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)

Final trove of documents to offer new details on JFK assassination

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy arrive at Love Field in Dallas, Texas less than an hour before his assassination in this November 22, 1963 photo by White House photographer Cecil Stoughton obtained from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. JFK Library/The White House/Cecil Stoughton/File Photo via REUTERS

By Scott Malone

BOSTON (Reuters) – More than half a century after U.S. President John F. Kennedy was struck down by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas, Texas, the United States is due on Thursday to release the final files on the investigation into the killing that rattled a nation.

Academics who have studied Kennedy’s slaying on Nov. 22, 1963, said they expected the final batch of files to offer no major new details on why Lee Harvey Oswald gunned down the first and only Irish-American Roman Catholic to hold the office.

They also feared that the final batch of more than 5 million total pages on the Kennedy assassination held in the National Archives will do little to quell long-held conspiracy theories that the 46-year-old president’s killing was organized by the Mafia, by Cuba, or a cabal of rogue agents.

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 shot dead a day after killing Kennedy, worked with anyone else, though 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.”

In 1992, Congress ordered that all records relating to the investigation into Kennedy’s death should be open to the public, and set a final deadline of Oct. 26, 2017 for the entire set to be made public.

President Donald Trump on Saturday confirmed that he would allow the documents to be made public.

The documents to be released on Thursday will likely focus on efforts by the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation to determine what contact Oswald had with spies from Cuba and the former Soviet Union on a trip to Mexico City in September 1963, experts said.

“There was a real concern that Oswald was maybe in league with the Soviet Union,” Maney said.

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.

(Reporting by Scott Malone)

Chaotic scenes as suspects wheeled around airport where North Korean leader’s brother killed

Chaotic scenes as suspects wheeled around airport where North Korean leader's brother killed

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Handcuffed, wearing bulletproof vests and under heavily armed guard, the two women accused of murdering the half-brother of North Korea’s leader were pushed around a Malaysian airport in wheelchairs on Tuesday during a court visit to the crime scene.

Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, and Doan Thi Huong, 28, a Vietnamese, are charged with murdering Kim Jong Nam by smearing his face with VX, a chemical nerve agent, at Kuala Lumpur’s budget international terminal on Feb. 13.

Defense lawyers say the women thought they were involved in a prank for a reality TV show when they encountered a man at the airport and did not know they were handling poison.

The two women were brought back to the scene as part of an entourage of court officials, led by trial judge Azmi Ariffin and accompanied by over 200 police officers and dozens of journalists, on a visit to retrace the events that unfolded before, during and after Kim Jong Nam’s death.

Defense lawyers requested the visit after video recordings of the women on airport closed-circuit television were screened in court.

Gooi Soon Seng, Siti Aisyah’s lawyer, said the visit was necessary to verify the surroundings and locations where the prosecution say the murder took place.

“The CCTV footages were taken from various cameras and various places, so from there we couldn’t get a complete picture on how (the incident) took place,” Gooi told a news conference after the visit.

The site visit covered various locations in the terminal shown in the videos, such as a restaurant where Siti Aisyah was seen meeting an unidentified man, the toilets where police witnesses said both women had gone to after the attack on Kim Jong Nam, the clinic where the victim sought medical aid and the taxi stands where both suspects were seen after the attack.

Huong appeared unwell midway through the three-hour site visit, while Siti Aisyah broke down in tears. Both women were then provided wheelchairs.

Defense lawyers later said both Huong and Siti Aisyah were exhausted from being weighed down by their bulletproof vests.

Recordings on Feb. 13 show Huong approaching Kim and grasping his face from behind near the airport’s check-in counters before quickly leaving. Siti Aisyah could not be seen but was identified by a police witness as a figure running in another direction. The videos also show the women heading to separate bathrooms to wash their hands.

Both women were seen meeting with two men, identified only as Mr. Chang and Mr. Y, before Kim Jong Nam’s death. According to police, the men had applied liquid on the women’s hands, and were among four suspects-at-large charged together with the women for the murder.

‘CLOSELY-WATCHED TRIAL’

The airport visit comes as the high-profile trial entered its third week. Twelve witnesses have testified so far.

Forensic and chemical weapons experts said Kim Jong Nam had died of nerve agent poisoning, and that VX had been found on Siti Aisyah and Huong’s clothes. Traces of the poison were also found under Huong’s fingernails.

Prosecutors say Siti Aisyah and Huong conspired with four others who are still at large to kill Kim Jong Nam.

South Korean and U.S. officials have said that Kim Jong Un’s regime was behind his half-brother’s death.

Kim Jong Nam, who was living in exile in Macau, had criticized his family’s dynastic rule of North Korea and his brother had ordered his execution, according to some South Korean lawmakers.

The hearing resumes in court on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff, Writing by Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Michael Perry)

Trump to release JFK files, subject to ‘further information’

Roses lie on a marker outside the home where President John F. Kennedy was born 100 years ago on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts, U.S., May 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Saturday that, subject to receipt of further information, he planned to allow the opening of long-secret files on the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy that are scheduled for release next week.

Politico magazine earlier quoted Trump administration and other U.S. government officials as saying the president would almost certainly block the release of information from some of the thousands of classified files, which the U.S. National Archives is due to make public by an Oct. 26 deadline. (http://politi.co/2yGjMtr)

“Subject to the receipt of further information, I will be allowing, as President, the long blocked and classified JFK FILES to be opened,” Trump said in a tweet.

The Nov. 22 1963 assassination cut short “Camelot,” as the 1,000 days of the Kennedy presidency became known. Kennedy was 46 when he died and remains one of the most admired U.S. presidents.

Thousands of books, articles, TV shows, movies and documentaries have been produced about the assassination and surveys have shown that a majority of Americans still distrust official evidence that points to Lee Harvey Oswald as the sole killer.

Despite serious questions about the official inquest, and theories purporting that organized crime, Cuba or a cabal of U.S. security agents was involved, conspiracy theorists have yet to produce conclusive proof that Oswald acted in consort with anyone.

Over the years, the National Archives has released most documents related to the case, but a final batch remains and only Trump has the authority to decide whether some should continue to be withheld or released in redacted form.

The Washington Post and other media have quoted officials as saying that government agencies have lobbied Trump to withhold some of the documents, arguing that some of the more recent files could expose relatively recent intelligence and law enforcement operations.

Saturday’s Washington Post said Kennedy assassination experts do not think the last batch of papers contains any major bombshells, but may shed light on the activities of Oswald while he was traveling in Mexico City in late September 1963, and courting Cuban and Soviet spies.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Nick Zieminski)