Mexico vows purge after ex-defense chief arrested in U.S.

By Diego Oré and Frank Jack Daniel

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico’s president on Friday promised to clean up the armed forces but backed its current leadership after the arrest of a former defense minister on U.S drug charges, which he called evidence some of his predecessors were “mafiosi.”

The stunning detention in Los Angeles of Salvador Cienfuegos, defense minister until 2018, took Mexico’s security establishment by surprise, senior federal sources said. U.S. authorities did not warn their counterparts of the operation.

The fall of Cienfuegos marks the first time a former defense minister has been arrested, and will have far reaching implications for Mexico’s drug war, which has been led by the armed forces for more than a decade.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador pledged to suspend anyone inside his government implicated in the charges

“We won’t cover up for anybody,” he said, before voicing fulsome support for Cienfuegos’ successor at the head of the army and his counterpart in the navy, noting that he had personally vetted them for honesty.

Under Lopez Obrador, the armed forces have taken on more responsibility, including establishing a militarized national police force, overseeing port security and working on infrastructure projects.

The arrest comes less than three weeks before the U.S. presidential election. President Donald Trump, seeking a second term, has made clamping down on drug cartels a priority, though without major progress since he took office in 2017.

Some Mexican officials were privately shocked at the detention of Cienfuegos in Los Angeles airport, worrying it was an unprecedented U.S. intervention against a symbol of Mexican national security.

“It was totally unexpected, I never saw this coming, never, never,” said a senior police source.

Lopez Obrador quickly incorporated the arrest into his narrative that predecessors had presided over a debilitating increase in corruption in Mexico, which for years has been convulsed by often horrific levels of drug gang violence.

“If we’re not talking about a narco state, one can certainly talk about a narco government, and without doubt, about a government of mafiosi,” Lopez Obrador said.

“We’re cleaning up, purifying public life.”

‘WE’RE CLEANING UP’

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said he had received word from the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles that Cienfuegos, 72, was facing five counts of drug charges and would be transferred from Los Angeles to New York. Sources earlier told Reuters that one of the charges related to money laundering.

Lopez Obrador said he only heard about the arrest after the event, though he noted that Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, Martha Barcena, had informed him about two weeks ago that there was talk of an investigation involving Cienfuegos.

There had been no open probe in Mexico on Cienfuegos and his arrest was linked to the case against Genaro Garcia Luna, Mexico’s security minister from 2006-2012, who Lopez Obrador said.

Garcia Luna is on trial in New York charged with accepting millions of dollars in bribes from captured kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel, which he was meant to fight.

Like Garcia Luna, Cienfuegos had been a major figure in Mexico’s drug war, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives over the past two decades.

Under Cienfuegos, the army was accused of extrajudicial killings, including the June 2014 Tlatlaya massacre in central Mexico, where 22 drug gang members were shot dead.

A tall, imposing man, Cienfuegos fought to shield the army from potentially embarrassing investigations.

They included the kidnapping and suspected massacre of 43 student teachers in September 2014 in the city of Iguala by drug gang members in cahoots with corrupt police. Last month arrest warrants were issued in Mexico for soldiers linked to the case.

Mexico’s armed forces are generally perceived as less prone to corruption than the police. However, that image has been gradually corroded since former president Felipe Calderon first sent in the military to fight the gangs at the end of 2006.

(Reporting by Dave Graham, Diego Oré, Frank Jack Daniel and Lizbeth Diaz; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Tom Brown)

U.S. steps up campaign to purge ‘untrusted’ Chinese apps

By Humeyra Pamuk and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Wednesday it was stepping up efforts to purge “untrusted” Chinese apps from U.S. digital networks and called the Chinese-owned short-video app TikTok and messenger app WeChat “significant threats.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said expanded U.S. efforts on a program it calls “Clean Network” would focus on five areas and include steps to prevent various Chinese apps, as well as Chinese telecoms companies, from accessing sensitive information on American citizens and businesses.

Pompeo’s announcement comes after U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to ban TikTok. The hugely popular video-sharing app has come under fire from U.S. lawmakers and the administration over national security concerns, amid intensified tensions between Washington and Beijing.

“With parent companies based in China, apps like TikTok, WeChat and others are significant threats to personal data of American citizens, not to mention tools for CCP (Chinese Communist Party) content censorship,” Pompeo said.

In an interview with state news agency Xinhua on Wednesday, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said the United States “has no right” to set up the “Clean Network” and calls the actions by Washington as “a textbook case of bullying”.

