U.N. official urges China not to deport North Korean escapees, who could face torture

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea Tomas Ojea Quintana speaks during a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – China should not repatriate the increasing number of North Korean escapees it has arrested in recent months, because severe punishment faces those sent home, a U.N. human rights investigator said on Friday.

At least 30, if not more, North Korean escapees have been rounded up in raids across China since mid-April, families and activist groups told Reuters this month, in what activists have called a “severe” crackdown.

At the time, the Chinese foreign ministry told Reuters it was not aware of any arrests. Activists and lawyers say there is no sign yet that the North Koreans have been deported.

“Information suggests China may have recently strengthened the search for North Korean escapees in collaboration with the government of North Korea,” said Tomas Ojea Quintana, a U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea.

“Repatriated North Koreans are at great risk of serious human rights violations, including torture,” Quintana told reporters in the South Korean capital of Seoul.

“The government of North Korea criminalizes those who cross the border irregularly.”

Quintana said he had raised concerns over the fate of North Korean escapees detained in China, and discussed the issue with South Korean officials during his trip to Seoul.

Escapees may face particularly severe punishment, including being sent to political prison camps, if they intended to defect to South Korea or if they were helped by Christian groups, he said.

Quintana displayed an old lock that he had been given by a boy who escaped from North Korea.

“He gave me this lock as a symbol of the need to open up the country,” Quintana said.

The United Nations has previously raised concern over North Korea’s continued use of political prison camps, and Quintana said people “live in fear of being sent to them”.

The North Korean government plays a role in exacerbating the country’s food shortages, he added.

North Korean officials have adopted “failing economic and agricultural policies”, including central rationing systems plagued by shortcomings and discriminatory allocation, he said.

Climate conditions, infertile land, and the negative impact of sanctions had contributed to food insecurity, Quintana said.

“At the same time the government is not developing conditions where people can securely access food through markets without being criminalized.”

He said he supported the reopening of the Kaesong industrial complex in North Korea, which was a joint economic project with South Korea that has been shut down for several years.

The jobs provided to North Koreans at the factories there improved employees’ lives and as a human rights matter, the project should be reopened, Quintana said.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel)

Portugal tackles labor trafficking on farms but resources scarce

A Thai worker drinks, during a labour conditions control at a red fruit farm near Odemira, Portugal February 7, 2019. Picture taken February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

By Catarina Demony

ODEMIRA, Portugal (Reuters) – Portugal is cracking down on labor trafficking, carrying out thousands of raids on farms suspected of trapping poor migrants in unpaid work, with the known number of victims almost doubling in less than a decade.

“Labor exploitation in agricultural areas, especially in the Alentejo region, is out of control,” said Acasio Pereira, president of the inspectors’ union in Portugal’s Immigration and Border Service (SEF).

A European Commission report in December said that in 2015-16 Portugal had a higher proportion of labor trafficking victims per one million of the population than any other European Union state except Malta.

Most victims are men and predominantly from Eastern Europe as well as India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh, said SEF.

Portuguese investigators say typical victims are impoverished migrants brought to Portugal by trafficking rings with the promise of a job advertised on the Internet.

But once put to work, their identity documents are often confiscated and their pay withheld, with many packed into grim, common living quarters with few amenities.

“Human trafficking is a phenomenon that really worries us,” Filipe Moutas, a police captain in Portugal’s National Republican Guard (GNR), told Reuters as a team checked workers’ employment contracts and identity documents during a raid on a 100-acre (40-hectare) raspberry farm in Alentejo last week.

“We keep a close eye on this and regularly carry out operations of this kind. Our main concern is labor trafficking because that’s the reports we have been receiving.”

Thai workers wait for a labour conditions control at a red fruit farm near Odemira, Portugal February 7, 2019. Picture taken February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

Thai workers wait for a labour conditions control at a red fruit farm near Odemira, Portugal February 7, 2019. Picture taken February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

CRACKDOWN

The Feb. 7 raid began with four police cars driving into the middle of a field where officers jumped out to locate the owner, who had Thais and Bulgarians in his workforce.

