Russian nuclear-powered sub enters service amid arms control fears

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia’s most-advanced new nuclear-powered submarine entered service on Friday, the defense ministry said, at a time of growing arms control tensions between Moscow and the West.

The Knyaz Vladimir (Prince Vladimir) – designed to carry Bulava intercontinental nuclear missiles – was enrolled in the navy during Friday’s Russia Day celebrations.

The announcement comes against the background of a rift with Western powers over Ukraine and fears of a burgeoning arms race following the demise of a landmark Cold War-era nuclear pact.

The Borei-A (Boreas) class submarine is named after a ruler of the medieval Kievan Rus, the territory in modern-day Ukraine from which the Russian state would later emerge.

The first upgraded 955A model to be produced in the Borei class is one of the centerpieces in President Vladimir Putin’s plans to upgrade the nuclear-powered fleet.

The Borei submarine project, which started shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, had long been plagued by shortages of cash and failures during tests of the Bulava missile.

The global arms control architecture erected during the Cold War to keep Washington and Moscow in check has come under strain since the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

In August last year, the United States pulled out of the accord that banned the deployment of short and intermediate-range missiles, accusing Moscow of flouting it, something Russia denies.

The last major nuclear arms control treaty between Russia and the United States, the New START treaty, is due to expire in 2021. It limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads the world’s two biggest nuclear powers can deploy.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Trump administration to bar Chinese passenger carriers from flying to U.S.

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s administration on Wednesday barred Chinese passenger carriers from flying to the United States starting on June 16 as it pressures Beijing to let U.S. air carriers resume flights amid simmering tensions between the world’s two largest economies.

The move, announced by the U.S. Department of Transportation, penalizes China for failing to comply with an existing agreement on flights between the two countries. U.S.-Chinese relations have soured in recent months amid tensions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and Beijing’s move to impose new national security legislation for Hong Kong.

The order applies to Air China <601111.SS>, China Eastern Airlines Corp, China Southern Airlines Co <600029.SS> and Hainan Airlines Holding Co <600221.SS>, as well as smaller Sichuan Airlines Co and Xiamen Airlines Co.

Delta Air Lines <DAL.N> and United Airlines <UAL.O> have asked to resume flights to China this month, even as Chinese carriers have continued U.S. flights during the pandemic.

Delta said in a statement on Wednesday that “we support and appreciate the U.S. government’s actions to enforce our rights and ensure fairness.” United did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

China “remains unable” to say when it will revise its rules “to allow U.S. carriers to reinstate scheduled passenger flights,” a formal order signed by the Transportation Department’s top aviation official Joel Szabat said.

“We will allow Chinese carriers to operate the same number of scheduled passenger flights as the Chinese government allows ours,” the department said in a separate statement.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Trump administration on May 22 accused China’s government of making it impossible for U.S. airlines to resume service to China and ordered four Chinese carriers to file flight schedules with the U.S. government.

CHARTER FLIGHTS

The Chinese carriers are flying no more than one scheduled round-trip flight a week to the United States but also have flown a significant number of additional charter flights, often to help Chinese students return home.

Hainan had planned to fly between New York’s JFK airport and Chongqing starting in July, while other carriers have flights to Los Angeles and New York. China Eastern wants to resume additional flights later this year to Chicago and San Francisco.

The Trump administration is also cracking down on Chinese passenger airline charter flights and will warn carriers not to expect approvals. The Transportation Department order said the administration believes Chinese carriers are using charter flights to circumvent China’s limit of one flight per carrier per week to the United States and “further increasing their advantage over U.S. carriers in providing U.S.-China passenger services.”

On Jan. 31, the U.S. government barred from entry most non-U.S. citizens who had been in China within the previous 14 days due to the coronavirus crisis but did not impose any restrictions on Chinese flights. Major U.S. carriers voluntarily decided to halt all passenger flights to China in February.

