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)

Victims of Turkey purges fear heavier crackdown after referendum

Mehtap Yoruk, a former Turkish nursery school teacher who was dismissed as part of a massive purge after last July’s failed coup, cleans her chicken and rice stall in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, April 7, 2017. Picture taken April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Sertac Kayar

By Umit Ozdal and Humeyra Pamuk

DIYARBAKIR/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Mehtap Yoruk used to teach in a nursery school in southeast Turkey, until she was sacked last year in a purge of tens of thousands of state employees. Now, she ekes out a living selling chicken and rice from a food cart on a side street, dreaming of being reunited with her classroom full of children.

That day may never come if Sunday’s referendum grants President Tayyip Erdogan sweeping new powers, she said, scooping rice in a paper plate for a customer.

“If there is a ‘Yes’ in the referendum, it will be much harder for us to be reinstated in our jobs. And these removals will probably expand.”

After an abortive coup in July, Turkish authorities arrested 40,000 people and sacked or suspended 120,000 others from a wide range of professions including soldiers, police, teachers and public servants, over alleged links with terrorist groups.

The vast majority of those people, like Yoruk, say they have nothing to do with the armed attempt to overthrow the government, and are victims of a purge designed to solidify the power of an increasingly authoritarian leader.

The referendum has bitterly divided Turkey. Erdogan argues that strengthening the presidency would avert instability associated with coalition governments, at a time when Turkey faces security threats from Islamist and Kurdish militants.

But his critics fear further drift into authoritarianism, with a leader they see as bent on eroding modern Turkey’s democracy and secular foundations.

Mass detentions immediately after the attempted coup were supported by many Turks, who agreed with Erdogan when he blamed U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen for orchestrating the putsch which killed 240 people, mostly civilians.

But criticism mounted as the arrests widened to include people from all walks of life such as midwives and prison guards in remote parts of Turkey, and to pro-Kurdish opposition lawmakers, effectively leaving the nation’s third-biggest party leaderless.

“These purges are not individual cases at all. This is a systemic phenomenon empowered by an environment of lawlessness. And in the case of a ‘Yes’ win that will only get worse,” said Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a doctor and rights activist dismissed earlier this year.

FROM “WAR VETERAN TO TERRORIST”

A report by opposition parliamentarian Zeynep Altiok said that the purge of public employees since the coup had deprived 1.5 million students of their teachers. More than 600 companies were seized by the state, 140,000 passports were revoked and 65 elected mayors ousted, it said last month.

In addition, more than 2,000 journalists were sacked and scores of TV and radio stations, news agencies and newspapers were shut down.

United Nations rights experts said on Thursday those closures had undermined the chance for informed debate on the referendum, and a state of emergency imposed after the failed coup had been used to justify repressive measures which may be just the beginning if Erdogan wins greater powers on Sunday.

“Given the arbitrary and sweeping nature of the emergency decrees issued since July 2016, there is serious concern that such powers might be used in ways that exacerbate the existing major violations of economic, social and cultural rights,” the U.N. experts on education, poverty and free speech said.

After a decade as prime minister, Erdogan assumed the presidency in 2014. He has already transformed what had been a largely ceremonial role into a platform for action, and the referendum would formally grant him executive powers once reserved for the cabinet that answers to parliament.

He has also promised to reinstate the death penalty if the ‘Yes’ vote wins, almost certainly ending Turkey’s decades-long bid to join the European Union, which bars executions. Turkey’s EU candidate status has been one of the brakes on Ankara, requiring steps to improve human rights and transparency.

Aysegul Karaosmanoglu, a headscarved teacher suspended two days after the coup and sacked in September, said the coup was used as an excuse by the government to purge dissidents. A “Yes” win would probably broaden and deepen that crackdown, she said.

“It could create an environment for all dissidents to be hanged, or denied any chance of life,” Karaosmanoglu, 45, said. “I hear they are opening lots of new prisons. I guess they’ll put people like us there”.

She was speaking at a rare gathering in Istanbul this week of purged civil servants and families of those jailed, who came together to publicize their plight. They rejected any link with the failed coup, and some said they were sacked for causes as remote from any real wrongdoing as simply being members of a union which was deemed a Gulenist institution.

Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, denies involvement in the coup. He is a former Erdogan ally whose network was declared a terrorist group by Turkey’s national security council two months before the failed coup.

Ahmet Erkaslan, a gendarmerie officer who was shot by Kurdish militants during a security operation in Diyarbakir’s Sur district last year, says he was sacked from his job without being given a reason. That has transformed him from a war veteran to a so-called terrorist, overnight.

“I still remember the whistle of the bullets as I lay on the ground,” Erkaslan said.

He said he expects it will be difficult to get his job back, regardless of how the country votes in the plebiscite.

“Even if the removals stop, they would no longer employ people who are critical of them,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Dominic Evans and Peter Graff)

North Korea sacks head of secret police amid signs of ‘crack in elite’

North Korean official

By Ju-min Park and James Pearson

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea has dismissed its minister of state security, a key aide to the reclusive state’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, South Korea said on Friday, in what a high-profile defector said would be another sign of a “crack in the elite” in Pyongyang if true.

Kim Won Hong was removed from office as head of the feared “bowibu”, or secret police, in mid-January apparently on charges of corruption, abuse of power and human rights abuses, Jeong Joon-hee, South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokesman, said, confirming media reports.

Jeong did not say how the South knew of Kim’s ouster. But he said there could have been further dismissals in the North where the ruling Workers’ Party’s powerful Organisation and Guidance Department was investigating the ministry of state security.

“There is always a possibility that purges continue as part of constantly strengthening power,” he told a briefing, adding punishment for Kim could be more severe depending on the outcome of the investigation, but he had been dismissed and demoted from the rank of general to major general.

Kim Jong Un became leader in 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, and his consolidation of power has included purges and executions of top officials, South Korean officials have said.

Last year, North Korea’s vice premier for education was executed for not keeping his posture upright at a public event, South Korea said.

Thae Yong Ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador to London who has defected to the South, told Reuters he was not surprised by the news.

“I cannot confirm if the reports are true or not, but this kind of power struggle is quite normal in North Korean history. Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un’s style of control is always one of collective surveillance that checks the power of each organization.

“Kim Jong Un has killed too many high officials and there are a lot of complaints and dissent amongst the high elite because of it. If the demotion of Kim Won Hong is really true, then that’s another sign of a crack in the North Korean elite group.”

It is difficult to independently verify news about top officials in the North, which has angered the West with a series of missile and nuclear weapons tests in defiance of U.N. resolutions and sanctions.

Some reports of executions and purges have proved inaccurate.

North Korea rarely announces purges or executions, although state media confirmed the 2012 execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, widely considered the country’s second most powerful leader, for factionalism and crimes damaging to the economy.

A former defense minister, Hyun Yong Chol, is also believed to have been executed in 2015 for treason, according to the South’s spy agency.

It said he was killed with an anti-aircraft gun.

Impoverished North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North regularly threatens to destroy the South and its main ally, the United States.

(Additional reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Nick Macfie, Robert Birsel)