Defiant Belarus leader shrugs off sanctions, says athlete was ‘manipulated’

By Natalia Zinets, William James and Elizabeth Piper

KYIV/LONDON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A defiant President Alexander Lukashenko said on Monday a Belarusian sprinter defected at the Olympic Games only because she had been “manipulated” by outside forces and shrugged off a coordinated barrage of new Western sanctions.

At an hours-long news conference on the anniversary of an election which opponents said was rigged so that he could win, Lukashenko denied being a dictator and said he had defended Belarus against opponents plotting a coup.

As he spoke in his presidential palace in Minsk, Britain, Canada and the United States announced coordinated sanctions targeting the Belarusian economy and its financial sector, including exports of oil products and potash, which is used in fertilizers and is Belarus’ main foreign currency earner.

Lukashenko said Britain would “choke” on its measures and he was ready for talks with the West instead of a sanctions war.

Lukashenko said he had won the presidential election fairly on Aug. 9, 2020 and that some people had been “preparing for a fair election, while others were calling … for a coup d’état.”

Tens of thousands of people joined street protests in 2020 – Lukashenko’s biggest challenge since he became president in 1994. He responded with a crackdown in which many opponents have been arrested or gone into exile. They deny planning a coup.

Dismissing accusations that he is a dictator, he said: “In order to dictate – I am a completely sane person – you need to have the appropriate resources. I have never dictated anything to anyone and I am not going to.”

Belarus has again been in the international spotlight since sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya fled to Warsaw last week following a dispute with her coaches in which she said an order came from “high up” to send her home from Tokyo.

“She wouldn’t do it herself, she was manipulated. It was from Japan, from Tokyo, that she contacted her buddies in Poland and they told her – literally – when you come to the airport, run to a Japanese police officer and shout that those who dropped her off at the airport are KGB agents,” Lukashenko said.

“There was not a single special service agent in Japan.”


Lukashenko, 66, has kept power with political support and financial backing from Russia, which sees Belarus as a buffer state against the NATO military alliance and the European Union.

Belarus would respond if necessary to sanctions pressure but “there is no need to take up the sanction axes and pitchforks,” he said.

Western countries announcing sanctions cited violations of human rights and election fraud. U.S. President Joe Biden decried what he called a “brutal campaign of repression to stifle dissent.”

“…The actions of the Lukashenka regime are an illegitimate effort to hold on to power at any price. It is the responsibility of all those who care about human rights, free and fair elections, and freedom of expression to stand against this oppression,” Biden said.

Biden’s executive order allows the United States to block people doing business with a wide range of Belarusian officials and others involved in activities in the country regarded as corrupt. It also restricts the transfer of their property in the United States and their travel to the country.

The British sanctions also prohibited the purchase of transferable securities and money-market instruments issued by the Belarusian state and state-owned banks. Canada unveiled similar action.

Previous sanctions, including by the EU, have not persuaded Lukashenko to change course.

“While we take it with patience, let’s sit down at the negotiating table and start talking about how to get out of this situation, because we will get bogged down in it with no way back,” Lukashenko said.

Tensions with Western powers hit new heights after Belarus forced a plane to land in Minsk in May and arrested a dissident Belarusian journalist who was on board.

Separately, neighboring Lithuania and Poland accuse Belarus of trying to engineer a migrant crisis in retaliation for EU sanctions.

Poland reported a record number of migrants had crossed the border from Belarus since Friday, saying they were probably from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lukashenko says Lithuania and Poland are to blame.

He also denied involvement in the death last week of Vitaly Shishov, who led a Kyiv-based organization that helps Belarusians fleeing persecution. Shishov was found hanged in Kyiv.

Lukashenko’s opponents say there are now more than 600 political prisoners in jail.

“Sanctions are not a silver bullet, but they will help stop the repression,” exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said in Vilnius.

(Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Daphne Psaledakis in Washington, Gwladys Fouche in Oslo, Tom Balmforth, Katya Golubkova and Olzhas Auyezov in Moscow, Elizabeth Piper and William James in London, Alan Charlish in Warsaw; Writing by Matthias Williams and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Giles Elgood)

In first vote since Turkey’s crisis, Erdogan could lose capital city

A stallholder reads a newspaper as he waits for customers at a bazaar in Ankara, Turkey, March 26, 2019. Picture taken March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay

ANKARA (Reuters) – Ismail Akin has voted for Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s party for almost 20 years, but the father of three said that will change on Sunday because the plunging economy has forced him to shut his shop and take on debt.

In a market in the Turkish capital last week, Akin clutched his jacket and said “even this is mortgaged” after the economy tipped into recession following last year’s currency crisis.

“We voted for this man (Erdogan) for 20 years. Enough. Let’s hit him with the back of our hand so he sees what this nation is made of,” Akin said.

He said he would vote for the main opposition candidate in Sunday’s local elections.

Polls suggest Erdogan could be defeated in Ankara, the city from which he has ruled Turkey with an increasingly iron grip since 2003. His AK Party (AKP) could hang on to power in a tight race in Istanbul, where he was once mayor, but a defeat in Ankara would be a blow.

“The psychological factor of losing the capital, losing one of the big cities in Turkey, could be perceived by voters as the beginning of the decline,” said political analyst Murat Yetkin.

The nationwide local elections are the first since last year’s currency meltdown, and come as authorities fight a fresh wave of selling in the lira.

The currency has bounced back this week, in part because Turkey directed its banks to withhold lira liquidity in London, a key overseas market, until after Sunday’s election – blocking foreign investors from betting against the currency.

The stop-gap measure may save Erdogan the embarrassment of a currency meltdown on the eve of voting but economists say that longer-lasting reforms are needed to return to the strong growth which was a hallmark of the AKP’s early years in power.

AKP officials say they are anxious about Sunday’s vote. In recent weeks Erdogan has held up to five rallies per day and described the elections as a “matter of survival”.

Interviews in Ankara with more than 50 voters two weeks ahead of the vote suggested several long-time AKP supporters were shifting their views on the party and looking to punish Erdogan for the turmoil caused by the ailing economy.

“There is no production, nothing. They brought in the food stands, but will he (Erdogan) fix the economy with food stands?” said Orhan Akkaya, a local business manager who said he would no longer back AKP.

“They finished the country.”


Ahead of the elections, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) formed an electoral alliance with the IYI (Good) Party to rival that of Erdogan’s AKP and the nationalist MHP.

Mansur Yavas, the opposition candidate, appears to hold a 2 percentage point lead over his AKP rival Mehmet Ozhaseki, according to polling company Gezici. However, a poll conducted by the AKP showed Ozhaseki had closed the gap and gained a 1.5 point advantage, a party source said.

Yavas was also the CHP’s candidate in 2014, but lost in a vote marred by claims of voter fraud. Ozhaseki, a former three-term mayor from central Anatolia, was a minister until he was removed from the post after last year’s presidential and general elections cemented Erdogan’s grip on power.

Speaking to Reuters on his campaign trail, Yavas said he believed he would win in Ankara because his rival had overlooked the economic struggles of the people.

“They don’t see the economic hardships in Ankara,” he said. “They don’t come here and talk with shop owners.”

While Erdogan, championed by more pious Turks, has become modern Turkey’s most popular leader, he is also the most divisive. Secular Turks say his policies quash dissent and infringe on private lives and personal rights.

But it was his unorthodox economic policies, including a buildup in foreign debt, that helped spark last year’s crisis that wiped some 30 percent off the value of the lira. The contraction in the fourth quarter was the economy’s worst in nearly a decade.

“What we expected didn’t happen in the economy, that is a reality,” an AKP official told Reuters. “While the economy was a gain before, it’s now our weak point.”

“If there is a big loss (in Ankara)…we may enter a period where there will be very serious problems for the AK Party.”

