Russia jails ex-U.S. marine for 16 years on spying charges

By Andrew Osborn and Susan Heavey

MOSCOW/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A Russian court convicted former U.S. marine Paul Whelan of spying for the United States on Monday and sentenced him to 16 years in jail, a ruling that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said outraged Washington.

Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports, was detained by agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service in a Moscow hotel room on Dec. 28, 2018 as he prepared to attend a wedding.

Russia says Whelan, 50, was caught with a computer flash drive containing classified information. Whelan, who pleaded not guilty, said he was set up in a sting operation and had thought the drive, given to him by a Russian acquaintance, contained holiday photos.

“This is all political theatre,” said Whelan, who watched proceedings from a glass box inside the Moscow city courtroom.

He told the judge he had not understood the verdict as proceedings were conducted in Russian without translation.

Whelan had held up a piece of paper on which he denounced the proceedings as a “sham trial” and asked for U.S. President Donald Trump and the leaders of Britain, Canada and Ireland to take “decisive action”.

Whelan’s lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, said an appeal would be made against the verdict. Questioning the court’s independence, Whelan’s family said in a statement “Russian judges are political not legal entities”.

Pompeo said Washington was furious and wanted Moscow to immediately free Whelan.

“The United States is outraged by the decision of a Russian court today to convict U.S. citizen Paul Whelan after a secret trial, with secret evidence, and without appropriate allowances for defense witnesses,” said Pompeo.

“The treatment of Paul Whelan at the hands of Russian authorities has been appalling. Russia failed to provide Mr. Whelan with a fair hearing before an independent and impartial tribunal; and during his detention has put his life at risk by ignoring his long-standing medical condition; and unconscionably kept him isolated from family and friends.”

John Sullivan, U.S. Ambassador to Russia, told reporters that no evidence had been produced to prove Whelan’s guilt during what he called a mockery of justice. The ruling would not have “a good impact” on ties between Moscow and Washington – already strained by a range of issues – but that dialogue would continue, he said.

PRISONER SWAP?

Zherebenkov said Whelan was told when he was detained that he would be part of a prisoner swap with the United States and that he believed this was what Moscow now wanted to do.

The Russian Foreign Ministry told the Russian news agency RIA it had proposed detailed prisoner swaps to Washington many times but gave no further details.

Moscow has called for the release of two Russians jailed in the United States – arms dealer Viktor Bout, who agreed to sell weapons to U.S. undercover agents posing as Colombian guerrillas planning to attack American soldiers, and Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was convicted of conspiracy to smuggle cocaine.

Zherebenkov said he believed Moscow wanted to do a deal involving Bout and Yaroshenko. Whelan did not oppose the idea of formally asking Russia to pardon him, Zherebenkov said, but wanted to appeal against the verdict first.

Bout’s wife, Alla, told the RIA news agency on Monday she was ready to pen an appeal to U.S. authorities asking them to swap her husband for Whelan.

A New York court in 2012 sentenced Bout, subject of a book called “Merchant of Death” and inspiration for the film “Lord of War” starring Nicolas Cage, to 25 years in jail.

Whelan will serve his sentence in a maximum security prison, the court said. State prosecutors had sought an 18-year term.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Marrow and Anton Kolodyazhnyy in Moscow; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Graff)

U.S. condemns China’s ‘disastrous proposal’ on Hong Kong: Pompeo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday called China’s proposed national security legislation on Hong Kong disastrous and said it could have an impact on the favorable economic treatment the territory receives from the United States.

“The United States condemns the … proposal to unilaterally and arbitrarily impose national security legislation on Hong Kong,” Pompeo said.

“The United States strongly urges Beijing to reconsider its disastrous proposal, abide by its international obligations, and respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, democratic institutions, and civil liberties, which are key to preserving its special status under U.S. law.”

Pompeo’s statement went further than Thursday’s State Department warning and underscored how rapidly the world has responded to Beijing’s plans after Hong Kong’s mass pro-democracy protests last year.

The “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act” approved by U.S. President Donald Trump last year requires the State Department to certify at least annually that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to justify favorable trading terms that have helped it maintain its position as a world financial center.

Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, told Fox News on Thursday Washington has “lots of tools to express our displeasure.” Neither he nor Pompeo detailed actions Washington might take.

