People smuggler sentenced to 7 years in jail in Austria

Austria’s interior ministry announced that police had raided a group who smuggled tens of thousands of mostly Syrians from Hungary to Austria. (AFP)
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Updated 27 June 2022

People smuggler sentenced to 7 years in jail in Austria

  • The 19-year-old Latvian was found guilty of people smuggling and causing fatal injuries, but was not found guilty of murder

VIENNA: An Austrian court on Monday sentenced a people smuggler to seven years in prison over the deaths of two Syrians who suffocated in the crammed minivan he was driving, Austria’s news agency reported.
The bodies of the two men were discovered last October when Austrian authorities stopped and searched a van at the border with Hungary.
Thirty people in total were crammed in the vehicle, whose driver fled the scene but has later arrested in Latvia and extradited.
The 19-year-old Latvian was found guilty of people smuggling and causing fatal injuries, but was not found guilty of murder, APA reported.
He said he would accept the verdict, but the prosecution can still appeal it, APA said.
A court spokeswoman could not immediately be reached by AFP.
Austria’s interior ministry announced in May that police had smashed a group believed to have smuggled tens of thousands of mostly Syrians, including the two found suffocated, from Hungary to Austria.
A total of 205 people suspected to be linked to the group have been arrested in central and eastern Europe, the ministry said.
Those smuggled, including children, were trying to reach western European countries, including Germany and France.
The October discovery of the dead men recalled a dire event in August 2015 when 71 people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan suffocated in the back of an air-tight van where they had been hidden by people smugglers.
The bodies, including those of three children and a baby, were discovered in Austria but they had died while still on the other side of the border.
Almost four years later, the Hungarian courts sentenced their smugglers to life imprisonment.
The emotion aroused by that tragedy triggered a brief opening of the borders to hundreds of thousands of people wishing to reach Western Europe.
But Austria and other European countries have since fortified borders to stop people smuggling.


Taliban torn over reforms one year after seizing power

Updated 12 min 1 sec ago

Taliban torn over reforms one year after seizing power

  • The group’s hard-line core, composed of battle-hardened veteran fighters, is against any significant ideological change that could be viewed as a sign of capitulation to their enemies in the West

