U.S. warns firms of human rights abuse risks in China’s Xinjiang province

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Wednesday issued an advisory warning U.S. companies about the risks they face from maintaining supply chains associated with human rights abuses in China’s western Xinjiang province.

The advisory, issued by the U.S. State, Treasury, Commerce and Homeland Security departments, seeks to add more U.S. pressure on China at a time of heightened tensions over China’s treatment of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang and Beijing’s new national security law for Hong Kong.

The advisory said that companies doing business in Xinjiang or with entities using Xinjiang labor face “reputational, economic, and legal risks” from human rights abuses, including forced labor, mass detention and forced sterilization.

“CEOs should read this notice closely and be aware of the reputational, economic and legal risks of supporting such assaults on human dignity,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters on Wednesday.

The action follows a U.S. Commerce Department move last month that added seven companies and two institutions to an economic blacklist for being “complicit in human rights violations and abuses committed in China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labor and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs” and others.

China’s foreign ministry said in May it deplored and firmly opposed U.S. sanctions over Xinjiang, calling it a purely internal affair for China.

(Reporting by David Lawder and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Richard Chang)

Don’t let impact of coronavirus breed hate, urges EU human rights agency

Reuters
By Megan Rowling

BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The global outbreak of coronavirus will impinge on people’s freedom and other human rights but steps must be taken to stop “unacceptable behaviour” including discrimination and racial attacks, said the head of a European human rights watchdog.

Michael O’Flaherty, director of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, said he was shocked when a waiter told him the best way to tackle coronavirus would be to stop migrants coming into his country because they have poor hygiene.

He noted other media reports of people being beaten up in the street for looking Chinese and others stopped at airports based on similar prejudices around ethnicity.

“That’s the sort of really worrying fake news-based spreading of hate and distrust which further undermines the ability to be welcoming, inclusive, respectful societies,” the Irish human rights lawyer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The U.N.’s children’s agency UNICEF on Wednesday also said that fear of the virus was contributing to “unacceptable” discrimination against vulnerable people, including refugees and migrants, and it would “push pack against stigmatisation”.

O’Flaherty said it was necessary for public health responses to limit human rights to stem the coronavirus spread, but warned governments should not “use a sledgehammer to break a nut”.

“It’s about doing just enough to achieve your purpose and not an exaggerated response,” he added.

His Vienna-based agency, which advises EU and national decision makers on human rights issues, is working with teams of researchers across the European Union to prepare a report this month on ways to protect rights in a time of global turmoil.

“I am not saying everything that’s being done there is wrong … but there is an impact: a reduction in the enjoyment of human rights,” he said.

The World Health Organization described the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic on Wednesday, with its chief urging the global community to redouble efforts to contain the outbreak.

As well as curtailing people’s freedom of movement, O’Flaherty said there was bound to be a ripple effect from the virus that has so far infected more than 119,000 people and killed nearly 4,300, according to a Reuters tally.

This would range from poor children being deprived of their main daily meal as schools closed, to gig economy workers being laid off with little access to social welfare, he noted.

In response, some governments – from Britain to Ireland and Spain – have introduced measures to boost social security payments or help small businesses stay afloat.

Governments may also need to tackle price inflation and profiteering from in-demand medicines and equipment like face masks, as well as ensure equal access to any treatments or vaccines that may be developed in future, he added.

Extra care was required to protect marginalised social groups from the virus, such as the homeless and refugees living in crowded conditions without decent shelter or healthcare.

O’Flaherty urged states to cooperate and learn from each other’s experiences while urging the private sector to do its bit, for example, by clamping down on hate speech and fake news on social media or attempts to market false cures.

If dealt with in the right way, the coronavirus epidemic could help Europeans understand the importance of safeguarding human rights for everyone, especially in tough times, he said.

