Convicted criminals are among the special police terrorizing Venezuela

By Sarah Kinosian and Angus Berwick

GUARENAS, Venezuela (Reuters) – Since President Nicolas Maduro founded the Special Action Force of Venezuela’s National Police two-and-a-half years ago, the squad has earned a fearsome reputation in poor neighborhoods across Venezuela.

Officers in the force have been accused of torture and summary executions by human rights groups, opposition politicians and ordinary citizens.

Last November, Reuters published an investigation into 20 killings by the force, known as the FAES, in which the official narratives of shootings as acts of self-defense were countered by eyewitness accounts, video evidence, death certificates, autopsy reports and other documentation.

The force has been linked to hundreds of deaths since its creation in 2017.

For all its notoriety, though, the FAES is highly secretive, known for signature dark masks and black uniforms bearing skull insignias but no name tags. Officers typically remain anonymous even after blood is shed.

Now, a court case involving the deaths of two men killed last March by the FAES reveals another little-known fact that Reuters is the first to publicly disclose: Some of the squad’s officers are convicted criminals.

According to hundreds of sealed documents submitted by prosecutors in the case, at least two officers accused of involvement in the killings served prison terms before they joined the FAES.

The documents – which include autopsies, ballistic reports, officer testimony and personnel files – also show that at least three other members of the same FAES precinct who aren’t being prosecuted over the deadly operation have criminal records of their own.

It is both illegal and against national police policy for criminals to belong to the FAES. A 2009 law bars Venezuelans with criminal convictions from working as police officers. FAES guidelines and recruitment documents, reviewed by Reuters, say officers should have no criminal record and be of “good moral character.”

Jose Dominguez, national commissioner of the FAES, in a brief exchange by text message told Reuters that members of the force go through “select processes” and “special training.” He didn’t respond to questions about the criminal records of some FAES officers or a request to discuss Reuters’ findings in person or by telephone.

Venezuela’s Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, and the Information Ministry, responsible for government communications, didn’t return calls and emails by Reuters detailing its findings.

The presence of convicts within the ranks of the FAES sheds new light on a security force widely considered by Venezuelans to be a mechanism of social control for Maduro, whose government is beleaguered by economic decline, widespread hunger and insecurity, and international sanctions and isolation.

Hailed by the president as a new means to fight surging crime and violence, the FAES has become as feared as the criminals it was meant to target, especially in poor districts where hardship fans political instability.

People familiar with the FAES say its leaders are more concerned with projecting force and fear than with rectitude.

“They hire people who aren’t afraid to commit crimes, to enter a home without a warrant and kill,” said Nora Echavez, a former chief prosecutor in Miranda, the state where the homicide court case will be heard. “A criminal does these things easily because they’ve already done them before.”

Reuters couldn’t determine how many ex-convicts are working within FAES ranks nationwide. Personnel records aren’t disclosed by the government. Even the size of the FAES, estimated by fellow police officials to number about 1,500 officers, is held close by the administration.

The mystery surrounding the force is part of its playbook, professionals familiar with it say. “The FAES prefer the anonymity,” said Javier Gorrino, a criminologist and municipal police commissioner in El Hatillo, a district of Caracas, who has interacted with the force. “A mask causes more terror when you don’t know who’s behind it.”

The case in Guarenas, a gritty commuter city 39 kilometers from Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, is one of few instances in which the identity and backgrounds of FAES officers has come to light.

The two men killed there had law-enforcement backgrounds themselves. One was a municipal policeman from Caracas and the other was a former member of the same local force in the capital. Neither was affiliated with the FAES or any of its officers.

The victims’ ties to law enforcement, people familiar with the case say, are likely the only reason that their deaths have prompted further investigation. The cases of thousands of other Venezuelans who have died at the hands of police, allegedly after resisting arrest, routinely go unexamined.

Alexis Lira, a onetime policeman turned lawyer whose brother was one of the victims in Guarenas, says most families of people killed by cops lack resources and wherewithal to challenge the FAES’ accounts of its operations.

“Most people just have to accept it,” said Lira, who says he now spends much of his days working with prosecutors to seek accountability for his brother’s death. “I don’t.”

His brother was Fernando Lira, a 39-year-old former policeman who had become a graphic designer. Also killed was Lira’s friend, Eligio Duarte, a 41-year-old municipal officer in Caracas. Neither man had a criminal record.

They died March 6, 2019, when a group of FAES officers shot them after a brief car chase. In a statement to police investigators, the FAES supervisor who ran the operation said the men had fired upon his officers first. The police response was “proportionate,” the supervisor said in his statement.

Soon, evidence emerged to the contrary.

Forensic tests showed that neither Lira nor Duarte, who had gone to Guarenas to collect money owed to Lira’s longtime girlfriend, fired a weapon at all. Both men were shot from above, according to autopsy reports, undermining the FAES claim that they were hit in a shootout.

