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US Embassy Condemns Far-right March With US Flag in Croatia

The U.S. Embassy in Croatia on Monday strongly denounced a march by far-right nationalists in the Croatian capital of Zagreb who also waved an American flag and reportedly voiced support for President Donald Trump.

The embassy said in a statement it “rejects, in the strongest terms, neo-Nazi and pro-Ustasha views expressed during the demonstration of a few people in Zagreb on Sunday.”

The protesters, dressed in black and chanting slogans used by Croatia’s pro-Nazi World War II Ustasha regime, are members of the small, far-right A-HSP party which is not represented in the country’s parliament. As they marched through the center of the city, they waved an American flag, as well as the flags of Croatia and the far-right German NPD party.

The Ustashas killed tens of thousands Jews, Serbs, Gypsies and anti-Nazi Croats in concentration camps during World War II.

“We condemn any attempt to link the United States to this hateful ideology,” the U.S. Embassy said. “Such a suggestion is an affront to the memories of the 186,000 U.S. soldiers who died in Europe fighting Nazi Germany and the many millions of innocent victims killed during World War II.”

Police arrested the leader of the extremist A-HSP party after the protest, whose participants also called for the expulsion of “all enemies” from Croatia and its departure from the 28-nation European Union.

Croatia is facing a rise in far-right sentiments, especially against minority Serbs who remained in the country after a war between the two neighbors in the 1990s during the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia.

Stickers featuring a drawing of a “Serbian family tree” showing people hanging from its branches appeared over the weekend in Croatia’s border town of Vukovar.

Croatia’s government has condemned both the far-right march and the stickers, saying they are “offensive and shameful.”

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Russian Opposition Struggles 2 Years after Nemtsov Killing

Two years after he was killed near the Kremlin, Boris Nemtsov can still attract crowds of supporters. But his death left in tatters Russia’s opposition movement, which is struggling with infighting and seems unable to rally behind one unifying figure.

In the largest Russian opposition protest in months, thousands marched Sunday across Moscow to commemorate Nemtsov’s life, demand a thorough investigation of his death and to denounce President Vladimir Putin. The procession went to the bridge where Nemtsov was gunned down on Feb. 27, 2015. People also took to the streets in other cities, including St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod, his hometown.

Once a deputy prime minister tipped to be a possible successor to former President Boris Yeltsin, Nemtsov carved a unique role for himself as an opposition leader who still maintained contacts inside the Kremlin and could open doors abroad, from Brussels to Washington.

A look at the Russian opposition:

Alexei Navalny

The main force behind large protests against Putin in 2011-12, Alexei Navalny finished second with about a third of the vote in Moscow’s 2013 mayoral election, even though he had just been convicted of fraud charges that were widely seen as politically motivated.

Sentenced to five years in prison, he was freed and allowed to run pending an appeal that eventually led to a suspended sentence. His guilty verdict later was overturned by the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled his right to a fair trial had been violated. A retrial ended Feb. 8 with another guilty verdict and a suspended sentence.

That ruling bars the charismatic anti-corruption activist from running for president in 2018, when presumably Putin would seek re-election to another six-year term. Navalny and his associates are preparing his candidacy anyway.

The 40-year-old lawyer has endured so many court cases targeting him and his family that he had to deliver seven closing arguments in separate cases in the past four years.

“I spent one out of the past four years under house arrest, I have had several similar court cases during this time, my brother was sent to prison, and I spent most of this time barred from leaving town,” Navalny said this month. “But we still continue to publish numerous investigations, we have been doing our best unmasking those thieves and this gang that usurped power in Russia.”

Even though his prospects for running in 2018 are dim, he is raising funds for the campaign and traveling across Russia to meet with volunteers. The opening of his campaign headquarters in St. Petersburg drew several hundred people who lined up for blocks.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky

An oil tycoon who was once Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 in a tax evasion and money-laundering case that was seen as revenge for his challenging of Putin’s power. After serving 10 years in prison, he was pardoned right before the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Since his release, Khodorkovsky used some of his remaining wealth that was not seized by the government to help fund an independent news website, back national and local Russian legislative candidates, and give legal support to political prisoners. But he has not been to Russia since his release, and his emigre status makes it almost impossible for him to enjoy wide popularity inside Russia.

