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.


NATO launches ratification process for Sweden, Finland membership

Updated 12 min 51 sec ago

NATO launches ratification process for Sweden, Finland membership

  • Move will further increase Russia’s strategic isolation in the wake of its invasion of neighboring Ukraine

BRUSSELS: The NATO has launched the ratification process for Sweden, Finland membership on Tuesday, sending the bids of the two nations to the alliance capitals for legislative approvals.
The move will further increase Russia’s strategic isolation in the wake of its invasion of neighboring Ukraine in February and military struggles there since.
The 30 ambassadors and permanent representatives were earlier set to formally approve the decisions of last week’s NATO summit when the alliance made the historic decision to invite Russia’s neighbor Finland and Scandinavian partner Sweden to join the military club.
Despite the agreement in the alliance, parliamentary approval in member state Turkey could still pose problems for their final inclusion as members.

 


Last week, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Ankara could still block the process if the two countries fail to fully meet Turkey’s demand to extradite terror suspects with links to outlawed Kurdish groups or the network of an exiled cleric accused of a failed 2016 coup in Turkey.
He said Turkey’s Parliament could refuse to ratify the deal. It is a potent threat since NATO accession must be formally approved by all 30 member states, which gives each a blocking right.
Tuesday’s expected signing-off does bring both nations deeper into NATO’s fold already. As close partners, they already attended some meetings that involved issues that immediately affected them. As official invitees, they can attend all meetings of the ambassadors even if they do not yet have any voting rights.

 

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Monsoon rains lash Pakistan; 6 killed in country’s southwest

Updated 05 July 2022

Monsoon rains lash Pakistan; 6 killed in country’s southwest

  • Floods triggered by seasonal monsoon rains wreak havoc in Pakistan every year, killing dozens

QUETTA, Pakistan: At least six people, including women and children, were killed when the roofs of their homes collapsed in heavy rains lashing southwestern Pakistan and other parts of the country, a provincial disaster management agency said Tuesday.
There were fears the death toll could be higher as several people went missing after flash flooding hit southwestern Baluchistan province’s remote areas overnight, according to a statement from the agency.
Authorities say the latest spell of torrential rains, which started on Monday and continued on Tuesday, also damaged dozens of homes in Baluchistan.
Since June, rains have killed 38 people and damaged more than 200 homes across Pakistan, including in Baluchistan, where over the weekend, a passenger bus skidded off a road and fell into a deep ravine amid heavy rain, killing 19 people.
Floods triggered by seasonal monsoon rains wreak havoc in Pakistan every year, killing dozens.


Australia floods worsen as thousands more Sydney residents evacuate

An emergency vehicle blocks access to the flooded Windsor Bridge on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia, Monday, July 4, 2022.
Updated 05 July 2022

Australia floods worsen as thousands more Sydney residents evacuate

  • An intense low-pressure system off Australia’s east coast is forecast to bring heavy rain through Monday across New South Wales

SYDNEY: Hundreds of homes have been inundated in and around Australia’s largest city in a flood emergency that was impacting 50,000 people, officials said Tuesday.
Emergency response teams made 100 rescues overnight of people trapped in cars on flooded roads or in inundated homes in the Sydney area, State Emergency Service manager Ashley Sullivan said.
Days of torrential rain have caused dams to overflow and waterways to break their banks, bringing a fourth flood emergency in 16 months to parts of the city of 5 million people.
The New South Wales state government declared a disaster across 23 local government areas overnight, activating federal government financial assistance for flood victims.