People shop in a second-hand bazaar in Ankara, Turkey, March 27, 2019. Picture taken March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

People shop in a second-hand bazaar in Ankara, Turkey, March 27, 2019. Picture taken March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas


Murat Gezici, chairman of pollster Gezici, said three of every four undecided voters have backed the MHP or AKP in past general or local elections.

The fraying economy had left many of them unsure, Gezici said citing his company’s March 16-17 poll, and added that rather than the AKP’s past successes, voters were more focused on candidates’ future promises.

“Maybe I won’t even vote, that’s how fed up I am,” said Huseyin Kilic, another longtime but disenchanted AKP voter.

Sacked from his factory job and waving in the air coins that he said were his last, Kilic, standing in a street market in the central Ankara district of Ulus, said he had not yet settled on a favored candidate.

Yet few are writing off Erdogan before votes are counted.

In nearly two decades he and his AKP have not lost a local election in Ankara or Istanbul. The party is leading polls in other big cities like Adana and Konya.

Shopping for vegetables in central Ankara, Neriman said she remained committed to the AK Party, dismissing economic woes.

“They (the AKP) gave us everything, financially and emotionally. There are no economic troubles. Are there?” she said. “I am planning on voting for the AK Party because for years we’ve been so much better off.”

($1 = 5.5652 liras)

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun and Mert Ozkan; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Anna Willard)

Russia’s parliament backs new fines for insulting the state online

A view of the Russian Federation Council headquarters, the upper chamber of Russian parliament in Moscow, Russia March 13, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Maria Vasilyeva and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s parliament on Wednesday approved new fines for people who insult the authorities online or spread fake news, defying warnings from critics that the move could open the way to direct state censorship of dissent.

The bills – which now require only President Vladimir Putin’s signature before becoming law – received broad support in the upper house, days after thousands rallied to protest at tightening Internet restrictions.

Putin’s approval ratings have slipped in recent months to about 64 percent but he faces little threat from an opposition-held back by tough protest and election laws and virtually no access to state television.

One bill proposes fining people up to 100,000 rubles ($1,525) for showing “blatant disrespect” online for the state, authorities, public, Russian flag or constitution. Repeat offenders could be jailed for up to 15 days.

The second draft law would give authorities the power to block websites if they fail to comply with requests to remove information that the state deems to be factually inaccurate.

Individuals would be fined up to 400,000 rubles ($6,100) for circulating false information online that leads to a “mass violation of public order”.

Lawmaker Andrei Klishas, from Putin’s United Russia party and one of the authors of the bills, said false reports that inflated the death toll at a fatal shopping mall fire in Siberia last year illustrated the need to tackle fake news.

“This kind of thing must be screened by the law,” he said.

Russia’s human rights council and a group of over a hundred writers, poets, journalists and rights activists called on the upper house of parliament on Tuesday to reject the law.

Council member Ekaterina Schulmann said the legislation, which the lower house of parliament approved in January, duplicated existing law and added that it could be applied arbitrarily because its wording was so vague.

Prominent cultural figures published an open letter describing the bills as an unconstitutional “open declaration of the establishment of direct censorship in the country”.

The Kremlin denied the legislation amounts to censorship.

“What’s more, this sphere of fake news, insulting and so on, is regulated fairly harshly in many countries of the world including Europe. It is, therefore, of course, necessary to do it in our country too,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Tougher Internet laws introduced over the past five years require search engines to delete some search results, messaging services to share encryption keys with security services and social networks to store users’ personal data on servers within the country.

(Additional reporting by Polina Nikolskaya and Anton Derbenev; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

North Korea’s three new military leaders are loyal to Kim, not policies

FILE PHOTO North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the construction site of the Wonsan-Kalma coastal tourist area as Kim Su-gil (3rd L), newly appointed director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People's Army, looks on, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang. KCNA/via REUTERS/Files

By Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s new top three military officers are known for their unquestioning support of leader Kim Jong Un and are flexible enough to accept the massive changes that may come from any deal with U.S. President Donald Trump, people who follow the secretive country say.

