Loved ones mourn Khashoggi after Riyadh seeks to execute five suspects

People attend a symbolic funeral prayer for Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the courtyard of Fatih mosque in Istanbul, Turkey November 16, 2018. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir

By Stephen Kalin and Sarah Dadouch

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Family and friends of Jamal Khashoggi said funeral prayers in Saudi Arabia and Turkey on Friday for the Saudi journalist killed by agents of his own government, in a case that has sparked a global outcry and mired the kingdom in crisis.

The Saudi public prosecutor said on Thursday it would seek the death penalty for five suspects in the murder inside the country’s Istanbul consulate on Oct. 2. They did not provide names but at least two are senior officials closely associated with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

People holding pictures of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi attend a symbolic funeral prayer for Khashoggi at the courtyard of Fatih mosque in Istanbul, Turkey November 16, 2018. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir

People holding pictures of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi attend a symbolic funeral prayer for Khashoggi at the courtyard of Fatih mosque in Istanbul, Turkey November 16, 2018. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir

In an unusual measure against an important security and economic partner, the U.S. Treasury imposed economic sanctions on 17 Saudis, including Saud al-Qahtani, the crown prince’s former top adviser.

Riyadh maintains that Prince Mohammed had nothing to do with the murder, even as Turkey and some Western allies, including U.S. President Donald Trump, have said ultimate responsibility lies with him as the country’s de facto ruler. Changing Saudi accounts of the murder, including initial denials, have been met with skepticism abroad.

Tens of thousands of worshippers at Mecca’s Grand Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Khashoggi’s hometown, joined in prayers for the deceased, though the imams did not name him.

In Istanbul, mourners raised their hands in prayer outside Fatih Mosque. An imam recited Koranic verses under a tent set up to protect against the rain, and Khashoggi’s friends eulogized him.

“What we heard yesterday from the Saudi public prosecutor is not the justice we were expecting or waiting for, but represents injustice itself,” said Ayman Nour, a liberal Egyptian politician.

An adviser to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan called for Prince Mohammed to distance himself from the legal proceedings.

“There is no chance to have a court proceeding that is independent from the crown prince in Saudi Arabia,” said Yasin Aktay.

For weeks, Khashoggi’s family has urged Saudi and Turkish authorities to find his remains and hand them over for burial, but the Saudi prosecutor said their whereabouts are unknown.

Islamic tradition places immense importance on the proper handling of the dead, mandating quick burial. The revelation that the body was dismembered has thus been particularly disturbing.

The decision to hold prayer services in the absence of a body suggests the family does not expect it to be recovered.

Khashoggi’s son, Salah, met the king and crown prince in Riyadh last month to receive condolences along with other relatives. He then departed for Washington after a travel ban was lifted and told CNN on Nov. 5 that he wanted to bury his father in Medina with the rest of the family.

“We just need to make sure that he rests in peace,” Salah said. “Until now, I still can’t believe that he’s dead. It’s not sinking in with me emotionally.”

NEW LIFE

Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish researcher who had waited outside the Istanbul consulate for hours on the day he was killed and alerted the authorities and the media when he never left the building, called last week for Muslims around the world to perform the funeral prayer for him.

On Thursday, she tweeted a selfie of Khashoggi outside the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina mosque, writing: “Dear Jamal.. rest in peace. We will meet in heaven inshallah (God willing)..!”

Cengiz and Khashoggi met at a conference in Istanbul in May and soon decided to wed. He had entered the consulate that day to obtain documents proving an earlier marriage had ended.

The pair purchased an apartment in Istanbul and Khashoggi was planning to live between there and Washington, where he moved 18 months earlier fearing reprisals for his views. He obtained U.S. residency and wrote for the Washington Post, becoming familiar to many American policymakers.

“I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison,” he wrote in Sept. 2017, referring to intellectuals, activists and clerics arrested under Prince Mohammed.

His murder has provoked the biggest political crisis in a generation for Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter and a supporter of Washington’s plans to contain Iranian influence across the Middle East.

It has also tarnished the image of Prince Mohammed, who has pushed social and economic reforms while cracking down on dissent, upending the delicate balance inside the ruling family, and leading the country into messy conflicts in Yemen and Qatar.

(Additional Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun, writing by Stephen Kalin, Editing by William Maclean)

North Korea’s Kim inspects newly developed ‘tactical’ weapon, releases U.S. prisoner

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects a constructions site of Yangdeok, in this undated photo released on October 31, 2018 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA/via REUTERS/File Photo

By Joyce Lee and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea’s leader publicly inspected a new weapon for the first time in nearly a year, state media reported on Friday, while it also decided to release a U.S. prisoner, sending conflicting signals at a time of sensitive negotiations.

