Colombian police say no ‘hypothesis’ in Haiti assassination probe

By Luis Jaime Acosta

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Colombian police said on Monday they could not share any hypothesis about the murder of Haitian President Jovenel Moise and that they respect the Haitian state’s autonomy, after 18 Colombians tied to the case were arrested and three others killed.

Moise was shot dead early on Wednesday at his Port-au-Prince home by what Haitian authorities describe as a unit of assassins formed of 26 Colombians and two Haitian Americans, plunging the troubled Caribbean nation deeper into turmoil.

On Sunday, Haitian police said they had detained one of the suspected masterminds, 63-year-old Christian Emmanuel Sanon, a Haitian man whom authorities accuse of hiring mercenaries to oust and replace Moise. They did not explain Sanon’s motives beyond saying they were political.

“We cannot construct any hypothesis,” General Jorge Luis Vargas, head of the Colombian national police, told journalists in Bogota. “We respect the judicial autonomy of the Haitian state and its authorities.”

Families of some of the Colombians, many ex-soldiers, have said their loved ones were hired as bodyguards, not as mercenaries, and that they are innocent of killing Moise.

The men were initially contracted to protect Sanon, Haiti’s National Police Chief Leon Charles said Sunday, but then they were given a warrant for Moise’s arrest.

Most of the men were detained after an overnight shoot-out on Wednesday in Petionville, a hillside suburb of Port-au-Prince, and three killed.

Nineteen tickets to Haiti were bought for the men via a Miami-based company called CTU, Vargas added.

CTU, run by Venezuelan émigré Antonio Enmanuel Intriago Valera, has not responded to requests for comment from Reuters made on Sunday.

A man named Dimitri Herard, who served as Moise’s head of security, transited through Colombia multiple times earlier this year, Vargas added, during trips to Ecuador and the Dominican Republic between January and May.

Colombian police are investigating Herard’s activities during his visits, Vargas said.

High-ranking Colombian intelligence officials have been in Haiti since late on Friday to assist with the investigation.

Haitians in parts of Port-au-Prince were planning protests this week against interim prime minister and acting head of state Claude Joseph, according to social media posts.

Joseph’s right to lead the country has been challenged by other senior politicians, threatening to exacerbate the turmoil engulfing the poorest country in the Americas.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Ex-Colombian military, Haitian Americans suspected in killing of Haiti president

By Andre Paultre and Robenson Sanon

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – A heavily armed commando unit that assassinated Haitian President Jovenel Moise this week comprised 26 Colombians and two Haitian Americans, authorities said on Thursday, as the hunt went on for the masterminds of the brazen killing.

Moise, 53, was fatally shot early on Wednesday at his home by what officials said was a group of foreign, trained killers, pitching the poorest country in the Americas deeper into turmoil amid political divisions, hunger and widespread gang violence.

Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano said initial findings indicated that Colombians suspected of taking part in the assassination were retired members of his country’s armed forces, and pledged to support the investigations in Haiti.

Police tracked the suspected assassins on Wednesday to a house near the scene of the crime in Petionville, a northern, hillside suburb of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

A firefight lasted late into the night and authorities detained a number of suspects on Thursday.

Police Chief Leon Charles paraded 17 men before journalists at a news conference late on Thursday, showing a number of Colombian passports, plus assault rifles, machetes, walkie-talkies and materials including bolt cutters and hammers.

“Foreigners came to our country to kill the president,” Charles said, noting there were 26 Colombians and two Haitian Americans.

He revealed that 15 of the Colombians were captured, as were the Haitian Americans. Three of the assailants were killed and eight were still on the run, Charles said.

Jorge Luis Vargas, director of Colombia’s national police, said he had received information requests from Haiti on six suspects, two of whom had apparently been killed in an exchange with Haitian police. The other four were under arrest.

The foreign ministry in Taiwan, which maintains formal diplomatic ties with Haiti, said 11 of the suspects were captured at its embassy after they broke in.

Haiti’s minister of elections and interparty relations, Mathias Pierre, identified the Haitian-American suspects as James Solages, 35, and Joseph Vincent, 55.