They replaced older, more conservative officers who have been recently sacked, according to a senior U.S. official and North Korea leadership analysts in Seoul.

As Washington pursues a negotiated end to Pyongyang’s nuclear program, U.S. officials believe there was some dissent in the military about Kim’s negotiations with South Korea and the United States, a complete reversal of the North’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and historic hostility. It was not clear if the sacked officers were responsible.

Citing an unidentified intelligence official, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said No Kwang Chol, first vice minister in the defense ministry, had replaced Pak Yong Sik as the defense chief, while Ri Yong Gil had returned as the army’s chief of general staff in place of Ri Myong Su.

The appointments could not be immediately confirmed.

North Korean media had earlier reported that Army General Kim Su Gil had succeeded Kim Jong Gak as director of the army’s powerful General Political Bureau, one of the most senior positions in the country.

The changes are a shock because they take place so close to each other and come just ahead of the scheduled June 12 summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore.

Some analysts said Kim was replacing older officers who were wedded to the country’s nuclear doctrine with loyalists who would follow any changes he may make following the summit.

“There would be a denuclearization roadmap coming out of the summit with Trump, and it would be burdensome for Kim to have hawks who could be agitated by any desertion of the nuclear program,” said Cheong Seong-Chang, a senior fellow at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.


Trump wants North Korea to “denuclearize” in return for relief from economic sanctions. Pyongyang sees its nuclear weapons as vital to its survival but Kim has said he plans to focus on economic development.

The moves are also in line with Kim’s years-long efforts to consolidate power by purging senior officers and promoting trusted younger advisers to the politburo and other core positions.

The new officers could also provide some insurance against any attempt to seize power while Kim is away at the summit, experts say.

“All these guys are Kim Jong Un people,” said Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at Johns Hopkins University’s 38 North website. “Kim Jong Un is going to put people in place he can trust, who are loyal to him.”

In addition to being hardcore loyalists, Madden said the three officers were experienced in dealing with foreigners, which was seen as a plus point. But it was not immediately clear whether any of them would accompany Kim to Singapore.

Kim Su Gil, 68, is a four-star Army general who is one of Kim Jong Un’s most trusted aides, accompanying him on various military inspections and public events.

He was among those involved in the purge and execution of Kim Jong Un’s powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek, in December 2013. Then he was tapped to lead the party’s Pyongyang chamber in early 2014, a job which Madden said was meant for “housecleaning” the administration of Jang’s confidants.

Kim’s appointment to the General Political Bureau is part of Kim Jong Un’s drive to expand the party’s control over the military, said Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at CNA, a non-profit research and analysis organization based in Arlington, Virginia.


All of the newly promoted officials are younger than their predecessors, even though they are all in their 60s.

The three were also named in May 2016 as alternate members of the ruling Workers’ Party politburo – the opaque, all-powerful governing body where top state affairs are decided.

Ri Yong Gil served as chief of staff from 2013 to 2016 until he reportedly fell from grace for a brief period, the analysts said.

In the early 2000s, Ri was commander of an Army unit that defends the perimeter around Pyongyang, a sensitive position that Gause said is traditionally “personally selected” by the leader of the country.

In March 2013, he was seen attending a late night meeting convened by Kim to order missile units on “standby” to strike U.S. and South Korean military installations after a U.S. strategic bomber flew over South Korea.

In February 2016, he was briefly demoted to deputy chief and three stars from four for an unspecified reason. South Korean intelligence officials said he had been executed for corruption and abuse of power, only to see him appear at a major party assembly as a politburo candidate three months later.

No Kwang Chol, the 62-year-old relatively less known new defense chief, previously headed the Second Economic Committee, which oversees defense production including the nuclear and missile programs.

“This is where you would send someone you could trust,” said Hong Min, head of North Korea research at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

“No is a person who has come to the fore in the Kim Jong Un era, as a up-and-coming and trusted aide. It is not strange at all if he becomes defense minister.”