A couple walk through flood waters from their semi-submerged car at Richmond on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia, Tuesday, July 5, 2022. (AP)

Evacuation orders and warnings to prepare to abandon homes impacted 50,000 people, up from 32,000 on Monday, New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet said.
“This event is far from over. Please don’t be complacent, wherever you are. Please careful when you’re driving on our roads. There is still substantial risk for flash flooding across our state,” Perrottet said.
Emergency Services Minister Steph Cooke credited the skill and commitment of rescue crews for preventing any death or serious injury by the fourth day of the flooding emergency.
Parts of southern Sydney had been lashed by more than 20 centimeters (nearly 8 inches) of rain in 24 hours, more than 17 percent of the city’s annual average, Bureau of Meteorology meteorologist Jonathan How said.
Severe weather warnings of heavy rain remained in place across Sydney’s eastern suburbs on Tuesday. The warnings also extended north of Sydney along the coast and into the Hunter Valley.
The worst flooding was along the Hawkesbury-Nepean rivers system along Sydney’s northern and western fringes.
“The good news is that by tomorrow afternoon, it is looking to be mostly dry but, of course, we are reminding people that these floodwaters will remain very high well after the rain has stopped,” How said.
“There was plenty of rain fall overnight and that is actually seeing some rivers peak for a second time. So you’ve got to take many days, if not a week, to start to see these floodwaters start to recede,” How added.
The wild weather and mountainous seas along the New South Wales coast thwarted plans to tow a stricken cargo ship with 21 crew members to the safety of open sea.
The ship lost power after leaving port in Wollongong, south of Sydney, on Monday morning and risked being grounded by 8-meter (26-foot) swells and winds blowing at 30 knots (34 mph) against cliffs.
An attempt to tow the ship with tugboats into open ocean ended when a towline snapped in an 11-meter (36-foot) swell late Monday, Port Authority chief executive Philip Holliday said.
The ship was maintaining its position on Tuesday farther from the coast than it had been on Monday with two anchors and the help of two tugboats. The new plan was to tow the ship to Sydney when weather and sea conditions calmed as early as Wednesday, Holliday said. The original plan had been for the ship’s crew to repair their engine at sea.
“We’re in a better position than we were yesterday,” Holliday said. “We’re in relative safety.”
Perrottet described the tugboat crews’ response on Monday to save the ship as “heroic.”
“I want to thank those men and women who were on those crews last night for the heroic work they did in incredibly treacherous conditions. To have an 11-meter (36-foot) swell, to be undergoing and carrying out that work is incredibly impressive,” Perrottet said.


Police arrest suspect after gunman kills six at US July 4 parade

Updated 05 July 2022

Police arrest suspect after gunman kills six at US July 4 parade

HIGHLAND PARK, United States: Police arrested a suspect Monday after a mass shooting left six dead at a US Independence Day parade in a wealthy Chicago suburb, casting a dark shadow over the country’s most patriotic holiday.
Robert Crimo, 22, was identified as a “person of interest” and became the target of a massive manhunt across the town of Highland Park in Illinois, where a rooftop gunman with a high-powered rifle turned a family-focused July 4 parade celebration into a scene of death and trauma.
Firing into the holiday crowd, the shooter triggered scenes of total chaos as panicked onlookers ran for their lives, leaving behind a parade route strewn with chairs, abandoned balloons and personal belongings.
Emergency officials said around two dozen people, including children, were treated for gunshot injuries, with some in critical condition.
After a brief car chase, Crimo was taken into custody “without incident,” Highland Park police chief Lou Jogmen told reporters.
Earlier, police had warned that he was armed and “very dangerous.” A Chicago musician of the same age and with the same name goes by the stage moniker “Awake the Rapper” online.
The shooting is part of a wave of gun violence plaguing the United States, where approximately 40,000 deaths a year are caused by firearms, according to the Gun Violence Archive website.
And it cast a pall over America’s Independence Day, in which towns and cities across the country hold similar parades and people — many dressed in variations on the US flag — hold barbecues, attend sports events and gather for firework displays.
“We were getting ready to march down the street and then all the sudden waves of these people started running after, like running toward us. And right before that happened, we heard the pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, and I thought it was fireworks,” Emily Prazak, who marched in the parade, told AFP.
Don Johnson, who attended the parade, said he initially thought the gunshots were a car backfiring.
“And finally, I heard the screams from a block down and people running and carrying their kids and everything, and we ran into the gas station, and we were in there for three hours,” he told AFP.
“I’ve seen scenes like this over and over again on the TV and in different communities, and didn’t think it was going to happen here ever,” he said.
Police officials said the shooting began at 10:14 am, when the parade was approximately three-quarters of the way through.
“It sounds like spectators were targeted... So, very random, very intentional and very sad,” said Lake County Major Crime Task Force spokesman Christopher Covelli.
Five of the six people killed, all adults, had died at the scene. The sixth was taken to hospital but succumbed to wounds there.
Dr. Brigham Temple of Highland Park Hospital, where most of the victims were taken, said that it had received 25 people with gunshot wounds aged eight to 85.
He said “four or five” children were among them, and that 16 people were later discharged.
Police said the shooter used a “high-powered rifle,” and “firearm evidence” had been located on the rooftop of a nearby business.
“All indications is he was discreet, he was very difficult to see,” said Covelli.
A Mexican was among those killed, Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said.
“We stand with the Chicago community in its pain and sadness over this tragedy,” he tweeted.
President Joe Biden voiced his shock and vowed to keep fighting “the epidemic of gun violence” sweeping the country.
“I’m not going to give up,” he said.
Last week, Biden signed the first significant federal bill on gun safety in decades, just days after the Supreme Court ruled that Americans have a fundamental right to carry a handgun in public.
The deeply divisive debate over gun control was reignited by two massacres in May that saw 10 Black supermarket shoppers gunned down in upstate New York and 21 people, mostly young children, slain at an elementary school in Texas.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 309 mass shootings carried out in the US so far in 2022 — including at least three others on July 4, though without any fatalities.
“It is devastating that a celebration of America was ripped apart by our uniquely American plague,” Illinois governor JB Pritzker told reporters Monday.
“A day dedicated to freedom has put into stark relief the one freedom we as a nation refuse to uphold — the freedom of our fellow citizens to live without the daily fear of gun violence.”


