Pompeo urges China to release human rights prisoners to mark Tiananmen crackdown

FILE PHOTO: A man stands in front of a convoy of tanks in the Avenue of Eternal Peace in Beijing, China, June 5, 1989. REUTERS/Arthur Tsang/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday called on Beijing to mark the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising this week by releasing all prisoners jailed for fighting human rights abuses in China.

In a statement, Pompeo again urged China to make a full public account of those killed or missing in the 1989 student-led pro-democracy protests in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

“Such a step would begin to demonstrate the Communist Party’s willingness to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms,” Pompeo said.

“We call on China to release all those held for seeking to exercise these rights and freedoms, halt the use of arbitrary detention, and reverse counterproductive policies that conflate terrorism with religious and political expression,” he added.

The Chinese government sent tanks to quell the June 4, 1989 protests, and has never released a death toll. Estimates from human rights groups and witnesses range from several hundred to several thousand.

The Tiananmen crackdown is a taboo subject in China and almost 30 years later it remains a point of contention between China and many Western countries.

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus upset China when she referred to the Tiananmen demonstrations as a “full-on massacre of peaceful protesters” during a briefing last week. Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe said on Sunday that the crackdown was the “correct” decision, citing the country’s “stability” since then.

Pompeo said China’s human rights record had not improved despite its rise on the international stage and condemned the treatment of the country’s estimated 1.5 million Uighurs and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang region.

“China’s one-party state tolerates no dissent and abuses human rights whenever it serves its interests,” said Pompeo. “Today, Chinese citizens have been subjected to a new wave of abuses, especially in Xinjiang, where the Communist Party leadership is methodically attempting to strangle Uighur culture and stamp out the Islamic faith.”

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish)

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

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

By Anne Marie Roantree

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

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

Reuters could not independently verify their story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“BROTHER BRAINWASHED”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Stephanie Nebehay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Editing by William Maclean)

Israel asks Cyprus to consider shipping route for Gaza: Cypriot official

FILE PHOTO: Palestinian fishermen ride their boats as they return from fishing at the seaport of Gaza City early morning September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem/File Photo

ATHENS/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel has asked Cyprus to examine the possibility of establishing a shipping point on the island for sending goods to the Gaza Strip, a Cypriot government spokesman said on Tuesday.

Goods shipped by sea usually come to an Israeli port and are transferred to Gaza over land. Israel enforces a maritime blockade on Gaza, which it says is meant to prevent weapons from reaching the territory ruled by the Islamist militant group Hamas.

Both Egypt and Israel restrict movement across Gaza’s land borders as well. The United Nations has called for a freer flow of goods into Gaza, where most Palestinians live in poverty.

The idea of setting up a facility in Cyprus has been floated for years, and Israel recently made a request to explore the issue, according to Cypriot government spokesman Prodromos Prodromou.

“It is an old issue which is now being re-discussed,” Prodromou told Reuters.

“There will be contacts between the government and all interested parties in the region and, possibly, a decision will be taken. At the moment no decision has been taken. The request is being examined, it hasn’t been rejected,” he said.

Prodromou did not say when the request was made, but Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited Nicosia last week.

An Israeli news report late on Monday said Lieberman had reached an understanding with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades to pursue the port plan.

Lieberman’s office, in response to the report, said that Israel is working internationally in a number of ways to try to “change the reality in Gaza”, but that any move to improve the humanitarian situation depends on the return of Israelis who are missing or being held prisoner in Gaza.

“Beyond that we cannot relate to the details,” it said in a statement.

Israel has demanded the return of two Israeli civilians who it says crossed into Gaza and are being held by Hamas, as well as the bodies of two soldiers who were killed in a 2014 war. Hamas says it is holding them but does not give any details.

Hamas officials declined to comment on the port plan.

