Shady triangle: Southeast Asia’s illegal oil and fuel market

A bird's-eye view of ships along the coast in Singapore July 9, 2017.

By Henning Gloystein and John Geddie

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – An alleged oil heist in Singapore that has already led to 20 arrests, the seizure of at least one tanker and allegations that thieves siphoned thousands of tonnes (1 tonne is approx. 2, 204.6 pounds) of fuel from Shell’s biggest refinery is shining a spotlight on an illegal trade worth tens of billions of dollars worldwide.

Working routes in a triangle of sea anchored by Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore and encompassing the oil facilities of Malaysia, the smugglers take advantage of a difficult-to-patrol sea and enticing black market prices, experts say.

The suspects in the latest case are accused of stealing oil from Royal Dutch Shell’s Pulau Bukom refinery, often during business hours, and distributing it around the region.

Several of the men charged worked for Shell. Employees of a major Singaporean fuel trading company and a London-listed business that inspects and certifies cargos have also been charged.

“Siphoning off fuel is a common thing in Southeast Asia. There is a huge black market for it,” said Ben Stewart, commercial manager of the shipping security firm Maritime Asset Security and Training, which has helped authorities in the region fight fuel theft and smuggling.

Singapore is by far the world’s biggest ship refueling port, and Southeast Asia’s petroleum refining hub. Hundreds of vessels pass through the small city-state’s waters every day.

Security officers say the sheer amount of traffic makes checking every ship impossible, opening the door to illegal trade.

In most cases, oil is discreetly siphoned from legal storage tanks and sold into the black market. But there have also been thefts at sea and even hijackings of entire ships to steal their fuel.

Data from the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), based in Singapore, shows more than half of the serious shipping incidents reported in the past year have occurred off the east coast of the Malaysian peninsula.

Some officials put the value of the illegal trade in Southeast Asia at $2 billion to $3 billion per year. But Yousuf Malik, principal at security consultancy Defence IQ, estimated about 3 percent of Southeast Asia’s consumed fuel is sourced illegally, worth $10 billion a year.

“The scale of the illegal oil trade varies with oil prices – when oil prices are high, so is the level of smuggling,” said Praipol Koomsup, former Thai vice minister of energy and professor at Thammasat University.

Crude oil prices have risen by more than 50 percent since mid-2017 to about $70 per barrel, the highest level in over three years. That increases the black market demand in poorer Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam and Thailand.

“Smuggled oil has been known to be sold to factories for industrial use, or unnamed roadside oil stations. Regular citizens and fishermen are involved in the smuggling,” Koomsup said.

OPEN SEA FUEL STATIONS

Several fuel traders told Reuters that the illegal sale of fuel is common enough that companies plan for losses of 0.2-0.4 percent of ordered cargo volumes.

Stewart said one common method of theft involves a simple fudging of paperwork at sea: captains overstate how much fuel their ship is using, then sell the excess.

Sometimes entire ships are captured for their fuel cargo.

When fuel is stolen on such a large scale, it tends to be transferred to other ships at sea.

Legal ship-to-ship transfers frequently happen between oil tankers in registered zones. In the South China Sea, however, illegal traders use purpose-built ships – with some even disguised as fishing trawlers – to take in and distribute fuel.

According to ReCAAP, the waters around the remote Natuna Islands, which sit between peninsular Malaysia and Borneo but belong to Indonesia, are a hot spot for piracy and illegal fuel transfers.

The Atlantic Council, a policy research group, said many of the region’s illegal fuel operations had links to organized crime.

Police in Thailand and Vietnam said most illegal fuel comes into the country by sea, usually transported on mid-size trawlers in unmarked drums. Smaller vessels then bring the fuel ashore for sale on the street.

“The coasts of Thailand and Vietnam are vast, and its cities big. To catch or even trace the illegal fuel in this area is virtually impossible. That’s why it happens,” said one security source, speaking on the condition of anonymity as he was not cleared to talk to media about contraband operations.

THE BUKOM HEIST

Bukom, just south of Singapore, is an island serving just one purpose: 1.5 square kilometers (0.6 square miles) of tropical land devoted to the biggest petroleum refinery owned by Anglo-Dutch Shell. It can process 500,000 barrels of crude oil per day.

As global markets were gearing up for a new year in early January, Singapore authorities conducted coordinated raids across the city-state, arresting 20, charging 14 Singaporean and Vietnamese men, and seizing millions of dollars in cash. They even confiscated an oil tanker.

At the heart of the police operations is Bukom, where suspects, including current and former Shell employees, are accused of stealing oil worth millions of dollars in the past six months.

Singapore’s biggest marine fuel supplier, Sentek, last weekend saw its marketing and operations manager, as well as a cargo officer, charged in connection with the case.

Another person charged works for Intertek in Singapore, a British-listed company specializing in quality and quantity assurance, including for fuel products.

In a statement to Reuters, Shell said, “Fuel theft is an industry problem globally and not something that anyone can solve on their own.” The company added that it was working with governments and ReCAAP to address the issue.

A representative for Intertek was not immediately available for comment. Sentek declined to comment.