“Anyone can see through clearly that the intention of the U.S. is to protect it’s monopoly position in technology and to rob other countries of their proper right to development,” said Wang.

TikTok currently faces a deadline of Sept. 15 to either sell its U.S. operations to Microsoft Corp. or face an outright ban.

In the run-up to Trump’s November re-election bid, U.S.-China ties are at the lowest ebb in decades. Relations are strained over the global coronavirus pandemic, China’s military buildup in the South China Sea, its increasing control over Hong Kong and treatment of Uighur Muslims, as well as Beijing’s massive trade surpluses and technological rivalry.

Pompeo said the United States was working to prevent Chinese telecoms firm Huawei Technologies Co Ltd from pre-installing or making available for download the most popular U.S. apps on its phones.

“We don’t want companies to be complicit in Huawei’s human rights abuses, or the CCP’s surveillance apparatus,” Pompeo said, without mentioning any specific U.S. companies.

Pompeo said the State Department would work with other government agencies to protect the data of U.S. citizens and American intellectual property, including COVID-19 vaccine research, by preventing access from cloud-based systems run by companies such as Alibaba, Baidu, China Mobile, China Telecom, and Tencent.

Pompeo said he was joining Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf in urging the U.S. telecoms regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, to terminate authorizations for China Telecom and three other companies to provide services to and from the United States.

He said the State Department was also working to ensure China could not compromise information carried by undersea cables that connect the United States to the global internet.

The United States has long been lobbying European and other allies to persuade them to cut out Huawei from their telecommunications networks. Huawei denies it spies for China and says the United States wants to frustrate its growth because no U.S. company offers the same technology at a competitive price.

Pompeo’s comments on Wednesday reflected a wider and more accelerated push by Washington to limit the access of Chinese technology companies to U.S. market and consumers and, as one U.S. official put it, to push back against a “massive campaign to steal and weaponize our data against us.”

A State Department statement said momentum for the Clean Network program was growing and more than 30 countries and territories were now “Clean Countries” and many of the world’s biggest telecommunications companies “Clean Telcos.”

It called on U.S. allies “to join the growing tide to secure our data from the CCP’s surveillance state and other malign entities.”

Huawei Technologies and Tencent declined to comment. Alibaba, Apple, China Telecom, China Mobile and Baidu did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, David Brunnstrom and Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian and Yingzhi Yang in Beijing, Josh Horwitz in Shanghai, Pei Li in Hong Kong and David Kirton in Shenzhen; Editing by Mary Milliken, Rosalba O’Brien and Michael Perry)

North Korea executes envoy in a purge after failed U.S. summit: media

FILE PHOTO - North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Kim Yong Chol, Vice Chairman of the North Korean Workers' Party Committee, attend the extended bilateral meeting in the Metropole hotel with U.S. President Donald Trump and his delegation during the second North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea executed its nuclear envoy to the United States as part of a purge of officials who steered negotiations for a failed summit between leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, a South Korean newspaper said on Friday.

Kim Hyok Chol was executed in March at Mirim Airport in Pyongyang, along with four foreign ministry officials after they were charged with spying for the United States, the Chosun Ilbo reported, citing an unidentified source with knowledge of the situation.

FILE PHOTO - Kim Hyok Chol, North Korea's special representative for U.S. affairs, leaves the Government Guesthouse in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 23, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

FILE PHOTO – Kim Hyok Chol, North Korea’s special representative for U.S. affairs, leaves the Government Guesthouse in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 23, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

“He was accused of spying for the United States for poorly reporting on the negotiations without properly grasping U.S. intentions,” the source was quoted as saying.

The February summit in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, the second between Kim and Trump, failed to reach a deal because of conflicts over U.S. calls for complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and North Korean demands for sanctions relief.

Reuters was unable to independently confirm the report. Previously, North Korean officials have been executed or purged only to reappear with a new title, according to media reports.

A spokeswoman at South Korea’s Unification Ministry declined to comment. An official at the presidential Blue House in Seoul said it was inappropriate to comment on an unverified report.

The United States is attempting to check on the reports of the envoy’s execution, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during his visit to Berlin on Friday

When asked about reports of a “shakeup” of Kim Jong Un’s negotiating team in a May 5 interview with ABC News, Pompeo said it did appear that his future counterpart would be somebody else “but we don’t know that for sure.”

A diplomatic source told Reuters there were signs Kim Hyok Chol and other officials were punished, but there was no evidence they were executed and they may have been sent to a labor camp for re-education.

The newspaper reported that other officials had been punished, but not executed.

