Hong Kong police break up new protest with rubber bullets, tear gas

Protesters erect the Lady Liberty Hong Kong statue during the "No White Terror No Chinazi" rally in Chater Garden, Hong Kong, China September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

By Marius Zaharia and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray on Friday to clear protesters outside a subway station on the densely populated Kowloon peninsula, the latest clash in 14 weeks of sometimes violent anti-government demonstrations.

Hundreds of protesters, many of them masked and dressed in black, took cover behind umbrellas and barricades made from street fencing. Some had broken through a metal grill to enter the station where they pulled down signs, broke turnstiles and daubed graffiti on the walls.

Protestors stand behind a burning barricade during a demonstration in Mong Kok district in Hong Kong, China September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Protestors stand behind a burning barricade during a demonstration in Mong Kok district in Hong Kong, China September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

“We’re angry at the police and angry at the government,” said Justin, 23, dressed in black and wearing a hoodie. “Police was very brutal with us at this station. We cannot let them get away with it.”

Protesters had gathered outside Prince Edward station in Mong Kok, one of the world’s most densely populated regions, where police had fired beanbag guns and used pepper spray to clear demonstrators this week.

They withdrew when police fired rubber bullets, but regrouped in smaller pockets to light fires in the street from wooden pallets, cardboard boxes and other debris. Firemen were dousing the flames.

“The police will use appropriate force to conduct a dispersal operation and warn all protesters to stop all illegal acts and leave immediately,” police said in a statement.

There was no immediate official word of arrests or injuries. Both Mong Kok and Prince Edward stations were closed.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced measures this week to try to restore order in the Chinese-ruled city, including the formal withdrawal of a bill that triggered the demonstrations. The law would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, despite the city having an independent judiciary dating back to British colonial rule.

But the demonstrations, which began in June, had long since morphed into a broader call for more democracy and many protesters have pledged to fight on, calling Lam’s concessions too little, too late.

“No China” was daubed over walls along the key north-south artery of Nathan Road.

“The four actions are aimed at putting one step forward in helping Hong Kong to get out of the dilemma,” Lam told reporters during a trip to China’s southern region of Guangxi. “We can’t stop the violence immediately.”

Apart from withdrawing the bill, she announced three other measures to help ease the crisis, including a dialogue with the people.

Medical students hold hands as they form a human chain during a protest against the police brutality, at the Faculty of Medicine in The University of Hong Kong, China, September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

Medical students hold hands as they form a human chain during a protest against the police brutality, at the Faculty of Medicine in The University of Hong Kong, China, September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

WEEKEND PLANS FOR THE AIRPORT

Demonstrations have at times paralyzed parts of the city, a major Asian financial hub, amid running street battles between protesters and police who have responded with tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons. Violent arrests of protesters, many in metro stations, have drawn international attention.

The crowds were expected to swell into the night, as the city braces for weekend demonstrations aiming to disrupt transport links to the airport.

The airport announced that only passengers with tickets would be allowed to use the Airport Express train service on Saturday, boarding in downtown Hong Kong. The train would not stop en route, on the Kowloon peninsula. Bus services could also be hit, it said.

The measures are aimed at avoiding the chaos of last weekend, when protesters blocked airport approach roads, threw debris on the train track and trashed the MTR subway station in the nearby new town of Tung Chung in running clashes with police.

Global credit rating agency Fitch Ratings on Friday downgraded Hong Kong’s long-term foreign-currency issuer default rating to “AA” from “AA+”.

Fitch said it expects that public discontent is likely to persist despite the concessions to certain protester demands.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the issue of Hong Kong with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing, saying a peaceful solution was needed.

“I stressed that the rights and freedoms for (Hong Kong) citizens have to be granted,” Merkel said.

‘RETURN TO ORDER’

Li told a news conference with Merkel “the Chinese government unswervingly safeguards ‘one country, two systems’ and ‘Hong Kong people govern Hong Kong people'”.

Beijing supported the territory’s government “to end the violence and chaos in accordance with the law, to return to order, which is to safeguard Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability”, Li added.

Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” formula which guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland. Many Hong Kong residents fear Beijing is eroding that autonomy.