A State Department spokesman could not confirm if any U.S. citizens were among those detained, but U.S. authorities were in contact with Haitian officials, including investigators, to discuss how the United States could assist.

Officials in the mostly French- and Creole-speaking Caribbean nation said on Wednesday the assassins appeared to have spoken in English and Spanish.

“It was a full, well-equipped commando (raid), with more than six cars and a lot of equipment,” Pierre said.

Officials have not yet given a motive for the killing. Since taking office in 2017, Moise had faced mass protests against his rule – first over corruption allegations and his management of the economy, then over his increasing grip on power.

An angry crowd gathered on Thursday morning to watch the police operation unfold, with some setting fire to the suspects’ cars and to the house where they had hunkered down. Bullet casings were strewn in the street.

“Burn them!” shouted some of the hundreds of people outside the police station where the suspects were being held.

POWER VACUUM

Charles said the public had helped police find the suspects, but he implored residents of the sprawling seafront city of 1 million people not to take justice into their own hands.

A 15-day state of emergency was declared on Wednesday to help authorities apprehend the killers.

Still, interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph said on Thursday it was time for the economy to reopen and that he had given instructions for the airport to restart operations.

Moise’s death has generated confusion about who is the legitimate leader of the country of 11 million people, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic.

Haiti has struggled to achieve stability since the fall of the Duvalier family dictatorship in 1986, grappling with a series of coups and foreign interventions.

A U.N. peacekeeping mission – meant to restore order after a rebellion toppled then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004 – ended in 2019 with the country still in disarray.

“I can picture a scenario under which there are issues regarding to whom the armed forces and national police are loyal, in the case there are rival claims to being placeholder president of the country,” said Ryan Berg, an analyst with the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Haiti’s 1987 constitution stipulates the head of the Supreme Court should take over. But amendments that are not unanimously recognized state that it be the prime minister, or, in the last year of a president’s mandate – the case with Moise – that parliament should elect a president.

The head of the Supreme Court died last month due to COVID-19 amid a surge in infections in one of the few countries yet to start a vaccination campaign.

There is no sitting parliament as legislative elections scheduled for late 2019 were postponed amid political unrest.

Moise just this week appointed a new prime minister, Ariel Henry, to take over from Joseph, although he had yet to be sworn in when the president was killed.

Joseph appeared on Wednesday to take charge of the situation, running the government response to the assassination, appealing to Washington for support and declaring a state of emergency.

Henry – considered more favorably by the opposition – told Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste that he did not consider Joseph the legitimate prime minister and he should revert to the role of foreign minister.

“I think we need to speak. Claude was supposed to stay in the government I was going to have,” Henry was quoted as saying.

(Reporting by Andre Paultre and

Prominent Hezbollah critic killed in Lebanon

By Ellen Francis and Laila Bassam

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A prominent Lebanese Shi’ite publisher who criticized the armed Hezbollah movement was shot dead in a car in southern Lebanon on Thursday, the first such killing of a high-profile activist in years.

A judge following the case said the body of Lokman Slim had four bullets in the head and one in the back. A security source said his phone was found on the side of a road.

They said the motive remained unclear.

Slim, who was in his late 50s, ran a research center, made documentaries with his wife and led efforts to build an archive on Lebanon’s 1975-1990 sectarian civil war.

He spoke against what he described as the Iranian-backed, Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah’s intimidation tactics and attempts to monopolies Lebanese politics.

His sister suggested Slim was murdered because of this. He was last seen after visiting a poet friend. His wife said he went missing overnight and did not answer his phone.

Hezbollah did not respond to a request for comment on his death, which the French ambassador and Lebanese officials, including the president, called “an assassination.”

Amnesty International, a top U.N. diplomat in Lebanon and the EU ambassador to the country, Ralph Tarraf, all demanded an investigation. “We deplore the prevailing culture of impunity,” Tarraf wrote in a tweet.

A Lebanese press freedom center, SKeyes, said it feared a cover-up of the crime and more attempts to eliminate “symbols of free political thought.”

The center was founded after a car bomb killed journalist Samir Kassir in 2005, at a time when a series of assassinations hit Lebanon targeting critics of Syria’s 15-year domination.

