Epstein’s accusers appear in court at hearing weeks after his suicide

Gloria Allred, representing alleged victims of Jeffrey Epstein, arrives with an unidentified women for a hearing in the criminal case against Jeffrey Epstein, who died this month in what a New York City medical examiner ruled a suicide, at Federal Court in New York, U.S., August 27, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Women who say Jeffrey Epstein sexually abused them voiced anger and defiance in a packed New York courtroom on Tuesday during a dramatic hearing less than three weeks after the financier killed himself while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.

“I feel very angry and sad that justice has never been served in this case,” Courtney Wild, one of the women, told the hearing before U.S. District Judge Richard Berman.

“I will not let him win in death,” another woman, Chauntae Davies, told the court.

Federal prosecutors appeared at the hearing to ask the judge to formally dismiss their case against Epstein.

Berman explained why he gave the women and their lawyers an opportunity to address the court.

“The victims have been included in the proceeding today both because of their relevant experiences and because they should always be involved before, rather than after, the fact,” Berman said at the outset of the hearing.

Epstein, who once counted U.S. President Donald Trump and former President Bill Clinton as friends, was arrested on July 6 and pleaded not guilty to federal charges of sex trafficking involving dozens of girls as young as 14.

The 66-year-old was found dead Aug. 10 in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Lower Manhattan. An autopsy concluded that he hanged himself.

Davies said she was hired by Epstein to give massages. The financier raped her the third or fourth time they met on his private island and continued to abuse her, Davies said.

Another woman, who chose not to give her name, said Epstein’s death must be investigated.

“We do need to know how he died. It felt like a whole new trauma. … It didn’t feel good to wake up that morning and find that he allegedly committed suicide,” she said, holding back tears.

Another unnamed woman said she came to New York to become a model and was victimized by Epstein.

“I’m just angry that he’s not alive to have to pay the price for his actions,” she said.

Berman ordered prosecutors and defense lawyers for Epstein to appear in court after the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office said it wanted to dismiss the indictment against the financier in light of his jail cell death.

‘CURIOUS’ DEATH

During the hearing, attorney Brad Edwards, who represents women who say they were sexually abused by Epstein, said, “I have in the courtroom today 15 victims I represent and have represented over the years. There are at least 20 more who didn’t make this hearing today.”

Edwards said Epstein’s “untimely death” was “curious,” adding: “More so, it makes it absolutely impossible for the victims to ever get the day in court that they wanted, and to get full justice. That now can never happen.”

At the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Maurene Comey said the law required the dismissal of the case in light of Epstein’s death, but said the government’s investigation was ongoing.

“Dismissal of this indictment as to Jeffrey Epstein in no way prohibits or inhibits the government’s ongoing investigation into potential co-conspirators,” Comey said.

Epstein’s death has triggered investigations by the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which runs the detention facility.

Epstein’s arrest in New York came more than a decade after Epstein avoided being prosecuted on similar federal charges in Florida by striking a deal that allowed him to plead guilty to state prostitution charges.

That deal, which has been widely criticized as too lenient, resulted in Epstein serving 13 months in a county jail, which he was allowed to leave during the day on work release.

Brittany Henderson, a lawyer with Edwards’ firm, read a statement from another victim, Michelle Licata.

“I was told then that Jeffrey Epstein was going to be held accountable, but he was not,” she said of the earlier investigation. “The case ended without me knowing what was going on. … I was treated like I did not matter.”

Multiple women have filed civil lawsuits against Epstein’s estate since his death, saying he abused them and seeking damages. Some have alleged the abuse continued after his plea deal and even while he was on work release from his previous jail sentence.

Just two days before his death, Epstein signed a will placing all of his property, worth more than $577 million, in a trust, according to a copy of the document seen by Reuters.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Will Dunham)

One witness, conflicting evidence: How Venezuelan justice targets the opposition

Eugenia Vicuna holds a cushion made from the t-shirt that, she says, her son was wearing at the moment of his detention at their house in El Junquito, Venezuela, February 7, 2019. Picture taken February 7, 2019. To match Insight VENEZUELA-POLITICS/EVIDENCE. REUTERS/Angus Berwick

By Angus Berwick

EL JUNQUITO, Venezuela (Reuters) – Local opposition leader Jose Rengel has spent almost five weeks in a cramped detention cell on the outskirts of the Venezuelan capital Caracas, after a single witness accused him of leading a riot that burned down a public building.

