Dutch prosecutors demand life sentences in MH17 downing

Lawyers attend the judges’ inspection of the reconstruction of the MH17 wreckage, as part of the murder trial ahead of the beginning of a critical stage, in Reijen, Netherlands in May. (Reuters/File Photo)
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Updated 22 December 2021

Dutch prosecutors demand life sentences in MH17 downing

  • Prosecutors said the four recklessly used a Russian missile to bring down the passenger jet, killing all 298 passengers and crew
  • Public prosecutor Manon Ridderbeks made the sentence demand on the third day of a presentation of evidence supporting the indictment

SCHIPHOL, Netherlands: Dutch prosecutors on Wednesday demanded life sentences for four suspects in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014, saying they caused “deep and irreversible suffering” to relatives of the 298 people killed.
Prosecutors said the four recklessly used a Russian missile to bring down the passenger jet, killing all 298 passengers and crew.
Public prosecutor Manon Ridderbeks made the sentence demand on the third day of a presentation of evidence supporting the indictment. The suspects are being tried in absentia.
“The downing of MH17 with a Buk missile brutally ended the lives of all 298 people on board. Incredibly deep and irreversible suffering has been caused to the next of kin,” Ridderbeks told the court.
Anton Kotte, who lost his son, daughter-in-law and his 6-year-old grandson when MH17 was shot down, said the sentence demand felt like “a new start,” but he added that with prosecution arguments and the deliberation of judges still to come, and the possibility for appeals, justice still felt a long way off.
“We just started coming in the right direction ... but the outcome will be in the future,” he said outside court.
Life sentences are rare in the Netherlands, where the sentence means the convicted person spending the rest of their life in prison.
But Ridderbeks said it was a necessary in the MH17 downing because of the extreme nature of the crime and to act as a deterrent.
“It must send an unequivocal international message that aviation deserves the greatest possible protection and that gross acts of violence against it will be punished severely,” she said.
Prosecutors accuse Russians Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy and Igor Pulatov as well as Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko, who were separatist rebels fighting Ukrainian government forces in 2014, of forming a team that aimed to bring down Ukrainian planes using a missile system trucked in from a Russian military base.
Prosecutor Thijs Berger told judges earlier Wednesday that it’s legally irrelevant that the suspects wanted to shoot down military and not civilian aircraft.
“Legally speaking they were ordinary citizens, they were not allowed to commit any violence,” he said.
The trial is being held in the Netherlands at a high security courtroom near Schiphol Airport because nearly 200 of those on board were Dutch citizens. Victims came from a total of 16 different nations.
Wednesday’s sentence demands came amid soaring tensions between Moscow and the West over a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine that has drawn fears of an invasion. Russia has denied plans to attack its neighbor.
Defense lawyers for Pulatov, who is the only suspect who is represented in court, will make their presentation to judges in March. Verdicts aren’t expected until September next year at the earliest.
Prosecutors had spent the previous two days explaining in meticulous detail the indictment and evidence backing it up to the panel of judges.
Prosecutors plotted in detail the route they say the Buk missile took to and from the launch site in an agricultural field near the village of Pervomaiskyi, using witnesses, social media posts, photos and video and intercepted phone calls and mobile phone location data.
They also discussed the forensic evidence gathered from the wreckage and bodies of victims that were recovered from eastern Ukraine and returned to the Netherlands for examination. Earlier in the trial, judges visited a hangar on a Dutch military air base where the wreckage is stored to view the mangled fragments.
The prosecutors concluded that the plane was shot down by a Buk missile belonging to the Russian 53rd Anti Aircraft Missile Bridade that was driven to the launch location “by orders of and under guidance of the suspects.”
The prosecutors also cited tapped conversations between Dubinski and Kharchenko discussing shooting down what they initially thought was a Ukrainian war plane.
Prosecutors argue that Girkin and Dubinskiy were senior separatist rebels while Pulatov and Kharchenko were their direct subordinates.
“Together they are responsible for the deployment of the Buk telar used to shoot down flight MH17,” prosecutors said in a written summary of their arguments.