China denies the accusation of meddling and says Hong Kong is its internal affair. It has denounced the protests, warning of the damage to the economy and the possible use of force to quell the unrest.

In addition to calling for a withdrawal of the extradition bill and the release of those arrested for violence, protesters also want an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality, retraction of the word “riot” to describe rallies and the right for Hong Kong people to choose their own leaders.

The protests have presented Chinese President Xi Jinping with his greatest popular challenge since he came to power in 2012.

(Additional reporting by Felix Tam, Jessie Pang, Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok, Noah Sin, Kai Pfaffenbach and Joe Brock; Andreas Rinke in Beijing; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Frances Kerry)

Netanyahu hours away from deadline for forming coalition government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem May 19, 2019. Ariel Schalit/Pool via REUTERS

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had until late Wednesday to form a new ruling coalition with a recalcitrant ally or face the possible end of a decade of combative leadership of Israel.

As the hours ticked by, there was no sign of a breakthrough in talks with far-right former defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Parliament began a full-day debate on a motion to dissolve itself and call a new election if no deal is struck.

Political sources said Netanyahu was seeking agreement with the leaders of parties in the legislature for a mid-September election day.

Netanyahu had declared himself the winner of a national ballot last month, but he now has until midnight (2100 GMT) to tell President Reuven Rivlin whether he has put together an administration, and his political future hangs in the balance.

Failure to forge a coalition would take the task out of the 69-year-old Netanyahu’s hands, with Rivlin asking another legislator, either from the prime minister’s right-wing Likud party or from the opposition, to try.

That presidential move, which would sideline Netanyahu, can be avoided with a coalition agreement deal or if parliament approves an election.

Political commentator Chemi Shalev, writing in the left-wing Haaretz daily, said a last-minute agreement was still possible and Netanyahu would still be the favorite to win a new poll.

But he said Netanyahu’s critics now find themselves fantasizing about a world without him.

“It’s not an easy task, given his decade in power and the four more years he supposedly had coming. Young Israelis can’t even begin to imagine an Israel without him: Netanyahu as prime minister is all they’ve ever known,” Shalev wrote.

Lieberman has stuck to his guns in a battle with the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, a member of Netanyahu’s current interim government, to limit traditional military draft exemptions for Jewish seminary students.

Without the support of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, which has five seats in the 120-member Knesset, Netanyahu cannot put together a majority government of right-wing and religious factions led by Likud.

Political commentators said that as the prospects dimmed for a compromise with Lieberman, Netanyahu would focus his efforts on enlisting the 61 votes needed in parliament to approve a new election.

The brinkmanship six weeks after the closely contested April ballot poses another challenge to Netanyahu’s decade-long rule and deepens political uncertainty in a country riven with division.

PEACE PLAN

A new election could also complicate U.S. efforts to press ahead with President Donald Trump’s peace plan in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even before it has been announced Palestinians have rejected it as a blow to their aspirations for statehood.

The White House team behind the proposal, including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, is in the Middle East to drum up support for an economic “workshop” in Bahrain next month to encourage investment in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. The group is due in Israel on Thursday.

Lieberman said on Wednesday he was not backing down in what he termed a matter of principle over the conscription issue, and he denied Likud allegations his real intention was to oust Netanyahu and lead a “national camp”.

“I am not a vengeful man and I don’t hold a grudge,” said Lieberman, who last year resigned as defense chief in a dispute with Netanyahu over policy toward Gaza.

Despite looming indictments in three corruption cases,

Netanyahu had appeared to be on course for a fifth term as head of a right-wing bloc after he squeezed past centrist challenger Benny Gantz, a former head of the Israeli armed forces.

Public attention had been focused less on coalition-building and more on moves Netanyahu loyalists were planning in parliament to grant him immunity and to pass a law ensuring such protection could not be withdrawn by the Supreme Court.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in the cases and is due to argue at a pre-trial hearing in October against the attorney-general’s intention, announced in February, to indict him on bribery and fraud charges.

(Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Israel moves towards new vote as Netanyahu struggles to form government

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem May 19, 2019. Ariel Schalit/Pool via REUTERS

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel moved closer towards a new election on Monday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to form a government after last month’s national ballot remained deadlocked.