In a court filing that led to charges of homicide against the FAES supervisor and six officers, a state prosecutor wrote: “The events did not happen in the way the police officers claimed.”

“NO PLACE ON ANY POLICE FORCE”

Guarenas is the kind of violent place that could have benefited from a new national crime-fighting force. A community of about 200,000 people in Miranda state, east of the capital, it has crime rates that historically have exceeded the average for Venezuela.

Some gangs, chased out of Caracas in recent years, have moved into hills that surround Guarenas and stretch along the nearby Caribbean coast. Police forces here and elsewhere in Miranda have long been considered corrupt.

After oil prices plunged in 2014, sending Venezuela into recession, Maduro pursued economic policies that deepened the country’s woes. Nearly 5 million people have migrated, about 15% of the country’s populace.

Among the exodus were soldiers, police officers and other public security workers. With wages equal to just a few dollars a month in Venezuela’s hyperinflationary economy, few incentives remained to attract qualified candidates to replace them.

In Miranda, police ranks thinned so quickly that police bosses began lowering standards for recruits, six former officers familiar with the area told Reuters.

Some hires had criminal records. Area police earned even more of a reputation for bribery, extortion, kidnapping and other crimes with tactics like shaking down citizens for their personal belongings or stopping trucks and looting their cargo.

“There were officers who should have had no place on any police force,” said Luis Martinez, a retired senior police official who worked in the area.

Crime soared. The homicide rate, rising across Venezuela, climbed particularly fast in Miranda.

From 100 murders per 100,000 residents earlier in the decade, the rate in the state by 2017 had soared to 153, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a research group based in Caracas. The figure was the second-highest in Venezuela and about 30 times the rate at the time in the United States.

When Maduro launched the FAES in July 2017, his government tasked local police administrators with recruiting officers for the new force. Priorities included loyalty to the ruling Socialist party and a willingness to use aggressive tactics in crime-ridden neighborhoods nationwide, more than a dozen people familiar with those efforts said.

In April 2018, the National Police launched the area FAES unit, administered from Zamora, a nearby municipality. The force set up headquarters behind a local hospital, next to the morgue. A crudely drawn skull graces a whitewashed plaster wall by the entrance.

A former Zamora police operations chief, Oliver Alvarez, took command. He built a unit of 120 officers, many of whom came from local and nearby forces, according to employment contracts for the squad reviewed by Reuters. Alvarez couldn’t be reached for comment.

Among the new FAES officers was Richard Sanchez, one of those charged in the Guarenas shootings. Sanchez, now 34, was indicted in 2004 for robbery and assault, according to court records. Reuters couldn’t determine whether he was convicted of those charges.

In 2014, he was convicted of robbery and served two-and-a-half years in prison, the court documents show. Reuters was unable to reach Sanchez.

His attorney, Miguel Pena, also represents all but one of the six other officers charged in the shootings. Pena told Reuters the accused are detained at a FAES barracks in Caracas, but are still officially part of the force.

He confirmed Sanchez’s prior conviction, but said his clients in this case acted in self-defense. “I’m not saying they’re angels,” Pena told Reuters in an interview. “But there was a shootout and they were defending themselves.”

Another recruit for the local FAES was Jose Oliveros, an officer who had risen through police ranks in Miranda despite a prior conviction as an accessory to murder. According to court records, Oliveros, now 37, had accompanied two other men when one of them shot a man to death after a 2009 altercation.

After serving one year of a five-year prison sentence, Oliveros was named deputy director of a small police force near Guarenas in 2017, government documents announcing his appointment to the post show. He became chief of that precinct in 2018 and then chief of another last year, even after joining the ranks of the FAES.

Oliveros, reached by telephone, said he would seek permission from superiors to speak with Reuters. He didn’t respond to further efforts to reach him. Julio Ortega, Oliveros’ attorney, declined to speak with Reuters for this story.

“WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!”

The Guarenas shootings followed a failed foreign currency transaction, according to transcripts of testimony by those involved to prosecutors and police investigators. It isn’t clear why FAES officers got involved or why the episode turned violent.

Early on March 2, Maria Gonzalez received a text message at the Caracas apartment she shared with Lira, the former police officer. The couple had been together for 10 years and ran a t-shirt printing business.

The text offered a basic transaction that many Venezuelans pursue to keep their income from being eroded by hyperinflation. By converting their local currency into dollars, they preserve the long-term value of their earnings.

Jhonathan Coraspe, a former colleague of Gonzalez from Guarenas, told Gonzalez a friend had $500 in U.S. currency he wanted to exchange for bolivars, Venezuela’s currency. In the texts, reviewed by Reuters and corroborated by Gonzalez in interviews, she accepted the transaction.

That same day, she transferred 1.68 million bolivars, roughly the equivalent value to $500 dollars at the time, to an account Coraspe said belonged to the friend, Ruben Alarcon. Gonzalez then drove the half hour to Guarenas to collect the dollars.

