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Spanish PM Rajoy Heads to Court as Witness in Corruption Trial

Mariano Rajoy will on Wednesday become Spain’s first sitting prime minister to be called to court as he appears as a witness in a long-running graft trial that has rocked his conservative party and hurt him at the ballot box.

Rajoy returned to power for a second term last October with a severely diminished mandate, after a series of corruption scandals tainted several members of his People’s Party (PP) and turned off voters.

The prime minister’s court appearance turns the spotlight back on one of the most prominent cases at a delicate time for Rajoy, who no longer enjoys a majority in parliament and has to scrape together votes to get laws through.

He had sought to testify by videoconference, arguing that the journey to the court of San Fernando de Henares on the outskirts of Madrid would be a waste of taxpayer money. But the request was denied by Spain’s High Court.

The trial follows a long graft investigation into several city councils which are alleged to have received illegal financing from a network of companies.

Known in Spanish as the “Gurtel” case, after the nickname of supposed mastermind and businessman Francisco Correa, the probe ended up reaching several former high-ranking PP members and drew attention to an alleged party slush fund.

Former PP party treasurer, Luis Barcenas, is among those on trial on charges of organized crime, falsifying accounts, influence-peddling and tax crimes.

Rajoy is expected to be grilled about the alleged slush fund and his knowledge of party business in the early 2000s, when he held several senior positions in the PP.

He has previously denied receiving any illegal funds.

The prime minister has sought to distance himself over the years from this probe and other corruption scandals, but his turn as a witness is likely to be seized upon by opposition parties who have repeatedly called for him to step down.

That is unlikely to have any immediate consequences – left-wing parties including the Socialists and Podemos (“We Can”) have failed in their bids to oust Rajoy before, as they lack the clout in parliament and are divided on many fronts.

But it could still be damaging for the prime minister and his party.

“Corruption issues will continue to put a ceiling on the PP’s electoral aspirations,” Antonio Barroso, deputy director of research at Teneo Intelligence said in a note. “While Rajoy should be benefiting from [Spain’s] strong economic rebound, the ruling party has been losing support in the polls recently.”

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British Foreign Minister: Ties With New Zealand to Remain Strong After Brexit

New Zealand will be one of the first nations Britain will strike a trade deal with once it formally leaves the European Union — a promise made Tuesday by visiting British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson.

Johnson held talks in Wellington with Prime Minister Bill English on the second day of his two-day visit to Britain’s former colony. 

Britain’s chief diplomat insisted that New Zealand would not be negatively affected once Brexit is a done deal.  “I’ll say this until I’m blue in the face,” Johnson affirmed, “Brexit is not, was not, will not be about Britain turning away from the world.” 

Johnson said New Zealand is “at or near the very front of the queue” of nations willing and ready to reach a bilateral trade pact with London.

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Parents Abandon Campaign to Seek US Treatment for Baby Charlie Gard

The parents of the critically-ill British infant, Charlie Gard, dropped their legal bid Monday to send him to the United States for experimental treatment after new medical tests showed such treatment could no longer help. VOA’s Correspondent Mariama Diallo reports on the heart wrenching story of baby Charlie that attracted worldwide attention and sympathy.

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IMF Warms to Eurozone Economy Amid Lower Political Risks

The International Monetary Fund is more optimistic about the economy of the 19-country eurozone after a run of elections saw populist politicians defeated and risks to its outlook abated.


In an update to its April projections published Monday, the IMF revised up its growth forecasts for many eurozone countries, including the big four of Germany, France, Italy and Spain, after stronger than anticipated first quarter figures.


Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, is projected to grow by 1.8 percent, up 0.2 percentage point on the previous estimate, while France is forecast to expand 1.5 percent, up 0.1 percentage point. Projections for Italy and Spain have been revised higher by a substantial 0.5 percentage point. The two are now expected to grow by 1.3 percent and 3.1 percent, respectively. All four are also expected to grow by more than anticipated in 2018.


Overall, the IMF expects the eurozone to expand by 1.9 percent this year, 0.2 percentage point more than its previous projection. That’s just shy of the IMF’s 2.1 percent forecast for the U.S., which was trimmed by 0.2 percentage point. However, it’s slightly ahead of Britain’s, whose projected growth was revised down 0.3 percentage point to 1.7 percent following a weak first quarter that raised concerns about the country’s economy ahead of its exit from the European Union.


The IMF’s eurozone upgrades come amid rising confidence in the bloc following a series of elections that saw populist politicians defeated, most notably in France, where Emmanuel Macron defeated the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in May’s presidential election.


At the start of the year, political risks were considered the major hurdle facing the eurozone. There had been fears that radical changes in government could have seen more insular economic policies and further questions over the future of the euro itself.