Kim Jong Un’s visit to the test site of a new “tactical weapon” threatened to sour the diplomatic atmosphere as negotiations between his country and the United States appear to have stalled.

“This result today is a justification of the party’s policy focused on defense science and technology, another display of our rapidly growing defense capabilities to the whole region, and a groundbreaking change in strengthening our military’s combat capabilities,” Kim said.

In Washington, in response to the North Korean announcement, a U.S. State Department spokesman said, “We remain confident that the promises made by President Trump and Chairman Kim will be fulfilled.”

The official was referring to an unprecedented summit in June between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim in Singapore, where they agreed to work toward denuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula and establish new relations.

But the agreement was short on specifics, and negotiations have made little headway since.

In a possibly conciliatory gesture, however, North Korea also announced on Friday it was releasing an American citizen detained since October after “illegally” entering North Korea from China.

North Korea has often held previous American detainees for more extended periods.

‘STEEL WALL’

The military test was successful and the weapon could protect North Korea like a “steel wall”, its KCNA news agency said, adding that Kim had observed “the power of the tactical weapon”.

The only picture released by state media showed Kim standing on a beach surrounded by officials in military uniforms, but no weapons were visible.

International weapons experts said the officials around Kim included a leader of the artillery corps of the Korean People’s Army.

South Korea’s defense ministry said it did not have an immediate comment but was analyzing the North Korean weapon test.

Friday’s understated announcement was more likely aimed at reassuring the North Korean military rather than trying to torpedo diplomatic talks, however, said Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

“North Korea is trying to show its soldiers that they are becoming high-tech and keeping a certain level of military capability while trying to eliminate dissatisfaction and worries inside its military,” he added.

The test may also have been a response to recent joint military drills by the United States and South Korea, which North Korea said violated recent pacts to halt to “all hostile acts”, said Yang Uk, an analyst at the Korea Defence and Security Forum.

Kim said the weapons system tested was one in which his father, Kim Jong Il, had taken a special interest during his life, personally leading its development.

Kim’s last publicized military inspection was the launch of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Nov. 29 last year, though he engaged in at least eight other military-related activities this year, the South’s Unification Ministry said.

STALLED TALKS

Kim this year declared his nuclear force “complete” and said he would focus on economic development.

North Korea has continued to showcase its conventional military capabilities, including at a large military parade in its capital, Pyongyang, on Sept. 9.

But any testing of new weapons threatens to raise tension with Washington, which has said there will be no easing in international sanctions until North Korea takes more concrete steps to abandon its nuclear weapons or long-range missiles.

North Korea has increasingly expressed frustration at Washington’s refusal to ease sanctions and recently threatened to restart development of its nuclear weapons if more concessions were not made.

“They’re trying to signal that they are willing to walk away from talks and restart weapons testing,” said Adam Mount of the Federation of American Scientists. “It is the most explicit in a series of escalating statements designed to send this message.”

A meeting in New York planned this month between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korea’s Kim Yong Chol, a senior aide to Kim, was postponed.

On Thursday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said Trump planned to meet Kim again in 2019 and will push for a concrete plan outlining Pyongyang’s moves to end its arms programs.

(Reporting by Joyce Lee and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Jeongmin Kim in Seoul, and Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Clarence Fernandez)

Facing new sanctions, Iranians vent anger at rich and powerful

FILE PHOTO: Iranian rials, U.S. dollars and Iraqi dinars are seen at a currency exchange shopÊin Basra, Iraq November 3, 2018. Picture taken November 3, 2018. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

GENEVA (Reuters) – More Iranians are using social media to vent anger at what they see as the corruption and extravagance of a privileged few, while the majority struggles to get by in an economy facing tighter U.S. sanctions.

The country has been hit by a wave of protests during the last year, some of them violent, but as economic pressures rise, people are increasingly pointing fingers at the rich and powerful, including clerics, diplomats, officials and their families.

One person channeling that resentment is Seyed Mahdi Sadrossadati, a relatively obscure cleric who has amassed 256,000 followers on his Instagram account with a series of scathing posts aimed at children of the elite.

In one recent post, he blasted the “luxury life” of a Revolutionary Guards commander and his son, who posted a selfie online in front of a tiger lying on the balcony of a mansion.

