Support wavers in Hong Kong for bill allowing extraditions to China after protests

A woman holds placards as she attends a rally in support of demonstrators protesting against proposed extradition bill with China, in Hong Kong, China, June 14, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

By James Pomfret and Farah Master

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Cracks appeared on Friday in the support base for a proposed Hong Kong law to allow extraditions to China, and opponents of the bill said they would stage more demonstrations after hundreds of thousands took to the streets this week.

The extradition bill, which will cover Hong Kong residents and foreign and Chinese nationals living or traveling in the city, has many concerned it may threaten the rule of law that underpins Hong Kong’s international financial status.

Opposition to the bill on Sunday triggered the former British colony’s biggest political demonstration since its return to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” deal. The agreement guarantees Hong Kong’s special autonomy, including freedom of assembly, free press and independent judiciary.

Many accuse China of extensive meddling since then, including obstruction of democratic reforms, interference with elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialized in works critical of Chinese leaders.

The extradition bill has so spooked some in Hong Kong that some of the territory’s tycoons have started moving personal wealth offshore, according to financial advisers, bankers and lawyers familiar with the details.

On Friday, one of the key advisers to Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, Executive Council member Bernard Chan, told Cable TV he did not think formal discussion of the bill, a precursor to a final vote by the legislature, should continue at present.

“Do we consult, strengthen the bill, or what? Is there still any chance of the bill passing? These are all factors the government must consider,” he said.

“But I definitely say that right now it’s not possible – at a time when there are such intense divisions – to keep discussing this issue. The difficulty is very high.”

Michael Tien, a member of Hong Kong’s legislature and a deputy to China’s national parliament, urged the city government to put the bill on hold.

And 22 former government officials or Legislative Council members, including former security secretary Peter Lai Hing-ling, signed a statement calling on Lam to “yield to public opinion and withdraw the Bill for more thorough deliberation”.

“It is time for Hong Kong to have a cool-down period,” Lai told Reuters. “Let frayed tempers settle before we resume discussion of this controversial issue. Please, no more blood-letting!”

‘VAIN PLOTS’

Beijing-backed Lam has stood by the bill, saying it is necessary to plug loopholes that allow criminals wanted on the mainland to use the city as a haven. She has said Hong Kong courts would safeguard human rights.

Lam has not appeared in public or commented since Wednesday.

China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party, has rejected accusations of undermining Hong Kong’s freedoms. Beijing has pointed a finger at foreign governments for supporting the demonstrators.

On Friday Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoned a senior U.S. diplomat in Beijing to lodge a protest against recent U.S. comments and actions on Hong Kong and the extradition law. He urged Washington to stop interfering in the city’s affairs immediately.

“We urge the U.S. side to treat the Hong Kong government objectively and fairly and respect its normal legislative process,” the statement cited Le as saying.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Hong Kong matters were an internal affair for China and nobody had a right to interfere.

“Any vain plots to cause chaos in Hong Kong or to damage Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability will be resolutely opposed by the whole people of China including the vast majority of Hong Kong compatriots,” he said. “This does not enjoy popular support and will not succeed.”

The proposed bill has thrown Hong Kong, a city of about 7 million people, into turmoil, starting on Sunday with a march that drew what organizers said was more than a million people.

Tens of thousands demonstrated in the following days. On Wednesday, protesters surrounded the legislature and swarmed on to a major highway, before being forced back by riot police firing volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets.

On Friday, police kept a close watch as the city returned to normal, with most protesters retreating and businesses re-opening. But further demonstrations are planned.

Organizers have urged people to take to the streets on Sunday and protesters have applied for a permit to gather on Monday, when legislators may reconvene to discuss the bill. The Confederation of Trade Unions and Professional Teachers Union called for a citywide strike.

‘STARK PROVOCATION’

A few dozen demonstrators clustered throughout the day on Friday near the legislature, which had been scheduled to debate the bill this week.

“Everyone is planning for a big march on Sunday like last week but no one knows what will happen at night or after,” said a woman surnamed Chan, who was helping at a makeshift first aid and supply station.

In the evening, hundreds of people loosely affiliated with a group that calls itself ‘Hong Kong Mothers’ assembled peacefully to show their opposition to the proposed legislation.

Police have made more than a dozen arrests, some in hospitals and university campuses, while scores were wounded in the clashes.

In the United States, senior congressional lawmakers from both parties introduced legislation to require an annual justification from the U.S. government for the continuation of special business and trade privileges to Hong Kong. China called on the United States not to pass such legislation.

The hawkish Chinese newspaper, the Global Times, lambasted foreign leaders for being hypocrites and said their failure to condemn violent demonstrators was “a stark provocation”.

