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Syrian Activist, Journalist Daughter Slain in Istanbul

A Syrian opposition activist and her journalist daughter have been found slain in their apartment in Istanbul, the Istanbul police department said Friday.

The bodies of 60-year-old Orouba Barakat and her 22-year-old daughter Halla were found overnight in their apartment in Istanbul’s Uskudar neighborhood in the Asian side of the city.

Turkish media reports said Orouba Barakat was investigating alleged torture in prisons run by the Syrian government. It said she had lived in Britain, then the United Arab Emirates before coming to Istanbul.

“The hand of tyranny and injustice assassinated my sister Doctor Orouba and her daughter Halla in their apartment in Istanbul,” Orouba’s sister Shaza wrote on Facebook, adding that they were stabbed to death.

“Orouba wrote headlines in the first page and she pursued criminals and exposed them. Her name and her daughter’s name, Hala, now made first page headlines,” Shaza added.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Turkey has become home to almost 3 million Syrian refugees, many of them opponents of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

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Catalan Leader Presses On With Banned Vote on Split From Spain

The Catalan regional leader on Thursday said he would press on with an Oct. 1 referendum on a split from Spain, flouting a court ban, as tens of thousands gathered for a second day on the streets of Barcelona demanding the right to vote.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont said he had contingency plans in place to ensure the vote would go ahead, directly defying Madrid and pushing the country closer to political crisis.

Spain’s Constitutional Court banned the vote earlier this month after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said it violated Spain’s 1978 constitution, which states the country is indivisible. Most opposition parties are also against the vote.

“All the power of the Spanish state is set up to prevent Catalans voting,” Puigdemont said in a televised address.

“We will do it because we have contingency plans in place to ensure it happens, but above all because it has the support of the immense majority of the population, who are sick of the arrogance and abuse of the People’s Party government.”

‘Step back for democracy’

On Thursday, tens of thousands gathered outside the seat of Catalonia’s top court in Barcelona, singing and banging drums, to protest the arrests of senior officials in police raids on regional government offices on Wednesday.

“This is a step back for democracy,” said one of them, 62-year-old pensioner Enric Farro. “This is the kind of thing that happened years ago — it shouldn’t be happening now.”

State police arrested Catalonia’s junior economy minister, Josep Maria Jove, on Wednesday in an unprecedented raid of regional government offices.

Spontaneous protest

Acting on court orders, police have also raided printers, newspaper offices and private delivery companies in a search for campaign literature, instruction manuals for manning voting stations and ballot boxes.

Polls show about 40 percent of Catalans support independence for the wealthy northeastern region and a majority want a referendum on the issue. Puigdemont has said there is no minimum turnout for the vote and he will declare independence within 48 hours of a “yes” result.

A central government’s spokesman said protests in Catalonia were organized by a small group and did not represent the general feeling of the people.

“In those demonstrations, you see the people who go, but you don’t see the people who don’t go, who are way more and are at home because they don’t like what’s happening,” Inigo Mendez de Vigo said.

Mendez de Vigo also said an offer for dialogue from Madrid remained on the table. Repeated attempts to open negotiations between the two camps over issues such as taxes and infrastructure investment have failed over the past five years.

Rajoy said on Wednesday the government’s actions in Catalonia were the result of legal rulings and were to ensure the rule of law. The prime minister called on Catalan leaders to cancel the vote.

Hundreds of National Police and Guardia Civil reinforcements have been brought into Barcelona and are being billeted in two ferries rented by the Spanish government and moored in the harbor. But the central government must tread a fine line in enforcing the law in the region without seeming heavy-handed.

Hardline tactics a concern

The stand-off between Catalonia and the central government resonates beyond Spain. The country’s EU partners publicly support Rajoy but worry that his hardline tactics might backfire.

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, who heads the pro-independence devolved government, said she hoped the Catalan and Spanish governments could hold talks to resolve the situation.

In a referendum in 2014, Scots voted to remain within the United Kingdom.

 

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Swiss Indict 3 Over Alleged al-Qaida Propaganda Videos

Federal prosecutors in Switzerland on Thursday announced indictments of the leader of a prominent Swiss Islamic group and two other top members over alleged al-Qaida propaganda videos posted on YouTube. Contacted by phone in Bangladesh, one of the suspects rejected the case as “politically motivated.”

 

Attorney General Michael Lauber’s office alleges the three members of the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland violated Swiss laws banning al-Qaida, Islamic State and associated radical groups. His office and federal police have opened about 60 cases linked to alleged “jihadi-motivated terrorism,” mostly involving propaganda.