In a preliminary vote, parliament decided to dissolve itself. In order to disperse and set an election date, legislators would still have to hold a final vote, likely to take place on Wednesday.

Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing Likud party, has until 2100 GMT on Wednesday to put a government together, after being delegated the task by President Reuven Rivlin following the April 9 poll.

In a televised address following the initial vote in parliament, Netanyahu pledged to continue pursuing coalition talks and said a new vote would be unnecessary and costly.

“A lot can be done in 48 hours,” he said. “The voters’ wishes can be respected, a strong right-wing government can be formed.”

In power for the past decade and facing potential corruption indictments, Netanyahu has struggled to seal an agreement with a clutch of right-wing, far-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties that would ensure him a fifth term.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and is due to argue against the attorney-general’s intention to indict him on fraud and bribery charges at a pre-trial hearing in October.

U.S. President Donald Trump weighed in on Netanyahu’s political woes in the face of political brinkmanship by the Israeli leader’s erstwhile ally, former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman.

“Hoping things will work out with Israel’s coalition formation and Bibi and I can continue to make the alliance between America and Israel stronger than ever,” Trump tweeted, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “A lot more to do!”

Although a second national election in the same year – unprecedented for Israel – would pose new political risks for Netanyahu, it would pre-empt Rivlin from assigning coalition-building to another legislator once Wednesday’s deadline expires.

CONSCRIPTION STALEMATE

Divisions between Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party and United Torah Judaism over a military conscription bill governing exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students have plunged the coalition talks into stalemate.

The five parliamentary seats that Yisrael Beitenu won in the April ballot are crucial to Netanyahu gaining a parliamentary majority.

Likud took 35 of the legislature’s 120 seats, the same number as its main rival, the centrist Blue and White party, but had the pledged support of a bigger right-wing bloc.

In a standoff with United Torah Judaism, Lieberman has demanded ultra-Orthodox must share other Israeli Jews’ burden of mandatory service. Ultra-Orthodox parties say seminary students should be largely exempt from conscription as they have been since Israel was founded in 1948.

But some commentators and members of Likud have suggested Lieberman’s real motive is to ultimately succeed Netanyahu and lead Israel’s right-wing, using the conscription bill and coalition stalemate to weaken him politically.

“Avigdor Lieberman’s only interest is to seize control of the national camp by toppling Netanyahu,” deputy foreign minister and Likud member Tzipi Hotovely told Army Radio.

Lieberman, who resigned his defense post in Netanyahu’s outgoing cabinet last November over policy towards the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, said he was acting only out of principle.

In his speech, Netanyahu welcomed the supportive remarks of Trump, with whom he has been in lock-step over policies towards the Palestinians and Israel’s Iranian foe.

“He (Trump) is right,” he said. “We have an infinite number of things to do, security challenges … economic challenges.”

But Netanyahu said he had failed “so far, including tonight” to persuade Lieberman “to avoid an election”.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Appeals court allows U.S. to keep sending asylum seekers to Mexico

FILE PHOTO - A general view shows a temporary facility for processing migrants requesting asylum, at the U.S. Border Patrol headquarters in El Paso, Texas, U.S. April 29, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court ruled on Tuesday that the Trump administration may continue sending asylum seekers to wait out their cases in Mexico while the government appeals a lower court ruling that found the policy violated U.S. immigration law.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco found that a preliminary injunction barring the government from returning asylum seekers to Mexico was “unlikely to be sustained” on appeal in its present form and stayed the lower court ruling.

The Department of Homeland Security “is likely to suffer irreparable harm absent a stay because the preliminary injunction takes off the table one of the few congressionally authorized measures available to process the approximately 2,000 migrants who are currently arriving at the nation’s southern border on a daily basis,” the judges said in issuing the stay.

While asylum seekers may fear substantial injury upon being returned to Mexico, the judges said, “the likelihood of harm is reduced somewhat by the Mexican government’s commitment to honor its international law obligations and to grant humanitarian status and work permits to individuals returned.”

The U.S. government was appealing an order by a U.S. District Court in early April that enjoined the policy, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP).

