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)

Erdogan’s AK Party challenges Istanbul, Ankara election results

Supporters of Ekrem Imamoglu, main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) candidate for mayor of Istanbul, wait for him to visit Anitkabir, the mausoleum of modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in Ankara, Turkey, April 2, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Daren Butler and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party has submitted objections to local election results in all districts of Istanbul and Ankara, party officials said on Tuesday, after results showed the opposition earned narrow victories in both cities.

The AK Party is on track to lose control of what are Turkey’s two biggest cities, its commercial hub of Istanbul and the capital Ankara, in a surprise election setback that may complicate Erdogan’s plans to combat recession.

In Istanbul, the mayoral candidate of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Ekrem Imamoglu, and his AKP rival, ex-prime minister Binali Yildirim, both said on Monday Imamoglu was around 25,000 votes ahead. Istanbul has an estimated total population of 15 million.

The AKP had previously said it would use its right to object to the results where there were voting irregularities, adding that the errors at the ballots had affected the outcome.

On Tuesday, Bayram Senocak, the AKP’s Istanbul head said that objections had been submitted by the 3 p.m. (1200 GMT) deadline for appeals, and added that legal action would be taken against electoral officials who made the errors.

“We have submitted all our appeals to the district electoral councils,” Senocak said, as he waved ballot records in which he said vote count irregularities could be seen.

An AKP deputy chairman later said the difference between Imamoglu and Yildirim was down to 20,509 votes and would keep falling as a result of their appeals. He said the elections were “the biggest blemish in Turkish democratic history.”

The CHP’s Istanbul head Canan Kaftancioglu said her party submitted objections in 22 districts, adding they expected to receive 4,960 more votes after the appeals were resolved.

“They are trying to steal the will of the people as it was reflected in the ballots,” she told reporters in Istanbul.

The CHP’s Imamoglu said on Tuesday he was saddened by the AKP failure to congratulate him after the election board count put him ahead.

“I’m watching Mr Binali Yildirim with regret. You were a minister of this nation, the parliament speaker and a prime minister,” Imamoglu said in Istanbul. “What could be more noble than congratulating?”

“The world is watching us with shame right now. We are ready to manage the big city of Istanbul. Let go and congratulate us with honor, so we can do our job,” he said.

“MOMENT OF BEGINNING”

Ahead of the elections, the CHP had formed an electoral alliance with the Iyi (Good) Party to rival that of the AKP and their nationalist MHP partners. The alliances nominated joint candidates in certain cities, including Ankara and Istanbul.

Imamoglu, who laid a wreath at the mausoleum of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in Ankara, later went to CHP headquarters to meet Mansur Yavas, the opposition’s candidate in the capital. Speaking at the CHP building, Imamoglu said the elections marked a “moment of beginning” for Turkey.

In Ankara, Yavas received 50.9 percent of votes, ahead of his AKP rival and former minister Mehmet Ozhaseki in Sunday’s local elections by nearly 4 percentage points. The AKP said it had also submitted objections to results across Ankara.

Defeats in Ankara and Istanbul would be a significant setback for Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for more than 16 years. He had campaigned relentlessly ahead of the vote, describing it as a “matter of survival” for the country.

Erdogan’s political success has rested on years of stellar economic growth in Turkey, but an economic recession that has brought surging inflation and unemployment and a plunging lira currency have taken their toll on his popularity.

Uncertainty generated by the local elections has added to pressure on the lira, which weakened sharply last week as a lack of confidence in the currency among Turks led them to snap up record holdings of dollars and gold.

On Tuesday the lira weakened more than 2 percent against the dollar on concerns about tensions with the United States after it halted delivery to Turkey of equipment related to the F-35 fighter aircraft.

(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun and by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay; Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans. Gareth Jones, William Maclean)

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)

Venezuela opposition takes steps to seize oil revenue as Maduro issues threat

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognized as the country's rightful interim ruler, attends a session of Venezuela's National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

By Corina Pons and Angus Berwick

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition-controlled congress named new temporary boards of directors to state-oil firm PDVSA on Wednesday, in an effort to wrest the OPEC nation’s oil revenue from President Nicolas Maduro.