Delta and United are flying cargo flights to China. Delta had requested approval for a daily flight to Shanghai Pudong airport from Detroit and Seattle, while United had asked to fly daily to Shanghai Pudong from San Francisco and Newark airport in New Jersey and between San Francisco and Beijing.

China’s air authority in late March said Chinese airlines could maintain just one weekly passenger flight on one route to any given country and that carriers could fly no more than the number of flights they were flying on March 12, according to the U.S. order.

But because U.S. passenger airlines had stopped all flights by March 12, China “effectively precludes U.S. carriers from reinstating scheduled passenger flights to China,” the Transportation Department said.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Will Dunham)

Iran’s Guards say launched first military satellite into orbit

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps said on Wednesday it had successfully launched the country’s first military satellite into orbit, at a time of heightened tensions with the United States over Tehran’s nuclear and missile programmes.

U.S. officials have said they fear long-range ballistic technology used to put satellites into orbit could also be used to launch nuclear warheads. Tehran denies U.S. assertions that such activity is a cover for ballistic missile development and says it has never pursued the development of nuclear weapons.

“Iran’s first military satellite, Noor, was launched this morning from the central desert of Iran. The launch was successful and the satellite reached orbit,” state TV said.

The satellite, whose name Noor means “Light”, was orbiting 425 km (264 miles) above the earth’s surface, they said in a statement on their website.

The force said it used the Qased, or “Messenger”, satellite carrier to launch Noor, without giving details of the technology.

“The three-stage Qased satellite launcher uses a combination of solid and liquid fuels,” it said.

TV footage showed the satellite carrier was inscribed with a verse of the Koran that Muslims often recite when travelling: “Glory to Him who has subjected this to us, as we could never have done it by our own efforts”.

Regional tensions have been high since the start of the year.

In the latest sabre-rattling, U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he had instructed the U.S. Navy to fire on Iranian ships if harassed, a week after the United States said 11 vessels from the Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) came dangerously close to U.S. vessels in the Gulf.

“I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea,” Trump wrote in a tweet, hours after Tehran’s announcement of the satellite launch.

Iran immediately reacted by saying that The United States should focus on saving its military from the coronavirus disease “instead of bullying others”.

In early January, top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad. Iran retaliated on Jan. 9 by firing missiles at bases in Iraq where U.S. troops were stationed.

NUCLEAR DEAL

Trump administration reimposed sanctions on Iran following Washington’s 2018 withdrawal from a 2015 international accord designed to put curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for Tehran halting its sensitive nuclear work.

Trump said the nuclear deal did not go far enough and also did not include restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile programme and support for its proxies in the Middle East.

Israel, which Tehran refuses to recognise, called on the international community to condemn Iran’s satellite launch.

“Israel calls upon the international community … to impose further sanctions on the Iranian regime. All in order to deter it from continuing such dangerous and opposing activity,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Despite the launch, analysts said Tehran and Washington would not seek a conventional war.

“This is psychological warfare to send a message and tell the adversary that ‘we are ready to stop any offensive’,” Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army brigadier general and analyst, told Reuters.

“Iran is using this policy as a deterrence. But the result: No effect on the ground. No dramatic effect… Nobody is ready to handle any consequences of war, not America, not Iran or anyone.”

The United States argues that such launches by Iran breach United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which calls upon Tehran not to undertake activities related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

The resolution, which endorsed the nuclear pact between Iran and six major powers, stops short of explicitly barring such activity. Iran says its space programme is peaceful.

Iran’s Guards, which report to the country’s top authority Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have repeatedly warned that U.S. regional bases and its aircraft carriers in the Gulf are within the range of Iranian missiles.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Alex Richardson)

Thousands of Iranians mark revolution anniversary amid peak tensions with U.S.

DUBAI (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Iranians poured into the streets of Tehran and other cities on Tuesday morning to commemorate the 41st anniversary of the Islamic revolution, against a backdrop of escalating tensions with the United States.

