Texas to execute man convicted of abducting, strangling college student

FILE PHOTO: Death-row inmate Larry Swearingen is shown in this photo in Huntsville, Texas, U.S., provided August 20, 2019. Texas Dept of Criminal Justice/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – A man who has maintained his innocence and whose lawyers have argued the state ignored key evidence that would exonerate him is scheduled to be put to death in Texas on Wednesday for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a 19-year-old college student.

Larry Swearingen, 48, who faced five previous execution dates over the past two decades, is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 6 p.m. at the state’s death chamber in Huntsville.

A jury convicted and sentenced Swearingen to die in 2000 for the murder of Melissa Trotter, who disappeared on Dec. 8, 1998. Trotter was found dead 25 days later in a densely wooded area in the Sam Houston National Forest with a piece of pantyhose around her neck.

During Swearingen’s trial, prosecutors laid out a case based on witness testimony, cellphone records and evidence found in his house and truck that they said linked him to her death.

Prosecutors said that on the day Trotter went missing, a witness saw her with a man leaving the Lone Star College–Montgomery library, in The Woodlands, Texas, where she attended school. The Woodlands is about 30 miles (48 km) north of Houston.

They also said that cellphone records showed Swearingen traveled from his home two hours later to Sam Houston National Forest, where Trotter’s body was found.

Investigators collected hair and fibers belonging to Trotter from Swearingen’s home and truck. In his house, they also discovered her lighter, cigarettes and pantyhose, half of which was found wrapped around her neck when her body was found, according to court documents.

Swearingen was arrested three days after Trotter went missing. In jail, he tried to write a letter in Spanish in which he claimed to be someone else who had knowledge of the murder. In the letter, Swearingen corroborated details of the evidence in the case, court documents showed.

He also told a cellmate that he committed capital murder and planned to escape the death penalty, according to court documents.

Swearingen has professed his innocence for the past two decades. In a series of appeals that have wound through Texas and federal courts, his lawyers have challenged the state’s DNA testing in the case and had experts testify that the decomposition of Trotter’s body showed it was dumped in the woods after Swearingen was in custody.

On Monday, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Swearingen’s request for clemency.

Swearingen would be the 12th inmate executed in the United States and the fourth in Texas in 2019, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Has ‘the sacrificial lamb’ arrived?: U.N. cites new recordings in Khashoggi murder

FILE PHOTO: Participants take photos next to a picture of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the Misk Global Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/File Photo

RIYADH (Reuters) – Moments before Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered last October, two of his suspected murderers laying in wait at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate fretted about the task at hand, according to a U.N. report published on Wednesday.

Will it “be possible to put the trunk in a bag?” asked Maher Mutreb, a Saudi intelligence officer who worked for a senior advisor to Saudi crown prince, according to a report from the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions.

“No. Too heavy,” responded Salah al-Tubaigy, a forensic doctor from the Interior Ministry who would dismember and dispose of the body. He expressed hope his task would “be easy”.

Tubaiqy continued: “Joints will be separated. It is not a problem. The body is heavy. First time I cut on the ground. If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished. We will wrap each of them.”

Mutreb and 10 others are now standing trial in closed hearings in Saudi Arabia for their role in the crime.

Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, rejected the investigator’s report as “nothing new”.

He added in a tweet: “The report of the rapporteur in the human rights council contains clear contradictions and baseless allegations which challenge its credibility.”

The report, which calls for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other senior Saudi officials to be investigated over their liability for Khashoggi’s death, relies on recordings and forensic work conducted by Turkish investigators and information from the trials of the suspects in Saudi Arabia.

Khashoggi, a critic of the prince and a Washington Post columnist, was last seen at the consulate where he was to receive papers ahead of his wedding.

TEXT MESSAGE

The report concludes that his murder was deliberate and premeditated. The CIA and some Western countries believe the crown prince ordered the killing, which Saudi officials deny.

Media reports have published the contents of some recordings obtained from inside the consulate, but the U.N. report discloses chilling new details.

At the end of the exchange with Tobaigy, Mutreb asks if “the sacrificial lamb” has arrived. At no point is Khashoggi’s name mentioned, but two minutes later he enters the building.