Reuters was unable to reach Coraspe. After the shootings, he testified to police investigators and prosecutors but has since gone into hiding, according to attorneys involved in the case. Alarcon, the friend, didn’t return phone calls or texts from Reuters to discuss the incident.

In Guarenas, Alarcon didn’t appear at a pharmacy where Coraspe said he would meet Gonzalez to hand over the dollars. “I trusted you,” she wrote Coraspe. “I feel truly terrible,” Coraspe replied, and agreed to see her later.

That evening, Coraspe drove to Gonzalez’s Caracas apartment.

He promised to secure the $500.

Lira, the former police officer, and Duarte, the municipal police officer and friend who would also be shot when the transaction unraveled, were at the apartment, according to testimony by Coraspe and Gonzalez.

Coraspe told investigators the two men forced him to leave his car as collateral in case he never came up with the $500. Gonzalez said Coraspe volunteered the silver 1997 Honda Civic himself.

Neither Duarte nor Lira had a criminal record, according to a document Caracas police sent to prosecutors for the case. Five former colleagues told Reuters both men had been upstanding citizens and policemen.

On the morning of March 4, Coraspe called Hugo Martinez, a FAES officer he knew from his neighborhood, according to Coraspe’s testimony to prosecutors. He told Martinez that two men had stolen his car and were trying to extort $500 from him.

A day later, Martinez told Coraspe to tell Gonzalez he had the $500 but no way to get to Caracas, Coraspe testified. Coraspe texted Gonzalez and said he could meet in Guarenas the following day.

The next morning, March 6, Gonzalez sent Lira, who left with Duarte to retrieve the money, Gonzalez told investigators. In text messages, Coraspe testified, Lira agreed to meet him at a gas station.

With Lira bound for Guarenas, Martinez called his FAES supervisor, Alexander Uzcategui, and told him about the alleged extortion, transcripts of testimony by Uzcategui show. Martinez told Uzcategui that Coraspe would soon meet the two men from Caracas at the gas station. The supervisor said they and a small group of FAES colleagues would “await” them there.

Reuters was unable to reach Martinez, Uzcategui or any of the other officers charged in the operation.

At 1 p.m., Coraspe waited at the gas station. Lira and Duarte arrived in a blue Toyota Hilux pickup. Nearby, in two vehicles, FAES officers watched.

According to Uzcategui’s testimony to police investigators, the men in the pickup pulled a gun and forced Coraspe into their vehicle “under the threat of death.” They sped off, he said. His squad gave chase.

Coraspe, in his own comments to investigators, said he entered the truck voluntarily. Neither Duarte nor Lira brandished a weapon, he said. Unprompted, FAES officers shot at the moving Toyota, he added.

Frightened, Coraspe pulled the handbrake. The pickup crashed into the roadside. “We’re all going to die,” Coraspe recalled telling the other men.

According to the transcript of his testimony, Coraspe emerged from the crash, ran toward a FAES vehicle and got in. Officers, meanwhile, approached the pickup.

Duarte and Lira, Coraspe testified, exited with their hands up. They followed FAES orders to lie down. With the men prone, Coraspe said, he could no longer see them.

He heard gunshots.

Five minutes later, FAES officers pulled Coraspe from their car and ordered him to lie on the ground, he testified. He saw Lira and Duarte “lying motionless,” Coraspe told prosecutors.

Uzcategui told investigators that Lira and Duarte had fired upon his squad. His officers fired back, shooting both. After the gunfight, he said, officers took the men to a hospital, where a doctor declared them dead.

“WHAT REALLY HAPPENED”

At 2.30 p.m., Marlon Brito, a detective with the Corps for Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigation received an order from supervisors to go to the morgue, according to his written report for the case. The corps, known as the CICPC, conducts forensic work for the National Police.

Reuters was unable to reach Brito for comment.

At the morgue, next to the hospital, Brito saw two bodies.

With a national identity card that had been on Duarte, Brito identified the Caracas officer’s corpse. Lira’s corpse would later be identified by the English words “FREEDOM” and “History” tattooed on his left forearm.

Duarte suffered two bullet wounds to the chest, Brito wrote in his report. Lira had two chest wounds and a gunshot to the stomach. Autopsies confirmed the wounds Brito reported.

From the morgue, Brito drove to the site of the crash and shootings. Uzcategui, the supervisor, stood guard with about 15 other FAES officers, according to Brito’s report.

The Hilux was riddled with bullets, Brito wrote. Photos of the scene reviewed by Reuters also show the pierced pickup. Spent shells littered the area and two pistols lay on the ground.

Officers told Brito the guns belonged to suspects who had fired upon them.

Within days, autopsy and forensic reports contradicted the FAES account.

Autopsy results, prepared by a separate government agency, on March 19 concluded that both men had been shot from above. The reports, reviewed by Reuters and also contained in the court documents, say bullets pierced Duarte “from above down.” Lira was shot “from above downward.”