“My feeling is that if we engage this crisis smartly, it can be an opportunity to help promote the sense, across our societies, that human rights is about all of us,” he said

(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

Greece blocks 35,000 migrants, plans to deport arrivals after March 1

By Lefteris Papadimas and Bulent Usta

KASTANIES, Greece/EDIRNE, Turkey (Reuters) – Greece has repulsed nearly 35,000 migrants trying to cross onto its territory illegally since Turkey opened its border nearly a week ago, government sources said on Thursday, as it prepares to deport hundreds of others who made it through.

Thousands of migrants have made for Greece since Ankara said on Feb. 28 that it would let migrants cross its borders into Europe, reneging on a commitment to hold them on its territory under a 2016 deal with the European Union.

Ankara has accused Greek forces of shooting dead four migrants. A charge rejected by Athens, which says Turkish forces are helping the migrants to cross the border. Both sides used tear gas at the Kastanies border post on Wednesday.

Turkey’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, visited Edirne province bordering Greece on Thursday and announced the deployment of 1,000 special police to the area to halt the pushback of migrants toward its territory.

Soylu, who said on Wednesday that Turkey was preparing a case at the European Court of Human Rights over Greece’s treatment of migrants, accused Greek forces of wounding 164 people and pushing back nearly 5,000 into Turkey.

Greece on Thursday banned vessels from sailing around the Aegean islands of Chios, Lesbos and Samos. They are all close to the Turkish coast and a regular target for dinghies packed with migrants trying to enter the EU.

The ban exempts merchant ships and vessels of the EU’s border agency Frontex.

The Aegean Sea remained choppy on Thursday and there were no further sightings of dinghies carrying migrants.

Lesbos already hosts more than 20,000 asylum seekers, many of them living in filthy conditions in overcrowded camps.

The situation at the Kastanies border crossing was calm on Thursday. Migrants – many of whom are from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Syria and other Arab nations – huddled in tents and makeshift camps on the Turkish side of the border.

HUMAN RIGHTS CONCERNS

Greek border guards rebuffed nearly 7,000 attempts in the last 24 hours alone, taking the total since Feb. 29 to 34,778 and the number of arrests of those who got through to 244, the Greek government sources said.

Migrants who arrived in Greece illegally after March 1 will be transferred to the northern city of Serres and deported back to their own countries, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said late on Wednesday.

“Our aim is to return them to their countries,” he told the Athens News Agency.

Mitarachi said migrants who entered Greece prior to Jan. 1, 2019 and are living on its Aegean islands would be transferred to the mainland in the coming days.

Athens announced on March 1 that it would not accept any new asylum applications for a month following the build-up of migrants at the border. This has triggered criticism from human rights agencies.

“It’s very sad that we have seen again human beings treated as political weapons… This is unacceptable,” said Francesco Rocca, head of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), on a visit to the Greek-Turkish border where he struggled to hold back tears.

The U.N. migration agency, the IOM, also urged all countries to respect the migrants’ human rights.

“… international legal obligations must be upheld, in particular with respect to those who may be in need of international protection,” it said in a statement.

Greece and the EU accuse Turkey of deliberately goading the migrants to cross the border as a way of pressuring Brussels into offering more money or supporting Ankara’s geopolitical aims in the Syrian conflict.

Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and faces another influx amid increased fighting in northwest Syria, says it cannot take in any more and that the EU must do more.

President Tayyip Erdogan discussed the migrant issue with senior EU officials in Ankara on Wednesday but his spokesman said the Europeans had made “no concrete proposition” on how to resolve the crisis.

(Additional reporting by Athens and Istanbul bureaux and by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; writing by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Gareth Jones)

U.N. decries nearly 50% increase in killings of women activists in Colombia

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Killings of women engaged in community organizing and defending human rights in Colombia increased nearly 50% in 2019 compared to the year before, the United Nations said on Wednesday as it urged the government to redouble protection efforts.

Violence against so-called “social leaders” has become a top issue for the government of President Ivan Duque, who has faced frequent criticism from the international community, non-governmental organizations and human rights activists for not doing enough to stop the killings.