A lawyer representing one of the accused men said he had not yet had opportunity to obtain instructions from his client. Lawyers for some of the others charged were not immediately available for comment.

The Prime South, the small 12,000-tonne Vietnamese tanker police seized, frequently shipped fuel between Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City. The ship had also recently made stops at Rayong, Thailand.

Between ports, the tanker often switched off its transponder, which every merchant vessel is required to carry.

The scale of the theft was big enough that Shell did not think it could handle the case internally. Instead, in August the company contacted authorities, triggering one of the biggest police operations in Singapore in years.

Police investigations are ongoing. The charges in court documents allege the suspects in the Singapore case stole over $5 million worth of oil.

Globally, oil theft could be worth as much as $133 billion, said Malik of Defence IQ.

“Its sheer scale and the flows of illicit cash related to oil and fuel theft and smuggling exacts a toll on virtually every aspect of the economy,” Malik said.

(Reporting by Henning Gloystein and John Geddie in SINGAPORE; Additional reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng and Panu Wongcha-Um in BANGKOK, Mai Nguyen and James Pearson in HANOI, and Fathin Ungku and Roslan Khasawneh in SINGAPORE; Editing by Gerry Doyle)

Malaysia to pay U.S. firm up to $70 million if it finds missing MH370

Civil Aviation Malaysia's Director General Azharuddin Abdul Rahman and Ocean Infinity's CEO Oliver Plunkett sign documents, witnessed by Malaysia's Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai, during the MH370 search operations signing ceremony between Malaysia's government and Ocean Infinity, in Putrajaya, Malaysia January 10,

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia signed a deal on Wednesday to pay a U.S. seabed exploration firm up to $70 million if it finds the missing Malaysia Airlines aircraft MH370 within 90 days of embarking on a new search in the Southern Indian ocean.

The disappearance of the aircraft en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March 2014 with 239 people aboard ranks among the world’s greatest aviation mysteries.

Australia, China and Malaysia ended a fruitless A$200-million ($157 million) search of a 120,000 sq. km area in January last year, despite investigators urging the search be extended to a 25,000-square-km area further to the north.

Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said a Houston-based private firm, Ocean Infinity, would search for MH370 in that 25,000-sq-km priority area on a “no-cure, no-fee” basis, meaning it will only get paid if it finds the plane.

“As we speak, the vessel, Seabed Constructor, is on her way to the search area, taking advantage of favorable weather conditions in the South Indian ocean,” Liow told a news conference.

The search will begin on Jan. 17, said Ocean Infinity Chief Executive Oliver Plunkett, who attended the signing event.

Ocean Infinity will be paid $20 million if the plane is found within 5,000 sq km, $30 million if it is found within 10,000 square km and $50 million if it is found within an area of 25,000 square km. Beyond that area, Ocean Infinity will receive $70 million, Liow said.

Its priority is to locate the wreckage or the flight and cockpit recorders, and present credible evidence to confirm their location within 90 days, Liow added.

“They cannot take forever or drag it on for another six months or a year.”

‘UNIQUE SOLUTION’

Ocean Infinity’s vessel carries eight autonomous underwater vehicles that will scour the seabed with scanning equipment for information to be sent back for analysis.

It has 65 crew, including two government representatives drawn from the Malaysian navy.

The ship could complete the search within three or four weeks, and cover up to 60,000 square km in 90 days, or four times faster than earlier efforts, Plunkett told Reuters.

“It was a unique problem that required a unique solution… We looked at it and said, ‘Let’s do something different than what other people would do,’ and that’s the essence of our business.”

Ocean Infinity’s core business is in the oil and gas industry, as well as subsea exploration services for tasks such as underwater cabling and seabed mapping, he said.

The company’s shareholders would bear the upfront costs of the search, Plunkett added.

Debris from MH370 could provide clues to events on board before the crash. There have been competing theories that the aircraft suffered mechanical failure or was intentionally flown off course.

Investigators believe someone may have deliberately switched off the plane’s transponder before diverting it thousands of miles out over the Indian Ocean.

At least three pieces of debris collected from sites on Indian Ocean islands and along Africa’s east coast have been confirmed as being from the missing plane.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by Jamie Freed and Clarence Fernandez)

U.S. firm Ocean Infinity says hopeful of getting MH370 search contract soon

- A woman leaves a message of support and hope for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 in central Kuala Lumpur March 16, 2014.

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – U.S.-based seabed exploration firm Ocean Infinity on Wednesday said it was moving a vessel closer to a possible search area for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 as it soon expects to be awarded a contract by Malaysia to resume the search.

The disappearance of the aircraft en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March 2014 with 239 people aboard ranks among the world’s greatest aviation mysteries. Australia, China and Malaysia ended a fruitless A$200-million ($156.62 million) search in January last year.

But in October, Malaysia said it was in talks with Ocean Infinity to resume the search on a “no-cure, no-fee” basis, meaning it will only get paid if it finds the plane.

“Ocean Infinity is hopeful of receiving the final contract award for the resumption of the search for MH370 over the coming days,” a company spokesman told Reuters in an emailed statement.