Khashoggi is ushered to the consul general’s office on the second floor where he meets Mutreb, whom he knew from when they worked together at the Saudi Embassy in London years earlier.

Mutreb tells Khashoggi to send his son a mobile text message.

“What should I say? See you soon? I can’t say kidnapping,” Khashoggi responds.

“Cut it short,” comes the reply. “Take off your jacket.”

“How could this happen in an embassy?” Khashoggi says. “I will not write anything.”

“Type it, Mr. Jamal. Hurry up. Help us so that we can help you because at the end we will take you back to Saudi Arabia and if you don’t help us you know what will happen at the end; let this issue find a good end,” Mutreb says.

The report says the rest of the recordings contain sounds of movement, heavy panting and plastic sheets being wrapped, which Turkish intelligence concluded came after Khashoggi’s death as Saudi officials dismembered his body.

(Reporting By Stephen Kalin, Editing by William Maclean)

Evidence suggests Saudi crown prince liable for Khashoggi murder: U.N. expert

FILE PHOTO: Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman is seen during the Arab Summit in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, May 31, 2019. REUTERS/Hamad l Mohammed/File Photo

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other senior Saudi officials should be investigated over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi since there is credible evidence they are liable for his death, a U.N. rights investigator said on Wednesday.

Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, rejected the investigator’s report as “nothing new”.

He added in a tweet: “The report of the rapporteur in the human rights council contains clear contradictions and baseless allegations which challenge its credibility.”

Khashoggi’s killing provoked widespread disgust and damaged the image of the crown prince, previously admired in the West for pushing deep changes including tax reform, infrastructure projects and allowing women to drive.

Agnes Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, called on countries to invoke universal jurisdiction for what she called the international crime and make arrests if individuals’ responsibility is proven.

In a report based on a six-month investigation, she also urged countries to widen sanctions to include the crown prince, who many consider the kingdom’s de facto ruler, and his personal assets abroad, until and unless he can prove he has no responsibility.

Khashoggi, a critic of the prince and a Washington Post columnist, was last seen at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct 2 where he was to receive papers ahead of his wedding.

His body was dismembered and removed from the building, the Saudi prosecutor has said, and his remains have not been found.

“What needs to be investigated is the extent to which the crown prince knew or should have known of what would have happened to Mr. Khashoggi, whether he directly or indirectly incited the killing…whether he could have prevented the execution when the mission started and failed to do so,” Callamard told reporters.

“It is the conclusion of the Special Rapporteur that Mr. Khashoggi has been the victim of a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible under international human rights law,” Callamard said in her report.

PROSECUTOR

The Saudi public prosecutor indicted 11 unnamed suspects in November, including five who could face the death penalty on charges of ordering and committing the crime.

Callamard said the Saudi trial should be suspended, citing concerns over secret hearings and a potential miscarriage of justice. Instead, a follow-up international criminal probe should be launched, she said, adding: “Of course there are a range of options, an ad hoc tribunal, a hybrid tribunal, any type of mechanism that will deliver a credible process and a credible outcome.”

The CIA and some Western countries believe the crown prince ordered the killing, which Saudi officials deny.

The U.N. report publishes excerpts from what it calls conversations inside the consulate shortly before Khashoggi arrived at the building and during his final moments, in which a Saudi official is heard discussing cutting a body into pieces.

The material relies on recordings and forensic work by Turkish investigators and information from the trials of the suspects in Saudi Arabia, the report said. Callamard said that she could not reach firm conclusions about what the team was told was the sound of a “saw” in the operation.

“Assessments of the recordings by intelligence officers in Turkey and other countries suggest that Mr. Khashoggi could have been injected with a sedative and then suffocated using a plastic bag,” the report said.

Callamard went to Turkey earlier this year with a team of forensic and legal experts and said she received evidence from Turkish authorities.

“There is credible evidence, warranting further investigation of high-level Saudi officials’ individual liability, including the crown prince’s”, she said.

“Indeed, this human rights inquiry has shown that there is sufficient credible evidence regarding the responsibility of the crown prince demanding further investigation,” she added, urging U.N. Secretary-General to establish an international probe.

Asked if universal jurisdiction meant potential arrests of suspects abroad, Callamard said: “If and when the responsibility of those individuals has been proven, including the responsibilities of a level that warrant arrest, absolutely.”