At Slim’s family home in Beirut’s southern suburbs, where Hezbollah holds sway, family members sat in shock. Some wept in silence. A relative said they found out about his death from a news alert while at a police station.

“What a big loss. And they lost a noble enemy too … It’s rare for someone to argue with them and live among them with respect,” his sister Rasha told reporters, without naming Hezbollah.

She said he had not mentioned any threats. “Killing is the only language they are fluent in,” she added. “I don’t know how we will go on with our work … It will be hard.”

‘A BIG LOSS’

In an interview last month on Saudi’s al-Hadath TV, Slim said he believed Damascus and its ally Hezbollah had a role in the port blast that ripped through Beirut in August, killing 200 people and injuring thousands.

Hezbollah has denied any links to the explosion.

President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, said he had ordered an investigation into the crime.

Slim’s criticism of Hezbollah faced rebuke from its supporters, who called him “an embassy Shi’ite,” accusing him of being a tool of the United States.

Washington, which classifies Hezbollah as terrorists, has ramped up sanctions against it to pressure Tehran.

Slim founded a nonprofit to promote civil liberties which received a grant under the U.S. Middle East Partnership Initiative and worked with an American think tank, leaked WikiLeaks diplomatic cables said in 2008.

In late 2019, Slim said people had gathered in his garden, chanting slurs and threats. His statement held Hezbollah’s leader responsible.

At the time, Slim also said he had received death threats after speaking in a debate at a Beirut camp that activists set up when protests against all the country’s political leaders swept Lebanon.

“His murder is a very big loss for Lebanon, for culture,” said Hazem Saghieh, a well-known Lebanese journalist. “He was one of a few who only knew how to speak his mind.”

(Additional reporting by Maha El Dahan, Alaa Kanaan and Beirut TV; Writing by Ellen Francis; Editing by William Maclean, Mark Heinrich and Giles Elgood)

Crisis-weary Lebanon braces for Hariri tribunal verdict

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Fifteen years after a truck bomb killed Lebanon’s former Sunni leader Rafik al-Hariri in Beirut, triggering regional upheaval, a U.N.-backed court trying four suspects from Shi’ite Hezbollah delivers a verdict on Friday that could shake the country again.

The defendants, members of the powerful Iran-backed group, have been tried in absentia on charges of planning and arranging the 2005 bombing which killed the former prime minister who spearheaded Lebanon’s reconstruction after its long civil war.

Hariri’s assassination prompted mass protests in Beirut and a wave of international pressure which forced Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon after the U.N. investigator linked it with the bombing.

The assassination also inflamed political and sectarian tensions inside Lebanon and across the Middle East, particularly when investigators started probing potential Hezbollah links to the death of a politician who was backed by the West as well as Sunni Gulf Arab states opposed to Tehran.

Hezbollah, which is both a political party in Lebanon’s government and a heavily armed guerrilla group, denies any role in Hariri’s killing and dismisses the Netherlands-based tribunal as politicized.

Few expect the defendants to be handed over if convicted, but any guilty verdicts could pose a problem to the government and deepen rifts unresolved since the 1975-1990 civil war. The country is already reeling from the worst economic crisis in decades and a deepening COVID-19 outbreak.

Hezbollah has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, Germany, Britain, Argentina and Honduras as well as the Sunni Muslim Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait. The EU classifies Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist group, but not its political wing.

Hariri’s supporters, including his son Saad who subsequently also served as prime minister, say they are not seeking revenge or confrontation, but that the court verdict must be respected.

“We… look forward to August 7 being a day of truth and justice for Lebanon and a day of punishment for the criminals,” Saad Hariri said last week.

“AVOIDING STRIFE”

Hariri stepped down as prime minister in October after failing to address demands of protesters demonstrating against years of corruption by a ruling elite which has driven Lebanon to its current financial crisis.

His successor Hassan Diab, backed by Hezbollah and its allies, says the country must avoid further turmoil over the tribunal verdicts. “Confronting strife is a priority,” Diab tweeted last week.

In the Feb. 14, 2005 bombing, a truck laden with 3,000 kg of high-grade explosives blew up as Rafik Hariri’s motorcade passed Beirut’s waterfront Saint Georges hotel, killing him and 21 other people and leaving a huge crater in the road.