At least one Israeli cabinet minister, Yuval Steinitz, has been promoting the Cyprus port idea as a way to create a conduit into Gaza that does not go through Israel. Another Israeli cabinet minister has raised the idea of building an artificial island off the Gaza coast, a much larger project.

“I think that we can combine our security on one hand and open Gaza to the outer world on the other hand,” Steinitz said of the port idea in an interview in Washington.

A port would be a faster solution than an artificial island. Opening a port in Cyprus could take only a few months after getting international approval and could be shut down quickly if somebody abuses it, Steinitz said. Building an artificial island could take 10 years, he said.

Security checks at the piers, however, would have to be handled by Israel together with an international group such as the United Nations, Steinitz said earlier this month.

(Reporting by Michele Kambas, Ari Rabinovitch, Dan Williams, Nidal al-Mughrabi; Timothy Gardner in Washington; Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Grant McCool)

Islamic State releases video it says shows two Russians captured in Syria

By Omar Fahmy

CAIRO (Reuters) – Islamic State released a video on Tuesday that it said showed two Russian soldiers captured by its fighters in the Syrian city of Deir al-Zor, where Russia has been backing the Syrian military against militants.

But the Russian Defence Ministry denied their soldiers had been captured, Interfax news agency reported. The defense ministry, and the foreign ministry, did not immediately respond to requests for comment submitted by Reuters.

In the 42-second video, released on the group’s AMAQ news agency, two men appeared briefly in a room wearing gray tunics. One, with a beard, appeared to be in handcuffs. The other seemed to have bruises on his face.

Reuters could not immediately verify the video.

The bearded man spoke in Russian, the other remained silent, with Arabic subtitles in the video. It was dated Oct. 3, though there was no other evidence when the video was made.

The bearded man, speaking to the camera, gave his name, his date of birth, and his home village in southern Russia. He then said: “I was taken prisoner during a counter-offensive by Islamic State.”

He said he was taken prisoner with a second man, whose name, date of birth and home district he also gave.

Amaq said late last month the militants captured two Russians as they battled in towns around Deir al-Zor. The Russian defense ministry denied then that any military personnel were taken hostage.

With Russian air power and Iran-backed militias, the Syrian army reached Deir al-Zor city in August, breaking an Islamic State siege of an enclave there that had lasted three years as the jihadist group lost ground in Iraq and Syra.

With U.S.-led jets and special forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias is battling Islamic State on the east side of the Euphrates river, as they also capture swathes of Deir al-Zor province from Islamic State.

(Reporting by Omar Fahmy in CAIRO and Margarita Popova in MOSCOW; Writing by Amina Ismail and Patrick Markey; Editing by Ralph Boulton)

Alabama police hunting for inmate after large prison break

Inmate Brady Andrew Kilpatrick shown in this undated booking photo provided July 31, 2017, is the last remaining inmate at large after 11 of 12 prison escapees have been recaptured after a mass jailbreak at the Walker County Jail, near Birmingham, Alabama, according to authorities. Courtesy Walker County

(Reuters) – Law enforcement officials searched on Monday for an escaped prisoner on the loose in northern Alabama following a jailbreak of 12 prisoners, the local sheriff’s office said.

There were scant details about how the 12 inmates managed to escape from Walker County Jail, northwest of Birmingham, but the county sheriff’s office said on Facebook that authorities had recaptured 11 of them, some at a highway truck stop.

They continued to hunt for Brady Kilpatrick, the 24-year-old inmate who was still at large. Kilpatrick had been in jail facing charges of marijuana possession.

Police in the small city of Jasper, where the jail is located, urged downtown residents to stay inside and turn on their outdoor lights. Police from nearby Parrish, Alabama, were also involved in the search.

The dozen escapees, all men aged 18 to 30, were imprisoned on charges including robbery, attempted murder, domestic violence and drug possession.

 

(Reporting by Chris Michaud and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Scott Malone and Frances Kerry)

 

Iran top judge demands U.S. release assets, jailed Iranians

A staff member removes the Iranian flag from the stage during the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015.