Openly criticizing a well-known member of the powerful military unit that answers to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is in itself an unusual act of defiance.

“A house tiger? What’s going on?” Sadrossadati wrote. “And this from a 25-year-old youth who could not gain such wealth. People are having serious difficulty getting diapers for their child.”

The Iranian rial currency has hit 149,000 to the U.S. dollar on the black market used for most transactions, down from around 43,000 at the start of 2018, as U.S. President Donald Trump vowed to pull out of the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers aimed at curbing its nuclear program.

That has sent living costs sharply higher and made imports less accessible, while the threat of financial punishment from the United States has prompted many foreign companies to pull out of Iran or stay away.

The situation could get worse, as additional sanctions come into force this week.

“SULTAN OF COINS”

Wary of growing frustration over the relative wealth of a few among the population of 81 million, Khamenei has approved the establishment of special courts focused on financial crimes.

The courts have handed out at least seven death sentences since they were set up in August, and some of the trials have been broadcast live on television.

Among those sentenced to death was Vahid Mazloumin, dubbed the “sultan of coins” by local media, a trader accused of manipulating the currency market and who was allegedly caught with two tons of gold coins, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA).

The tough sentences have not been enough to quell frustration, however, with high profile officials and clerics in the firing line.

“Because the economic situation is deteriorating, people are looking for someone to blame and in this way get revenge from the leaders and officials of the country,” said Saeed Leylaz, a Tehran-based economist and political analyst.

Washington is likely to welcome signs of pressure on Iran’s political and religious establishment, as it hopes that by squeezing the economy it can force Tehran to curb its nuclear program and row back on military and political expansion in the Middle East.

Public anger among Iranians has been building for some time.

Demonstrations over economic hardships began late last year, spreading to more than 80 cities and towns and resulting in at least 25 deaths.

CLERICS

In addition to his written contributions, Sadrossadati has posted videos of debates between himself and some of those he has criticized.

In one, he confronted Mehdi Mazaheri, the son of a former central bank governor who was criticized online after a photograph appeared showing him wearing a large gold watch.

In a heated exchange, Sadrossadati shouted: “How did you get rich? How much money did you start out with and how much money do you have now? How many loans have you taken?”

Mazaheri, barely able to get in a reply, said he would be willing to share documents about his finances.

Children of more than a dozen other officials have been criticized online and are often referred to as “aghazadeh” – literally “noble-born” in Farsi but also a derogatory term used to describe their perceived extravagance.

High-profile clerics have also been targeted.

Mohammad Naghi Lotfi, who held the prestigious position of leading Friday prayers at a mosque in Ilam, west Iran, resigned in October after he was criticized on social media for being photographed stepping out of a luxury sports utility vehicle.

Facebook posts labeled Lotfi a hypocrite for highlighting ways that ordinary Iranians could get through the economic crisis during his speeches. The outcry was a major factor in his decision to resign from a post he had held for 18 years.

“The hype that was presented against me in this position … made me resign, lest in the creation of this hype the position of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution be damaged,” Lotfi told state media after stepping down.

“The issue of the vehicle … was all lies that they created in cyberspace,” he added.

He was one of at least four clerics in charge of Friday prayers who have resigned in the last year after being accused on social media of profligacy or financial impropriety.

(Editing by Mike Collett-White)

U.S. ratchets up pressure on Iran with resumption of sanctions

FILE PHOTO: Iranian rials, U.S. dollars and Iraqi dinars are seen at a currency exchange shopÊin Basra, Iraq November 3, 2018. REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States reimposes oil and financial sanctions against Iran on Monday, significantly turning up the pressure on Tehran in order to curb its missile and nuclear programs and counter its growing military and political influence in the Middle East.

The move will restore U.S. sanctions that were lifted under a 2015 nuclear deal negotiated by the administration of President Barack Obama, and add 300 new designations in Iran’s oil, shipping, insurance and banking sectors.

President Donald Trump announced in May that his administration was withdrawing from what he called the “worst ever” agreement negotiated by the United States. Other parties to the deal, including Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, have said they will not leave.

Details of the sanctions will be released at a news conference scheduled for 8:30 a.m. EST (1330 GMT) with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

China, India, South Korea, Japan and Turkey – all top importers of Iranian oil – are among eight countries expected to be given temporary exemptions from the sanctions to ensure crude oil prices are not destabilized.

The countries will deposit Iran’s revenue in an escrow account, U.S. officials have said.