Last year, 108 human rights defenders of all genders were killed, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights told journalists, while a further 10 cases were still being verified.

Fifteen of the activists murdered were women.

“We are alarmed that in 2019 the killings of women human rights defenders increased close to 50%,” said Alberto Brunori, the U.N.’s human rights chief in Colombia.

“The quick and effective implementation of a comprehensive program of guarantees for women leaders and women human rights defenders could be an important tool for prevention and protection against murders and attacks,” he added.

The number of activist killings has fallen overall since Duque took office in August 2018, the center-right president told journalists at a breakfast event on Wednesday.

“There is a reduction, but the figure should be zero,” said Duque. He blamed the killings on Marxist-led National Liberation Army rebels, dissidents from the FARC rebel movement who reject a 2016 peace deal, and criminal gangs involved in drug trafficking and illegal mining.

There were 36 massacres – defined as the killing of more than four people – in Colombia last year, the highest figure in the last five years, the U.N. rights office said.

Fifteen people died in police or army operations involving presumed arbitrary detentions, the U.N. added.

A total of 115 activists were killed in Colombia in 2018.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Tom Brown)

Human Rights Watch report blasts China as its chief barred from Hong Kong

UNITED NATIONS/BEIJING (Reuters) – U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released a scathing review of the Chinese government, calling on the international community to push back against “the most brutal and pervasive oppression China has seen in decades” in its 2020 annual report.

The organization’s global head, Kenneth Roth, was denied entry on Sunday to Hong Kong where he was expected to launch the report, which covers the global human rights situation but features China prominently.

The report condemns Beijing’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region and warns that China’s growing political influence and efforts to censor people abroad pose an “existential threat to the international human rights system.”

“If not challenged, Beijing’s actions portend a dystopian future in which no one is beyond the reach of Chinese censors, and an international human rights system so weakened that it no longer serves as a check on government repression,” Roth said in the report.

China last month announced sanctions on HRW and other U.S. nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as a countermeasure to the U.S. Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which supports anti-government protests in Hong Kong and threatens China with sanctions for human rights abuses.

Beijing says the NGOs are encouraging violent crime linked to anti-government protests in Hong Kong that have plagued the city for over six months. Roth rejected the accusation.

Chinese state media has also broadly blamed fake news and Western interference for landslide victories against pro-Beijing election candidates in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

On Wednesday U.S. democracy watchdog group Freedom House, which was also hit with sanctions, released a separate report criticizing Beijing’s efforts to influence media overseas and calling on governments to impose penalties on Chinese officials.

Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, told reporters he would not read either report, adding that both organizations “distort the truth” and have no objectivity.

“Currently, China’s human rights’ situation is the best it’s been in history,” said Geng.

The HRW report, released at the United Nations on Tuesday, said Hong Kong police have used “excessive force” and have “increasingly restricted freedom of assembly” there. It criticized Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam for refusing to launch an independent investigation into police abuses.

TRUMP CREDIBILITY

Beijing has previously criticized HRW over its investigations on surveillance technology and re-education camps in Xinjiang. The United Nations estimates roughly 1 million Uighurs have been previously detained in Xinjiang.

Beijing denies any mistreatment of Uighurs or others in Xinjiang, saying it is providing vocational training to help stamp out Islamist extremism and separatism and to teach new skills.

China has always been sensitive to rights allegations, but in the past year it has become increasingly forceful in rebuking criticisms, which have periodically threatened to derail trade negotiations with the United States.

“To avoid criticism of them, the Chinese government is trying with increasing ferocity to use its economic and diplomatic clout to silence critical voices abroad and to undermine global institutions that protect human rights,” Roth told a news conference at the United Nations.

When it came to countering China on human rights, Roth said several important governments have been “missing in action.”

“(U.S. President Donald) Trump has lost credibility because he so often embraces friendly autocrats, rather than defend the human rights standards that they flout,” Roth said.

