Investigators to identify MH17 suspects: Dutch broadcasters

FILE PHOTO: A Malaysian air crash investigator inspects the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo) in Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 22, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev/File Photo

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Investigators will next week announce criminal proceedings against suspects in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 five years ago, allegedly by pro-Russian separatists, two leading Dutch broadcasters reported on Friday.

MH17 was shot out of the sky over territory held by separatists in eastern Ukraine as it flew from Amsterdam to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board.

About two-thirds of the passengers were Dutch.

Dutch prosecutors said on Friday a multi-national investigation team would present its latest findings to media and families on June 19. A spokesman for the national Dutch prosecution service declined to specify what would be announced.

Citing anonymous sources, broadcaster RTL reported that the public prosecution service had decided to launch a case against several MH17 suspects.

National public broadcaster NOS also reported that criminal proceedings will be announced against individual suspects.

No suspects were named in the reports.

The Joint Investigation Team, which seeks to try the suspects under Dutch law, has said the missile system came from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, based in the western Russian city of Kursk.

Investigators had said their next step would be to identify individual culprits and to attempt to put them on trial.

Dutch officials have said Russia has refused to cooperate.

Russia is not expected to surrender any potential suspects who may be on its territory and authorities have said individuals could be tried in absentia.

The Joint Investigation Team was formed in 2014 by Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine to investigate collaboratively.

The Netherlands and Australia, which lost 38 people, hold Russia legally responsible. Moscow denies all involvement and maintains that it does not support, financially or with equipment, pro-Russian rebels fighting Ukrainian government troops.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

China warships leave Sydney after surprise visit ‘raises hackles’

The Sydney Opera House can be seen as the Chinese naval ship Kunlun Shan departs the Garden Island Naval Base in Sydney, Australia, June 7, 2019. AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi/via REUTERS

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Three Chinese warships sailed out of Sydney on Friday after an unannounced visit that came amid a tussle for influence between Australia and China in the Pacific.

The show-of-force call by a frigate, supply ship and amphibious warfare vessel was planned but never announced by Canberra.

“That raised a lot of hackles,” John Blaxland, professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Friday.

“The ships arrived off Darling Point and other famous places in Sydney’s harbor without people knowing in advance … and with armed soldiers and sailors on the decks of the ships looking fairly aggressive.”

They left for China under leaden skies in the early afternoon.

The warships had arrived on the eve of the 30th anniversary of China’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in and around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Photos showed members of the Chinese community waiting at the navy wharf where the ships docked to greet the sailors.

“It was a reciprocal visit because Australian naval vessels visited China,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in the Solomon Islands’ capital Honiara this week.

“So it may have been a surprise to others, but it certainly wasn’t a surprise to the government.”

Ties between Australia and China hit a low last year when Canberra passed laws aimed at thwarting Chinese influence in domestic affairs and also over China’s assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea.

Australia has offered diplomatic support to U.S. “freedom of navigation” voyages through the South China Sea.

(Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Thousands gather for Anzac Day in Australia, New Zealand amid heightened security

General view at the Anzac Day dawn service at Elephant Rock, Currumbin Beach on the Gold Coast, Australia, April 25, 2019. AAP Image/Dave Hunt/via REUTERS

By Praveen Menon

WELLINGTON/SYDNEY (Reuters) – Tens of thousands gathered in Australia and New Zealand at Anzac Day memorials on Thursday amid heightened security following the shooting massacre at Christchurch mosques and deadly suicide bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka.

A Sri Lankan government minister says the bombings on Easter Sunday were retaliation for the Christchurch massacre on March 15, in which a lone gunman killed 50 Muslim worshippers at two mosques. New Zealand says it has no evidence of a link.

A member of the 324 Squadron during the ANZAC Day Dawn Service at Coogee Beach in Sydney, Australia, April 25, 2019. AAP Image/Steven Saphore/via REUTERS

A member of the 324 Squadron during the ANZAC Day Dawn Service at Coogee Beach in Sydney, Australia, April 25, 2019. AAP Image/Steven Saphore/via REUTERS

Turkish authorities arrested a suspected member of the Islamic State group they believe was planning to attack an Anzac Day commemoration at Gallipoli attended by hundreds of Australians and New Zealanders, Turkish police said on Wednesday.

The arrest didn’t deter some 1,100 Australians and New Zealanders who attended a dawn service at Anzac Cove in Turkey.