Duarte Nuno Vieira, a professor of forensic medicine and medical law at the University of Coimbra, in Portugal, reviewed the autopsy results at Reuters’ request. “The autopsy reports,” he said, “are more in line with a context of summary execution.”

In its forensics report, the CICPC concluded that Lira and Duarte’s hands had no trace of antimony, barium or lead, telltale chemicals expelled by most guns.

A forensics specialist in Spain, who reviewed the findings for Reuters, said the report was conclusive. “They didn’t fire a single shot,” said Francisco Gallego, director of the Technical Institute of Ballistic Studies in Madrid.

The CICPC report said that forensic evidence and testimony put the seven officers charged at the scene.

Uzcategui, the supervisor, fired the 9 mm pistol rounds that killed Duarte, the report said. The specificity was possible because the bullets, traced by forensics to Uzcategui’s gun, remained in Duarte’s body, according to the autopsy.

Although the rounds that killed Lira left through exit wounds, ballistics in the report indicated that three of the six other officers charged had fired weapons.

Meyfer Diaz, a 23-year-old recruit who joined the force just two months before the shootings, fired a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun. A month before the operation, Diaz posted a Facebook photo of himself in FAES gear. “Suck it,” he wrote, “nothing gets to me.”

Sanchez, the officer who served prison time for robbery, fired his Tanfoglio pistol four times. Investigators traced fourteen other rounds at the scene to Oliveros, the officer who served time as an accomplice to murder.

Ballistic reports and a FAES document contained in the prosecutors’ case file, both reviewed by Reuters, show the rounds came from a Heckler & Koch MP5 assigned to Oliveros. At a July hearing, Ortega, Oliveros’ lawyer, argued that his client didn’t have the gun on the day of the killings.

In his testimony to prosecutors, Coraspe, whose phone call set off the episode, said FAES officers after the shootings told him to tell investigators “it was a confrontation.” Instead, he said, “I told the officers what really happened.”

The defendants are scheduled to appear in court in March; the trial is expected to take months. Attorneys leading the prosecution for the state didn’t respond to requests from Reuters to discuss the case.

Alexis Lira, the graphic designer’s brother, visits the courthouse and prosecutors weekly to make sure the case is progressing.

Gonzalez, Fernando Lira’s girlfriend and intended beneficiary of the missing $500, after Lira’s death gradually grew weaker from a longstanding struggle with pulmonary hypertension. Reuters interviewed her multiple times in late 2019.

On January 3, Gonzalez died of heart failure.

“She was our companion in this battle,” said Jeanette Padron, a physician, friend and the longtime partner of Duarte, the other man killed. “Fernando’s death broke her down.”

(Editing by Paulo Prada.)

U.S. court denies Trump administration bid to resume federal executions

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court on Monday denied the Justice Department’s request to overturn a lower court decision that temporarily stalled plans by President Donald Trump’s administration to resume executions of prisoners convicted of certain federal crimes after a 16-year hiatus.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found that the administration had “not satisfied the stringent requirements” to stay the lower court’s ruling. The administration had planned to resume executions of federal death row inmates starting on Dec. 9.

The ruling follows a Nov. 21 decision by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan to stay the planned executions of four federal death row inmates until a long-running legal challenge to the Justice Department’s lethal injection protocol can be resolved.

The lawsuits, the first of which was filed in 2005, challenged the protocol on the grounds that it violated the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment by carrying a risk of severe pain. The suits also said the protocol violated a federal law called the Administrative Procedure Act because it was written in secret without public input.

The case fell dormant during President Barack Obama’s tenure after the federal government was forced to halt executions and abandon its previous three-drug protocol due to a shortage of one of the drugs, an anesthetic called sodium thiopental.

But the case was revived in July, after U.S. Attorney General William Barr, appointed by Trump earlier in the year, scheduled the execution of five federal death row inmates and unveiled a new protocol that calls for using a single drug, pentobarbital, for the lethal injection.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham)

Executions ‘rampant’ in Philippine drug war, U.N. probe needed: Amnesty

FILE PHOTO: Activists and families of drug war victims display placards during a protest against the war on drugs by President Rodrigo Duterte in Quezon city, Metro Manila in Philippines, August 28, 2018. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

MANILA (Reuters) – Impunity and unlawful killings are going on unabated in the Philippines, three years into a war on drugs, with a pattern of executions under the guise of police sting operations and a state unwilling to investigate, a rights group said on Monday.

London-based Amnesty International urged the United Nations Human Rights Council to approve a resolution calling for an investigation into the Philippines, where there was a “perilous normalization” of illegal executions and police abuses.

A vote on the resolution by the 47-member council is expected later this week.

The exact number of dead in President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs is impossible to independently verify, but many thousands have been killed, about 6,600 of those during operations in which police said suspects were armed and fought back.