“On the upside, the cyclical rebound could be stronger and more sustained in Europe, where political risk has diminished,” the IMF said in Monday’s report.


The lead eurozone economist at Oxford Economics, Ben May, thinks the IMF’s forecast may actually turn out to be too cautious. He’s predicting 2.2 percent growth as the region benefits from lower inflation, healthy global growth and a pick-up in business investment.


The IMF’s update came as a survey showed the eurozone economy slowed in July from a fast pace.


Financial information firm IHS Markit said Monday that its purchasing managers’ index for the region fell to a six-month low of 55.8 points in July from 56.3 the previous month.


The indicator still points to one of the strongest economic expansions in the past six years, with quarterly growth at a still-healthy 0.6 percent, down only slightly from the 0.7 percent signaled for the second quarter. Official second-quarter figures are due in early August.


Chris Williamson, the firm’s chief business economist, says it’s probably just a “speed bump,” with the economy “hitting bottlenecks due to the speed of the recent upturn.”


He noted that forward-looking indicators, such as new order inflows, suggest robust growth. As a result, job creation is “booming” as companies expand to meet demand.


The survey is likely to inform the ECB’s deliberations as it mulls when to start reining back its monetary stimulus. Last week, ECB President Mario Draghi sought to be neutral, worried that any indication of any change of course could cause the euro to surge. More clarity is expected at the next policy meeting on Sept. 7.


Much will depend on inflation. The chief purpose behind the ECB’s stimulus efforts, which has involved slashing interest rates and buying 60 billion euros ($69 billion) a month in bonds at least through the end of the year, is to get inflation up to its goal of just below 2 percent. In June, the annual rate of inflation was 1.3 percent.


Monday’s survey suggested that inflation pressures eased in July, which may reinforce Draghi’s belief that there isn’t “any convincing sign of a pickup in inflation.”

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Trial Starts for Turkish Journalists in Key Press Freedom Case

The room in Istanbul’s main court house was packed as the trial of 17 journalists working for Cumhuriyet newspaper got underway. The trial is widely as seen as pivotal for the future of press freedom in Turkey with Cumhuriyet one of the last remaining mainstream newspapers critical of the government and president.

The first day of the hearing Monday was devoted to reading the terrorist charges against the journalists. Most have been charged with “membership of a terrorist organization” or “actions that support a terrorist organization while not being a member.”

The charges have been widely used since the introduction of emergency rule, following last July’s failed coup, that has resulted in more than 50,000 people being jailed.

The 17 journalists on trial include some of the paper’s top executives, leading columnists and even a cartoonist. Speaking in his defense, Cumhuriyet editor in chief Kadri Gursel strongly condemned the charges, claiming prosecutors had broken the law in collecting evidence against him. He strongly refuted the evidence that included unsolicited texts from alleged supporters of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Ankara blames Gulen, who lives in self imposed exile in the Untied States, and his followers for being behind the coup attempt, in which more than 240 people died. Gursel is accused by the government of supporting Gulen and the Kurdish rebel group the PKK.

Gursel has for decades been one of the most outspoken critics of Gulen, and in the 1990’s was kidnapped and held for several weeks by the PKK.

Government dislikes editorial policy

A key part of the case against the journalists presented in Monday’s hearing was that Cumhuriyet changed its editorial policy, which prosecutors claim is evidence the paper is following Gulen’s agenda.

The change in policy cited by the prosecution included focusing on human rights violations in the ongoing crackdown on the Kurdish rebel group the PKK, and exposing links between President Recep Tayyip and his government, and Gulen before the coup attempt.

“The paper decided to cover human rights abuses during the state of emergency, and even before, abuses committed during military operations against the PKK, and highlighting the responsibility of the government for cooperating with Fethullah Gulen. All these are taboos in Turkish media today,” claims Erol Onderoglu, Turkey’s representative for Reporters Without Borders, the Paris based media freedom group, “Something which is purely editorial has been brought here to the courthouse today as a criminal activity.”

Cumhuriyet CEO Akin Atalay told the court the prosecution case against him and his fellow journalists is, “A complete legal murder.” Atalay accused prosecutors of seeking to either silence the paper or “take it over.”

Wider rights issues for Turkey

The Cumhuriyet case has become a focal point for growing concerns about media freedom in Turkey.

Before the start of the case hundreds of journalists, newspapers supporters, and members of parliament from the two main opposition parties marched from the nearby Cumhuriyet office to the Istanbul court house, chanting “rights, justice and you cannot silence the media.”

Erdogan has strongly backed the prosecution of journalists, insisting no one is above the law. He recently claimed the jailed journalists are being prosecuted for terrorism offenses, not for being journalists.