KANDAHAR: One year on from the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, some cracks are opening within their ranks over the crucial question of just how much reform their leaders can tolerate.
Infamous during their first reign for their brutal crackdowns on rights and freedoms, the Islamists vowed to rule differently this time.
On a superficial level at least, they appear to have changed in some respects.
Officials in Kabul have embraced technology, while cricket matches are cheered in full stadiums.
Televisions were banned under the Taliban government’s first incarnation, while Afghans now have access to the Internet and social media.
Girls are allowed to attend primary school and women journalists are interviewing government officials — unthinkable during the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s.
The group’s hard-line core, composed of battle-hardened veteran fighters, is against any significant ideological change that could be viewed as a sign of capitulation to their enemies in the West.
“You have one (Taliban) camp, which is pushing ahead with what they’re seeing as reforms, and another camp that seems to think even these meagre reforms are too much,” said Ibraheem Bahiss, an Afghanistan analyst with International Crisis Group.
The United States and its allies — which had bankrolled Afghanistan for 20 years — have locked the country out of the global banking system and billions in frozen assets abroad, as they hold out for reforms from the Taliban.
Without significant progress, it is the Afghan people who suffer as the country reels under a massive economic crisis that has seen some families choose between selling their organs or their infant daughters.
On whether the Taliban are even capable of reform, analysts are wary that recent policy changes amount to little more than “tokenism.”
“There are some cases where we could point to an evolution in policy, but let’s be very clear... We’re still looking at an organization that has refused to move beyond very retrograde, dogmatic views,” said Michael Kugelman, an Afghanistan specialist with the Washington-based Wilson Center think tank.
Most secondary schools for girls remain closed. Many women have been forced out of government work, while many fear venturing out and being chastised by the Taliban.
Simple joys such as music, shisha and card games are strictly controlled in the most conservative areas, while protests have been crushed and journalists regularly threatened or detained.
Demands from the West for an inclusive government were ignored, and the assassination of Al-Qaeda’s leader in Kabul last week underlined the Taliban’s ongoing ties with jihadist groups.
It is from the Taliban’s power base of southern Kandahar that the secretive supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada gathers his powerful inner circle of veteran fighters and religious clerics to impose a harsh interpretation of sharia.
And for them, ideological concerns outweigh any political or economic drivers to effect change.
“The needs of the Afghans remain the same as 20 years ago,” Mohammad Omar Khitabi, a member of a council of clerics who advise Akhundzada in Kandahar, told AFP.
His thoughts are echoed by Kandahar’s Vice and Virtue Director Abdul Rahman Tayabi, another close aide of the supreme leader.
“Our people do not have too many demands, like people in other countries might have,” he told AFP.
Afghan families were left stunned in March when Akhundzada overturned the education ministry’s decision to reopen secondary schools for girls.
Some analysts believe he felt uneasy over what could be seen by hard-liners as an act of surrender to the West on girls’ rights.
Hopes of restoring international money flows were shattered — to the dismay of many Taliban officials in Kabul, some of whom spoke out against the decision.
Relations with Western diplomats — who meet regularly with Taliban ministers but have no access to Akhundzada — suffered a major setback.
A slew of directives that harked back to the first reign of the Taliban quickly followed.
“The decisions that (Akhundzada) has made so far are all based on the opinions of religious scholars,” said Abdul Hadi Hammad, the head of a madrassa and member of the supreme leader’s advisory council.
Akhundzada has stressed the need for unity in the movement as he carefully seeks to balance several factions — including competing groups that claim the credit for the 2021 victory over US-led forces.
While advisers to Akhundzada claim the Taliban can survive without foreign income, unlocking billions of dollars in frozen assets abroad would be a crucial lifeline.
“We know the Taliban can be transactional, but they cannot appear to be transactional,” a Western diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Within the movement, no one dares openly challenge Akhundzada’s power, but discontent is quietly growing among the lower ranks.
“Taliban guards are getting their salaries late, and their salaries are low too. They are unhappy,” said one mid-level Taliban official based in northwestern Pakistan, who asked not to be named.
Many have returned to their villages or traveled to Pakistan to take up different work, another Taliban member added.
Attempts by the movement to shore up revenue through lucrative coal mining have sparked infighting in the north, exacerbated by ethnic divisions and religious sectarianism.
With winter only a few months away, food security and freezing temperatures will put even more pressure on the leaders of one of the world’s poorest countries.
These mounting stresses have the potential to worsen divisions, Kugelman said, though likely not enough to force any dramatic shift in policy.
“If the Taliban leadership start to feel very real threats to their political survival, then could they change?” he asked.
“Given that they are ideologically focused, that may not be the case.”


FBI seized top secret documents at Trump’s home; Espionage Act cited

Updated 13 August 2022

FBI seized top secret documents at Trump’s home; Espionage Act cited

  • Agents took more than 30 items, including 20-plus boxes
  • Trump says the seized records were “all declassified“

WASHINGTON : FBI agents in this week’s search of former US President Donald Trump’s Florida home removed 11 sets of classified documents including some marked as top secret, the Justice Department said on Friday, while also disclosing it had probable cause to conduct the search based on possible Espionage Act violations.
The bombshell disclosures were made in a search warrant approved by a US magistrate judge and accompanying documents released four days after agents searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Palm Beach. The Espionage Act, one of three laws cited in the warrant application, dates to 1917 and makes it a crime to release information that could harm national security.
Trump, in a statement on his social media platform, said the records were “all declassified” and placed in “secure storage.”
“They didn’t need to ‘seize’ anything. They could have had it anytime they wanted without playing politics and breaking into Mar-a-Lago,” the Republican businessman-turned-politician said.
The search was carried out as part of a federal investigation into whether Trump illegally removed documents when he left office in January 2021 after losing the presidential election two months earlier to Democrat Joe Biden.
Although the FBI on Monday carted away material labeled as classified, the three laws cited as the basis for the warrant make it a crime to mishandle government records, regardless of whether they are classified. As such, Trump’s claims that he declassified the documents would have no bearing on the potential legal violations at issue.