Rengel was arrested together with eight other men on January 24 after the witness – a member of the ruling Socialist Party – told soldiers that the 59-year-old had sacked shops and “completely destroyed” a public transport office using Molotov cocktails, according to a National Guard report filed one day later.

The detained men, who are described by their families as opposition sympathizers, now face charges of arson, theft, and illegally carrying weapons, which could lead to 10-year jail sentences. The men all deny taking part in the protest, according to statements they gave to a court and their lawyers.

A visit to the neighborhood of El Junquito, a string of poor settlements atop a ridgeline west of the teeming Venezuelan capital, shows the public transport building still stands. The one-room office, its interior decorated with a portrait of former president Hugo Chavez, is providing services as normal and shows no sign of significant damage.

The National Guard said in its report that they found no weapons on Rengel. They said they seized two shotguns from two other men, both of whom, via their lawyers, denied having them. In addition, the men’s families and neighbors said none of the men were near the transport office at the time of their arrest, contradicting the National Guard’s report that they were detained during the demonstration just after 7 p.m.

The men all remain in custody.

The witness, Jesus Vielma, told Reuters he stood by his testimony and said the men were “a band of criminals.” The lieutenant who wrote the report, Jorge Acevedo, did not respond to Facebook messages and the National Guard did not respond to requests to comment on his behalf. Rengel’s lawyers said he denied all charges.

The arrest of the nine men here in El Junquito is part of what some civil rights groups estimate at almost 1,100 arrests by President Nicolas Maduro’s government since opposition leader Juan Guaido invoked the constitution and assumed a rival presidency on January 23, with the backing of the United States.

The government has denied it takes political prisoners or fabricates evidence, and says the crackdown is aimed at clearing out criminals.

Interviews by Reuters with 20 people in El Junquito, a dozen of whom said they were with the men at the time, plus a review of court records and a National Guard report, contradict the National Guard’s official account that they arrested the men during a violent protest.

Their families and lawyers told Reuters they believe the men were arbitrarily detained, based on the lack of evidence to support the charges against them.

Some 120 locals have signed a written petition backing the family’s version of the events.

The National Guard did not respond to requests to comment about the discrepancies between its report and the witnesses interviewed. The Information Ministry, which handles all media inquiries for the government, did not respond either.

With Maduro under mounting pressure, the arrests, along with some 40 extrajudicial killings by security forces, have spread fear through poor areas, limiting further demonstrations, local politicians and NGOs say.

“They’re now going after the little guy,” said Javier Torres, a colleague of Rengel, who is head of the opposition Democratic Action party in El Junquito. “It’s to try to silence the voices of leaders in communities that have protested.”

A KNOCK ON THE DOOR

Rengel’s wife said he was preparing dinner for the family when several dozen masked soldiers arrived at the house on motorbikes at 9:30 p.m.

“When they knocked, my husband opened the door without realizing what he would find,” said his wife, Onoris de Rengel, 59. “The soldiers entered shouting ‘Who is Jose Rengel? Who is Jose Rengel?’ They went to the kitchen and ordered us to the ground. They asked him where were the weapons.”

The soldiers left with Rengel, who they beat hard enough to bruise his ribs, the family and their lawyer said. Photos of the family home, taken by neighbors and seen by Reuters, appear to show it ransacked after a raid, with furniture overturned and clothes strewn across the floor.

Venezuelan legal aid group Penal Forum, which is representing other people detained in the area, said the arrests come amid a political crackdown since dozens of countries recognized Guaido as the legitimate head-of-state. Maduro accuses Guaido of leading a U.S.-orchestrated coup to oust him.

Penal Forum says the 1,069 politically motivated arrests between January 21 and January 31 are the most since it began keeping records almost 18 years ago. Most cases involve planted evidence and invented circumstances to justify detentions, its director, Alfredo Romero, said.

The government began another crackdown on Saturday when troops at the border blocked humanitarian aid convoys sent by the opposition from Colombia and Brazil. Penal Forum says it has recorded over 60 arrests over the weekend.

The Information Ministry did not respond to requests to comment about Penal Forum’s accusations. The Supreme Court’s president, Maikel Moreno, said in January that judicial officials carry out “invaluable work with professionalism, ethics and quality.”

“SCOURGES OF THE AREA”

Locals in El Junquito said there was a small opposition protest on the evening of January 24, when a few dozen people blocked the main road and burned tires close to the Cacique Tiuna transport office.