Judicial authorities in countries that recognize universal jurisdiction for serious offenses can investigate and prosecute those crimes no matter where they were committed.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by Stephen Kalin and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Turkey; Editing by Andrew Heavens and William Maclean)

Bitter divisions on death penalty in U.S. top court exposed in Alabama showdown

Death row inmate Christopher Price is seen in this undated Alabama Department of Corrections photo obtained from Montgomery, Alabama, U.S., on April 10, 2019. Courtesy Alabama Department of Corrections/Handout via REUTERS

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court exposed its bitter divisions over the death penalty yet again early Friday as the justices voted on ideological lines to reject an Alabama inmate’s bid to delay his execution.

On a 5-4 vote with the court’s conservatives in the majority, the court reversed two lower court decisions that delayed the execution of Christopher Price, 46, for 60 days so he could proceed with his request to be executed by lethal gas instead of lethal injection.

It was the third time in recent weeks the court has divided 5-4 on a death penalty case, with the conservatives in the majority each time.

The court’s order was released too late for the execution to take place, so Alabama will have to set a new execution date. State officials did not immediately respond to questions about their plans on Friday.

The court said in its order that Price had waited too long to pursue his claim.

Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the liberal justices, called the litigation an example of arbitrary administration of the death penalty. He wrote that Price’s claim failed because of a “minor oversight” by his lawyer when filing evidence to support his argument.

“To proceed in this way calls into question the basic principles of fairness that should underlie our criminal justice system,” Breyer wrote.

He also noted that the justices were due to meet Friday morning and could have discussed the issue then instead of acting in the middle of the night. The three other liberal justices on the nine-justice court joined Breyer’s opinion.

Price was convicted and sentenced to death in 1993 for killing William Lynn, a minister, in his home in Bazemore, Alabama, on Dec. 22, 1991, as he assembled Christmas presents with his wife.

On Thursday, Chief U.S. District Judge Kristi DuBose granted Price’s attorneys the 60-day stay and gave the state until May 10 to respond to their arguments that the three-drug protocol risked causing Price significant pain and that nitrogen hypoxia would reduce that risk.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Constitution did not guarantee a condemned prisoner “a painless death,” paving the way for the execution of convicted murderer Russell Bucklew, who sought to die by lethal gas rather than lethal injection because of a rare medical condition.

In that majority opinion, conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch took aim at the tactics of death penalty defense lawyers who frequently file last-minute applications to delay executions.

The court in February voted 5-4 to allow the execution of a Muslim convicted murderer after Alabama denied his request to have an imam present, saying he waited too long to file his lawsuit.

In March, however, the court blocked the execution of a convicted murderer whose request to have his Buddhist spiritual adviser present at the execution was denied by Texas..

Six executions in the United States scheduled during the first three months of 2019 have been stayed or rescheduled.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky)

Japan executes leader, six followers, of sarin attack doomesday cult

Japan’s Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa attends a news conference following the execution of several members of the doomday cult, including its leader Chizuo Matsumoto, also known as Shoko Asahara, at Justice Ministry in Tokyo, Japan July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

By Elaine Lies and Kiyoshi Takenaka

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan executed on Friday the former leader of a doomsday cult and six other members of the group that carried out a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 13 people and shattering the country’s myth of public safety.

The Aum Shinrikyo, or Aum Supreme Truth cult, which mixed Buddhist and Hindu meditation with apocalyptic teachings, staged a series of crimes including simultaneous sarin gas attacks on subway trains during rush hour in March 1995. Sarin, a nerve gas, was originally developed by the Nazis.

The images of bodies, many in business suits, sprawled across platforms stunned Japan, and triggered public safety steps such as the removal of non-transparent rubbish bins that remain in force to this day.

As well as killing the 13, the attack injured at least 5,800 people, some permanently.

Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa read out the names of the seven at a news conference and said what they had done was “extremely atrocious”.

“These crimes … plunged people not only in Japan but in other countries as well into deadly fear and shook society to its core,” Kamikawa said.