Xi’s ‘final purge’ ahead of Chinese Communist Party congress

Updated 07 October 2022

Xi’s ‘final purge’ ahead of Chinese Communist Party congress

  • More than 1.5 million officials in China have been punished since Xi Jinping became leader a decade ago
  • Xi is widely expected to secure a third term as party leader, upending the succession norms in place since the 1990s

BEIJING: President Xi Jinping has embarked on a “final round of purges” ahead of a major Chinese Communist Party congress, wielding his long-running anti-corruption campaign to cement his grasp on power, analysts say.
When he became leader a decade ago, Xi vowed to root out dishonest officials, both senior “tigers” and low-ranking “flies.”
More than 1.5 million officials have been punished since then, according to data from the party disciplinary body, and China’s ranking on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index has improved.
But critics say the campaign is also a thinly veiled political tool that has helped Xi eliminate his rivals — and the build-up to this year’s congress has seen more heads roll.
About 1,100 officials have been caught in the party dragnet since the beginning of this year, according to party data.
Among them are former deputy public security minister Sun Lijun and former justice minister Fu Zhenghua, who will now spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
“This final round of purges, masquerading as an anti-corruption campaign, will ensure that Xi will have tighter if not absolute control over personnel and policy issues (at the Congress),” said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Xi is widely expected to secure a third term as party leader at the meeting, upending the succession norms in place since the 1990s.
“Despite all signs that his major goal of a third term is pretty much guaranteed, Xi is still paranoid about his control over appointments to key decision-making bodies within the party,” Lam added.

Once a trusted lieutenant of Xi, Sun oversaw security in Hong Kong during months of unrest in 2019 and was even sent to Wuhan at the start of the Covid pandemic.
But he reportedly fell from grace because of his political ambitions, and was officially accused of “seriously damaging the unity of the party.”
Sun confessed on national television in January to taking bribes worth $14 million, hidden inside boxes of what appeared to be seafood.
Others allegedly in his “political clique,” including Fu and three former police chiefs, were also rounded up and given harsh sentences.
“Sun Lijun’s case is linked to Xi’s absolute control of the security apparatus, which is indispensable for his political agenda,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.
“It also sends a stern message to anyone with dissenting views about Xi’s leadership.”
Chinese Communist Party politics — despite the facade of unity — has always been deeply factional with different groups vying for influence.
“There are some who are anti-Xi but very pro-party. They don’t like where the party is heading under him,” Alex Payette, chief executive of consultancy Cercius Group, told AFP.
The congress presents an opportunity for Xi to reduce that threat by promoting close allies to positions on the Politburo’s seven-person standing committee, the apex of power.

More than any other Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, Xi has built a strong personality cult, with children as young as 10 required to take lessons in “Xi Jinping Thought.”
And according to Wu Muluan, a Chinese politics expert at the National University of Singapore, he has used the anti-corruption campaign to turn the Communist Party “from a collective dictatorship to a personalist dictatorship.”
He has already brought under his wing the three critical power centers of the party — the military, the propaganda machine and the internal security apparatus — by rooting out dissenting voices and replacing them with his proteges.
For example, the recently appointed minister of public security Wang Xiaohong has known Xi at least since the mid-1990s, when they were both working in southeastern Fujian province.
“Xi is cherry-picking people who have shown absolute loyalty to him for decades,” Wu said.
Surrounding himself with allies going into his next term has become even more important given the significant political headwinds Xi faces, including an ailing economy, deteriorating relations with the United States and a strict zero-Covid policy that has accelerated China’s inward turn from the world.
“The anti-corruption card is a potent tool for Xi to send a message to the still-considerable number of opponents in the upper echelon of the party,” analyst Lam said.
“Any opposition could mean a jail term... or at least ugly harassment by the anti-graft agencies such as 24-hour surveillance.”
 


Latest 4-member SpaceX crew, including cosmonaut, welcomed aboard space station

Updated 07 October 2022

Latest 4-member SpaceX crew, including cosmonaut, welcomed aboard space station

  • The crew consists of two American NASA astronauts, a Japanese astronaut, and a Russian cosmonaut
  • Cosmonaut Anna Kikina joined the SpaceX Crew-5 flight under a NASA-Roscosmos ride-sharing agreement