“With a relatively narrow weather window, we are moving the vessel, Seabed Constructor, towards the vicinity of the possible search zone. This is designed to save time should the contract award be forthcoming, as hoped,” he said.

Reuters shipping data showed the Seabed Constructor left Durban, South Africa, on Tuesday and was headed to Perth, Australia, where it is due on Feb. 7.

Malaysia’s deputy transport minister, Aziz Kaprawi, said the government was negotiating final terms of the agreement with Ocean Infinity and he was not aware of the vessel’s movement.

“We are in the final stages of the decision. On our part, we have yet to finalize the agreement,” he told Reuters.

When asked whether Australia and China would be consulted about the contract award, Aziz said: “Basically, Malaysia will make the decision, as this offer was made to the Malaysian government. The cost will also be decided by Malaysia.”

Investigators believe someone may have deliberately switched off the transponder of the Boeing 777 before diverting it over the Indian Ocean.

Various pieces of debris have been collected from Indian Ocean islands and Africa’s east coast and at least three of them have been confirmed as coming from the missing plane.

($1 = 1.2770 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff in Kuala Lumpur, Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard in Johannesburg; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Malaysian teacher seen as new ’emir’ of pro-Islamic State militants

Soldiers distribute pictures of a member of extremist group Abu Sayyaf Isnilon Hapilon, who has a U.S. government bounty of $5 million for his capture, in Butig, Lanao del Sur in southern Philippines February 1, 2017.

By Rozanna Latiff and Joseph Sipalan

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – The battlefield deaths of two leaders of an Islamic State alliance in the southern Philippines could thrust a Malaysian who trained at an Al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan as the militant group’s new regional “emir”, experts and officials say.

Intelligence officials describe Malaysian Mahmud Ahmad as a financier and recruiter, who helped put together the coalition of pro-Islamic State (IS) fighters that stormed Marawi City in May.

Isnilon Hapilon, Islamic State’s anointed “emir” in Southeast Asia, and Omarkhayam Maute, one of two Middle East-educated brothers at the helm of the militant alliance, were killed in a raid on a building in Marawi and their bodies recovered on Monday, Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.

Philippine authorities said they were still searching for Mahmud.

“Based on our information, there is still one personality, Dr. Mahmud of Malaysia, and he is still in the main battle area with some Indonesians and Malaysians,” military chief, Gen. Eduardo Ano, said on Monday. “But their attitude is now different, they are no longer as aggressive as before.” He did not elaborate.

Ano urged the 30 militants remaining in a shrinking combat zone to surrender and free hostages as troops stepped up their fight.

Abdullah Maute, the alliance’s military commander, was reported killed in August, though no body was found.

Intelligence officials in Malaysia believe Mahmud left Marawi months ago.

Malaysia’s police counter-terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay told Reuters in July that Mahmud “managed to sneak out from Marawi city to another safe place with his followers”.

The 39-year-old Mahmud, who holds a doctorate in religious studies and was a university lecturer in Kuala Lumpur, was Hapilon’s second-in-command in the IS’s Southeast Asia “caliphate”, according to a July report by Indonesia-based Institute of Policy Analysis and Conflict (IPAC).

 

RECRUITMENT AND FINANCING

Sitting in the inner circle of the Marawi command center, Mahmud controlled recruitment and financing, the IPAC report said.

He was the contact for foreigners wanting to join the fight in the Philippines or with IS in the Middle East, it said.

“It wasn’t just Indonesians and Malaysians contacting Dr. Mahmud … he was also the contact for Bangladeshis in Malaysia who wanted to join the fighting in Mindanao,” IPAC’s director Sidney Jones told Reuters.

Rohan Gunaratna, an analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, described Mahmud as

“the most important IS leader in Southeast Asia”.

Ahmad El-Muhammady, a lecturer at the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM) and a counter-terrorism advisor to the police, said Mahmud often solicited funds for IS operations.

“He’s always the one asking people “does anyone have any money they’d like to donate?”, and he will usually reply when followers in the region ask him about the situation in the Philippines,” Ahmad said.

 

Men identified by Philippines Intelligence officers as Isnilon Hapilon (2nd L, yellow headscarf) and Abdullah Maute (2nd R, standing, long hair) are seen in this still image taken from video released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines on June 7, 2017.

FILE PHOTO: Men identified by Philippines Intelligence officers as Isnilon Hapilon (2nd L, yellow headscarf) and Abdullah Maute (2nd R, standing, long hair) are seen in this still image taken from video released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines on June 7, 2017. Armed Forces of the Philippines/Handout via REUTERS TV/File Photo

 

‘JUST DISAPPEARED’

Mahmud grew up in Batu Caves, a crowded Kuala Lumpur suburb, famous for a Hindu temple housed in a large complex of caverns.  Mahmud’s wife and three children were last known to be living there, although Reuters could not locate them.

Before leaving Malaysia in 2014, Mahmud taught young Muslim students at a tahfiz, a school to memorise the Koran, in Nakhoda, a village near Batu Caves, residents said.

“When he (Mahmud) started the school, he did stay there for the first one or two years, but then he just disappeared,” said 50-year-old Zainon Mat Arshad, a Nakhoda resident who went to the mosque where Mahmud prayed.