The injured of the deadly gas attack are treated by rescue workers near Tsukiji subway station in Tokyo, in this photo taken by Kyodo March 20, 1995. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

The injured of the deadly gas attack are treated by rescue workers near Tsukiji subway station in Tokyo, in this photo taken by Kyodo March 20, 1995. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

Chizuo Matsumoto, the cult’s leader who went by the name Shoko Asahara, was the first to be hanged, media said as it broke into regular programming to report the news.

Announcements of the other hangings followed through the morning.

Family members of attack victims expressed relief.

“I think it’s right that he was executed,” said Shizue Takahashi, whose husband was a subway worker who died after removing a package of sarin from a train.

“My husband’s parents and my parents are already dead,” the silver-haired Takahashi added. “I think they would find it regrettable that they could not have heard the news of this execution.”

Executions are rare in Japan but surveys show most people support the death sentence.

Rights group Amnesty International said justice demanded accountability but also respect for civil rights.

“The death penalty can never deliver this as it is the ultimate denial of human rights,” Hiroka Shoji, the group’s East Asia Researcher, said in a statement.

A citizens’ group calling for abolishing the death penalty said it was a “mass execution that goes against the global trend”.

Some Japanese worried about revenge.

“I cheered when I heard he’d been killed, but worry that his former followers might deify him and do something. We have to be on guard for a while,” said Twitter user Chie.

Japanese doomsday cult leader Shoko Asahara sits in a police van following an interrogation in Tokyo, Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo September 25, 1995. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

BIZARRE RITUALS AND WEAPONS

Asahara, 63, a pudgy, partially blind yoga instructor, was sentenced to hang in 2004 on 13 charges, including the subway gas attacks and other crimes that killed at least a dozen people.

He pleaded not guilty and never testified, but muttered and made incoherent remarks in court during the eight years of his trial. The sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2006.

In all, 13 cult members were sentenced to death during more than 20 years of trials, which came to an end in January 2018.

Asahara, who founded Aum in 1987, said that the United States would attack Japan and turn it into a nuclear wasteland. He also said he had traveled forward in time to 2006 and talked to people then about what World War Three had been like.

At its peak, the cult had at least 10,000 members in Japan and overseas, including graduates of some of Japan’s top universities.

Some members lived in a commune-like complex Asahara established at the foot of Mount Fuji, where the group studied his teachings, practiced bizarre rituals and gathered an arsenal of weapons – including sarin.

The cult also used sarin in 1994, releasing the gas in the central city of Matsumoto on a summer night in an attempt to kill three judges set to rule on it.

That attack, which involved a refrigerator truck releasing the gas to be dispersed by the wind through a neighborhood, failed to kill the judges but killed eight other people and injured hundreds.

(Reporting by Elaine Lies, Kiyoshi Takenaka, Chang-Ran Kim, Kaori Kaneko, Ami Miyazaki; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

The lives of three men show why Syria’s rebels are losing the war

FILE PHOTO: Members of al Qaeda's Nusra Front gesture as they drive in a convoy touring villages, which they said they have seized control of from Syrian rebel factions, in the southern countryside of Idlib, Syria December 2, 2014. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

By Dahlia Nehme

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The war has cost one man part of his liver and intestines. Another his home and work. A third his homeland and studies.

All three have lost hope.

Abu Farhan, Fouad al-Ghraibi and Abu al-Baraa took the rebels’ side in the violence which began after the government put down street protests that started on March 15, 2011.

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from one of the buildings in the city of Homs, Syria March 11, 2013. REUTERS/Yazan Homsy/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from one of the buildings in the city of Homs, Syria March 11, 2013. REUTERS/Yazan Homsy/File Photo

Ghraibi, who has a business renting out construction machinery, joined a rebel group and later set up his own fighting unit. Abu al-Baraa, then just 16, joined a militant group, the Nusra Front, and became a jihadist fighter. Abu Farhan, a student and part-time kitchen fitter, joined the first protests in the central Syrian city of Homs and went on to became an opposition activist.

The harrowing tales of the three men — they don’t know each other but all risked their lives by siding against President Bashar al-Assad — help show why the rebellion is failing.

All three quickly became disillusioned with divisions among the rebels and what they saw as various fighting groups’ intolerance of anyone who does not think like them — a trait similar to what they see in Assad.

