Democrats turn focus to obstruction charge in Trump impeachment trial

Democrats turn focus to obstruction charge in Trump impeachment trial
By David Morgan and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats serving as prosecutors in U.S. President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial in the Republican-led Senate will make their case he improperly interfered in Congress’ probe of his dealings with Ukraine in their final day of arguments on Friday.

Democratic managers from the House of Representatives will try to convince senators and the U.S. public that the Republican president is guilty of the charge of obstructing Congress for withholding key witnesses and documents from the investigation.

The Democratic-led House impeached Trump last month on that charge and a separate charge of abuse of power for allegedly trying to coerce Ukraine’s government into digging up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden, a top contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

The impeachment trial in the Senate, the third such proceeding in U.S. history, will determine whether Trump is ousted from power less than 10 months before he faces re-election.

The U.S. Constitution sets out the impeachment process for removing a president who commits “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Trump denies wrongdoing, while his Republican allies argue his conduct does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

Once Democrats conclude their opening arguments, Trump’s legal team will have up to 24 hours over three days to mount a defense. Senate Republicans are expected to acquit him. A two-thirds vote of the chamber is required to eject him from office.

Trump on Friday retweeted dozens of supporters who repeated his criticism of the proceedings as unfair and politically motivated. The former reality television personality also complained his lawyers would have to begin arguments on Saturday, when, he said, nobody watches television.

“Looks like my lawyers will be forced to start on Saturday, which is called Death Valley in T.V.,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

As the trial neared the end of its first week, there was little sign that Senate Republicans were being persuaded by the Democratic case.

Democrats spent Thursday meticulously detailing their allegations that Trump only grew interested in corruption in Ukraine when it appeared that Biden could become a serious political threat.

Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, the lead House manager, said Trump had used U.S. foreign policy for his own personal interest, and that failing to oust him from office would open the door to a “lot of damage” in the coming months.

“This is why if you find him guilty, you must find that he should be removed. Because right matters. Because right matters and truth matters. Otherwise we are lost,” Schiff said in his closing argument on Thursday.

In a July 25 phone call, Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma. Trump temporarily withheld $391 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine, which Democrats say was leverage for his demands.

DEMOCRATS PUSH FOR WITNESSES

On Friday, they will argue that Trump also unlawfully refused to cooperate with the House probe of the matter by directing officials to ignore Democratic requests to testify and for relevant documents.

Key administration officials who refused to comply with subpoenas in the probe included Vice President Mike Pence, White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Former national security adviser John Bolton refused a request by the House to testify.

Democrats sought to have Bolton testify in the trial, but senators voted along party lines on Tuesday against all Democrats’ proposed witnesses.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone, a member of Trump’s legal team, has accused Democrats of using the impeachment process to try to “steal” the 2020 election and said the president had a constitutional right to keep aides from testifying.

During the proceedings, Democrats have argued the Senate should allow new witnesses such as Bolton to testify. Republicans have resisted their push but have threatened to call a witness such as Joe or Hunter Biden in retaliation.

The Senate could return next week to that issue. Democrats are holding out hope that they can persuade enough moderate Republican senators to vote to allow additional witness testimony and documents into the trial.

Democratic Representative Val Demings, one of the House impeachment managers, said Democrats will continue to press for that, but added there was a strong case against the president without additional testimony.

“The best witness is the president himself and listening to his own words” in the Zelenskiy call and Trump’s public calls for other nations to interfere in the November election, Demings said in an interview with MSNBC. “That’s hard to ignore.”

(Reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell and David Morgan; Writing by James Oliphant and Paul Simao; Editing by Peter Cooney, Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Prosecution in Israel lines up over 300 witnesses in Netanyahu case

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An indictment submitted to Israel’s parliament on Monday against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu names more than 300 prosecution witnesses, including wealthy friends and former aides, in three graft cases against him.

By formally sending the indictment to the legislature, after announcing charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud on Nov. 21, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit set the clock ticking on a 30-day period in which Netanyahu can seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Such protection seems unlikely, with Israeli politics in disarray after inconclusive elections in April and September and the failure of Netanyahu and his main challenger, Benny Gantz, to secure a ruling majority in the legislature.

Netanyahu, in office for the past decade, has denied any wrongdoing, saying he is a victim of an attempted “coup” waged by legal authorities trying to unseat a popular right-wing leader.

As prime minister, he is under no legal obligation to resign after being charged. No date has been set for the opening of the trial, with three judges presiding in Jerusalem District Court.

The indictment submitted to parliament listed 333 witnesses for the prosecution. Legal experts said the long roster meant proceedings could go on for years.

They include U.S. casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, Australian billionaire James Packer and retired Israeli security chiefs, and several former aides who will be state witnesses against him.

Netanyahu poured scorn on the length of the witness list.

“When an accusation is true, you don’t need 333 witnesses,” he wrote on Twitter. “When the accusation is untrue, not even 333 witnesses will help.”

TALKS DEADLOCKED

In one case, Netanyahu is suspected of wrongfully requesting and accepting expensive gifts, including champagne and cigars, from Milchan and Packer. Neither has been charged with any wrongdoing.