“When he was at the tahfiz school, he kept mostly to himself and if he had come over to pray on Friday, I don’t think anyone would have recognized him,” said Zainon. “He didn’t mingle with the local community.”

Security experts say Mahmud studied at Pakistan’s Islamabad Islamic University in the late 1990s before going to Afghanistan where he learned to make improvised explosive devices at an al Qaeda camp.

In 2000, he returned to Malaysia to get a doctorate, which earned him a post as a lecturer in the Islamic Studies faculty at the University of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.

Former students described Mahmud as a quiet person who kept to himself.

“He wasn’t the kind of lecturer who hung out at cafes with his students as some others did,” said one former student, who declined to be identified.

 

WROTE JIHAD BOOK

The few signs of his militant beliefs were discovered later, including a book he wrote on jihad under his nom de guerre, Abu Handzalah, said Ahmad, the IIUM lecturer.

He was put on Malaysia’s most-wanted list in April 2014 after leaving the country with several others, including his aide, a Malaysian bomb maker named Mohammad Najib Husen, to work with the Abu Sayyaf group, notorious for violent kidnappings and beheadings in the southern Philippines, Ahmad said.

Mahmud received funding for the Marawi operation directly from IS headquarters, through the group’s Southeast Asian unit led by Syrian-based Indonesian militant Bahrumsyah, the IPAC report said.

In a video released by the Philippines army in June, Mahmud is seen alongside Hapilon as well as Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute – the pair of brothers who orchestrated the Marawi siege.

 

 

(Editing by Praveen Menon and Bill Tarrant)

 

U.N. seeks rapid increase in Rohingya aid; Myanmar finds more bodies

People wait to receive aid in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 25, 2017.

By Rahul Bhatia

DHAKA (Reuters) – Muslim refugees seeking shelter in Bangladesh from “unimaginable horrors” in Myanmar face enormous hardship and risk a dramatic deterioration in circumstances unless aid is stepped up, the head of the U.N. refugee agency said on Monday.

The warning came as Myanmar government forces found the bodies of 17 more Hindu villagers, taking to 45 the number found since Sunday, who authorities suspect were killed by Muslim insurgents last month, at the beginning of a wave of violence that has sent 436,000 Muslim Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh.

The violence in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State and the refugee exodus is the biggest crisis the government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has faced since it came to power last year in a transition from nearly 50 years of military rule.

It has also threatened to drive a wedge in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), with Muslim-majority Malaysia disavowing a statement on the Myanmar situation from the bloc’s chairman, the Philippines, as misrepresenting “the reality”.

A Rohingya refugee girl reacts as people scuffle while waiting to receive aid in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 25, 2017.

A Rohingya refugee girl reacts as people scuffle while waiting to receive aid in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees Filippo Grandi told a news conference in Bangladesh that “solutions to this crisis lie with Myanmar”.

But until then, the world had to help the “deeply traumatized” refugees facing enormous hardship, whom he had met on a weekend visit to camps in southeast Bangladesh.

“They had seen villages burned down, families shot or hacked to death, women and girls brutalized,” Grandi said.

He called for aid to be “rapidly stepped up” and thanked Bangladesh for keeping its border open.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar regards the Rohingya Muslims as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Fighting between Muslim insurgents and government forces has flared periodically for decades.

The latest violence began on Aug. 25 when militants from a little-known group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked about 30 police posts and an army camp.

The United Nations has described a sweeping military response as ethnic cleansing, with refugees and rights groups accusing Myanmar forces and Buddhist vigilantes of violence and arson aimed at driving Rohingya out.

The United States has said the Myanmar action was disproportionate and has called for an end to the violence.

Myanmar rejects accusations of ethnic cleansing, saying it is fighting terrorists. It has said more than 400 people have been killed, most of them insurgents.

 

HINDUS KILLED

Members of Myanmar’s small Hindu minority appear to have been caught in the middle.

Some have fled to Bangladesh, complaining of violence against them by soldiers or Buddhist vigilantes. Others have complained of being attacked by the insurgents on suspicion of being government spies.

Authorities have found the bodies of 45 Hindus buried outside a village in the north of Rakhine State, a government spokesman said, and they were looking for more.

Rohingya refugees walk through a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Rohingya refugees walk through a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

A search was mounted after a refugee in Bangladesh contacted a Hindu community leader in Myanmar to say about 300 ARSA militants had marched about 100 people out of the village on Aug. 25 and killed them, the government said.

Access to the area by journalists as well as human rights workers and aid workers is largely restricted and Reuters could not independently verify the report.

An ARSA spokesman dismissed the accusation that the group had killed the Hindus, saying Buddhist nationalists were trying to divide Hindus and Muslims.

“ARSA has internationally pledged not to target civilians and that remains unchanged, no matter what,” the spokesman, who is based in a neighboring country and identified himself only as Abdullah, told Reuters through a messaging service.

The government spokesman, Zaw Htay, said Myanmar had asked Bangladesh to send Hindu refugees home. Suu Kyi has said any refugee verified as coming from Myanmar can return under a 1993 pact with Bangladesh.