The program, launched in January, was one of many policies aimed at slowing rising numbers of immigrants arriving at the border, many of them families from Central America, that has swelled to the highest in a decade.

Since the policy went into effect on Jan. 29, through May 1 more than 3,000 Central Americans have been sent back to Mexico, according to Mexican officials.

The government argues that the MPP is needed because so many asylum seekers spend years living in the United States and never appear for their court hearings before their claim is denied and an immigration judge orders them to be deported.

Omar Jadwat, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, criticized the ruling. “Asylum seekers are being put at serious risk of harm every day that the forced return policy continues,” he said.

Jadwat noted that two of the three judges who heard the appeal found “serious legal problems with what the government is doing, so there is good reason to believe that ultimately this policy will be put to a halt.”

In recent years, there has been a shift in border crossings from mainly single, adult Mexicans trying to evade capture to Central American families and unaccompanied minors turning themselves in to border agents to seek asylum. Because of limits on how long children can be held in detention, most families are released to pursue their claims in U.S. immigration courts, a process that can take years.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Editing by G Crosse and Leslie Adler)

As Maduro holds on, Venezuela opposition eyes negotiated transition

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro attends a rally in support of his government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez next to his wife Cilia Flores in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Brian Ellsworth and Sarah Marsh

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition is trying to convince ruling Socialist Party officials to join a transition government, shifting focus as it seeks to unseat President Nicolas Maduro, who has clung to power in the face of growing international pressure and U.S. sanctions.

Last month, Venezuelan opposition leader and Congress chief Juan Guaido invoked the constitution to assume the interim presidency after declaring Maduro’s reelection in May 2018 illegitimate. He swiftly received recognition from the United States and Latin American powers.

In an effort to secure the backing of Venezuela’s military, Guaido proposed an amnesty for officers who turn on Maduro’s government.

But defections have been minimal and top brass has declared allegiance to Maduro, dimming hopes of a quick end to an economic disaster that has prompted millions of desperate Venezuelans to flee abroad, fueling a regional humanitarian crisis.

Amid fears the changes have stalled, opposition leaders have begun to talk in the past week about bringing ruling Socialist Party stalwarts into a potential transition government.

“This transition requires a large national agreement between the country’s political forces,” Edgar Zambrano, vice president of the opposition-run National Assembly, said in an interview.

Zambrano said any transition must include “Chavismo,” the left-wing movement founded by Venezuela’s late leader Hugo Chavez, who hand-picked Maduro as his successor.

People attend a protest of the public transport sector against the government of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

People attend a protest of the public transport sector against the government of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

“You cannot disappear Chavismo and you cannot go from persecuted to persecutor. This is not political revenge,” he said.

It was not immediately clear how actively the opposition is building bridges. Opposition leaders say they maintain contact with government officials and military officers but keep such talks confidential to avoid affecting those involved.

Maduro says he is the victim of a U.S.-orchestrated coup attempt and has refused to resign.

Many rank-and-file opposition supporters hope to see Maduro and his allies exiled or behind bars, and would be frustrated by attempts to bring them into the transition.

Guaido’s decision to assume the interim presidency revitalized Venezuela’s fragmented and disillusioned opposition and led to a flurry of street protests.

Hopes of quick change were fueled by diplomatic support from numerous countries and tough U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s vital oil industry, which has bankrolled Maduro’s government.

Some in the opposition quietly predicted a military pronouncement in favor of Guaido as early as Jan. 23, the day he proclaimed himself president at a rally in Caracas. Top military officials were silent for hours after Guaido’s pronouncement, leading to speculation that Maduro was frantically negotiating with officers not to switch sides.

Yet only a handful of active officers backed Guaido. Expectations of a quick military proclamation have given way to concerns over a slow and complicated path forward, both in Caracas and Washington.

“I don’t think (Washington) understood the complexities of the target, of Venezuela: all the overlapping security that Maduro has available; the things at his disposal,” said one former U.S. administration official in touch with current officials.

WHAT ABOUT JUSTICE?

The idea of a unity in Venezuela was in fact included in a little-noticed provision of a Transition Law passed by the National Assembly last month.