Another case focuses on allegations that Netanyahu promised the owner of Israel’s best-selling newspaper to push for regulations on its main competitor, owned by Adelson.

Netanyahu also is accused of granting regulatory favors worth about 1.8 billion shekels ($500 million) to Bezeq Telecom Israel <BEZQ.TA> in return for positive coverage on a website owned by its former chairman.

Talks between Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party on a “national unity” government are deadlocked.

If no agreement is reached within 10 days – the end of a three-week period in which legislators can nominate a candidate to try to form a government – Israel is likely to hold a new election.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Investigators to identify MH17 suspects: Dutch broadcasters

FILE PHOTO: A Malaysian air crash investigator inspects the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo) in Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 22, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev/File Photo

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Investigators will next week announce criminal proceedings against suspects in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 five years ago, allegedly by pro-Russian separatists, two leading Dutch broadcasters reported on Friday.

MH17 was shot out of the sky over territory held by separatists in eastern Ukraine as it flew from Amsterdam to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board.

About two-thirds of the passengers were Dutch.

Dutch prosecutors said on Friday a multi-national investigation team would present its latest findings to media and families on June 19. A spokesman for the national Dutch prosecution service declined to specify what would be announced.

Citing anonymous sources, broadcaster RTL reported that the public prosecution service had decided to launch a case against several MH17 suspects.

National public broadcaster NOS also reported that criminal proceedings will be announced against individual suspects.

No suspects were named in the reports.

The Joint Investigation Team, which seeks to try the suspects under Dutch law, has said the missile system came from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, based in the western Russian city of Kursk.

Investigators had said their next step would be to identify individual culprits and to attempt to put them on trial.

Dutch officials have said Russia has refused to cooperate.

Russia is not expected to surrender any potential suspects who may be on its territory and authorities have said individuals could be tried in absentia.

The Joint Investigation Team was formed in 2014 by Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine to investigate collaboratively.

The Netherlands and Australia, which lost 38 people, hold Russia legally responsible. Moscow denies all involvement and maintains that it does not support, financially or with equipment, pro-Russian rebels fighting Ukrainian government troops.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

U.S. will prosecute makers of ‘undetectable’ plastic guns: Sessions

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions listens as President Donald Trump addresses members of his cabinet during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., August 16, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned on Thursday that anyone who uses a 3-D printer to make an “undetectable” gun will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, a day after his department asked a court not to block the public from downloading blueprints for the guns.

“We will not stand for the evasion … of current law and will take action to ensure that individuals who violate the law by making plastic firearms and rendering them undetectable, will be prosecuted to the fullest extent,” Sessions said in his Thursday statement.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert)

Two-thirds of U.S. Senate pushes Turkey to release pastor

Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina, U.S. who has been in jail in Turkey since December 2016, is seen in this undated picture taken in Izmir, Turkey. Depo Photos via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Sixty-six U.S. senators signed a letter released on Friday urging Turkey President Tayyip Erdogan to release an American pastor on trial in Turkey on charges he was linked to a group accused of orchestrating a failed military coup.

Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was indicted on charges of helping the group that Ankara holds responsible for a failed 2016 coup against President Tayyip Erdogan. He faces up to 35 years in prison.

The letter, led by Republican Senator Thom Tillis, who represents Brunson’s home state North Carolina, and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, said the Senate backs efforts to strengthen cooperation between U.S. and Turkish law enforcement.

“However, we are deeply disturbed that the Turkish government has gone beyond legitimate action against the coup plotters to undermine Turkey’s own rule of law and democratic traditions,” it said.

U.S. President Donald Trump also voiced his support for Brunson on Twitter this week, writing, “They call him a spy, but I am more a spy than he is.”

The senators warned that unspecified measures might be necessary to ensure the Turkish government “respects the rights of law-abiding citizens” of the United States to be in Turkey without the fear of prosecution.

Brunson’s trial is one of several legal cases roiling U.S.-Turkish relations. The two countries are also at odds over U.S. support for a Kurdish militia in northern Syria that Turkey considers a terrorist organization.

Washington has called for Brunson’s release while Erdogan suggested last year his fate could be linked to that of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose extradition Ankara has repeatedly sought to face charges over the coup attempt.

Overall, the letter was signed by 43 Republicans and 23 Democrats.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Tom Brown)

Michigan prosecutor charges six in Flint water scandal

The top of the Flint Water Plant tower is seen in Flint, Michigan

(Reuters) – Six Michigan state employees were charged on Friday in connection with dangerous lead levels in the city of Flint’s drinking water, the Detroit Free Press reported.

The criminal charges were filed by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette against three employees apiece from the state’s health and environmental departments, the newspaper said.

The accusations mark the second round of charges related to the investigation into the Flint water crisis. Schuette was scheduled to hold a news conference on Friday about the charges.

Flint, with a population of about 100,000, was under control of a state-appointed emergency manager in 2014 when it switched its water source from Detroit’s municipal system to the Flint River to save money. The city switched back last October.

The river water was more corrosive than the Detroit system’s, and caused more lead to leach from its aging pipes. Lead can be toxic, and children are especially vulnerable. The crisis has prompted lawsuits by parents who say their children have shown dangerously high levels of lead in their blood.