Washington has said it will ensure a well-supplied global oil market, with help from ally Saudi Arabia, as Iran oil is cut back. Front-month Brent crude futures, the international benchmark for oil prices, were at $72.53 per barrel on Monday.

The reimposition of the sanctions comes as the United States is focused on U.S. congressional and gubernatorial elections on Tuesday. Campaigning in Chattanooga, Tennessee, late on Sunday, Trump said his “maximum pressure” policy against Iran was working.

“Iran is a much different country than it was when I took office,” said Trump, adding: “They wanted to take over the whole Middle East. Right now they just want to survive.”

Earlier, thousands of Iranians chanted “Death to America” at a rally to mark the anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. Embassy during the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The International Monetary Fund said on Thursday that Iran should implement policies to safeguard its macroeconomic stability in the face of sanctions.

Senior Iranian officials have dismissed concerns about the impact to its economy.

“America will not be able to carry out any measure against our great and brave nation … We have the knowledge and the capability to manage the country’s economic affairs,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi told state TV on Friday.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Iranian oil: 40 years of revolution, war, sanctions and bans

FILE PHOTO: A gas flare on an oil production platform in the Soroush oil fields is seen alongside an Iranian flag in the Persian Gulf, Iran, July 25, 2005. To match Exclusive OPEC-OIL/ REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/File Photo/File Photo

By Amanda Cooper

LONDON (Reuters) – Nearly 40 years after the 1979 Islamic revolution saw the exit of Western oil companies from Iran, the Iranian oil sector faces yet another costly disruption after a series of interruptions from war, sanctions and diplomatic isolation.

Washington will reapply sanctions to Iran’s oil sector on Nov. 4, after ending its participation in an international deal governing Iran’s nuclear sector. Iran’s oil buyers outside the United States will stop or reduce purchases because of secondary sanctions applied on foreign companies that use the U.S. banking system.

Having lifted a self-imposed revolutionary ban on foreign investors in 1995, Iran has struggled to attract external investment for any sustained period.

The isolation caused by poor relations with the United States and, in recent years, Tehran’s efforts to develop a nuclear capability have prevented Iran building output capacity.

But huge reserves run by the National Iranian Oil Co have helped it cling to its position as one of the world’s five largest oil producers.

The United States stopped buying Iranian oil or investing in Iran’s oil industry in 1979 and has not resumed since.

Iran produces nearly 4 percent of the world’s daily oil supply and over the last 30 years has exported on average two-thirds of that.

The mid-1970s were the heyday of the Iranian oil sector when its output accounted for 10 percent of global production.

It has never returned to the record 6 million barrels per day (bpd) it pumped in 1974.

In that year it pumped 70 percent of the amount produced by OPEC’s biggest producer, its regional political rival Saudi Arabia, and more than three times as much as its neighbor Iraq.

In 2012, when a first round of international nuclear sanctions was imposed, Iran’s output was only a third of Saudi Arabia’s, rising to 41 percent last year and just a little higher than Iraq’s.

Output dropped to a low of 1.5 million bpd in 1980, the year after Shah Mohammed Reza was overthrown, an event that caused the second oil shock across the economies of the West.

It took 23 years for Iran to restore 4 million bpd in 2003, with a post-revolutionary peak last year just short of 5 million bpd of crude and condensate combined

Iran’s exports halved during the depths of the 2012-2016 international sanctions on its nuclear program.

It is unclear what proportion of Iranian crude sales will vanish from international markets after Nov. 4. The United States said on Friday it would temporarily spare from sanctions eight jurisdictions that import Iranian oil. The European Union would not be one of the eight, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

This isn’t Iran’s first round of sanctions. It has devised ways to export oil under the radar, evading detection by switching off the transponders of its fleet of nearly 40 supertankers, using alternatives to the U.S. dollar for payment, or selling crude to private refiners, in small, harder-to-track parcels

(Reporting by Amanda Cooper; Editing by Richard Mably and Dale Hudson)

Under the radar: Iran’s oil exports harder to track as sanctions loom

FILE PHOTO: gas flare on an oil production platform in the Soroush oil fields is seen alongside an Iranian flag in the Gulf July 25, 2005. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/File Photo

By Alex Lawler and Ahmad Ghaddar

LONDON (Reuters) – According to Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih, no one has any idea how much oil Iran will be able to export after new U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic kick in on Nov. 4.

But more precisely, Iran’s shipment figures – crucial to oil markets – are already a mystery.