An increasingly isolated Maduro lashed out at the congress leader Juan Guaido, saying in an interview that he would face the courts “sooner or later” for violating the constitution after he declared himself interim president last month.

Although many Western countries have recognized Guaido as legitimate head of state, Maduro retains control of state institutions and Guaido needs funds if he is to assemble an interim government.

Controlling PDVSA’s U.S. refiner Citgo Petroleum, Venezuela’s most valuable foreign asset, would go some way to helping in that, though seizing the reigns of PDVSA itself seems improbable while Maduro remains in power.

“We have taken a step forward with the reconstruction of PDVSA,” Guaido said on Twitter, just after congress named the directors. “With this decision, we are not only protecting our assets, we also avoid continued destruction.”

PDVSA’s crude output has slumped to 70-year lows, due to crushing debts, widespread corruption, and little maintenance of its infrastructure. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which backs Guaido, imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector on Jan. 28, aimed at curbing exports to the United States and upping the pressure on Maduro.

The proposed Citgo board would be composed of Venezuelans Luisa Palacios, Angel Olmeta, Luis Urdaneta and Edgar Rincon, all of whom are currently living in the United States, plus one American director.

The nominations fuel a growing duel for control between Guaido and Maduro, who has promised he will not allow Citgo to be “stolen.” The mechanics of how the new board would take over are unclear, and there are likely to be court challenges to the board’s authority, people familiar with the deliberations say.

Citgo and PDVSA did not immediately reply to requests to comment.

Bulgarian security officials said on Wednesday that the country has blocked transfers out of several bank accounts which have received millions of euros from PDVSA.

GUAIDO TO FACE COURTS?

Guaido invoked a constitutional provision three weeks ago to assume Venezuela’s presidency, arguing that Maduro’s re-election last year was a sham.

Maduro, in an interview released on Wednesday by Lebanese television channel al-Mayadeen TV, said Guaido was seeking to divide the country and convince the Trump administration to launch a foreign intervention.

“This person, who believes that politics is a game and he can violate the constitution and the law, sooner or later will have to answer before the courts,” Maduro said, adding he was “absolutely sure” of this.

“If the American empire dares to touch even one palm leaf in our territory, this will turn into a new Vietnam,” he said.

A senior U.S. lawmaker said on Wednesday that Congress would not give backing to any U.S. military intervention in Venezuela.

The Trump administration has said it wants a peaceful resolution to the crisis but Trump has repeatedly refused to rule out military action.

“I think there are a number of solutions, a number of different options, and we look at all options,” Trump said when asked about the issue on Wednesday, in an appearance at the White House with Colombian President Ivan Duque.

In the meantime, the United States and other countries are trying to channel aid to Venezuela.

Guaido told a huge rally of supporters on Tuesday that humanitarian aid would enter the country on Feb. 23, setting the stage for a showdown with Maduro, who has refused to let supplies in.

Maduro denies there is an economic crisis despite a widespread lack of food and medicine and hyperinflation.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Corina Pons, Vivian Sequera, Mayela Armas, Brian Ellsworth and Sarah Marsh in Caracas; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington and Marianna Parraga in Mexico City; Writing by Angus Berwick, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. diplomats leave Caracas embassy as Washington backs Maduro rival

A U.S. flag waves at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Adriana Loureiro

By Marcos Ascanio

CARACAS (Reuters) – Some U.S. diplomats left the embassy in Caracas for the airport on Friday in a convoy escorted by police, according to a Reuters witness, after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro broke off relations with Washington and ordered American personnel out.

The United States has rejected Maduro, a socialist in power since 2013, as the oil-rich nation’s legitimate head of state and has thrown its support behind opposition leader Juan Guaido, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly.