Police found no irregularities this time. All workers had the required work permits and their contracts were in order.

“I don’t recruit anyone abroad,” said the farm owner, who wished not to be named. “I need people and they just come.”

But in another raid a few weeks earlier in the nearby city of Beja, police found 26 victims of trafficking and arrested six Romanians, the biggest bust of its kind to date, the SEF said.

The Council of Europe reported last year that labor trafficking was rising across the continent and had overtaken sexual exploitation as the “predominant form of modern slavery” in several countries including Britain, Belgium and Portugal.

Portugal’s human trafficking observatory said authorities conducted 4,539 raids and inspections in 2017 at farms and other premises including shops suspected of exploiting labor. The number of known victims rose from 86 in 2010 to 175 in 2017.

The latest figures for 2018 are not yet out but Pereira said the numbers did not reflect the true scale of the scourge.

“SEF doesn’t have the capacity to inspect most properties where workers are being abused,” he said, as it had less than 20 inspectors available to probe Portugal’s interior.

Labor trafficking has risen as Portugal’s native population has aged and declined due to falling birth rates and emigration to more prosperous northern EU countries.

Another factor has been depopulation of the rural interior as young people leave for cities in search of better-paid jobs.

Meanwhile, agricultural exports have boomed in recent years and large farms need ever more cheap labor.

“The situation is worrying, particularly in sectors where there are not enough workers,” said Pereira, pointing to seasonal jobs including olive and strawberry picking.

“That’s where you find trafficking and exploitation.”

(Reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Axel Bugge and Mark Heinrich)

Indonesian police warn Islamists against raids in search of Santa hats

Islamic Defenders Front

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesian police appealed on Thursday for tolerance and respect for other people’s religious celebrations after an Islamist group threatened to raid businesses to check for Muslims being forced to wear Santa Claus hats or other Christmas garb.

The hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) said this week it would conduct “sweeping operations” in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, and that forcing Muslims to wear Christmas attire was a violation of their human rights.

Indonesia is home to several religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and people who follow traditional beliefs.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion in an officially secular state though tension between followers of different faiths can flare.

“There can be no sweeping operations … members of the public should respect other religions that are carrying out celebrations,” national police chief Tito Karnavian told police during a security exercise in the capital, Jakarta.

The FPI said it aimed to enforce a fatwa, or decree, issued by Indonesia’s Islamic Clerical Council in 2016 prohibiting business owners from forcing employees to wear Christmas clothing.

“We will raid businesses in anticipation of them being stubborn about this and we will be accompanied by police,” said Novel Bakmukmin, head of the FPI’s Jakarta chapter.

Employers forcing staff to wear Christmas clothes were violating their rights.

“Businesses should be aware that there should be no forcing,” he said.

The Islamic Clerical Council’s decrees are not legally binding but serve as guidelines for Indonesian Muslims.

Christmas is widely celebrated across Indonesia and holiday decorations are ubiquitous, especially at shops, restaurants and malls where many enthusiastic workers – even Muslims – don Santa hats or elf costumes.

The FPI built its reputation with raids on restaurants and bars serving alcohol during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

In recent years, it has turned its attention to Christian celebrations.

The group has also said it wants the Jakarta city government to stop sponsoring New Year celebrations, which attract many thousands of people.

About 90,000 police officers will be on duty cross the country during the end-of-year holidays, in an operation largely aimed at preventing militant attacks.

Attacks on churches in Jakarta and elsewhere on Christmas Eve in 2000, killed nearly 20 people. Ever since, authorities have stepped up security at churches and tourist spots for the holiday.

(Reporting by Djohan Widjaya and Kanupriya Kapoor; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Venezuela security agents seize opposition leaders from homes: family

Venezuela security agents seize opposition leaders from homes: family

By Corina Pons

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan security officials seized two opposition leaders from their homes in overnight raids, their families said on Tuesday, after they urged protests against a new legislative superbody widely denounced as anti-democratic.

Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma were both under house arrest, the former for his role in leading street protests against President Nicolas Maduro in 2014 and the latter on charges of plotting a coup.