Iran’s oil exports are becoming harder to measure as ships switch off tracking systems, oil industry sources say, adding uncertainty over how far U.S. sanctions are scaring off buyers. The prospect of more oil heading into storage could make number-crunching even tougher.

Amid pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump to cool the price of oil, the lack of export clarity adds to the challenge for other OPEC members, chiefly top crude supplier Saudi Arabia, to make up for falling Iranian shipments.

Iran is the third-largest producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and estimates of its crude exports in October vary by more than 1 million barrels per day (bpd). That amount is enough to cover the oil demand of Turkey and move prices in the 100-million-bpd world market.

Before Trump’s May announcement of the sanctions, Iranian exports were above 2.5 million bpd.

Falih acknowledged the challenge in an interview with Russia’s TASS news agency published on Oct. 22. “Nobody has a clue what Iranian exports will be,” he said.

An Iranian oil official, asked how much crude Iran was exporting in October, declined to comment.

Oil prices have extended a rally on expectations the sanctions will test OPEC and other producers. Brent crude on Oct. 3 reached $86.74 a barrel, the highest since 2014, although it has since eased to $77.

While the Saudi minister may have been referring to what happens after sanctions kick in, the range of estimates of how much Iran is exporting now is already widening.

“A large set of numbers estimating Iranian October first-half exports have been thrown to the market these last few days, ranging for 1 million bpd to 2.2 million bpd, which is a massive spread,” Kpler, a data intelligence company, said.

According to Refinitiv Eikon data, Iran exported 1.55 million bpd in the first three weeks of October, higher than the 1.33 million bpd seen in the first two weeks of the month.

Kpler put Iranian exports at 1.85 million bpd in the first 24 days of October.

An industry source who also tracks the exports estimated a similar volume of 1.8 million bpd in the first half of October, including vessels not showing on satellite tracking. A second source initially agreed and later trimmed his figure to 1.65 million bpd through Oct. 22.

“It’s pretty high, I have to admit,” this source said of estimated exports in the first two weeks of the month. “It’s possible that there is a drop-off since.”

SIGNAL SWITCHED OFF

At any time, adjustments to tanker schedules and week-by-week variation complicate the task. While easier than in the past due to satellite information, the tracking of tankers is still both art and science.

Another element may be making this harder, industry sources say.

Tankers loading Iranian crude sometimes switch off their AIS signal, an automatic tracking system used on ships, only to switch it back on at a later stage of their journey, according to oil industry sources.

This could create a problem for ship-tracking services trying to pinpoint the exact date, or even the exact hour, on which a tanker loaded its crude cargo.

Neither Iran’s National Iranian Oil Co nor National Iranian Tanker Co responded to an emailed request for comment.

“Concretely, we are able to confirm loadings of vessels having shut down AIS transponders by other means such as satellite imagery or by tracking Iranian-flagged tugs, which has proven especially valuable given the lack of AIS coverage throughout much of the Gulf,” Kpler said.

Iran was believed by oil trading and shipping sources in 2012 to be hiding the destination of its oil sales by strategically switching off vessels’ tracking systems.

Attempts by Reuters to seek official Iranian comment on that development, both in 2012 and for this article, received no response.

Iran insists it will keep exporting oil and says the U.S. sanctions will ensure the market remains volatile.

“Iranian oil exports cannot be stopped,” Tasnim news agency quoted Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh as saying on Oct. 23.

Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said on Sunday: “Despite sanctions, Iran’s oil exports will not fall below a million barrels a day.”

OIL INTO ASIAN STORAGE?

As the number of buyers dwindles, a large volume of Iranian crude is set to arrive at China’s northeast Dalian port this month and in early November.

China intends to cut purchases in November. But Iran is undeterred, planning to send buyers such as India and China oil for storage rather than consumption, making it harder to measure how much oil is reaching the market, sources say.

Analysts, in assessing a producer’s supply of oil to the market, generally do not take into account crude moved into storage.

“We will give them oil even for our inventory there,” a source familiar with Iranian thinking said, referring to India. “The same we will do for China.”

The data seen to date suggests Iranian crude exports in October are still down from at least 2.5 million bpd in April, before Trump in May withdrew the United States from a nuclear deal with Iran and reimposed sanctions.

Exports dropped below 1.2 million bpd under previous sanctions that were lifted following that 2015 nuclear agreement.

While Washington has said it wants to cut Iran’s oil exports to zero, Iran and Saudi Arabia say that is unlikely. The Trump administration is considering waivers on sanctions for countries that are reducing their imports.