 

The indictments target ICCS President Nicolas Blancho, the group’s cultural production chief Naim Cherni, who is a German citizen, and spokesman Abdel Azziz Qaasim Illi, said Illi in a phone interview. Blancho and Illi are both Swiss citizens, he said. They all remain free.

 

“Our reaction is the same it has always been: It is a politically motivated act by the state prosecutor,” Illi said from Bangladesh, where he was taking part in ICCS efforts to help the Muslim Rohingya minority who have been fleeing violence in neighboring Myanmar by the hundreds of thousands since Aug. 25.

 

“They know their case is weak,” Illi said of the prosecutors. Referring to ICCS, he added: “They are trying to defame the famous Islamic organization.”

 

The case was built around an interview that Cherni conducted in Syria in 2015 with Abdullah al-Muhaysini that has been posted on YouTube. The Saudi militant has been linked to an umbrella organization known as Jaish al-Fatah, or Army of Conquest, which is led by an al-Qaida affiliate. Illi called him a “rebel leader” and said links to al-Qaida weren’t confirmed.

 

Illi said authorities had tried and failed to have YouTube remove the interview video.

 

The attorney general’s said it asked the Swiss division of Google Inc. — YouTube’s parent company — to delete the interview two years ago and said it was “annoying” that it remained online.

 

“It is not in our power to delete it. It would be desirable if this were to change, particularly in the case of criminal proceedings such as this,” Lauber’s office wrote in an email. “This is a political question.”

 

The indictment comes nearly two years after Lauber’s office announced an investigation of what was then an unspecified German citizen accused of “having presented his journey to embattled regions of Syria in a video for propaganda purposes, without having explicitly distanced himself from al-Qaida activities in Syria.”

 

In a statement Thursday, the attorney general’s office said the videos were supportive of al-Qaida and had been “actively promoted via social media and at a public event” by all three suspects.

 

 

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Israel’s Backing of Iraqi Kurds’ Independence Vote Strains Ankara Ties

Israel’s support of next Monday’s independence referendum by Iraqi Kurds is threatening to strain recently restored diplomatic relations with Turkey. Ankara has been condemning the planned vote, warning of severe consequences for the region.

Israel has a long tradition of seeing the region’s Kurds as a buffer from both Arab and Iranian threats; but with Turkey having its own restive Kurdish minority, Israel’s support of the vote has drawn strong condemnation in Turkey. 

Aydin Selcen, a former senior Turkish diplomat who served widely in the region, says the response by Ankara and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been restrained.

“In the government media, there are many articles saying, look, Israel is behind Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence. But what has to be followed is the practical reaction from Ankara, not what the government media reports. I also did not see anything coming from Erdogan’s mouth putting Israel on the target for this issue,” Selcen said.

Israel and Turkey only recently restored diplomatic ties after rapprochement efforts following the 2010 killing by Israeli commandos of 10 Turks trying to break Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza. But Turkish suspicions over Israel’s relations with the region’s Kurds were further heightened this month when former senior Israeli general Yair Golan declared the Kurdish rebel group the PKK, which has been fighting the Turkish state for decades, is not a terrorist organization. Washington and the European Union have designated the PKK as a terrorist group.

The comment triggered a strong reaction in Ankara; but former Turkish diplomat Selcen says a swift response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrates that both sides are committed to working together, despite differences.

“Mr. Netanyahu made a very attentive statement underlying for Israel the PKK is a terrorist organization, but an independent Kurdish state is in the interests of the region; Israel needs this alliance as Turkey needs it for different reasons, but they both need it. And that’s how they managed to repair the relations. And with Israel there are some tensions, but the two sides manage to go on now with the newfound, let’s say friendship and relations, they are not going to sever the diplomatic ties, like before over the issue of Kurdistan,” Selcen said.

Analysts warn if Israel backs its support of the Kurds with action, it will likely further strain relations with Ankara, whatever their wider mutual interests.

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Report: Governments Paying Terror Kidnap Ransoms ‘Put All Citizens at Risk’

The lack of a unified approach by world governments to paying kidnap ransoms is putting the lives of citizens of all nationalities at greater risk and providing terror groups with a big source of finance, warns a new report from British analyst group the Royal United Services Institute.

The authors call for a global, rigorously applied and scrupulously monitored commitment to prevent any concessions to terrorist organizations.