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s top judge called on the United States on Monday to release Iranians held in U.S. jails and billions of dollars in Iranian assets, days after Washington urged Tehran to free three U.S. citizens.

The statement by Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani capped a week of heightened rhetoric over the jailing and disappearance of Americans in Iran and new U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

“We tell them: ‘You should immediately release Iranian citizens held in American prisons in violation of international rules and based on baseless charges’,” Larijani said in remarks carried by state television.

“You have seized the property of the Islamic Republic of Iran in violation of all rules and in a form of open piracy, and these should be released.”

On Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump urged Tehran to return Robert Levinson, an American former law enforcement officer who disappeared in Iran more than a decade ago, and release businessman Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer, jailed on espionage charges.

Trump said Iran would face “new and serious consequences” if the three men were not released. U.S. authorities imposed new economic sanctions on Iran on Tuesday over its ballistic missile program.

Earlier this month, Iran said another U.S. citizen, Xiyue Wang, a graduate student from Princeton University, had been sentenced to 10 years in jail for spying.

According to former prisoners, families of current ones and diplomats, Iran sometimes holds on to detainees for use for prisoner exchanges with Western countries. Tehran has denied this.

In a swap deal in 2016, Iranians held or charged in the United States, mostly for sanctions violations, were released in return for Americans imprisoned in Iran.

Also that year, Iran filed an International Court of Justice complaint to recover $2 billion in frozen assets that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled must be turned over to American families of people killed in bombings and other attacks blamed on Iran.

 

 

(Reporting by Dubai Newsroom; editing by John Stonestreet)

 

Nigeria exchanges 82 Chibok girls kidnapped by Boko Haram for prisoners

A group of 82 Chibok girls, who were held captive for three years by Islamist militants, wait to be released in exchange for several militant commanders, near Kumshe, Nigeria May 6, 2017. REUTERS/Zanah Mustapha

By Felix Onuah and Ahmed Kingimi

ABUJA/MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Boko Haram militants have released 82 schoolgirls out of a group of more than 200 whom they kidnapped from the northeastern town of Chibok three years ago in exchange for prisoners, the presidency said on Saturday.

Around 270 girls were kidnapped in April 2014 by the Islamist militant group, which has killed 15,000 people and displaced more than two million during a seven-year insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic caliphate in northeastern Nigeria.

Dozens escaped in the initial melee, but more than 200 remained missing for more than two years.

Nigeria thanked Switzerland and the International Committee of the Red Cross for helping secure the release of the 82 girls after “lengthy negotiations”, the presidency said in a statement.

President Muhammadu Buhari will receive the girls on Sunday afternoon in the capital Abuja, it said, without saying how many Boko Haram suspects had been exchanged or disclosing other details.

A military source said the girls were brought on Sunday morning from Banki near the Cameroon border to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state where the insurgency started.

The release of the girls may give a boost to Buhari who has hardly appeared in public since returning from Britain in March for treatment of an unspecified illness.

He made crushing the insurgency a pillar of his election campaign in 2015.

The army has retaken most of the territory initially lost to the militants but attacks and suicide bombings by the group have made it nearly impossible for displaced persons to return to their recaptured hometowns.

“The President directed the security agencies to continue in earnest until all the Chibok girls have been released and reunited with their families,” the presidency said.

INSECURITY

More than 20 girls were released last October in a deal brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Others have escaped or been rescued, but 195 were believed to be still in captivity.

Buhari said last month that the government was in talks to secure the release of the remaining captives.

Although the Chibok girls are the most high-profile case, Boko Haram has kidnapped thousands of adults and children, many of whose cases have been neglected.

Although the army has retaken much of the territory initially lost to Boko Haram, large parts of the northeast, particularly in Borno state, remain under threat from the militants. Suicide bombings and gun attacks have increased in the region since the end of the rainy season late last year.

