Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs

The ‘Iuventa’, a rescue ship run by German NGO ‘Jugend Rettet’ (Youth Saves), sails off the Libyan coast during a rescue mission in the Mediterranean Sea in 2016. (AFP)
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Updated 21 May 2022

Sicily judge weighs trial of migrant rescue NGOs

  • Trapani judge Samuele Corso must rule whether or not to proceed to trial after a five-year investigation mired in controversy
  • The charities are accused of coordinating their actions with smugglers just off Libya

ROME: Charities running migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean faced a pre-trial hearing in Sicily Saturday over alleged collusion with people traffickers after a controversial probe that involved mass wiretapping.
Twenty-one suspects, including crew members of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), Save the Children and German NGO Jugend Rettet rescue ships, are accused of “aiding and abetting unauthorized entry into Italy” in 2016 and 2017.
“Our crews rescued over 14,000 people in distress from unseaworthy and overcrowded boats... and are now facing 20 years in prison,” Kathrin Schmidt, who sailed with Jugend Rettet’s ship Iuventa, said ahead of the hearing.
Trapani judge Samuele Corso must rule whether or not to proceed to trial after a five-year investigation mired in controversy for the mass wiretapping of charity workers, lawyers and journalists in what critics say is a politically motivated bid to stop sea rescues.
Italy has long been on the front line of seaborne migration from Africa to Europe, with a record 180,000 arrivals in 2016, dropping to 120,000 in 2017.
It has registered some 17,000 arrivals so far this year, according to the interior ministry.
Prosecutor Brunella Sardoni told AFP she expected the preliminary hearings process to last “several months, considering the complexity” of a case file with some 30,000 pages and hundreds of CDs.
Corso set the date for the next hearing as June 7.
Supporters of the rescue charities held a sit-in at the port in Trapani featuring large paper boats bearing the date and location of shipwrecks, and the number of victims.
The charities are accused of coordinating their actions with smugglers just off Libya, returning inflatable dinghies and boats to them to be reused, and picking up people whose lives had not been in danger.
The rescuers say anyone attempting the central Mediterranean crossing to Europe — the “world’s deadliest” according to the UN — on rickety boats or unseaworthy dinghies is at risk, and should be saved.
At least 12,000 people have drowned on this route since 2014. Many shipwrecks go unrecorded.
The charities also deny ever communicating with smugglers, who are sometimes armed and can be spotted loitering near rescues in the hope of retrieving valuable engines from migrant boats.
Save the Children told AFP it “strongly rejects” the accusations, as did MSF, which slammed a “period of criminalization of humanitarian aid” it hoped would soon end.
The Iuventa was impounded in 2017 shortly after Jugend Rettet and others refused to sign a new and contentious interior ministry “code of conduct” accord, and as the European Union scaled up surveillance and policing in the Mediterranean.
“Despite the fact that mobile phones and computers were seized and analyzed, not a single contact with Libyan smugglers... has been found,” said Nicola Canestrini, lawyer for the Iuventa crew members.
Pre-trial hearings are held behind closed doors, but representatives from the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and Amnesty International have requested the judge allow them to sit in for transparency.
ECCHR senior legal adviser Allison West has condemned “improper investigative practices” in the investigation, led by a prosecutors’ office more used to exposing Mafia crimes.
The probe was launched after ex-policeman Pietro Gallo, working as a security contractor on Save the Children’s Vos Hestia ship, sent allegations against the charities in October 2016 to Italy’s secret services, Canestrini told AFP.
He and a fellow ex-policeman also sent them to the head of the anti-immigration League party, Matteo Salvini, before reporting their suspicions to the police.
Gallo has since said in an interview that he regrets it. Asked if he ever saw any contact between the charities and traffickers, he replied “no, never.”
The damage was done. Police placed an undercover agent on the Vos Hestia in May 2017, who would provide information including elements used to charge the four Iuventa crew members, Canestrini said. Those included alleged hand signals between the crew and smugglers.
Iuventa’s case has been studied by Forensic Architecture, an agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, which uses advanced reconstruction techniques to investigate police, military and state facts.
It discredited the police theories for all three Iuventa rescues in question.


Dead Indian soldier found after 38 years on 'world's highest battlefield'

Updated 19 min 51 sec ago

Dead Indian soldier found after 38 years on 'world's highest battlefield'

  • With temperatures that can plunge to minus 50 degrees Celsius, Siachen is one of the toughest military deployments in the world 
  • Decades after the first battle for Siachen, both India and Pakistan continue to maintain a military presence in the extremely remote area 

NEW DELHI: The body of an Indian soldier who went missing 38 years ago on a glacier on the disputed border with Pakistan has been found.  

A unit of the Indian Army tweeted pictures of the coffin of Chander Shekhar wrapped in an Indian flag early Wednesday, two days after India celebrated the 75th anniversary of independence.  

The Army said Shekhar was deployed for Operation Meghdoot in 1984 when India and Pakistan fought a brief battle to assert control over the Siachen Glacier, reputed to be the world's highest battlefield.  

At over 18,000 feet (5,486 metres) with temperatures that can plunge to minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 Fahrenheit), Siachen is one of the toughest military deployments in the world.  

Located in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, it has long been contested between the nuclear-armed neighbours.  

Local media reported that Shekhar was part of a 20-member group that got caught in an ice storm during a patrol.  

Fifteen bodies were recovered at the time but the other five could not be found, among them Shekhar, the reports said.  

His last rites will now be performed with full military honours in the state of Uttarakhand, where his family lives.  

His daughter, who was four years old when he went missing, said the family would now get closure.  