State TV showed video footage of rallies in at least half a dozen cities outside the capital, including Mashhad, Ahvaz and Kerman, with people holding signs that read, “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”.

Iran almost got into a full-blown conflict with the United States last month after a U.S. drone strike killed top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Jan. 3, prompting Iran to retaliate with a missile barrage against a U.S. base in Iraq days later.

Tensions spiked between Iran and the United States after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from a multilateral nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and reimposed sanctions in a bid to pressure Tehran to negotiate over its ballistic missile program and ties with regional proxy groups.

Missiles were put on display as part of the anniversary celebrations, according to the Tasnim news agency. Iran’s state TV showed archival footage of missile launches and underground missile storage facilities as part of its anniversary coverage.

The missile program is not intended for attacks on neighboring countries, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Stephen Coates)

U.S. ready to finish any war started with Iran: Defense Secretary

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Tuesday the United States wants to de-escalate tensions with Iran, but the country is ready to finish any war that could be started.

“We are not looking to start a war with Iran, but we are prepared to finish one,” he said. “What we’d like to see is the situation de-escalated.”

The U.S. drone strike on Friday that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani has sharply escalated tensions with Iran, raising fears of all-out conflict. Washington says it killed Soleimani in self-defense, aiming to disrupt his plans to attack U.S. personnel and interests.

Esper defended the intelligence signaling an “imminent threat” from Soleimani that he and other senior U.S. officials have cited to justify the strike, saying it was persuasive.

“The threat was being orchestrated by Soleimani,” Esper said. “I think it was only a matter of days, certainly no more than weeks” before an attack.

Esper suggested on Monday that the U.S. military would not violate the laws of armed conflict by striking Iranian cultural sites, a move threatened by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Asked about the issue again on Tuesday, Esper said he was confident that Trump “will only give us legal orders.”

“We do not violate the laws of armed conflict,” Esper said.

Targeting cultural sites with military action is considered a war crime under international law, including a U.N. Security Council resolution supported by the Trump administration in 2017 and the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Writing by Lisa Lambert and Phil Stewart; Editing by Chris Reese and Lisa Shumaker)

Oil, safe havens surge as U.S. strikes kill Iranian commander

By Herbert Lash and Marc Jones

NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters) – Oil prices surged as much as $3 a barrel as gold, the yen and safe-haven bonds all rallied on Friday after the U.S. killing of Iran’s top military commander in an air strike in Iraq ratcheted up tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Traders were spooked after the death of Major General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force who was also one of Iran’s most influential figures, and by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s vow of revenge.

Mideast-focused oil markets saw the most dramatic moves, with Brent oil futures leaping as much 4.5% to $69.20 a barrel. That was the highest since the attacks on Saudi crude facilities in September, though the impact hit almost every asset class.

Europe’s broad STOXX 600 index fell as much as 1% and shares on Wall Street almost the same as New Year optimism, which had pushed equity markets to new records, evaporated.

The yen rose half a percent against the dollar to a two-month high, the Swiss franc hit its highest against the euro since September and gold prices  climbed to a four-month peak, racing past the key $1,550 an ounce level.

“Geopolitics has come back to the table, and this is something that could have major cross-asset implications,” said Salman Ahmed, Lombard Odier’s chief investment strategist.

“What is critical is how it pans out in the next few days,” Ahmed said. “Whether it turns into a theme depends on Iran’s reaction and then the U.S. response.”

Iran promised harsh revenge. Soleimani’s Quds Force and its paramilitary proxies, ranging from Lebanon’s Hizbollah to the PMF in Iraq, have ample means to mount a response.

In September, U.S. officials blamed Iran for attacking the oil installations of Saudi Aramco, the state energy giant and the world’s largest oil exporter. Iran has denied responsibility for the strikes and accused Washington of war-mongering.

The Trump administration then did not respond, beyond heated rhetoric and threats, and markets settled down within a week after Brent surged 14.6%, its biggest one-day percentage gain since at least 1988.