A Reuters reporter in Bangladesh said Rohingya refugees were still arriving there, with about 50 seen on Monday.

In a public display of discord within ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member, Malaysia disassociated itself from a statement issued by group chair the Philippines as it misrepresented the situation and did not identify the Rohingya as one of the affected communities.

Myanmar objects to the term Rohingya, saying the Muslims of Rakhine State are not a distinct ethnic group.

This month, Malaysia summoned Myanmar’s ambassador to express displeasure over the violence, as well as grave concern over atrocities.

 

(Additional reporting by Wa Lone, Shoon Naing in YANGON, Andrew Marshall in BANGKOK, Joseph Sipalan in KUALA LUMPUR, Tommy Wilkes in COX’S BAZAR; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

 

Stranded Yemenis, thousands of others stand to lose ‘golden ticket’ to U.S.

Yemeni Rafek Ahmed Mohammed Al-Sanani (R), 22, and Abdel Rahman Zaid, 26 look through documents as they speak with Reuters in Serdang, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia July 20, 2017.

By Riham Alkousaa and Yeganeh Torbati

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Yemen is urging the U.S. government to take in dozens of Yemenis who traveled to Malaysia in recent months expecting to immigrate to the United States, only to find themselves stranded by President Donald Trump’s temporary travel ban.

The ban, which was blocked by lower courts before being partially reinstated by the Supreme Court in June, temporarily bars citizens of Yemen and five other Muslim-majority countries with no “bona fide” connections to the United States from traveling there.

The Supreme Court ruling sharply limited the number of people affected by the ban. Largely unreported has been the fate of one group – thousands of citizens of the six countries who won a randomized U.S. government lottery last year that enabled them to apply for a so-called green card granting them permanent residence in the United States.

In a stroke of bad luck for the lottery winners, the 90-day travel ban will expire on Sept. 27, just three days before their eligibility for the green cards expires. Given the slow pace of the immigration process, the State Department will likely struggle to issue their visas in time.

A recent email from the U.S. government to lottery winners still awaiting their visas warned “it is plausible that your case will not be issuable” due to the travel ban.

The lottery attracts about 14 million applicants each year, many of whom view it as a chance at the “American Dream.” It serves as a potent symbol of U.S. openness abroad, despite the fact that the chance of success is miniscule – about 0.3 percent, or slightly fewer than 50,000, of lottery entrants actually got a green card in 2015.

The program helps to foster an image of America “as a country which welcomes immigrants and immigration from around the world, but also especially from Africa,” said Johnnie Carson, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs during the Obama administration.

Some former diplomats worry the travel ban’s impact on the lottery could tarnish that image of inclusiveness.

“Taking this away from people who have won it is the cruelest possible thing this administration could do,” said Stephen Pattison, a former senior State Department consular official. “It makes us look petty and cruel as a society.”

Reuters spoke to dozens of lottery winners from Yemen, Iran and Syria, including about 20 who are still waiting for their visas to be issued. Many declined to be named so as not to risk their applications but provided emails and other documents to help confirm their accounts.

They described having spent thousands of dollars on the application process, and many said they had delayed having children, sold property and turned down lucrative job offers at home because they assumed they would soon be moving to the United States.

 

AN ARDUOUS JOURNEY

For Yemenis, the situation is particularly difficult. Because the United States does not maintain a diplomatic post in Yemen, its citizens are assigned to other countries to apply for their visas, and many of them to travel to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The journey to a country 4,000 miles (6,400 km) away can be expensive and arduous for Yemenis, whose country, the Middle East’s poorest, is embroiled in a two-year conflict.

Most of the Yemenis who come to Malaysia make their first stop at a high-rise apartment building on the outskirts of the capital, where they have built a small community. Because of immigration restrictions, they are not allowed to work and are slowly running out of money. Most survive from funds donated by other Yemenis or sent by relatives back home.

“Imagine you get notified you got the golden ticket, only to have it yanked away,” said Joshua Goldstein, a U.S. immigration attorney who advises lottery winners.

The so-called “diversity visa” program was passed in its current form by Congress in 1990 to provide a path to U.S. residency for citizens from a range of countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States.

Because it has relatively few educational or professional requirements, it tends to attract people from poorer countries. In Ghana and Sierra Leone, for instance, more than 6 percent of the population in each of the West African nations entered the lottery in 2015.

Yemeni officials in Washington launched talks with the State Department this month to find a way to get dozens of Yemeni lottery winners into the United States despite the travel ban, said Yemen’s ambassador to the United States, Ahmed bin Mubarak.

“They’ve been in Malaysia for more than six months and sold everything in Yemen,” bin Mubarak said. “We are doing what we can.”

U.S. officials said they would work with Yemen’s government to help those who qualify for exceptions to the travel ban to be allowed in on a case-by-case basis, said Mohammed al-Hadhrami, a diplomat at Yemen’s embassy in Washington.

A State Department official declined to comment on how the United States was working with Yemen on the issue.

 

‘YANKED AWAY’

It is unclear exactly how many lottery winners are now caught up in the travel ban, which affects Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, but in 2015, more than 10,000 people from the six countries won the lottery, and 4,000 of them eventually got visas.