At about 7 p.m., Jorge Acevedo, the young National Guard lieutenant, received a call at his outpost, some 4 km (2.5 miles) away, according to his report.

The caller, Jesus Vielma, head of a local council for the ruling Socialist Party, told Acevedo that Rengel was leading a riot, the report shows. The National Guard withheld Vielma’s identity in the report, but he confirmed to Reuters he was the witness.

Acevedo said when he and other soldiers reached the scene, protesters attacked them with petrol bombs and rocks. Acevedo wrote that they arrested Rengel and eight others after cornering them, describing them as “the most violent ones there.”

An employee at the transport office said she was still there that evening at 7 p.m. and protesters only began throwing projectiles an hour later. She said protesters stole several desks and a petrol bomb was thrown against the building, forcing them to re-paint the walls.

In a statement given at the National Guard outpost that evening, Vielma said that he saw Rengel carrying a shotgun and identified the detained men as those who sacked the office: “They are the scourges of the area.”

Vielma, in an interview with Reuters, praised the National Guard for bringing order to the community. “We cannot accept a band of criminals. They have to accept the consequences,” he said.

During a January 26 hearing at a Caracas court, the prosecutor provided no evidence beyond Vielma’s testimony and the two shotguns he said the National Guard seized but emphasized the “magnitude of the damage,” court documents show.

The judge remanded the men in custody for 45 days while the investigation continues.

CRAMPED CELL

Some families of the men detained in El Junquito say the men were opposition sympathizers.

“There were some 40 motor-bikes driving up the road. They stopped us, grabbed him and pulled him onto a bike,” said 19-year-old Yosneilis Calzadilla, the girlfriend of one of the detained men, Jhon Mijares. “They didn’t tell us anything.”

The nine men are jailed inside a 1 meter by 7 meter cell with dozens more detainees, according to their families, lawyers and court documents.

Eugenia de Vicuna said she has only been able to see her son, Enmanuel, twice, for six minutes in total, since soldiers shot the 21-year-old student at point-blank range with rubber rounds while he was returning home from shopping that evening.

The rounds left 20 open wounds on his back which have still not been treated, according to his family and a photo supplied by his lawyer.

On January 29, a judge, in a written ruling, ordered the National Guard to transfer Vicuna and the other eight men to a hospital. But his family and relatives and lawyers for the other men say they remain in the cell.

The National Guard and Information Ministry did not respond to requests to comment on why they remain there.

(Additional reporting by Shaylim Valderrama; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Edward Tobin)

Syria must account for thousands of detainees who died in custody: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: A boy carries his belongings at a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo's al-Fardous district, Syria April 2, 2015. REUTERS/Rami Zayat/File Photo

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – U.N. war crimes investigators called on Syria on Wednesday to tell families what happened to their relatives who disappeared and provide the medical records and remains of those who died or were executed in custody.

No progress can be made towards a lasting peace to end the nearly eight-year-old war without justice, the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said.

After years of government silence, Syrian authorities this year released “thousands or tens of thousands” of names of detainees alleged to have died, mostly between 2011 and 2014, it said in a report released before delivery to the U.N. Security Council.

“Most custodial deaths are thought to have occurred in places of detention run by Syrian intelligence or military agencies. The Commission has not documented any instance, however, where bodies or personal belongings of the deceased were returned,” it said.

In nearly every case, death certificates for prisoners that were provided to families recorded the cause of death as a “heart attack” or “stroke”, the independent panel led by Paulo Pinheiro said.

“Some individuals from the same geographic area share common death dates, possibly indicating group executions,” it said.

FILE PHOTO: Syria's president Bashar al-Assad (C) joins Syrian army soldiers for Iftar in the farms of Marj al-Sultan village, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria in this handout picture provided by SANA on June 26, 2016./File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad (C) joins Syrian army soldiers for Iftar in the farms of Marj al-Sultan village, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria in this handout picture provided by SANA on June 26, 2016,./File Photo

In most cases, the place of death was stated as Tishreen military hospital or Mujtahid hospital, both near Damascus, but the place of detention was not named, it said.

“Pro-government forces and primarily the Syrian state should reveal publicly the fates of those detained, disappeared and/or missing without delay,” the report said, noting this meant Syrian government forces, Russian forces and affiliated militia.

