rashid Ibrahim told Reuters, declining to give their nationalities or gender.

South Korean intelligence believes Kim Jong Nam was poisoned, the lawmakers in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, said.

The spy agency told them that the young and unpredictable North Korean leader had issued a “standing order” for his half-brother’s assassination, and that there had been a failed attempt in 2012.

“The cause of death is strongly suspected to be a poisoning attack,” said South Korean lawmaker Kim Byung-kee, who was briefed by the spy agency.

Kim had been at the airport’s budget terminal to catch a flight to Macau on Monday when someone grabbed or held his face from behind, after which he felt dizzy and sought help at an information desk, Malaysian police official Fadzil Ahmat said.

According to South Korea’s spy agency, Kim Jong Nam had been living, under Beijing’s protection, with his second wife in the Chinese territory of Macau, the lawmakers said. One of them said Kim Jong Nam also had a wife and son in Beijing.

Kim had spoken out publicly against his family’s dynastic control of the isolated state.

“If the murder of Kim Jong Nam was confirmed to be committed by the North Korean regime, that would clearly depict the brutality and inhumanity of the Kim Jong Un regime,” South Korean Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who is also acting president, told a security meeting.

The meeting was called in response to Kim Jong Nam’s death, news of which first emerged late on Tuesday.

‘SENSE OF DANGER’

South Korea is acutely sensitive to any sign of instability in isolated North Korea, and is still technically in a state of war with its impoverished and nuclear-armed neighbor, which carried out its latest ballistic missile test on Sunday.

Malaysian police said Kim held a passport under the name Kim Chol, with a birth date that made him 46.

Kim Jong Nam was known to spend a significant amount of time outside North Korea, traveling in Macau and Hong Kong as well as mainland China, and has been caught in the past using forged travel documents.

His body was taken on Wednesday to a second hospital, where an autopsy was being performed. North Korean embassy officials had arrived at the hospital and were coordinating with authorities, police sources said.

There was no mention of Kim Jong Nam’s death in North Korean media.

In Beijing, a foreign ministry spokesman said China was aware of the reports and closely following developments.

Yoji Gomi, a Japanese journalist who wrote a 2012 book on Kim Jong Nam, said Kim’s media appearances, which increased around the time South Korean intelligence said he was targeted for assassination, may have been an attempt to protect himself.

“I now have the impression that even he may have had a sense of danger, so he began exposing himself in the media and stating his opinions to protect himself and counter North Korea,” Gomi told a talk show on Japan’s NTV.

North Korean agents have killed rivals abroad before.

South Korea’s spy agency said Kim Jong Nam wrote a letter to Kim Jong Un in 2012 asking that the lives of him and his family be spared, one of the lawmakers said.

“Kim Jong Un may have been worried about more and more North Korean elites turning against him after Thae Yong Ho defected to the South,” said Koh Yu-hwan, an expert on the North Korean leadership at Dongguk University in Seoul, referring to last year’s defection by North Korea’s deputy ambassador in London.

Numerous North Korean officials have been purged or killed since Kim Jong Un took power following his father’s death in 2011. Those include his uncle Jang Song Thaek, who was considered the country’s second most-powerful person and was believed to have been close to Kim Jong Nam.

Jang was executed on Kim Jong Un’s orders in 2013.

(Reporting by Ju-min Park, Cynthia Kim, Hyunjoo Jin and Yun Hwan Chae in SEOUL, Joseph Sipalan, Praveen Menon and Emily Chow in KUALA LUMPUR, and Philip Wen in BEIJING; Writing by Tony Munroe and John Chalmers)

Duterte targets Philippine children in bid to widen drug war

boys undergoing drug rehabilitation in Philippines

By Clare Baldwin and Andrew R.C. Marshall

MANILA (Reuters) – Before Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs had even begun, allies of the Philippines president were quietly preparing for a wider offensive. On June 30, as Duterte was sworn in, they introduced a bill into the Philippine Congress that could allow children as young as nine to be targeted in a crackdown that has since claimed more than 7,600 lives.

The bill proposes to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 9 years old to prevent what it calls “the pampering of youthful offenders who commit crimes knowing they can get away with it.”

“You can ask any policeman or anyone connected with the law enforcement: We produce a generation of criminals,” Duterte said in a speech in Manila on December 12. Young children, he said, were becoming drug runners, thieves and rapists, and must be “taught to understand responsibility.”

The move to target children signals Duterte’s determination to intensify his drug war, which faces outrage abroad and growing unease at home. The president’s allies say his support in Congress will ensure the bill passes the House of Representatives by June.

The House would approve the bill “within six months,” said Fredenil Castro, who co-authored the legislation with the speaker of the House, Pantaleon Alvarez. It might face opposition in the Senate, but would prevail because of Duterte’s allies there, added Castro.

National police chief Ronald Dela Rosa recently announced that he was suspending anti-narcotics operations, which have killed more than 2,500 people, while the force rids itself of corrupt cops. The announcement came after it emerged last month that drug squad officers had killed a South Korean businessman at national police headquarters.

The killing of drug suspects has continued, albeit at a slower pace, with most following the pattern of killings that police have blamed on vigilantes. Human rights monitors believe vigilantes have killed several thousand people and operate in league with the police – a charge the police deny.

Duterte has signaled he intends to continue his drug war. In late January, he said the campaign would run until his presidency ends in 2022.

‘IN CAHOOTS WITH DRUG USERS’

Lowering the age of criminality was justified, Castro told Reuters, because many children were “in cahoots with drug users, with drug pushers, and others who are related to the drug trade.” He said he based his support for the bill on what he saw from his car and at churches – children begging and pickpocketing. “For me, there isn’t any evidence more convincing than what I see in every day of my life,” he said.