(Writing by John Ruwitch; Additional reporting by Sijia Jiang, Sumeet Chatterjee, Twinnie Siu, Clare Jim, Greg Torode and Felix Tam and in HONG KONG, David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Michael Perry, Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie)

Doctors go underground as Syrian government attacks rebel northwest

A general view of the Syrian town of Atimah, Idlib province, seen in this picture taken from Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

By Amina Ismail

BEIRUT (Reuters) – In part of northern Syria’s last rebel enclave, doctors have pulled back into cave shelters to treat the wounded and protect their patients from a government offensive that has hit health centers and hospitals.

The assault began in late April with air strikes, barrel bombs and shelling against the southern flank of the enclave, centered on Idlib province and nominally under the protection of a Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreed more than eight months ago. Limited ground advances have additionally taken place this week.

“The makeshift hospitals are very primitive,” Osama al-Shami, a 36-year-old doctor, told Reuters from the area. “We can barely save lives with the equipment we have and many of the injured die because of the lack of resources and equipment.”

The insurgents, dominated by the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham, describe the offensive as an invasion while the government accuses the rebels of violating the deal.

President Bashar al-Assad has sworn to take back every inch of Syria and the enclave including Idlib is the last big bastion of the rebellion that flared against him 2011.

The United Nations said last year that half of the region’s 3 million inhabitants had fled their homes, and the bombing has now caused a new wave of displacement.

More than 150,000 had left since April 29, The U.N. said on Tuesday, with bombs falling on over 50 villages, destroying at least 10 schools and hitting at least 12 health centers.

Under the bombs, medics are turning back to tactics used at other times in the eight-year war, moving patients into shelters under buildings or hacked into the ground. Some are opening up their houses as temporary health centers, said one surgeon.

But they are getting overwhelmed and Shami said several wounded children had died in his arms.

“One of them was a nine-year-old child who had a head and a chest injury and was severely bleeding. We tried to resuscitate him but he died within 15 minutes. There are no blood banks nearby or an equipped operating theater,” he said.

FRENCH, BRITISH CONCERNS

A war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that, in the latest escalation of fighting and bombardments, 188 people including 85 civilians had been killed since April 30.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday he had “grave concerns” over the escalation of violence in Syria including the strikes on hospitals.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called the offensive a “flagrant violation of the ceasefire agreement”.

Backed by Russian air power and Iran-backed militias, Assad has retaken most of Syria.

U.S.-backed Kurdish forces hold the country’s northeast quarter, while control of the northwest is divided between jihadist groups and rebel factions supported by Turkey.

The current government offensive is focused on the southern flank of the rebel enclave.

On Wednesday, the Syrian army advanced into the town of Kafr Nabouda, rebels and a military media unit run by Assad’s ally Hezbollah reported.

The Observatory said fighters of Tahrir al-Sham – an incarnation of the former al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front – launched a suicide attack against the army, detonating a bomb in an armored vehicle.

Rebels said heavy fighting continued at the town – close to where Shami is running his makeshift clinic – while the Hezbollah media unit said the army had gained complete control of it.

(Reporting By Amina Ismail, writing by Angus McDowall; editing by John Stonestreet)

Special Report: Egypt kills hundreds of suspected militants in disputed gun battles

The gravestone of Mohamed Abu Amer is seen near his family home in Al-Khanka, Egypt, August 6, 2018. REUTERS/Staff

By Reuters staff

CAIRO (Reuters) – Mohamed Abu Amer, a landscape gardener from Egypt was working in downtown Cairo when national security agents took him away on Feb. 6, 2018, his family said.

For almost six months Amer’s family waited for news of the 37-year-old father of two. Their messages to the Public Prosecutor and the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police and the national security agency, went unanswered.

Then on July 31, the ministry announced on its Facebook page that Amer was among five terrorists killed in a shootout earlier that day when police approached their hideout 40 km north of Cairo. Amer was wanted for the murder of a national security agent, the statement said.

It’s a version of events his family doesn’t buy. Amer was no terrorist and he died in the custody of the state, not in a gun battle, his relatives insist. “I know that what they are saying is untrue,” said a relative. “He was with them for six months.”

Amer was one of 465 men killed in what the Interior Ministry said were shootouts with its forces over a period of three and a half years, a Reuters analysis of Interior Ministry statements has found. The announcements reviewed by Reuters appeared on the ministry’s social media or were published by the state news agency.

The killings began in the summer of 2015. In June that year, Islamist militants had assassinated Egypt’s chief prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, an ally of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Sisi responded with a sweeping anti-terrorism law that shielded the police and military from prosecution for the proportionate use of force. Human rights groups say it was the start of a brutal crackdown. A researcher at an Egyptian organization that documents human rights abuses said police embarked on a spate of “extra judicial killings knowing that no one will hold them accountable.”

In 108 incidents involving 471 men, only six suspects survived, according to Interior Ministry statements from July 1, 2015 to the end of 2018. That represents a kill ratio of 98.7 percent. Five members of the security forces were killed, the statements said. Thirty seven were injured.