Families had the right to know the truth about their loved one’s deaths and be able to retrieve their remains, it said.

In a 2016 report, the panel found that the scale of deaths in prisons indicated that the government of President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for “extermination as a crime against humanity”.

In Syria, a family member must register a death within a month after receiving a death notification, the report said. Failure to do so results in a fine which grows after a year.

But given that there are millions of Syrian refugees abroad and internally displaced, many are not in a position to meet deadlines, it said.

The lack of an official death certificate may affect the housing, land and property rights of relatives, it said, noting that female-headed households may face further challenges to secure inheritance rights.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Editing by William Maclean)

‘World is doomed’: Erdogan denounces U.S. justice after Turkish banker trial

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a ceremony in Ankara, Turkey, December 21, 2017. Kayhan

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Tayyip Erdogan denounced U.S. justice on Friday and suggested Turkey could rethink some bilateral agreements with Washington, after a U.S. court convicted a Turkish banker in a trial that included testimony of corruption by top Turkish officials.

In his first public comments on Wednesday’s verdict, the Turkish president cast the case as American plot to undermine Turkey’s government and economy – an argument likely to resonate with nationalist supporters.

“If this is the U.S. understanding of justice, then the world is doomed,” Erdogan told a news conference before his departure to France for an official visit.

A U.S. jury convicted an executive of Turkey’s majority state-owned Halkbank  of evading Iran sanctions, at the close of the trial which has strained relations between the NATO allies. Some of the court testimony implicated senior Turkish officials, including Erdogan. Ankara has said the case was based on fabricated evidence.

Without being specific, Erdogan said the case put agreements between the two countries into jeopardy: “….The bilateral accords between us are losing their validity. I am saddened to say this, but this is how it will be from now on.”

Turkey’s foreign ministry on Thursday condemned the conviction as unprecedented meddling in its internal affairs. The row has unnerved investors and weighed on the lira currency, which hit a series of record lows last year.

The court case has put pressure on relations between Washington and the biggest Muslim country in NATO, already strained since a 2016 failed coup in Turkey which Erdogan blames on followers of a cleric who lives in the United States.

Only last week the United States and Turkey lifted all visa restrictions against each other, ending a months-long visa dispute that began when Washington suspended visa services at its Turkish missions after two local employees of the U.S. consulate were detained on suspicion of links to the coup.

The Halkbank executive, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, was convicted on five of six counts, including bank fraud and conspiracy to violate U.S. sanctions law. The case was based on the testimony of a wealthy Turkish-Iranian gold trader, Reza Zarrab, who cooperated with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to charges of leading a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran.

In his testimony Zarrab implicated top Turkish politicians, including Erdogan. Zarrab said Erdogan, then prime minister, had personally authorised two Turkish banks to join the scheme.

Turkey says the case was based on fabricated evidence and has accused U.S. court officials of ties to the cleric Turkey blames for the coup attempt. The bank has denied any wrongdoing and said its transactions were in line with local and international regulations.

“The United States is carrying out … a chain of plots, and these are not just legal but also economic plots,” Erdogan said.

(Reporting by Daren Butler and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by David Dolan and Peter Graff)

Argentine survivor of New York attack pleads for justice, love

The flag hangs at half mast at the Argentine Consulate, in honour of the five Argentine citizens who were killed in the truck attack in New York on October 31, in New York City, U.S., November 2, 2017.

(Reuters) – “What has the world turned in to?” a friend of the five Argentines killed in the New York attack this week asked at a news conference on Friday, alongside three other surviving members of a group of former classmates.

Guillermo Banchini, an architect, and friends were cycling in New York during a 30-year high school reunion trip on Tuesday when a driver of a pickup truck plowed down a bike path.

“How could someone think of, plan and do something like this? We cannot get our heads around it,” Banchini said at the Argentine consulate in New York.

“Let there be justice. Let this not be repeated, not here nor anywhere in the world.”

Eight people, including a Belgian woman, a New Yorker and a New Jersey man, were killed and 11 injured in lower Manhattan in the attack along the Hudson River.

The suspect, 29-year-old Uzbek immigrant Sayfullo Saipov, was charged with acting on behalf of Islamic State, whose followers have carried out vehicle attacks in several cities, mostly in Europe.

The five deceased Argentines, businessmen and architects aged 48 to 49, were all alums of a polytechnic high school in Rosario, Argentina’s third-largest city.

