Sex, money, spying: The Mueller probe has it all

In this June 21, 2017, photo, special counsel Robert Mueller departs after a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
Updated 16 March 2018

Sex, money, spying: The Mueller probe has it all

WASHINGTON: Sex. Money laundering. Espionage. The investigation of Washington special prosecutor Robert Mueller is bursting its seams, going far beyond Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
After indicting 19 people so far, Mueller’s team has put on edge many people in President Donald Trump’s orbit, not least Trump himself. But the investigators appear to still have a long way to go before wrapping up their probe.
Here are the various directions of Mueller’s investigation:
The investigation’s main focus is possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia. Moscow allegedly offered the campaign compromising materials on Trump rival Hillary Clinton several times — some of which was published by WikiLeaks.
According to reports and court filings, separate offers were made to campaign advisers George Papadopoulos and Carter Page. Another was allegedly made to top campaign officials, including Donald Trump Jr, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, in a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer.
A key question: What did Trump know about that offer?
Mueller is also reportedly eyeing Republican political consultant Roger Stone over his contacts with WikiLeaks during the campaign.
There was a spider-web of contacts between campaign officials and Russians, but it is unclear what they add up to. Page, formerly a Moscow-based investment banker, visited Russia during the campaign, and was already the target of an FBI espionage investigation. Papadopoulos admitted to numerous contacts with Russians in England, as he sought to arrange a trip by Trump to Moscow.
Kushner has admitted discussing a private communications channel with the Russians after the election, for unclear purposes. At that time Trump’s national security aide Michael Flynn was also having secretive conversations with Russia’s ambassador. Campaign chair Paul Manafort, according to The Washington Post, offered to share campaign information with Oleg Deripaska, a Russian tycoon with Kremlin links.
The Post also reported that Mueller is probing a meeting that an associate of Trump, Erik Prince, held with a senior Russian in the Seychelles in January 2017 as another “back channel” effort.
Surprisingly, the Mueller probe has also dug deeply into the Russian meddling itself, and not only to fill out the picture of what happened in 2016. In February Mueller indicted 13 Russians linked to the Internet Research Agency for their efforts to manipulate US public opinion. That group included Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin. Mueller is also expected to indict people involved in the hacking theft of Clinton materials.
Mueller has already charged former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and campaign deputy Rick Gates over laundering $75 million tied to work they did for pro-Moscow Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych.
On Thursday The New York Times reported that Mueller has subpoenaed records from the billionaire president’s umbrella company, the Trump Organization, related to Russia and other matters under investigation.
That could cut a broad swath: Russians figured large as customers in the business, with many buying condominiums in his New York and Florida projects.
In 2013 Trump partnered with a Moscow developer with Putin links to hold his Miss Universe contest in Moscow.
Trump’s 2008 sale of a Palm Beach mansion to Russian oligarch Dmitry Ryobolev for $95 million, which Trump paid only $41 million for, has also raised eyebrows.
There are also questions about Kushner’s seeking international financing for a heavily indebted New York property owned by his family business, and how that may have intersected with the Trump campaign.
Mueller could also be looking into the possible existence of a lurid videotape in Russian hands involving Trump and prostitutes dating back to the Miss Universe. That was reported in the dossier on links between the campaign and Russia produced by British ex-spy Christopher Steele. Steele, much of whose report has proven to be accurate, was interviewed by Mueller’s team last year. Steele’s sources said the video could provide the Kremlin with leverage over Trump.
The weightiest charge Mueller is exploring is Trump’s possible obstruction of his investigation. Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, his constant comments on the investigation, possibly covering up the June 2016 Trump tower meeting, and other actions could support the charge. But Mueller will need powerful evidence to prove it, as it could set up a hearing on impeaching the president in Congress.


India sets up holding center for Rohingya in Kashmir

Updated 07 March 2021

India sets up holding center for Rohingya in Kashmir

  • An estimated 40,000 Rohingya have taken refuge in parts of India
  • 5,000 Rohingya Muslims have taken refuge in Jammu in the past few years

SRINAGAR: Authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir have sent at least 168 Rohingya refugees to a holding center, police said Sunday, in a process that they say is for the deportation of thousands of the refugees living in the region.

The move began Saturday following a directive from the region’s home department to identify Rohingya living in the southern city of Jammu, said Inspector-General Mukesh Singh. He said around 5,000 Rohingya Muslims have taken refuge in Jammu in the past few years.

“All of them are illegally living here and we have begun identifying them,” Singh said. “This process is to finally deport them to their country.”

More than 1 million Rohingya have fled waves of violent persecution in their native Myanmar and are currently mainly living in overcrowded, squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Since Saturday, officials have called hundreds of Rohingya to a stadium in Jammu, taking their personal details and biometrics and testing them for the coronavirus. A jail has been converted into a holding center in the outskirts of the city, and at least 168 Rohingya have so far been sent there, Singh said.