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Jeongmin Kim; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Exclusive: In run-up to Venezuelan vote, more soldiers dissent and desertion

Soldiers stand in formation before the start of a ceremony to kick off the distribution of security forcers and voting materials to be used in the upcoming presidential elections, at Fort Tiuna military base in Caracas, Venezuela May 15, 2018. Pictures taken on May 15, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Girish Gupta and Anggy Polanco

CARACAS/SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela (Reuters) – Arrests for rebellion and desertion are rising sharply in Venezuela’s armed forces, a mainstay of President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist government, amid discontent within the ranks at food shortages and dwindling salaries, according to documents and interviews with army personnel.

Internal military documents reviewed by Reuters showed that the number of soldiers detained for treason, rebellion and desertion rose to 172 in the first four months of the year, up three-and-a-half times on the same period of 2017.

Former military officials said the figures reflected a dramatic increase in the level of dissent within Venezuela’s once-proud armed forces. In the whole of 2017, a total of 196 soldiers were arrested on similar charges, according to the same documents.

As Venezuela prepares to vote on Sunday in presidential elections, which the opposition says have been rigged to consolidate Maduro’s grip on power, the role of the security forces will be under scrutiny.

More than 300,000 soldiers and police will stand watch at polling stations. But behind what will likely be impassive faces some soldiers are planning how to flee the country or fretting about how to feed their families on a minimum salary of just $2 a day, according to interviews with serving and former soldiers.

“It’s so demoralizing to open the fridge and see it empty of meat, fish, chicken, ham, cheese and other basics,” said a 42-year-old National Guard sergeant major with more than 20 years of service, asking for his name not to be used.

“When I joined, I used to buy furniture for the house and clothes for the family with my Christmas bonus. Now it gets me three cartons of eggs and two kilos of sugar,” he said in the border city of San Cristobal.

The Defense Ministry and government did not respond to a request for comment. They say military dissent is isolated among a few individuals rather than being a systemic problem.


During months of opposition protests last year, National Guard members were Maduro’s first line of defense against protesters, firing tear gas and rubber bullets as rocks and Molotov cocktails were hurled toward them. At least 125 people, including some soldiers and police, were killed.

But privately, some acknowledged even then being exhausted, impoverished, hungry and even sympathetic towards demonstrators.

As Venezuela’s economic crisis has dramatically worsened – with annual inflation hitting nearly 14,000 percent according to the opposition-controlled National Assembly – soldiers and police have joined the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans pouring into neighboring South American countries.

Gerson Medina, a 36-year-old policeman from the border state of Tachira, said he left for Peru last year after political differences with his superiors.

“Sadly, security forces will continue to leave for Latin America and Europe because these elections are trying to demonstrate a false democracy in Venezuela,” he said in a phone interview.

Maduro’s government has said the elections are transparent and has accused the opposition of not participating solely because it knows it will lose.

While there is no firm data on departures from Venezuela’s 120,000-strong armed forces, interviews with serving and former soldiers, as well as internal military documents indicate hundreds if not more have left in the last year.

Since former soldier Hugo Chavez swept to power in an election in 1998 amid popular anger with Venezuela’s ruling elite, the military has played a leading role in the two-decade-old Socialist Revolution.

Under his successor Maduro, senior military officers have assumed prominent and lucrative roles running several ministries as well as state oil company PDVSA and a state food distribution program.

In public, the military top brass is standing by Maduro and ignoring appeals from the opposition to intervene to prevent what they say is a consolidation of dictatorship.

However, Maduro’s government refers frequently to foiled coup plots against it and it has quelled some small but high-profile rebellions within the security forces.

Last year, rogue police officer Oscar Perez hijacked a helicopter and fired at government buildings in what he said was an action against a dictator. Perez was hunted down and killed by Venezuelan forces in January.

A National Guard captain, Juan Carlos Caguaripano, early last year attacked a military base with a group of current and former military officials. He was captured soon after.