“12:27 in the morning: the moment when the dictatorship kidnaps Leopoldo at my house,” Lopez’s wife Lilian Tintori wrote on Twitter.

She posted a link to a video that appeared to show Lopez being led into a vehicle emblazoned with the word Sebin, Venezuela’s intelligence agency.

The Information Ministry did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Lopez and Ledezma are both former mayors in Caracas, and high-profile critics of Maduro.

They had called on Venezuelans to join protests over Sunday’s election of the constituent assembly, which supersedes an opposition-controlled congress that a pro-Maduro Supreme Court had already stripped of its powers.

At least 10 people were killed in unrest during the vote, which was boycotted by the opposition and criticized around the world as an assault on democratic freedoms.

“They have kidnapped @leopoldolopez because he simply would not break under the pressures and false promises of the regime,” wrote Freddy Guevara, a legislator from Lopez’s Popular Will party.

Vanessa Ledezma said she held Maduro responsible for what happened to her father.

“The Sebin just took him,” she wrote on Twitter, posting a video of intelligence agents taking Ledezma, who was dressed in pyjamas.

He was granted house arrest in 2015 after being imprisoned on charges of leading a coup against Maduro.

Lopez was granted house arrest in July following three years in prison for his role in anti-government street protests in 2014. His release was considered a major breakthrough in the country’s political standoff.

Lopez’s lawyer, Juan Gutierrez, wrote on Twitter that “there is no legal justification to revoke the house arrest measure.”

(Writing by Brian Ellsworth; editing by John Stonestreet)

Australia ramps up airport security after alleged plane bomb plot

Australia Federal Police officers patrol the security lines at Sydney's Domestic Airport in Australia, July 31, 2017, following weekend raids related to a plot against Australia's aviation sector.

By Tom Westbrook

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Stricter screening of passengers and luggage at Australian airports will stay in place indefinitely after police foiled an alleged “Islamic-inspired” plot to bring down a plane, which local media said may have involved a bomb or poisonous gas.

The ramped up security procedures were put in place after four men were arrested at the weekend in raids conducted across several Sydney suburbs.

The men are being held without charge under special terror-related powers.

The Australian Federal Police would not confirm media reports the alleged plot may have involved a bomb disguised in a meat grinder or the planned release of poisonous gas inside a plane.

Australian Federal Police (AFP) Commissioner Andrew Colvin told reporters on Monday that the plot specifics were still being investigated.

“What you are seeing at the moment is making sure that there is extra vigilance, to make sure that we aren’t cutting any corners in our security, to make sure that we are absolutely focused on our security,” Colvin said.

Police on Monday were still searching several Sydney properties for evidence. Pictures showed forensic-specialist officers wearing masks and plastic jumpsuits inside the properties and combing through rubbish bins outside.

Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton told reporters in Melbourne on Monday that the alleged plot to down an aircraft could prompt longer-term airport security changes.

“The security measures at the airports will be in place for as long as we believe they need to be, so it may go on for some time yet,” said Dutton.

“It may be that we need to look at the security settings at our airports, in particular our domestic airports, for an ongoing enduring period,” he said.

Dutton advised passengers to arrive at airports three hours before international flights and two hours for domestic flights in order to clear the heightened security.

Inter-state travelers are subjected to far less scrutiny than those traveling abroad with no formal identification checks required for domestic trips.

Passengers at major Australian airports, including Sydney, experienced longer-than-usual queues during the busy Monday morning travel period. A Reuters witness said the queues had disappeared at Sydney Airport by lunch-time.

A source at a major Australian carrier said airlines and airports had been instructed by the government to ramp up baggage checks as a result of the threat, with some luggage searches now being conducted as passengers queued to check in their bags.

Counter-terrorism police have conducted several recent raids, heightening tensions in a country that has had very few domestic attacks.

On Monday, three males pleaded guilty in the New South Wales state Supreme Court to “conspiracy to commit acts in preparation for a terrorist act or acts” in 2014, a court spokeswoman said, while another two pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

Police previously said the men planned an attack on targets which included the AFP headquarters in Sydney, along with civilian targets. The offences are not related to the alleged plane bomb plot.