Fruit growers in Indian-administered Kashmir face losses as trucks caught in pilgrimage traffic jams

Updated 04 July 2022

Fruit growers in Indian-administered Kashmir face losses as trucks caught in pilgrimage traffic jams

  • Thousands have come to contested region to visit Hindu shrine for Amarnath Yatra
  • Fruit-laden trucks were stranded as security forces held up traffic to check for threats

SRINAGAR: Fruit growers in Indian-administered Kashmir said on Monday they were facing huge losses as truck-loads of apples, pears and other produce got caught up in traffic jams caused by a security crackdown during an annual Hindu pilgrimage.

Hundreds of thousands of people have come through the contested region to visit a shrine in a Himalayan cave for the Amarnath Yatra pilgrimage.

Numbers are even higher this year, as the event was shut down in 2021 during the pandemic - and security is tighter after police said last week they had uncovered a militant plot to attack pilgrims.

Fruit-laden trucks were stranded as security forces held up traffic to check for threats, Bashir Ahmad Basheer, from the Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers and Dealers Union, told Reuters.

"Freshly harvested plums, peaches, pears and apples need to be transported outside Kashmir or else they may rot in this heat and we will face heavy losses," he said.

Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha, who leads the region, acknowledged there was a problem and said the government was working on plans to ease traffic.

"Trucks will only be stopped when pilgrims travel on the highway and trucks loaded with perishables won’t face any inconvenience," he told reporters.

Indian soldiers carrying automatic assault rifles and wearing flak jackets have been out guarding roads since the Hindu pilgrimage began in the Muslim-majority region in June.

"Pilgrims are our guests but our trucks should not be stopped," orchard owner Ghulam Mohammad Malik told Reuters.

He said farmers and traders would together face losses of 30 million Indian rupees ($380,000) per day if congestion did not ease.

Fruit cultivation is the backbone of Kashmir's economy, and gives work to about 3 million people, according to the growers union.

During the pilgrimage, Hindus cross glaciers and waterlogged trails to reach the mountain cave which contains an ice stalagmite that is considered a physical manifestation of the god Lord Shiva.

The cave is covered in snow for most of the year, but authorities let pilgrims visit it for 45 days over the summer as rising temperatures clear the passes.

India and Pakistan have twice gone to war over Kashmir, which is divided between them but both claim in full, and it remains at the heart of decades of hostility.