The receipt for property seized by the FBI at former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida is shown in this photo taken on Aug. 12, 2022. (AP)

FBI agents took more than 30 items including more than 20 boxes, binders of photos, a handwritten note and the executive grant of clemency for Trump’s ally and longtime adviser Roger Stone, a list of items removed showed. Also included in the list was information about the “President of France.”
The warrant showed that FBI agents were asked to search a room called “the 45 Office” — Trump was the 45th US president — as well as all other rooms and structures or buildings on the estate used by Trump or his staff where boxes or documents could be stored.
The Justice Department said in the warrant application approved by US Magistrate Judge Bruce Reinhart that it had probable cause to believe violations of the Espionage Act had occurred at Trump’s home.
That law was initially enacted to combat spying. Prosecutions under it were relatively uncommon until the Justice Department ramped up its use under both Trump and his predecessor Barack Obama to go after leakers of national security information, including leaks to the news media.
The law’s section cited as the basis for the warrant prohibits unauthorized possession of national defense information. It did not spell out the details about why investigators have reason to believe such a violation occurred.
The Justice Department has used the Espionage Act in high-profile cases in recent years including former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, former military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
The application also cited probable cause of possible violations of two other statutes that make it illegal to conceal or destroy official US documents.

Levels of classification
There are three primary levels of classification for sensitive government materials: Top secret, secret and confidential.
“Top secret” is the highest level, reserved for the most closely held US national security information. Such documents usually are kept in special government facilities because disclosure could gravely damage national security.
FBI agents on Monday collected four sets of top secret documents, three sets of secret documents and three sets of confidential documents, it was disclosed on Friday. Agents were revealed to have collected a set of documents labeled “classified/TS/SCI documents,” a reference to top secret and sensitive compartmented material.
Trump has not been charged with any wrongdoing. It remained unclear whether any charges would be brought.

An escalation
Monday’s search marked a significant escalation in one of the many federal and state investigations he is facing from his time in office and in private business, including a separate one by the Justice Department into a failed bid by Trump’s allies to overturn the 2020 presidential election by submitting phony slates of electors.
Trump on Wednesday declined to answer questions during an appearance before New York state’s attorney general in a civil investigation into his family’s business practices, citing his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
Attorney General Merrick Garland on Thursday announced that the department asked Reinhart to unseal the warrant. This followed Trump’s claim that the search was political retribution and a suggestion by him, without evidence, that the FBI may have planted evidence against him.

Legal experts said Trump’s claim that he had declassified the materials would not be a useful defense should he ever face charges.
“The statute does not even strictly require even that the information be classified so long as it is relating to the national defense,” Northwestern University law professor Heidi Kitrosser said, referring to the Espionage Act.
The investigation into Trump’s removal of records started this year after the National Archives and Records Administration, an agency charged with safeguarding presidential records that belong to the public, made a referral to the Justice Department.
Republican House of Representatives Intelligence Committee members on Friday called on Garland and FBI Director Chris Wray to release the affidavit underpinning the warrant, saying the public needs to know.
“Because many other options were available to them, we’re very concerned of the method that was used in raiding Mar-a-Lago,” Representative Michael Turner, the committee’s top Republican, told reporters.
If the affidavit remains sealed, “it will still leave many unanswered questions,” Turner added.
The Justice Department’s request to unseal the warrant did not include a request to unseal the accompanying affidavit, nor has Trump’s legal team publicly made such a motion.
Since Monday’s search, the department has faced fierce criticism and online threats, which Garland have condemned. Trump supporters and some Republicans in Washington have accused Democrats of weaponizing the federal bureaucracy to target him even as he mulls another run for the presidency in 2024.
 