Salim Jamil Ayyash, Hassan Habib Merhi, Assad Hassan Sabra and Hussein Hassan Oneissi are charged with conspiracy to commit a terrorist attack. Ayyash is charged with committing a terrorist act, homicide and attempted homicide.

Prosecutors said data culled from telephone networks showed that the defendants called each other from dozens of mobile phones to monitor Hariri in the months before the attack and to coordinate their movements on the day itself.

The men have not been seen in public for years.

Hezbollah has often questioned the tribunal’s integrity and neutrality, saying its work had been tainted by false witnesses and reliance on telephone records that Israeli spies arrested in Lebanon could have manipulated.

“It is Hezbollah’s right to have doubts about the court, which transformed into political score-settling far from the truth,” said Salem Zahran, an analyst with links to Hezbollah leaders. Any verdict “has no value” to the group, he said.

Nabil Boumonsef, deputy editor-in-chief of Lebanon’s An-Nahar newspaper, said neither Saad Hariri nor Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah wanted to escalate tensions.

But he expected Hariri to call for the defendants to be handed over if found guilty – which would leave Hezbollah on the defensive politically despite its military strength. If the group refused to surrender them it could put the government which it helped put together in difficulty.

As it tries to tackle the deep economic crisis, a guilty verdict could also jeopardise Lebanon’s efforts, which have been supported by France, to win international aid.

“France… will have to take a position on Hezbollah after the verdict comes out on Aug. 7,” Boumonsef said.

France hosted a donor meeting in Paris in 2018 when Beirut won more than $11 billion in pledges for infrastructure investment. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Lebanese leaders in Beirut last month that Paris was ready to mobilize international support if Lebanon moved ahead with reform.

(Writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Malaysia frees Indonesian woman accused of Kim Jong Nam’s poisoning

Siti Aisyah, who was previously a suspect in the murder case of North Korean leader's half brother Kim Jong Nam reacts as she arrives in news conference, after a Malaysian court released her of charges at Halim Perdanakusuma airport in Jakarta, Indonesia, March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

By Rozanna Latiff

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – An Indonesian woman accused in the 2017 chemical poison murder of the North Korean leader’s half-brother was freed on Monday after a Malaysian court dropped the charge in a case that drew suspicions of being a political assassination.

As the court announced its decision, Siti Aisyah, 26, turned to her Vietnamese co-defendant, Doan Thi Huong, 30, in the dock and the two women, who had been facing the death penalty together, embraced in tears.

They had been accused of poisoning Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with liquid VX, a banned chemical weapon, at Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017.

Following the dramatic decision to release Siti Aisyah, a defense lawyer asked for an adjournment in the case against Huong in order to submit a request that charges be dropped against her too.

Defense lawyers have maintained that the women were pawns in an assassination orchestrated by North Korean agents. The North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur was defaced with graffiti just hours before the trial was to resume, authorities said.

Interpol had issued a red notice for four North Koreans who were identified as suspects by Malaysian police and had left the country hours after the murder.

During the trial, the court was shown CCTV footage of two women allegedly assaulting Kim Jong Nam while he prepared to check in for a flight.

Siti Aisyah, who had worked as a masseuse at a hotel in the Malaysian capital, and Huong, who described herself as an actress, had maintained that they believed they had been hired to participate in a reality TV prank show.

Once the court released her, Siti Aisyah, wearing a black traditional Malay dress and headscarf, was rushed to the Indonesian embassy, where she spoke briefly with journalists.

“I feel so happy. I did not expect that today I would be released,” Siti Aisyah said, adding that she was healthy and had been treated well in prison.

Prosecutors told the court that they had been instructed to withdraw the charge against Siti Aisyah. No reason was given.

While the court discharged Siti Aisyah from the case, it rejected her lawyer’s request for a full acquittal, as it said that the trial had already established a prima facie case and she could be recalled if fresh evidence emerged.

The defense had disputed whether the CCTV footage was clear enough to identify the Indonesian woman as an assailant, or establish what she had done to the victim.

Gooi Soon Seng, Siti Aisyah’s lawyer, said his client was “a scapegoat”.

“I still believe that North Korea had something to do with it,” Gooi said.