Venezuela’s four main opposition parties all back the idea, but in the past week have increasingly discussed the issue.

“People must understand that Chavismo is not just Maduro,” legislator Stalin Gonzalez said in an interview with Reuters last week, in comments that sparked a backlash on social media.

Some opposition supporters say they would be open to middle-ranking or dissident socialists being included in an interim government, but not the top brass.

“They must pay for what they have done,” said Maria Elena Fonseca, who at age 78 struggles to make ends meet despite working as a psychologist. Like countless Venezuelans, Fonseca has seen her income eroded by hyperinflation that now tops 2 million percent annually.

Fonseca receives remittance from her daughter abroad, who is among the estimated 3 million Venezuelans who have fled the once-prosperous nation since 2015.

“It’s not about revenge: it’s about justice,” she said.

STALLING MOMENTUM?

Back channels between the two sides are considerably better developed than might be expected from 20 years of acrimonious politics and the constant slew of vitriolic social media commentary.

Gonzalez and other young legislators developed relationships with Socialist Party politicians in 2016. The two sides coexisted in the legislature until Maduro backed the creation in 2017 of an all-powerful, government-controlled Constitution Assembly with the aim of sidelining Congress.

Guaido’s team is wielding a stick as well as a carrot. It has held massive protests nationwide over the past month and will face off with authorities when it attempts to bring humanitarian aid into the country on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Washington’s crippling sanctions on the oil sector are expected to take effect in the coming weeks, cutting off funding to Maduro.

The risk, however, is that a standoff will drag on for months, disillusioning opposition supporters while allowing Maduro to blame an escalating economic crisis on the U.S. sanctions.

“The longer times passes and the opposition doesn’t pose a legitimate threat to Maduro, the more confident he will get,” said Raul Gallegos, an analyst with the consultancy Control Risks. He noted that Cuba, Zimbabwe and Iran all resisted international opprobrium and sanctions for decades.

“Chavistas are willing to drive this country into a level of despondency and reduce the economy to a level Venezuela hasn’t seen in decades as long as they can remain in power,” he said.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Sarah Marsh; Additional reporting by Luc Cohen and Matt Spetalnick in Washington’; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Leslie Adler)

U.S. State Department recalls furloughed employees amid shutdown

People enter the State Department Building in Washington, U.S., January 26, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department said on Thursday it was calling its furloughed employees back to work next week as it takes steps to pay salaries despite a partial shutdown of the government.

“As a national security agency, it is imperative that the Department of State carries out its mission,” Deputy Under Secretary of State Bill Todd said in a statement posted on the department’s website. “We are best positioned to do so with fully staffed embassies, consulates and domestic offices.”

Todd said the department’s employees would be paid on Feb. 14 for work performed beginning on or after this coming Sunday. The department would review its available funds and “legal authorities” beyond the upcoming pay period to try to cover future payments, he said.

“Although most personnel operations can resume, bureaus and posts are expected to adhere to strict budget constraints with regard to new spending for contracts, travel, and other needs” given a lapse in congressionally appropriated funds, Todd added.

About one-quarter of federal agencies have been shuttered since Dec. 22, with Democratic lawmakers refusing to accede to President Donald Trump’s demands to pay for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Trump is holding out for $5.7 billion for a border wall. Democrats, who took over the U.S. House Representatives this month, have rejected his demands, saying there are cheaper, more effective ways of enhancing border security.

(Reporting by Tim Ahmann; editing by David Alexander and James Dalgleish)

Trump says U.S. government shutdown to last until agreement on border wall

U.S. President Donald Trump clasps his hands as he holds a video call with U.S. military service members in the Oval Office on Christmas morning in Washington, U.S., December 25, 2018. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday said the partial shutdown of the federal government was going to last until his demand for funds to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is met.

The U.S. government partially shut down on Saturday, and there is not yet any sign of tangible efforts to reopen agencies closed by a political impasse over Trump’s demand for border wall funds.

“I can’t tell you when the government is going to reopen,” Trump said, speaking after a Christmas Day video conference with U.S. troops serving abroad. “I can tell you it’s not going to reopen until we have a wall, a fence, whatever they’d like to call it. I’ll call it whatever they want, but it’s all the same thing. It’s a barrier from people pouring into the country, from drugs.”