Guaido, who has galvanized the country’s opposition, proclaimed himself interim president on Wednesday. But he still has no control over the state’s functions, which remain loyal to Maduro despite a deep economic and political crisis.

People wait for a news conference of Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido in Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

People wait for a news conference of Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido in Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The State Department has ordered some U.S. government workers to leave Venezuela and said U.S. citizens should consider leaving the South American country.

It did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the movement of embassy personnel on Friday.

A Reuters witness at around 8:30 a.m. local time (1230 GMT) saw a convoy of sport utility vehicles accompanied by police motorcycles and vehicles with flashing lights drive onto a Caracas highway in the direction of the airport. Other police blocked regular traffic.

Another video circulating on social media showed the same caravan leaving the embassy, a fortified compound overlooking the city center.

Maduro, in a fiery speech on Wednesday, said he was cutting off diplomatic relations with the United States for instigating a “coup” against him, though U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration then said its relations would be with Guaido.

To ratchet up pressure on Maduro, who began a second term on Jan. 10 following an election last year widely considered to be a fraud, the United States is seeking to cut off funds for his government, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

Both Guaido, who has not appeared in public since mass anti-government protests on Wednesday, and Maduro are scheduled to hold press conferences on Friday.

In an interview with broadcaster Univision on Thursday, Guaido described the recent events as “the beginning of the end” for Maduro, who has presided over Venezuela’s worst ever economic crisis. Guaido said he would work to guarantee humanitarian aid and take new measures to pressure Maduro.

“Our challenge is to secure free elections, and we want them as soon as possible. But we are living in a dictatorship,” he said, from an undisclosed location.

(Additional reporting; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Paul Simao)

Congo fire destroys thousands of voting machines for presidential election

A motorcyclist rides near smoke billowing from fire at the independent national electoral commission's (CENI) warehouse in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Olivia Acland

By Giulia Paravicini

KINSHASA (Reuters) – A fire overnight at a warehouse in Congo’s capital destroyed thousands of voting machines and ballot boxes that were due to be used in the country’s long-delayed Dec. 23 presidential election, authorities said on Thursday.

Democratic Republic of Congo’s national electoral commission (CENI) said in a statement the blaze had destroyed 8,000 of 10,368 voting machines due to be used in the capital Kinshasa, but said the election would go ahead as scheduled.

CENI did not say who it believed to be responsible for the fire – which broke out about 2 a.m. (0100 GMT) in the Gombe riverside area of Kinshasa that is also home to President Joseph Kabila’s residence – but the ruling coalition and leading opposition candidates immediately traded accusations of blame.

Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC), which is backing former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary in the presidential race, accused opposition candidate Martin Fayulu of inciting violence earlier this month.

“Over the course of this electoral campaign, (Fayulu) called on his supporters and sympathizers to destroy electoral materials,” the FCC said in a statement.

Fayulu rejected the charge and suggested that state security forces might have been behind the blaze.

“The fire erupted in a building guarded by the Republican Guard,” Fayulu told Reuters. “You understand today that the Kabila people do not want to organize elections.”

Felix Tshisekedi, the other leading opposition candidate, also suggested on local radio that the government was responsible. “How is it that what should be the best protected place in the republic at this time can burn so easily?” he said.

Barnabe Kikaya Bin Karubi, a Kabila adviser, said police guarding the warehouse had been arrested and that forensic police had launched an investigation.

Kabila, in power since his father’s assassination in 2001, is due to step down because of constitutional term limits. The vote has already been delayed by two years due to what authorities said were logistical challenges but the opposition said stemmed from Kabila’s reluctance to relinquish power.

This month’s highly anticipated vote could mark Congo’s first peaceful transition of power after decades marked by authoritarian rule, coups d’etat and civil wars in which around five million people are estimated to have died.

ELECTION DATE MAINTAINED

CENI president Corneille Nangaa told a news conference the destroyed equipment represented the materials for 19 of 24 voting districts in Kinshasa.

“Without minimizing the gravity of this damaging situation for the electoral process, CENI is working to pursue the process in conformity with its calendar,” Nangaa said.