Another member of the group, Martin Ludovico Marro, was injured and hospitalized in Manhattan and did not attend the televised news conference.

Banchini, speaking on behalf of the other Argentine survivors, said the pain they were feeling would always endure, but they would move forward the way they had learned as close knit childhood friends.

“In the name of those values, and a way of life, we want to make a bet – love conquers hate,” he said.

 

(Reporting by Maximilian Heath and Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Andrew Hay)

 

Syria investigator del Ponte signs off with a sting

Carla del Ponte, member of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic attends a news conference into events in Aleppo at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 1, 2017.

GENEVA (Reuters) – Veteran prosecutor Carla del Ponte signed off from the United Nations Syria investigation on Monday by criticizing the U.N. Security Council and telling Syria’s ambassador his government had used chemical weapons.

The former Swiss attorney general, who went on to prosecute war crimes in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, said in August she was resigning from the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria because of a lack of political backing.

Bidding farewell to the U.N. Human Rights Council, which set up the Commission of Inquiry six years ago, Del Ponte said she had quit out of frustration.

“We could not obtain from the international community and the Security Council a resolution putting in place a tribunal, an ad hoc tribunal for all the crimes that are committed in Syria,” she said.

“Seven years of crime in Syria and total impunity. That is not acceptable.”

Del Ponte told a Swiss newspaper last month enough evidence existed to convict President Bashar al-Assad of war crimes.

Her departure leaves only two remaining commissioners of the inquiry, Karen Koning AbuZayd and the chairman, Paulo Pinheiro, who said that eventually, a great many people would have to answer “as to why they did not act sooner to stop the carnage”.

“The deadlock at the Security Council on Syria is reprehensible and, at times, bewildering,” he told the Human Rights Council.

Leaving the council, del Ponte told Syria’s ambassador that she had been right to quickly reach the conclusion that Assad’s government had used chemical weapons during an attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in April.

“It was me, mister ambassador,” she said.

“I said that in my opinion and based on the elements we already had, the Syrian government was responsible. Today we have the confirmation after an official commission’s inquiry. So now, we ask for justice, we ask justice for those victims.”

 

(Reporting by Tom Miles and Cecile Mantovani; editing by Andrew Roche)

 

North Korea Criticizes Canada Over Reaction to Pastor’s Life Sentence

North Korea is accusing Canadian government officials of “spouting rubbish” about the trial of Hyeon Soo Lim, the Canadian pastor who North Korea recently sentenced to a life of hard labor.

KCNA, North Korea’s state-run media agency, reported Tuesday that a spokesman for the country’s foreign ministry blasted Canada for its response to Lim’s sentence, handed down last week. The Toronto Star previously reported Canada’s government felt the punishment was “unduly harsh,” and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told said it sparked “tremendous concern.”

The spokesman told KCNA it was “very shocking” that Canada’s government reacted the way that it did, rather than “feeling guilty about the hideous crime,” that Lim allegedly committed.

The governments of both the United States and Canada actively warn citizens against traveling to North Korea, in large part because the North’s legal system isn’t known for consistently applying its strict laws. The U.S. Department of State warns that things that might not seem criminal — like bringing photographs into the country — can lead to people being detained, arrested or sentenced to hard labor or death. Unsanctioned religious activity is also illegal there.

KCNA reported that Lim was accused of subversion, committing anti-North Korean religious activities and spreading false propaganda about the country overseas, among other charges.

However, Lim’s family members have told CNN that the South Korean-born pastor of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Toronto, who is in his 60s, frequently went to North Korea over the past 18 years for a variety of humanitarian causes and his trips were not political in nature.

While KCNA reported the pastor confessed to all of the crimes, The Toronto Star reported other foreigners held in North Korea have said they were pressured into confessing. The paper quoted Trudeau as saying “issues about North Korea’s governance and judicial system are well-known.”

North Korea’s foreign ministry spokesman told KCNA that Canada’s stance on Lim’s sentence would only further complicate the situation. The spokesman said that Canada “has no legal justifications” to find fault with any of North Korea’s actions, and Canada should have apologized and taken steps to prevent future crimes rather than shifting blame to North Korea.

The war of words in the press comes two days after Reuters reported that North Korea allowed Canadian diplomats to meet with the pastor in prison last week. Relaying the information she received about the visit, a church spokeswoman on Sunday told the news agency that the pastor’s spirits remained high and that he had been given medicine to treat his health condition.