‘Used and dehumanized’: Dozens of boys found chained in Nigeria

People with chained legs are pictured after being rescued from a building in the northern city of Kaduna, Nigeria September 26, 2019, in this grab obtained from a video. TELEVISION CONTINENTAL/Reuters TV via REUTERS

By Garba Muhammad and Bosun Yakusak

KADUNA, Nigeria (Reuters) – More than 300 boys and men, some as young as five and many in chains and bearing scars from beatings, have been rescued in a raid on a building that purported to be an Islamic school in northern Nigeria, police said on Friday.

Most of the freed captives seen by a Reuters reporter in the city of Kaduna were children, aged up to their late teens. Some shuffled with their ankles manacled and others were chained by their legs to large metal wheels to prevent escape.

One boy, held by the hand by a police officer as he walked unsteadily, had sores visible on his back that appeared consistent with injuries inflicted by a whip.

Some children had been brought from neighboring countries including Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana, police said, while local media reports said others had been left by their parents in what they believed to be an Islamic school or rehabilitation center.

“This place is neither a rehab or an Islamic school because you can see it for yourselves. The children gathered here are from all over the country… some of them where even chained,” Kaduna state’s police commissioner, Ali Janga, told reporters.

“They were used, dehumanized, you can see it yourself.”

Kaduna police spokesman Yakubu Sabo said seven people who said they were teachers at the school had been arrested in Thursday’s raid.

People are pictured after being rescued from a building in the northern city of Kaduna, Nigeria September 26, 2019, in this grab obtained from a video. TELEVISION CONTINENTAL/Reuters TV via REUTERS

People are pictured after being rescued from a building in the northern city of Kaduna, Nigeria September 26, 2019, in this grab obtained from a video. TELEVISION CONTINENTAL/Reuters TV via REUTERS

“The state government is currently providing food to the children who are between the ages of five and above,” he said.

It was not clear how long the captives had been held there.

Reports carried by local media said the captives had been tortured, starved and sexually abused. Reuters was not immediately able to confirm those details.

The children have been moved to a temporary camp at a stadium in Kaduna, and would later be moved to another camp in a suburb of the city while attempts are made to find their parents, police said.

Some parents who had already been contacted went to the scene to retrieve their children.

“We did not know that they will be put to this kind of harsh condition,” one parent told Reuters.

SCHOOL SHUTDOWNS?

Islamic schools, known as Almajiris, are common across the mostly Muslim north of Nigeria – a country that is roughly evenly split between followers of Christianity and Islam.

Parents in northern Nigeria, the poorest part of a country in which most people live on less than $2 a day, often opt to leave their children to board at the schools.

Such schools have for years been dogged by allegations of abuse and accusations that some children have been forced to beg on the streets of cities in the north.

Earlier this year, the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, himself a Muslim, said it planned to eventually ban the schools, but would not do so immediately.

“Any necessary ban on Almajiri would follow due process and consultation with relevant authorities,” said Buhari’s spokesman Garba Shehu in a statement issued in June.

“The federal government wants a situation where every child of primary school age is in school rather than begging on the streets during school hours,” the statement said.

A presidency spokesman did not immediately respond to calls and text messages seeking comment on the raid in Kaduna and whether it would alter the government’s approach to such schools.

Professor Ishaq Akintola, director of the Nigerian human rights organization the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), said around 10 million children across the north of the country are educated at Islamic schools.

“Those responsible for abuse, if found guilty, should be held accountable but these schools should continue because shutting them down would deprive so many students of an education,” he said.

Akintola said Islamic schools needed funding to train teachers and improve the buildings.

(Reporting by Garba Muhammad and Bosun Yakusak; Additional reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagos and Felix Onuah in Abuja; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Alex Richardson)

Killings, torture still going on in Venezuela: U.N. rights chief

FILE PHOTO - U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet attends a session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations human rights chief said on Monday that extrajudicial killings appeared to be continuing in Venezuela and the Special Action Forces (FAES) presumed to be responsible had received support from the highest levels of government.

Michelle Bachelet told the U.N. Human Rights Council that alongside possible executions, her office had documented cases of torture of soldiers and others arbitrarily held and urged the government of President Nicolas Maduro to punish perpetrators.

Bachelet who issued a report in early July detailing witness accounts of death squads run by the FAES, said non-governmental organization Monitor de Victimas (Victims’ Monitor) had found 57 new presumed executions by FAES members in Caracas that month.

The government called her earlier report a “selective and openly partial vision” that ignored official information and relied on biased witnesses.