Kikaya said voting machines from elsewhere in Congo would be recalled for use in Kinshasa, which is home to more than 15 percent of the Congolese population.

The introduction of the untested tablet-like voting machines for the election has been widely opposed by opposition candidates competing against Shadary.

They say the machines are more vulnerable to vote-rigging than paper and ink and could be compromised by the unreliability of Congos power supply.

The delay in the elections has coincided with a breakdown in security across much of the vast mineral-rich country. Militants fight over land and resources in the east near the border with Uganda and Rwanda.

Campaigning over the past three weeks has been mostly peaceful, though deadly clashes erupted between police and opposition supporters this week in the southeast.

(Additional reporting by Stanis Bujakera and Aaron Ross; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Aaron Ross and Gareth Jones)

A Venezuelan paradox: Maduro’s critics long for change but won’t vote

A motorcycle passes graffiti painted on a fence in Caracas, Venezuela May 12, 2018. Graffiti reads: "Do not vote, please I beg you". Picture taken on May 12, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Months before Venezuela’s opposition coalition called for abstention in Sunday’s presidential election, college student Ana Romano had already decided not to vote.

While volunteering as a witness in October’s election for state governors, Romano said, she lost count of the number of times activists for the ruling Socialist Party walked into voting booths on the pretext of “assisting” voters – a tactic the opposition says is illegal intimidation.

Romano said pro-government workers at the voting center in the rural state of Portuguesa also refused to close its doors at 6:00 p.m. as per regulations, keeping it open for an extra hour while Socialist Party cadres rounded up votes.

Her experience illustrates why some in Venezuela’s opposition say they will boycott Sunday’s presidential vote despite anger at the South American nation’s unraveling under unpopular President Nicolas Maduro.

“It was four of them against me and I was 20 years old: I couldn’t do anything,” Romano said, adding that she did not file an official report because the other poll center workers would not have signed it – and because there was no paper available to do so.

“I don’t want to have anything to do with this upcoming election,” Romano said. “We’ve already made that mistake.”

Reuters could not independently verify details of her account. Venezuela’s National Electoral Council – the government body in charge of organizing elections – did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

Venezuela, a once-wealthy OPEC nation, is suffering hyperinflation and widespread food shortages as its economy collapses, leading hundreds of thousands to flee into neighboring countries.

Yet, despite popularity ratings languishing around 20 percent, Maduro is expected to secure a second, six-year term in his deeply divided country, in part due to low opposition turnout.

Some opposition members say participation would be pointless in the face of efforts to tilt the playing field in favor of Maduro, a former union leader who was elected in 2013 after the death of his mentor, late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.

They cite tactics ranging from the kind of small-scale election-center tricks described by Romano to the detention of the most prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, the coercion of government workers to vote for Maduro and the heavy use of state resources in his campaign.

Many in the opposition say there are inadequate guarantees of a free and fair vote: they point to a ban on Western election observers. The government says they would violate its national sovereignty.

The Venezuelan Electoral Observatory, an independent local election monitoring group, has also flagged problems that include an inadequate timeframe to update the electoral register and develop a network of poll center witnesses, and a reduction in real-time audits of results.

Washington, which has imposed sanctions on Maduro’s government, has said it will not recognize the results of Sunday’s vote.

Breaking the opposition boycott is former state governor Henri Falcon. Opposition leaders have attacked Falcon – a former Chavez ally or ‘Chavista’ – as a stooge who is only running to legitimize Maduro’s reelection.

Falcon, an ex-soldier and two-time governor of Lara state, counters that they are ceding power to Maduro without a fight and insists he would win if discontented Venezuelans turned out to vote.

“So now I’m a ‘Chavista’ just because I have common sense, because I take a clear position and because I act responsibly toward my country?” Falcon said when asked recently by reporters about the opposition’s criticism.

Falcon’s camp was not immediately available for comment for this story.