The U.S. government and others on Friday urged their citizens in the region either to return home or to stay away from potential targets and public gatherings.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a round of TV interviews that the United States remained committed to de-escalation with Iran but that it had needed to defend itself.

“He (Soleimani) was actively plotting in the region to take actions – a big action as he described it – that would have put dozens if not hundreds of American lives at risk. We know it was imminent,” Pompeo told CNN.

MSCI’s gauge of stocks across the globe shed 0.43%, while its emerging markets index lost 0.32%.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones Industrial Average  fell 210.81 points, or 0.73%, to 28,657.99. The S&P 500  lost 18.86 points, or 0.58%, to 3,238.99 and the Nasdaq Composite <.IXIC> dropped 58.26 points, or 0.64%, to 9,033.93.

The global gauge and Wall Street indices set record closing highs on Thursday, extending the year-end rally in equities.

Brent  hit a peak of $69.50 a barrel, its highest since mid-September, though it later traded up $2.40 to $68.65.

West Texas Intermediate  crude  rose $2.20 to $63.38 a barrel, after earlier spiking to $64.09 a barrel, its highest since April 2019.

SCRAMBLE TO SAFETY

Yields on German Bunds and U.S. Treasuries – the world’s benchmark government bonds that are typically seen as the safest assets – fell sharply.

 

The 10-year Bund  yield fell 7 basis points to a two-week low of -0.299%, while Bund futures  were up 0.51 percent, at 172.13 euros.

Benchmark 10-year Treasury notes rose 23/32 in price to yield 1.802%, from 1.882% late on Monday.

The dollar index fell 0.08%, with the euro up 0.06% to $1.1177. The Japanese yen  strengthened 0.59% versus the greenback at 107.94 per dollar.

The focus on geopolitics meant markets paid little attention to stronger-than-expected data from France, where inflation rose 1.6% year-on-year in December, beating analysts’ expectations for a 1.4% rise.

German inflation figures were also higher, although unemployment in Europe’s largest economy rose more than expected.

The U.S. manufacturing sector contracted in December by the most in more than a decade, with order volumes crashing to near an 11-year low and factory employment falling for a fifth straight month, the Institute for Supply Management said.

Investors also were looking forward to the minutes of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s Dec. 10-11 meeting due at 2 p.m. (1900 GMT).

(Reporting by Herbert Lash, additional reporting by Sujata Rao and Dhara Ranasinghe in London and Diptendu Lahiri in Bengaluru; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Iran distances itself further from nuclear deal, alarming Russia, France

Iran distances itself further from nuclear deal, alarming Russia, France
By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran has stepped up activity at its underground Fordow nuclear plant, state TV said on Wednesday, a move France said showed for the first time that Tehran explicitly planned to quit a deal with world powers that curbed its disputed nuclear work.

In another development that could also aggravate tensions between Iran and the West, diplomats said Iran briefly held an inspector for the U.N. nuclear watchdog and seized her travel documents, with some describing this as harassment.

The incident involving an International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) inspector appeared to be the first of its kind since Tehran’s landmark deal with major powers was struck in 2015, imposing restraints on its uranium enrichment program in return for the lifting of international sanctions.

Iran’s decision to inject uranium gas into centrifuges at Fordow, a move that further distances Iran from the accord, was described by Moscow as extremely alarming. Iran once hid Fordow from the IAEA until its exposure by Western spies in 2009.

“With the presence of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran started injecting (uranium) gas into centrifuges in Fordow,” TV reported.

A central aim of the agreement was to extend the time the Islamic Republic would need to assemble a nuclear weapon, if it chose to do so, to a year from about 2-3 months. Iran has repeatedly denied any such intention.

The 2015 deal bans Fordow from producing nuclear material. But, with feedstock gas entering its centrifuges, the facility – built inside a mountain – will move from the permitted status of research plant to being an active nuclear site.

A spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Behrouz Kamalvandi, told state TV later that the injection of uranium gas would start at midnight (2030 GMT). He said the centrifuges there would enrich uranium up to 4.5% fissile purity. Ninety percent purity is required for bomb-grade fuel.

President Hassan Rouhani, an architect of the 2015 deal, blamed Washington for Iran’s rolling back of its commitments, saying Fordow would soon fully resume uranium enrichment work.

“Iran’s fourth step in reducing its commitments under the JCPOA (the 2015 nuclear deal) by injecting gas to 1,044 centrifuges begins today. Thanks to U.S. policy and its allies, Fordow will soon be back to full operation,” Rouhani tweeted.

Last year, U.S. President Donald Trump exited the deal, saying it was flawed to Iran’s advantage. Washington has since renewed and intensified sanctions on Iran, slashing its economically vital crude oil sales by more than 80%.

“PROFOUND SHIFT”

Speaking in China, French President Emmanuel Macron called Iran’s latest move “grave”, saying it explicitly signaled Iran’s intent for the first time to leave the deal.

“I think that for the first time, Iran has decided in an explicit and blunt manner to leave the JCPOA, which marks a profound shift,” said Macron, who has been at the forefront of efforts by European signatories to salvage the deal after the United States withdrew.

When asked whether Paris would support triggering a dispute mechanism enshrined in the deal, Macron said technical and ministerial meetings would be held to discuss the wider implications of Iran’s actions.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said events unfolding around the nuclear deal were deeply disturbing and called on Iran to stick to the terms of the deal.

But he added that Moscow understood why Tehran was cutting back on its commitments, and blamed the situation on the U.S. decision to pull out of the pact.

Responding to Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy, Iran has bypassed the restrictions of the deal step-by-step – including by breaching both its cap on stockpiled enriched uranium and on the fissile level of enrichment.

“Iran has taken its fourth step to decrease its nuclear commitments to the deal in reaction to the increased U.S. pressure and inactivity of European parties to the deal to save it,” Iranian state TV added.

SPEEDING UP ENRICHMENT

In Vienna, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said IAEA inspectors remained on the ground in Iran and would report back on relevant activities.

Iranian authorities said on Tuesday that Tehran will enrich uranium to 5% at Fordow, which will further complicate the chances of saving an accord that European powers, Russia and the European Union have urged Iran to respect.

The agreement capped the level of purity to which Iran can enrich uranium at 3.67% – suitable for civilian power generation and far below the 90% threshold of nuclear weapons grade.

On Monday, Iran said it had accelerated enrichment by doubling the number of advanced IR-6 centrifuges in operation, adding that it was working on “a prototype called the IR-9, which works 50 times faster than IR-1 centrifuges”.

The deal, under which international sanctions against Iran were lifted, was tailored to extend the “breakout time” – how long Iran would need to accumulate enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb.

Iran has given another two-month deadline to Britain, France and Germany to salvage the deal. Leaving room for diplomacy, Tehran says talks are possible if Washington lifts all the sanctions and itself returns to the nuclear deal.

The incident involving the IAEA inspector is due to be discussed at a meeting of the agency’s 35-nation Board of Governors on Thursday convened at short notice to discuss “two safeguards matters” not specified in the agenda.

“The agency wants to show how seriously they are taking this. It is a potentially damaging precedent,” one Western official said. An IAEA spokesman and Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. watchdog declined to comment.

(Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier, Maria Kiselyova, Francois Murphy and John Irish; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)

With U.S.-China tensions running high, hopes dim for end to trade war

By Andrea Shalal and Cate Cadell

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) – Beijing sharply rebuked Washington on Tuesday for adding some top Chinese artificial intelligence startups to its trade blacklist, dimming hopes for progress in high-level talks aimed at ending a 15-month trade war between the two economic giants.

U.S. and Chinese deputy trade negotiators were due to meet in Washington for a second day of talks on Tuesday, laying the groundwork for the first minister-level meetings in over two months later this week.