“I feel quite safe, I feel that if there is any concerns, that it would have been called off and they wouldn’t have put us at risk,” said Chris King, a nurse from New Zealand.

Anzac Day commemorates the bloody battle on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey during World War One. On April 25, 1915, thousands of troops from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) were among a larger Allied force that landed on the narrow beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula, an ill-fated campaign that would claim more than 130,000 lives.

While the Gallipoli campaign against the Turks failed, the landing date of April 25 has become a major day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand for their troops killed in all military conflicts.

Addressing thousands gathered for a dawn service at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that, in the wake of the Christchurch massacre, Anzac Day 2019 should be an even greater uniting force.

“Let us recommit to always remembering our shared humanity that there is more that unites us than divides us,” Ardern said.

“Our sense of independence is as strong as our sense of responsibility to each other and not just as nation states but as human beings. That is part of the Anzac legacy,” she said.

Heavily armed police surrounded the function area and snipers were positioned on rooftops during the ceremony.

A member of the 324 Squadron during the ANZAC Day Dawn Service at Coogee Beach in Sydney, Australia, April 25, 2019. AAP Image/Steven Saphore/via REUTERS

A member of the 324 Squadron during the ANZAC Day Dawn Service at Coogee Beach in Sydney, Australia, April 25, 2019. AAP Image/Steven Saphore/via REUTERS

Britain’s Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, paid tribute at the Auckland War Memorial alongside Ardern. He will travel to Christchurch later on Thursday to honor the 50 victims of the shooting.

Heightened security saw about 1,000 police deployed across New Zealand at hundreds of locations and security concerns meant Anzac Day events in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, and elsewhere were scaled back.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison addressed a dawn service in Townsville, Queensland, where he shared memories of his grandfather, who served in World War Two.

“Our heroes don’t just belong to the past, they live with us today,” Morrison said.

(Reporting by Praveen Menon in WELLINGTON and Will Ziebell in MELBOURNE. Additional reporting by Kemal Aslan and Bulent Usta; Editing by Michael Perry)

Dutch security agency warns against Chinese, Russian technology

FILE PHOTO: EU leaders including Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel (C), Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte (R), Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel (L) and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni (rear left) gather around a computer screen at the European Union leaders summit in Malta, February 3, 2017. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit-Lupi/File Photo

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – The Dutch security service advised the government on Tuesday not to use technology from countries with active cyber-hacking campaigns against the Netherlands, such as China and Russia.

The recommendation came as the Dutch government is weighing options for a new 5G telecommunications network in the coming years and seeks to replace its domestic emergency services network, known as C2000.

The AIVD security agency flagged Chinese and Russian attempts at digital espionage as a major security risk.

“It is undesirable for the Netherlands to exchange sensitive information or for vital processes to depend on the hardware or software of companies from countries running active cyber programs against Dutch interests,” the AIVD said in its annual report.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte has refused to rule out doing business with Chinese technology companies, even as key allies the United States and Australia restricted Huawei Technologies from accessing its next-generation mobile networks on national-security grounds.

Washington has said that Huawei is at the beck and call of the Chinese state, warning that its network equipment may contain “back doors” that could open them up to cyber espionage. Huawei says such concerns are unfounded.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Turkey’s Erdogan shows shooting video again, hours after NZ meeting

Secretary General of OIC Yousef bin Ahmad Al-Othaimeen speaks as New Zealand's Foreign Minister Winston Peters listens during an emergency meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul, Turkey, March 22, 2019. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

By Sarah Dadouch and Bulent Usta

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan replayed graphic footage of New Zealand’s worst mass shooting at an election rally on Friday – just hours after that country’s foreign minister met him and said he believed the controversial showings had stopped.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters arrived in Istanbul on Friday to talk to Erdogan about the footage and comments he has made on the shooting of 50 people at mosques in Christchurch a week ago, which have drawn condemnation from New Zealand and Australia.

But Peters emerged from a brief meeting with Erdogan and struck a conciliatory tone, saying that he had not raised at the meeting some of the most controversial comments the Turkish leader has made at rallies.

He also said that he had not asked Erdogan to stop showing the videos.

“I did not ask that question because I felt that I did not have to ask it, because they are not doing that anymore,” Peters told reporters after attending a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Two hours later, however, Erdogan paused his speech at an election rally in the central province of Konya so that the audience could watch the video footage of the shootings that the alleged gunman had broadcast on Facebook on March 15.