Kim Jong Nam had lived in exile in Macau for several years before the killing, having fled his homeland after his half-brother became North Korea’s leader in 2011 following their father’s death.

Some South Korean lawmakers said the North Korean regime had ordered the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, who had been critical of his family’s dynastic rule. Pyongyang has denied the accusation.

NOT OVER YET FOR HUONG

Left to stand trial by herself after Siti Aisyah’s release, Huong was still sobbing as she prepared to take the stand on Monday at the start of her defense. But the court agreed to resume proceedings on Thursday instead, pending a reply from the attorney-general to the request that charges against her also be withdrawn.

“Where is the principle of equality? Both of them were charged on the same evidence, the defense was called on fairly the same grounds,” said Salim Bashir, one of Huong’s lawyers.

“Until today, we do not know what were the exceptional circumstances that were needed for the attorney-general to review the charge against Siti Aisyah. The prosecution never advanced a single ground for the withdrawal.”

Although the two women were being tried together, the cases against them were separate, and the court had asked the Indonesian woman to present her defense first.

Siti Aisyah’s trial was suspended in December as her lawyers argued with prosecutors over access to statements made by seven witnesses.

Prosecutor Muhammad Iskandar Ahmad told Reuters the decision to withdraw the charge against her was made based on “several representations”, without elaborating.

Siti Aisyah flew back to Jakarta on Monday, accompanied by Indonesian Law Minister Yasonna H. Laoly.

Laoly said Siti Aisyah’s release, after over two years in prison, was the result of high-level diplomacy by his government, including meetings with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the attorney-general.

“After studying the case thoroughly, we sent letters to the Attorney-General of Malaysia and met with him and Prime Minister Mahathir last August,” Laoly told reporters with Siti Aisyah shortly after landing in Jakarta.

Laoly had written to Malaysia’s attorney-general, laying the blame on North Korea.

“Miss Aisyah was deceived and had no awareness whatsoever that she was being used as an intelligence tool of North Korea,” he wrote.

(Additional reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa in JAKARTA; writing by Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)

Turkey indicts 28 people, including cleric Gulen, for 2016 assassination of Russian envoy

U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. July 10, 2017. REUTERS/Charles Mostoller

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey charged 28 people on Friday in relation to the 2016 assassination of the Russian ambassador to Ankara, naming the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen as the prime suspect in the case, the state-owned Anadolu news agency said.

Andrei Karlov was shot dead by an off-duty policeman while speaking at an Ankara exhibit opening in December 2016. The gunman shouted “Allahu Akbar” and “Don’t forget Aleppo!” as he opened fire, apparently referring to Russia’s involvement in Syria. He was shot dead by police at the scene.

President Tayyip Erdogan has said Gulen’s movement was behind the assassination, a charge the cleric has denied. Erdogan also blames the preacher’s network for an attempted military coup in July 2016.

Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999, has condemned the coup and denied any involvement with it.

Authorities charged Gulen and 27 others of attempting to “overthrow the constitutional order”, “being a member of a terrorist organization” and of premeditated murder, Anadolu said.

Prosecutors say the Gulen’s organization was attempting to derail relations between Turkey and Russia with the killing. At the time of the December 2016 killing of Karlov, ties between the two countries had already been strained, after Turkey downed a Russian war plane over Syria a year earlier.

Since Karlov’s assassination, ties between Ankara and Moscow have made steady improvement.

(Reporting by Ece Toksabay; Editing by David Dolan)

Civil rights ‘Freedom Riders’ cherish Martin Luther King’s lasting legacy, 50 years on

Freedom Riders Bob and Helen Singleton are pictured at their home in this still image from video in Inglewood, California, U.S., March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Alan Devall

By Jane Ross

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Bob Singleton only met civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. once, but that meeting changed his life.

As the 50th anniversary of King’s death approaches on April 4, Singleton and others have been reflecting on the man who inspired them and the legacy he left behind.

It was early 1961 and the then 24-year-old college student was protesting against Woolworths’ racially segregated southern lunch counters at a picket line outside the company’s Hollywood, California, store when King was introduced to him by a mutual acquaintance.

“He marched with us in front of the Woolworths store and that really made me, from that point on, an organizer,” said Singleton, now 81.