Kim Yong Chol, Kim Jong Un’s right-hand man and the counterpart to Pompeo before the Hanoi summit, had been sent to a labor and reeducation camp in Jagang Province near the Chinese border, the Chosun Ilbo reported.

Officials who worked with Kim Yong Chol have been out of the public eye since the summit, while seasoned diplomats who appeared to have been sidelined, including vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui, were seen returning to the spotlight.

A South Korean lawmaker told Reuters in April that Kim Yong Chol had been removed from a key party post.

RISE AND FALL

Kim Hyok Chol was seen as a rising star when he was appointed to spearhead working-level talks with U.S. nuclear envoy Stephen Biegun weeks before the Hanoi summit.

However, little was known about his expertise or his role in the talks. The four executed alongside him included diplomats working on relations with Vietnam, the Chosun report said.

“This is a man who might provide some tactical advice to the leader but is otherwise a message bearer with little negotiating or policymaking latitude,” said Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the Washington-based Stimson Center.

“Instead, they put in someone like Kim Hyok Chol to insulate Choe Son Hui and more substantive diplomatic personnel, to a certain degree he is expendable and his superiors are not.”

The penalized members of Kim Yong Chol’s team included Kim Song Hye, who led the preparations, and Sin Hye Yong, a newly elevated interpreter for the Hanoi summit. They were said to have been detained in a camp for political prisoners, the newspaper said.

The diplomatic source said Kim Song Hye’s punishment seemed inevitable because she was a “prime author” of the North’s plan to secure sanctions relief in return for dismantling the Yongbyon main nuclear complex.

The idea was rejected by the United States which demanded a comprehensive roadmap for denuclearization.

Kim Song Hye had also worked closely with Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s younger sister and a senior party official whom Kim Song Hye accompanied to South Korea for the Winter Olympics last year.

Kim Yo Jong was also lying low, the paper reported, citing an unidentified South Korean government official.

Madden, however, said Kim Yo Jong’s status was unchanged as Kim Jong Un’s top aide, citing her attendance at key party meetings in April and appearance in state media reports.

Sin Hye Yong was charged with making critical interpretation mistakes that included missing an unspecified “last-minute offer” the North Korean leader supposedly made as Trump was about to walk out, Chosun reported.

‘TWO-FACED’

North Korea’s official party mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun warned on Thursday that “two-faced” officials would face the “stern judgment of the revolution”.

“It is an anti-Party, anti-revolutionary act to pretend to be revering the leader in front of him when you actually dream of something else,” it said in a commentary.

Hong Min, a senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said it was possible Kim Hyok Chol and other officials faced some penalty but further verification was needed.

“Executing or completely removing people like him would send a very bad signal to the United States because he was the public face of the talks and it could indicate they are negating all they have discussed,” Hong said.

(Reporting by Joyce Lee and Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in BERLIN and Hyunjoo Jin in SEOUL; Editing by Paul Tait, Lincoln Feast and Darren Schuettler)

Guilt, fines remain hazy as Saudi corruption purge draws to close

Saudi Arabian billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal sits for an interview with Reuters in the office of the suite where he has been detained at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia January 27, 2018.

By Stephen Kalin and Reem Shamseddine

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabian media magnate Waleed al-Ibrahim was found innocent in an anti-corruption purge, a source at his company said on Monday, part of a wider campaign against graft whose secrecy could hurt the country’s effort to win foreign investment.

Ibrahim, who controls influential regional broadcaster MBC, was one of at least half a dozen top businessmen freed from more than two months of detention at the weekend after being interrogated by officials who said they aimed to recover $100 billion of illicit funds.

The officials said all of the men, who included billionaire global investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, had agreed to financial settlements after admitting to unspecified “violations”.

But the allegations against the men and their settlements have been kept secret, leaving the global investment community to wonder what the penalties are for large-scale corruption in Saudi Arabia – and whether detainees were actually guilty.

The mystery is unsettling investors who have closely watched Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s every move since he promised to reform oil superpower Saudi Arabia, surprising citizens who regarded top businessmen and powerful royals as untouchable.

Aside from the crackdown on corruption, those changes are meant to include less dependence on oil, megaprojects to create jobs, and greater transparency and social freedoms.

The decision to release some of the most powerful people in the kingdom comes ahead of a planned trip by Prince Mohammed to the United States and European capitals in February and March, according to diplomats.

He could face awkward questions there about how the purge was conducted. The releases, and what kind of deals may have been struck, could have huge implications for Saudi Arabia’s image in the international investment community.

MBC’s Ibrahim “was fully exonerated and declared innocent of any wrongdoing, no corruption charges, no charges actually whatsoever,” a senior executive at MBC group told Reuters.