She has also expressed concern about U.S. sanctions aimed at pressuring Maduro to step down; on Monday she said they were among factors fuelling a mass exodus from the country, which is reeling from hyperinflation and a collapsing economy.

Bachelet said even though the sanctions envisaged exceptions for humanitarian assistance, over-caution by the financial sector, lower public revenues and a decrease in oil production were having a serious impact.

“All of this is contributing to the worsening of the humanitarian situation and the exodus of Venezuelans from the country,” noting that 4.3 million refugees and migrants had already fled the turmoil, most since the end of 2015.

Washington has urged the European Union to join the sanctions, arguing that they would help advance negotiations on a handover of power to opposition leader Juan Guaido, who assumed a rival interim presidency in January.

Guaido, who said Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate, has the support of most Western nations as well as Washington. Maduro calls him a U.S. puppet.

Bachelet called for more details from Venezuela’s Public Ministry on what she said it had told her were the convictions of 104 members of the security forces for human rights violations between August 2017 and May 2019.

Despite her recommendations to dissolve the FAES and prevent extrajudicial executions, this was not being done, she said: “On the contrary, the FAES have received support from the highest level of Government.”.

Some Latin American countries and activists are urging the Geneva forum, whose 47 members include Venezuela, to establish a U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Venezuela at the three-week session.

Bachelet, who visited Venezuela in June, said 83 opposition members were freed around that time, but the cases of 27 other detainees were still pending and Judge Lourdes Afiuni and journalist Braulio Jatar, conditionally released in early July, had not yet received unconditional freedom.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Former inmate tours Ethiopian torture center after it opens to the public

Visitors use their phone torches inside Maekelawi detention center for political prisoners after it was opened to the public in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Blogger Befekadu Hailu’s eyes filled with tears as he stood on the spot where he had watched a guard attack a friend in Maekelawi detention center, a name long synonymous in Ethiopia with torture and fear.

Befekadu returned to visit the former police station on Friday as a tourist, not an inmate, after the government opened the building to the public for three days as part of its push towards new democratic freedoms.

“We have to take a lesson from this,” Attorney General Berhanu Tsegaye said at a ceremony at the site. “Human rights violations which took place here should not be repeated.”

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed closed the notorious detention and interrogation center in Addis Ababa last year after he took office pledging an end to “state terrorism”.

Befekadu, 39, was imprisoned there for 84 days without charge in 2014. On Friday morning, he took Reuters to see the damp, dark interrogation rooms.

Prisoners called the frigid underground cells where he was detained “Siberia”.

The center was used by successive rulers, including military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which wrested power from him in 1991.

BEATINGS

Befekadu and other detainees had poked holes in the plaster that filled the metal bars on their cell door. It was meant to stop them from seeing outside.

He said that one day, a policeman noticed him peering out and demanded to know who made the holes. The officer began kicking Befekadu’s fellow prisoner Atnaf.

Befekadu Hailu, 39, an ex-inmate of the Maekelawi detention center for political prisoners is seen as he stands in the room where he was detained after it was opened to the public in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Befekadu Hailu, 39, an ex-inmate of the Maekelawi detention center for political prisoners is seen as he stands in the room where he was detained after it was opened to the public in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

“My friend was beaten here and I couldn’t defend him,” he said, his voice cracking. He searched on Friday for graffiti that prisoners had scrawled, but the wall under his fingers was slick with fresh yellow paint.

In a 2013 report, New York-based Human Rights Watch documented torture at Maekelawi, often used to extract confessions from suspected political opponents.

Guards beat prisoners with gun butts and electric wires and handcuffed victims’ wrists to the ceiling.

That is forbidden now, said Supreme Court president Meaza Ashenafi, a lawyer and women’s rights activist appointed by Abiy last year. The country was changing “from a condition where human rights were violated to a condition where they are now respected”, she said during her visit to the cells on Friday.

Some senior officials implicated in rights abuses have been arrested. The former head of national intelligence has been charged with murder and torture in absentia. Former political prisoners now head the election board and the government-run national human rights commission.

But Laetitia Bader, a senior Human Rights Watch Africa researcher, said more needs to be done to heal past wounds. Most trials have not begun and a reconciliation commission set up in December has an unclear mandate, Bader said.

“The government hasn’t presented a clear roadmap for how it plans to deal with the country’s abusive past,” she said.

Activists continue to be detained, said prominent journalist Eskinder Nega, who was jailed repeatedly on terrorism charges prior to Abiy’s appointment.

Five of his colleagues have been held without charge since June under the anti-terrorism law, he said. The prime minister is new, but the government is still the same ruling coalition, he said.