Author Salman Rushdie stabbed on lecture stage in New York

Updated 13 August 2022

Author Salman Rushdie stabbed on lecture stage in New York

  • Police said that a male suspect stormed the stage and attacked Rushdie
  • He was rushed by helicopter to a local hospital, police said, adding that his condition was not known

CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y.: Salman Rushdie, whose novel “The Satanic Verses” drew death threats from Iran’s leader in the 1980s, was stabbed in the neck and abdomen Friday by a man who rushed the stage as the author was about to give a lecture in western New York.
A bloodied Rushdie, 75, was flown to a hospital and underwent surgery. His agent, Andrew Wylie, said the writer was on a ventilator Friday evening, with a damaged liver, severed nerves in an arm and an eye he was likely to lose.
Police identified the attacker as Hadi Matar, 24, of Fairview, New Jersey. He was arrested at the scene and was awaiting arraignment. Matar was born a decade after “The Satanic Verses” was published. The motive for the attack was unclear, State police Maj. Eugene Staniszewski said.
An Associated Press reporter witnessed the attacker confront Rushdie on stage at the Chautauqua Institution and punch or stab him 10 to 15 times as he was being introduced. The author was pushed or fell to the floor, and the man was arrested.
Dr. Martin Haskell, a physician who was among those who rushed to help, described Rushdie’s wounds as “serious but recoverable.”
Event moderator Henry Reese, 73, a co-founder of an organization that offers residencies to writers facing persecution, was also attacked. Reese suffered a facial injury and was treated and released from a hospital, police said. He and Rushdie were due to discuss the United States as a refuge for writers and other artists in exile.
A state trooper and a county sheriff’s deputy were assigned to Rushdie’s lecture, and state police said the trooper made the arrest. But after the attack, some longtime visitors to the center questioned why there wasn’t tighter security for the event, given the decades of threats against Rushdie and a bounty on his head offering more than $3 million for anyone who kills him.
Rabbi Charles Savenor was among the roughly 2,500 people in the audience. Amid gasps, spectators were ushered out of the outdoor amphitheater.
The assailant ran onto the platform “and started pounding on Mr. Rushdie. At first you’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ And then it became abundantly clear in a few seconds that he was being beaten,” Savenor said. He said the attack lasted about 20 seconds.
Another spectator, Kathleen James, said the attacker was dressed in black, with a black mask.
“We thought perhaps it was part of a stunt to show that there’s still a lot of controversy around this author. But it became evident in a few seconds” that it wasn’t, she said.
Matar, like other visitors, had obtained a pass to enter the institution’s 750-acre grounds, President Michael Hill said.
The suspect’s attorney, public defender Nathaniel Barone, said he was still gathering information and declined to comment. Matar’s home was blocked off by authorities.
Rushdie has been a prominent spokesman for free expression and liberal causes, and the literary world recoiled at what novelist and Rushdie friend Ian McEwan described as “an assault on freedom of thought and speech.”
“Salman has been an inspirational defender of persecuted writers and journalists across the world,” McEwan said in a statement. “He is a fiery and generous spirit, a man of immense talent and courage and he will not be deterred.”
PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said the organization didn’t know of any comparable act of violence against a literary writer in the US Rushdie was once president of the group, which advocates for writers and free expression.
Rushdie’s 1988 novel was viewed as blasphemous by many Muslims, who saw a character as an insult to the Prophet Muhammad, among other objections. Across the Muslim world, often-violent protests erupted against Rushdie, who was born in India to a Muslim family.
At least 45 people were killed in riots over the book, including 12 people in Rushdie’s hometown of Mumbai. In 1991, a Japanese translator of the book was stabbed to death and an Italian translator survived a knife attack. In 1993, the book’s Norwegian publisher was shot three times and survived.
The book was banned in Iran, where the late leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a 1989 fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death. Khomeini died that same year.
Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has never issued a fatwa of his own withdrawing the edict, though Iran in recent years hasn’t focused on the writer.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday’s attack, which led a night news bulletin on Iranian state television.
The death threats and bounty led Rushdie to go into hiding under a British government protection program, which included a round-the-clock armed guard. Rushdie emerged after nine years of seclusion and cautiously resumed more public appearances, maintaining his outspoken criticism of religious extremism overall.
He said in a 2012 talk in New York that terrorism is really the art of fear.
“The only way you can defeat it is by deciding not to be afraid,” he said.
Anti-Rushdie sentiment has lingered long after Khomeini’s decree. The Index on Censorship, an organization promoting free expression, said money was raised to boost the reward for his killing as recently as 2016.
An Associated Press journalist who went to the Tehran office of the 15 Khordad Foundation, which put up the millions for the bounty on Rushdie, found it closed Friday night on the Iranian weekend. No one answered calls to its listed telephone number.
In 2012, Rushdie published a memoir, “Joseph Anton,” about the fatwa. The title came from the pseudonym Rushdie had used while in hiding.
Rushdie rose to prominence with his Booker Prize-winning 1981 novel “Midnight’s Children,” but his name became known around the world after “The Satanic Verses.”
Widely regarded as one of Britain’s finest living writers, Rushdie was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2008 and earlier this year was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honor, a royal accolade for people who have made a major contribution to the arts, science or public life.
In a tweet, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson deplored that Rushdie was attacked “while exercising a right we should never cease to defend.”
The Chautauqua Institution, about 55 miles (89 kilometers) southwest of Buffalo in a rural corner of New York, has served for more than a century as a place for reflection and spiritual guidance. Visitors don’t pass through metal detectors or undergo bag checks. Most people leave the doors to their century-old cottages unlocked at night.
The center is known for its summertime lecture series, where Rushdie has spoken before.
At an evening vigil, a few hundred residents and visitors gathered for prayer, music and a long moment of silence.
“Hate can’t win,” one man shouted.