The video, which governments and social media sites have attempted to take down since the incident, was blurred but the gun shots were heard.

Erdogan is seeking to drum up support for his Islamist-rooted AK Party in March 31 local elections. He has shown different versions of the video about a dozen times throughout the week, including on Thursday.

“The New Zealand deputy Prime Minister came with a delegation and we had a chance to talk before coming here. We discussed and agreed upon what we should do,” Erdogan told supporters in Konya without elaborating.

‘COFFINS’ COMMENT GOES UNADDRESSED

The massacre in New Zealand was carried out by a lone gunman at two mosques. Australian Brenton Tarrant, 28, a suspected white supremacist, has been charged with one murder following the attack and is likely to face more charges.

In rallies across Turkey, Erdogan has since called on New Zealand to restore the death penalty and said Turkey would make the suspected attacker pay if that country did not. Referring to a “manifesto” posted online by the attacker, he said Turkey will return “in coffins” anyone who tried to take the battle to Istanbul.

Peters told reporters he had not addressed these comments with Erdogan because he did not think it would serve a “long-term peaceful purpose,” adding that he had received assurances regarding the safety of New Zealanders visiting Turkey.

In an address to leaders of Muslim countries attending the OIC meeting, including Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Turkey, Peters defended New Zealand’s response to the shooting and said the perpetrator would spend his life in prison.

“This person will face the full force of New Zealand law, and will spend the rest of his life in isolation in a New Zealand prison,” Peters said, adding later that “misinterpretations” in the days following the shooting had been cleared up following his meeting with Erdogan and the OIC.

Before leaving Istanbul to attend the election rally, Erdogan told the OIC that the empathy and reaction displayed by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern since the incident “should be an example to world leaders.”

Earlier on Friday, Ardern said Peters had gone to Turkey to “set the record straight” amid the diplomatic row.

Earlier in the week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called Erdogan’s comments “deeply offensive,” though on Thursday he said progress had been made and “we’ve already seen the moderation of the president’s views.”

No other heads of state or government attended the gathering of the OIC, which groups together Muslim countries to protect the interests of the Muslim world. It met on Friday to discuss Islamophobia and the New Zealand shooting.

Relations have generally been good between Turkey, New Zealand and Australia, with thousands traveling to Turkey each year to commemorate soldiers in the ANZAC army corps who died at Gallipoli just over a century ago.

“We are returning home to New Zealand with a grateful assurance that our people who come here to commemorate ANZAC will be as welcome as they always were,” Peters said.

(Additional reporting by Daren Butler, Ezgi Erkoyun, Ali Kucukgocmen and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara, Editing by Jonathan Spicer, William Maclean)

‘I was like a prisoner’: Saudi sisters trapped in Hong Kong recall beatings

Sisters from Saudi Arabia, who go by aliases Reem and Rawan, are pictured at an office in Hong Kong, China February 23, 2019. REUTERS/Aleksander Solum

By Anne Marie Roantree

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Two sisters from Saudi Arabia who fled the conservative kingdom and have been hiding out in Hong Kong for nearly six months said they did so to escape beatings at the hands of their brothers and father.

The pair, who say they have renounced their Muslim faith, arrived in the Chinese territory from Sri Lanka in September. They say they were prevented from boarding a connecting flight to Australia and were intercepted at the airport by diplomats from Saudi Arabia.

Reuters could not independently verify their story.

Asked about the case, Hong Kong police said they had received a report from “two expatriate women” in September and were investigating, but did not elaborate.

The Saudi consulate in Hong Kong has not responded to repeated requests from Reuters for comment.

The case is the second high-profile example this year of Saudi women seeking to escape their country and spotlights the kingdom’s strict social rules, including a requirement that females seek permission from a male “guardian” to travel.

The sisters, aged 18 and 20, managed to leave Hong Kong airport but consular officials have since revoked their passports, leaving them stranded in the city for nearly six months, their lawyer, Michael Vidler, said.

Vidler, one of the leading activist lawyers in the territory, also confirmed the authenticity of a Twitter account written by the two women describing their plight.

On Saturday, dressed in jeans and wearing sneakers, the softly spoken women described what they said was a repressive and unhappy life at their home in the Saudi capital Riyadh. They said they had adopted the aliases Reem and Rawan, because they fear using their real names could lead to their being traced if granted asylum in a third country.