“The European Union has been diverted by Brexit, it’s been obstructed by nationalist members, it’s been divided over migration and as a result it’s often found it difficult to adopt a strong common voice on human rights,” he said. “Other governments are simply bought off (by China.)”

Chinese diplomat Xing Jisheng addressed reporters at the end of the news conference, saying China totally rejected the HRW report as prejudiced and fabricated.

“Hong Kong is a part of China, so given what you said here, I think it is clear to all why you have been barred such entry,” Xing told Roth.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Jonathan Oatis)

China envoy warns of ‘very bad damage’ if Canada follows U.S. lead on Hong Kong

OTTAWA (Reuters) – China’s new ambassador to Canada on Friday warned Ottawa not to follow the U.S. lead and formally back protesters in Hong Kong, saying such a move would cause “very bad damage” to already poor ties with Beijing.

Canada, which has been locked in a trade and diplomatic dispute with China, has repeatedly expressed concern about the safety of its 300,000 citizens in Hong Kong, hit by five months of mass demonstrations for more democracy and autonomy.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed two bills to back the protesters and send a warning to China about human rights.

“If somebody here really tries to … have this kind of law like that in the United States, it’s very dangerous,” said Chinese envoy Cong Peiwu, speaking in English.

“If anything happens like this it will certainly have a very bad damage on our bilateral relationship and that is not in the interests of Canada,” he told a news conference in the embassy. He formally presented his credentials on Nov 1.

The uncompromising tone of his message indicated that while the ambassador may have changed, China’s approach has not.

Cong repeated Beijing’s demand that Canada immediately release Huawei Technologies Co Ltd Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, who is out on bail after Canadian police detained her on a U.S. arrest warrant last December.

“This incident has led to the severe difficulties the two countries are facing nowadays,” said Cong.

Shortly after Meng’s arrest, China picked up two Canadian citizens on state secret charges, and has since blocked imports of canola seed from Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asked on Wednesday what additional measures Canada would take to protect its citizens in Hong Kong, said “we will continue to call for de-escalation and an end to violence” while urging dialogue.

If Canada wanted to protect its citizens, it should ask “those rioters to stop the violence, otherwise those Canadians living in Hong Kong, how can they be safe?” Cong said.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

U.S. House passes Hong Kong rights bills, Trump expected to sign

By Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed two bills to back protesters in Hong Kong and send a warning to China about human rights, with President Donald Trump expected to sign them into law, despite delicate trade talks with Beijing.

The House sent the bills to the White House after voting 417 to 1 for the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” which the Senate passed unanimously on Tuesday. Strong support had been expected after the House passed a similar bill last month.

The measure, which has angered Beijing, would require the State Department to certify at least once a year that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to qualify for the special U.S. trading consideration that helped it become a world financial center.

It also would provide for sanctions against officials responsible for human rights violations in the Chinese-ruled city.

Demonstrators have protested for more than five months in the streets of Hong Kong, amid increasing violence and fears that Beijing will ratchet up its response to stop the civil disobedience.

The protesters are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to Hong Kong when Britain handed it back to China in 1997.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio was a main sponsor of the Senate-passed bill, which was co-sponsored by Republican Senator Jim Risch and Democratic Senators Bob Menendez and Ben Cardin.

The House passed, by 417 to zero, a second bill, which the Senate also approved unanimously on Tuesday, to ban the export of certain crowd-control munitions to Hong Kong police forces. That measure bans the export of items such as tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun guns.

President Trump has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign a bill passed by Congress, unless he opts to use his veto.

A person familiar with the matter said the president intended to sign the bills into law, not veto them.

Vetoes would have been difficult to sustain, since the measures passed both the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House with almost no objections.

A two-thirds majority would be required in both the Senate and House to override a veto.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

In Beijing on Wednesday, China condemned the legislation’s passage, and vowed strong countermeasures to safeguard its sovereignty and security.