Legal troubles continue for the 54-year-old former oligarch. Investigators searched the homes of several employees of his charity and last year declared Khodorkovsky arrested in absentia in connection with the 1998 killing of a Siberian mayor — charges he dismisses as a political vendetta.

Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr.

The coordinator at Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia foundation and a close associate of Nemtsov, Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr. is largely unknown to most Russians. Yet the 35-year-old’s wide contacts in the West arguably make him a thorn in the Kremlin’s side.

Kara-Murza suffered two almost identical illnesses in 2015 and again this month that his doctors have called poisonings. Kara-Murza nearly died from kidney failure in 2015, although doctors have not identified the poison. Both times, he spent several days in a medically induced coma. After the most recent incident, his family sent his blood samples to a private lab in Israel to determine the toxin. He was flown out of Russia for treatment.

Russian state media targeted Kara-Murza alongside Nemtsov for his lobbying in the West, openly calling him a traitor.

Kara-Murza has traveled to the U.S., Canada and eastern Europe, pushing a law that targets Russian officials involved in rights abuses. In 2012, the U.S. Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, named for the late Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky. It was a precursor for the worsening of U.S.-Russia relations, which hit a post-Cold War low in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula.

Dmitry Gudkov

Elected to the State Duma in 2011, Dmitry Gudkov is one of the few lawmakers who have voted against Kremlin-backed legislation, from the U.S. adoption ban to the annexation of Crimea.

Gudkov used his lawmaker’s privileges to press officials about massive spending on the 2014 Olympics and about Nemtsov’s killing. City officials have rejected petitions to rename the bridge after the slain politician or put up a commemorative plaque, and utility workers have repeatedly removed flowers, photos and candles left by mourners for Nemtsov — as they did again early Monday.

Gudkov, who lost a re-election bid for the Duma last year, has said he will run for mayor of Moscow in 2018.

In a country where the dominant state-owned media refuses to give air time to the opposition, candidates like Gudkov have a long-term strategy of just getting a foot in the door, rather than trying to convince voters they can beat a Kremlin candidate.

“We need to be prepared: Not just from campaign to campaign, but permanently, build a strong team,” Gudkov told Ekho Moskvy radio this month. “There will be changes in public consciousness, and we should be ready for that.”

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Aleppo Monument Sparks Fierce Refugee Debate In German City

An art installation in the German city of Dresden – inspired by the siege of Aleppo in Syria – has triggered a heated debate on remembrance and immigration. Over a million refugees have arrived in Germany since 2014, among them over 400,000 Syrians fleeing the civil war. Henry Ridgwell reports from Dresden, a city that came to symbolize Germany’s recovery after World War II.

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Data Shows Hate Crimes Against Refugees on Rise in Germany

German officials have released data that shows refugees and asylum seekers suffered nearly 10 attacks a day there in 2016, the interior ministry said.

Citing police statistics, officials said more than 3,500 anti-migrant attacks were carried out last year, resulting in 560 people injured, including 43 children.

The numbers were published as a response to parliamentary questions by Ulla Jelpke, a member of the left-wing party Die Linke.

The German government said it “strongly condemns” the violence.

“People who have fled their homeland and are seeking protection in Germany have the right to expect that they will be accommodated safely,” said a letter issued by the interior ministry.

“Everyone in our society and politics has the common responsibility to position themselves clearly against the quiet support of, or even the quiet tolerance of, such attacks by a minority of our society,” it added.

Rising xenophobia has emerged as a key concern in German as the influx of migrants in the last two years has been accompanied by anger and attacks on asylum seekers in many eastern states such as Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania

In 2015, Germany recorded 1,408 violent acts carried out by right-wing supporters last year, a rise of more than 42 percent, and 75 arson attacks on refugee shelters, up from five a year earlier.

Germany’s acceptance of more than 1 million refugees in 2015 boosted popular support for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which is now represented in all of the eastern federal states, and mounted criticism and resentment for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy towards refugees.