A report from the South China Morning Post said China had tamped down expectations ahead of the talks scheduled for Thursday with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, saying the Chinese delegation could leave earlier than planned because “there’s not too much optimism.”

The mood soured this week after the U.S. Commerce Department widened its trade blacklist to include 20 Chinese public security bureaus and eight companies including video surveillance firm Hikvision <002415.SZ>, as well as leaders in facial recognition technology SenseTime Group Ltd and Megvii Technology Ltd.

The action bars the firms from buying components from American companies without U.S. government approval, a potentially crippling move. It follows the same blueprint used by Washington in its attempt to limit the influence of Huawei Technologies Co Ltd [HWT.UL] for what it says are national security reasons.

Hikvision, with a market value of about $42 billion, calls itself the world’s largest maker of video surveillance gear.

U.S. officials said the action was tied to China’s treatment of Muslim minorities and human rights violations, provoking a sharp reaction from Beijing.

China said the United States should stop interfering in its affairs. It will continue to take firm and resolute measures to protect its sovereign security, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular media briefing without elaborating.

Major U.S. stock indexes fell on Tuesday, amid the continued tensions between the United States and China, whose tit-for-tat tariffs have roiled financial markets, slowed capital investment, and triggered a slowdown in trade flows.

New International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva issued a stark warning about the state of global growth on Tuesday, saying trade conflicts had thrown it into a “synchronized slowdown” and must be resolved.

In her inaugural speech after taking over the global crisis lender on Oct. 1, Georgieva unveiled new IMF research showing that the cumulative effect of trade conflicts could mean a $700 billion reduction in global GDP output by 2020, or around 0.8%.

LOOMING TARIFF HIKES

The trade talks are taking place days before U.S. tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods are slated to rise to 30% from 25%. Trump has said the tariff increase will take effect on Oct. 15 if no progress is made in the negotiations.

President Donald Trump on Monday said a quick trade deal was unlikely, and that he would not be satisfied with a partial deal.

The two sides have been at loggerheads over U.S. demands that China improve protections of American intellectual property, end cyber theft and the forced transfer of technology to Chinese firms, curb industrial subsidies and increase U.S. companies’ access to largely closed Chinese markets.

Trump launched a new round of tariffs after the last high-level talks in late July failed to result in agricultural purchases or yield progress on substantive issues. China quickly responded with tariff increases of its own.

Washington is also moving ahead with discussions around possible restrictions on capital flows into China, with a focus on investments made by U.S. government pension funds, Bloomberg reported. The news sent shares of chipmakers sharply lower.

Another flashpoint has been a widening controversy over a tweet from an official with the NBA’s Houston Rockets. His backing of Hong Kong democracy protests was rebuked by the National Basketball Association, sparking a backlash.

Trump also called for a peaceful resolution to the protests in Hong Kong, and warned the situation had the potential to hurt trade talks.

Police in Hong Kong have used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons against pro-democracy demonstrators in the former British colony, which has been plunged into its worst political crisis in decades.

Beijing views U.S. support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong as interfering with its sovereignty.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal and David Lawder in Washington and Cate Cadell in Beijing; Writing by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Paul Simao)

Death penalty tensions flare again on divided U.S. Supreme Court

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas talks in his chambers at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. June 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court’s internal divisions over the death penalty were on full display again on Monday in fresh wrangling over how the justices handled recent attempts by two convicted murders in Alabama and Texas to put off their executions.

In both cases, there are signs that tensions over the death penalty – especially skepticism by the court’s conservative majority over last-minute bids by death row inmates to block executions – are coming to a boil after simmering for years.

In the Alabama case, Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the nine-member court’s five conservatives, wrote a 14-page opinion defending its middle-of-the-night April 12 decision to pave the way for the execution of Christopher Price, 46. The court’s order was released too late for Price’s scheduled execution to be carried out, and he remains on death row.