Soon after that meeting, Singleton organized a group of University of California Los Angeles students to travel to Jackson, Mississippi, to enforce federal desegregation laws at the train terminal.

They were known as the Freedom Riders, and among the group was Singleton’s wife, Helen, now 85. She, too, was inspired by King.

“He was able to make you feel that, whatever burden you might be carrying, carry it with dignity and hope. And then also take action,” she said.

The Singletons and hundreds of other young Freedom Riders were arrested and jailed. But by November 1961, the federal Interstate Commerce Commission’s ruling prohibiting segregation on interstate transportation facilities was being enforced across the South.

“We won that battle,” said Bob Farrell, 81, who was arrested in Houston, Texas, in one of the last organized Freedom Rides in August, 1961. “Inside of one year we contributed to changing public policy that had been there since the beginning of the 20th century.”

But the civil rights struggle was far from over. King was killed on a motel balcony in Memphis by an avowed segregationist on April 4, 1968.

Farrell traveled to Atlanta for his funeral.

“I can remember what it was like finally getting over to Ebenezer Baptist Church and preparing for the great march to Morehouse College where Dr. King was going to be temporarily buried,” he said.

“The silence, the silence once the body came out of the church, the silence on that long march and then the memorial celebration at Morehouse College with the speakers,” he said. “It was just something I’ve never experienced before or since.”

The Singletons and Farrell agree there has been significant progress in racial equality in the five decades since King’s death, but all are dismayed at the current state of U.S. race relations.

“The fact that, 50 years later, there’s so much still to be done just demonstrates to me and to others how deep, how very, very deep white supremacy, its premises and the dynamic that still propels our nation, is still there,” Farrell said.

(Reporting by Jane Ross; Editing by Paul Tait)

Malaysia further downgrading ties with North Korea a year after airport assassination

Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, who is on trial for the killing of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korea's leader, is escorted as she arrives at the Shah Alam High Court on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia January 22, 2018. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin

By Rozanna Latiff and A. Ananthalakshmi

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – One year after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur’s airport, Malaysia is further downgrading once-close ties with Pyongyang, sources familiar with the government’s plans said.

Kim Jong Nam was assassinated on Feb. 13, 2017 when two women smeared his face with VX nerve agent – which the U.N. lists as a weapon of mass destruction. The women claim they were tricked into believing they were part of a reality show, but U.S. and South Korea say the murder was orchestrated by Pyongyang.

The brazen killing came as North Korea was starting to accelerate its missile tests and countries around the world came under mounting pressure to enforce ever-tightening U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.

The repercussions from the killing are still being felt.

Malaysia is considering reducing the staff size of the North Korean mission in Kuala Lumpur to four by not renewing requests to replace diplomats when their terms end, according to a diplomatic source and an advisor to the government. Both declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Malaysia is also turning down invitations to participate in North Korean events. A diplomatic source with direct knowledge of the situation said Malaysia declined an invitation to send an envoy to attend last week’s military parade in Pyongyang.

“It’s just too dangerous,” the source told Reuters, referring to the Malaysian diplomats North Korea stopped from leaving the country last year.

The Malaysian foreign ministry declined to comment.

Meanwhile, trade and business ties have all but dried up.

A Malaysian businessman, who until recently imported coal from North Korea, said he stopped buying from Pyongyang – even before U.N. sanctions that banned all trade of North Korean coal – because the purchases were drawing a lot of attention after the Kim Jong Nam killing.

TRAVEL BAN

Ties quickly deteriorated after North Korea’s ambassador to Malaysia questioned the credibility of the police investigation into the assassination, insisting Kim Jong Nam was an ordinary citizen who had died of a heart attack.

Malaysia recalled its ambassador to North Korea, banned its citizens from traveling to the North and canceled visa-free entry for North Koreans.

North Korea retaliated with a travel ban on all Malaysians in Pyongyang, trapping three diplomats and six family members. They were able to fly out only after Malaysia agreed to hand over Kim Jong Nam’s corpse and send three North Koreans wanted for questioning back to North Korea.

Pressure from the United States has been mounting on Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries to cut trade and diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, as President Donald Trump seeks support for tougher action against nuclear-armed North Korea.