Yemeni officials provided Reuters with a list of Yemeni lottery winners, mostly in Malaysia, which they have also given to the State Department. It showed 58 Yemenis still waiting for a response to their applications, including some who have been stuck in security checks for more than eight months.

The State Department declined to comment on the figures, but departmental data shows that 206 Yemenis received diversity visas between March and June.

Following the June 26 Supreme Court ruling, State Department officials told lottery winners from the six countries that their visas would not be granted during the 90-day period the travel ban is in place unless they can demonstrate close family ties or other approved connections to a person or institution in the United States, according to an email seen by Reuters.

Yemeni officials are scrambling to help the country’s lottery winners demonstrate how they might qualify for an exemption and are also pushing to get a waiver for those who don’t have any relationships, Hadhrami said.

Rafek Ahmed al-Sanani, a 22-year-old farmer with a high school education, is among the Yemenis stuck in Malaysia. He traveled there in December via a route that included a 22-hour bus ride followed by flights to Egypt, Qatar and finally Malaysia.

“I was the first one to apply for the lottery in my family,” said Sanani, one of nine children in a family from Ibb governorate in Yemen’s north. “I want to come to the United States to learn English and continue my studies.”

Sanani said he had to borrow $10,000 to pay for his trip to Malaysia and living expenses. As he waits to hear the outcome of his application, he is resigned to his fate.

“What can I do?” he said. “I will accept reality.”

 

(Additional reporting by Rozanna Latif in Kuala Lumpur and Yara Bayoumy in Washington; Editing by Sue Horton and Ross Colvin)

 

Malaysian state introduces public caning for sharia crimes

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – A Malaysian state amended its Islamic laws on Wednesday to allow public canings, sparking criticism that the change was unconstitutional and could infringe on the rights of religious minorities.

Ethnic Malay Muslims make up more than 60 percent of Malaysia’s 32 million people and attempts to implement stricter forms of sharia law in recent years have raised concerns among members of the ethnic Chinese, Indian and other minorities.

The new law was approved in the state assembly of Kelantan, which is governed by a conservative Islamist party, PAS, and where nightclubs and cinemas are banned.

The northeastern state has been pushing for the adoption of a strict Islamic penal code, called ‘hudud’, that would provide for punishments such as stoning for adultery and amputations for theft.

The amendment allowing public caning was passed as part of an effort to streamline sentencing under Islamic criminal law, Kelantan deputy chief minister Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah was quoted as saying by the Bernama state news agency.

“Caning can now be carried out inside or outside of prison, depending on the court’s decision,” Mohd Amar said, according to Bernama.

“This is in line with the religion, which requires that sentencing must be done in public.”

He did not say exactly what crimes would be punished by caning but the list would likely include adultery.

Islamic law is implemented in all Malaysian states but is restricted to family issues such as divorce and inheritance, as well as sharia crimes involving Muslims, such as consuming alcohol and adultery.

Criminal cases are handled by federal law.

Ti Lian Ker, a member of the Malaysian Chinese Association, part of the ruling coalition, said public canings were unconstitutional under federal criminal law.

“This is a rewriting of our legal system and spells a bleak future for the nation,” he said in a statement.

Last year, the PAS introduced a bill that would expand the powers of sharia courts and incorporate parts of hudud into the existing legal system.

The bill is expected to be debated in parliament when it reconvenes later this month.

Critics of the bill say the implementation of hudud could infringe on the rights of religious minorities and disrupt the fabric of Malaysia’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Praveen Menon and Robert Birsel)

South China Sea code with Beijing must be legally binding: ASEAN chief

Le Luong Minh, Secretary General of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the 8th Cambodia-Laos-Myanmar-Vietnam Summit (CLMV-8) and the 7th Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy Summit (ACMECS-7), in Hanoi, Vietnam 26 October 2016. REUTERS/Luong Thai Linh/Pool

By Kanupriya Kapoor and Manuel Mogato

MANILA (Reuters) – A maritime code of conduct between Southeast Asia and China must be legally binding to put a stop to “unilateral actions” in the South China Sea, because a previous commitment to play fair had been ignored, the ASEAN secretary general said on Friday.

The Association of South East Asian Nations had not received any guarantees from China in discussions to create a framework for the code within this year, but ASEAN was hopeful a set of rules could be agreed to ward off disputes and militarization, Le Luong Minh told Reuters.

“For ASEAN, such a framework must have substantial elements, and such a code of conduct must be legally binding,” he said in an interview.

Signing China up to a code that it must abide by, and can be enforced, has long been a goal for ASEAN’s claimant members: Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea.

China’s recent decision to work with ASEAN to draw up a framework for a code, 15 years after they agreed to one, has been met with a mix of optimism and scepticism, coming at a time when Beijing races ahead with development of its seven artificial islands in the Spratlys.

It has put radar, runways, hangars and missiles on some of those features, causing alarm in the region and concern about its long-term intentions.

The framework, which all sides hope to finish this year, seeks to advance a 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea, which commits to following international law, ensuring freedom of navigation and not putting people on uninhabited islands and features.