China’s foreign ministry said this month that China had lodged “stern representations” with the United States about the legislation and urged that it not be passed into law, saying it would not only harm Chinese interests and China-U.S. relations, but the United States’ own interests too.

It said China would “inevitably take vigorous measures to firmly respond, to staunchly safeguard our sovereignty, security and development interests.”

Trump prompted questions about his commitment to protecting freedoms in Hong Kong when he referred in August to its mass street protests as “riots” that were a matter for China to deal with.

Trump has since called on China to handle the issue humanely, while warning that if anything bad happened in Hong Kong, it could be bad for talks to end a trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

On Thursday, the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s main newspaper, the People’s Daily, urged the United States to “rein in the horse at the edge of the precipice” and stop interfering in Hong Kong matters and China’s internal affairs.

“If the U.S. side obstinately clings to its course, the Chinese side will inevitably adopt forceful measures to take resolute revenge, and all consequences will be borne by the United States,” it said in a front-page editorial.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Patricia Zengerle, additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Clarence Fernandez)

U.S. Senate passes HK rights bill backing protesters, angers Beijing

By Richard Cowan and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate unanimously passed legislation on Tuesday aimed at protecting human rights in Hong Kong amid a crackdown on a pro-democracy protest movement, drawing condemnation from Beijing.

Following the voice vote, the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act” will go to the House of Representatives, which approved its own version last month. The two chambers will have to work out their differences before any legislation can be sent to President Donald Trump for his consideration.

“The people of Hong Kong see what’s coming – they see the steady effort to erode the autonomy and their freedoms,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio said at the start of the brief Senate debate, accusing Beijing of being behind the “violence and repression” in the Asian financial hub.

The Senate passed a second bill, also unanimously, that would ban the export of certain crowd-control munitions to Hong Kong police forces. It bans the export of items such as tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun guns.

Under the first Senate bill, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would have to certify at least once a year that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to qualify for special U.S. trading consideration that bolsters its status as a world financial center. It also would provide for sanctions against officials responsible for human rights violations in Hong Kong.

There was no immediate response from the White House, which has yet to say whether Trump would approve the Hong Kong Human Rights bill. A U.S. official said recently that no decision had been made, but the unanimous Senate vote could make a veto more difficult for the Republican president.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said if the measure got to Trump’s desk there would probably be an intense debate between Trump aides worried it could undermine trade talks with China and those who believe it is time to take a stand against China on human rights and Hong Kong’s status.

In Beijing on Wednesday, China condemned the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, and vowed strong counter-measures to safeguard its sovereignty and security.

“This act neglects facts and truth, applies double standards and blatantly interferes in Hong Kong affairs and China’s other internal affairs,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement.

“It is in serious violation of international law and basic norms governing international relations. China condemns and firmly opposes it.”

The United States must immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China’s other internal affairs, or “the negative consequences will boomerang on itself”, Geng added.

Pompeo said on Monday the United States was gravely concerned about Hong Kong’s deepening unrest and violence, urging the city’s government to tackle public concerns and China to honor the promises it made to maintain liberties after taking back the territory from British rule in 1997.

Pompeo addressed the issue again on Tuesday before leaving the United States for a NATO meeting in Brussels.

“We continue to urge everyone to do this peacefully,” he told reporters. “There is a political resolution of this that is achievable, we hope that’ll be the path forward.”

Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to Hong Kong when Britain handed it back to China.

Senate aides said they expected the legislation eventually would move forward as an amendment to a massive defense bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, expected to pass Congress later this year.

Demonstrators in Hong Kong have been protesting in the streets amid increasing violence and fears that Beijing will ratchet up its response to stop the civil disobedience.

Following passage of the bill, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said, “We have sent a message to President Xi (Jinping): Your suppression of freedom, whether in Hong Kong, in northwest China or in anywhere else, will not stand.

“You cannot be a great leader – and you cannot be a great country – when you oppose freedom, when you are so brutal to the people of Hong Kong, young and old, who are protesting.”