Amnesty, in a report titled “They Just Kill”, said the authorities used “deliberate obfuscation and misinformation” to make it impossible to monitor the full extent of killings, which overwhelmingly targeted poor and marginalized communities lacking the means or support to mount legal challenges against police.

Amnesty’s report, compiled in April, focused on Bulacan province, the new epicenter of the crackdown, examining 27 killings there during 20 incidents, 18 of which were official police operations.

In three-quarters of incidents, those killed were on “watch lists” of people in communities with suspected use or involvement in drugs, Amnesty found.

It viewed those lists as unreliable and illegitimate “seeming to guide decisions about whom the police are targeting for arrest, or in some cases, to kill”.

Based on witnesses and other information, it concluded half were extrajudicial killings. It said the other incidents pointed broadly to previous patterns of executions, but it could not obtain sufficient evidence and information to be certain.

The police narrative that undercover officers posing as drug buyers had killed only in self-defense “doesn’t meet the feeblest standards of credibility”, Amnesty concluded.

Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, said Amnesty’s basis for calling for an international investigation was wrong, and there were no such illegal killings.

“They are saying that there have been murders in this country as if all those who were killed in police operations have been intentionally slaughtered or killed,” he said during a regular new briefing.

“As we have repeatedly said, these are the result of legitimate police operations.”

Panelo last week described the call for a U.N. investigation as interference by foreign governments “misled by false news and untruthful narratives”.

(Reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

On Venezuelan independence day, Maduro calls for dialogue as Guaido slams ‘dictatorship’

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, is seen at Venezuela's National Assembly to celebrate the 208th anniversary of Venezuela's independence in Caracas, Venezuela July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Fausto Torrealba

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s bitterly divided political factions held competing commemorations of the country’s independence day on Friday, with President Nicolas Maduro calling for dialogue and opposition leader Juan Guaido decrying alleged human rights violations by Maduro’s “dictatorship.”

Speaking to a gathering of top military officials, Maduro reiterated his support for a negotiation process mediated by Norway between his socialist government and Guaido, the leader of the opposition-held National Assembly who argues Maduro’s 2018 re-election was a fraud.

“There is room for all of us within Venezuela,” Maduro said in a speech in Caracas, before calling for military exercises on July 24 to defend the South American country’s “seas, rivers and borders.”

“We must all give up something in order to reach an agreement,” he said.

Venezuela was plunged into a deep political crisis in January when Guaido invoked the constitution to assume a rival interim presidency, calling Maduro a usurper. He has been recognized as the rightful head of state by dozens of countries, including the United States and most South American neighbors.

But Maduro retains the recognition of Cuba, Russia and China, and remains in control of state functions and the armed forces. He calls Guaido a U.S.-backed puppet seeking to oust him in a coup.

Guaido held a separate independence day event, calling on supporters to march toward the headquarters of the military counterintelligence directorate, or DGCIM, where navy captain Rafael Acosta died last month after opposition leaders and family members said he was tortured in custody.

The march is the first major opposition gathering since a botched Guaido-led military uprising on April 30 and follow-up protests on May 1. The government responded to the failed attempt to oust Maduro with a crackdown on Guaido-aligned lawmakers and military members suspected of involvement.

This week, the United Nations human rights chief, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, published a report detailing alleged extrajudicial executions, torture, enforced disappearances and other rights violations by Venezuelan security forces in recent years.

“There is no longer any valid euphemism to characterize this regime, other than dictatorship,” Guaido told reporters earlier on Friday. “The systematic violation of human rights, the repression, the torture… it is clearly identified in the (UN)report.”

The Venezuelan government has called the report “selective” and said the UN sources lacked objectivity.

A new round of Norway-mediated talks expected for this week was called off after Acosta’s death. Opposition leaders frequently argue that Maduro’s government seeks to use dialogue to distract from its continued human rights violations.

In an apparent referral to Acosta before Maduro spoke, Commander Remigio Ceballos said the armed forces “regretted the events related to the loss of the retired naval official.” Without naming Acosta, he accused him of conspiring against the Venezuelan state, and said authorities were investigating the circumstances of his death.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera, Mayela Armas and Luc Cohen, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

North Korea executes envoy in a purge after failed U.S. summit: media

FILE PHOTO - North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Kim Yong Chol, Vice Chairman of the North Korean Workers' Party Committee, attend the extended bilateral meeting in the Metropole hotel with U.S. President Donald Trump and his delegation during the second North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea executed its nuclear envoy to the United States as part of a purge of officials who steered negotiations for a failed summit between leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, a South Korean newspaper said on Friday.

Kim Hyok Chol was executed in March at Mirim Airport in Pyongyang, along with four foreign ministry officials after they were charged with spying for the United States, the Chosun Ilbo reported, citing an unidentified source with knowledge of the situation.