“This is a classic pretext to crackdown on dissent,” he said. “None of the authoritarian structures have been overhauled.”

(Additional reporting and writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Katharine Houreld and Frances Kerry)

On Venezuelan independence day, Maduro calls for dialogue as Guaido slams ‘dictatorship’

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, is seen at Venezuela's National Assembly to celebrate the 208th anniversary of Venezuela's independence in Caracas, Venezuela July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Fausto Torrealba

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s bitterly divided political factions held competing commemorations of the country’s independence day on Friday, with President Nicolas Maduro calling for dialogue and opposition leader Juan Guaido decrying alleged human rights violations by Maduro’s “dictatorship.”

Speaking to a gathering of top military officials, Maduro reiterated his support for a negotiation process mediated by Norway between his socialist government and Guaido, the leader of the opposition-held National Assembly who argues Maduro’s 2018 re-election was a fraud.

“There is room for all of us within Venezuela,” Maduro said in a speech in Caracas, before calling for military exercises on July 24 to defend the South American country’s “seas, rivers and borders.”

“We must all give up something in order to reach an agreement,” he said.

Venezuela was plunged into a deep political crisis in January when Guaido invoked the constitution to assume a rival interim presidency, calling Maduro a usurper. He has been recognized as the rightful head of state by dozens of countries, including the United States and most South American neighbors.

But Maduro retains the recognition of Cuba, Russia and China, and remains in control of state functions and the armed forces. He calls Guaido a U.S.-backed puppet seeking to oust him in a coup.

Guaido held a separate independence day event, calling on supporters to march toward the headquarters of the military counterintelligence directorate, or DGCIM, where navy captain Rafael Acosta died last month after opposition leaders and family members said he was tortured in custody.

The march is the first major opposition gathering since a botched Guaido-led military uprising on April 30 and follow-up protests on May 1. The government responded to the failed attempt to oust Maduro with a crackdown on Guaido-aligned lawmakers and military members suspected of involvement.

This week, the United Nations human rights chief, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, published a report detailing alleged extrajudicial executions, torture, enforced disappearances and other rights violations by Venezuelan security forces in recent years.

“There is no longer any valid euphemism to characterize this regime, other than dictatorship,” Guaido told reporters earlier on Friday. “The systematic violation of human rights, the repression, the torture… it is clearly identified in the (UN)report.”

The Venezuelan government has called the report “selective” and said the UN sources lacked objectivity.

A new round of Norway-mediated talks expected for this week was called off after Acosta’s death. Opposition leaders frequently argue that Maduro’s government seeks to use dialogue to distract from its continued human rights violations.

In an apparent referral to Acosta before Maduro spoke, Commander Remigio Ceballos said the armed forces “regretted the events related to the loss of the retired naval official.” Without naming Acosta, he accused him of conspiring against the Venezuelan state, and said authorities were investigating the circumstances of his death.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera, Mayela Armas and Luc Cohen, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

China condemns violent Hong Kong protests as ‘undisguised challenge’ to its rule

A worker walks past post-it notes scribbled with messages, left behind by protesters on the walls of the Legislative Council, a day after protesters broke into the building, in Hong Kong, China July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

By Anne Marie Roantree

BEIJING/HONG KONG (Reuters) – China on Tuesday condemned violent protests in Hong Kong as an “undisguised challenge” to the formula under which the city is ruled, hours after police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters who stormed and trashed the legislature.

A representative of China’s Hong Kong affairs office denounced the demonstrators, who are furious about proposed legislation allowing extraditions to China, and said Beijing supports holding criminals responsible, state media said.

The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including freedom to protest and an independent judiciary.

Monday was the 22nd anniversary of the handover.

Beijing denies interfering, but for many Hong Kong residents, the extradition bill is the latest step in a relentless march toward mainland control.

“Seriously violating the law, the act tramples the rule of law in Hong Kong, undermines social order and the fundamental interests of Hong Kong, and is an undisguised challenge to the bottom line of ‘one country, two systems’, Xinhua news agency quoted a Hong Kong affairs office spokesman as saying. “We strongly condemn this act.”

Debris including umbrellas, hard hats and water bottles was among the few signs left of the mayhem that had engulfed parts of the city on Monday and overnight after protesters stormed and ransacked the Legislative Council, or mini-parliament.

Workers clean up outside the Legislative Council, a day after protesters broke into the building in Hong Kong, China July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Workers clean up outside the Legislative Council, a day after protesters broke into the building in Hong Kong, China July 2, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Police cleared roads near the heart of the financial center, paving the way for business to return to normal.

However, government offices, where protesters smashed computers and spray-painted “anti-extradition” and slurs against the police and government on chamber walls, were closed.

The government’s executive council meeting was due to be held in Government House, officials said, while the legislature would remain closed for the next two weeks.

Millions of people have taken to the streets in the past few weeks to protest against the now-suspended extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China to face trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party.

Lawyers and rights groups say China’s justice system is marked by torture, forced confessions and arbitrary detention. China has been angered by Western criticism of the bill.

The bill triggered a backlash against Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, taking in the business, diplomatic and legal communities that fear corrosion of the legal autonomy of Hong Kong and the difficulty of guaranteeing a fair trial in China.

She has suspended the bill and said it would lapse next year, but protesters want it scrapped altogether and have pressed her to step down.

Lam, Hong Kong’s self-styled Iron Lady, has created a fresh crisis for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is already grappling with a trade war with Washington, a faltering economy and tension in the South China Sea.

Regina Ip, chairwoman of Hong Kong’s pro-China New People’s Party, said the protests had brought shame on Hong Kong.

“In the long term, (this) will impact Hong Kong’s business environment. I believe various negative consequences of damages in our economy and prosperity will soon emerge.”

Starry Lee, chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, also condemned the violence.

“This is an insult to LegCo (Legislative Council), an insult to Hong Kong rule of law,” she said.

Chinese censors have worked hard to erase or block news of the Hong Kong protests, wary that any large public rallies could inspire protests on the mainland.

Screens went black on the BBC and CNN when they showed related reports in mainland China, as has happened during previous Hong Kong protests. Foreign news channels are only available in luxury hotels and a handful of high-end apartment complexes in China.

State news agency Xinhua wrote an upbeat Chinese-language report about a government-arranged concert in Hong Kong to celebrate the handover anniversary, complete with descriptions of the audience singing the national anthem and how the performers showed their “ardent love of the motherland”.

A state newspaper in China called for “zero tolerance” after the violence in Hong Kong.

“Out of blind arrogance and rage, protesters showed a complete disregard for law and order,” the Global Times, published by the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, said in an editorial.

The protests generated lively discussion on Chinese social media.

“Hong Kong shows that China cannot follow a Western political system. It’s too easy to be manipulated and to bring chaos,” wrote one user of the Twitter-like Weibo.

Another wrote, “When the children don’t listen, their mothers should give them a smacked bottom.”

Britain warned China that there would be serious consequences if the Sino-British agreement on Hong Kong was not honored. China has dismissed Britain’s concerns, saying Hong Kong was none of its business.

The U.N. human rights office in Geneva called on all sides to avoid violence.

“We ask protesters to demonstrate and express their grievances in a peaceful manner,” spokeswoman Marta Hurtado

said in an email. “We urge HK authorities to immediately open a proper channel for dialogue and for the police and other members of the security forces to manage demonstrations according to international human rights norms and standards.”

(Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok and Noah Sin in HONG KONG, Ben Blanchard in BEIJING, the Shanghai newsroom, Michael Holden and Alistair Smout in LONDON and Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in GENEVA; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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)

Hong Kong braces for new mass protests against planned extraditions to China

Hong Kong braced for strikes, transport go-slows and another mass demonstration in protest against a proposed extradition law that would allow people to be sent to China for trial, as the Chinese-ruled city's leader vowed defiance.

By Clare Jim and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong braced for strikes, transport go-slows and another mass demonstration in protest against a proposed extradition law that would allow people to be sent to China for trial, as the Chinese-ruled city’s leader vowed defiance.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she would push ahead with the bill despite deep concerns across vast swaths of the Asian financial hub that triggered its biggest political demonstration since its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

In a rare move, prominent business leaders warned that pushing through the extradition law could undermine investor confidence in Hong Kong and erode its competitive advantages.

The extradition bill, which has generated unusually broad opposition at home and abroad, is due for a second round of debate on Wednesday in the city’s 70-seat Legislative Council. The legislature is controlled by a pro-Beijing majority.

An online petition has called for 50,000 people to surround the legislature building at 10 p.m. (1400 GMT) on Tuesday and remain until Wednesday.

Britain handed Hong Kong back to China under a “one-country, two-systems” formula, with guarantees that its autonomy and freedoms, including an independent justice system, would be protected.

But many accuse China of extensive meddling, denying democratic reforms, interfering with local elections and the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialized in works critical of Chinese leaders.

Sunday’s protests plunged Hong Kong into political crisis, just as months of pro-democracy “Occupy” demonstrations did in 2014, heaping pressure on Lam’s administration and her official backers in Beijing.

She warned against any “radical actions”, following clashes in the early hours of Monday between some protesters and police after Sunday’s otherwise peaceful march.

Police erected metal barriers to secure the council building as a small number of protesters started to gather on Tuesday evening despite torrential rain and thunderstorm warnings. Police conducted random ID checks at train stations.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo urged people to join the rally and encouraged businesses to strike “for a day, or two, or probably for one whole week”.

Nearly 2,000 mostly small retail shops, including restaurants, grocery, book and coffee shops, have announced plans to strike, according to an online survey, a rare move in the staunchly capitalist economy.

Eaton HK Hotel, which is owned by Langham Hospitality Investments and operated by Great Eagle Holdings, said it respected workers’ “political stances” and would allow them to rally.

The student union of several higher education institutions and the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union urged people to strike on Wednesday. Nearly 4,000 teachers said they would rally.

Human rights groups have repeatedly cited the alleged use of torture, arbitrary detentions, forced confessions and problems accessing lawyers in China, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party, as reasons why the Hong Kong bill should not proceed.

“When the fugitive extradition bill is passed, Hong Kong will become a ‘useless Hong Kong'” said Jimmy Sham, convenor of Civil Human Rights Front. “We will be deep in a place where foreign investors are afraid to invest and tourists are afraid to go. Once the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ (it) will become nothing.”

The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong called on the government not to pass the bill “hurriedly” and urged all Christians to pray for the former colony.

A staff union affiliated to a pro-democracy labor group under the New World First Bus Company called on its members to drive at the speed of 20-25 kmh (12-15 mph) to show their opposition to the proposed law.

A Facebook post called on people to enjoy a picnic next to government offices on Wednesday, describing the area as “among the best picnic sites”. The post has attracted close to 10,000 responses from people promising to attend.

Beijing-based consultancy Gavecal said some bankers in Hong Kong were reporting that many mainland clients were shifting their accounts to Singapore, fearing they could come under scrutiny in the financial hub.

“MISSTEPS COULD BE COSTLY”

Many residents of the financial center, both expatriate and local, are increasingly unnerved by Beijing’s tightening grip over the city.

China’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday that Hong Kong matters are purely a Chinese internal affair and China demands the United States stops interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs.

The comments came after Washington said on Monday it was gravely concerned about the proposed law and warned that such a move could jeopardize the special status Washington affords Hong Kong.

Prominent business figures urged the government to tread cautiously to protect Hong Kong’s competitiveness.

“The integrity and independence of (Hong Kong’s) legal system are absolutely central to Hong Kong’s future,” said Fred Hu, founder and chairman of China-based private equity firm, Primavera Capital Group.

Activist investor David Webb, in a post on Lam’s Facebook page, urged her to send the bill to the Law Reform Commission for further study.

“If you press ahead and bulldoze the bill through LegCo, then you will probably get the legislation passed, but at huge political cost and damage to the international credibility of HK for due process when reforming its legislation,” Webb said.

(Additional reporting by Kane Wu, James Pomfret, Greg Torode, Anne Marie Roantree, Felix Tam and Vimvam Tong; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)

Inmates revolt at Venezuela detention center, Utah man pleads for help

Relatives of inmates react outside a detention center of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), where a riot occurred, according to relatives, in Caracas, Venezuela May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Luc Cohen and Alexandra Ulmer

CARACAS (Reuters) – Inmates at a crowded Caracas detention center revolted on Wednesday, with jailed opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and a Mormon missionary from Utah begging for freedom and medical attention in postings on social media.

There was no official information on the incident, but in videos posted on social media men identifying themselves as prisoners said they had taken over the headquarters of intelligence agency Sebin, known as the Helicoide, where hundreds of people are held.

“This has been taken over peacefully by all the political prisoners and all the prisoners who are abducted here, who are tortured daily,” a man said in one of the videos. He said tear gas and weapons had been fired at detainees but they were holding out to demand freedom.

Reuters was unable to independently confirm the origin of the videos or circumstances under which they were made.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Chief Prosecutor Tarek Saab tweeted, “In the face of the events that happened today in the Sebin headquarters at the Helicoide, we sent a commission of the prosecutor’s office to the facility. That delegation spoke to a representative of the prisoners to respond to their requests.”

In a midafternoon Facebook post, Joshua Holt, a U.S. citizen and missionary whose family has said he was framed on weapons charges while in Venezuela for his wedding, said, “Helicoide the prison where I am at has fallen the guards are here and people are trying to break in my room and kill me. WHAT DO WE DO?”

In a video seen on Twitter late on Wednesday Holt said, “I’m here to show you that I am not being kidnapped. The only people who are kidnapping me is the government of Venezuela. We need the people to help us.” He was flanked by three other men.

He said all four of them were being detained without trial and that some detainees were being denied medical attention.

His mother Laurie Holt told Reuters that she did not know the sequence of the videos and was unable to confirm Holt’s current situation.

Activists said the incident had been precipitated by the beating of activist Gregory Sanabria from the state of Tachira. He appeared with a bruised face in pictures on social media.

Rights groups and Maduro opponents have said several hundred political prisoners have been unfairly jailed. Maduro has said all jailed activists were being held on legitimate charges of violence and subversion.

The U.S. embassy in Caracas said it was “very worried” about the situation at the Helicoide.

“Joshua Holt and other U.S. citizens are in danger. The Venezuelan government is directly responsible for their security and we will hold them responsible if anything happens to them,” the embassy tweeted in Spanish.

Todd Robinson, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy, went to the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry for information, the embassy added. “No response from the government.”

(Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld and Vivian Sequera; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

Trump’s CIA pick promises no more harsh interrogation program

Acting CIA Director Gina Haspel is sworn in prior to testifying at her Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Patricia Zengerle and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the CIA promised lawmakers on Wednesday she would never resume a program of harsh interrogations, often denounced as torture, that has been the major issue complicating her confirmation.

Gina Haspel, currently the spy agency’s acting director, also told her Senate confirmation hearing she would not carry out any order from Trump that she found morally objectionable.

“My moral compass is strong. I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if was technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it,” Haspel told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Haspel also faced questions during the hearing about her role in the use of harsh interrogation methods during former President George W. Bush’s administration, as well as the destruction of videotapes documenting the questioning.

“Having served in that tumultuous time, I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, on my watch, CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation program,” Haspel testified.

Haspel said U.S. law now clearly prohibits such interrogation methods, and “I fully support the detainee treatment required by law.”

Public questioning of Haspel on issues such as the effectiveness of the interrogations, CIA drone strikes and agency “renditions” of suspected militants to third countries may be limited because the operations remain classified.

“CIA has learned some tough lessons, especially when asked to tackle missions that fall outside our expertise,” Haspel said, explaining that in retrospect the agency was not prepared to conduct the detention and interrogation program employed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by al Qaeda militants.

Haspel needs 51 votes to be confirmed as the first woman director of the CIA in the 100-seat Senate, where Trump’s fellow Republicans hold a 51-49 majority. The agency’s former deputy director, she would succeed Mike Pompeo, a Republican former congressman confirmed last month as secretary of state.

Haspel already has the strong support of many Republicans. As he opened the hearing, the panel’s Republican chairman, Richard Burr, praised Haspel.

“I believe your intellectual rigor, honorable service and outstanding judgment make you a natural fit to lead the CIA,” he said, urging that the hearing not be made “a trial about a long-shuttered program.”

But Haspel could face a difficult time being confirmed. At least one Republican, Senator Rand Paul, has said he opposes her, and others have said they will wait to see how she does at Wednesday’s hearing.

No Democrat has yet expressed support for Haspel.

‘MORALLY QUESTIONABLE BEHAVIOR’

Senator Mark Warner, the committee’s top Democrat, said his vote on Haspel’s confirmation will largely depend on how she expresses her current views on the harsh techniques and a 2005 decision to destroy tapes of interrogations.

“We must hear how you would react if the president asks you to carry out some morally questionable behavior that might seem to violate a law or treaty,” Warner said in his opening statement.

Warner also said he would want Haspel’s commitment to cooperate in investigations into Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election. Trump has called those investigations a “witch hunt.”

Before the hearing, a small group of protesters started shouting, “Say no to torture.” They were forcibly removed by the Capitol police.

Haspel described what she called the complex challenges her agency must confront, including terrorist groups, a nuclear threat against the continental United States by North Korea, “destabilizing Iranian adventurism,” China’s ambitions on the global stage and “an aggressive and sometimes brutal Russia.”

An undercover officer for most of her more than 30-year career, Haspel in 2002 served as CIA station chief in Thailand, where the agency ran one of the secret prisons where suspected al Qaeda extremists were interrogated using procedures that included waterboarding, which simulates drowning.

A 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee investigation concluded that harsh intelligence methods during Bush’s presidency were “not an effective way of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation.”

(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by John Walcott, James Dalgleish and Lisa Shumaker)

The lives of three men show why Syria’s rebels are losing the war

FILE PHOTO: Members of al Qaeda's Nusra Front gesture as they drive in a convoy touring villages, which they said they have seized control of from Syrian rebel factions, in the southern countryside of Idlib, Syria December 2, 2014. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

By Dahlia Nehme

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The war has cost one man part of his liver and intestines. Another his home and work. A third his homeland and studies.

All three have lost hope.

Abu Farhan, Fouad al-Ghraibi and Abu al-Baraa took the rebels’ side in the violence which began after the government put down street protests that started on March 15, 2011.

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from one of the buildings in the city of Homs, Syria March 11, 2013. REUTERS/Yazan Homsy/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Smoke rises from one of the buildings in the city of Homs, Syria March 11, 2013. REUTERS/Yazan Homsy/File Photo

Ghraibi, who has a business renting out construction machinery, joined a rebel group and later set up his own fighting unit. Abu al-Baraa, then just 16, joined a militant group, the Nusra Front, and became a jihadist fighter. Abu Farhan, a student and part-time kitchen fitter, joined the first protests in the central Syrian city of Homs and went on to became an opposition activist.

The harrowing tales of the three men — they don’t know each other but all risked their lives by siding against President Bashar al-Assad — help show why the rebellion is failing.

All three quickly became disillusioned with divisions among the rebels and what they saw as various fighting groups’ intolerance of anyone who does not think like them — a trait similar to what they see in Assad.

Two of them have concluded the war is unwinnable, especially as Assad now has heavy military support from Russia and Iran that far outweighs the weapons shipped to rebels by the United States, Gulf Arab states and Turkey.

But hatred of Assad means fighters like Ghraibi battle on. Men such as Abu al-Baraa and Abu Farhan are so disillusioned with both sides that they see no life for them in Syria.

“What happened destroyed my whole future,” Abu al-Baraa, who now lives in exile in Turkey, told Reuters by telephone. He fled across the border after falling out with the Nusra Front, which he says imprisoned and tortured him.

Ghraibi, 37, has recovered from abdomen and hand wounds and lost part of his liver and intestines, and a finger, says he will fight to the death with the rebels but also believes the rebellion’s original ideals are dead.

“We’ll keep fighting to our last breath, even against the whole world,” he said.

FILE PHOTO: Free Syrian Army members, with covered faces and holding weapons, sit by the side of a street in Qaboun district, Syria Damascus June 11, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Free Syrian Army members, with covered faces and holding weapons, sit by the side of a street in Qaboun district, Syria Damascus June 11, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

OPPOSITION ACTIVIST

Abu Farhan shares that sense of despair. Now 30, he was forced out of Homs by the fighting in 2014. Although he has found work and an apartment in Syria’s northern Idlib province, he is deeply disillusioned by what has become of Syria and dreams of leaving to start a new life abroad.

“We didn’t want to destroy our country and create this rift among Syrians,” he said. “If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t have joined the protests.”

He asked to be identified only by his nom de guerre for fear of upsetting rebels in Idlib.

The civil war has killed 511,000 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and forced over 5.4 million to flee the county, according to U.N. data. It has also caused a refugee crisis in neighboring countries and western Europe and inspired fatal attacks from Nice to Los Angeles.

(Years of deadly days in Syria: http://tmsnrt.rs/2HB9bkG)

It is a civil war that has laid bare the international community’s inability to resolve conflicts on such a scale, increasing strains between Russia and the West.

Abu Farhan had studied physical education at university in Homs before the war and was working as a kitchen fitter. He threw his lot in with Assad’s opponents when he joined anti-government protesters pouring out of the Khaled bin al-Walid mosque in Homs.

Abu Farhan put aside his studies and his hopes of marriage, and began organizing protests.

His best friend and favorite cousin both disappeared under arrest. Last year he found out that they were killed – a fate which human rights groups say has befallen tens of thousands in Assad’s prisons. The president denies the accusations.

By February 2012, the Syrian army was regularly shelling the district where Abu Farhan lived in the Jouret al Shayyah district of Homs near the Old City. But he chose not to fight.

“I knew that taking up arms would be a curse, not a blessing,” he said.

As fighting intensified and warplanes began bombing city blocks in late 2012, he left his home with his parents and two siblings for al-Waer, a quieter opposition area in another part of the city.

Waer was soon subjected to a siege that lasted until 2017 and food became more scarce. During Ramadan, the Muslim holy month when people traditionally eat delicacies at night after fasting through the daylight hours, he says the family usually had only bulgur wheat to break their fast.

“Sometimes we didn’t even have that,” he said.

Terrified of arrest by Assad’s security forces – which he believed would lead to torture and summary execution – Abu Farhan and his family joined rebels who left for Idlib in a negotiated withdrawal, surrendering Waer to the government.