“There are privileges that Hong Kong accrues because it’s considered a free system. We’d have to look over whether those concessions could continue to be made,” he said.

“If China moves forward and takes strong action under this new national security law … America will respond, and I think other countries in the world will respond, including the United Kingdom and many other of our allies and friends.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s likely challenger in November’s election, on Friday assailed Trump for what he characterized as his silence on human rights issues. If the State Department decertifies the territory, it ultimately falls to Trump to decide which of Hong Kong’s privileges to deny.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert, Susan Heavey, Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Toby Chopra and Howard Goller)

Trump says U.S. will report virus origins, gives no timeline

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump urged China on Tuesday to be transparent with what it knows about the origin of the coronavirus that emerged from Wuhan, China, and has wreaked havoc on the world.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday there was “a significant amount of evidence” that the new coronavirus emerged from a Chinese laboratory, but did not dispute U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that it was not man-made.

The Chinese state-backed Wuhan Institute of Virology has dismissed the allegations, and other U.S. officials have downplayed their likelihood. Most experts believe the virus originated in a market selling wildlife in Wuhan and jumped from animals to people.

Trump, speaking to reporters outside the White House before leaving on a trip to Arizona, said the United States would release its report detailing the origins of the novel coronavirus over time but gave no other details or timeline.

“We will be reporting very definitively over a period of time,” the Republican president said.

Trump, who initially praised China over its response to the outbreak but has since blamed Beijing harshly over the virus, also said that he has not spoken to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“We want them to be transparent. We want to find out what happened so it never happens again,” he said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Tim Ahmann; writing by Susan Heavey, Editing by Franklin Paul and Jonathan Oatis)

Pompeo says ‘significant’ evidence that new coronavirus emerged from Chinese lab

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday there was “a significant amount of evidence” that the new coronavirus emerged from a Chinese laboratory, but did not dispute U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that it was not man-made.

“There is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan,” Pompeo told ABC’s “This Week,” referring to the virus that emerged late last year in China and has killed about 240,000 people around the world, including more than 67,000 in the United States.

Pompeo then briefly contradicted a statement issued last Thursday by the top U.S. spy agency that said the virus did not appear to be man-made or genetically modified. That statement undercut conspiracy theories promoted by anti-China activists and some supporters of President Donald Trump who suggest it was developed in a Chinese government biological weapons laboratory.

“The best experts so far seem to think it was man-made. I have no reason to disbelieve that at this point,” Pompeo said. When the interviewer pointed out that was not the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies, Pompeo backtracked, saying: “I’ve seen what the intelligence community has said. I have no reasonto believe that they’ve got it wrong.”

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for clarification on Pompeo’s comments.

China’s Global Times, run by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, said in an editorial responding to Pompeo’s Sunday interview that he did not have any evidence the virus came from the lab in Wuhan and that he was “bluffing,” calling on the United States to present the evidence.

“The Trump administration continues to engage in unprecedented propaganda warfare while trying to impede global efforts in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic,” the editorial said.

Thursday’s report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said it concurred with “the wide scientific consensus” that the disease was not man-made.

U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reporting and analysis have said for weeks that they do not believe Chinese scientists developed the coronavirus in a government biological weapons lab from which it then escaped.

Rather, they have said they believe it was either introduced through human contact with wildlife at a meat market in the central city of Wuhan, or could have escaped from one of two Wuhan government laboratories believed to be conducting civilian research into possible biological hazards.

Pompeo said on Thursday it was not known whether the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a meat market, or somewhere else. Trump said the same day that he was confident it may have originated in a Chinese virology lab, but he declined to describe the evidence.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Scott Malone, Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)

Some State Department employees have tested positive for coronavirus – Pompeo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A handful of U.S. State Department employees across the globe have tested positive for the new coronavirus, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday.

“We’ve had a couple of employees, you can count them on one hand, who have positive tests,” Pompeo said in a news briefing. “We’ve handled those exactly the way we’re asking every American to respond to those wherever they find themselves in the world.”

He gave no details on the precise number of State Department employees who have tested positive for the highly contagious virus, where they were based or whether they had returned to the United States. He noted that the State Department has already limited U.S. diplomats’ travel.

“We’ll continue to take care of our team, we will act in a way that’s consistent with the CDC’s (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines and the professional medical staff who work here with the State Department,” he said.