The Interior Ministry issued crime scene photographs with some of the statements. They showed bloodied bodies with assault rifles or shotguns on the ground beside them. Almost all of the statements said arms and ammunition were recovered at the scene. Some said Islamic State flyers were found.

But in interviews with Reuters, the relatives of 11 of the dead men contradicted the official accounts. Their sons, brothers or husbands had been plucked by police or national security agents from the streets or their homes and disappeared, they said, in some cases for several months. Then came news of their deaths in an Interior Ministry Facebook post or statement.

The families said none of the young men carried arms. But some were supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that was outlawed in 2013 after Sisi led the military in toppling Egypt’s first Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Mursi.

Reuters showed three forensic experts mortuary images of two of the 11 dead men. These specialists cast doubt on the Interior Ministry’s account of the two men’s deaths.

Three witnesses to one deadly encounter – the shooting of two members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Kamal and Yasser Shehata, in a Cairo apartment block in 2016 – disputed the Interior Ministry’s report of a gun battle with its forces. There was no exchange of fire or gun fight, these witnesses said.

The U.S. State Department’s latest annual report on human rights in Egypt, released in March, said abuses included arbitrary or unlawful killings by the government or its agents, forced disappearances and torture. The United States, nevertheless, has unfrozen $195 million in military aid to Egypt which it had previously withheld in part because of concerns over Egypt’s human rights record. U.S. officials reason that security cooperation with Egypt is important to U.S. national security.

Kate Vigneswaran, senior legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists’ Middle East and North Africa program, said the killings described by Reuters could “constitute extrajudicial executions, a serious crime under international law.” Evidence that victims were shot at close range would “indicate that the use of lethal force was not a response to a legitimate threat, but rather premeditated and deliberate conduct by the security forces to execute individuals outside the protection of the law.”

Kevin Jon Heller, associate professor of public international law at Amsterdam University, said if the victims were civilians, “this would be the classic crime against humanity of murder: killing civilians as part of a widespread or systematic attack.”

The Egyptian government didn’t respond to questions for this article. Reuters provided officials with a detailed account of its analysis of the Interior Ministry statements and other findings of this article. They had no comment.

A ROAD TRIP

Cousins Souhail Ahmed and Zakaria Mahmoud had no connection with the Muslim Brotherhood or any political organization, their family said. In July 2017 the men, both in their twenties, set off from their homes in the Nile city of Damietta for a holiday in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh.

The 600 km road trip would take them southwards from Damietta, close to the Mediterranean, along the Suez Canal and then the Gulf of Suez. For Ahmed, a student, it was a rare adventure. Hurt in a car crash a few years earlier, he still walked with a limp and stayed at home much of the time, a relative said.

Ahmed called home a few hours into the trip and told his mother that they had stopped to get sugarcane juice as they headed for a checkpoint in Ismailia province, on the Suez Canal. It was the last time the family heard from them.

Five days later, the Interior Ministry announced in a Facebook post that the cousins were among four Islamist militants killed in a shootout when security forces approached their hideout in an Ismailia village on July 15. Relatives found the bodies of the men at a mortuary in the town of Ismailia the next day.

The families of the two young men say the government’s version of events makes no sense.

“They are not Brotherhood supporters at all,” said the relative. They “were not supporters of anyone.” Ahmed “was like all young men, he dreamed to marry at a young age and have a family.” Mahmoud was a carpenter.

Reuters showed photographs and video of the bodies to three forensic experts; Professor Derrick Pounder, a pathologist who has consulted for Amnesty International and the United Nations, and two other international experts who declined to be identified. All three cast doubt on the Interior Ministry’s account that the deaths were the result of a shootout.

Mahmoud had three gunshot wounds to the head. One bullet entered beside his right nostril and exited just below his lower lip. “That would place the shooter overlooking, above and to the right of the victim if the victim was standing, which would seem unlikely in an exchange of gunfire,” Pounder said. “A more likely scenario is that the victim was kneeling with the shooter standing close on the right side.”

The two other gunshot wounds were to Mahmoud’s forehead, almost symmetrically placed just below the hairline to the left and right, which suggested final “coup de grace shots,” according to Pounder.

Authorities said in the statement the cousins were part of a “group of fugitive terrorists” and died in a single incident. “As soon as security forces approached them, they were surprised by gunshots in their direction which they dealt with, resulting in the killing of four terrorist elements,” the Interior Ministry said.

Yet the cousins’ bodies exhibited different stages of decomposition. Mahmoud’s death appeared to have been very recent, the experts said, but Ahmed had died 36 to 48 hours before the images were taken. There were no obvious ante mortem injuries or gunshot wounds to Ahmed’s body and no obvious cause of death, Pounder said.

“THERE WAS NO SHOOTOUT”

From July 1, 2015 to Dec. 31, 2018, the Interior Ministry issued statements reporting the deaths of 465 men, almost all of them suspected militants, in gun battles with its forces. That compared with just five such deaths in the first half of 2015, before the murder of Barakat, the chief prosecutor.