Cumhuriyet, the country’s oldest newspaper founded shortly after the creation of the Turkish Republic, has a long tradition of challenging and scrutinizing power. The case against it is increasingly seen as sending a message to wider Turkish society.

“It will be much more easier to silence all the rest of the small, diverse, media outlets critical of the government, after imposing silence on all these prominent journalists working at Cumhuriyet,” warns Reporters Without Borders Onderoglu.


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France’s Macron Faces Grassroots Court Challenge Over Party Rules

French President Emmanuel Macron faced the first grassroots revolt from within his own camp on Monday when hundreds of activists asked a court to halt voting on new rules for the political party that helped him win power in May.

The challenge came on the heels of a poll showing a slump in the 39-year-old president’s approval rating after a series of politically testing events, including a budget row that prompted the head of the army to quit.

Members of Macron’s Republic on the Move party (LREM), which espouses a break with old ways of doing politics, are taking part in an electronic vote on new party statutes that is due to end on July 31.

The activists involved in the legal challenge say they number about 1,200, a fraction of the LREM’s total membership of more than 375,000, but they reveal a degree of discontent in the ranks with Macron’s forceful style of leadership.

The group says the disputed statutes would limit decision-making and future internal ballots to the LREM’s upper echelons.

“This ‘lockout’ exposes a lack of trust in party members and looks at odds with LREM [party] values,” they said.

“The lack of internal democracy is even more distasteful due to the fact that it’s all been done in a rush in the middle of the summer without proper consultation of activists.”

A party spokeswoman brushed off the accusations, saying LREM was giving a bigger role to grassroots members in its structures than other French parties and had further increased that power after consulting members earlier this month.

A ruling is expected this week on the court challenge after a hearing on Monday.

Macron, who swept to power on promises of non-partisan rule and an end to traditional Left-versus-Right politics, has had a tough month, marked by a public row over military spending cuts with top armed forces chief General Pierre de Villiers that led to de Villiers’ resignation.

An Ifop poll released on Sunday showed Macron’s approval rating falling 10 percentage points to 54 percent.

Billed as the biggest drop for a newly elected president since Jacques Chirac in 1995, it echoed a broadly similar result in a recent BVA poll.

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Parents Abandon Campaign to Seek US Treatment for British Baby

On Monday, the parents of terminally ill British infant, Charlie Gard, abandoned the legal bid to take their son to the United States for experimental care after being presented with dire new medical tests.

The couple’s attorney, Grant Armstrong, said recent tests on the 11-month-old revealed irreversible muscular damage and that the couple made their final decision after seeing Charlie’s latest brain scans.

“It’s too late for Charlie,” Armstrong told Judge Nicholas Francis during a London High Court hearing. “The damage has been done.”

Judge Francis was due to rule Monday on whether there was sufficient new evidence to permit the parents to bring Charlie to the U.S. for a an experimental therapy.

The parents broke into tears in the courtroom as their lawyer told the judge: “It is no longer in Charlie’s best interest to pursue this course of treatment.”

The decision ends a case that has drawn global attention, prompting world leaders like President Donald Trump and Pope Francis to weigh in.

Charlie Gard was born with a rare genetic disease called encephalomyopathic mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome. Globally, there are currently only 16 confirmed cases of the genetic mutation.

He is deaf and blind, he cannot breathe or move without aid, and he suffers from frequent epileptic seizures.

Earlier this year, the London hospital treating him asked for permission to remove him from life support, calling it the most humane path forward. His parents wanted to take him to the United States in an effort to prolong his life – even though his disease has no cure – but lost the legal fight in both Britain’s Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

In its decision, the Court of Human Rights argued that Charlie “was being exposed to continued pain, suffering and distress, and that undergoing experimental treatment with no prospects of success would offer no benefit, and continue to cause him significant harm.”

President Donald Trump and some conservative American politicians used the case as an opportunity to criticize Britain’s single-payer health care system. A week after the Court of Human Rights decision, Trump wrote on Twitter that the United States would be “delighted” to help.

The British government maintained that the case was never about money. It argued that under British law the courts have the final say in medical disputes about children. “In this country, children have rights independent of their parents,” Judge Francis said.

Outside the courtroom, supporters held blue balloons in solidarity with the parents, who intend to “establish a foundation for Charlie’s voice to be heard,” Armstrong said.

The judge commended the parents “for the love and the care they gave to their child Charlie,” adding that “no parents could have done more for their child.”



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Erdogan Says Muslims Won’t Remain Silent on Jerusalem Crisis

Turkey’s president has condemned Israeli security precautions at a sensitive Jerusalem holy site saying the Islamic world would not remain silent.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed reporters Sunday in Istanbul before departing on a visit to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar.

He says: “No one can expect the Islamic world to remain unresponsive after the humiliation Muslims suffered with the restrictions at the Noble Sanctuary.”