Maduro and allies deny the elections are unfair and insist the fractured opposition was beaten in October because its voters did not participate – an argument supported by statistics showing low turnout in its strongholds.

“We have an advantage, which is the strength of the people. That can’t be called an unfair advantage,” Maduro said last month.

Participation forecasts vary but, in general, pollsters believe turnout for Sunday’s vote will be far lower than the 80 percent in the last presidential elections in 2013, when Maduro narrowly defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, who is banned from running this time.

One survey by respected pollster Datanalisis showed that the number of people who said they were “very likely” to vote – its most accurate indicator of how many people will participate – had fallen close to 30 percent in March.

In the Caracas slum of La Vega, Jose Vasquez, 49, described the election as too unfair to warrant participation.

“It’s like a game in which the referee is a family member of the other team’s captain,” said Vasquez, selling 40 gram (1 oz) bags of coffee and sugar on a small table in the street. “Why would I waste my time?

ELECTORAL OBSTACLE COURSE

During his 14 years as president, Chavez racked up repeated ballot-box victories thanks to his charisma and generous spending of Venezuela’s oil revenues – much of it on popular health and nutrition programs, as well as on his own electoral campaigns.

The opposition has cried fraud in the past without demonstrating evidence of it, including after a 2004 recall referendum that Chavez won.

But October’s vote included one incident that some opposition sympathizers see as a tipping point: election officials manually changed results at several voting centers in Bolivar state to tip the result in favor of the Socialist Party candidate, according to election center witnesses.

The witnesses produced official poll statements from their voting centers showing that the number of votes for the opposition candidate was higher than those reflected in the National Electoral Council figures for those same centers.

The elections council – stacked with Maduro’s supporters – has never clarified the issue and did not answer Reuters questions regarding the incident.

Maduro’s government has never commented.

More commonly, the opposition has complained of obstacles that reduce the likelihood of their supporters voting but are difficult to classify as fraud in a traditional sense – such as last-minute changes to the location of voting centers.

In the central state of Lara, Alfredo Alvarez learned just days before the October vote that the elections council had changed his voting center – along with that of an estimated 700,000 Venezuelans in 200 voting centers in predominantly opposition areas.

Alvarez, a 62-year-old journalist, had to drive around the city of Barquisimeto for several hours because he could not get a clear answer on where he was supposed to vote.

“I had to investigate: I had to go to five different voting centers. Who can vote under those conditions?” asked Alvarez, who said he ultimately cast his ballot in a polling center run by Socialist Party activists that had no opposition witnesses.

“I’ve been voting since 1973, but I’m not voting in this election. Not under these circumstances.”

Election officials said the changes were necessary primarily because of security concerns, given that some of the centers were near the site of violent opposition protests. Those protests had ended nearly three months before.

Electoral Council officials were not immediately available to explain that discrepancy.

(For a graphic on ‘Latin America’s upcoming elections’ click https://tmsnrt.rs/2rAQ4l1)

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth, additional reporting by Miguel Angel Sulabaran, Maria de los Angeles Ramirez in Puerto Ordaz, and Vivian Sequera in Turmero; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer, Daniel Flynn and Rosalba O’Brien)

India drops plan to punish journalists for “fake news” following outcry

FILE PHOTO: Television journalists report from the premises of India's Parliament in New Delhi, India, February 13, 2014. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

By Manoj Kumar

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday ordered the withdrawal of rules punishing journalists held responsible for distributing “fake news”, giving no reason for the change, less than 24 hours after the original announcement.

The move followed an outcry by journalists and opposition politicians that the rules represented an attack on the freedom of the press and an effort by Modi’s government to rein in free speech ahead of a general election due by next year.

Late on Monday, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry had said the government would cancel its accreditation of journalists who peddled “fake news”.

After Modi’s intervention, the ministry announced the withdrawal in a one-line statement.

Journalists said they welcomed the withdrawal but could not rule out the possibility that it was a “trial balloon” to test the waters for putting more restrictions on the press.