The Interior Ministry statements were strikingly similar. In every instance, the ministry said its forces approached or raided the hideout of the terrorists or criminals having secured an arrest warrant or taken “all legal measures.” The terrorists or criminals opened fire, and security forces responded.

Most of the dead men were in their 20s; the youngest was 16, the oldest was 61. The Interior Ministry classified 320 of the slain men as terrorists and 28 as criminals or drug dealers.

It said 117 were members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood spread its political activism and charity work across the Middle East in the decades that followed. But in recent years countries including Egypt and Saudi Arabia have cracked down on its activities, declaring it a terrorist group. The Brotherhood, which insists it is a peaceful movement, has largely gone underground.

Around a quarter of the deaths reported by the Interior Ministry, 104, were in the North Sinai region that borders Israel and Gaza, and where Egypt is battling an insurgency by Islamist militants.

The Interior Ministry statements didn’t name 302 of the dead men, nor did they give precise locations for many of the shootings. Many were in remote desert or mountain areas. Reuters managed to speak to three witnesses to one incident in a Cairo apartment in 2016.

The Interior Ministry announced on Oct. 3, 2016, that its forces had killed a Muslim Brotherhood leader and his aide in a raid on the apartment. The ministry said Mohamed Kamal, 61, a member of the group’s leadership council, and Yasser Shehata, 47, shot at police and died when officers returned fire.

Reuters asked three neighbors about the events of that evening. None of them had seen or heard a gun fight. A woman living nearby said the only shots came several hours after police had entered the apartment. A person who was in the apartment block was adamant: “There was no shootout.”

A lawyer speaking on behalf of the two men’s families told Reuters an official autopsy showed the two men were shot in the head. Reuters was not able to independently verify the autopsy conclusion.

Some Interior Ministry statements were accompanied by crime scene photographs. These included the aftermath of a shooting in November 2018. The Interior Ministry said security forces killed 19 men in a shootout in the desert, west of Minya, Upper Egypt. The ministry said the dead were members of a cell responsible for a deadly attack on Christians two days earlier.

Forensic expert Pounder reviewed 20 of the photographs. He said 11 of the bodies appeared to have been moved after death. He pointed to blood and drag marks in the sand. Depressions in the sand suggested two of the men were shot while in a kneeling position, he added. Photos of other bodies were inconclusive.

An Egyptian judicial source said some police felt the courts were too slow, which led some officers to take justice into their own hands. “They call it ‘prompt justice,'” he said. Police often moved weapons and other objects at the crime scene to cover up executions, the source said. “The police are the ones who gather the information, and there is no way they will cooperate in collecting evidence that would incriminate their colleagues.”

Reuters analysis of the Interior Ministry statements showed that deadly shootouts often followed an attack by Islamist militants. For example, in December 2018, a day after the deadly bombing of a Vietnamese tourist bus in Giza, the ministry announced that its forces had killed 40 people in three separate incidents.

Gamal Eid, a human rights lawyer and founder of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, said Egypt was trapped in a lethal cycle of extrajudicial killings and revenge attacks. “The more extrajudicial killings take place, the more there will be desire for revenge,” he said.

A member of the state-funded National Council of Human Rights, George Ishak, said: “There is a state of panic because of terrorism, but it shouldn’t be like this. This fear has to stop.”

A VERDICT OVERTURNED

In 2013, Khaled Emam, a 37-year-old weightlifting trainer, was sentenced in absentia to one year in jail for taking part in anti-government protests, his family said. To avoid arrest, he moved with his wife and two sons into an apartment in Cairo’s southeastern Mokattam district, away from the family home.

Emam was snatched from the street in June, 2017, his family said, when he was fetching medicine for one of his sons. Witnesses told his family that masked men leaped from a minibus and grabbed him.

The family filed a complaint with the local police and wrote to the authorities asking for information. They got no response.

Then, on Oct. 2, 2017, the Interior Ministry issued a statement that its forces had killed three men in a shootout in a graveyard. It named two of them – both friends of Emam. Two security sources confirmed to Reuters that Emam was also killed.

At Cairo’s Zeinhom mortuary, a relative found his body. It was bruised and showed signs of torture, the relative said. “There were injuries around his joints, his arms were detached from his shoulders. Half of his lower jaw was missing along with several of his upper teeth.”

One week after Emam’s death, an appeals court overturned the guilty verdict and his one-year jail term, the relative said. The family hasn’t filed a complaint about Emam’s death for fear of reprisal. “I know that I will not get justice,” the relative said.

(Reporting by Reuters staff; additional reporting by Stephanie van den Berg in The Hague, Edmund Blair in London and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; editing by Janet McBride and Richard Woods)

‘I was like a prisoner’: Saudi sisters trapped in Hong Kong recall beatings

Sisters from Saudi Arabia, who go by aliases Reem and Rawan, are pictured at an office in Hong Kong, China February 23, 2019. REUTERS/Aleksander Solum

By Anne Marie Roantree

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Two sisters from Saudi Arabia who fled the conservative kingdom and have been hiding out in Hong Kong for nearly six months said they did so to escape beatings at the hands of their brothers and father.