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Olympic Runner Mo Farrah Denies Doping After Leaked Report

Olympic gold medal-winning distance runner Mo Farah said on Sunday that he is “a clean athlete” after a leaked report suggested his American coach may have broken anti-doping rules when he gave Farah and other athletes performance-enhancing drugs.

The Somali-born Farah won gold medals in the 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters for Britain at the last two Olympics.

“I am a clean athlete who never broke any rules in regards to substances.” Farah said in a statement.

 

Britain’s Sunday Times said it has obtained a leaked report by U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that said Farah’s coach Alberto Salazar gave him and others who trained with him at a Nike facility drugs including an infusion of the chemical L-carnitine. It is not a banned substance for athletes, but infusions of more than 50 milliliters over a span of six hours are prohibited.

“It is upsetting that some parts of the media, despite the clear facts, continue to try to associate me with allegations of drug misuse,” Farrah said in response to the report. “If USADA or any other anti-doping body has evidence of wrongdoing they should publish it and take action rather than allow the media to be judge and jury.”

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Britain’s Farage Posts Picture of ‘Dinner with The Donald’

British anti-EU campaigner Nigel Farage posted a picture of him having “dinner with The Donald” on Twitter, the latest meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and the critic of Prime Minister Theresa May.

Farage, who helped secure victory for the Brexit campaign at a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union in June, is keen to cement ties with Trump after stepping down as leader of his anti-EU UK Independence Party last year.

Finding common ground with some of Trump’s criticism of the political establishment, Farage met the president in November and has offered his services as Britain’s ambassador to the United States – something that has been rejected by May’s government.

Entitled “Dinner with The Donald”, Farage posted a picture of himself smiling at a camera, with Trump and four other people around a table in a photo which gave the location as the Trump International Hotel.

May also wants to bolster ties with the United States to strengthen her hand before launching divorce talks with the European Union, and at a visit in January, she secured a promise from Trump for a trade deal after Brexit.

She sent her two most senior aides to the United States in December and foreign minister Boris Johnson a month later to boost ties after the U.S. leader irritated officials by suggesting Farage was a good choice for ambassador.

Farage has since become a political analyst on Fox News and Fox Business Network and has a show on a London-based radio station.

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Pope Trims Sanctions for Some Pedophile Priests Seeking Mercy

Pope Francis has quietly reduced sanctions against a handful of pedophile priests, applying his vision of a merciful church even to its worst offenders in ways that survivors of abuse and the pope’s own advisers question.

One case has come back to haunt him: An Italian priest who received the pope’s clemency was later convicted by an Italian criminal court for his sex crimes against children as young as 12. The Rev. Mauro Inzoli is now facing a second church trial after new evidence emerged against him, The Associated Press has learned.

The Inzoli case is one of several in which Francis overruled the advice of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and reduced a sentence that called for the priest to be defrocked, two canon lawyers and a church official told AP. Instead, the priests were sentenced to penalties including a lifetime of penance and prayer and removal from public ministry.

In some cases, the priests or their high-ranking friends appealed to Francis for clemency by citing the pope’s own words about mercy in their petitions, the church official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the proceedings are confidential.

“With all this emphasis on mercy … he is creating the environment for such initiatives,” the church official said, adding that clemency petitions were rarely granted by Pope Benedict XVI, who launched a tough crackdown during his 2005-2013 papacy and defrocked some 800 priests who raped and molested children.

Harsher penalty

At the same time, Francis also ordered three longtime staffers at the congregation dismissed, two of whom worked for the discipline section that handles sex abuse cases, the lawyers and church official said.

One is the head of the section and will be replaced before leaving March 31. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said the others too will be replaced and that staffing in the office, which has a yearslong backlog of cases, would be strengthened after Francis recently approved hiring more officials.

“The speed with which cases are handled is a serious matter and the Holy Father continues to encourage improvements in this area,” Burke told AP.

He also dispelled rumors that sex-abuse cases would no longer be handled by the congregation, saying the strengthened office would handle all cases submitted.