“The same thing is happening in the barracks as is happening in the slums: people are going hungry; they are suffering an overwhelming crisis,” said Henri Falcon, a former soldier who has bucked the broad opposition boycott and is Maduro’s primary opponent in the election.

Maduro, expected to win on Sunday, has said that he is the victim of an “armed insurrection” by U.S.-backed opponents seeking to gain control of the OPEC country’s oil wealth.


In August, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened military intervention in Venezuela – a move that would likely prove unpopular with neighboring governments in a region wary of American intervention.

However, in February, then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested the Venezuelan military might decide to oust Maduro.

“Whether he meant to or not, Tillerson was signaling U.S. pre-acceptance of a military coup to remove Maduro,” said a former senior CIA official speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Some of the biggest ‘U.S.-supported’ actions were not done by people we hired and trained for the task. They were done by fence-sitters who, once they saw we would approve, made their move,” the official said.

Some investors in recent weeks have even bought Venezuela’s defaulted debt on speculation that Maduro’s reelection could prompt the military to intervene to prevent economic collapse.

Venezuela is no stranger to military coups.

Then-paratrooper Chavez attempted to seize power militarily in 1992 though failed. It was soon after that attempt that he and Maduro became close.

A decade later, as president, Chavez was himself ousted from power for a couple of days by military officers and business leaders.

Herbert Garcia, a former senior army general and government minister who split with Maduro and now lives in the United States, said a successful uprising did not look imminent.

“In order for a military coup to succeed, political coordination with a strong, credible and united opposition must exist. It doesn’t,” he told Reuters, referring to the country’s fragmented political opposition.

Meanwhile, some soldiers in Venezuela admit their unhappiness but want to stick around in the military.

“We cannot be happy with this situation, I love my country and I’m not leaving,” said one National Guard soldier, with more than a decade of service, standing at a command post in Tachira. “I’ll be here to turn off the light when everyone has gone.”

See graphics on upcoming elections in Latin America and in Venezuela

(Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera and Leon Wiefeld Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Daniel Flynn and Frances Kerry)

Turkey detains nearly 600 for opposing Syrian offensive

Turkish military armoured vehicles arrive at a border village near the town of Hassa in Hatay province, Turkey, January 21, 2018

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Dominic Evans

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey has so far detained 573 people for social media posts and protests criticizing its military offensive in Syria, the government said on Monday.

The crackdown, which has extended to the national medical association, has deepened concerns about free speech under President Tayyip Erdogan, who has criticized opponents of the military intervention as “traitors”.

Turkey last month launched an air and ground offensive, dubbed Operation Olive Branch, against the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria’s northwestern Afrin region. Authorities have repeatedly warned they would prosecute those opposing, criticizing or misrepresenting the incursion.

“Since the start of Operation Olive Branch, 449 people have been detained for spreading terrorist propaganda on social media and 124 people detained for taking part in protest action,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

The operation has been widely supported by Turkey’s mainly pro-government media and by most political parties, with the exception of the pro-Kurdish opposition.

Last week, a prosecutor ordered the detention of 11 senior members of the Turkish Medical Association, including its chairman, after the organization criticized the incursion, saying: “No to war, peace immediately”.

Erdogan criticized the body as traitors. All of the doctors have since been released on probation, the association said on Twitter. Detention orders have been issued for another 13 people for supporting the medics.

“There are laws that prohibit the glorification of terrorism, support for terrorism through propaganda and media. The prosecutors are implementing the laws,” Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, told reporters in Istanbul at the weekend.

Ankara considers the U.S.-backed YPG, which controls Afrin, to be a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has fought an insurgency in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast since 1984.

Turkey is in the midst of a widening crackdown that began after a failed coup attempt in July 2016. Some 50,000 people have been jailed and 150,000 sacked or suspended from their jobs.

Critics, including rights groups and some Western allies, say Erdogan is using the coup as a pretext to muzzle dissent. The latest arrests have also drawn criticism from the European Union.