They posed for pictures but asked their features not be revealed.

Every decision had to be approved by the men in their house, from the clothes they wore to the hairstyle they chose – even the times when they woke and went to sleep, the sisters told Reuters.

“They were like my jailer, like my prison officer. I was like a prisoner,” said the younger sister, Rawan, referring to two brothers aged 24 and 25 as well as her father.

“It was basically modern day slavery. You can’t go out of the house unless someone is with us. Sometimes we will stay for months without even seeing the sun,” the elder sister, Reem, said.

In January, a Saudi woman made global headlines by barricading herself in a Bangkok airport hotel to avoid being sent home to her family. She was later granted asylum in Canada.

“BROTHER BRAINWASHED”

Reem and Rawan said their 10-year-old brother was also encouraged to beat them.

“They brainwashed him,” Rawan said, referring to her older brothers. Although he was only a child, she said she feared her younger brother would become like her older siblings.

The family includes two other sisters, aged five and 12. Reem said she and her sister feel terrible about leaving them, although they “hope their family will get a lesson from this and it might help to change their lives for the better.”

Reem and Rawan decided to escape while on a family holiday in Sri Lanka in September. They had secretly saved around $5,000 since 2016, some of it accumulated by scrimping on items they were given money to buy.

The timing of their escape was carefully planned to coincide with Rawan’s 18th birthday so she could apply for a visitor’s visa to Australia without her parents’ approval.

But what was supposed to be a two-hour stopover in Hong Kong has turned into nearly six months and the sisters are now living in fear that they will be forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia.

They have said they have renounced Islam – a crime punishable by death under the Saudi system of sharia, or Islamic law, although the punishment has not been carried out in recent memory.

The pair say they have changed locations 13 times in Hong Kong, living in hotels, shelters and with individuals who are helping, sometimes staying just one night in a place before moving on to ensure their safety.

Vidler said the Hong Kong Immigration Department told the women their Saudi passports had been invalidated and they could only stay in the city until February 28.

The department has said it does not comment on individual cases.

The sisters have applied for asylum in a third country which they declined to name in a bid keep the information from Saudi authorities and their family.

“We believe that we have the right to live like any other human being,” said Reem, who said she studied English literature in Riyadh and dreams of becoming a writer one day.

Asked what would happen on Feb 28, after which they can no longer legally stay in Hong Kong, the sisters said they had no idea.

“I hope this doesn’t last any longer,” Rawan said.

(Reporting By Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Pope opens child sex abuse conference, promising ‘concrete’ remedies

Pope Francis attends the four-day meeting on the global sexual abuse crisis, at the Vatican February 21, 2019. Picture taken with a fish-eye lens. Vatican Media/­Handout via REUTERS

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis promised that concrete action against child sexual abuse by priests would result from a conference he opened on Thursday, with one cardinal acknowledging that the Church had to fight “the enemy within”.

Francis convened Catholic leaders from around the world for the four-day meeting to address the scandal that has ravaged the Church’s credibility in the United States – where it has paid billions of dollars in settlements – Ireland, Chile, Australia, and elsewhere over the last three decades.

His opening remarks appeared aimed at countering skepticism among victims who said the meeting looked like a public relations exercise.

“Faced with the scourge of sexual abuse committed by men of the Church against minors, I wanted to reach out to you,” Francis told the assembled bishops and heads of religious orders. He asked them to “listen to the cry of the little ones who are seeking justice”.

Francis, opening the conference of nearly 200 participants in a Vatican auditorium, added that victims deserve “concrete and efficient measures” and not mere condemnations.

Victims were mixed in their response, with some expressing cautious optimism and others saying it was too little, too late.

Cardinal Ruben Salazar Gomez of Bogota said the damage was home-grown, in large part because bishops had closeted themselves in a clerical mentality and some thought they could act with impunity.

“The first enemies are within us, among us bishops and priests and consecrated persons who have not lived up to our vocation. We have to recognize that the enemy is within,” he said.

The pope and the participants watched a video of five victims, most of whom wished to remain anonymous, telling painful stories of abuse and cover-up.

“From the age of 15, I had sexual relations with a priest. This lasted for 13 years. I got pregnant three times and he made me have an abortion three times, quite simply because he did not want to use condoms or contraceptives,” a woman said.

“MURDERERS OF THE FAITH”

Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean, said on the video that when he reported abuse to religious authorities he was treated as a liar and an enemy of the Church.