Pompeo added that he felt “great,” though he did not say whether he had been tested for the coronavirus.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Writing by Daphne Psaledakis and Jonathan Landay, Editing by Franklin Paul and Paul Simao)

Russia’s Lavrov, after Pompeo meeting, says felt more constructive U.S. approach

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday after meeting U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week that he had felt a more constructive approach from Washington when it came to the U.S.-Russia strategic dialogue.

The two top diplomats met on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on Friday in an encounter that neither side has so far spoken about in detail.

“I felt certain small moves toward a more constructive approach by our American partners,” Lavrov said on his ministry’s website on Monday.

Lavrov said the two men had spoken about issues related to strategic dialogue between Russia and the United States and about arms control.

The last remaining major arms control treaty between Moscow and Washington, the New START accord, expires next year. Russia has said it is ready to extend it, but U.S. officials have called it flawed and outdated.

The treaty is the last major nuclear arms control treaty between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers and limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads they can deploy.

(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

Separatists will ‘stink for 10,000 years’, China says after Taiwan vote

BEIJING (Reuters) – Separatists will “leave a stink for 10,000 years”, the Chinese government’s top diplomat said on Monday, in Beijing’s most strongly worded reaction yet to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s re-election on the back of a message of standing up to Beijing.

Tsai was returned to office on Saturday by a landslide, in an election dominated by China’s growing efforts to get the island it claims as its own to accept Beijing’s rule.

Tsai said upon claiming victory that Taiwan would not give in to threats and intimidation from China and that only Taiwan’s people had the right to decide their own future.

Speaking in Africa, Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi said the “one China” principle that recognizes Taiwan as being part of China had long since become the common consensus of the international community.

“This consensus won’t alter a bit because of a local election on Taiwan, and will not be shaken because of the wrong words and actions of certain Western politicians,” Wang added, in an apparent reference to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

In congratulating Tsai, Pompeo had praised her for seeking stability with China “in the face of unrelenting pressure”.

Wang, in comments carried by China’s Foreign Ministry, said “reunification across the Taiwan Strait is a historical inevitability”.

“Those who split the country will be doomed to leave a stink for 10,000 years,” said Wang, one of whose previous roles was head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, using an expression that means to go down in history as a byword for infamy.

China passed an anti-secession law in 2005 which authorizes the use of force against Taiwan if China judges it to have seceded. Taiwan says it is already an independent country called the Republic of China, its official name.

Responding to Wang’s remarks, Taiwan’s government said the island had never been part of the People’s Republic of China and called on Beijing to respect the outcome of the election.

Wang “must face up to reality and stop believing his own lies”, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said.

China has been particularly angry by increased U.S. support for Taiwan. Washington has no formal ties with Taipei, but is bound by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself.

Meeting Tsai in Taipei on Sunday, the de facto U.S. ambassador in Taiwan, Brent Christensen, commended voters for taking part in “this sacred democratic process”.

“This election serves as a reminder that the United States and Taiwan are not just partners; we are members of the same community of democracies, bonded by our shared values,” he said, in comments released by the American Institute in Taiwan.

However the potential for renewed tension with China failed to rattle Taiwan’s stock market, which closed up 0.74%.

(Reporting by Huizhong Wu, Lusha Zhang and Judy Hua; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Editing by Giles Elgood and Angus MacSwan)

Washington rebuffs Iraqi request to pull out troops

By John Davison and Susan Heavey

BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Washington rebuffed an Iraqi request on Friday to prepare to pull out its troops, amid heightened U.S.-Iranian tensions following the U.S. killing of an Iranian commander in Baghdad.

Iraq looks set to bear the brunt of any further violence between its neighbor Iran and the United States, its leaders caught in a bind as Washington and Tehran are also the Iraqi government’s main allies and vie for influence there.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi made his request in a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo late on Thursday in line with a vote by Iraq’s parliament last week, his office said in a statement.

Abdul Mahdi asked Pompeo to “send delegates to put in place the tools to carry out the parliament’s decision”, it said, adding without elaborating that the forces used in the killing had entered Iraq or used its airspace without permission.

However, the U.S. State Department said any U.S. delegation would not discuss the withdrawal of U.S. troops as their presence in Iraq was “appropriate.”