A series of high profile kidnappings by Islamic State in Syria highlighted the lack of a unified global response. Among them was American filmmaker James Foley, held for nearly two years alongside other hostages, until he was murdered in August 2014.

“There are cases where a number of individuals are taken hostage, so in the James Foley case, tragically, and other cases in West Africa, where you have mixed nationalities.  And those that pay ransoms are freed earlier, multimillion-dollar ransoms that allow the terrorist groups to perpetuate their work.  And those that do not pay ransoms are kept for extended periods of time until it becomes politically expedient to murder them,” explains report author Tom Keatinge of RUSI.

He adds that terrorists often will abuse hostages whose governments refuse to negotiate, in order to raise the pressure on countries that do.

France is among the countries accused of paying ransoms.  In December 2014, then President Francois Hollande waited on the tarmac of a military airport outside Paris to welcome home hostage Serge Lazarevic, who had been kidnapped in Mali by al-Qaida militants.  He is one of several French hostages to have been released.

Choosing ‘right to life’

While Hollande consistently denied his government paid ransoms, the evidence suggests otherwise, says Keatinge.

“There are a number of countries, Italy is another one, where hostages have come home.  And the country has chosen the immediate right to life of their citizen over adhering to an internationally-agreed ban not to finance terrorist organizations.”

Ransoms are a major source of criminal financing in Colombia.  Guerrilla fighters belonging to the rebel National Liberation Army, known as the ELN, have kidnapped dozens of people.  In a rare interview this month, the group’s commander “Yernson” spoke about the key role that kidnapping plays.

“It’s a difficult economic situation; that’s why we have hostages.  We could say, ‘No, we won’t kidnap anyone else,’ but how would we finance our struggle? How would we finance our work?  We live off of the ‘ransom tax’ and kidnappings,” he told a Reuters journalist.

Specialist private sector companies, usually backed by insurance policies, are brought in to negotiate in such cases.  They often secure a release for a fraction of the ransom demand, says Keatinge.

“In places like Mexico, South America, where kidnapping is almost an industry for money raising for criminal groups, that’s where these private sector companies have proven to be very effective.  In the [Niger] delta in Nigeria, releasing people who have been taken hostage from oil companies, that’s another place they have been very effective.”

Currently, the ban on terrorist financing precludes the use of private sector resolutions in terrorist hostage situations.  Keatinge argues reversing this policy would lower kidnappers’ ransom expectations and potentially throttle a major source of terrorist financing.

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Nations Join Forces to Stop One in Three Women Facing Violence

World leaders meeting at the United Nations on Wednesday launched a half-billion dollar effort to end violence against women and girls, a crime suffered by one in three in their lifetimes.

The effort will fund anti-violence programs that promote prevention, bolster government policies and provide women and girls with improved access to services, organizers said.

It will take particular aim at human trafficking, femicide and family violence, they said.

A third of all women experience violence at some point in their lives, and that figure is twice as high in some countries, according to the United Nations.

“Gender-based violence is the most dehumanizing form of gender oppression. It exists in every society, in every country rich and poor, in every religion and in every culture,” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, head of U.N. Women, said as the United Nations held its annual General Assembly.

“If there was anything that was ever universal, it is gender inequality and the violence that it breeds against women,” she said.

In other forms of violence, more than 700 million women worldwide were married before they were 18, and at least 200 million women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation in 30 countries, according to U.N. figures.

The initiative of 500 million Euros (US$595 million) was launched by the U.N. and the European Union, which is its main contributor, organizers said.

“The initiative has great power,” said Ashley Judd, a Hollywood actress and goodwill ambassador for the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) who participated in Wednesday’s announcement.

“There are already so many effective, research-based, data-driven programs,” Judd told the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of the announcement. “Financing for existing programs is a beautiful thing.

“It also makes an incredibly powerful statement to show that the world is increasingly cohesive around stopping gender-based violence,” she said.

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Italy’s Center-right in Search of Leader as Election Nears

Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi returned to frontline Italian politics over the weekend, staking his claim to lead a resurgent center-right into national elections that are expected early next year.

At exactly the same moment, Berlusconi’s outspoken ally, Matteo Salvini, was addressing his Northern League party and laying down his own marker to become the next prime minister.

“Salvini Premier” read a sign stuck to the lectern.

In reality, neither man looks likely to head the next government if they pull off an election victory, and possible alternative candidates are already emerging.

“There is an apparent power struggle going on between Berlusconi and Salvini, but it will not get out of hand. They know a violent clash would be suicidal with voters,” said Piero Ignazi, politics professor at Bologna University.