Some 4.7 million people in northeast Nigeria depend on food aid, some of which is blocked by militant attacks, some held up by a lack of funding and some, diplomats say, stolen before it can reach those in need.

Millions of Nigerians may soon be in peril if the situation deteriorates, as authorities expect, when the five-month rainy season begins in May and makes farming impossible in areas that are now accessible.

This part of Nigeria is the western edge of an arc of hunger stretching across the breadth of Africa through South Sudan, Somalia and into Yemen on the Arabian peninsula. The United Nations believes as many as 20 million people are in danger in what could become the world’s worst famine for decades.

(Additional reporting by Tife Owolabi and Ulf Laessing; editing by Angus MacSwan and Jason Neely)

Seeking a trade, Israel to withhold bodies of Palestinian militants

Palestinian Hamas militants march during a military parade marking the 29th anniversary of the founding of the Hamas movement, in the northern of Gaza St

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said on Sunday it will withhold the bodies of Palestinian militants killed in attacks against its citizens as it seeks to pressure the Islamist movement Hamas to return the remains of soldiers and hand back missing Israeli civilians.

Hamas says it is holding two Israeli soldiers whom the army declared dead after they were lost in action in the 2014 Gaza war. The group also says it is holding two Israeli civilians who  strayed into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Israel’s security cabinet, a forum of senior ministers, made the decision on Sunday, enacting what it said would be a permanent policy for dealing with the bodies of militants.

“The security cabinet discussed ways to effect the return of fallen soldiers and of civilians held in the Gaza Strip … and decided that (the bodies of militants) should be buried, rather than returned,” the statement said.

Under the new policy, the bodies could be exhumed and handed back for burial if Hamas was willing to strike deals. It marks a  hardening of Israel’s stance: during 2016, according to the Israeli army, 102 bodies were returned for burial.

Israeli officials have previously signaled they are willing to repeat past amnesties of jailed Palestinians in order to recover the two soldiers’ remains and the civilians held by Hamas. But Hamas has said Israel must make a preliminary release of prisoners before it will discuss such a deal.

(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

U.S. says payment to Iran used as leverage for prisoners’ release

Jason Rezaian, Washington Post reporter and one of the U.S. citizens recently released from detention in Iran, poses to media outside the Emergency Room of the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (LRMC) in the southwestern town of Landstuhl, Germany

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department said on Thursday it released $400 million in cash to Iran under a tribunal settlement only once it was assured that American prisoners had been freed and had boarded a plane.

“The payment of the $400 million was not done until after the prisoners were released,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

“We took advantage of that to make sure we had the maximum leverage possible to get our people out and get them out safely,” Kirby added.

It was the first time the administration has said publicly that it used the payment as leverage to ensure the prisoners were released by Iran.

Three of the five prisoners, including Jason Rezaian, the Washington Posts’s Tehran bureau chief; Saeed Abedini, a pastor from Idaho and Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine from Flint, Michigan, as well as some family members, were part of a prisoner exchange that followed the lifting of most international sanctions against Iran following a nuclear deal in 2015.

One more prisoner, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, chose to remain in Iran, while a fifth prisoner, American student Matthew Trevithick, was released separately.

Both U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have denied that the payment was ransom for the release of the prisoners or tied to the Iran nuclear deal.

The White House announced on Jan. 17 it was releasing $400 million in funds frozen since 1981, plus $1.3 billion in interest owed to Iran, as part of a settlement of a long-standing Iranian claim at the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal in The Hague.

The funds were part of a trust fund Iran used before its 1979 Islamic Revolution to buy U.S. military equipment that was tied up for decades in litigation at the tribunal.

The payment was made by the United States in cash due to international sanctions against Iran.

The administration has maintained that negotiations over the funds and the prisoners were conducted on separate tracks and were in no way linked.

Representative Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has asked Kerry to appear at a future committee hearing to discuss the payment.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)