A controversial bill to restore the death penalty, another presidential priority, is also expected to pass the House of Representatives by mid-year, according to Duterte allies in Congress.

Supporters of the bill to lower the age of criminality say holding young children liable will discourage drug traffickers from exploiting them. Opponents, including opposition lawmakers and human rights groups, are appalled at a move they say will harm children without evidence it will reduce crime.

There is also resistance inside Duterte’s administration. A member of Duterte’s cabinet who heads the Department of Social Welfare and Development opposes the move. And a branch of the police responsible for protecting women and children disputes the claim that children are heavily involved in the drug trade – a claim not supported by official data.

Opponents warn that lowering the age of criminality would further strain a juvenile justice system that is struggling to cope. At worst, they say, with a drug war raging nationwide, the bill could legitimize the killing of minors.

“What will stop them from targeting children?” said Karina Teh, a local politician and child rights advocate in Manila. “They are using the war on drugs to criminalize children.”

IN THE FIRING LINE

The drug-war death toll includes at least 29 minors who were either shot by unidentified gunmen or accidentally killed during police operations from July to November 2016, according to the Children’s Legal Rights and Development Center (CLRDC) and the Network Against Killings in the Philippines, both Manila-based advocacy groups.

Dela Rosa said the Philippine National Police “fully supports” the new bill. It is “true and supported by data” that minors are used by drug traffickers because they can’t be held criminally liable, the police chief said in a submission to the House of Representatives.

Some police officers working on the streets agree with Dela Rosa. In Manila’s slums, children as young as six act as lookouts for dealers, shouting “The enemy is coming!” when police approach, said Cecilio Tomas, an anti-narcotics officer in the city. By their early teens, some become delivery boys and then dealers and users, said Tomas.

Salvador Panelo, Duterte’s chief legal counsel, said the bill would protect children by stopping criminals from recruiting them. “They will not become targets simply because they will no longer be involved,” he said.

Child rights experts say the legislation could put children in the firing line. They point to the deadly precedent set in the southern city of Davao, where Duterte pioneered his hard-line tactics as mayor. The Coalition Against Summary Execution, a Davao-based rights watchdog, documented 1,424 vigilante-style killings in the city between 1998 and 2015. Of those victims, 132 were 17 or younger.

For all but three years during that period, Duterte was either Davao’s mayor or vice-mayor. He denied any involvement in the killings.

CONTRADICTORY EVIDENCE

Althea Barbon was one of the children killed in the current nationwide drug war. The four year old was fatally wounded in August when police in an anti-narcotics operation shot at her father, the two Manila-based advocacy groups said. Unidentified gunmen shot dead Ericka Fernandez, 17, in a Manila alley on October 26, police said. Her bloody Barbie doll was collected as evidence. And on December 28, three boys, aged 15 or 16, were killed in Manila by what police said were motorbike-riding gunmen.

If the bill passes, the Philippines won’t be the only country where the age of criminality is low. In countries including England, Northern Ireland and Switzerland it is 10, according to the website of the Child Rights International Network, a research and advocacy group. In Scotland, children as young as eight can be held criminally responsible, but the government is in the process of raising the age limit to 12.

Critics of the Philippines’ bill say lower age limits are largely found in countries where the legal systems, detention facilities and rehabilitation programs are more developed.

Statistics from the police and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), the government’s top anti-narcotics body, appear to contradict the Duterte camp’s claim that there is a large number of young children deeply involved in the drug trade.

There were 24,000 minors among the 800,000 drug users and dealers who had registered with the authorities by November 30, according to police statistics. But less than two percent of those minors, or about 400 children, were delivering or selling drugs. Only 12 percent, or 2,815, were aged 15 or younger. Most of the 24,000 minors were listed as drug users.

The number of minors involved in the drug trade is “just a small portion,” said Noel Sandoval, deputy head of the Women and Children’s Protection Center (WCPC), the police department that compiled the data.

The WCPC is not pushing to lower the minimum age of criminal responsibility, said Sandoval, but if the age is to be lowered, his department recommends a minimum age of 12, not 9.

Between January 2011 and July 2016, 956 children aged six to 17 were “rescued nationwide from illegal drug activity,” according to PDEA. They were mostly involved with marijuana and crystal methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug also known as shabu, and were handed over to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). Of these, only 80 were under the age of 15.

MORE DETENTIONS

Asked for evidence that younger children are involved in the drug trade, Duterte’s legal counsel Panelo said the president had data from “all intelligence agencies.” Panelo declined to disclose those numbers.

Among the opponents of the bill is a member of Duterte’s cabinet, Judy Taguiwalo, secretary of the DSWD. The legislation runs counter to scientific knowledge about child development and would result not in lower crime rates but in more children being detained, Taguiwalo wrote in a letter to the House of Representatives in October.

Hidden by a high wall topped with metal spikes, the Valenzuela youth detention center in northern Manila is already operating at twice its capacity. Its 89 boys eat meals in shifts – the canteen can’t hold them all at once – and sleep on mats that spill out of the spartan dorms and into the hallways.

The government-run center, which currently houses boys aged 13 to 17 for up to a year, is considered a model facility in the Philippines. Even so, said Lourdes Gardoce, a social worker at the Valenzuela home, “It’s a big adjustment on our part if we have to cater to kids as young as nine.”

(Reporting by Clare Baldwin and Andrew R.C. Marshall. Edited by David Lague and Peter Hirschberg.)