In an email to its staff, MBC management said Ibrahim was “fit and well and eager to get back. He has also been totally exonerated and faces no issues going forward.”

MURKINESS

Saudi officials did not respond to requests for information on the cases of Ibrahim and dozens of other officials and businessmen caught by the purge.

Prince Alwaleed, owner of global investor Kingdom Holding, continued to maintain his innocence in an interview with Reuters hours before his release, although an official said he had agreed to an unspecified financial settlement.

On Monday, shares in Kingdom rose back to the level where they were trading when Prince Alwaleed was arrested – a vote of confidence by the market in his future. In the days after his detention, the shares had plunged more than 20 percent, erasing as much as $2.2 billion of his fortune.

Authorities have not disclosed how many people are still detained but Riyadh’s grand Ritz-Carlton hotel, where many detainees were held, is to reopen to the public by mid-February.

Last week, before the latest releases, the attorney general said most detainees had agreed to settlements, 90 were released after charges were dropped, and 95 remained in custody. Some cases will go to trial.

Jason Tuvey, Middle East economist at Capital Economics in London, said the purge had increased uncertainty among potential foreign investors in Saudi Arabia, because it was not clear how they would be treated if they were caught up in corruption allegations.

“The release of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and a number of other high-profile individuals may ease some concerns, but we still don’t have any details on what sort of agreement they have reached with the authorities. It just adds to the murkiness surrounding the whole process.”

He added that one potential worry for investors was that the purge could one day lead to a backlash against Prince Mohammed, who launched the purge and is leading ambitious reforms.

“Investors will probably need some reassurance on the exact procedures going forward to deal with corruption allegations,” Tuvey said. “But I think political uncertainty will remain a key risk surrounding the Saudi economy for many years to come.”

Prince Mohammed initially said he wanted to conclude the purge quickly. Foreign bankers dealing with Saudi Arabia said he may have been encouraged to do so by concern that the purge could start to affect foreign investment in the country.

Constructing complex, watertight legal cases against detainees may have been more challenging than expected – suggesting the government might find it hard to reach its target of recovering $100 billion of illicit funds, analysts said.

Saudi officials said Ibrahim’s 40 percent stake in MBC would remain unchanged and Prince Alwaleed would stay in control of Kingdom.

But construction giant Saudi Binladin Group said earlier this month that family shareholders might transfer part of their holdings to the state in a settlement with authorities.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Cornwell; Writing by Andrew Torchia; Editing by Michael Georgy, William Maclean)

Supreme Court divided over Ohio voter purge policy

Activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court ahead of arguments in a key voting rights case involving a challenge to the OhioÕs policy of purging infrequent voters from voter registration rolls, in Washington, U.S., January 10, 2018.

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Conservative and liberal U.S. Supreme Court justices appeared at odds on Wednesday in a closely watched voting rights case, differing over whether Ohio’s purging of infrequent voters from its registration rolls — a policy critics say disenfranchises thousands of people — violates federal law.

The nine justices heard about an hour of arguments in Republican-governed Ohio’s appeal of a lower court ruling that found the policy violated a 1993 federal law aimed at making it easier to register to vote.

Conservative justices signaled sympathy to the state’s policy while two liberal justices asked questions indicating skepticism toward it. The court has a 5-4 conservative majority.

“The reason for purging is they want to protect voter rolls,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who often casts the deciding vote in close decisions. “What we’re talking about is the best tools to implement that purpose.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling, due by the end of June, could affect the ability to vote for thousands of people ahead of November’s midterm congressional elections.

States try to maintain accurate voter rolls by removing people who have died or moved away. Ohio is one of seven states, along with Georgia, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, that erase infrequent voters from registration lists, according to plaintiffs who sued Ohio in 2016.

They called Ohio’s policy the most aggressive. Registered voters in Ohio who do not vote for two years are sent registration confirmation notices. If they do not respond and do not vote over the following four years, they are purged.

Ohio’s policy would have barred more than 7,500 voters from casting a ballot in the November 2016 election had the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals not ruled against the state.

Voting rights has become an important theme before the Supreme Court. In two other cases, the justices are examining whether electoral districts drawn by Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin and Democratic lawmakers in Maryland were fashioned to entrench the majority party in power in a manner that violated the constitutional rights of voters. That practice is called partisan gerrymandering.

The plaintiffs suing Ohio, represented by liberal advocacy group Demos and the American Civil Liberties Union, said that purging has become a powerful tool for voter suppression. They argued that voting should not be considered a “use it or lose it” right.