A four-member SpaceX Crew Dragon team, including a Russian cosmonaut and the first Native American woman sent to orbit, safely docked with the International Space Station (ISS) on Thursday and moved aboard to begin a five-month science mission.
Rendezvous of the latest NASA expedition to the orbiting laboratory came just after 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) following a 29-hour flight to the ISS as the two vehicles circled the globe some 250 miles (420 km) above Earth off the west coast of Africa, according to a NASA webcast of the docking.
The autonomously flying Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Endurance, was lofted into orbit on Wednesday atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The crew consists of two American NASA astronauts — flight commander Nicole Aunapu Mann, 45, and pilot Josh Cassada, 49 — as well as Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, 59, a veteran of four previous spaceflights, and cosmonaut Anna Kikina, 38, the first Russian aboard an American spacecraft in 20 years.
The inclusion of Kikina, the lone female cosmonaut in active service with the Russian space agency Roscosmos, was a sign of continued US-Russian cooperation in space despite escalating tensions between Moscow and Washington over the war in Ukraine.
Kikina joined the SpaceX Crew-5 flight under a new ride-sharing agreement signed in July between NASA and Roscosmos allowing the two countries to keep flying on each other’s spacecraft to and from ISS.
The team was led by Mann, the first indigenous woman NASA has sent to space and the first woman to take the commander’s seat of a SpaceX Crew Dragon. Mann, a US Marine Corps colonel and combat fighter pilot, is also among the first group of 18 astronauts selected for NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions aimed at returning humans to the moon later this decade.
“We look forward to getting to work,” Mann radioed moments after the linkup was completed.
On arrival, the Endurance crew spent nearly two hours conducting a series of standard procedures, such as leak checks and pressurizing the chamber between the capsule and ISS, before opening the entry hatches.
A live NASA video feed showed the smiling new arrivals weightlessly floating headfirst through the padded passageway one by one into the station.
They were greeted with hugs and handshakes by the four-member team they are replacing — three Americans and the Italian station commander, Samantha Cristoforetti — as well as by two Russians and a fourth NASA astronaut who shared a Soyuz flight to the ISS last month.
“A lot of people are working hard to make sure our common manned space exploration will continue to exist, to develop further. We are living proof of this,” Kikina said in Russian remarks translated to English through a mission-control interpreter during a brief welcoming ceremony.
The Endurance crew marked the fifth full-fledged ISS team NASA has flown aboard a SpaceX capsule since the private rocket venture founded by Tesla CEO Elon Musk began sending US astronauts to space in May 2020.
SpaceX has flown eight crewed missions to orbit in all, including non-NASA flights.
The new arrivals are set to conduct more than 200 experiments during their 150-day mission, many focused on medical research ranging from 3-D “bio-printing” of human tissue to a study of bacteria cultured in microgravity.
ISS, spanning the length of a football field, has been continuously occupied since 2000, operated by a US-Russian-led partnership that includes Canada, Japan and 11 European countries.
 


Biden cites Cuban Missile Crisis in describing Putin’s nuclear threat

Updated 07 October 2022

Biden cites Cuban Missile Crisis in describing Putin’s nuclear threat

NEW YORK: US President Joe Biden said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons threatens to bring about the biggest such risk since the Cuban Missile Crisis, adding Washington was “trying to figure out” Putin’s off-ramp.
The White House has said repeatedly that it has seen no indication that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons in despite what it calls Putin’s “nuclear saber-rattling.”
But Biden on Thursday made clear he was keeping a wary eye on Putin and how he might react as Ukraine’s military makes gains against Russian invaders.
“For the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat to the use of nuclear weapons, if in fact things continue down the path they’d been going,” Biden told Democratic donors in New York.
He also said, “we have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis.”
In the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States under President John Kennedy and Soviet Union under its leader, Nikita Khrushchev, came close to the use of nuclear weapons over the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba.
Putin, said Biden, is “not joking when he talks about potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons, because his military is, you might say, is significantly underperforming.”
“I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily (use) a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon,” Biden said.
Biden said he and US officials are searching for a diplomatic off-ramp.
“We’re trying to figure out what is Putin’s off-ramp...Where does he find a way out? Where does he find himself in a position he does not, not only lose face but lose significant power in Russia,” Biden said.
Biden spoke at the New York home of businessman James Murdoch, turning to the son of conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch to try to boost his party’s chances in Nov. 8 congressional elections.
The event at Murdoch’s home was to benefit the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is providing support for Democratic candidates for the Senate.