The 2014 Lindt cafe siege in Sydney, in which the hostage-taker and two people were killed, was Australia’s most deadly violence inspired by Islamic State militants.

 

 

(Reporting by Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY. Additional reporting by Byron Kaye and Jason Reed in SYDNEY and Jamie Freed in SINGAPORE. Writing by Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Michael Perry)

 

Turkish police say seeking 144 people over links to failed coup, 35 detained

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish police said on Tuesday they are seeking 144 people including police, soldiers and prosecutors, over suspected links to the network of a U.S.-based cleric blamed by Ankara for orchestrating last year’s failed coup.

In raids across 42 provinces, 35 of the 144 wanted people have already been detained, the police said in a statement, adding that the suspects were thought to be using ByLock, an encrypted messaging app the government says was used by preacher Fethullah Gulen’s followers.

Turkey accuses Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile for almost 20 years, of running a decades-long campaign to overthrow the state through the infiltration of Turkish institutions, particularly the military, police and judiciary.

The investigation, launched by Istanbul chief prosecutor’s office, was targeting the Gulenist structure within the army, the police said, although the individuals also included academics and lawyers.

The cleric denies the charges.

Earlier, broadcaster CNN Turk reported that Turkish authorities issued arrest warrants for 33 people at the telecommunications watchdog and 36 people at the capital markets watchdog.

Since the aftermath of the failed July coup, authorities have arrested 50,000 people and sacked or suspended 150,000 from a wide range of professions including soldiers, police, teachers and public servants, over alleged links with terrorist groups.

As the arrests widened, criticism mounted, with opponents saying the crackdown had been used to crush all dissent against President Tayyip Erdogan.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by David Dolan and Dominic Evans)

Over 680 arrested in U.S. immigration raids; rights groups alarmed

US Immigration officers detaining illegal immigrants

By Julia Edwards Ainsley and Kristina Cooke

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. immigration officers last week arrested more than 680 people in the country illegally, the homeland security chief said on Monday, in a broad enforcement action that alarmed immigrant rights groups.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said the operations, conducted in at least a dozen states, were routine and consistent with regular operations carried out by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Immigrant rights advocates said the operations, which they describe as raids, were not business as usual, and were more sweeping than operations conducted during the administration of former Democratic President Barack Obama.

Kelly said in a statement that 75 percent of the immigrants arrested have criminal records, ranging from homicide to driving under the influence of alcohol.

He said the operation also targeted people who have violated immigration laws.

Some had ignored final orders of deportation, according to ICE, the agency responsible for immigrant arrests and deportations.

Obama was criticized for being the “deporter in chief” after he deported over 400,000 people in 2012, more than any president in a single year.

In 2014, Obama’s homeland security chief issued a memo directing agents to focus on deporting a narrow slice of immigrants, namely those who had recently entered the country or committed serious felonies. Immigrants who were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, for example, were treated as lower priorities for deportation.

Republican President Donald Trump promised to deport 2 million to 3 million migrants with criminal records on taking office.

At a news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday, Trump said his administration had “really done a great job” in its recent arrests of immigrants.

“We’re actually taking people that are criminals, very, very, hardened criminals in some cases with a tremendous track record of abuse and problems,” Trump said.

ICE said in a statement on Monday that the operations targeted immigrants in the Midwest, Los Angeles, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and San Antonio.

The ICE statistics revealed regional differences in the profiles of the immigrants arrested. Of the 41 people arrested in New York City and surrounding areas, 93 percent had criminal convictions, while 45 percent of the 51 people arrested in the San Antonio, Texas area did.

Among the 190 people arrested in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, were 17 people who had no criminal convictions or a prior order to leave the country, according to ICE.

In a Jan. 25 executive order, Trump broadened an Obama-era priority enforcement system for immigrants subject to removal from the United States.

“Now it seems like anyone could be arrested,” said Shiu-Ming Cheer, senior staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. “The level of fear and anxiety is much higher than I’ve ever seen it.”

(Reporting by Julia Edwards Ainsley and Kristina Cooke; Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson; Editing by Peter Cooney and Lisa Shumaker)