Rohingyas refugees stand at a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Jammu, India, on March 7, 2021. (AP)

The refugees, who have previously faced hostility in the city, were not informed of what was going on. Jammu is a Hindu-dominated area in Muslim-majority Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Khatija, a Rohingya Muslim woman who uses one name, said the Indian authorities took away her son on Saturday and she didn’t know where he was being kept. Her daughter-in-law gave birth on Sunday morning, she said.

An estimated 40,000 Rohingya have taken refuge in parts of India. Fewer than 15,000 are registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Many have settled in areas of India with large Muslim populations, including the southern city of Hyderabad, the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and New Delhi. Some have taken refuge in northeast India bordering Bangladesh and Myanmar.

The Indian government says it has evidence there are extremists who pose a threat to the country’s security among the Rohingya and calls all of them “illegal immigrants” who will be deported.

In 2018 and 2019, Indian authorities deported at least 12 Rohingya in two groups to Myanmar. Rights groups have asked the Indian government to abandon plans for deporting Rohingya and evaluate their asylum claims.


Swiss agree to outlaw facial coverings in ‘burqa ban’ vote

Updated 22 min 17 sec ago

Swiss agree to outlaw facial coverings in ‘burqa ban’ vote

  • The measure to amend the Swiss constitution passed by a 51.2-48.8% margin, provisional official results showed
  • The Central Council of Muslims in Switzerland called the vote a dark day for the community

ZURICH: A far-right proposal to ban facial coverings in Switzerland won a narrow victory in a binding referendum on Sunday instigated by the same group that organised a 2009 ban on new minarets.
The measure to amend the Swiss constitution passed by a 51.2-48.8% margin, provisional official results showed.
The proposal under the Swiss system of direct democracy does not mention Islam directly and also aims to stop violent street protesters from wearing masks, yet local politicians, media and campaigners have dubbed it the burqa ban.
"In Switzerland, our tradition is that you show your face. That is a sign of our basic freedoms," Walter Wobmann, chairman of the referendum committee and a member of parliament for the Swiss People's Party, had said before the vote.
He called facial covering "a symbol for this extreme, political Islam which has become increasingly prominent in Europe and which has no place in Switzerland".
The Central Council of Muslims in Switzerland called the vote a dark day for the community.
"Today's decision opens old wounds, further expands the principle of legal inequality, and sends a clear signal of exclusion to the Muslim minority," it said.
It promised legal challenges to laws implementing the ban and a fundraising drive to help women who are fined.
The proposal predated the COVID-19 pandemic, which has required adults to wear masks in many settings to prevent the spread of infection.
Two cantons already have local bans on face coverings.
France banned wearing a full face veil in public in 2011 and Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands and Bulgaria have full or partial bans on wearing face coverings in public.
Practically no one in Switzerland wears a burqa and only around 30 women wear the niqab, the University of Lucerne estimates. Muslims make up 5% of the Swiss population of 8.6 million people, most with roots in Turkey, Bosnia and Kosovo.
The government had urged people to vote against a ban.
"After the ban on minarets, a majority of Swiss voters has once again backed an initiative that discriminates against a single religious community and needlessly stirs up fears and division," Amnesty International said.
"The veiling ban is not a measure for women's liberation, but a dangerous symbolic policy that violates freedom of expression and religion."


Russia reports 10,595 new COVID-19 cases, 368 deaths

Updated 07 March 2021

Russia reports 10,595 new COVID-19 cases, 368 deaths

  • The government’s coronavirus taskforce said that 368 people had died in the last 24 hours

MOSCOW: Russia on Sunday reported 10,595 new COVID-19 cases, including 1,534 in Moscow, taking the national case tally to 4,322,776 since the pandemic began.
The government’s coronavirus taskforce said that 368 people had died in the last 24 hours, bringing the Russian death toll to 89,094.


Train derails killing 1, injuring 40 in southern Pakistan

Updated 07 March 2021

Train derails killing 1, injuring 40 in southern Pakistan

  • It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the derailment
  • Rescue official Muhammad Arshad said darkness and the remote location of the derailment hampered rescue efforts
MULTAN, Pakistan: Eight cars of a Lahore bound train derailed in southern Pakistan early Sunday, killing at least one passenger and injuring 40 others, officials said.
The accident took place between the Rohri and Sangi stations in southern Sindh province and caused a temporary suspension of railway traffic in both directions, said Kamran Lashari, a railway official.
It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the derailment. Train accidents are common in Pakistan, where successive governments have paid little attention to improving the poorly maintained signal system and aging tracks.
Lashari said eight cars of the 18-car train that departed from Karachi for the eastern city of Lahore derailed and six fell into a shallow ditch.
Rescue official Muhammad Arshad said darkness and the remote location of the derailment hampered rescue efforts. He said the body of the woman who died and 40 injured passengers were taken to hospitals in nearby towns. It wasn’t immediately clear how many passengers were on the train.
Railway Minister Azam Sawati told a local television station that the accident was being investigated and the government would provide financial compensation to the heirs of deceased woman and all the injured.