Iran says waivers will be granted allowing shipments to continue at a lower level, as it contends that Saudi Arabia and other producers cannot fully replace Iran’s crude exports.

“Waivers are expected, as Saudi Arabia and Russia cannot do it,” the source familiar with Iranian thinking said.

(Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal; editing by Dmitry Zhdannikov and Dale Hudson)

Lawyer of U.S. pastor says to appeal to top Turkish court for his release

FILE PHOTO: U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson reacts as he arrives at his home after being released from the prison in Izmir, Turkey July 25, 2018. Demiroren News Agency/DHA via REUTERS/File Photo

ANKARA (Reuters) – The lawyer of an American Christian pastor on trial on terrorism charges in Turkey said he will appeal to the constitutional court on Wednesday to seek his client’s release.

The case of Andrew Brunson, whose next regular court hearing is on Oct. 12, has become the most divisive issue in a worsening diplomatic row between Ankara and Washington that has triggered a punishing regime of U.S. sanctions and tariffs against Turkey.

“We will appeal tomorrow to the Constitutional Court to lift the house arrest,” lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt told Reuters on Tuesday.

The evangelical pastor is charged with links to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed by Turkey for a failed coup attempt in 2016. He has denied the accusation – as has Gulen – and Washington has demanded his immediate release.

On Monday, President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey was determined to fight, within legal and diplomatic frameworks, “this crooked understanding, which imposes sanctions using the excuse of a pastor who is tried due to his dark links with terror organizations.”

Halavurt said he did not expect the constitutional court to make a ruling before the Oct. 12 hearing, “but we want to have completed our appeal before (then)”.

Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for two decades, has been detained for 21 months on terrorism charges and is currently under house arrest.

Donald Trump, who counts evangelical Christians among his core supporters, has become a vocal champion of the pastor’s case.

The U.S. president believed he and Erdogan had agreed a deal to release him in July as part of a wider agreement, but Ankara has denied this.

(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun; Writing by Ece Toksabay; Editing by Daren Butler and John Stonestreet)

Exclusive: Turkey’s Erdogan says court will decide fate of detained U.S. pastor

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Stephen Adler and Parisa Hafezi

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said a Turkish court, not politicians, will decide the fate of an American pastor whose detention on terrorism charges has hit relations between Ankara and Washington.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday he was hopeful Turkey would release evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson this month. The preacher was moved to house arrest in July after being detained for 21 months.

In an interview with Reuters late on Tuesday while he was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly meetings, Erdogan said any decision on Brunson would be made by the court.

“This is a judiciary matter. Brunson has been detained on terrorism charges … On Oct. 12 there will be another hearing and we don’t know what the court will decide and politicians will have no say on the verdict,” Erdogan said.

If found guilty, Brunson could be jailed for up to 35 years. He denies the charges. “As the president, I don’t have the right to order his release. Our judiciary is independent. Let’s wait and see what the court will decide,” Erdogan said.

U.S. President Donald Trump, infuriated by Brunson’s detention, authorized a doubling of duties on aluminum and steel imported from Turkey in August. Turkey retaliated by increasing tariffs on U.S. cars, alcohol and tobacco imports.

The Turkish lira has lost nearly 40 percent of its value against the dollar this year on concerns over Erdogan’s grip on monetary policy and the diplomatic dispute between Ankara and Washington.

“The Brunson case is not even closely related to Turkey’s economy. The current economic challenges have been exaggerated more than necessary and Turkey will overcome these challenges with its own resources,” Erdogan said.

Turkey’s central bank raised its benchmark rate by a hefty 625 basis points this month, boosting the lira and possibly easing investor concern over Erdogan’s influence on monetary policy. Erdogan said he was against the measure.

“It shows the central bank is independent. As the president, I am against high-interest rates and I am repeating my stance here again,” he said, adding that high rates “primarily scare away investors”.

“This was a decision made by the central bank … I hope and pray that their expectations will be met because high rates lead to high inflation. I hope the other way around will happen this time.”

The lira firmed slightly on Wednesday morning after Erdogan’s assurance on the independence of the central bank was published.

IMPROVING TIES

In an effort to boost the economy and attract investors, Erdogan will travel on Sept. 28 to Germany, a country that is home to millions of Turks.

“We want to completely leave behind all the problems and to create a warm environment between Turkey and Germany just like it used to be,” Erdogan said, adding that he will meet Chancellor Angela Merkel during his visit.