Minutes later, the court issued a new opinion by conservative Justice Samuel Alito criticizing its March 28 decision to issue a stay of execution for Texas inmate Patrick Murphy after the state had blocked a Buddhist spiritual adviser from accompanying him to the execution chamber.

Thomas, whose opinion was joined by Alito and fellow conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, took aim at liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, a frequent critic of the death penalty. Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion from the Price decision that was joined by the court’s three other liberals.

Price had a weak legal argument, Thomas wrote, meaning “it is difficult to see his litigation strategy as anything other than an attempt to delay his execution. Yet four members of the court would have countenanced his tactics without a shred of legal support.”

Breyer is the most vocal critic of the death penalty on the Supreme Court, questioning the constitutionality of capital punishment and arguing that it is imposed arbitrarily and differently in various parts of the country.

In the April vote, the court reversed two lower court decisions that delayed Price’s execution so he could proceed with his request to be executed by lethal gas instead of lethal injection. The Thomas opinion on Monday was issued as the court rejected Price’s underlying appeal.

Price was convicted and sentenced to death in 1993 in the 1991 killing of William Lynn, a minister, in his home in Bazemore, Alabama.

In the Texas case, Alito said Murphy waited too long to bring his claim and that the court’s action to delay his execution would encourage others to bring similar last-ditch actions. Murphy, a Buddhist, had argued his religious rights under the Constitution were violated by the state.

‘NO GOOD REASON’

“This court receives an application to stay virtually every execution; these applications are almost all filed on or shortly after the scheduled execution date; and in the great majority of cases, no good reason for the late filing is apparent,” Alito wrote.

Alito said Murphy’s religious claim might have merit, but prisoners must file such lawsuits “well before their scheduled executions.”

Texas has already changed its policy, which previously allowed only Christians and Muslims to be accompanied by their religious advisers. Now, no religious advisers are allowed in the execution chamber.

Murphy was serving a 50-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault when he and six other inmates broke out of prison in 2000 and went on a rampage in which a police officer was killed.

A month before the Supreme Court’s Murphy decision, the justices voted 5-4 to allow an execution in Alabama to proceed and denied a request by the condemned inmate, a Muslim, for an imam’s presence in the execution chamber. Alito voted to deny both requests.

Gorsuch also complained about last-minute execution challenges when the court ruled on April 1 against Missouri death row inmate Russell Bucklew, who had sought to die by lethal gas rather than lethal injection because of a rare medical condition. Gorsuch said the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment “does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death.”

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

As tensions over aid rise, Venezuelan troops fire on villagers, kill two

People waiting to cross to Venezuela gesture at the border between Venezuela and Brazil in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

By Carlos Suniaga and Nelson Bocanegra

KUMARAKAPAY, Venezuela/CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) – Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, killing two, witnesses said, as President Nicolas Maduro sought to block U.S.-backed efforts to bring aid into his economically devastated nation.

The United States, which is among dozens of Western nations to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president, has been stockpiling aid in the Colombian frontier town of Cucuta to ship across the border this weekend.

With tensions running high after Guaido invoked the constitution to declare an interim presidency last month, Maduro has denied there is a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela despite widespread shortages of food and medicine and hyperinflation.

Maduro, who took power in 2013 and was re-elected in an election last year widely viewed as fraudulent, says opposition efforts to bring in aid are a U.S.-backed “cheap show” to undermine his government.

The socialist president has declared Venezuela’s southern border with Brazil closed and threatened to do the same with the Colombian border ahead of a Saturday deadline by the opposition to bring in humanitarian assistance.

A fundraising concert for Venezuela, backed by British billionaire Richard Branson and featuring major Latin pop stars like Luis Fonsi of “Despacito” fame, attracted nearly 200,000 in Cucuta on Friday, organizers said.

Some political analysts say Saturday’s showdown is less about solving Venezuela’s needs and more about testing the military’s loyalty toward Maduro by daring it to turn the aid away.