“A government fiat restraining the fourth pillar of our democracy is not the solution,” a statement issued by the Press Club said.

Co-opted by U.S. President Donald Trump, the term “fake news” has quickly become part of the standard repertoire of leaders in authoritarian countries to describe media reports and organisations critical of them.

Welcoming the change of heart, media groups in India nevertheless cautioned the government against changing its mind.

“The government has no mandate to control the press,” Gautam Lahiri, president of the Press Club of India, told journalists.

The events in India followed Malaysia’s approval this week of a law carrying jail terms of up to six years for spreading “fake news”.

Other countries in Southeast Asia, including Singapore and the Philippines, are considering how to tackle “fake news” but human rights activists fear laws against it could be used to stifle free speech.

India slipped three places last year to rank 136 among 180 countries rated in the world press freedom index of the watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

The non-profit body said Hindu nationalists, on the rise since Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power in 2014, were “trying to purge all manifestations of anti-national thought”.

(Reporting by Manoj Kumar; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Nick Macfie)

Venezuela police enter home of imprisoned opposition leader Lopez: wife

Lilian Tintori, wife of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, makes declarations to the media after casting her vote during a nationwide election for new governors in Caracas, Venezuela, October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan intelligence agents have entered the home of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who is under house arrest for leading protests against President Nicolas Maduro, Lopez’s wife said on Twitter on Thursday.

The arrival of agents of the Sebin came hours after the New York Times published a story in which Lopez described how security forces have sought to prevent him from speaking with reporters.

“Sebin has entered our house and they remain here,” Lilian Tintori tweeted. “It is illegal and inhumane for Sebin to be inside our home with weapons, in the presence of our three children.”

The office of the vice presidency, which oversees Sebin, did not answer calls seeking confirmation and the Information Ministry did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Lopez is the best-known of dozens of imprisoned opposition activists and leaders accused by Maduro of seeking to overthrow his government through street protests in 2014 and 2017.

He was arrested in 2014 and convicted of having incited protests against Maduro, who describes Lopez as “monster” responsible for dozens of deaths in demonstrations.

Lopez was granted house arrest in July. After calling on citizens to continue protests against Maduro in an internet video, he was taken back to jail in August but returned several days later to house arrest.

Opposition leaders and critics around the world have slammed the case against him as a sham and described the trial as a mockery of justice.

In 2015, one of the prosecutors who led the case said the conviction had been unfair and that he had been under constant pressure from superiors.

Former Chief Prosecutor Luisa Ortega, who was sacked last year, said in February she had been pressured about the case by high-ranking Socialist Party officials.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Bill Trott)

Venezuela annual inflation at more than 4,000 percent: National Assembly

A woman and a child look at prices in a grocery store in downtown Caracas, Venezuela March 10, 2017.

By Girish Gupta

CARACAS (Reuters) – Prices in Venezuela rose 4,068 percent in the 12 months to the end of January, according to estimates by the country’s opposition-led National Assembly, broadly in line with independent economists’ figures.

Inflation in January alone was 84.2 percent, opposition lawmakers said, amid an economic crisis in which millions of Venezuelans are suffering food and medicine shortages.

The monthly figure implies annualized inflation of more than 150,000 per cent and that prices will double at least every 35 days.

With cash in short supply and banking and communications infrastructures struggling, day-to-day transactions are becoming increasingly difficult for Venezuelans.

The government blames the problems on an economic war waged by the opposition and business leaders, with a helping hand from Washington.

Critics in turn blame strict currency controls, which were enacted by Hugo Chavez 15 years ago this week. The bolivar is down some 40 percent against the dollar in the last month alone.

A million dollars of Venezuelan bolivars bought when the currency controls were introduced would now be worth just $7 on the black market.

The government has not published inflation data for more than two years though has increased the minimum wage repeatedly in a nod to rising prices.

The government raised the minimum wage 40 percent on Jan. 1, making it roughly equivalent now to just over $1 per month.

(Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld; Editing by Susan Thomas)