Dozens of voting rights activists gathered for a rally outside the courthouse before the arguments, with some holding signs displaying slogans such as “Every vote counts” and “You have no right to take away my right to vote.”

“This is about government trying to choose who should get to vote. We know that’s wrong,” U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, said at the rally.

Democrats have accused Republicans of taking steps at the state level, including laws requiring certain types of government-issued identification, intended to suppress the vote of minorities, poor people and others who generally favor Democratic candidates.

A 2016 Reuters analysis found roughly twice the rate of voter purging in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods in Ohio’s three largest counties as in Republican-leaning neighborhoods.

The plaintiffs include Larry Harmon, a software engineer and U.S. Navy veteran who was blocked from voting in a state marijuana initiative in 2015, and an advocacy group for the homeless. They said Ohio’s policy ran afoul of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which prohibits states from striking registered voters “by reason of the person’s failure to vote.”

Ohio argued that a 2002 U.S. law called the Help America Vote Act contained language that permitted the state to enforce its purge policy. Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted noted that the state’s policy has been in place since the 1990s, under Republican and Democratic secretaries of state.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Purge of Saudi princes, businessmen widens, travel curbs imposed

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud poses for a photo with National Guard Minister Khaled bin Ayyaf and Economy Minister Mohammed al-Tuwaijri during a swearing-in ceremony in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 6, 2017. Saudi Press

By Stephen Kalin and Reem Shamseddine

RIYADH (Reuters) – A campaign of mass arrests of Saudi Arabian royals, ministers and businessmen widened on Monday after a top entrepreneur was reportedly held in the biggest anti-corruption purge of the kingdom’s affluent elite in its modern history.

The arrests, which an official said were just “phase one” of the crackdown, are the latest in a series of dramatic steps by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to assert Saudi influence internationally and amass more power for himself at home.

The campaign also lengthens an already daunting list of challenges undertaken by the 32-year-old since his father, King Salman, ascended the throne in 2015, including going to war in Yemen, cranking up Riyadh’s confrontation with arch-foe Iran and reforming the economy to lessen its reliance on oil.

Both allies and adversaries are quietly astonished that a kingdom once obsessed with stability has acquired such a taste for assertive – some would say impulsive – policy-making.

“The kingdom is at a crossroads: Its economy has flatlined with low oil prices; the war in Yemen is a quagmire; the blockade of Qatar is a failure; Iranian influence is rampant in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq; and the succession is a question mark,” wrote ex-CIA official Bruce Riedel.

“It is the most volatile period in Saudi history in over a half-century.”

The crackdown has drawn no public opposition within the kingdom either on the street or social media. Many ordinary Saudis applauded the arrests, the latest in a string of domestic and international moves asserting the prince’s authority.

But abroad, critics perceive the purge as further evidence of intolerance from a power-hungry leader keen to stop influential opponents blocking his economic reforms or reversing the expansion of his political clout.

Prominent Saudi columnist Jamal Kashoggi applauded the campaign, but warned: “He is imposing very selective justice.”

“The crackdown on even the most constructive criticism – the demand for complete loyalty with a significant ‘or else’ – remains a serious challenge to the crown prince’s desire to be seen as a modern, enlightened leader,” he wrote in the Washington Post.

“The buck stops at the leader’s door. He is not above the standard he is now setting for the rest of his family, and for the country.”

 

ACCOUNTS FROZEN

The Saudi stock index initially fell 1.5 percent in early trade but closed effectively flat, which asset managers attributed to buying by government-linked funds.

Al Tayyar Travel <1810.SE> plunged 10 percent in the opening minutes after the company quoted media reports as saying board member Nasser bin Aqeel al-Tayyar had been detained in the anti-corruption drive.

Saudi Aseer Trading, Tourism and Manufacturing <4080.SE> and Red Sea International <4230.SE> separately reported normal operations after the reported detentions of board members Abdullah Saleh Kamel, Khalid al-Mulheim and Amr al-Dabbagh.

Saudi banks have begun freezing suspects’ accounts, sources told Reuters.

Dozens of people have been detained in the crackdown, which have alarmed much of the traditional business establishment. Billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Saudi Arabia’s best-known international investor, is also being held.

The attorney general said on Monday detainees had been questioned and “a great deal of evidence” had been gathered.

“Yesterday does not represent the start, but the completion of Phase One of our anti-corruption push,” Saud al-Mojeb said. Probes were done discreetly “to preserve the integrity of the legal proceedings and ensure there was no flight from justice.”