“There does, however, need to be a conversation between the U.S. and Iraqi governments not just regarding security, but about our financial, economic, and diplomatic partnership,” spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.

The latest flare-up in the long shadow-war between Iran and the United States started with the killing of Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3. Iran responded on Wednesday by firing missiles at U.S. forces in Iraq.

In the aftermath, both sides backed off from intensifying the conflict but the region remains tense, with Iranian commanders threatening more attacks.

Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric on Friday condemned the U.S.-Iranian confrontation taking place on Iraqi soil, saying it risked plunging an already war-ravaged country and the wider Middle East into deeper conflict.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said it was Iraqis who stood to suffer most from the U.S.-Iranian conflict.

In a message delivered through a representative at Friday prayers in the holy city of Kerbala, Sistani said no foreign powers should be allowed to decide Iraq’s fate.

CALLS TO LEAVE

“The latest dangerous aggressive acts, which are repeated violations of Iraqi sovereignty, are a part of the deteriorating situation” in the region, Sistani said.

Sistani, who wields huge influence over public opinion in Iraq, only weighs in on politics during times of crisis and is seen as a voice of moderation.

“The people have suffered enough from wars … Iraq must govern itself and there must be no role for outsiders in its decision-making,” Sistani said.

Iraq has suffered decades of war, sanctions and sectarian conflict, including two U.S.-led invasions and the rise and fall of the Sunni militant groups al Qaeda and Islamic State.

At Friday prayers in Tehran, an Iranian cleric said U.S. interests across the world were now exposed to threat.

“From now on, having too many bases, especially in this region, will not act as an advantage for them,” Mohammad Javad Haj Aliakbari, a mid-ranking cleric, told worshippers.

Since Soleimani’s killing, Tehran has stepped up its calls for U.S. forces to leave Iraq, which like Iran is a mainly Shi’ite Muslim nation. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said the retaliatory strikes were not enough and that ending the U.S. military presence in the region was Tehran’s main goal.

Trump said on Thursday that Soleimani had been killed because he had planned to blow up a U.S. embassy.

“Soleimani was actively planning new attacks and he was looking very seriously at our embassies and not just the embassy in Baghdad, but we stopped him and we stopped him quickly and we stopped him cold,” Trump, who is seeking re-election this year, told a rally in Ohio.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein, John Davison and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Babak Dehghanpisheh and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Kevin Liffey)

U.S. says it disrupted ‘imminent attack’ with killing of Iran commander

 

By Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iran promised harsh revenge on Friday after a U.S. air strike in Baghdad on Friday killed Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force and architect of its growing military influence in the Middle East.

Soleimani, a 62-year-old general, was regarded as the second most powerful figure in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

FILE PHOTO: Combination photo of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani (L) and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a commander in the Popular Mobilization Forces. REUTERS/Stringer/Thaier al-Sudani

The overnight attack, authorized by President Donald Trump, was a dramatic escalation in a “shadow war” in the Middle East between Iran and the United States and its allies, principally Israel and Saudi Arabia.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the strike aimed to disrupt an “imminent attack” that would have endangered Americans in the Middle East. Democratic critics said the Republican president had raised the risk of more violence in a dangerous region.

Pompeo, in interviews on Fox News and CNN, declined to discuss many details of the alleged threat but said it was “an intelligence based assessment” that drove the decision to target Soleimani.

In a tweet, Trump said Soleimani had “killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time, and was plotting to kill many more”, but did not elaborate.

The attack also killed top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an adviser to Soleimani.

It followed a sharp increase in longrunning U.S.-Iranian hostilities last week when pro-Iranian militiamen attacked the U.S. embassy in Iraq following a U.S. air raid on the Kataib Hezbollah militia, founded by Muhandis.

Iraq’s prime minister said that with Friday’s attack Washington had violated a deal for keeping U.S. troops in his country.

CONCERN OVER ESCALATION

Israel put its army on high alert and U.S. allies in Europe including Britain, France and Germany voiced concerns about an escalation in tensions.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Soleimani was killed in a drone strike. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said he died in an attack by U.S. helicopters.

The U.S. embassy in Baghdad urged all American citizens to depart Iraq immediately.

Dozens of U.S. citizens working for foreign oil companies in the southern city of Basra were leaving the country. Iraqi officials said the evacuations would not affect output and exports were unaffected.