“You are the physicians of the soul and yet, with rare exceptions, you have been transformed – in some cases – into murderers of the soul, into murderers of the faith. What a terrible contradiction,” he said.

Cardinal Luis Tagle of the Philippines broke into tears as he read a keynote speech that acknowledged: “Wounds have been inflicted by us, the bishops, on the victims”.

A list of 21 “reflection points” written by the pope was handed out. The first was that each diocese should have a “practical handbook” on steps to be taken when cases emerge.

They included actions such as informing civil authorities of substantial accusations in compliance with local law and making sure non-clerics are involved in Church investigations of abuse.

“Putting together a handbook after all this time is laughable,” said Peter Isely, who was abused by a priest as a boy and now heads the advocacy group Ending Clergy Abuse.

Most of the 21 points are already practiced in countries like the United States.

In Ireland, the sexual abuse scandal shattered the power of the Church which four decades ago dominated society. In the past four years, voters approved abortion and gay marriage, defying the Vatican.

In Chile, all of the country’s bishops offered their resignations to the pope last year over a widespread cover-up. Francis accepted seven of the resignations and dismissed two others from the priesthood.

A report by a grand jury in Pennsylvania last year revealed that priests had sexually abused about 1,000 people over seven decades in that U.S. state alone.

Before the conference started, some victims’ groups said the event was an attempt to cleanse the image of the 1.3 billion-member Church.

But Anne Barrett-Doyle of bishopaccountablity.org, which tracks abuse cases around the world, said she was pleasantly surprised by the pope’s opening remarks.

“They said this was going to just be a teaching session, but he is now talking about concrete measures. That’s good, but let’s see how it ends up,” she told Reuters.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Mark Heinrich)

Venezuela’s Guaido calls for new protests as pressure on Maduro rises

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido accompanied by his wife Fabiana Rosales, speaks to the media after a holy Mass at a local church in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Juan Guaido, the Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed president, on Monday called for new street demonstrations as pressure intensified on President Nicolas Maduro and the crisis-stricken OPEC nation.

Countries around the world have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful leader, and the United States vowed to starve Maduro’s administration of oil revenue after he was sworn in Jan. 10 for a second term that was widely dubbed illegitimate.

Maduro says the United States is promoting a coup against him and promised to stay in office, backed by Russia and China, which have bankrolled his government and fought off efforts to have his government disavowed by the United Nations.

Guaido said opposition sympathizers should take to the streets on Wednesday to pass out copies of a pamphlet proposing amnesty that would give some legal protection to members of the military in hopes they will turn against Maduro.

“We must remain united as active agents of change in every corner of the country,” Guaido tweeted on Monday. “We’re doing well, very well, Venezuela!”

On Sunday, Israel and Australia joined countries backing the 35-year-old Guaido, and U.S. President Donald Trump said his government had accepted Venezuelan opposition figure Carlos Alfredo Vecchio as a diplomatic representative to the United States.

Guaido took advantage of a major street demonstration on Jan. 23 to swear himself in as the country’s rightful leader, accusing Maduro of usurping power following a disputed 2018 re-election that countries around the world described as a fraud.

Guaido is asking for help in getting control of the Venezuelan government’s offshore assets.

In recent days, he urged British Prime Minister Theresa May and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney to block Maduro’s government from collecting more than $1 billion in gold held by the Bank of England.

Venezuela’s once-buoyant socialist economic system has imploded from corruption and mismanagement since the collapse of world oil prices in 2014, pushing inflation to almost 2 million percent and driving millions of Venezuelans to neighboring countries.

Maduro says his government is the victim of an “economic war” led by his political adversaries with the help of Washington, which has levied several rounds of sanctions against the country since 2017.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Australia says no timeframe to decide case of Saudi teen asylum seeker

Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne speaks during a news conference at Australian Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

By Panu Wongcha-um and Patpicha Tanakasempipat

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Thursday there was no timeframe for the assessment of the case of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who fled to Thailand saying she feared her family would kill her.

The U.N. refugee agency has referred Qunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement.

“Following the UNHCR referrals, Australia is now going through the steps we are required to do in relation to the assessment process and then when that is complete an announcement will be made,” Payne said in Bangkok, after arriving on a visit arranged before Qunun sought asylum.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her country and family, is seen in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. TWITTER/ @rahaf84427714/via REUTERS

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her country and family, is seen in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. TWITTER/ @rahaf84427714/via REUTERS

Qunun is staying in a Bangkok hotel under the care of the UNHCR.