Two of them have concluded the war is unwinnable, especially as Assad now has heavy military support from Russia and Iran that far outweighs the weapons shipped to rebels by the United States, Gulf Arab states and Turkey.

But hatred of Assad means fighters like Ghraibi battle on. Men such as Abu al-Baraa and Abu Farhan are so disillusioned with both sides that they see no life for them in Syria.

“What happened destroyed my whole future,” Abu al-Baraa, who now lives in exile in Turkey, told Reuters by telephone. He fled across the border after falling out with the Nusra Front, which he says imprisoned and tortured him.

Ghraibi, 37, has recovered from abdomen and hand wounds and lost part of his liver and intestines, and a finger, says he will fight to the death with the rebels but also believes the rebellion’s original ideals are dead.

“We’ll keep fighting to our last breath, even against the whole world,” he said.

FILE PHOTO: Free Syrian Army members, with covered faces and holding weapons, sit by the side of a street in Qaboun district, Syria Damascus June 11, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Free Syrian Army members, with covered faces and holding weapons, sit by the side of a street in Qaboun district, Syria Damascus June 11, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

OPPOSITION ACTIVIST

Abu Farhan shares that sense of despair. Now 30, he was forced out of Homs by the fighting in 2014. Although he has found work and an apartment in Syria’s northern Idlib province, he is deeply disillusioned by what has become of Syria and dreams of leaving to start a new life abroad.

“We didn’t want to destroy our country and create this rift among Syrians,” he said. “If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t have joined the protests.”

He asked to be identified only by his nom de guerre for fear of upsetting rebels in Idlib.

The civil war has killed 511,000 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and forced over 5.4 million to flee the county, according to U.N. data. It has also caused a refugee crisis in neighboring countries and western Europe and inspired fatal attacks from Nice to Los Angeles.

(Years of deadly days in Syria: http://tmsnrt.rs/2HB9bkG)

It is a civil war that has laid bare the international community’s inability to resolve conflicts on such a scale, increasing strains between Russia and the West.

Abu Farhan had studied physical education at university in Homs before the war and was working as a kitchen fitter. He threw his lot in with Assad’s opponents when he joined anti-government protesters pouring out of the Khaled bin al-Walid mosque in Homs.

Abu Farhan put aside his studies and his hopes of marriage, and began organizing protests.

His best friend and favorite cousin both disappeared under arrest. Last year he found out that they were killed – a fate which human rights groups say has befallen tens of thousands in Assad’s prisons. The president denies the accusations.

By February 2012, the Syrian army was regularly shelling the district where Abu Farhan lived in the Jouret al Shayyah district of Homs near the Old City. But he chose not to fight.

“I knew that taking up arms would be a curse, not a blessing,” he said.

As fighting intensified and warplanes began bombing city blocks in late 2012, he left his home with his parents and two siblings for al-Waer, a quieter opposition area in another part of the city.

Waer was soon subjected to a siege that lasted until 2017 and food became more scarce. During Ramadan, the Muslim holy month when people traditionally eat delicacies at night after fasting through the daylight hours, he says the family usually had only bulgur wheat to break their fast.

“Sometimes we didn’t even have that,” he said.

Terrified of arrest by Assad’s security forces – which he believed would lead to torture and summary execution – Abu Farhan and his family joined rebels who left for Idlib in a negotiated withdrawal, surrendering Waer to the government.

Idlib will never feel like home for Abu Farhan. “I am a refugee here,” he said.

After leaving Waer, he and his sister both found jobs in Idlib, with Abu Farhan working as a fitness instructor.

Despite overcrowding caused by the flood of refugees from other parts of Syria, they were able to rent an apartment. For now, though, Abu Farhan is unable to get to work in the southern part of Idlib because bombing by pro-Assad forces makes his journey too dangerous.

The bombing, destruction and what he sees as the intolerance of rebel groups running Idlib have convinced him there is no point staying in Syria. He has started learning Turkish and hopes to gain refugee status.

JIHADIST AND EXILE

Abu al-Baraa was a schoolboy in Waer when the protests began, but volunteered as a hospital orderly and helped injured demonstrators hide from the police. He briefly became a medical student, while it was still possible to travel into the university in central Homs.