The pair, who say they have renounced their Muslim faith, arrived in the Chinese territory from Sri Lanka in September. They say they were prevented from boarding a connecting flight to Australia and were intercepted at the airport by diplomats from Saudi Arabia.

Reuters could not independently verify their story.

Asked about the case, Hong Kong police said they had received a report from “two expatriate women” in September and were investigating, but did not elaborate.

The Saudi consulate in Hong Kong has not responded to repeated requests from Reuters for comment.

The case is the second high-profile example this year of Saudi women seeking to escape their country and spotlights the kingdom’s strict social rules, including a requirement that females seek permission from a male “guardian” to travel.

The sisters, aged 18 and 20, managed to leave Hong Kong airport but consular officials have since revoked their passports, leaving them stranded in the city for nearly six months, their lawyer, Michael Vidler, said.

Vidler, one of the leading activist lawyers in the territory, also confirmed the authenticity of a Twitter account written by the two women describing their plight.

On Saturday, dressed in jeans and wearing sneakers, the softly spoken women described what they said was a repressive and unhappy life at their home in the Saudi capital Riyadh. They said they had adopted the aliases Reem and Rawan, because they fear using their real names could lead to their being traced if granted asylum in a third country.

They posed for pictures but asked their features not be revealed.

Every decision had to be approved by the men in their house, from the clothes they wore to the hairstyle they chose – even the times when they woke and went to sleep, the sisters told Reuters.

“They were like my jailer, like my prison officer. I was like a prisoner,” said the younger sister, Rawan, referring to two brothers aged 24 and 25 as well as her father.

“It was basically modern day slavery. You can’t go out of the house unless someone is with us. Sometimes we will stay for months without even seeing the sun,” the elder sister, Reem, said.

In January, a Saudi woman made global headlines by barricading herself in a Bangkok airport hotel to avoid being sent home to her family. She was later granted asylum in Canada.

“BROTHER BRAINWASHED”

Reem and Rawan said their 10-year-old brother was also encouraged to beat them.

“They brainwashed him,” Rawan said, referring to her older brothers. Although he was only a child, she said she feared her younger brother would become like her older siblings.

The family includes two other sisters, aged five and 12. Reem said she and her sister feel terrible about leaving them, although they “hope their family will get a lesson from this and it might help to change their lives for the better.”

Reem and Rawan decided to escape while on a family holiday in Sri Lanka in September. They had secretly saved around $5,000 since 2016, some of it accumulated by scrimping on items they were given money to buy.

The timing of their escape was carefully planned to coincide with Rawan’s 18th birthday so she could apply for a visitor’s visa to Australia without her parents’ approval.

But what was supposed to be a two-hour stopover in Hong Kong has turned into nearly six months and the sisters are now living in fear that they will be forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia.

They have said they have renounced Islam – a crime punishable by death under the Saudi system of sharia, or Islamic law, although the punishment has not been carried out in recent memory.

The pair say they have changed locations 13 times in Hong Kong, living in hotels, shelters and with individuals who are helping, sometimes staying just one night in a place before moving on to ensure their safety.

Vidler said the Hong Kong Immigration Department told the women their Saudi passports had been invalidated and they could only stay in the city until February 28.

The department has said it does not comment on individual cases.

The sisters have applied for asylum in a third country which they declined to name in a bid keep the information from Saudi authorities and their family.

“We believe that we have the right to live like any other human being,” said Reem, who said she studied English literature in Riyadh and dreams of becoming a writer one day.

Asked what would happen on Feb 28, after which they can no longer legally stay in Hong Kong, the sisters said they had no idea.

“I hope this doesn’t last any longer,” Rawan said.

(Reporting By Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Venezuela opposition envoys in Rome to press Guaido’s cause

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognized as the country's rightful interim ruler, talks to the media after attending a religious event in Caracas, Venezuela February 10, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

By Philip Pullella and Vivian Sequera

VATICAN CITY/CARACAS (Reuters) – Envoys for Venezuela’s self-declared caretaker leader Juan Guaido met Vatican officials and lobbied the Italian government for support on Monday in their quest to keep international pressure on socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

The Vatican, which has offered to mediate, called for respect for rights and avoidance of bloodshed after Guaido’s bid to end two decades of increasingly authoritarian leftist rule in the volatile OPEC member nation of 30 million people.

Members of the Vatican Secretariat of State met a delegation including Francisco Sucre, president of the foreign affairs commission of Venezuela’s National Assembly, and Antonio Ledezma, former mayor of Caracas.

They also met Italy’s deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini.

“We’re in Italy to seek more support for our President @jguaido,” tweeted Ledezma. “We’re doing well, but we need to finish this with victory.”