Investigators had been collecting evidence for three years and would “continue to identify culprits, issue arrest warrants and travel restrictions and bring offenders to justice”, anti-graft committee member Khalid bin Abdulmohsen Al-Mehaisen said.

 

“THE NOOSE TIGHTENS”

The front page of leading Saudi newspaper Okaz challenged businessmen to reveal the sources of their assets, asking: “Where did you get this?”

Another headline from Saudi-owned al-Hayat warned: “After the launch (of the anti-corruption drive), the noose tightens, whomever you are!”

A no-fly list has been drawn up and security forces in some Saudi airports were barring owners of private jets from taking off without a permit, pan-Arab daily Al-Asharq Al-Awsat said.

Among those detained are 11 princes, four ministers and tens of former ministers, according to Saudi officials.

The allegations against the men include money laundering, bribery, extortion and taking advantage of public office for personal gain, a Saudi official told Reuters. Those accusations could not be independently verified and family members of those detained could not be reached.

A royal decree on Saturday said the crackdown was launched in response to “exploitation by some of the weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest, in order to, illicitly, accrue money”.

The new anti-corruption committee has the power to seize assets at home and abroad before the results of its investigations are known. Investors worry the crackdown could ultimately result in forced sales of equities, but the extent of the authorities’ intentions was not immediately clear.

 

“OVERKILL”

Among those detained is Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, who was replaced as minister of the National Guard, a pivotal power base rooted in the kingdom’s tribes. That recalled a palace coup in June which ousted his elder cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, as heir to the throne.

The moves consolidate Prince Mohammed’s control of the internal security and military institutions, which had long been headed by separate powerful branches of the ruling family.

Consultancy Eurasia Group said the “clearly politicized” anti-corruption campaign was a step toward separating the Al Saud family from the state: “Royal family members have lost their immunity, a long standing golden guarantee”.

Yet many analysts were puzzled by the targeting of technocrats like ousted Economy Minister Adel Faqieh and prominent businessmen on whom the kingdom is counting to boost the private sector and wean the economy off oil.

“It seems to run so counter to the long-term goal of foreign investment and more domestic investment and a strengthened private sector,” said Greg Gause, a Gulf expert at Texas A&M University.

“If your goal really is anti-corruption, then you bring some cases. You don’t just arrest a bunch of really high-ranking people and emphasize that the rule of law is not really what guides your actions.”

Over the past year, MbS has become the top decision-maker on military, foreign and economic policy, championing subsidy cuts, state asset sales and a government efficiency drive.

The reforms have been well-received by much of Saudi Arabia’s overwhelmingly young population, but resented among some of the more conservative old guard.

The crown prince has also led Saudi Arabia into a two-year-old war in Yemen, where the government says it is fighting Iran-aligned militants, and into a dispute with Qatar, which it accuses of backing terrorists, a charge Doha denies. Detractors of the crown prince say both moves are dangerous adventurism.

The Saudi-led military coalition said on Monday it would temporarily close all air, land and sea ports to Yemen to stem the flow of arms from Iran to Houthi rebels after a missile fired toward Riyadh was intercepted over the weekend.

Saudi Prince Alwaleed’s investments: http://tmsnrt.rs/2j5fE04

 

(Reporting By Stephen Kalin, Editing by William Maclean)

 

Turkey purges hundreds of civil servants in latest decrees

Turkey purges hundreds of civil servants in latest decrees

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey dismissed hundreds civil servants and boosted President Tayyip Erdogan’s powers over the MIT national intelligence agency in two decrees published on Friday, the latest under emergency rule imposed after last year’s attempted coup.

Turkey has sacked or suspended more than 150,000 officials in purges since the failed putsch, while sending to jail pending trial some 50,000 people including soldiers, police, civil servants.

The crackdown has targeted people whom authorities say they suspect of links to the network of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed by Ankara for the coup.

Under the latest decrees, published in the government’s Official Gazette, more than 900 civil servants from ministries, public institutions and the military were dismissed. Those sacked included more than 100 academic personnel.

According to the decrees, the president’s permission will be required for the head of the MIT national intelligence agency to be investigated or to act as a witness. The president will also chair the national intelligence coordination board.

The Ankara chief prosecutor’s office will have the authority to investigate members of parliament for alleged crimes committed before or after an election, according to one of the measures.

One of the decrees also ordered the closure of the pro-Kurdish news agency Dihaber and two newspapers, all based in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. Since the coup, some 130 media outlets have been closed and around 150 journalists jailed.

Such measures have alarmed Turkey’s Western allies and rights groups, who say Erdogan has used the attempted coup as a pretext to muzzle dissent.