"He has been long gone... Papa has come but I wish he was alive," the Hindustan Times newspaper quoted her saying.  

Decades after the first battle for Siachen, both India and Pakistan continue to maintain a military presence in the extremely remote area.  

 


Former Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa will return next week — local media

Updated 17 August 2022

Former Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa will return next week — local media

  • Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the first Sri Lankan president to quit mid-term, is temporarily sheltering in Thailand
  • Rajapaksa has made no public appearances or comment since leaving Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa will return to the island nation next week after fleeing in July amid mass protests, local broadcaster Newsfirst reported on Wednesday, citing a former ambassador.
Udayanga Weeratunga, a former Sri Lankan envoy to Russia who is related to Rajapaksa, said he will arrive in Sri Lanka on Aug. 24, Newsfirst reported.
Rajapaksa, the first Sri Lankan president to quit mid-term, is temporarily sheltering in Thailand, after fleeing Sri Lanka on a military plane to the Maldives and then spending weeks in Singapore.
He resigned from office soon after arriving in Singapore, facing public anger over his government’s handling of Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.
Rajapaksa has made no public appearances or comment since leaving Sri Lanka. Reuters was not able to immediately contact him or Weeratunga.
The office of Rajapaksa’s successor, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who suggested last month that the former president refrain from returning to Sri Lanka in the near future, did not immediately respond for a request for comment.
“I don’t believe it’s the time for him to return,” Wickremesinghe told the Wall Street Journal in an interview on July 31. “I have no indication of him returning soon.”

Myanmar junta hits back at ASEAN after being barred from meetings

Updated 17 August 2022

Myanmar junta hits back at ASEAN after being barred from meetings

  • ASEAN has barred Myanmar’s generals from attending regional meetings
  • Junta has declined offers to send non-political representatives instead to ASEAN meetings

Myanmar’s military leadership on Wednesday lashed out at the ASEAN grouping of Southeast Asian countries for excluding its generals from regional gatherings, accusing it of caving to “external pressure.”
Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have heaped condemnation on Myanmar’s junta, which they say has failed to make concrete progress on a peace plan agreed with the 10-nation bloc last year, including engaging with opponents and a cessation of hostilities.
Myanmar’s military seized power from an elected government in a coup last year, and has since then crushed dissent with lethal force. Most recently, the junta has been criticized for executing political activists and imprisoning Aung San Suu Kyi, the symbol of Myanmar’s opposition and democracy movement.
ASEAN has barred Myanmar’s generals from attending regional meetings, and some members said last month it would be forced to rethink the way forward unless the junta demonstrates progress on the peace plan.
The junta has declined offers to send non-political representatives instead to ASEAN meetings.
“If a seat representing a country is vacant, then it should not be labelled an ASEAN summit,” junta spokesperson Zaw Min Tun said at a routine news conference on Wednesday, adding that Myanmar was working on implementing the peace plan.
“What they want is for us to meet and talk with the terrorists,” he said, using the junta’s label for pro-democracy movements that have taken up arms against the military.
He said ASEAN was violating its own policy of non-interference in a country’s sovereign affairs while facing “external pressure,” but did not elaborate.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Cambodia, which is currently chairing ASEAN, did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment.
Several western countries including the United States and Britain have imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s junta over the coup.


Rohingya refugees in India’s capital to be given flats, security

Updated 17 August 2022

Rohingya refugees in India’s capital to be given flats, security

  • There have been isolated incidents of violence toward Rohingya in India

NEW DELHI: Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in India’s capital will be allotted apartments and provided with police protection, a government minister said on Wednesday, signalling a change in the stance toward members of the Muslim minority.
“India has always welcomed those who have sought refuge,” Minister for Housing and Urban affairs Hardeep Singh Puri said on Twitter, outlining new provisions for Rohingya refugees in New Delhi.
“India respects & follows UN Refugee Convention 1951 & provides refuge to all, regardless of their race, religion or creed,” Puri said.
Puri did not elaborate on what he said would be “round-the- clock” police protection but there have been isolated incidents of violence toward Rohingya in India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has previously tried to send back members of the Muslim minority from predominately Buddhist Myanmar, hundreds of thousands of whom have fled from persecution and waves of violence in their homeland over the years.


South Korea president says any talks with Pyongyang should be more than show

Updated 17 August 2022

South Korea president says any talks with Pyongyang should be more than show

  • Yoon Suk-yeol repeats his willingness to provide phased economic aid to North Korea

SEOUL: Talks with North Korea should not be for political show but contribute to establishing peace, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said on Wednesday, speaking at a wide-ranging press conference to mark his first 100 days in office.
Yoon repeated his willingness to provide phased economic aid to North Korea if it ended nuclear weapons development and began denuclearization, noting that he had called for a dialogue with Pyongyang since his campaign.
“Any dialogue between the leaders of the South and North, or negotiations between main working-level officials, should not be a political show, but should contribute to establishing substantive peace on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia,” he said.
The comments were an apparent criticism of a series of summits involving his predecessor Moon Jae-in, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and then-US President Donald Trump.
Despite those meetings, denuclearization talks stalled in 2019 and North Korea has said it will not trade away its self-defense, though it has called for an end to sanctions. It has been observed preparing for a possible nuclear test, which would be its first since 2017.
South Korea was not in a position to guarantee the North’s security if it gave up its nuclear weapons, but Seoul did not want a forced change in the status quo in the North, Yoon said.
The North’s recent missile tests and nuclear development has revived debate over whether the South should pursue its own nuclear weapons. Yoon said that he was committed to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and working with the United States to boost its “extended deterrence” for South Korea.
“The NPT should not be abandoned and I will adhere to that until the end,” he said.