Xinjiang, in northwest China, is home to many mostly Muslim Uighurs, large numbers of whom have been detained in what China says are vocational training centers, but which some U.S. officials have called “concentration camps.”

This month the foreign ministry said China had lodged “stern representations” with the United States about the legislation and urged that it not be passed into law.

China would “inevitably take vigorous measures to firmly respond, to staunchly safeguard our sovereignty, security and development interests,” the ministry added.

Trump prompted questions about his commitment to protecting freedoms in Hong Kong when he referred in August to the mass street protests as “riots” that were a matter for China to deal with.

Trump has since urged China to handle the issue humanely, warning that anything bad that happened in Hong Kong could hurt talks to end a trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

In a post on Twitter on Wednesday, China’s embassy in the United States said, “The democracy and human rights held so dearly by the American people are once again abused by some American politicians to justify violence and disorder.”

It added, “Do they want to side with the rioters? SAD!”

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, Daphne Psaledakis Matt Spetalnick and Humeyra Pamuk, and Ryan Woo and Se Young Lee in Beijing; Editing by Leslie Adler and Clarence Fernandez)

Tens of thousands of Hong Kong protesters plead for U.S. help

By John Ruwitch and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of mostly young pro-democracy activists rallied in Hong Kong on Monday in the first legal protest since the introduction of colonial-era emergency laws and pleaded for help from the United States.

They chanted “Fight for Freedom, Fight for Hong Kong” as they gathered peacefully near central government offices in the Admiralty district of the Chinese-ruled city only hours after police said violent protests had escalated to a “life-threatening level”.

A small bomb exploded and a policeman was stabbed on Sunday night, the latest violence in four months of unrest in which police have responded to petrol bombs and rocks with tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannon and sometimes live rounds.

Emergency laws introduced on Oct. 5 banning face masks at rallies and carrying a maximum penalty of one year in jail sparked some of the worst violence since the unrest started.

On Monday night, many protesters wore face masks in defiance of the ban.

Speakers urged the United States to pass a Hong Kong human rights act to ensure democracy for the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

“Make Hong Kong Great Again”, read one poster. Some protesters waved the U.S. flag and carried “Uncle Sam” recruitment posters reading “Fight for Freedom, Stand with HK”.

“All of the Hong Kong people feel hopeless and the government hasn’t listened to our voices so we need the USA to help us,” said protester Edward Fong, 28.

The protesters are angry at what they see as Beijing’s tightening grip on the city which was guaranteed 50 years of freedoms under the “one country, two systems” formula under which it returned to China. Beijing rejects the charge and accuses Western countries, especially the United States and Britain, of stirring up trouble.

The unrest poses the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012. He warned that any attempt to divide China would be crushed.

“Anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones,” Xi said in a meeting on Sunday with leaders in Nepal, where he was visiting, according to China’s state broadcaster CCTV.

‘THEY ARE RIOTERS, CRIMINALS’

In contrast to Monday night’s peaceful protest, rallies descended into chaos on Sunday with running skirmishes between protesters and police in shopping malls and on the streets.

Black-clad activists threw 20 petrol bombs at one police station, while others trashed shops and metro stations.

A crude explosive device, which police said was similar to those used in “terrorist attacks”, was remotely detonated as a police car drove past and officers were clearing roadblocks on Sunday night.

A police officer also had his neck slashed by a protester.

“Violence against police has reached a life-threatening level,” said Deputy Commissioner of Police Tang Ping-keung.

“They are not protesters, they are rioters and criminals. Whatever cause they are fighting for it never justifies such violence.”

Protests have attracted millions of people but have gradually become smaller in recent weeks. Yet violence by hardcore activists has risen, prompting debate over tactics. But they say they remained united.

“Violence is always undesirable, but in the case of Hong Kong, we have no other option,” said regular protester Jackson Chan, 21.

“In June, 2 million took to the street and demonstrated peacefully, yet the government showed a complete disregard to the public opinion… Escalation of violence is inevitable,” Chan said.