Turkey says its measures are necessary due to the gravity of the security threats it faces.

(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by David Dolan and Janet Lawrence)

China makes disrespect of national anthem a crime

China's President Xi Jinping arrives at a welcoming ceremony for Brazil's President Michel Temer (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China September 1, 2017.

By Christian Shepherd and Venus Wu

BEIJING/HONG KONG (Reuters) – Anyone who mocks China’s national anthem faces up to 15 days in police detention after parliament criminalized such acts in a new law on Friday that covers Hong Kong and Macau.

Since taking over as president, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has ushered in new legislation aimed at securing the country from threats both within and outside its borders, besides presiding over a sweeping crackdown on dissent and free speech.

Protecting “the dignity of the national anthem” will help “promote patriotism and nurture socialist core values”, says the new law passed by the National People’s Congress (NPC).

It governs when, where and how the anthem, the “March of the Volunteers”, can be played.

The law bans its use as background music and in advertisements, rules out playing it at funerals and on other “inappropriate occasions” and prescribes administrative detention for any “distorted” or “mocking” renditions.

Those attending public events must stand to attention and sing in a solemn manner when the anthem is played.

The new law brings treatment of the anthem into line with desecration of China’s national flag, or its emblem, which has been a criminal offense punishable by up to 15 days’ detention since the 1990s. Those laws also apply in Hong Kong and Macau.

Wu Zeng, the office head of the NPC’s national laws panel, confirmed that lawmakers had agreed the law should also apply to Hong Kong and Macau by being written into their constitutional provisions, the Basic Laws.

The law has fueled concern in Hong Kong, whose residents have grown nervous over China’s perceived encroachment of the city’s autonomy following such events as the disappearance of booksellers who later emerged in mainland Chinese custody.

Hong Kong lawyer and pro-democracy lawmaker Tanya Chan said she expected “a series of obstacles” when the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, adopts the law.

“The rights and freedoms protected under Hong Kong laws have come under challenge in recent years,” she said. “So it is right for people to be concerned.”

The city’s Justice Secretary, Rimsky Yuen, said he hoped “the intention of the national law would be upheld without affecting Hong Kong people’s basic rights and freedoms”.

In 2015, Hong Kong football fans booed the Chinese anthem during a World Cup qualifier, prompting a fine for the territory’s football association from world body FIFA.

Last month, Shanghai police detained three men for having “hurt patriotic feelings” by dressing up as Japanese soldiers and posing for photographs outside a memorial to China’s war with Japan, state media said.


(Reporting by Christian Shepherd in Beijing and Venus Wu in Hong Kong; Additional reporting by Philip Wen; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)


Zimbabweans suffer ‘savage’ police abuse and torture

Zimbabwean Pastor Mawarire addresses followers after his release at Harare Magistrates court

By Ed Cropley

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – A 10-year-old girl knocked out by tear gas from a grenade thrown into her home. A disabled boy beaten and left unconscious at a bus-stop. A 17-year-old set upon by six police dogs.

The list of cases recorded by a trauma clinic is detailed and varied – men, women and children whose only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time when Zimbabwean police cracked down on a rare outbreak of dissent this month against President Robert Mugabe.

“Torture, Torture, Torture, Intimidation, Torture, Torture, Intimidation, Assaulted, Torture…”, reads one column of the spreadsheet prepared by the clinic, which was seen by Reuters.

The violence occurred during a “stay-away” inspired by Evan Mawarire, a 39-year-old preacher, whose call for workers to stay home in protest against corruption and economic decline amounts to the biggest challenge to Mugabe’s rule in nearly a decade.

Police spokeswoman Charity Charamba and information minister Chris Mushowe did not answer their mobile phones or reply to text messages requesting comment on the allegations of abuse.

The clinic that prepared the spreadsheet redacted the names and ID numbers of victims. Officials from the clinic asked that it not be identified for fear of reprisals, and Reuters was not able to confirm the individual incidents directly.