Realising he was now a wanted man because of his actions, he joined the Nusra Front. He said the group seemed to represent his conservative religious views and that he became aware of its true nature and violent militancy only later.

“We didn’t know then that the Nusra Front was affiliated to al Qaeda. We had a religious upbringing, and they lured us in with their religious beliefs,” said Abu al-Baraa.

The Nusra Front’s brutal methods were soon evident to Abu al-Baraa, as was the split between jihadist and nationalist groups that has plagued the uprising.

“They established security apparatuses and prisons just like the (Assad government) regime, where they tortured people,” Abu al-Baraa said. “I know of at least one man who died under torture and was later shown to be innocent.”

After only a few months fighting with the group, he was stripped of his gun and mobile phone for opposing its actions and he started volunteering at a medical center.

His disillusionment with the Nusra Front and other rebels grew and he publicly argued with the group’s local commander, who threw him into prison.

He was held in a dark underground cell infested with rats and was tortured, he said.

“They faked 15 accusations against me, including theft and spying for the regime. After 12 days of living hell, I collapsed and confessed to the fake accusations,” he said.

While he wasted in prison the rebellion, undermined by internal wrangling and facing a government strengthened by the arrival of Russian warplanes, was losing ground.

When its enclave in the city of Aleppo fell to Assad in late 2016, it led to a series of surrenders of other small opposition pockets around Syria. Waer was one of them.

Abu al-Baraa was stuck in prison, but he still had friends in the Nusra Front who managed to smuggle him out. He was able to board one of a number of green buses sent by the government to evacuate the rebels, and made it to Idlib.

For Abu al-Baraa, worried he was in danger from the Nusra Front and now using false documents, the misery and poverty of Idlib offered no haven.

“Two or three families shared one small apartment, taking turns to sleep,” he said.

Six weeks after arriving there, he made the dangerous border crossing into Turkey with the help of the same people who had rescued him from prison. It was his seventh attempt.

Mow living in Istanbul with his mother and younger brother, Abu al-Baraa says the trauma of that time, when the sound of jets meant an attack could be imminent, still affects them.

“We live near the airport. Whenever a plane takes off or lands, my brother runs crying to his mother,” he said.

Their father did not make it out of Syria. He died of a stroke in Waer in 2014. Abu al-Baraa still fears his former rebel allies enough to be identified only by his nom de guerre.

REBEL COMMANDER

When anti-government protests began in the city of Idlib in 2011, Fouad al-Ghraibi quickly joined them.

There was never any question where his allegiances lay. Thirteen of his uncles and cousins, all from the family’s home village of Kafr Oueid in Idlib province, were killed or jailed when government forces crushed a years-long revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization, in 1982.

Ghraibi was shot in the hand and abdomen when Assad cracked down on the protesters and was taken to Turkey for treatment.

Returning to Idlib months later, he gathered friends to join the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an alliance of rebel groups backed by Western and Arab countries.

Disappointed by divisions in the FSA, he later joined Jaish al-Islam, a better organized Islamist coalition backed by Saudi Arabia where he was put in charge of 150 fighters.

Three of his brothers, Mokhlis, Khaled and Mustafa, were killed in combat in the northwest, scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. An air strike on his village in June 2015 killed 33 civilians, including his niece.

When an alliance of jihadist groups led by the Nusra Front, which changed its name in 2016, took over much of Idlib last year, Ghraibi returned home to Kafr Oueid.

Once there, he set up a group of 45 local fighters which he hopes will defend the village from both Assad and the Islamist factions, and return the revolution to the ideals he believes it originally espoused.

All it has done so far is contribute yet another small armed faction to a civil war that shows no sign of ending.

(Editing by Angus McDowall and Timothy Heritage)

North Korea sentences South Korean reporters to death over review of book about country

SEOUL (Reuters) – A North Korean court sentenced two South Korean journalists and their publishers to death for “seriously insulting the dignity” of the country by reviewing and interviewing the British authors of a book about life in the North, its state media said on Thursday.

North Korea has previously issued harshly worded accusations against South Korean entities and individuals for allegedly violating its dignity, by slandering its leadership and its political system.

The book in English titled “North Korea Confidential” was authored by James Pearson, a Seoul-based correspondent for Reuters, and Daniel Tudor, former correspondent in South Korea for the Economist magazine.