Oil prices jumped more than $3 a barrel over concern about disruption to Middle East supplies.

Khamenei said harsh revenge awaited the “criminals” who killed Soleimani and said his death would double resistance against the United States and Israel.

In statements on state media, he called for three days of national mourning and appointed Soleimani’s deputy, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, to replace him as Quds Force head.

‘STICK OF DYNAMITE’

Trump critics called the operation reckless.

“President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox,” said former Vice President Joe Biden, a contender in this year’s U.S. presidential election.

As leader of the Quds Force, the foreign arm of the Guards, Soleimani had a key role in fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Over two decades he was at the forefront of projecting the Islamic Republic’s military influence across the Middle East, acquiring celebrity status at home and abroad.

President Hassan Rouhani said the assassination would make Iran more decisive in resisting the United States, while the Revolutionary Guards said anti-U.S. forces would exact revenge across the Muslim world.

Hundreds of Iranians marched toward Khamenei’s compound in central Tehran to convey their condolences.

“I am not a pro-regime person but I liked Soleimani. He was brave and he loved Iran, I am very sorry for our loss,” said housewife Mina Khosrozadeh in Tehran.

In Soleimani’s hometown, Kerman, people wearing black gathered in front of his father’s house, crying as they listened to a recitation of verses from the Koran.

“Heroes never die. It cannot be true. Qassem Soleimani will always be alive,” said Mohammad Reza Seraj, a teacher.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi condemned the killings as an act of aggression that breached Iraq’s sovereignty and would lead to war.

Israel has long seen Soleimani as a major threat and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the U.S. action. Israeli Army Radio said the military was on heightened alert.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense called the killing a “short-sighted” step that would lead to escalations in the region.

PREVIOUS ATTACKS

The slain commander’s Quds Force, along with paramilitary proxies from Lebanon’s Hezbollah to Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces grouping of Iran-backed militias – battle-hardened militias armed with missiles – has ample means to respond.

In September, U.S. officials blamed Iran for a missile and drone attack on oil plants of Saudi energy giant Saudi Aramco. Washington also blamed Tehran for earlier raids on Gulf shipping.

Iran has denied responsibility for the strikes and accused Washington of warmongering by reimposing crippling sanctions on Iran’s main export, oil, in order to force Tehran to renegotiate a deal to freeze its nuclear activities.

Soleimani had survived several assassination attempts by Western, Israeli and Arab agencies over the past two decades.

The Quds Force, tasked with operating beyond Iran’s borders, shored up support for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad when he looked close to defeat in the civil war raging since 2011 and also helped militias defeat Islamic State in Iraq.

Soleimani became head of the force in 1998, after which he quietly strengthened Iran’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria’s government and Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali, Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert and Mary Milliken in Washington, Parisa Hafezi and Michael Georgy in Dubai, Maha El Dahan in Baghdad, Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem, Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Writing by Samia Nakhoul and Frances Kerry; Editing by Robert Birsel, Raju Gopalakrishnan, Mike Collett-White, William Maclean)

Pompeo ‘deplored’ the death toll at protests in phone call with Iraqi PM: State Dept

Pompeo ‘deplored’ the death toll at protests in phone call with Iraqi PM: State Dept
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a phone call with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi “deplored the death toll” among protesters due to the crackdown of the Iraqi government and urged him to take immediate steps to address demonstrators’ demands, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said on Tuesday.

Iraqi security forces on Monday shot dead two protesters in the city of Nassiriya, bringing to 300 the number of people killed since protests against political corruption, unemployment and poor public services erupted in Baghdad on Oct. 1 and spread to the southern Shi’ite heartlands.

“The Secretary deplored the death toll among the protesters as a result of the Government of Iraq’s crackdown and use of lethal force, as well as the reports of kidnapped protesters,” Ortagus said in a statement.

The government has failed to find an answer to the unrest among mostly unemployed young people who see no improvement in their lives even in peacetime after decades of war and sanctions.

“Secretary Pompeo emphasized that peaceful public demonstrations are a fundamental element of all democracies,” Ortagus said and added that Pompeo urged Mahdi to address the protesters’ grievances by enacting reforms and tackling corruption.

The unrest is the biggest and most complex challenge to the Iraqi political order since the government declared victory over Islamic State two years ago.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Chris Reese and Lisa Shumaker)