On Monday, speakers called on U.S. senators to vote for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, saying it would be their “most powerful weapon”.

The bill supports human rights in Hong Kong with measures under consideration such as annual reviews of its special economic status and sanctions on those who undermine its autonomy. The text will not be finalised until it passes both houses of Congress and is signed by the president.

“We are exhausted and scared, many of us have been detained and tortured… We believe international help will come one day,” said one speaker.

Police have fired thousands of rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets at brick- and petrol bomb-throwing protesters and arrested more than 2,300 people since June, many teenagers. Two people have been shot and wounded.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam is due to deliver her annual Policy Address on Wednesday amid pressure to restore confidence in the government.

Hong Kong is facing its first recession in a decade because of the protests, with tourism and retail hardest hit.

(Additional reporting by Anne Marie Roantree and Donny Kwok in Hong Kong; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

U.S. issues travel ban for Cuba’s Castro over human rights accusations, support for Venezuela’s Maduro

Cuban Communist Party chief Raul Castro

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Thursday imposed U.S. travel sanctions on Cuban Communist Party chief Raul Castro over his support for Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, and involvement in what it called “gross violations of human rights.”

Taking a direct but largely symbolic swipe at Cuba’s leadership as part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s continuing pressure campaign against Havana, the State Department banned travel to the United States by Castro, Cuba’s former president and younger brother of the late Fidel Castro, as well as family members.

“Castro is responsible for Cuba’s actions to prop up the former Maduro regime in Venezuela through violence, intimidation, and repression,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

In addition to Castro, the State Department also sanctioned his children, Alejandro Castro Espin, Deborah Castro Espin, Mariela Castro Espin, and Nilsa Castro Espin.

The measures that Pompeo said would block their entry to the United States are likely to have limited impact. Castro last visited in 2015 to address the United Nations General Assembly. His children are also believed to have rarely traveled to the United States. Mariela Castro Espin, a gay rights activist, made stops in New York and San Francisco in 2012.

Pompeo also accused Castro, Cuba’s most powerful figure, of overseeing “a system that arbitrarily detains thousands of Cubans and currently holds more than 100 political prisoners.”

The Cuban government, which strongly rejects such accusations, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It was the latest in a series of punitive measures that Trump has taken against Washington’s old Cold War foe since taking office in 2017, steadily rolling back the historic opening to Havana under his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama.

Trump has focused especially on Cuba’s support for Maduro, a longtime ally of Havana. Earlier this year, the United States and dozens of other countries recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful president, though Maduro retains the backing of Russia and China as well as the OPEC nation’s military.

“In concert with Maduro’s military and intelligence officers, members of the Cuban security forces have been involved in gross human rights violations and abuses in Venezuela, including torture,” Pompeo said. Cuba has strongly denied the U.S. accusations.

Speaking in New York while attending the U.N. General Assembly, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza scoffed at the U.S. measure against Castro, saying it was an attempt to humiliate him.

“And neither Raul Castro nor his family even want to come to this country! We are forced to come here because the U.N. headquarters is in New York, for now,” said Arreaza, referring to a similar U.S. travel bar on Venezuelan officials and citing a Russian offer to host the United Nations in Sochi.

Last week, the Trump administration ordered the expulsion of two members of Cuba’s delegation to the United Nations.

Washington has made clear that a key objective of its tough approach to Cuba is to force it to abandon Maduro, something Havana has said it will never do. However, Trump has stopped short of breaking off diplomatic relations with Cuba restored by Obama in 2015 after more than five decades of hostility.

Maduro has accused Guaido – who earlier this year assumed an interim presidency after alleging that Maduro had rigged the last election – of trying to mount a U.S.-directed coup.

“Castro is complicit in undermining Venezuela’s democracy and triggering the hemisphere’s largest humanitarian crisis,” Pompeo said.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert in Washington, Sarah Marsh and Marc Frank in Havana; and Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Lisa Shumaker)