The book, based on interviews with North Korean defectors, diplomats and traders, depicts a growing market economy where ordinary North Koreans enjoy access to South Korea music and TV dramas, fashion and smuggled Chinese and American films. Pearson wrote the book, published in 2015, before joining Reuters.

The Korean-language edition, published earlier this month with the title translated as “Capitalist Republic of Korea”, was reviewed by South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo and Chosun Ilbo newspapers.

A spokesman for the North’s Central Court said in a statement carried by the country’s official KCNA news agency that the book “viciously slandered the reality of the DPRK”, the initials for North Korea’s official name of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The book painted life in the country as increasingly capitalistic where money can buy power and influence, the spokesman said.

The South Korean journalists who reviewed the book “committed a hideous crime of seriously insulting the dignity of the DPRK with the use of dishonest contents” carried by “North Korea Confidential”, the court spokesman said.

The Central Court has ordered the execution of the journalists, Son Hyo-rim of the Dong-A Ilbo and Yang Ji-ho of the Chosun Ilbo, and the publishers of the newspapers. It also demanded the South Korean government investigate their crimes and punish them, the state media said.

The court statement did not make any mention of punishment for the book’s authors.

A Dong-A Ilbo representative said the newspaper declined to comment and its reporter Son did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Chosun Ilbo reporter Yang declined to comment while a newspaper representative could not be immediately reached for comment. Tudor, the co-author of the book, declined to comment.

A Reuters spokeswoman declined to comment.

“Dong-A Ilbo, Chosun Ilbo and other conservative media in South Korea have so far committed smear campaign against the DPRK nonstop,” KCNA quoted the court as saying. “The criminals hold no right to appeal and the execution will be carried out any moment and at any place without going through any additional procedures.”

(Reporting by Jack Kim and Soyoung Kim; Editing by Neil Fullick)

Canadian pastor escaped execution due to foreign citizenship

Pastor Hyeon Soo Lim speaks at the Light Presbyterian Church in Mississauga.

TORONTO (Reuters) – A Canadian pastor whom North Korea released this month after two years of imprisonment escaped execution and torture during his captivity because of his nationality, he told CBC News in his first interview since his return.

Hyeon Soo Lim, the pastor from Toronto, said in an interview broadcast on Saturday that he was never harmed and that he would not hesitate to go back to North Korea if the country allowed him. A transcript of the interview was posted on the Canadian public broadcaster’s website.

“If I’m just Korean, maybe they kill me,” Lim said. “I’m Canadian so they cannot, because they cannot kill the foreigners.”

Lim, formerly the senior pastor at one of Canada’s largest churches, had disappeared on a mission to North Korea in early 2015. He was sentenced to hard labor for life in December 2015 on charges of attempting to overthrow the Pyongyang regime.

He said North Korea treated him well despite forcing him to dig holes and break coal by hand all day in a labor camp.

Lim told CBC News that he was “coached and coerced” into confessing that he traveled under the guise of humanitarian work as part of a “subversive plot” to overthrow the government and set up a religious state.

North Korea let him go on humanitarian grounds. The announcement came during heightened tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, although authorities have not said there was any connection between his release and efforts to defuse the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear program.

Lim said he felt no anger at the Kim Jong Un regime for sentencing him to prison.

“No, I thanked North Korea,” he said. “I forgive them.”

 

(Reporting by Denny Thomas; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

 

North Korea conducts public executions for theft, watching South Korea media: report

A graphic showing suspected killing sites in North Korea is seen in a report compiled by Transitional Justice Working Group, during an interview with a researcher from the group in Seoul, South Korea, July 19, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea carries out public executions on river banks and at school grounds and marketplaces for charges such as stealing copper from factory machines, distributing media from South Korea and prostitution, a report issued on Wednesday said.

The report, by a Seoul-based non-government group, said the often extra-judicial decisions for public executions are frequently influenced by “bad” family background or a government campaign to discourage certain behavior.

The Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG) said its report was based on interviews with 375 North Korean defectors from the isolated state over a period of two years.