Ohio gunman appeared to threaten FBI after Trump home search

Updated 12 sec ago

Ohio gunman appeared to threaten FBI after Trump home search

  • The gunman was identified as Ricky Shiffer,  a 42-year-old former US Navy serviceman
  • Authorities are checking whether he had ties to far-right extremist groups such as the Proud Boys

COLUMBUS, Ohio: A gunman who died in a shootout after trying to get inside the FBI’s Cincinnati office apparently went on social media and called for federal agents to be killed “on sight” following the search at former President Donald Trump’s home, a law enforcement official said.
Federal investigators are examining social media accounts they believe are tied to the gunman, 42-year-old Ricky Shiffer, according to the official, who was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
At least one of the messages on Trump’s Truth Social media platform appeared to have been posted after Shiffer tried to breach the FBI office. It read: “If you don’t hear from me, it is true I tried attacking the F.B.I.”
Another message posted on the same site this week from @rickywshifferjr included a “call to arms” and urged people to “be ready for combat” after the FBI search at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
Authorities also are looking into whether Shiffer, a Navy veteran, had ties to far-right extremist groups such as the Proud Boys, the official said.
Shiffer was armed with a nail gun and an AR-15-style rifle when he tried to breach the visitor screening area at the FBI office Thursday, according to the official. Shiffer fled when agents confronted him.
He was later spotted by a state trooper along a highway and got into a gunbattle that ended with police killing him, authorities said.
The burst of violence unfolded amid FBI warnings that federal agents could face attacks following the search in Florida.