He added: “If you don’t have that (the wall), then we’re just not opening.”

Funding for about a quarter of federal programs – including the departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Agriculture – expired at midnight on Friday. Without a deal to break the impasse, the shutdown is likely to stretch into the new year.

Building the wall was one of Trump’s most frequently repeated campaign promises, but Democrats are vehemently opposed to it.

(Reporting by Makini Brice; writing by Yeganeh Torbati, editing by G Crosse)

Catholic bishops in Australia reject compulsory abuse reporting, defying new laws

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference in Australia, speaks as Sister Monica Cavanagh, President of Catholic Religious Australia, listens during a media conference in Sydney, Australia, August 31, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray

By Byron Kaye and Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The Catholic church in Australia said on Friday it would oppose laws forcing priests to report child abuse when they learn about it in the confessional, setting the stage for a showdown between the country’s biggest religion and the government.

Pope Francis, leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics, is facing sexual abuse crises in several countries and the stance taken by the Australian bishops reflected the abiding, powerful influence conservatives in the church.

Visiting Ireland earlier this week, Pope Francis begged forgiveness for the multitude of abuses suffered by victims in Ireland, and he has promised no more cover-ups.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC), the country’s top Catholic body, said it did not accept a recommendation from an official inquiry which would force priests by law to report abuse to the police when they hear about it in confession.

Two of Australia’s eight states and territories have since introduced laws making it a crime for priests to withhold information about abuse heard in the confessional, while the others have said they are considering their response.

“This proposed law is ill-conceived, and impracticable, it won’t make children safer, and it will most likely undermine religious freedom,” ACBC President Mark Coleridge told reporters in Sydney, referring to the sanctity of the confessional.

The seal of confession was “a non-negotiable element of our religious life and embodies an understanding of the believer and God”, Coleridge added.

Twenty-two percent of Australians are catholic and the move sets up a rare schism between the church and the government, in a country that adheres to a secular constitution.

Andrew Singleton, professor of philosophy at Deakin University in the state of Victoria, said the bishops’ response reflected a disconnect in Australia between religious and secular sensibilities.

“Their stance is the classic tension between canon law, and their sense that there is some sort of higher, transcendent entity, and common law,” Singleton said.

Last year, Australia ended a five-year government inquiry into child sex abuse in churches and other institutions, amid allegations worldwide that churches had protected pedophile priests by moving them from parish to parish.

The inquiry heard seven percent of Catholic priests in Australia between 1950 and 2010 had been accused of child sex crimes and nearly 1,100 people had filed child sexual assault claims against the Anglican Church over 35 years.

Accusations of cover-ups in the church have reverberated all the way to Pope Francis, who has been accused by a United States archbishop of knowing for years about sexual misconduct by an American cardinal and doing nothing about it.

DISAPPOINTED

The ACBC’s opposition runs against laws which take effect in South Australia, the country’s fifth-biggest state, in October, and in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) from April 2019.

Representatives of the attorneys general of South Australia and ACT were not immediately available for comment.

Larger New South Wales and Victoria states have said they are considering the recommendation, while Western Australia has promised a similar law. Queensland, the third-largest state, has never exempted priests from mandatory reporting of abuse.

The stance taken by the Australian bishops also runs against the position taken by their church’s chief adviser on child abuse complaint handling, Francis Sullivan, who said in 2017 that “priests, like everybody else, will be expected to obey the law or suffer the consequences”.

Sullivan was unavailable for comment on Friday.

Clare Leaney, CEO of In Good Faith Foundation, a victim support group, described the bishops’ decision as “more of the same”.

“I’ve spoken to a number of survivors … who said they were actually quite disappointed,” Leaney said.

“We are aware of at least one instance where the confession has been misused.”

The ACBC report came two weeks after a former Australian archbishop became the most senior Catholic cleric in the world to be convicted of concealing abuse, and was ordered to serve a one-year prison sentence at home.

The convicted former archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, himself a former ACBC president, was found to have failed to report child abuse outside the confessional. He filed an appeal against his conviction on Thursday.