The Vatican “underscored the deep concern that a just and peaceful solution could be found urgently to overcome the crisis while respecting human rights, seeking the good of all the country’s people and avoiding bloodshed,” it said in a statement.

Pope Francis has said the Vatican could mediate if both sides asked. Maduro wants that, but Venezuela’s opposition is skeptical given past dialogue failures and Guaido says the starting point for any talks must be Maduro’s exit.

Venezuela’s opposition regards Maduro as an incompetent dictator who has wrecked their economy and crushed dissent, while he calls them puppets of Washington seeking a coup in order to control the nation’s vast oil reserves.

Rank-and-file opposition supporters, though often Roman Catholics, are suspicious of the Vatican given its support of past talks that have enabled Maduro to win time and survive various waves of protests.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin calls the Holy See’s stance “positive neutrality”, saying it has to stay above both sides if it is to help.

The Venezuela conflict has fed into a wider geopolitical struggle. Along with U.S. President Donald Trump, numerous Latin American and European nations have recognized Guaido as interim president and backed his calls for a new, free election.

But other powers, including Russia and China who have billions of dollars invested and loaned to Caracas, have denounced outside interference and backed Maduro.

Breaking the unity of other major European countries, Italy’s coalition government is divided over Venezuela.

Salvini, far-right leader of the Northern League party and also interior minister, favors recognizing Guaido, but its coalition partner the 5-Star Movement believes that is a bad precedent.

Salvini telephoned Guaido while the Venezuelan delegation was visiting him, stressing his opposition to Maduro and support for a new vote, his office said.

Guaido, who heads Venezuela’s opposition-led National Assembly, invoked a constitutional provision last month to declare himself president.

As well as the Vatican, Norway, another traditional international mediator, has also offered to help with dialogue.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome, Vivian Sequera in Caracas, Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

U.N. decries Russia jailing of Dane in Jehovah’s Witnesses case

FILE PHOTO: Dennis Christensen, a Jehovah's Witness accused of extremism, leaves after a court session in handcuffs in the town of Oryol, Russia January 14, 2019. REUTERS/Andrew Osborn/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – The top United Nations human rights official said on Thursday the harsh prison sentence Russia imposed on a Danish follower of the Jehovah’s Witnesses created a dangerous precedent and violated international law guaranteeing freedom of religion.

A Russian court on Wednesday found Dennis Christensen, an adherent of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, guilty of organizing a banned extremist group and jailed him for six years.

“The harsh sentence imposed on Christensen creates a dangerous precedent and effectively criminalizes the right to freedom of religion or belief for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia in contravention of the State’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” Michelle Bachelet, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement.

Armed police detained Christensen, a 46-year-old builder, in May 2017 at a prayer meeting in Oryol, about 200 miles (320 km) south of Moscow after a regional court had outlawed the local Jehovah’s Witnesses a year earlier.

Russia’s Supreme Court later ruled the group was “extremist” and ordered it to disband nationwide.

With about 170,000 followers in Russia and 8 million worldwide, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination known for door-to-door preaching, close Bible study, and rejection of military service and blood transfusions.

Christiansen’s detention, Russia’s first extremism-related arrest of a Jehovah’s Witness, foreshadowed dozens more with criminal cases opened against over 100 members of the group, Bachelet said.

At least 18 have been held in pre-trial detention and some have been subjected to house arrest and travel restrictions.

Bachelet urged Russia to revise its laws on combating extremist activity “with a view to clarifying the vague and open-ended definition of extremist activity, and ensuring that the definition requires an element of violence or hatred”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Ed Osmond)

‘The whole country is a prison’: No sign of better rights in North Korea – U.N.

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea Tomas Ojea Quintana arrives at a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, January 11, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – Despite more than a year of international engagement and promises of economic reform by North Korea’s leaders, the human rights situation in the isolated country remains dire, a top U.N. rights official said on Friday.

Blocked by the government from visiting North Korea, U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea Tomas Quintana visited South Korea this week as part of an investigation that will be provided to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March.

Noting that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has embarked on an effort to improve living conditions by focusing on economic development, Quintana said his preliminary findings showed those efforts had not translated into improvements in the lives of most people.

“The fact is, that with all the positive developments the world has witnessed in the last year, it is all the more regrettable that the reality for human rights on the ground remains unchanged, and continues to be extremely serious,” he told reporters at a briefing in Seoul.

“In all areas related to the enjoyment of economic and social rights, including health, housing, education, social security, employment, food, water and sanitation, much of the country’s population is being left behind.”

North Korea denies human rights abuses and says the issue is used by the international community as a political ploy to isolate it.

Human rights were noticeably absent from talks between Kim and the leaders of South Korea and the United States last year, over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

But in December, the United States imposed sanctions on an additional three North Korean officials, including a top aide to Kim, for serious rights abuses and censorship.