The FBI is investigating what happened in Cincinnati as an act of domestic extremism, according to the law enforcement official.
Shiffer is believed to have been in Washington in the days leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and may have been at the Capitol that day but was not charged with any crimes in connection with the riot, the official said.
Officials have warned of a rise in right-wing threats against federal agents since the FBI entered Trump’s estate in what authorities said was part of an investigation into whether he took classified documents with him after leaving the White House. Supporters of the former president have railed against the search, accusing the FBI and the Justice Department of using the legal system as a political weapon.
FBI Director Christopher Wray denounced the threats as he visited an FBI office in Omaha, Nebraska, on Wednesday, saying, “Violence against law enforcement is not the answer, no matter who you’re upset with.”
The FBI on Wednesday also warned its agents to avoid protesters and ensure their security key cards are “not visible outside FBI space,” citing an increase in social media threats against bureau personnel and offices.
A now-suspended Twitter account, @rickyshiffer, shared the same profile picture as the Truth Social account and similar opinions, including a call for armed conflict in the US this past spring.
It included posts saying that “elections are rigged” against conservatives and that the country faces “tyranny.”
“I don’t think it’s a one-off incident,” said Amy Cooter, a researcher at Middlebury College who is an expert on militias. “I’m afraid there’s going to be a pocket full of people who feel compelled to act.”
Courthouses, government offices and election headquarters all could be targets, she said. “Anywhere is fair game now because these folks feel this a personal issue for them,” Cooter said.
Shiffer worked as an electrician, according to one of his social media profiles. He was a registered Republican who voted in the 2020 primary from Columbus, Ohio, and in the 2020 general election from Tulsa, Oklahoma, according to public records.
Court records show the Ohio Department of Taxation filed suit against him in June, seeking a $553 tax lien judgment, according to court records listing him at an address in St. Petersburg, Florida. He also previously lived at several addresses in Columbus and in Omaha, Nebraska.
He graduated from high school in central Pennsylvania in 1998 and enlisted in the Navy that same year, later serving on the USS Columbia submarine until 2003, according to military records. He was an infantry soldier in the Florida Army National Guard from 2008 to 2011, when he was honorably discharged.
“I know he was way into World War II and the military,” said Lori Frady, a classmate at West Perry High School in Elliottsburg, who had not seen Shiffer since graduation. “He didn’t have a lot of friends, but the friends he did have were big into history and military history.”
 


Drought officially declared in several parts of England

Updated 12 August 2022

Drought officially declared in several parts of England

  • The "drought trigger threshold had been met" in parts of southwestern, southern, central and eastern England
  • The Environment Agency on Friday published a report saying that England as a whole had its driest July since 1935

LONDON: The UK government on Friday officially declared a drought in several parts of England, following months of record low rainfall and unprecedented temperatures in recent weeks.
At a meeting of the National Drought Group, the government’s Environment Agency said the “drought trigger threshold had been met” in parts of southwestern, southern, central and eastern England.
Drought was last officially declared in England in 2018.
The Environment Agency on Friday published a report saying that England as a whole had its driest July since 1935.
The exceptional weather comes as France is also experiencing a record drought and battling huge wildfires.
The Met Office, the UK’s meteorological authority, said the period from January to June this year saw the least rainfall in England and Wales since 1976.
That summer saw the use of drastic measures such as roadside standpipes and water rationing.
The government statement said the move to drought status was based on factors such as rainfall, river flows and levels of groundwater and reservoirs and their impact on public water supply.
“We urge everyone to manage the amount of water they are using in this exceptionally dry period,” National Drought Group chair, Harvey Bradshaw, was quoted as saying.
The Environment Agency and water companies “will step up their actions to manage impacts” and press ahead with their published drought plans, including thinks like hosepipe bans.
It stressed that “essential supplies of water are safe.”
England and parts of Wales are severely parched and some water companies have already announced hosepipe bans.
The UK overall had 56 percent of its average rainfall for July. Every month of the year except February has been drier than average, according to the Met Office.
Satellite images from July released by NASA showed dried-up brown areas extending across most of southern England and up the northeastern coast.
The source of the River Thames has dried up, with the river now flowing from a point several miles downstream.
Meetings of the National Drought Group are convened by the government’s Environment Agency, which monitors water levels in rivers and ground water.
The group is made up of senior decision-makers from the government and water companies, along with other affected groups such as farmers.
The Met Office on Tuesday issued an amber warning over “extreme heat” in parts of England and Wales Thursday to Sunday, predicting possible impacts on health, transport and infrastructure.
Temperatures were expected to hit the mid-30s Celsius, peaking on Friday and the weekend, after which showers and thunderstorms were forecast.
Temperatures were not expected to hit the record levels seen in July when a temperature of 40.3 Celsius was recorded in Lincolnshire in northeastern England on July 20, during an unprecedented heatwave.
The National Climate Information Center said that such high temperatures in the UK were only possible due to human-induced climate change.