Malaysia said last year it was considering permanently closing its embassy in Pyongyang and moving North Korea services to its Beijing mission. It has not been staffed since last April after its diplomats were allowed to leave under the swap agreement.

The cabinet has yet to make a decision on closing the embassy.

“There’s no turning back the clock on relations with North Korea, not after the Kim Jong Nam incident and the near impossibility of having any positive relationship with the country under such severe sanctions,” said Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies.

“I think the sense is that North Korea took advantage of Malaysia’s goodwill and relative openness,” he said.

TRADE HALTED

North Korea benefited from its Malaysian ties — Pyongyang exported everything from coal and medical devices to crabs, cloth hangers and fire extinguishers to Malaysia. Imports, however, came to a grinding halt last year.

Malaysia was also host to hundreds of North Korean workers, who were sent back after the airport killing.

A Reuters report showed how North Korea’s spy agency, the Reconnaissance Bureau, was running an arms operation out of Kuala Lumpur.

The frayed ties have affected Malaysian businesses that used to trade with the isolated country.

“We have been doing business with North Korea for 10 years,” said the Malaysian coal trader who declined to be identified.

“Suddenly it became a big issue because of the murder,” said the trader, adding he was questioned by the police and the foreign ministry over a March purchase.

It’s a sharp contrast from 10 years ago when it was easy for Malaysian businessmen to engage with Pyongyang, he said.

“I met the (North Korean) trade attaché and he arranged a shipment for me. That’s how I started,” he said.

The rocky relationship also remains in the spotlight with the continuing trial of the two women, Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong from Vietnam, in a Kuala Lumpur court on charges of murdering Kim Jong Nam.

The prosecution has built its case on airport video recordings of the killing and VX residue found on the women.

Defense lawyers say the prosecution has not put forward a motive for the killing and argue the two women were merely unwitting pawns in the attack.

The prosecution is not expected to finish presenting evidence until next month.

The women face the death penalty if convicted.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff and A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by Bill Tarrant)

Airport video shows North Korean embassy official with Kim Jong Nam murder suspects

Indonesian Siti Aisyah who is on trial for the killing of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korea's leader, is escorted as she leaves at the Department of Chemistry in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – A North Korean embassy official and a manager of Air Koryo, the national airline, met suspects wanted for the killing of Kim Jong Nam shortly after the murder, according to video recordings shown at the trial in Kuala Lumpur on Monday.

Two women, Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong from Vietnam, and four men who are still at large, have been charged in the murder of the half-brother of the country’s leader, using banned chemical weapon VX at Kuala Lumpur airport on Feb. 13.

Defense lawyers have said Siti Aisyah and Huong were duped into thinking they were playing a prank for a reality TV show.

The four suspects, who were caught on airport camera talking to the women before they attacked Kim Jong Nam, were identified as North Koreans for the first time on Monday, a month since the trial began.

Three of them were seen meeting a North Korean embassy official and the Air Koryo official, both unidentified, at the main airport terminal within an hour of the attack, lead police investigator Wan Azirul Nizam Che Wan Aziz told the court.

North Korea has vehemently denied accusations by South Korean and U.S. officials that Kim Jong Un’s regime was behind the killing.

Kim Jong Nam, who was living in exile in Macau, had criticized his family’s dynastic rule of North Korea and his brother had issued a standing order for his execution, some South Korean lawmakers have said.

Footage played in the courtroom showed the Air Koryo official helping the three suspects at an airport check-in counter. He was later seen arranging a flight ticket for the fourth suspect too, Wan Azirul said.

Wan Azirul identified the men as North Koreans Hong Song Hac, Ri Ji Hyon, Ri Jae Nam and O Jong Gil, citing intelligence findings by the special branch of the Malaysian police.

Wan Azirul said he investigated and took statements from both the embassy and the Air Koryo official.

“They explained that the reason they were there was to assist every North Korean individual or citizen who boarded a flight to leave the country,” he told the court.

The North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur did not respond to Reuters’ telephone calls and emails to seek comment.

The sensational murder unraveled once-close ties between Malaysia and North Korea.