“The truth is both men will remain head of their respective parties, but they won’t be the next prime minister,” he said.

This would open the way for a consensus candidate who would have to bridge the huge divergences between the three main rightist parties – from the fierce anti-EU agenda put forward by both the Northern League and Brothers of Italy to the pro-European vision embraced by Berlusconi on Sunday.

Latest opinion polls show this trio of long-standing allies are pulling ahead in the polls and predicted to win a combined 35 percent of the vote, with the anti-migrant Northern League just ahead of Berlusconi’ Forza Italia on some 15 percent.

By contrast, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and ruling center-left Democratic Party (PD) are seen on around 28 percent apiece. The 5-Star has ruled out any coalition alliances and the center-left pool of votes is shrinking as various leftist parties engage in ferocious infighting.

Court appeal

Under the current electoral system no party or bloc looks like winning enough seats to govern alone. However, political analysts say the wind is filling the center-right’s sails after years of adverse conditions, giving it pre-election momentum.

Berlusconi ignominiously resigned from power in 2011 during a sovereign debt crisis. Mired in sex scandals and legal woes, he was subsequently expelled from the Senate and banned from running for office due to a 2013 tax fraud conviction.

Open heart surgery last year left most analysts writing his political obituary. But not for the first time, the media tycoon, now 81, bounced back and has appealed to the European Court of Human Rights to overturn the ban on seeking election.

A hearing is scheduled for November, but a verdict is unlikely to come for several months, meaning he almost certainly will not be able to stand in the next national ballot, which is due by May 2018 and widely expected to be held in March.

“Despite his age, Berlusconi would love to be prime minister again. It would be his last hurrah. But realistically speaking, it is not about to happen,” said a Forza Italia official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Significantly, Berlusconi made his political comeback speech at an event organized by Forza Italia stalwart Antonio Tajani, the president of the European Parliament. Party sources said Tajani was in pole position to be Berlusconi’s surrogate.

Compromise

While Berlusconi’s name abroad evokes memories of “bunga bunga” sex parties and wisecracks, Tajani is a much less colorful character, whose pro-European instincts would make him a reassuring figure for international markets.

Those very same instincts would pose a problem for Berlusconi’s hardline allies, who have regularly denounced the European Union and have called for Italy to quit the euro.

“The leader of the center-right needs to be chosen through a clear process, perhaps a primary,” Giorgia Meloni, the head of Brothers of Italy, told Sky Italia television on Sunday.

“I imagine that whatever grassroots method you decide, Tajani will not win out,” she said.

Brothers of Italy is a small, nationalist party, which is anti-migrant and anti-euro. It tries to differentiate itself from the League by saying it focuses on the whole country, not just the wealthy north.

Buoyed by the League’s strong poll numbers, Salvini says the leader of the party which wins the most votes next year should automatically be the prime ministerial candidate.

But Berlusconi, a four-times premier, has ruled out handing over the baton of power to Salvini, who has embraced Europe’s far-right and endorsed France’s National Front.

“We created the center-right in Italy and we have always been its leader, laying out and fulfilling its program,” Berlusconi said on Sunday. The two men have not spoken for months, saying they are in no hurry to discuss strategy.

Political analysts have speculated that the pro-business Forza Italia might find it easier to create a government of national unity with former prime minister Matteo Renzi’s PD party rather than the populist Northern League.

Forza Italia loyalists reject this notion.

“We ruled with the Northern League for years in national government and we are ruling with them now in the regions and it is going well,” said Forza Italia lawmaker Deborah Bergamini.

One such regional coalition is in Liguria, headed by Forza Italia’s Giovanni Toti. He attended both the Forza Italia and Northern League rallies at the weekend and is due to take part in a Brothers of Italy meeting this weekend.

“Toti has been carefully building bridges between the three parties and would be a natural choice to head any national coalition,” Bologna University’s Ignazi said.

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Ukraine Readies New High Court as Reforms Take Hold, Justice Minister Says

Ukraine could have a new Supreme Court installed by next month as part of judicial reforms aimed at rooting out corruption, Ukraine’s Justice Minister Pavlo Petrenko said Tuesday.

“I think from October the new Supreme Court will start working,” Petrenko told Reuters in an interview at the Concordia Annual Summit in New York. “The next challenge for us is to establish new appeal courts throughout the country, and to take in new judges in the regional courts.”