She arrived in Thailand on Saturday and was initially denied entry. She had been intending to fly from there to Australia to seek asylum.

She soon started posting messages on Twitter from the transit area of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport saying she had “escaped Kuwait” and her life would be in danger if forced to return to Saudi Arabia.

Within hours, a campaign sprang up, spread by a loose network of online activists, and the world watched as she refused to board a flight to Saudi Arabia and barricade herself inside a transit lounge hotel room.

On Monday evening, Thai authorities allowed her to enter the country.

Her case has drawn attention to Saudi Arabia’s strict social rules, including a requirement that women have the permission of a male “guardian” to travel, which rights groups say can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families.

It comes at a time when Riyadh is facing unusually intense scrutiny from its Western allies over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.

‘AUSTRALIA’S CONCERN’

Payne’s visit has also thrown a spotlight on another refugee case, involving Bahrain footballer Hakeem AlAraibi, who has refugee status in Australia but was arrested at Bangkok airport last year after arriving for his honeymoon.

Bahrain made a request to have him extradited and he is in jail, waiting for a hearing to decide his case.

Payne withheld talks with Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prajin Juntong, who is also justice minister, and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai.

“I also appreciate the opportunity … to raise Australia’s concern about the detention of and possible return of Mr Hakeem AlAraibi to Bahrain,” Payne told reporters after the meeting.

“The Thai government is aware of the importance of this matter to Australia.”

AlAraibi was convicted for vandalizing a police station in Bahrain and sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia.

“He has denied all wrongdoing as accused by the Bahrain government,” Nadthasiri Bergman, AlAraibi’s lawyer in Thailand told Reuters.

“He would be put in danger if he is sent back to Bahrain.”

World football governing body FIFA says AlAraibi should be freed and allowed to return to Australia where he plays for Melbourne football club Pascoe Vale in the second tier of the Australian League.

Activists have called on Thai authorities to “show humanity” to AlAraibi in the same way that they did to Qunun.

(This version of the story adds dropped word ‘agency’ in paragraph 2)

(Additional report by Panarat Thepgumpanat, Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Robert Birsel)

‘We are witches’: Clerical abuse scandal divides parishes and politics in Poland

A cross is seen near trees with mistletoe near the church in Kalinowka, Poland November 25, 2018. Picture taken November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

By Marcin Goclowski and Andrew R.C. Marshall

KALINOWKA, Poland (Reuters) – The former Catholic priest of the village of Kalinowka in Poland is serving three years in jail for molesting five schoolgirls. But Marta Zezula, a mother whose testimony helped convict him, says the priest’s victims are the ones made to feel guilty.

“We are witches … because we have pointed at the priest,” Zezula fumed as she shoveled straw into a chaff cutter in her barn in the tiny settlement in eastern Poland.

Many parishioners believe she and other mothers of those molested “simply convicted an innocent man”, she said.

Home to about 170 people, Kalinowka is a short drive from the main road, but feels more remote. The Holy Cross church, built in 1880, sits on a hill overlooking rolling farmland and forests full of deer.

Krystyna Kluzniak, hurrying into the well-kept church on a chilly November evening, said people should give the jailed priest a break. “The priest was cool and we miss him,” she said.

The priest, who cannot be named under Polish law, is now on trial again, charged with molesting another child. His lawyer, Marek Tokarczyk, said he denies the allegations. “We need a fair trial,” Tokarczyk said.

Similar scandals have shaken the Catholic Church and split communities in the United States, Ireland, Australia and elsewhere.

But Poland is one of Europe’s most devout nations, where most people identify as Catholics and the Church is widely revered. Priests were active in the fight against communism and in 1989, led by a Polish pope, John Paul II, the Church helped overthrow Communist rule.

Divisions over allegations of abuse are particularly stark here, said Marek Lisinski, the director of “Have no fear”, a group that advocates for victims of clerical abuse. Parishioners often side with priests and ostracize victims and their families, Lisinski told Reuters.

LANDMARK RULING

In October, “Have no fear” published a map that revealed the scale of the issue. It used black crosses to mark places where 60 priests had been convicted of abuses dating back to 1956.