Australia’s former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull had been scheduled to deliver a rare public apology to victims of sexual abuse on Oct. 22 but he was ousted by his party earlier this month.

(Reporting by Byron Kaye and Colin Packham; Editing by Michael Perry & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Greek PM takes responsibility for wildfire as criticism mounts

Burnt cars are seen following a wildfire in the village of Mati, near Athens, Greece, July 27, 2018. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

By Angeliki Koutantou and Renee Maltezou

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras took political responsibility on Friday for a wildfire that killed at least 87 people and led to opposition accusations that the government failed to protect lives.

Tsipras’ opponents went on the offensive on Friday as three days of mourning ended, accusing the government of failing to apologize for the disaster.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrives for the second day of a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 12, 2018. Tatyana Zenkovich/Pool via REUTERS

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrives for the second day of a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 12, 2018. Tatyana Zenkovich/Pool via REUTERS

Seeking to deflect public anger, Tsipras told ministers he was conflicted over whether the authorities had done everything right in response to the disaster.

“I have called you here today first of all to take full political responsibility for this tragedy in front of my cabinet and the Greek people,” he said.

“I won’t hide that I am overwhelmed by mixed feelings right now … Pain, devastation for the human lives unexpectedly and unfairly lost. But also anguish at whether we acted correctly in everything we did.”

Tsipras’ contrition comes after the main opposition New Democracy party criticized a government news conference on Thursday night where not one word of apology was heard.

“This government has just added unbridled cheek to its abject failure in protecting lives and people’s property,” said New Democracy spokeswoman Maria Spyraki.

Civil Protection Minister Nikos Toskas told the news conference that the government suspected arson was behind Monday night’s blaze, which trapped dozens of people in their cars trying to escape a wall of flames.

Survivors of one of the worst Greek disasters in living memory, which hit the town of Mati, some 30 km (17 miles) east of Athens on Monday, heckled Tsipras’ coalition partner, saying they had been left to fend for themselves.

Pressure is growing on the government, which is trailing New Democracy in opinion polls, at a time when it had hoped to finally extricate Greece from years of bailouts prompted by its debit crisis and reap the political benefits.

Tsipras now faces questions over how so many got trapped in the fire as the death toll could rise still further.

Tsipras had not been seen in public since Tuesday when he declared the three days of national mourning for the dead.

Politicians’ criticism reflected anger among the survivors. “They left us alone to burn like mice,” Chryssa, one of the survivors in Mati, told Skai television. “No one came here to apologize, to submit his resignation, no one.”

Toskas said he had offered his resignation but Tsipras rejected it.

Fofi Gennimata, who leads the socialist PASOK party, said the government carried a huge political responsibility.

“Why didn’t they protect the people by implementing on time the available plan for an organized and coordinated evacuation in the areas that were threatened?” she said.

“NO MORE TRAGEDIES”

The government has announced a long list of relief measures including a one-off 10,000 euro ($11,600) payment for families of the victims. Their spouses and near relatives were also offered public sector jobs.

But many felt that was not enough to ease the pain and had wanted authorities to assume responsibility for the scale of the devastation.

About 300 firefighters and volunteers were still combing the area on Friday for those still missing. More than 500 homes were destroyed by the blaze.

Haphazard and unlicensed building, a feature of many areas across Greece, was also blamed. Many routes to the beach were walled off.

Tsipras promised a national plan to tackle decades of unauthorized construction and to reform and upgrade the Civil Protection Service “to guarantee … that there will be no more tragedies”.

Mortuary staff in Athens, shocked at the sight of burnt bodies including children, were expected to conclude post-mortems on Friday after relatives of victims provided information and blood samples which could assist identifications.

The fire broke out on Monday at 4:57 p.m. and spread rapidly through Mati https://tmsnrt.rs/2K6N3Qc, which is popular with local tourists.

Firefighters described a rapid change in the direction of the wind, which also picked up speed, and some suggested the thick covering of pine trees and a mood of panic were a deadly combination that would have been hard to combat.