Some 250 people were killed in last year’s coup attempt, and the government has said the security measures are necessary because of the gravity of the threats facing Turkey. Gulen has condemned the coup attempt and denied involvement.

Under the decrees, Turkey will also recruit 32,000 staff for the police, along with 4,000 judges and prosecutors.

(Reporting by Ceyda Caglayan; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Robert Birsel and David Dolan)

Trump administration switches sides, backs Ohio over voter purges

FILE PHOTO: Voters cast their votes during the U.S. presidential election in Elyria, Ohio, U.S. November 8, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk/File Photo

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) – The Trump administration has reversed an Obama administration stance and will support Ohio in its bid at the U.S. Supreme Court to revive a state policy of purging people from voter-registration lists if they do not regularly cast ballots.

The Justice Department filed legal papers with the high court on Monday staking out the new position in the voting rights case, backing the Republican-led state’s policy to purge inactive voters.

Former President Barack Obama’s Justice Department had argued in a lower court that Ohio’s policy violated the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which Congress passed to make it easier for Americans to register to vote.

Civil liberties advocates who challenged Ohio’s policy have said it illegally erased thousands of voters from registration rolls and can disproportionately impact minorities and poor people who tend to back Democratic candidates.

The state on Tuesday welcomed the administration’s action but voting rights advocates opposed it. The League of Women Voters accused the administration of “playing politics with our democracy and threatening the fundamental right to vote” by siding with an Ohio policy it said disenfranchises eligible voters.

“Our democracy is stronger when more people have access to the ballot box – not fewer,” the Democratic National Committee added.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati last year blocked Ohio’s policy, ruling that it ran afoul of the 1993 law. The state appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed in May to hear the case.

The legal brief filed by the Justice Department said President Donald Trump’s administration had reconsidered the government’s stance and now supports Ohio.

The brief, signed by Acting U.S. Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall, argued that Ohio’s policy is sound because it does not immediately remove voters from the rolls for failing to vote, but only triggers an address-verification procedure.

The American Civil Liberties Union last year sued Ohio Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted over the policy. The suit said the policy led to the removal of tens of thousands of people from the voter rolls in 2015.

Husted said in a statement he welcomed the federal government’s support, noting Ohio’s policy “has been in place for more than two decades and administered the same way by both Republican and Democrat secretaries of state.”

Under Ohio’s policy, if registered voters miss voting for two years, they are sent registration confirmation notices. If they do not respond and do not vote over the following four years, they are removed from the rolls. Ohio officials argue that canceling inactive voters helps keep voting rolls current, clearing out those who have moved away or died.

Democrats have accused Republicans of taking steps at the state level, including laws imposing new requirements on voters such as presenting certain types of government-issued identification, intended to suppress the vote of groups who generally favor Democratic candidates.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Weakened but defiant, Turkish hunger strikers protest purge

Nuriye Gulmen, a literature professor, and Semih Ozakca, a primary school teacher, who have been on hunger strike after they both lost their jobs in a crackdown following a failed July coup against President Tayyip Erdogan, take part in a protest against a government purge in Ankara, Turkey, May 11, 2017. REUTERS/Alp Eren Kaya

By Ece Toksabay

ANKARA (Reuters) – Painfully thin and walking with care after two months on hunger strike, Nuriye Gulmen and Semih Ozakca arrive in a central Ankara square to protest a government purge which has cost them and tens of thousands of other Turks their jobs and livelihoods.

Arriving to applause at their daily demonstration, they don surgical masks to reduce the risk of infection in their weakened state, before raising their left fists in the air and chanting: “Victory belongs to those who resist!”

Gulmen, a literature professor, and Ozakca, a primary school teacher, have been on hunger strike for 64 days after they both lost their jobs in a crackdown following a failed July coup against President Tayyip Erdogan.

Surviving on a liquid diet of lemon and saltwater and sugar solutions, Gulmen and Ozakca have protested the purge with a simple campaign slogan: “I want my job back!”

But their defiance it taking its toll, and doctors say their health is seriously deteriorating.

“Both of them are experiencing issues regarding perception, mood disorders, mental and motor activities,” said Vedat Bulut, board chairman of Ankara Chamber of Medical Doctors.

He said those symptoms were early signs of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a condition which leads to death in 10-15 percent of patients. “Seventy-seven percent lose their lives due to infections in the long run,” Bulut added.

Gulmen, who has lost 8 kg (18 pounds) and Ozakca, who lost 17 kg (37 pounds), have refused treatment, saying they were aware of the consequences of their resistance.