Reuters could not independently verify the testimony of defectors in the report. The TJWG is made up of human rights activists and researchers and is led by Lee Younghwan, who has worked as an advocate for human rights in North Korea.

It receives most of its funding from the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy, which in turn is funded by the U.S. Congress.

The TJWG report aims to document the locations of public killings and mass burials, which it says had not been done previously, to support an international push to hold to account those who commit what it describes as crimes against humanity.

“The maps and the accompanying testimonies create a picture of the scale of the abuses that have taken place over decades,” the group said.

North Korea rejects charges of human rights abuses, saying its citizens enjoy protection under the constitution and accuses the United States of being the world’s worst rights violator.

However, the North has faced an unprecedented push to hold the regime and its leader, Kim Jong Un, accountable for a wide range of rights abuses since a landmark 2014 report by a United Nations commission.

U.N. member countries urged the Security Council in 2014 to consider referring North Korea and its leader to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity, as alleged in a Commission of Inquiry report.

The commission detailed abuses including large prison camps, systematic torture, starvation and executions comparable to Nazi-era atrocities, and linked the activities to the North’s leadership.

North Korea has rejected that inquiry’s findings and the push to bring the North to a tribunal remains stalled due in part to objections by China and Russia, which hold veto powers at the U.N. Security Council.

TJWG said its project to map the locations of mass graves and executions has the potential to contribute to documentation that could back the push for accountability and future efforts to bring the North to justice.

It said executions are carried out in prison camps to incite fear and intimidation among potential escapees, and public executions are carried out for seemingly minor crimes, including the theft of farm produce such as corn and rice.

Stealing electric cables and other commodities from factories to sell them and distribution of South Korean-produced media are also subject to executions, which are most commonly administered by shooting, it said.

Testimonies also showed people can be beaten to death, with one interviewee saying: “Some crimes were considered not worth wasting bullets on.”

Government officials were executed on corruption and espionage charges, and bureaucrats from other regions would be made to watch “as a deterrence tactic”, the report said.

Defectors from the North have previously testified to having witnessed public executions and rights abuses at detention facilities.

(Reporting by Christine Kim; Editing by Paul Tait)

Hamas executes three Palestinians over killing says ordered by Israel

Members of Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas ride a truck outside a Hamas-run military court where alleged collaborators with Israel are prosecuted, in Gaza City May 21, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement executed three Palestinians on Thursday convicted of killing a commander in the Islamist group’s armed wing while acting on Israel’s orders.

Hamas’ military prosecutor said the three men admitted to receiving orders from Israeli intelligence officers to track and kill Mazen Fuqaha on March 24 in Gaza City.

A military court convicted one of carrying out the shooting and the two others of providing Israel with information about Fuqaha’s whereabouts.

Two of the men, aged 44 and 38, were hanged while the third, 38, a former security officer, was shot by firing squad, the Hamas-run interior ministry said.

The executions took place in an open yard of Gaza’s main police headquarters, witnessed by leaders from Hamas and other Palestinian factions, as well as heads of Gaza clans.

Israel has established a network of contacts in the Palestinian territories, using a combination of pressure and sweeteners to entice Palestinians to divulge intelligence.

The Shin Bet security service, which carries out covert operations against Palestinian militants, did not respond to a request by Reuters for comment.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in an interview with Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper soon after Fuqaha’s killing, said his death was part of an internal power dispute within Hamas.

Israel jailed Fuqaha in 2003 for planning attacks against Israelis, sentencing him to nine life terms. He was released in 2011 in a group of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners who Israel freed in exchange for a captured soldier.

Israeli media said that after Fuqaha’s release and exile to Gaza he continued to plan attacks by Palestinian militants in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinian and International human rights groups have repeatedly urged Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to suspend use of the death penalty.

Palestinian law says President Mahmoud Abbas, who has no actual control over Gaza, has the final word on whether executions can be carried out.

Hamas has sentenced 109 people to death and executed at least 25 since 2007, when the group seized power in Gaza from Abbas in a brief civil war.

Human Rights Watch’s executive director of the Middle East division, Sara Leah Whitson, denounced what she called Hamas’ “reliance on confessions, in a system where coercion, torture and deprivation of detainees’ rights are prevalent.”

(Writing by Nidal Almughrabi; editing by John Stonestreet)