FILE PHOTO - Kim Hyok Chol, North Korea's special representative for U.S. affairs, leaves the Government Guesthouse in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 23, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

FILE PHOTO – Kim Hyok Chol, North Korea’s special representative for U.S. affairs, leaves the Government Guesthouse in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 23, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

“He was accused of spying for the United States for poorly reporting on the negotiations without properly grasping U.S. intentions,” the source was quoted as saying.

The February summit in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, the second between Kim and Trump, failed to reach a deal because of conflicts over U.S. calls for complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and North Korean demands for sanctions relief.

Reuters was unable to independently confirm the report. Previously, North Korean officials have been executed or purged only to reappear with a new title, according to media reports.

A spokeswoman at South Korea’s Unification Ministry declined to comment. An official at the presidential Blue House in Seoul said it was inappropriate to comment on an unverified report.

The United States is attempting to check on the reports of the envoy’s execution, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during his visit to Berlin on Friday

When asked about reports of a “shakeup” of Kim Jong Un’s negotiating team in a May 5 interview with ABC News, Pompeo said it did appear that his future counterpart would be somebody else “but we don’t know that for sure.”

A diplomatic source told Reuters there were signs Kim Hyok Chol and other officials were punished, but there was no evidence they were executed and they may have been sent to a labor camp for re-education.

The newspaper reported that other officials had been punished, but not executed.

Kim Yong Chol, Kim Jong Un’s right-hand man and the counterpart to Pompeo before the Hanoi summit, had been sent to a labor and reeducation camp in Jagang Province near the Chinese border, the Chosun Ilbo reported.

Officials who worked with Kim Yong Chol have been out of the public eye since the summit, while seasoned diplomats who appeared to have been sidelined, including vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui, were seen returning to the spotlight.

A South Korean lawmaker told Reuters in April that Kim Yong Chol had been removed from a key party post.

RISE AND FALL

Kim Hyok Chol was seen as a rising star when he was appointed to spearhead working-level talks with U.S. nuclear envoy Stephen Biegun weeks before the Hanoi summit.

However, little was known about his expertise or his role in the talks. The four executed alongside him included diplomats working on relations with Vietnam, the Chosun report said.

“This is a man who might provide some tactical advice to the leader but is otherwise a message bearer with little negotiating or policymaking latitude,” said Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the Washington-based Stimson Center.

“Instead, they put in someone like Kim Hyok Chol to insulate Choe Son Hui and more substantive diplomatic personnel, to a certain degree he is expendable and his superiors are not.”

The penalized members of Kim Yong Chol’s team included Kim Song Hye, who led the preparations, and Sin Hye Yong, a newly elevated interpreter for the Hanoi summit. They were said to have been detained in a camp for political prisoners, the newspaper said.

The diplomatic source said Kim Song Hye’s punishment seemed inevitable because she was a “prime author” of the North’s plan to secure sanctions relief in return for dismantling the Yongbyon main nuclear complex.

The idea was rejected by the United States which demanded a comprehensive roadmap for denuclearization.

Kim Song Hye had also worked closely with Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s younger sister and a senior party official whom Kim Song Hye accompanied to South Korea for the Winter Olympics last year.

Kim Yo Jong was also lying low, the paper reported, citing an unidentified South Korean government official.

Madden, however, said Kim Yo Jong’s status was unchanged as Kim Jong Un’s top aide, citing her attendance at key party meetings in April and appearance in state media reports.

Sin Hye Yong was charged with making critical interpretation mistakes that included missing an unspecified “last-minute offer” the North Korean leader supposedly made as Trump was about to walk out, Chosun reported.

‘TWO-FACED’

North Korea’s official party mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun warned on Thursday that “two-faced” officials would face the “stern judgment of the revolution”.

“It is an anti-Party, anti-revolutionary act to pretend to be revering the leader in front of him when you actually dream of something else,” it said in a commentary.

Hong Min, a senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said it was possible Kim Hyok Chol and other officials faced some penalty but further verification was needed.

“Executing or completely removing people like him would send a very bad signal to the United States because he was the public face of the talks and it could indicate they are negating all they have discussed,” Hong said.

(Reporting by Joyce Lee and Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in BERLIN and Hyunjoo Jin in SEOUL; Editing by Paul Tait, Lincoln Feast and Darren Schuettler)

Death penalty tensions flare again on divided U.S. Supreme Court

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas talks in his chambers at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court’s internal divisions over the death penalty were on full display again on Monday in fresh wrangling over how the justices handled recent attempts by two convicted murders in Alabama and Texas to put off their executions.

In both cases, there are signs that tensions over the death penalty – especially skepticism by the court’s conservative majority over last-minute bids by death row inmates to block executions – are coming to a boil after simmering for years.

In the Alabama case, Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the nine-member court’s five conservatives, wrote a 14-page opinion defending its middle-of-the-night April 12 decision to pave the way for the execution of Christopher Price, 46. The court’s order was released too late for Price’s scheduled execution to be carried out, and he remains on death row.