Petrenko added that reforms within appeal and regional courts could be in place within the next four years. Other government reforms began in 2014, after a popular uprising driven partly by public anger over endemic corruption.

Ukraine is still dealing with nagging allegations of graft, and Transparency International ranked it a poor 131st out of 176 countries in the World Ranking of Corruption Perception in a report this year.

The selection process for new Supreme Court judges has been questioned by figures including British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who cited concerns in July that Ukrainian government reforms were faltering.

Not ideal, but ‘very good’

Petrenko addressed criticism surrounding the selection, saying that while there are no ideal processes, “this one is very good.”

“We have a democratic society, and all the time there are people who will criticize the process,” he said.

Ukraine currently is the recipient of an aid-for-reforms program from the International Monetary Fund.

So far, the IMF has given the country $8.4 billion, helping it recover from a two-year recession following the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 and the outbreak of a Russian-backed insurgency in its industrial east.

Under the $17.5 billion program, the IMF wants Ukraine to set up a special court to focus on tackling corruption.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Friday said he hoped an anti-corruption chamber would be created next month, but expressed doubt that an independent court as envisaged by the IMF could be set up before 2019.

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Interfax: Russia to Pay Damages for Beslan School Siege

Russia will abide by a European Court of Human Rights ruling requiring it to pay nearly 3 million euros ($3.6 million) in damages for the 2004 Beslan school siege, the Interfax news agency reported Tuesday, citing the Russian justice ministry.

Russia used excessive force to storm a school in the small southern Russian town seized by Islamist militants in 2004, causing a high number of hostages to be killed, the court ruled in April.

The three-day drama began when Islamist militants took more than 1,000 people hostages on the first day of the school year and called for independence for the majority-Muslim region of Chechnya.

More than 330 hostages died, including at least 180 children, when the siege ended in a gunbattle. It was the bloodiest incident of its kind in modern Russian history.

The case for damages was brought by 409 Russian nationals who either were taken hostage or injured in the incident, or were family members of those taken hostage, killed or injured, the European Court of Human Rights statement said in April.

On Tuesday, the court said in a press release that its Grand Chamber Panel had rejected a Russian government request to refer the case and said its ruling was final.

“No other actions are being contemplated by the participants in this process,” the Russian justice ministry said in comments carried by Interfax.

In its April ruling, the court said the heavy-handed way Russian forces stormed the school had “contributed to the casualties among the hostages.”

It also ruled that authorities had failed to take reasonable preventive measures, despite knowing militants were planning to attack an educational institution.

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Catalan Mayors Exercise Right to Remain Silent in Referendum Questioning

The first of hundreds of Catalan mayors summoned to answer questions on why they have backed a banned Oct. 1 referendum on independence from Spain appeared before the state prosecutor on Tuesday amid cheers and chants from supporters.

The first three mayors to declare exercised their right to remain silent, the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI) said.

Years of separatist feeling in the industrial northeastern region will come to a head in less than two weeks as the fiercely pro-independence regional government calls a referendum on splitting from Spain.

Madrid has declared the referendum illegal and the Constitutional Court has suspended the vote that was approved by the regional government earlier this month.

So far, 745 of 948 municipal leaders have said they will provide venues for the referendum.

“Voting is not a crime,” said Marc Solsona, mayor of the town of Mollerussa, one of nearly 750 mayors facing charges of civil disobedience, abuse of office and misuse of public funds, as he left the state prosecutor’s office in Barcelona.

“I’m just the mayor and I have to serve my people. I am committed to the people being able to vote on Oct. 1 in accordance with the law passed by the Catalan parliament and what happens to me is not important,” he said.

Solsona smiled, kissed and gripped hands with dozens of clapping supporters gathered outside the state prosecutor’s office as he entered to chants of “You are not alone.”

“We consider ourselves privileged to have a mayor who represents the townspeople above any other interests — political or financial,” said 63-year-old pensioner Angel Tena, who had traveled to Barcelona to support the mayor.

Separately, police continued their search for ballot boxes, voting papers and campaign leaflets on Wednesday, raiding the offices of Spain’s biggest private delivery company Unipost in the Catalan city of Terrassa, Spanish media reported.

Neither the police nor the Interior Ministry could confirm the raid, but footage showed dozens of people gathered outside the company’s offices chanting “Out with the occupying forces,” handing out voting papers and laying carnations on police cars.

Unipost confirmed the raid without giving further details.

Although polls show less than half of Catalonia’s 5.5 million voters want self-rule, most in the wealthy northeastern region want the chance to vote on the issue.