2 Russians seek asylum after reaching remote Alaska island

Updated 07 October 2022

2 Russians seek asylum after reaching remote Alaska island

JUNEAU, Alaska: Two Russians who said they fled the country to avoid military service have requested asylum in the US after landing in a small boat on a remote Alaska island in the Bering Sea, US Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office said Thursday.
Karina Borger, a spokesperson for the Alaska Republican senator, said in an email that the office has been in communication with the US Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection and that “the Russian nationals reported that they fled one of the coastal communities on the east coast of Russia to avoid compulsory military service.”
Thousands of Russian men have fled since President Vladimir Putin announced a mobilization to bolster Russian forces in Ukraine. While Putin said the move was aimed at calling up about 300,000 men with past military service, many Russians fear it will be broader.
Spokespersons with the US Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection referred a reporter’s questions to the US Department of Homeland Security public affairs office, which provided little information Thursday. The office, in a statement, said the people “were transported to Anchorage for inspection, which includes a screening and vetting process, and then subsequently processed in accordance with applicable US immigration laws under the Immigration and Nationality Act.”
The agency said the two Russians arrived Tuesday on a small boat. It did not provide details on where they came from, their journey or the asylum request. It was not immediately clear what kind of boat they were on.
Alaska’s senators, Republicans Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, on Thursday said the two Russians landed at a beach near the town of Gambell, an isolated Alaska Native community of about 600 people on St. Lawrence Island. Sullivan said he was alerted to the matter by a “senior community leader from the Bering Strait region” on Tuesday morning.
Gambell is about 200 miles (320 kilometers) from the western Alaska hub community of Nome and about 36 miles (58 kilometers) from the Chukotka Peninsula, Siberia, according to a community profile on a state website. The remote, 100-mile (161-kilometer) long island, which includes Savoonga, a community of about 800 people, receives flight services from a regional air carrier. Residents rely heavily on a subsistence way of life, harvesting from the sea fish, whales and other marine life.
A person who responded to an email address listed for Gambell directed questions to federal authorities. A message seeking comment also was sent to the Consulate General of Russia in San Francisco.
Sullivan, in a statement, said he has encouraged federal authorities to have a plan in place in case “more Russians flee to Bering Strait communities in Alaska.”
“This incident makes two things clear: First, the Russian people don’t want to fight Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” Sullivan said. “Second, given Alaska’s proximity to Russia, our state has a vital role to play in securing America’s national security.”
Murkowski said the situation underscored “the need for a stronger security posture in America’s Arctic.”
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Wednesday, as initial details of the situation were emerging, said he did not expect a continual stream or “flotilla” of people traversing the same route. He also warned that travel in the region could be dangerous as a fall storm packing strong winds was expected.
It is unusual for someone to take this route to try to get into the US.
US authorities in August stopped Russians without legal status 42 times who tried to enter the US from Canada. That was up from 15 times in July and nine times in August 2021.
Russians more commonly try to enter the US through Mexico, which does not require visas. Russians typically fly from Moscow to Cancun or Mexico City, entering Mexico as tourists before getting a connecting a flight to the US border. Earlier this year, US authorities contended with a spate of Russians who hoped to claim asylum if they reached an inspection booth at an official crossing.
Some trace the spike to before Russia invaded Ukraine, attributing it to the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny last year.
 


Six facing criminal charges over Indonesia stadium disaster: police chief

Updated 06 October 2022

Six facing criminal charges over Indonesia stadium disaster: police chief

  • The six suspects include three police officers and three people responsible for the match and its security
  • The announcement came as anger grew over the police response to a pitch invasion

MALANG, Indonesia: Indonesia’s police chief on Thursday said six people were facing criminal charges over a football stadium disaster that killed 131 people at the weekend.
“Based on the investigation and sufficient evidence, we have determined six suspects,” national police chief Listyo Sigit Prabowo told a press conference.
The six suspects include three police officers and three people responsible for the match and its security, including the head of Arema FC’s organizing committee and one of the club’s security officers, he said.
The announcement came as anger grew over the police response to a pitch invasion.
Officers reacted by firing tear gas into packed stands as fans of Arema FC tried to approach players following their defeat to fierce rivals Persebaya Surabaya on Saturday evening.
Hundreds of people fled for small exits, resulting in a crush that left many trampled or suffocating to death.
Police described the pitch invasion as a riot and said two officers were killed, but survivors accused them of overreacting.
Officers responded with force, kicking and hitting fans with batons, according to witnesses and footage, pushing the spectators back into the stands where many would die after tear gas was fired.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced an investigation after the tragedy and called for a safety review of all stadiums.