Malaysia was forced to return Kim Jong Nam’s body and allow the return home of three North Korean men wanted for questioning and hiding in the Kuala Lumpur embassy, in exchange for the release of nine Malaysians stuck in Pyongyang.

Wan Azirul said police intelligence also provided information on a fifth suspect identified as Ri Ji U, who was also “suspected to have the real name James”, based on images and photographs taken from Siti Aisyah’s phone.

 

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Additional reporting by Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Praveen Menon and Clarence Fernandez)

 

Trump releases some JFK files, blocks others under pressure

Trump releases some JFK files, blocks others under pressure

By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday ordered the unveiling of 2,800 documents related to the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy but yielded to pressure from the FBI and CIA to block the release of other records to be reviewed further.

Congress had ordered in 1992 that all remaining sealed files pertaining to the investigation into Kennedy’s death should be fully opened to the public through the National Archives in 25 years, by Oct. 26, 2017, except for those the president authorized for further withholding.

Trump had confirmed on Saturday that he would allow for the release of the final batch of once-classified records, amounting to tens of thousands of pages, “subject to the receipt of further information.”

But as the deadline neared, the administration decided at the last minute to stagger the final release over the next 180 days while government agencies studied whether any documents should stay sealed or redacted.

The law allows the president to keep material under wraps if it is determined that harm to intelligence operations, national defense, law enforcement or the conduct of foreign relations would outweigh the public’s interest in full disclosure.

More than 2,800 uncensored documents were posted immediately to the National Archives website on Thursday evening – a staggering, disparate cache that news outlets began poring through seeking new insights into a tragedy that has been endlessly dissected for decades by investigators, scholars and conspiracy theorists.

The rest will be released “on a rolling basis,” with “redactions in only the rarest of circumstances,” by the end of the review on April 26, 2018, the White House said in a statement.

In a memo to government agency heads, Trump said the American people deserved as much access as possible to the records.

“Therefore, I am ordering today that the veil finally be lifted,” he wrote, adding that he had no choice but to accept the requested redactions for now.

A Central Intelligence Agency spokesman told Reuters that every single one of approximately 18,000 remaining CIA records in the collection would ultimately be released, with just 1 percent of the material left redacted.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo was a lead advocate in arguing to the White House for keeping some materials secret, one senior administration official said.

While Kennedy was killed over half a century ago, the document file included material from investigations during the 1970s through the 1990s. Intelligence and law enforcement officials argued their release could thus put at risk some more recent “law enforcement equities” and other materials that still have relevance, the official said.

Trump was resistant but “acceded to it with deep insistence that this stuff is going to be reviewed and released in the next six months,” the official added.

QUELLING CONSPIRACY THEORIES?

Academics who have studied Kennedy’s slaying on Nov. 22, 1963, said they expected nothing in the final batch of files would alter the official conclusion of investigators that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin who fired on the president’s open limousine that day in Dallas from an upper window of the Texas Book Depository building overlooking the motorcade route.

They likewise anticipated that the latest releases would do little to quell long-held conspiracy theories that the 46-year-old Democratic president’s killing was organized by the Mafia, by Cuba, or a cabal of rogue agents.

Of the roughly 5 million pages of JFK assassination-related records held by the National Archives, 88 percent have been available to the public without restriction since the late 1990s, and 11 percent more have been released with sensitive portions redacted. Only about 1 percent have remain withheld in full, according to the National Archives.

Thousands of books, articles, TV shows and films have explored the idea that Kennedy’s assassination was the result of an elaborate conspiracy. None have produced conclusive proof that Oswald, who was fatally shot by a nightclub owner two days after killing Kennedy, worked with anyone else, although they retain a powerful cultural currency.

“My students are really skeptical that Oswald was the lone assassin,” said Patrick Maney, a professor of history at Boston College. “It’s hard to get our minds around this, that someone like a loner, a loser, could on his own have murdered Kennedy and changed the course of world history. But that’s where the evidence is.”

Kennedy’s assassination was the first in a string of politically motivated killings, including those of his brother Robert F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., that stunned the United States during the turbulent 1960s. He remains one of the most admired U.S. presidents.

(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington and Scott Malone in Boston; Editing by Peter Cooney and Michael Perry)