The two NATO members have differed over Turkey’s crackdown on suspected opponents of Erdogan after a failed coup in 2016 and over its detention of German citizens.

On Syria, Erdogan said it was impossible for Syrian peace efforts to continue with President Bashar al-Assad in power.

Earlier this month, Turkey and Russia reached an agreement to enforce a new demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib region from which “radical” rebels will be required to withdraw by the middle of next month.

But Erdogan said the withdrawal of “radical groups” had already started.

“This part of Syria will be free of weapons which is the expectation of the people of Idlib … who welcomed this step,” he said. The demilitarized zone will be patrolled by Turkish and Russian forces.

Close to 3 million people live in Idlib, around half of them displaced by the war from other parts of Syria.

Erdogan said Turkey will continue to buy natural gas from Iran in line with its long-term supply contract despite Trump’s threats to punish countries doing business with Iran.

“We need to be realistic … Am I supposed to let people freeze in winter? …Nobody should be offended. How can I heat my people’s homes if we stop purchasing Iran’s natural gas?,” he said.

Trump pulled the United States out of a 2015 multinational nuclear deal with Iran and in August Washington reimposed sanctions on Tehran, lifted in 2016 under the pact. U.S. sanctions on Iran’s energy sector are set to be re-imposed in November.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Andrew Heavens)

U.S. accuses Myanmar military of ‘planned and coordinated’ Rohingya atrocities

FILE PHOTO: A Myanmar soldier patrols in a boat at the Mayu river near Buthidaung in the north of Rakhine state, Myanmar September 13, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer

By Matt Spetalnick and Jason Szep

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. government investigation has found that Myanmar’s military waged a “well-planned and coordinated” campaign of mass killings, gang rapes and other atrocities against the Southeast Asian nation’s Rohingya Muslim minority.

The U.S. State Department report, which was released on Monday, could be used to justify further U.S. sanctions or other punitive measures against Myanmar authorities, U.S. officials told Reuters.

But it stopped short of describing the crackdown as genocide or crimes against humanity, an issue that other U.S. officials said was the subject of fierce internal debate that delayed the report’s rollout for nearly a month.

The report, which was first reported by Reuters, resulted from more than a thousand interviews of Rohingya men and women in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, where almost 700,000 Rohingya have fled after a military campaign last year in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

“The survey reveals that the recent violence in northern Rakhine State was extreme, large-scale, widespread, and seemingly geared toward both terrorizing the population and driving out the Rohingya residents,” according to the 20-page report. “The scope and scale of the military’s operations indicate they were well-planned and coordinated.”

Survivors described in harrowing detail what they had witnessed, including soldiers killing infants and small children, the shooting of unarmed men, and victims buried alive or thrown into pits of mass graves. They told of widespread sexual assault by Myanmar’s military of Rohingya women, often carried out in public.

Myanmar government spokesman Zaw Htay declined to comment when reached on Tuesday and said he was unable to answer questions by telephone.

Calls to military spokesman Major General Tun Tun Nyi were unanswered.

One witness described four Rohingya girls who were abducted, tied up with ropes and raped for three days. They were left “half dead,” he said, according to the report.

Human rights groups and Rohingya activists have put the death toll in the thousands from the crackdown, which followed attacks by Rohingya insurgents on security forces in Rakhine State in August 2017.

U.N. REPORT FOUND ‘GENOCIDAL INTENT’

The results of the U.S. investigation were released in low-key fashion – posted on the State Department’s website – nearly a month after U.N. investigators issued their own report accusing Myanmar’s military of acting with “genocidal intent” and calling for the country’s commander-in-chief and five generals to be prosecuted under international law.

The military in Myanmar, previously known as Burma, where Buddhism is the main religion, has denied accusations of ethnic cleansing and says its actions were part of a fight against terrorism.

U.S. Senior State Department officials said the objective of the investigation was not to determine genocide but to “document the facts” on the atrocities to guide U.S. policy aimed at holding the perpetrators accountable. The report, however, proposes no new steps.

One of the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it would be up to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo whether to make such a “legal” designation in the future and did not rule out the possibility.

A declaration of genocide by the U.S. government, which has only gone as far as labeling the crackdown “ethnic cleansing,” could have legal implications of committing Washington to stronger punitive measures against Myanmar. This has made some in the Trump administration wary of issuing such an assessment.

The International Criminal Court last week said it had begun an examination of whether the alleged forced deportations of Rohingya could constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Asked whether the new U.S. findings could be used to bolster such international prosecution, the State Department official said no decision had been made on seeking “judicial accountability” over the Rohingya crisis.