Afterwards, Lisinski said, people called in to report another 300 cases of suspected abuse by priests which they had not raised with the Church or police for fear they would be doubted or shunned.

The same month, a Polish court of appeal upheld a landmark ruling which granted a million zloty ($260,000) in compensation to a woman abused by a priest as a child.

Jaroslaw Gluchowski, a lawyer in Poznan who represents victims of clerical abuse, said the ruling set an important precedent.

“We’re now at a moment when all victims in Poland are realizing that they’re not alone,” he said.

In a November statement, Poland’s bishops asked victims of clerical abuse for forgiveness and said the Church had begun collecting data to “identify the causes of these deeds and assess their scale”.

Archbishop Wojciech Polak, the primate of Poland, told Reuters the Church will publish its findings within six months.

Polak encouraged victims of clerical abuse to talk to their bishops, who are “obliged to report to the prosecutors’ service all credible cases they get knowledge of”.

He said he was aware the issue had caused rifts in some communities. “It is the Church’s responsibility to act in a way that doesn’t create divisions but heals them,” he said.

Senior bishops from around the world will meet Pope Francis at a conference in the Vatican in February to discuss protection of minors. Conference organizers have said everyone must be held accountable or the Church risked losing credibility worldwide.

The issue could also have political ramifications in Poland, Lisinski and other observers say. The country is due to elect a new parliament by December 2019.

The Catholic Church has long played a major political role in Poland, making its 25,000 priests not only revered but also influential with voters.

In December, a report appeared in Gazeta Wyborcza, a leading Polish daily, containing molestation allegations from a woman, Barbara Borowiecka, against the late priest Henryk Jankowski, an iconic figure in the anti-communist Solidarity movement.

The mayor of Gdansk, the birthplace of Solidarity, asked the Church to investigate the allegations. Archbishop Polak told Reuters the Jankowski allegations “should be investigated for the good of the Church” and said it was up to bishop of Gdansk to address them.

“POLAND’S COLLAPSE”

The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party won power in 2015 with a blend of patriotism and piety that echoed the religious nationalism of the Church. In October, a former PiS minister, Antoni Macierewicz, credited the Polish clergy with helping the party win local elections that month.

Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, an MP for a small opposition party called Now, is seeking an independent inquiry into child abuse by priests because she says the Church cannot be relied upon to investigate itself. She says the idea has received no support from PiS or other big parties.

A PiS spokesperson did not respond to several requests asking whether it supported the idea of an inquiry. Ryszard Czarnecki, a PiS MP for the European Parliament, responded to Reuters by asking why the Church should be singled out.

“I don’t know why we are focusing on one group, as this also concerns different groups – for example, artistic or journalistic ones,” he said.

About 12 million people, or almost a third of Poland’s population, regularly attend Mass, according to a survey by the Institute for Catholic Church Statistics, a Warsaw-based research center. The numbers slightly declined from 2015 to 2016, the survey showed.

Most children attend religious classes, but their numbers are dropping, too. In Lodz, Poland’s third-largest city, they fell from 80 percent in 2015 to fewer than 50 percent now, according to local government data quoted by the daily Dziennik Lodzki.

In November, the Church said such trends could have dire consequences. “Abandoning the Catholic faith and the Christian principles governing our national life and state’s functioning” could lead to Poland’s collapse, it warned in a pastoral letter.

In Kalinowka, Reuters spoke to seven parishioners. Most of them were sticking by the convicted priest. “I have a cousin whose son went to one of his classes and they didn’t see it,” Wieslaw Solowiej, a pensioner, said outside the Kalinowka church.

Jolanta Zych, whose nine-year-old daughter was among those molested, said neighbors spurned the family. “I always greet people but some turn their faces from me,” said Zych.

The other mother Reuters spoke to, Zezula, said her daughter began refusing food after the court case. “She didn’t want to eat because one woman told her the priest was in jail because of her.”

During Mass, Zezula said, people shrank away or refused to shake hands during a ritual greeting known as the sign of peace. She no longer goes to church.

Piotr Lenart, the current priest, referred questions to the Zamosc-Lubaczow Diocese in which the Kalinowka parish lies.

Michal Maciolek, a priest and spokesman for the diocese, said it had offered the victims and their families pastoral and psychological help, but this had been rejected. No financial compensation was offered, because “the diocese can’t take responsibility for the priest’s actions”.

(Additional reporting by Karol Witenburg; editing by Philippa Fletcher)