The Free Press identified those charged on Friday as  Department of Health and Human Services workers Nancy Peeler, Corinne Miller and Robert Scott, and Department of Environmental Quality employees Leanne Smith, Adam Rosenthal and Patrick Cook.

A spokeswoman for the Genesee County District Court confirmed the filing of six complaints but had no details.

Three state and local officials were criminally charged in April in connection with the investigation.

Flint utilities administrator Michael Glasgow subsequently agreed to cooperate with investigators as part of a deal that had him plead no contest to a misdemeanor charge while a more serious felony charge was dismissed.

Department of Environmental Quality officials Stephen Busch and Michael Prysby were charged with five and six counts, respectively, including misconduct in office, tampering with evidence and violation of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act. Both pleaded not guilty.

Schuette last month sued French water company Veolia Environnement SA and Houston-based engineering services firm Lockwood, Andrews Newnam for “botching” their roles in the city’s drinking water crisis.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington and Curtis Skinner in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Middle East Refugees help Europe prosecute war crimes

Birds fly over a damaged neighbourhood, in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria

By Thomas Escritt

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – European authorities are seeking testimony from some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Middle East violence as they try to build war crimes cases linked to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

As witnesses to atrocities, they are invaluable to prosecutors preparing trials in European courts that will offer a way round the United Nations impasse that has prevented the setting up of an international court for Syria.

The search for evidence takes a variety of forms. Dutch and German immigration services hand out leaflets to arriving migrants, inviting them to testify. In Norway, police screen arrivals’ mobile phones for evidence of possible involvement in war crimes.

“Over the next five years you’ll see a lot of prosecutions,” said Matevz Pezdirc of the European Union’s Genocide Network, a forum that brings together police and prosecutors twice a year in The Hague to swap information about war crimes.

Some alleged perpetrators may be European citizens who have joined Islamic State; others may be militants who have traveled to Europe from Syria or Iraq, blending in with the more than 1 million migrants and refugees who streamed into the continent last year.

“You may have lots of victims or witnesses in one place, but you can’t move with a prosecution until you have a perpetrator in your jurisdiction,” Pezdirc said.

Most European countries have legislation allowing them to prosecute international crimes like genocide regardless of where in the world they happen. About 15 have units dedicated to investigating and prosecuting them.

Over the past decade, authorities in Europe have launched 1,607 international war crimes cases in domestic jurisdictions, while another 1,339 are ongoing, according to EU judicial cooperation agency Eurojust.

STRESSED WITNESSES

German police have compiled testimony from hundreds of potential witnesses to the Syria conflict, and war crimes prosecutors in Karlsruhe have questioned a few dozen of them in greater depth.

But gathering evidence is a painstaking process. Traumatized witnesses, fresh from harrowing journeys on foot and by sea, need time before they are ready to testify, and can often face only short periods of questioning each day.

“The refugees usually need time to rest and calm down before they decide to cooperate with law enforcement,” Pezdirc said.

Investigators have interviewed Yazidi Kurd refugees in Germany for evidence of alleged genocide against the ethnic and religious minority. A German citizen thought to be in Syria is the subject of a sealed arrest warrant on separate war crimes charges.

They are preparing further cases against two other suspects, one accused of torture and another of kidnapping a U.S. legal adviser near Damascus.

In France, genocide and war crimes prosecutors have a handful of investigations open into Syrian nationals, including a former Syrian colonel, once a doctor in a military hospital, who has sought asylum.

More than 4,000 European citizens are estimated to have left to fight in Syria, of whom around a third have since returned home, a Dutch think tank said earlier this year.

With both witnesses and perpetrators on their territory, European prosecutors have already brought some cases. A German citizen is on trial for war crimes after Facebook posts showed him posing alongside decapitated heads.

Last year, Swedish courts convicted a Syrian on the basis of a video showing him torturing a fellow combatant. Crimes being investigated around the continent include torture, murder, rape, crimes against humanity and genocide.

SECURITY COUNCIL SPLIT

With more than 400,000 people killed in Syria since 2011, there have been calls for perpetrators of massacres to face trials in a U.N. court, like those that followed the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

But division among the five veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – who include Syria’s ally, Russia – has stymied attempts to refer such cases to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, or set up a special tribunal.

So rights campaigners are pinning their hopes on national prosecutions, and Syria and Iraq have come to dominate the agenda of the Genocide Network, which has been operating since 2004.

“If there’s going to be justice in Syria, it’s going to be in the courts of third states,” said Stephen Rapp, a U.S. diplomat who led the prosecution of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, at a meeting of law enforcement officials in The Hague this week.

Successful trials could help to influence the wider course of the war and the migrant crisis, he said.

“If we do more to show there’s justice, that there’s hope, if we can show that this way of fighting the conflict is going to have consequences, we can reduce the refugee flow.”

(Additional reporting by Chine Labbe in Paris, Stine Jacobsen in Oslo, Jussi Rosendahl in Helsinki, Rodrigo De Miguel Roncal in Madrid; Editing by Anthony Deutsch and Mark Trevelyan)