“We have lost weight, our pulse and blood pressure has dropped, we have problems walking and we are exhausted,” Gulmen told Reuters at the square where she first started protesting six months ago, several months before she stopped eating.

“We were always aware of the risks. We don’t want to stay hungry for another minute. We are calling on everyone concerned to solve the problem with those responsible.”

“DOORS CLOSED”

So far, 145,000 state employees including civil servants, academics and security personnel have been fired since the coup attempt, which Erdogan blamed on followers of U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen. Gulen denies any involvement.

Critics accuse the government of using the coup as a pretext to purge dissident voices from public institutions.

Victims of the purge complain that the stigma which comes with losing their jobs makes it almost impossible to find work that matches their qualifications.

Job seekers say that potential employers are notified on the social security network that the applicant has been purged – making them reluctant to take him or her on.

Some try to find their own work to make ends meet – selling food on the streets or going from door to door in major cities selling goods brought from rural provinces.

“The doors are closed on you when you are purged by a decree. You can’t be employed. They are trying to discipline people by hunger, by isolation, by shame,” said Ozakca’s wife Esra, who also lost her teaching job teacher.

Gulmen was an academic at Eskisehir Osmangazi University, one of more than 7,880 academics who have been sacked by executive decree without chance to appeal.

Since they started their protest, she and Ozakca have been detained and released more than 30 times. She goes to Ankara’s Yuksel Street and, banner in hand, demands her job back from the foot of a sculpture that features a woman reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

While their protest remains isolated for now, they were joined this week by four parliament members from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), who staged a symbolic 24-hour hunger strike in solidarity with them.

“We are not only trying to get our jobs back, we are also in a struggle for our honor,” Semih Ozakca told Reuters.

“If we act together, we will definitely win. Our victory will mean the break up of the fear atmosphere the government is trying to create in Turkey.”

(Editing by Dominic Evans and Pritha Sarkar)

Turkey says detains 1,000 ‘secret imams’ in police purge

Suspected supporters of the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen are escorted by plainclothes police officers as they arrive at the police headquarters in Kayseri, Turkey, April 25, 2017. Olcay Duzgun/Dogan News Agency/via REUTERS

By Ece Toksabay

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish authorities arrested more than 1,000 people on Wednesday they said had secretly infiltrated police forces across the country on behalf of a U.S.-based cleric blamed by the government for a failed coup attempt last July.

The nationwide sweep was one of the largest operations in months against suspected supporters of the cleric, Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of President Tayyip Erdogan who is now accused by the government of trying to topple him by force.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the overnight crackdown targeted a Gulen network “that infiltrated our police force, called ‘secret imams’.

“One thousand and nine secret imams have been detained so far in 72 provinces, and the operation is ongoing,” he told reporters in Ankara.

In the aftermath of the failed July coup, authorities arrested 40,000 people and sacked or suspended 120,000 from a wide range of professions including soldiers, police, teachers and public servants, over alleged links with terrorist groups.

The latest detentions came 10 days after voters narrowly backed plans to expand Erdogan’s already wide powers in a referendum which opposition parties and European election observers said was marred by irregularities.

The referendum bitterly divided Turkey. Erdogan’s critics fear further drift into authoritarianism, with a leader they see as bent on eroding modern Turkey’s democracy and secular foundations.

Erdogan argues that strengthening the presidency will avert instability associated with coalition governments, at a time when Turkey faces multiple challenges including security threats from Islamist and Kurdish militants.

“In Turkey, there was an attempted coup with a goal of toppling the government and destroying the state,” he told Reuters in an interview late on Tuesday.

“We are trying to cleanse members of FETO inside the armed forces, inside the judiciary and inside the police,” he said, using an acronym for the label, Gulenist Terrorist Organisation, which the government has given to Gulen’s supporters.

The president compared the struggle against Gulen with the state’s battle against Islamic State and Kurdish PKK militants, who are designated terrorist organizations by Turkey, the European Union and the United States.

“We are going to keep up the fight in terms of democracy, fundamental rights and liberties, but at the same time we are going to keep up the fight against PKK, FETO and other terrorist organizations such as Daesh (Islamic State),” he said. “We will continue down this path in a very committed fashion.”

Mass detentions immediately after the attempted coup were supported by many Turks, who agreed with Erdogan when he blamed Gulen for orchestrating the putsch which killed 240 people, mostly civilians. But criticism mounted as the arrests widened.

Many relatives of those detained or sacked since July say they have nothing to do with the armed attempt to overthrow the government, and are victims of a purge designed to solidify Erdogan’s control.

(Editing by Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan)