Malaysia frees Indonesian woman accused of Kim Jong Nam’s poisoning

Siti Aisyah, who was previously a suspect in the murder case of North Korean leader's half brother Kim Jong Nam reacts as she arrives in news conference, after a Malaysian court released her of charges at Halim Perdanakusuma airport in Jakarta, Indonesia, March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

By Rozanna Latiff

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – An Indonesian woman accused in the 2017 chemical poison murder of the North Korean leader’s half-brother was freed on Monday after a Malaysian court dropped the charge in a case that drew suspicions of being a political assassination.

As the court announced its decision, Siti Aisyah, 26, turned to her Vietnamese co-defendant, Doan Thi Huong, 30, in the dock and the two women, who had been facing the death penalty together, embraced in tears.

They had been accused of poisoning Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with liquid VX, a banned chemical weapon, at Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017.

Following the dramatic decision to release Siti Aisyah, a defense lawyer asked for an adjournment in the case against Huong in order to submit a request that charges be dropped against her too.

Defense lawyers have maintained that the women were pawns in an assassination orchestrated by North Korean agents. The North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur was defaced with graffiti just hours before the trial was to resume, authorities said.

Interpol had issued a red notice for four North Koreans who were identified as suspects by Malaysian police and had left the country hours after the murder.

During the trial, the court was shown CCTV footage of two women allegedly assaulting Kim Jong Nam while he prepared to check in for a flight.

Siti Aisyah, who had worked as a masseuse at a hotel in the Malaysian capital, and Huong, who described herself as an actress, had maintained that they believed they had been hired to participate in a reality TV prank show.

Once the court released her, Siti Aisyah, wearing a black traditional Malay dress and headscarf, was rushed to the Indonesian embassy, where she spoke briefly with journalists.

“I feel so happy. I did not expect that today I would be released,” Siti Aisyah said, adding that she was healthy and had been treated well in prison.

Prosecutors told the court that they had been instructed to withdraw the charge against Siti Aisyah. No reason was given.

While the court discharged Siti Aisyah from the case, it rejected her lawyer’s request for a full acquittal, as it said that the trial had already established a prima facie case and she could be recalled if fresh evidence emerged.

The defense had disputed whether the CCTV footage was clear enough to identify the Indonesian woman as an assailant, or establish what she had done to the victim.

Gooi Soon Seng, Siti Aisyah’s lawyer, said his client was “a scapegoat”.

“I still believe that North Korea had something to do with it,” Gooi said.

Kim Jong Nam had lived in exile in Macau for several years before the killing, having fled his homeland after his half-brother became North Korea’s leader in 2011 following their father’s death.

Some South Korean lawmakers said the North Korean regime had ordered the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, who had been critical of his family’s dynastic rule. Pyongyang has denied the accusation.

NOT OVER YET FOR HUONG

Left to stand trial by herself after Siti Aisyah’s release, Huong was still sobbing as she prepared to take the stand on Monday at the start of her defense. But the court agreed to resume proceedings on Thursday instead, pending a reply from the attorney-general to the request that charges against her also be withdrawn.

“Where is the principle of equality? Both of them were charged on the same evidence, the defense was called on fairly the same grounds,” said Salim Bashir, one of Huong’s lawyers.

“Until today, we do not know what were the exceptional circumstances that were needed for the attorney-general to review the charge against Siti Aisyah. The prosecution never advanced a single ground for the withdrawal.”

Although the two women were being tried together, the cases against them were separate, and the court had asked the Indonesian woman to present her defense first.

Siti Aisyah’s trial was suspended in December as her lawyers argued with prosecutors over access to statements made by seven witnesses.

Prosecutor Muhammad Iskandar Ahmad told Reuters the decision to withdraw the charge against her was made based on “several representations”, without elaborating.

Siti Aisyah flew back to Jakarta on Monday, accompanied by Indonesian Law Minister Yasonna H. Laoly.

Laoly said Siti Aisyah’s release, after over two years in prison, was the result of high-level diplomacy by his government, including meetings with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the attorney-general.

“After studying the case thoroughly, we sent letters to the Attorney-General of Malaysia and met with him and Prime Minister Mahathir last August,” Laoly told reporters with Siti Aisyah shortly after landing in Jakarta.

Laoly had written to Malaysia’s attorney-general, laying the blame on North Korea.

“Miss Aisyah was deceived and had no awareness whatsoever that she was being used as an intelligence tool of North Korea,” he wrote.

(Additional reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa in JAKARTA; writing by Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)

‘El Chapo’ decided ‘who lives and who dies’ as drug boss, U.S. jury told

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Goldbarg points at Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman (back row C) in this courtroom sketch during Guzman's trial in Brooklyn federal court in New York City, U.S., January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

By Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was someone who decided “who lives and who dies,” a prosecutor said in closing arguments in the accused Mexican drug kingpin’s trial in the United States.

“The government does not have to prove that he was the boss, or the only boss, or even one of the top bosses,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea Goldbarg told jurors, though she hastened to add that Guzman was “one of the top bosses, without a doubt.”

Guzman’s lawyers have claimed the cartel’s real leader is Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who remains at large, and that their client was framed by Zambada.

Standing in front of a table piled with trial evidence including assault rifles and bricks of cocaine, Goldbarg took a calm, no-nonsense approach as she walked the jury in federal court in Brooklyn through the charges against Guzman one by one.

Guzman, 61, was extradited to the United States in January 2017. The 10 criminal counts include engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, drug trafficking and money laundering conspiracy, and a life sentence if he is found guilty.

Goldbarg’s summation capped an exhaustive government case that spanned 10 weeks of testimony from more than 50 witnesses, including law enforcement officials and former associates of Guzman who are cooperating with the U.S. government after striking plea deals.

Guzman’s lawyers have aggressively sought to undermine the cooperators’ credibility in their cross-examinations, something Goldbarg addressed head on.

“These witnesses were criminals,” she said. “The government is not asking you to like them.”

Accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman sits in court in this courtroom sketch during Guzman's trial in Brooklyn federal court in New York City, U.S., January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

Accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman sits in court in this courtroom sketch during Guzman’s trial in Brooklyn federal court in New York City, U.S., January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

However, she said, their testimony was corroborated by intercepted phone calls, text messages and letters from Guzman, as well as accounting ledgers seized in a raid on one of his safe houses.

“You know these cooperating witnesses are telling the truth because you heard the same thing from the defendant’s own mouth,” she said.

The intercepted communications showed Guzman plotting drug shipments, dealing with corrupt government officials and, sometimes, ordering his adversaries killed.

“He’s the one who decides who lives and who dies,” Goldbarg said.

Goldbarg then moved methodically through the evidence linking Guzman to each of a series of drug seizures by authorities in the 1990s and 2000s. Her argument is expected to last the rest of the day.

Guzman called only one witness in his defense on Tuesday. One of his lawyers is expected to deliver his closing argument on Thursday.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Anthony Lin and Grant McCool)

Chemical weapons inspectors back from Syria’s Douma: source

FILE PHOTO: The United Nation vehicle carrying the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspectors is seen in Damascus, Syria April 18, 2018. REUTERS/ Ali Hashisho

By Anthony Deutsch

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Chemical weapons inspectors have returned from a mission to the Syrian town of Douma, where they took samples and interviewed witnesses to determine whether banned munitions were used in an attack last month, a diplomatic source said on Friday.

A team of experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons returned to the Netherlands on Thursday night after going to Damascus on April 14, the source said on condition of anonymity.

The suspected chemical attack prompted missile strikes by the United States, France and Britain on April 13 against several alleged chemical weapons facilities in Syria.

The OPCW is investigating the deaths of dozens of people in Douma, an enclave in Ghouta on the oustskrts of the Syrian capital, on April 7.

The United States and its allies say they were caused by chemical weapons, possibly a nerve agent, used by forces of the Russian-back government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Inspectors visited two sites of alleged attacks and took samples, which will be split at their laboratory in the Netherlands before being forwarded to affiliated national labs for testing. Test results are typically returned within three to four weeks. The OPCW will not assign blame.

The inspectors were also expected to have taken samples from canisters found at the scene that are believed to have contained toxic agents dropped from airplanes or helicopters.

Russia and Syria last week held a briefing for states belonging to the OPCW to support Moscow’s assertion that no chemical weapons were used in Douma and the attack was staged by rebels.

The briefing was boycotted by several OPCW member states, who denounced the Russian event as “a crude propaganda exercise” intended to undermine the OPCW’s work.

Britain, the United States, France, Germany and others, said in a statement that all material gathered so far supported their theory that chemical weapons were used in Douma.

The information gathered to date is “unassailable,” they said at the time. Medical NGOs having found traces of chemical agents and authenticated photo and video evidence reinforces the theory of gas intoxication by hundreds of victims.

The World Health Organization has also expressed concern “at reports from its partners of patients exhibiting signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals.”

A joint United Nations-OPCW investigation concluded last year that Syrian government forces used sarin nerve agent and chlorine in several attacks.

The joint mission ended in November after Russia repeatedly blocked U.N. Security Council resolutions that would have extended its mandate.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

“We saw corpses in the street”: Syrian activist recounts Douma attack

Limar and Masa al-Qari, child survivors of the suspected poison gas attack, walk outside a tent for the displaced, in the Northern Aleppo countryside, Syria April 17, 2018. Picture taken April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

By Dahlia Nehme

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Muayad al-Dirani was at a medical center in the Syrian town of Douma the night of April 7, when patients started flowing in.

Many of them were suffocating or having seizures, after a suspected poison gas attack struck the rebel enclave.

Doctors hurried to undress victims, douse them in water, and give atropine injections, he said. But they could not keep up. “Everyone lost their nerves, felt helpless and didn’t know what to do,” Dirani said. “The aircraft was still in the sky.”

Rasha Edlibi, a survivor of the suspected poison gas attack, sits with her two daughters inside a tent for the displaced, in the Northern Aleppo countryside, Syria April 17, 2018. Picture taken April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

Rasha Edlibi, a survivor of the suspected poison gas attack, sits with her two daughters inside a tent for the displaced, in the Northern Aleppo countryside, Syria April 17, 2018. Picture taken April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

Rasha Edlibi, a survivor of the attack, said the gas left her unable to breathe and made her eyes well up with tears.

“We were in the basement, around dinner time, when there was a lot of bombardment, and we felt a very, very strong chlorine smell,” she said. “Before I knew it, my husband was carrying me to a (medical) point. I woke up to them throwing water on me.”

The medics were already working at full capacity after weeks of army artillery and air strikes, said Dirani, 20, a photographer who was working to document the victims of attacks during the conflict.

He grabbed his camera, put on a face mask, and ran with emergency workers to the nearby site of the attack, he said.

“On the way, we saw corpses in the street…They had tried to flee and didn’t make it.”

Medical relief groups say dozens of men, women, and children were gassed to death in Douma that night. Damascus and its key ally Moscow have dismissed the reports of a chemical attack.

The United States, France, and Britain launched missile strikes on Saturday over the suspected chemical attack, the first coordinated direct Western military action against President Bashar al-Assad in seven years of war.

The suspected gas attack took place during the final days of a government offensive on Douma, the last town to hold out in the eastern Ghouta enclave that the army has recaptured since February.

Dirani spoke to Reuters in a telephone interview from rebel territory in northern Syria, where thousands of insurgent fighters and civilians from Douma were sent in an evacuation under a surrender deal with the government.

Dirani said when he reached the site of the attack, he found nearly 30 bodies on the ground floor, and a few others on the first. Their eyes were open and foam had come out of their mouths, he said.

“There was no place for us to walk…They looked terrifying.”

He stopped taking pictures of the victims and rushed outside to get first aid, after his eyes burnt and his breath got short. Dirani said he was also coughing and felt a pain at the bottom of his stomach.

“The scenes I saw do not leave my mind, and they will never be erased from my memory,” he said.

He recalled the sight of a child twitching on the floor, being sprayed with water and being given oxygen. We were “waiting for him to get better or die”, he said.

“Everyone was crying, the medical staff were crying and I was also, and we couldn’t do anything.”

Rescue workers went out the next morning to look for more bodies, and people buried the dead a few days later.

Douma is located in the Ghouta region near Damascus where three towns were hit in a nerve gas attack that killed hundreds of people in 2013.

Edlibi said one of her two young daughters “turned blue right away” because she already had lung problems from previous shelling. She spoke to Reuters at a camp for the displaced in rebel-held territory in northern Syria.

“I still have trouble breathing till now and the headache is not going away,” she said.

(Editing by Ellen Francis, Tom Perry and Peter Graff)

U.S. Men made persistent efforts to join Islamic State

A flag belonging to the Islamic State fighters is seen on a motorbike after forces loyal to Assad recaptured the historic city of Palmyra

By David Bailey

MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) – Three Somali-American men from Minnesota made persistent efforts to join Islamic State militants in Syria and conspired to help the group, a prosecutor said in closing arguments on Tuesday in their federal jury trial.

Mohamed Farah, Abdirahman Daud and Guled Omar are charged with conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State and commit murder outside the United States, charges that could result in a life sentence for each if they are convicted.

They participated wholeheartedly in the conspiracy from early 2014 through April 2015, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Docherty told jurors in U.S. District Court in Minnesota.

They were going to put themselves under the control of Islamic State, and they knew that they would be ordered to kill and would have to carry out those orders, Docherty said.

In all, prosecutors brought similar charges against 10 men they said were part of a group of extended family and friends who sometimes took classes on Islam together, hung out and also planned to go overseas to fight for the militants the United States has designated a terror group.

Six men pleaded guilty to providing material support to Islamic State, some testifying at trial. A seventh man is believed to be in Syria, leaving Omar, Farah and Daud to face trial.

The trial has exposed tensions in Minnesota’s Somali community, where some believe the men were entrapped.

Docherty said the defendants made “persistent efforts” to join Islamic State and the evidence supported the testimony of friends turned witnesses. Even if you discount their testimony, the tapes show their participation, he said.

“There simply is no entrapment in this case,” Docherty said, adding that the defendants were “itching” to go.

Prosecutors presented two dozen witnesses, plus audiotaped conversations to support charges the defendants planned extensively to travel to Syria and fight with Islamic State, and talked openly of killing people.

Farah and Daud did not present any witnesses during the trial. Omar took the stand, testifying that his taped conversations were boasts or taken out of context.

Defense attorneys said in opening statements that the Islamic State videos were repugnant and the defendants made inflammatory remarks, but the government lacked sufficient evidence to prove the men intended to travel to Syria and fight for Islamic State.

Farah and Daud also are charged with perjury, and Farah with making a false statement to FBI agents. Omar is also charged with attempting to use $5,000 in federal student aid to fund travel to Syria.

Middle East Refugees help Europe prosecute war crimes

Birds fly over a damaged neighbourhood, in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria

By Thomas Escritt

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – European authorities are seeking testimony from some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Middle East violence as they try to build war crimes cases linked to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

As witnesses to atrocities, they are invaluable to prosecutors preparing trials in European courts that will offer a way round the United Nations impasse that has prevented the setting up of an international court for Syria.

The search for evidence takes a variety of forms. Dutch and German immigration services hand out leaflets to arriving migrants, inviting them to testify. In Norway, police screen arrivals’ mobile phones for evidence of possible involvement in war crimes.

“Over the next five years you’ll see a lot of prosecutions,” said Matevz Pezdirc of the European Union’s Genocide Network, a forum that brings together police and prosecutors twice a year in The Hague to swap information about war crimes.

Some alleged perpetrators may be European citizens who have joined Islamic State; others may be militants who have traveled to Europe from Syria or Iraq, blending in with the more than 1 million migrants and refugees who streamed into the continent last year.

“You may have lots of victims or witnesses in one place, but you can’t move with a prosecution until you have a perpetrator in your jurisdiction,” Pezdirc said.

Most European countries have legislation allowing them to prosecute international crimes like genocide regardless of where in the world they happen. About 15 have units dedicated to investigating and prosecuting them.

Over the past decade, authorities in Europe have launched 1,607 international war crimes cases in domestic jurisdictions, while another 1,339 are ongoing, according to EU judicial cooperation agency Eurojust.

STRESSED WITNESSES

German police have compiled testimony from hundreds of potential witnesses to the Syria conflict, and war crimes prosecutors in Karlsruhe have questioned a few dozen of them in greater depth.

But gathering evidence is a painstaking process. Traumatized witnesses, fresh from harrowing journeys on foot and by sea, need time before they are ready to testify, and can often face only short periods of questioning each day.

“The refugees usually need time to rest and calm down before they decide to cooperate with law enforcement,” Pezdirc said.

Investigators have interviewed Yazidi Kurd refugees in Germany for evidence of alleged genocide against the ethnic and religious minority. A German citizen thought to be in Syria is the subject of a sealed arrest warrant on separate war crimes charges.

They are preparing further cases against two other suspects, one accused of torture and another of kidnapping a U.S. legal adviser near Damascus.

In France, genocide and war crimes prosecutors have a handful of investigations open into Syrian nationals, including a former Syrian colonel, once a doctor in a military hospital, who has sought asylum.

More than 4,000 European citizens are estimated to have left to fight in Syria, of whom around a third have since returned home, a Dutch think tank said earlier this year.

With both witnesses and perpetrators on their territory, European prosecutors have already brought some cases. A German citizen is on trial for war crimes after Facebook posts showed him posing alongside decapitated heads.

Last year, Swedish courts convicted a Syrian on the basis of a video showing him torturing a fellow combatant. Crimes being investigated around the continent include torture, murder, rape, crimes against humanity and genocide.

SECURITY COUNCIL SPLIT

With more than 400,000 people killed in Syria since 2011, there have been calls for perpetrators of massacres to face trials in a U.N. court, like those that followed the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

But division among the five veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – who include Syria’s ally, Russia – has stymied attempts to refer such cases to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, or set up a special tribunal.

So rights campaigners are pinning their hopes on national prosecutions, and Syria and Iraq have come to dominate the agenda of the Genocide Network, which has been operating since 2004.

“If there’s going to be justice in Syria, it’s going to be in the courts of third states,” said Stephen Rapp, a U.S. diplomat who led the prosecution of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, at a meeting of law enforcement officials in The Hague this week.

Successful trials could help to influence the wider course of the war and the migrant crisis, he said.

“If we do more to show there’s justice, that there’s hope, if we can show that this way of fighting the conflict is going to have consequences, we can reduce the refugee flow.”

(Additional reporting by Chine Labbe in Paris, Stine Jacobsen in Oslo, Jussi Rosendahl in Helsinki, Rodrigo De Miguel Roncal in Madrid; Editing by Anthony Deutsch and Mark Trevelyan)