The Trump administration, which has been criticized by human rights groups and some U.S. lawmakers for a cautious response to Myanmar, could now face added pressure to take a tougher stand.

Sarah Margon, director of the Washington office of Human Right Watch, said: “What’s missing now is a clear indication of whether the U.S. government intends to pursue meaningful accountability and help ensure justice for so many victims.”

The United States on Monday announced it was almost doubling its aid for displaced Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh and Myanmar, with an extra $185 million.

“The stories from some refugees show a pattern of planning and pre-meditation,” the report said, citing the military’s confiscation in advance of knives and other tools that could be used as weapons.

About 80 percent of refugees surveyed said they witnessed a killing, most often by military or police, according to the report.

“Reports of mutilation included the cutting and spreading of entrails, severed limbs or hands/feet, pulling out nails or burning beards and genitals to force a confession, or being burned alive,” the report said.

Later on Monday, the Public International Law and Policy Group, a Washington-based human rights law firm contracted by the State Department to conduct the refugee interviews, issued a companion report saying it provided 15,000 pages of documentation of “atrocity crimes.”

The State Department’s investigation was modeled on a U.S. forensic examination of mass atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2004, which led to a U.S. declaration of genocide that culminated in sanctions against the Sudanese government.

Any stiffer measures against Myanmar authorities could be tempered, though, by U.S. concerns about complicating relations between civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and the powerful military which might push Myanmar closer to China.

The U.S. government on Aug. 17 imposed sanctions on four military and police commanders and two army units but Myanmar’s military chief, Min Aung Hlaing, was spared. Further targeted sanctions have been under consideration, officials said earlier.

Min Aung Hlaing made his first public comments since the U.N. report in a military-run newspaper on Monday, saying that Myanmar abided by U.N. pacts but “countries set different standards and norms” and outsiders have “no right to interfere”.

The Rohingya, who regard themselves as native to Rakhine state, are widely considered as interlopers by Myanmar’s Buddhist majority and are denied citizenship.

(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick and Jason Szep; Editing by Alistair Bell and Michael Perry)

Exclusive: EU to agree new sanctions regime for chemical attacks

FILE PHOTO: Bags containing protective clothing are seen after Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) left after visiting the scene of the nerve agent attack on former Russian agent Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, Britain March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/File Photo

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union envoys are set to agree a new mechanism to punish chemical weapons’ attacks by targeting people blamed for using banned munitions regardless of their nationality, diplomats said.

The legal regime, based on a French proposal to combat what Paris and London say is the repeated use of chemical weapons by Russia and Syria, would allow the EU to impose sanctions more quickly on specific individuals anywhere in the world, freezing their assets in the bloc and banning them from entry.

Ambassadors from the EU’s 28 governments are expected to approve the regime at their weekly meeting on Wednesday, without debate.

The EU already has sanctions lists for Syria and Russia, but under the current system individuals must be added to special country lists. These are complex to negotiate and difficult to expand because some EU governments are reluctant to criticize close partners, particularly Moscow.

“This is significant because we will be able to add names without a big, sensitive debate,” said one senior EU diplomat involved in the negotiations. “We can try to uphold certain rights rather than just issuing statements.”

Banned two decades ago under an international treaty, the rising use of nerve agents has alarmed Western governments.

Recent cases include the assassination of the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2017 and the attempted murder of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in March.

EU diplomats say the new chemical weapons regime could be followed up by a similar mechanism for human rights violations, similar to the United States’ Global Magnitsky Act, which allows Washington to sanction individuals for abuses or corruption.

The regime, due to be given a final stamp of approval by EU foreign ministers on Oct. 15, will still need the support of all EU governments for names to be added, according to a preparatory paper seen by Reuters.

It was not immediately clear if Britain would propose to add two Russians accused of poisoning Skripal and his daughter.

But diplomats say it is a possibility as Britain has been unable to convince other EU countries to back new sanctions on Russia over the case.

Britain has charged two Russian men, identified as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, with attempting to murder Skripal and his daughter Yulia by spraying a chemical weapon on Skripal’s front door in the English city of Salisbury.

France pushed the EU sanctions regime in part because the United Nations Security Council has been deadlocked over how to set up an independent inquiry for chemical attacks in Syria.

Russia rejected a joint draft resolution by Britain, France and the United States earlier this year.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott, editing by Ed Osmond)