Idlib will never feel like home for Abu Farhan. “I am a refugee here,” he said.

After leaving Waer, he and his sister both found jobs in Idlib, with Abu Farhan working as a fitness instructor.

Despite overcrowding caused by the flood of refugees from other parts of Syria, they were able to rent an apartment. For now, though, Abu Farhan is unable to get to work in the southern part of Idlib because bombing by pro-Assad forces makes his journey too dangerous.

The bombing, destruction and what he sees as the intolerance of rebel groups running Idlib have convinced him there is no point staying in Syria. He has started learning Turkish and hopes to gain refugee status.

JIHADIST AND EXILE

Abu al-Baraa was a schoolboy in Waer when the protests began, but volunteered as a hospital orderly and helped injured demonstrators hide from the police. He briefly became a medical student, while it was still possible to travel into the university in central Homs.

Realising he was now a wanted man because of his actions, he joined the Nusra Front. He said the group seemed to represent his conservative religious views and that he became aware of its true nature and violent militancy only later.

“We didn’t know then that the Nusra Front was affiliated to al Qaeda. We had a religious upbringing, and they lured us in with their religious beliefs,” said Abu al-Baraa.

The Nusra Front’s brutal methods were soon evident to Abu al-Baraa, as was the split between jihadist and nationalist groups that has plagued the uprising.

“They established security apparatuses and prisons just like the (Assad government) regime, where they tortured people,” Abu al-Baraa said. “I know of at least one man who died under torture and was later shown to be innocent.”

After only a few months fighting with the group, he was stripped of his gun and mobile phone for opposing its actions and he started volunteering at a medical center.

His disillusionment with the Nusra Front and other rebels grew and he publicly argued with the group’s local commander, who threw him into prison.

He was held in a dark underground cell infested with rats and was tortured, he said.

“They faked 15 accusations against me, including theft and spying for the regime. After 12 days of living hell, I collapsed and confessed to the fake accusations,” he said.

While he wasted in prison the rebellion, undermined by internal wrangling and facing a government strengthened by the arrival of Russian warplanes, was losing ground.

When its enclave in the city of Aleppo fell to Assad in late 2016, it led to a series of surrenders of other small opposition pockets around Syria. Waer was one of them.

Abu al-Baraa was stuck in prison, but he still had friends in the Nusra Front who managed to smuggle him out. He was able to board one of a number of green buses sent by the government to evacuate the rebels, and made it to Idlib.

For Abu al-Baraa, worried he was in danger from the Nusra Front and now using false documents, the misery and poverty of Idlib offered no haven.

“Two or three families shared one small apartment, taking turns to sleep,” he said.

Six weeks after arriving there, he made the dangerous border crossing into Turkey with the help of the same people who had rescued him from prison. It was his seventh attempt.

Mow living in Istanbul with his mother and younger brother, Abu al-Baraa says the trauma of that time, when the sound of jets meant an attack could be imminent, still affects them.

“We live near the airport. Whenever a plane takes off or lands, my brother runs crying to his mother,” he said.

Their father did not make it out of Syria. He died of a stroke in Waer in 2014. Abu al-Baraa still fears his former rebel allies enough to be identified only by his nom de guerre.

REBEL COMMANDER

When anti-government protests began in the city of Idlib in 2011, Fouad al-Ghraibi quickly joined them.

There was never any question where his allegiances lay. Thirteen of his uncles and cousins, all from the family’s home village of Kafr Oueid in Idlib province, were killed or jailed when government forces crushed a years-long revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization, in 1982.

Ghraibi was shot in the hand and abdomen when Assad cracked down on the protesters and was taken to Turkey for treatment.

Returning to Idlib months later, he gathered friends to join the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an alliance of rebel groups backed by Western and Arab countries.

Disappointed by divisions in the FSA, he later joined Jaish al-Islam, a better organized Islamist coalition backed by Saudi Arabia where he was put in charge of 150 fighters.

Three of his brothers, Mokhlis, Khaled and Mustafa, were killed in combat in the northwest, scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. An air strike on his village in June 2015 killed 33 civilians, including his niece.

When an alliance of jihadist groups led by the Nusra Front, which changed its name in 2016, took over much of Idlib last year, Ghraibi returned home to Kafr Oueid.

Once there, he set up a group of 45 local fighters which he hopes will defend the village from both Assad and the Islamist factions, and return the revolution to the ideals he believes it originally espoused.

All it has done so far is contribute yet another small armed faction to a civil war that shows no sign of ending.

(Editing by Angus McDowall and Timothy Heritage)