Khalilzad seeks support to shake up Afghan peace process, warring parties object

Updated 07 March 2021

Khalilzad seeks support to shake up Afghan peace process, warring parties object

  • Zalmay Khalilzad is on a visit to Kabul, Doha and other regional capitals, his first since under Joe Biden's administration
  • Peace negotiations in Doha are making little progress and violence in Afghanistan escalating

KABUL/ISLAMABAD/WASHINGTON: The US special envoy to Afghanistan proposed a shakeup of the stalled peace process this week, including an interim government and a conference of key players, according to diplomatic and political sources, but his plan faced immediate objections by the warring sides. 
Afghan-born US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad is on a visit to Kabul, Doha and other regional capitals, his first since US President Joe Biden’s administration began reviewing its options for the peace process and as time runs out before a May 1 US troop withdrawal deadline. 
With peace negotiations in the Qatari capital making little progress and violence in Afghanistan escalating, Khalilzad is trying to build consensus around alternative options with all Afghan sides and key regional players, sources said.
“(The United States) thinks Doha isn’t working and needs impetus and an alternate approach,” said one diplomatic source who closely follows the process.
In Kabul, Khalilzad met Abdullah Abdullah, the chief peace envoy, President Ashraf Ghani and other political and civil society leaders, including former President Hamid Karzai.
Three diplomatic sources, two sources on the teams of political leaders who met with Khalilzad and two international sources in Kabul said one of the envoy’s main proposals was an interim government arrangement, referred to as a participatory or representative government.
A former Afghan government official familiar with the matter said Khalilzad shared a document detailing the power-sharing proposal and that it revised a paper he circulated in December.
Another proposal was a meeting with a similar format to the 2001 Bonn conference, to involve representatives from a wide range of Afghan parties meeting in person while international agencies and diplomats push them to a solution.
Anti-Taliban leaders met under international auspices in the German city of Bonn after the 2001 US-led invasion ousted the insurgents from power and agreed on a provisional administration and a roadmap for forming a permanent government and writing a new constitution.
“We’re considering a number of different ideas that might accelerate the process,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Friday.
“The United States is not making any formal proposals and is continuing to review all relevant options for future force posture — and all means all,” a State Department spokesperson said on Saturday. “Ambassador Khalilzad has discussed a range of ways to move the diplomacy forward, nothing more.”
The two international sources said Khalilzad is asking the United Nations to take a lead role and call the conference.
Spokespeople for the UN mission in Afghanistan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Two of the sources said the conference could be held in Turkey, but a third cautioned that location might meet resistance from Western nations and other countries including Germany and Uzbekistan were being considered.

CHALLENGES AHEAD
Khalilzad’s plans immediately encountered objections from both the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Ghani made a fiery speech in Afghanistan’s parliament on Saturday, repeating his refusal to step aside for an interim government. “Any institution can write a fantasy on a piece of paper and suggest a solution for Afghanistan” he said, warning any transfer of power would have to take place through elections as required by the constitution.
Two international officials in Kabul said Ghani’s fierce opposition would be a problem for the plan.
“The problem here is that Ghani can blame the United States directly ... by challenging his legitimacy and considering an interim government it implies they are undermining the democratic process,” one of the officials said.
A Taliban leader in Doha who spoke on condition of anonymity said Khalilzad raised the possibility of an interim government and a conference with the insurgents’ negotiating team, as well as asking for a cease-fire or reduction in violence by 60-70%.
“Khalilzad has come with some ideas and his top agenda is the intra-Afghan dialogue to deliver some tangible results and very soon,” he said.
He said the Taliban would not join an interim government, but was not opposed to one being formed.
“We would recommend people with a good reputation for the interim government and this set up would need to work for at least two years to depoliticize all the government departments, including the security establishment,” he said.
They could consider the reduction in violence, but not a cease-fire, the Taliban leader said, and had asked Khalilzad to pressure the Afghan government to release 7,000 more Taliban prisoners.
“We don’t believe any other conference in any country would help resolve the Afghan conflict,” he said.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said they had not yet seen the plan, but if an alternative to talks in Qatar was sought, “it is doomed to failure.”
Two sources said Khalilzad was expected to visit Islamabad, Pakistan, a key player in the peace process, on his trip.
The envoy was the architect under President Donald Trump’s administration of a February 2020 deal between Washington and the Taliban, which envisaged the Afghan government and Taliban negotiating a peace agreement and setting a final withdrawal of foreign forces by May 1.