Minutes later, the court issued a new opinion by conservative Justice Samuel Alito criticizing its March 28 decision to issue a stay of execution for Texas inmate Patrick Murphy after the state had blocked a Buddhist spiritual adviser from accompanying him to the execution chamber.

Thomas, whose opinion was joined by Alito and fellow conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, took aim at liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, a frequent critic of the death penalty. Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion from the Price decision that was joined by the court’s three other liberals.

Price had a weak legal argument, Thomas wrote, meaning “it is difficult to see his litigation strategy as anything other than an attempt to delay his execution. Yet four members of the court would have countenanced his tactics without a shred of legal support.”

Breyer is the most vocal critic of the death penalty on the Supreme Court, questioning the constitutionality of capital punishment and arguing that it is imposed arbitrarily and differently in various parts of the country.

In the April vote, the court reversed two lower court decisions that delayed Price’s execution so he could proceed with his request to be executed by lethal gas instead of lethal injection. The Thomas opinion on Monday was issued as the court rejected Price’s underlying appeal.

Price was convicted and sentenced to death in 1993 in the 1991 killing of William Lynn, a minister, in his home in Bazemore, Alabama.

In the Texas case, Alito said Murphy waited too long to bring his claim and that the court’s action to delay his execution would encourage others to bring similar last-ditch actions. Murphy, a Buddhist, had argued his religious rights under the Constitution were violated by the state.

‘NO GOOD REASON’

“This court receives an application to stay virtually every execution; these applications are almost all filed on or shortly after the scheduled execution date; and in the great majority of cases, no good reason for the late filing is apparent,” Alito wrote.

Alito said Murphy’s religious claim might have merit, but prisoners must file such lawsuits “well before their scheduled executions.”

Texas has already changed its policy, which previously allowed only Christians and Muslims to be accompanied by their religious advisers. Now, no religious advisers are allowed in the execution chamber.

Murphy was serving a 50-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault when he and six other inmates broke out of prison in 2000 and went on a rampage in which a police officer was killed.

A month before the Supreme Court’s Murphy decision, the justices voted 5-4 to allow an execution in Alabama to proceed and denied a request by the condemned inmate, a Muslim, for an imam’s presence in the execution chamber. Alito voted to deny both requests.

Gorsuch also complained about last-minute execution challenges when the court ruled on April 1 against Missouri death row inmate Russell Bucklew, who had sought to die by lethal gas rather than lethal injection because of a rare medical condition. Gorsuch said the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment “does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Putin says Islamic State has seized 700 hostages in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a signing ceremony following a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia October 17, 2018. Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Islamic State (IS) militants had seized nearly 700 hostages in part of Syria controlled by U.S.-backed forces and had executed some of them and promised to kill more.

Speaking in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, Putin said the hostages included several U.S. and European nationals, adding that Islamic State was expanding its control in territory on the left bank of the River Euphrates controlled by U.S. and U.S.-backed forces.

Putin did not specify what the militants’ demands were.

“They have issued ultimatums, specific demands and warned that if these ultimatums are not met they will execute 10 people every day. The day before yesterday they executed 10 people,” Putin told the Valdai discussion forum in Sochi.

The TASS news agency reported on Wednesday that IS militants had taken around 700 hostages in Syria’s Deir-al Zor province after attacking a refugee camp in an area controlled by U.S.-backed forces on Oct.13.

TASS said the militants had kidnapped around 130 families and taken them to the city of Hajin.

(Reporting by Gleb Stolyarov in Sochi; Additional reporting by Polina Devitt in Moscow; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

U.N. urges Iran to stop executions of juveniles on death row

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein talks to reporters in Jakarta, Indonesia February 7, 2018. REUTERS/Beawihart

GENEVA (Reuters) – The top United Nations human rights official called on Iran on Friday to halt executions of young people convicted of carrying out crimes when they were under the age of 18.

In a “surge” in January, three people were executed for murders committed at 15 or 16, while some of the 80 juvenile offenders on death row are in danger of “imminent execution”, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said.

“The execution of juvenile offenders is unequivocally prohibited under international law, regardless of the circumstances and nature of the crime committed,” Zeid said in a statement.

There was no immediate reaction from authorities in Iran, which has signed an international treaty strictly banning the execution of people who commit crimes under the age of 18.

In 2017, Iran is known to have executed five juvenile offenders, the U.N. statement said.

“I am sad to say that Iran violates this absolute prohibition under international human rights law far more often than any other state,” Zeid said, decrying the practice that has gone on for decades.

Among the latest criminals executed was Mahboubeh Mofidi, 20, who was convicted of killing her husband when she was 16, three years after their marriage, the statement said.

A fourth juvenile offender, believed to have been on the point of being executed on Wednesday, has reportedly received a temporary reprieve of two months, it said.