North Korea’s foreign ministry warned in a statement after the December sanctions were announced, that the measures could lead to a return to exchanges of fire and North Korea’s disarming could be blocked forever.

While noting he had “no specific information” on whether international sanctions were hurting ordinary North Koreans, Quintana said the sanctions targeted the economy as a whole and “raised questions” about the possible impact on the public.

He cited a reference by Kim in his New Year message to the need to improve living standards, saying it was a rare acknowledgment of the economic and social hardships faced by many North Koreans.

Still, the United Nations has confirmed the continued use of political prison camps housing “thousands” of inmates, Quintana said, quoting one source as saying “the whole country is a prison”.

He said witnesses who recently left North Korea reported facing widespread discrimination, labor exploitation and corruption in daily life.

There is also a “continuing pattern of ill-treatment and torture” of defectors who escaped to China only to be returned to North Korea by Chinese authorities, Quintana said.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Critics label Putin a hypocrite for attending veteran dissident’s wake

Russian President Vladimir Putin pays respect to founder of Russia’s oldest human rights group and Sakharov Prize winner Lyudmila Alexeyeva in Moscow, Russia December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Kremlin critics accused President Vladimir Putin of hypocrisy for attending the wake on Tuesday of a veteran Soviet and Russian dissident who was a staunch critic of his administration.

Putin has been accused by rights groups of muzzling the media, jailing his opponents and clamping down on civil society over the 19 years in which he has dominated Russia’s political landscape and enjoyed consistently high popularity ratings.

People walk past a picture of the founder of Russia's oldest human rights group and Sakharov Prize winner, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, during her memorial service in Moscow, Russia December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

People walk past a picture of the founder of Russia’s oldest human rights group and Sakharov Prize winner, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, during her memorial service in Moscow, Russia December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

The president joined hundreds of others who paid their respects at the open-cask ceremony for Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the founder of Russia’s oldest human rights group who died on Saturday aged 91.

But while Putin attended, a notable absentee was Alexeyeva’s fellow human rights veteran Lev Ponomaryov, jailed last week for calling in a Facebook post for rallies in support of activists at two political groups that authorities have labeled extremist.

“Instead of Lev Ponomaryov, Vladimir Putin will bid farewell to Alexeyeva. This is what it means to spit on someone’s grave,” journalist and long-standing Kremlin critic Viktor Shenderovich wrote on Facebook.

Ponomaryov, 77, is serving a 16-day sentence. A court rejected his appeal for dispensation to go to the funeral.

Asked on Monday about Putin’s possible attendance, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it would be impossible for the president to not pay his respects on the same day that he was due to meet the Kremlin human rights council, on which Alexeyeva sat for many years.

Alexeyeva went into exile during the Communist era, returning to Russia after the break-up of the Soviet Union. She was briefly detained by police at an anti-Kremlin protest at the age of 82 in 2009 and denounced Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Putin laid a bouquet at her cask and sat briefly nearby, exchanging words with another attendee before leaving through a side exit.

“Maybe it’s crappy PR, maybe something else,” wrote opposition politician Gennady Gudkov.

“But it’s entirely obvious that human rights defenders, environmentalists and in fact everyone who disagrees with the authorities’ course are persecuted in Russia with his (Putin’s) silent agreement.”

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; editing by John Stonestreet)

Most big companies failing U.N. human rights test, ranking shows

A worker removes threads on a garment inside a textile factory in Ethiopia November 17, 2017. Picture taken November 17, 2017.REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

By Umberto Bacchi

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Most big companies operating in sectors at high risk of labor abuses are failing to meet human rights standards set by the United Nations, according to an analysis of 100 major companies published on Monday.

From tackling child labor to ensuring equal treatment for women, U.N. principles require all businesses prove they are committed to human rights and treat workers fairly.

But an analysis of more than 100 major apparel, agricultural and extraction firms by the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB), a British charity, found many had little to show for.

Sportswear giant Adidas came top with 87 out of 100 points in the ranking that used public information on practices and policies on issues such as transparency, forced labor and the living wage to rank companies.

It was followed by miners Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, while two Chinese companies – liquor maker Kweichow Moutai and fast fashion brand Heilan Home – were ranked last.

But almost two-thirds of firms scored less than 30 points, putting the overall average at 27.

“The majority are failing to make the grade,” CHRB director Margaret Wachenfeld said in a statement.

The study comes as big brands face growing pressure from regulators and consumers to ensure their global operations are not tainted by modern-day slavery, with campaigners estimating almost 25 million people worldwide are trapped in forced labor.

More than 40 percent of businesses analyzed scored zero on human rights due diligence – the practice of identifying and addressing the risk of abuses.

CONCERNING FINDINGS

“Forced and child labor, gender equality, and protecting activists are some of the most pressing issues of our time,” said John Morrison, the head of the London-based Institute of Human Rights and Business, a think tank.

“Companies need to show how they’re addressing these challenges”.

A low score did not indicate bad practices in a company but showed the company had made available little or no information on its actions to address the risk of human rights violations, CHRB said.