MILITARIZATION ACTIVITIES

“It’s important … because of the complex developments in the South China Sea, especially the reclamation and militarization activities and all those unilateral actions,” Minh said of the code.

“In that context, the need for an instrument which is legally binding, which is capable of not only preventing but also managing such incidents, is very important.”

Making demands of China is something ASEAN states have long been reluctant to do, wary of their economic dependence on their giant neighbor.

ASEAN leaders are meeting in Manila for a summit this week. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Thursday it was pointless discussing Beijing’s contentious activities and no one dared to pressure it anyway.

Experts doubt China would tie itself to a set of rules in a waterway central to its geostrategic ambitions and expect it to drag the process out until ASEAN accepts a weaker code than it wants.

Asked if China had made any assurances it would stick to whatever code was agreed, Minh said: “We don’t have any guarantee, we just have to try our best.”

Minh said the code needed to be more comprehensive than the 2002 DOC, which was only a political declaration.

“It was good if all parties were implementing what was agreed, but that’s not what is happening. The COC (code of conduct), we need a legally binding instrument.”

Minh also urged de-escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula, and said North Korea’s foreign minister had sent a letter to him two weeks ago asking for ASEAN’s support. He did not say what Pyongyang had asked ASEAN to do.

“They expressed concern over what they (perceive) to be the threat to their security,” he said. “They especially mentioned the joint exercises between the U.S. and South Korea.”

(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel)

North Korean murder suspects go home with victim’s body as Malaysia forced to swap

Hyon Kwang Song (R), the second secretary at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and Kim Uk Il, a North Korean state airline employee, arrive in Beijing intentional airport to board a flight returning to North Korea, in Beijing. Kyodo via REUTERS

By Rozanna Latiff and James Pearson

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Three North Koreans wanted for questioning over the murder of the estranged half-brother of their country’s leader returned home on Friday along with the body of victim Kim Jong Nam after Malaysia agreed a swap deal with the reclusive state.

Malaysian police investigating what U.S. and South Korean officials say was an assassination carried out by North Korean agents took statements from the three before they were allowed to leave the country.

“We have obtained whatever we want from them…They have assisted us and they have been allowed to leave,” police chief Khalid Abu Bakar told a news conference in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, saying there were no grounds to hold the men.

Kim Jong Nam, the elder half-brother of the North’s young, unpredictable leader Kim Jong Un, was killed at Kuala Lumpur’s airport on Feb. 13 in a bizarre assassination using VX nerve agent, a chemical so lethal the U.N. has listed it as a weapon of mass destruction.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the remains of a North Korean citizen killed in Malaysia were returned to the North via Beijing along with “relevant” North Korean citizens.

Malaysian authorities released Kim’s body on Thursday in a deal that secured the release of nine Malaysian citizens held in Pyongyang after a drawn out diplomatic spat.

Malaysian police had named eight North Koreans they wanted to question in the case, including the three given safe passage to leave.

Television footage obtained by Reuters from Japanese media showed Hyon Kwang Song, the second secretary at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and Kim Uk Il, a North Korean state airline employee on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

The police chief confirmed they were accompanied by compatriot Ri Ji U, also known as James, who had been hiding with them at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysian prosecutors have charged two women – an Indonesian and a Vietnamese – with killing Kim Jong Nam, but South Korean and U.S. officials had regarded them as pawns in an operation carried out by North Korean agents.

Kim Jong Nam, who had been living in exile in the Chinese territory of Macau for several years, survived an attempt on his life in 2012, according to South Korean lawmakers.

They say Kim Jong Un had issued a “standing order” for the assassination in order to consolidate his own power after the 2011 death of the father of both.

The other North Koreans named by Malaysian investigators are all back in North Korea.

Police believe four fled Malaysia on the same day as the murder and another was held for a week before being released due to insufficient evidence.

Angered by the probe, North Korea ordered a travel ban on Malaysians this month, trapping three diplomats and six family members – including four children – in Pyongyang.

Malaysia, which previously had friendly ties with the unpredictable nuclear-armed state, responded with a ban of its own, but was left with little option but to accede to the North’s demands for the return of the body and safe passage for the three nationals hiding in the embassy.

“CLEAR WINNER”

Malaysia will not snap diplomatic ties with North Korea following the row, Prime Minister Najib Razak said during an official visit to India, state news agency Bernama reported.

“We hope they don’t create a case like this again,” Najib told reporters in the southern city of Chennai. “It will harm the relationship between the two countries.”

On Thursday, Najib had announced the return of the body, but did not mention Kim by name.

“Following the completion of the autopsy on the deceased and receipt of a letter from his family requesting the remains be returned to North Korea, the coroner has approved the release of the body,” Najib said, adding that the murder investigation would continue but the travel ban on North Koreans was lifted.

North Korea has maintained that the dead man is not Kim Jong Nam, saying instead the body is that of Kim Chol, the name on the victim’s passport.

Malaysian police used a DNA sample to establish the victim was Kim Jong Nam. Police chief Khalid said the North Korean embassy had at first confirmed the identity, but changed its stance the next day.