But Frances Morris, a doctor who treated some of the victims, said the injuries included broken arms and hands, and were indicative of “savage” treatment.

The victims, she said, were mainly civilians who were not involved in protests, even though the injuries were of a severity that the clinic normally confronts only among participants of riots.

“The dog bite injuries reflect the use of uncontrolled dogs,” she said.

In a July 11 Twitter post, former information minister Jonathan Moyo, a leading Mugabe defender, accused the anti-government protest movement inspired by Mawarire of fomenting violence.

“In Germany when you want to kill dogs you cause rabies. In Zimbabwe when you want to grab power unconstitutionally you cause social unrest!” Moyo said.

Mawarire, who says he promotes only peaceful protest, was arrested on Tuesday but released a day later when a magistrate threw out charges of attempting to overthrow the state, an offense that carries up to 20 years in jail.

A warrant seen by Reuters for a police raid on his home accused him of having a stolen police helmet and other “subversive material” used to incite unrest on July 6, the day of the “stay-away” protest.

As Mawarire appeared in court on Wednesday, dozens of riot police backed by armored vehicles and water cannon took up position outside the building.


Television footage and pictures this month from the southern African country have shown baton-wielding riot police taking on groups of young men in restive Harare townships.

In one incident described in the clinic’s spreadsheet, three riot police assaulted a mother of a newborn in her home in Epworth, a Harare township well-known as a hotbed of opposition to Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party.

“When my child started crying my husband opened the door and was manhandled by the police and they took him away,” the 24-year-old woman recounted.

“I tried to ask them why they were taking away my husband. They started beating me with baton sticks all over the body. I told them I had an operation – I had a caesarian section. The police said they were having a much more important operation than mine.”

In another, a 17-year-old boy who had left home to collect his school examination results was set upon by riot police and beaten with truncheons and fists before being held for two nights at Harare’s central police station.

Another 17-year-old was accosted by six riot police with dogs at his home. “They commanded their dogs to bite me and two others,” the boy said.

Photographs provided by the clinic and dated July 14 showed one dog-bite victim lying in a hospital bed with flesh wounds on his left lower leg. The largest wound was 10 cm across.

Beatrice Mtetwa, Zimbabwe’s top human rights lawyer, said she would be raising the issue of police brutality when those arrested in the crackdown next appeared in court on July 28. She did not yet have full details of the incidents, she said.

“We are still in the process of collating that information and deciding which one of the persons who are in court have also been treated by the medical facility,” Mtetwa told Reuters.

On Tuesday, Interior Minister Ignatius Chombo said police would be out in full force to prevent any repeat of last week’s Mawarire-inspired “stay away”.

“We have sufficient contingent of police to deal with the issue. There is no need for the army. This is their daily bread and they will deal with any eventuality,” Chombo said.


Zimbabwe has a history of violence against opponents of Mugabe, the only president the country has known since independence from Britain in 1980.

In 2008, after hundreds of his supporters were beaten up, then-opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out of an election run-off against Mugabe to prevent anybody being killed.

A year earlier, Tsvangirai himself was beaten after being arrested on his way to a Harare prayer rally. When he emerged from custody, his face was severely swollen and he had deep gashes in his head.

Edward Chikombo, a freelance cameraman who obtained pictures of Tsvangirai’s injuries, was later abducted from his Harare home. His body was found a week later.

Mindful of such events, father-of-two Mawarire had pre-recorded a video to be released should he disappear. Within minutes of his arrest this week, his supporters put it out.

“You are watching this video because I have either been arrested or I have been abducted,” he said in the grainy clip posted under his #ThisFlag Twitter hashtag.

“Maybe we shall see each other again. Maybe we shall never see each other again. And maybe we succeeded, or maybe we failed. Whatever the case, you and I have stood to build Zimbabwe,” he continued. “Remember to pray for Zimbabwe.”

(Reporting by Ed Cropley; editing by Peter Graff)