China’s Kweichow Moutai ranked bottom, followed by Heilan Home and U.S. energy drinks maker Monster Beverage. None of these companies replied to requests for comment.

Coffee chain Starbucks and fashion houses Prada and Hermes also ranked among the worst.

A spokesman for Starbucks said the company had zero-tolerance policies for human rights infractions and was dedicated to bringing customers coffee “sourced in the most ethically way possible”.

Hermes said respect of human rights and labor laws was deeply rooted in its core values, organization, and production chain.

Both companies questioned the ranking’s methodology, saying it did not reflect their commitment to human rights.

A spokeswoman for Prada said the company preferred not to comment.

Caroline Robinson, director of the British charity Focus on Labour Exploitation, said the report’s findings were concerning.

“Companies simply aren’t doing enough,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“If businesses are not prepared to take meaningful action … then government intervention will be needed to move corporate responsibility from option to necessity”.

CHRB called on investors to help drive change by challenging poorly performing companies to do better.

Insurance firm Aviva, Swedish bank Nordea and Dutch financial services provider APG had already pledged to use the ranking to inform future investment decisions, it said.

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Turkey blocks decades-old mothers’ vigil as freedoms suffer

Emine Ocak, (R) mother of Hasan Ocak who went missing in 1995 and a member of "Saturday Mothers", talks with her friend before an interview with Reuters in Istanbul, Turkey, August 27, 2018. Picture taken August 27, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

By Humeyra Pamuk and Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Every Saturday for 23 years, dozens of people have held a vigil in a central Istanbul square, sitting in silence and holding pictures of relatives who went missing in police detention.

The group was about to stage their 700th demonstration last Saturday when Turkish police told them their protest was banned, before firing tear gas and plastic pellets to disperse the crowd and detaining dozens – including a 82 year-old woman who was among the first to protest in 1995 in search of her son.

The sit-in by the so-called Saturday Mothers was one of the few remaining public protests near Istanbul’s Taksim square, once a vibrant demonstration ground but now off-limits for opposition groups.

Critics say that breaking up the vigil was another sign that NATO member Turkey is drifting into more authoritarian rule under President Tayyip Erdogan, adding to Ankara’s already deteriorating record on human rights and media freedoms.

Casting the protest as a cover for supporting terrorism, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the Saturday Mothers were linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and hinted the vigils would no longer be allowed.

“This has been one of Turkey’s oldest civil disobedience movements,” said Ahmet Sik, former journalist and a lawmaker for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), who was at Saturday’s protest.

“There was a time when the police helped these people to do their vigil. To criminalize such an established protest now is an attempt to intimidate the rest of the public,” he said.

Turkey in July lifted a two year-long state of emergency during which 150,000 civil servants were purged and 77,000 people suspected of links to a failed coup in 2016 were charged.

But opponents say Erdogan’s new executive presidency and a counter-terrorism law passed last month equips him with sweeping powers to stifle opposition.

Soylu said on Monday that authorities blocked the sit-in because participants were “trying to create victims through motherhood and mask terrorism through that victimization.”

At a news conference in Istanbul, the group denied links to any militant group and pointed out Erdogan, when he was prime minister in 2011, met them and pledged support.

They also vowed to continue their protest.

“Nobody is using us. Nobody has made us come here,” said Hanife Yildiz, whose son Murat went missing in police detention in 1995.

“I handed over my son to the state and I haven’t gotten him back since.”

‘REPEAT OF THE 1990s’

The silent vigils of Saturday Mothers began as a protest against what they say was the disappearance of relatives in police detention and extrajudicial killings in the 1990s.

At the time, when conflict with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was at its height, such disappearances and killings were common, mostly in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast.

Emine Ocak, who was briefly detained on Saturday, was among those at the first sit-in after her son Hasan Ocak went missing following clashes with police in Istanbul in 1995.

Soylu rejected that Ocak had gone missing in detention and said he was a member of an ultra-leftist terrorist organization and that he was killed after a row within the group but the Saturday Mothers were trying to put the blame on the state.

Emine Ocak’s picture – the image of a white-haired elderly woman shouting as she was taken by riot police – went viral across Twitter. Her son Huseyin, Hasan’s brother, told Reuters police intervention was unexpected.

“There seems to be a new security approach in the state that very much resembles the one in the 1990s,” Huseyin Ocak said.

“I was there at the meeting with Erdogan on Feb 5, 2011. He said, ‘your problem is my cabinet’s problem.” He also promised to find our relatives, he added.

State investigations have shed light on some of the cases pursued by the Saturday Mothers. A 2011 parliament report found that Cemil Kirbayir, who went missing during a 1980 coup, died under torture.

“Since 1995 we have continued our rightful and silent resistance,” Cemil’s brother Mikail said. “You will not be able to remove us from that square.”

(Editing by Dominic Evans and Alexandra Hudson)