With inflation running at more than 2 million percent a year and currency controls restricting imports of basic goods, a growing share of the country’s roughly 30 million people is suffering from malnutrition.

Friday’s violence broke out in the village of Kumarakapay in southern Venezuela after an indigenous community stopped a military convoy heading toward the border with Brazil that they believed was attempting to block aid from entering, according to community leaders Richard Fernandez and Ricardo Delgado.

Soldiers later entered the village and opened fire, killing a couple and injuring several others, they said.

“I stood up to them to back the humanitarian aid,” Fernandez told Reuters. “And they came charging at us. They shot innocent people who were in their homes, working.”

Seven of the 15 injured earlier on Friday were rushed by ambulance across the border and were being treated at the Roraima General Hospital in the Brazilian frontier city of Boa Vista, a spokesman for the state governor’s office said.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not reply to a request for comment. Diosdado Cabello, one of the most prominent figures in Maduro&rsquo;s Socialist Party, accused the civilians involved in the clash of being “violent groups” directed by the opposition.

Venezuelan security forces have executed dozens and detained hundreds of others since protests broke out in January against Maduro’s swearing-in, according to civil rights groups.

The United States condemned “the killings, attacks, and the hundreds of arbitrary detentions”, a State Department official said on Friday.

Meanwhile China, which along with Russia backs Maduro, warned humanitarian aid should not be forced in because doing so could lead to violence.

BLOODSHED ‘NOT IN VAIN’

The bloodshed contrasted with the joyous ambiance at Branson’s “Venezuela Aid Live” in Cucuta, where Venezuelan and Colombian attendees, some crying, waved flags and chanted “freedom” under a baking sun.

“Is it too much to ask for freedom after 20 years of ignominy, of a populist Marxist dictatorship?” Venezuelan artist Jose Luis “El Puma” Rodreguez asked. “To the Venezuelans there, don’t give up, the blood that has been spilled was not in vain”.

Earlier in the day, Branson held a news conference near a never-used road border bridge that has become a symbol of Maduro’s refusal to let aid in after authorities blocked the bridge with shipping containers.

“What we’re hoping is that the authorities in Venezuela will see this wonderful, peaceful concert…and that the soldiers will do that right thing,” Branson said.

Guaido has vowed the opposition will on Saturday bring in foreign aid being stockpiled in Cucuta, the Brazilian town of Boa Vista and the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, setting up more clashes with Maduro’s security forces.

He set off toward the Colombian border on Thursday in a convoy with opposition lawmakers to oversee the effort but did not disclose his location on Friday out of security concerns, according to his aides.

“You must decide which side you are on in this definitive hour,” Guaido wrote on Twitter. “To all the military: between today and tomorrow, you will define how you want to be remembered.”

Venezuelan National guards block the road at the border between Venezuela and Brazil in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Venezuelan National guards block the road at the border between Venezuela and Brazil in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Guaido’s move to assume the interim presidency and international backing has galvanized Venezuela’s opposition, which has vowed to keep protesting until Maduro steps down. It previously staged major protests in 2014 and 2017 that waned in the face of government crackdowns.

Yet some government critics are concerned it will take more than pressure to force Maduro to step down.

“The truth is that not even 10 concerts will make damned Maduro leave office,” said Darwin Rendon, one of the 3.4 million Venezuelans to have emigrated since 2015 to find work. He sends what little he can earn selling cigarettes back to his family in Caracas.

“This regime is difficult to remove,” he added.

(Reporting by Carlos Suniaga and William Urdaneta in Kumarakapay, Venezuela; Nelson Bocanegra and Steven Grattan in Cucuta, Colombia; Julia Symmes Cobb and Helen Murphy in Bogota; Brian Ellsworth, Vivian Sequera, Corina Pons and Sarah Marsh in Caracas; Lesley Wroughton in Washington Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in BrasiliaWriting by Sarah MarshEditing by Bill Trott and Paul Simao)