U.S. envoy: Lebanon’s Bassil was open to breaking ties with Hezbollah

By Laila Bassam

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The U.S. envoy to Lebanon said on Monday that Lebanese Christian politician Gebran Bassil, who has been sanctioned by the United States, had voiced willingness to sever ties with Hezbollah, challenging his assertion that he rejected the idea outright.

Washington on Friday blacklisted Bassil, son-in-law of Lebanon’s president and leader of its biggest Christian bloc, over charges of corruption and ties with the Iran-backed Shi’ite Hezbollah, which Washington deems a terrorist group.

Bassil slammed the sanctions as unjust and politically motivated, saying they were imposed after he refused to submit to a U.S. demand to break ties with Hezbollah as that would risk Lebanon’s national unity and peace.

U.S. Ambassador Dorothy Shea told Lebanon’s Al Jadeed TV that Bassil, in exchanges with her, had “expressed willingness to break with Hezbollah, on certain conditions.

“He actually expressed gratitude that the United States had gotten him to see how the relationship is disadvantageous to the party,” said Shea, without elaborating on the conditions.

Bassil did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

He, along with an array of the political elite, have been the target of mass protests since October 2019 against widely perceived corruption, waste and mismanagement of state funds.

Bassil denied corruption charges and said he would fight the sanctions in U.S. courts and sue for damages. President Michel Aoun said Lebanon would seek evidence from Washington.

“We endeavor to make as much information publicly available as possible when announcing designations, but, as is often the case, some of this information is not releasable,” said Shea, adding that Bassil was welcome to legally contest the blacklisting.

Bassil was sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which targets human rights abuses and corruption. Shea did not rule out further sanctions against him or others in Lebanon.

Washington in September blacklisted two former Lebanese government ministers it accused of directing political and economic favors to Hezbollah.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Senate panel plans to issue subpoenas to CEOs of Google, Facebook, Twitter

By Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee chaired by Republican Senator Roger Wicker will issue subpoenas to the chief executives of Twitter Inc., Alphabet Inc’s Google and Facebook Inc. if they do not agree to testify at a hearing on Oct. 1.

The hearing will discuss a legal immunity known as Section 230 that technology companies have when it comes to liability over content posted by users.

Republican President Donald Trump has made holding tech companies accountable for allegedly stifling conservative voices a theme of his administration. As a result calls for a reform of tech’s prized legal immunity have been intensifying ahead of the elections but has little chance to be approved by Congress this year

The committee will issue subpoenas if the technology companies do not agree to appear in front of the committee by Thursday night, a spokeswoman for Wicker confirmed to Reuters.

On Wednesday, Trump met with nine Republican state attorneys general to discuss the fate of Section 230 after the Justice Department unveiled a legislative proposal aimed at reforming the law.

“In recent years, a small group of powerful technology platforms have tightened their grip over commerce and communications in America,” Trump told reporters after the meeting.

“Every year countless Americans are banned, blacklisted and silenced through arbitrary or malicious enforcement of ever-shifting rules,” he added.

Any substantial changes to reform the law will have to wait until after the elections.

The chief executives of Google and Facebook along with Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. recently testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

North Korea says will treat U.S. detainees under ‘wartime law’

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched during a successful intercept test, in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Department of Defense, Missile Defense Agency.

By Ju-min Park and Jack Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea said on Monday it has told the United States it will sever the only channel of communication between them, at the United Nations in New York, after Washington blacklisted leader Kim Jong Un last week for human rights abuses.

All matters related to the United States, including the handling of American citizens detained by Pyongyang, will be conducted under its “wartime law,” the North’s official KCNA news agency said.

The move is the latest escalation of tension with the isolated country, which earlier on Monday threatened a “physical response” after the United States and South Korea said they would deploy the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea.

“As the United States will not accept our demand for the immediate withdrawal of the sanctions measure, we will be taking corresponding actions in steps,” KCNA said.

“As the first step, we have notified that the New York contact channel that has been the only existing channel of contact will be completely severed,” it said.

“The Republic will handle all matters arising between us and the United States from now on under our wartime laws, and the matters of Americans detained are no exception to this.”

It was not clear how “wartime laws” would affect the handling of the two Americans detained. But North Korea has indicated in the past that wartime laws would mean that detainees will not be released on humanitarian grounds.

The North and the United States remain technically at war because the 1950-53 Korean War, in which Washington sided with the South, ended only with a truce.

The two Americans known to be detained in North Korea include Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in March for trying to steal an item with a propaganda slogan, according to North Korean state media. The other, Korean-American Kim Dong Chul, is serving a 10 year sentence for espionage, state media said.

A University of Virginia spokesman said the university remains in touch with Warmbier’s family but did not have additional comment.

The so-called New York channel has been an intermittent point of contact between the North and the United States, which do not have diplomatic ties, to exchange messages and, less frequently, hold discussions.

North Korea said last week it was planning its toughest response to what it deemed a “declaration of war” by the United States after Washington sanctioned Kim.

On Saturday, the North test-fired a ballistic missile from a submarine, but it appeared to have failed after launch.

ESCALATING TENSION

The United States and South Korea said on Friday that the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system will be used to counter North Korea’s growing nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.

The announcement was the latest move by the allies against the North, which conducted its fourth nuclear test this year and launched a long-range rocket, resulting in tough new U.N. sanctions.

“There will be physical response measures from us as soon as the location and time that the invasionary tool for U.S. world supremacy, THAAD, will be brought into South Korea are confirmed,” the North’s military said early on Monday.

“It is the unwavering will of our army to deal a ruthless retaliatory strike and turn (the South) into a sea of fire and a pile of ashes the moment we have an order to carry it out,” the statement carried by KCNA said.

The North frequently threatens to attack the South and U.S. interests in Asia and the Pacific.

South Korean Defence Ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun warned the North not to take “rash and foolish action”. Otherwise, he said, it would face “decisive and strong punishment from our military.”

The move to deploy the THAAD system also drew a swift and sharp protest from China.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Saturday that THAAD exceeded the security needs of the Korean peninsula, and suggested there was a “conspiracy behind this move.”

South Korean President Park Geun-hye said on Monday the THAAD system was not intended to target any third country but was purely aimed at countering the threat from the North, in an apparent message to Beijing.

A South Korean Defence Ministry official said selection of a site for THAAD could come “within weeks,” and the allies were working to have it operational by the end of 2017.

It will be used by U.S. Forces Korea “to protect alliance military forces,” the South and the United States said on Friday. The United States maintains 28,500 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean war.

(Additional reporting by James Pearson; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Tony Munroe)