“There are appeal processes, but sometimes it’s rather opaque as to exactly what’s happening,” U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing.

“Often you do get these kind of negotiations going on between the family of the convicted person and the family of the victim in murder cases,” he said, referring to “diyah” or blood money paid to halt an execution.

On Jan. 3, independent U.N. human rights experts called on Iran to spare the life of Amir Hossein Pourjafar, who was convicted of raping and killing a child when he was 15. He is among the three listed in Zeid’s statement as having been executed so far this year.

Zeid welcomed a bill passed in Oct. 2017 under which some drug offences previously punishable by the death penalty were now subject to a prison term, but said that the mandatory death sentence has been retained for a wide range of drug-related offences.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Larry King)

Syrian government denies U.S. accusation of crematorium at prison

A satellite view of part of the Sednaya prison complex near Damascus, Syria. Department of State/via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian government on Tuesday denied U.S. accusations that a crematorium had been built at one of its prisons that could be used to dispose of detainees’ remains.

A foreign ministry statement published by state news agency SANA said the U.S. administration had come out with “a new Hollywood story detached from reality” by alleging the crematorium had been built at Sednaya military prison near Damascus.

Stuart Jones, acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, said on Monday that U.S. officials believe the crematorium could be used to dispose of bodies at a prison where they believe Assad’s government authorized the hanging of thousands of inmates during Syria’s six-year-old civil war.

Amnesty International reported in February that an average of 20 to 50 people were hanged each week at the Sednaya military prison. Between 5,000 and 13,000 people were executed at Sednaya in the four years since a popular uprising descended into war, it said.

The government also denied that accusation.

Amnesty said the executions took place between 2011 and 2015, but were probably still being carried out and amounted to war crimes.

In a briefing on Monday, Jones showed aerial images of what he said was the crematorium at the Sednaya site.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Philippine senator calls for probe into police cash-for-kill claim

Policemen walk past Philippine National Police headquarters after taking part in the founding anniversary of the Philippine National Police celebration at Camp Crame, in Quezon city Metro Manila, Philippines February 6, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

MANILA (Reuters) – A Philippine senator called for a probe on Wednesday into allegations by senior officers in a Reuters report that police received cash rewards for executing drug suspects, while a police spokesman challenged the claims but said they would be investigated.

Senator Sherwin Gatchalian said in a statement that the Philippine National Police (PNP) should take “drastic measures” to verify the allegations made by two senior police officers, and punish those who have “broken their vow to protect the Filipino people.”

In a Reuters report published on Tuesday, the two officers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said PNP officers received cash for killing suspects in President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war, planted evidence at crime scenes and carried out most of the killings they have long blamed on vigilantes.

One of the men, a retired intelligence officer, authored an unpublished 26-page report that provides granular detail on the alleged methods deployed in the drug war, as well as the campaign’s masterminds and perpetrators. The report, which said it is based on the accounts of 17 serving and former officers, does not contain any documentary evidence.

Gatchalian said the “integrity” of the police was “at stake,” and called on PNP chief Ronald dela Rosa to “unmask the truth.”

“The PNP leadership should look into these serious allegations made by two officers from within their ranks. While the charges lack documentary evidence, these cannot simply be swept under the rug with a blanket denial,” he said.

PNP spokesman Dionardo Carlos said he encouraged the two police officers interviewed by Reuters to come forward and publicly air their allegations. “There’s no problem if they will tell the truth, backed up by evidence,” he said.

Carlos said claims that cash rewards were being paid for killing drug suspects were implausible, because police would not have that kind of money at their disposal and such acts would be unlawful.

“First of all, that’s illegal, prohibited. Second, we are short on funds and nothing was allocated,” he told reporters.

VIGILANTE KILLINGS

Close to 9,000 people, mostly drug users and small-time dealers, have been killed since Duterte took office almost 10 months ago and promised an unrelenting campaign to rid the Philippines of illicit narcotics.

Police say about a third of the victims were shot by officers in self-defense during anti-drug operations. Human rights groups believe many of the remaining two thirds were killed by paid assassins cooperating with the police or by police themselves, disguised as vigilantes. Police reject that.

The two officers said that most of the drug-war killings are orchestrated by the police, including those they say are carried out by vigilantes. Reuters was unable to independently verify if the police are behind vigilante killings.

One of the officers, an active-duty police commander, also said that officers plant drugs and guns at the scene of deadly narcotics busts.

Gatchalian said the officers who spoke to Reuters should present concrete evidence to support their claims. “Accusations of this kind should have solid backing,” he said.

Senator Panfilo Lacson, a former national police chief, said in a text message to GMA news, one of the leading media organizations in the Philippines, that unless Reuters identified the two police officers and they could provide “convincing proof of their allegations,” he would dismiss the report as “gossip.”

(Reporting by Martin Petty and Manuel Mogato. Edited by Peter Hirschberg.)