(Additional reporting by Michele Kambas; writing by Angeliki Koutantou and Costas Pitas; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

In China, #MeToo escalates as public figures are accused of sexual assault

FILE PHOTO: A woman is reflected in a window of an office in Shanghai. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Pei Li and Ryan Woo

BEIJING (Reuters) – Accusations of sexual assault spread across China’s social media this week as the #MeToo movement took aim at prominent activists, intellectuals, and a television personality.

In a country where issues like sexual assault have traditionally been brushed under the carpet, China’s fledgling #MeToo movement speaks to a changing mindset among the younger generation.

China’s millions of social media users have also ensured that any news, scandals, and grievances spread quickly. The spread of accusations about prominent Chinese figures presents a challenge for the government, which has censored some but not all of the social media posts.

The accusations have stoked heated online debate about sexual misconduct and what constitutes consensual sex or rape. On Friday, “sexual assault evidence collection” was the 2nd-ranked topic on popular social media platform Sina Weibo.

So far this week, more than 20 women have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct, sparked by an accusation on Monday that has rocked a non-government organization.

Lei Chuang, founder of Yi You, a prominent non-government charity, confessed in an online statement to an accusation of sexual assault. Lei has quit the organization after his confession. Three other activists were embroiled in separate accusations of sexual misconduct by the end of the week.

The most prominent sexual assault allegation this week came from a young legal worker who goes by the pseudonym Little Spirit. The 27-year-old said Zhang Wen – a veteran journalist and online political commentator in China – had raped her after a banquet in May, an allegation that prompted six other women to accuse him of sexual harassment and groping.

Zhang, in a statement Wednesday, denied the rape allegation, saying his affair with the accuser was consensual.

Jiang Fangzhou, a prominent fellow writer and deputy editor-in-chief of the Guangdong-based magazine New Weekly, said on her WeChat account that Zhang had groped her at a meal on one occasion.

Among others, the journalist Yi Xiaohe, and Wang Yanyun, a TV personality, said on social media that Zhang had made unwanted sexual advances toward them.

In his statement, Zhang said it was normal for men and women in intellectual and media circles to “take pictures together, hug and kiss each other after consuming liquor”.

On Thursday, an academic at Communication University of China in Beijing was accused by a student of a sexual assault in 2016. The university in a statement vowed to launch an investigation and deal with the matter with zero tolerance if confirmed.

A former professor at the same university, known to be a training camp for China’s future TV personalities, was also accused Thursday of uninvited sexual advances in 2008 by an ex-student.

CENSORSHIP

Accusations that a prominent personality on the state broadcaster CCTV, molested an intern emerged on Thursday but the posts on Weibo were quickly removed.

The personality could not be immediately reached, while CCTV did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

On Friday, the personality’s name was the top censored topic on Weibo, according to Free Weibo, an independent platform that lists and ranks all search phrases blocked on Sina Weibo. “Metoo” and “Me too” ranked 8th and 9th, respectively.

A Beijing-based magazine, Portrait, on Thursday, told its readers in an online article to share their own stories of being sexually assaulted. It said in a subsequent post that it had received more than 1,700 stories in less than 24 hours.

Portrait’s article on Tencent’s WeChat platform has since been removed.

By contrast, the confession of Lei, the charity head, was widely covered by state media, including China Daily.

Men in sports have also been implicated in the #MeToo accusations this week. On Friday, a 17-year old high school student in the eastern city of Ningbo said online that she had been sexually assaulted by two badminton coaches.

The global #MeToo movement was triggered by accusations by dozens of women against U.S. film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct, including rape, triggering a wider scandal that has roiled Hollywood and beyond. Weinstein has denied having non-consensual sex with anyone.

The catalyst for a Chinese #MeToo-style movement came in December last year when a U.S.-based Chinese software engineer published a blog post accusing a professor at a Beijing University of sexual harassment.

In China, the hashtag #MeToo has so far appeared more than 77 million times on Weibo, although the majority of the posts with that hashtag are not viewable.

On Thursday, the state-controlled People’s Daily posted a Ted Talks video about sexual assault on its Weibo account.

“Hope this post won’t be scrubbed,” one Weibo user commented about the video clip.

(Reporting by Pei Li and Ryan Woo; Editing by Philip McClellan)