Earlier this week, Israel installed metal detectors at the shrine in response to a deadly attack by Arab gunmen there which killed two Israeli policemen. The metal detectors are perceived by the Palestinians as an encroachment on Muslim rights and have led to protests in the Muslim world.

Erdogan called on Israel to remove the detectors in a phone conversation with his counterpart Reuven Rivlin on Thursday.

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US Envoy: Russia Responsible for ‘Hot War’ in Ukraine

Russia is responsible for the “Hot War” in Eastern Ukraine, the newly appointed U.S. special envoy to Ukraine said Sunday.

Kurt Volker, who was appointed by the State Department earlier this month to negotiate an end to more than three years of fighting that has killed 10,000 people, visited Ukraine on the eve of telephone talks between its leader and Russian, German, and French counterparts.

“This is not a frozen conflict, this is a hot war and it is an immediate crisis that we all need to address as quickly as possible,” Volker said in the city of Karamatorsk in the war-torn Donetsk region.

“It is truly a high degree of suffering, there was a high human cost to this conflict and that is another reason why it is so urgent that we address it,” he added.

Volker’s visit followed a particularly bloody week in eastern Ukraine, with at least 11 people killed over the past few days, the most serious flare up of violence in recent months.

The U.S. Congress is set to vote this week on legislation calling for more sanctions against Russia, not only for its meddling last fall in the U.S. election, but also for its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

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Former Top US Intel Officials Criticize Trump’s Stance on Russia

Two former top U.S. intelligence officials harshly criticized President Donald Trump on Friday for not standing up to Russia for meddling in the presidential election, one of them wondering aloud whether the president’s real aim is to make “Russia great again.”


Former National Intelligence Director James Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan didn’t hold back their anger about Trump’s past disparaging comments about the intelligence agencies and their assessment that Moscow deliberately interfered in the election and tried to sow discord in the United States.


Asked if he thinks Trump takes the threat from Russia seriously enough, Clapper said he wonders sometimes if the White House agenda is about “making Russia great again.” The comment played off Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.”


In a wide-ranging discussion at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, Clapper and Brennan said that Trump advisers should have been more wary of meeting with a Russian lawyer and others. In June, in the heat of the campaign, the president’s son, his campaign manager and his son-in-law met a group at Trump Tower in New York that included a Russian lawyer and Russian lobbyist. Emails about the meeting showed that Donald Trump Jr., attended on the premise of obtaining damaging material the Russian government had on Hillary Clinton


“It would have been a really good idea to have vetted whomever they were meeting with. I think the Russian objective here was to explore to see if there was interest in having such a discussion on offering up dirt on Hillary Clinton,” Clapper said. He said the meeting reminds him of standard Russian spy craft.


Brennan called the meeting “profoundly baffling” and wondered why Trump advisers would “jump at the opportunity” to meet with individuals about getting information on Clinton. “The Russians operate in a very cunning manner and they will take and exploit any opportunity they get,” he said.

Clapper also suggested that the security clearance held by Jared Kushner, a Trump adviser and the president’s son-in-law, should at least be suspended until it can be determined why he failed to disclose all the meetings he’s had with Russians.


Both said they didn’t think the Trump administration should return compounds in Maryland and New York to the Russians. President Barack Obama closed them in response to the Russian interference in the election. Clapper called the compound on the Eastern Shore a Russian “intelligence collection facility.” The Russians have said the estates were used for recreational escapes by Russian diplomats and their families.


Both expressed their annoyance at Trump’s negative statements about the intelligence agencies’ assessments of Russia and the presidential election.


“It’s interesting that Mr. Trump and others will point to U.S. intelligence when it comes to North Korea, or Iran or Syria … but when it’s inconsistent with what I think are preconceived notions as well as maybe preferences about what the truth would be, then the intelligence community assessments, the work force and the profession are disparaged. That’s when my and Jim Clapper’s blood boils,” Brennan said.


Brennan also said he was upset when Trump leaned over to Russian President Vladimir Putin before their recent meeting in Europe to say it was a “great honor” to meet him.


“This is Mr. Putin, who assaulted one of the foundational pillars of our democracy – our election system – invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, that has suppressed or repressed political opponents in Russia and caused the deaths of many of them,” he said. “I thought it was a very, very bad negotiating tactic.”


Both also said they were concerned about a second discussion the two leaders had in Europe with only a Russian interpreter. Clapper said Trump should have had his own translator to record the conversation and avoid any misinterpretations. Brennan said he has never heard of any other instance where a U.S. president has had a meeting with a Russian head of state without a U.S. translator.


“To have this one-off and rely on a Russian translator … It again raises concerns about what else may be going on between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin that is being held behind closed doors or outside the public view,” he said.