The swap agreement brings to an end a diplomatic standoff that has lasted nearly seven weeks.

Both countries managed to “resolve issues arising from the death of a DPRK national,” a North Korean statement said on Thursday, referring to the country by the abbreviation of its official name.

“It is a win (for North Korea), clearly,” Andrei Lankov, North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University, said on the swap deal. “I presume the Malaysians decided not to get too involved in a remote country’s palace intrigues, and wanted their hostages back.”

SIMULTANEOUS TAKE-OFF

The nine Malaysians who had been trapped in Pyongyang arrived in Kuala Lumpur early on Friday on board a small Bombardier business jet operated by the Malaysian air force.

Pilot Hasrizan Kamis said the crew dressed in civilian clothes as a “precautionary step” for the mission.

The Plane Finder tracking website showed the Bombardier took off from Pyongyang at the same time the Malaysian Airlines flight MH360 left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing.

Mohd Nor Azrin Md Zain, one of the returning diplomats, said it had been an anxious period but they “were not particularly harassed” by the North Korean authorities.

The episode, however, is likely to have cost North Korea one of its few friends.

“I think this relationship is going to go into cold storage for a very long time,” said former Malaysian diplomat Dennis Ignatius.

(Additional reporting by A. Ananthalakshmi, Joseph Sipalan, Emily Chow and Praveen Menon in KUALA LUMPUR and Christian Shepherd in BEIJING; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Exclusive: Malaysia inspects North Korean coal ship for possible U.N. sanctions breach

An Eikon ship-tracking screen shows the position of the North Korean ship Kum Ya off Penang March 29, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas White/Illustration

By James Pearson, Rozanna Latiff and Tom Allard

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia briefly prevented a North Korean ship carrying coal from entering its port in Penang because of a suspected breach of United Nations sanctions, a port worker and Malaysian maritime officials told Reuters on Wednesday

The KUM YA, was carrying 6,300 metric tonnes of anthracite coal, according to a worker at Penang Port who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity. It was later allowed to dock, where an inspection team accompanied by an armed escort boarded the ship.

A December 2016 U.N. Security Council resolution placed a cap on exports of North Korean coal, and urged member states to apply extra scrutiny on North Korean ships.

Production of coal in North Korea is state-controlled and its exports are a key source of hard currency for the isolated country’s banned nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Relations between North Korea and Malaysia, which have been friendly for decades, have soured following the February assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half-brother at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

The North Korean ship had been initially prevented from entering Penang Port due to a possible breach of U.N. sanctions, MMEA deputy director-general of operations Zulkifli Abu Bakar, told Reuters without offering further details.

It was unclear what the inspectors were checking on.

The United Nations in its annual reports on how members have complied with sanctions have cited a number of instances over the past decade in which North Korean missile parts and coal connected to sanctioned entities were trans-shipped through Malaysia.

Malaysia is one of the few countries in the world which buys North Korean coal, with China by far the biggest importer.

LUCKY STAR

The KUM YA was recently re-flagged as a North Korean ship, changing its name from Lucky Star 7 in November last year, according to the Equasis shipping database.

It was registered on Feb. 13 to North Korean shipping company Sonchonggang Water Transport, according to copies of the ship’s registration documents, which were issued by North Korea’s Maritime Administration, and seen by Reuters.

The ship was carrying 20 crew members, and was scheduled to sail onto Singapore, the port worker said.

The ship listed its port of origin as Busan, South Korea. However, shipping data in Thomson Reuters Eikon shows the cargo was loaded at the Huaneng Shandong Power Station Weihai, a coal-fired power plant. It then sailed to Penang through the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait, the data shows. (http://tmsnrt.rs/2ofxNXe)

China halted all coal imports from North Korea starting on Feb. 26, amid growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula following one of a series of Pyongyang’s missile tests.

Malaysia’s foreign ministry told officials at Penang Port not to let the ship dock before an inspection team had it “declared safe,” the port worker said.

The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) confirmed the ship had been stopped following instructions from Malaysia’s foreign ministry, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“Many North Korean ships call on our ports and we never had problems. Just over the recent months, there have been problems,” the port worker told Reuters. “We have never received directives to stop North Korean ships before.”

NOT CONFISCATED

The KUM YA was first stopped at sea before being allowed to dock in port where it was immediately cordoned off, the port worker said.

“Minerals and Geoscience Department officials were then called to inspect the cargo on board. The department officers were told to confirm it was indeed coal on board,” the port worker said.

The coal was being unloaded on Wednesday afternoon and has not been confiscated, the port worker said.

Since 2011, Malaysia has imported over 2 million metric tonnes of coal a year, according to government statistics, which are not broken down by country of origin.

The KUM YA shipment was handled by Malaysian freight forwarding company Alim Maritime Sdn Bhd, the port worker said. An Alim Maritime official reached by telephone declined to comment.

The KUM YA can hold up to 6,843 metric tonnes of cargo, according to Equasis, meaning it was 92 percent full when it arrived in Penang.

(Additional reporting by Emily Chow in KUALA LUMPUR and Henning Gloystein in SINGAPORE; Editing by Bill Tarrant)