Burke said Francis’ emphasis on mercy applied to “even those who are guilty of heinous crimes.” He said priests who abuse are permanently removed from ministry, but are not necessarily dismissed from the clerical state, the church term for laicization or defrocking.

“The Holy Father understands that many victims and survivors can find any sign of mercy in this area difficult,” Burke said. “But he knows that the Gospel message of mercy is ultimately a source of powerful healing and of grace.”

John Paul II criticized

St. John Paul II was long criticized for failing to respond to the abuse crisis, but ultimately he said in 2002 that “there is no place in the priesthood or religious life” for anyone who would harm the young. Francis has repeatedly proclaimed “zero tolerance” for abusive priests and in December wrote to the world’s bishops committing to take “all necessary measures” to protect them.

But he also recently said he believed sex abusers suffer from a “disease,” a medical term used by defense lawyers to seek mitigating factors in canonical sentences.

Marie Collins, an Irish abuse survivor and founding member of Francis’ sex-abuse advisory commission, expressed dismay that the congregation’s recommended penalties were being weakened and said abusers are never so sick that they don’t know what they’re doing.

“All who abuse have made a conscious decision to do so,” Collins told AP. “Even those who are pedophiles, experts will tell you, are still responsible for their actions. They can resist their inclinations.”

Is zero tolerance zero?

Victim advocates have long questioned Francis’ commitment to continuing Benedict’s tough line, given he had no experience dealing with abusive priests or their victims in his native Argentina. While Francis counts Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley as his top adviser on abuse, he has also surrounded himself with cardinal advisers who botched handling abuse cases in their archdioceses.

“They are not having zero tolerance,” said Rocio Figueroa, a former Vatican official and ex-member of the Peru-based Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, a conservative Catholic lay society rocked by sex scandals. The Vatican recently handed down sanctions against the group’s founder after determining that he sexually, psychologically and physically abused his recruits. His victims, however, are enraged that it took the Vatican six years to decide that the founder should be isolated, but not expelled, from the community.

The church official stressed that to his knowledge, none of Francis’ reduced sentences had put children at risk.

Many canon lawyers and church authorities argue that defrocking pedophiles can put society at greater risk because the church no longer exerts any control over them. They argue that keeping the men in restricted ministry, away from children, at least enables superiors to exert some degree of supervision.

But Collins said the church must also take into account the message that reduced canonical sentences sends to both survivors and abusers.

“While mercy is important, justice for all parties is equally important,” Collins said in an email. “If there is seen to be any weakness about proper penalties, then it might well send the wrong message to those who would abuse.”

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German Police Shoot, Injure Man After Apparent Car Attack

Police in Heidelberg, Germany, shot and seriously injured a man Saturday after the man hit three people with a car.

The man drove his car into the people in a central square while they were standing in a pedestrian area. A brief stand-off ensued before police shot the man, who was believed to have been armed with a knife.

Police said that at the moment they are unclear about the man’s motives but added they don’t suspect the attack to be terrorism-related.

The man appears to have acted alone, police said, refusing to confirm local media reports he is mentally disturbed.

The incident renewed fears in Germany of an attempted repeat of a terrorist truck attack last December at a crowded Berlin Christmas market that killed 12 people and injuring 50 more.

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Merkel Formally Nominated for German Election Run

Angela Merkel’s conservatives have formally nominated the German chancellor as her party’s top candidate for the September parliamentary election in the region where she has her political base.

The dpa news agency reported that Merkel won the support of 95 percent of delegates at a convention of the Christian Democrats’ branch in northeastern Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania state Saturday. Merkel has held her parliamentary constituency in Stralsund since 1990.

Polls show Merkel facing an unexpectedly strong challenge from the center-left Social Democrats, who have been boosted by their choice of former European Parliament President Martin Schulz to challenge her.

Merkel didn’t mention Schulz in her speech Saturday. But she did make a point of praising the economic reforms enacted by her center-left predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, some of which Schulz has suggested he might amend.

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Turkish PM Launches ‘Yes’ Campaign to Boost Erdogan Powers

Turkey’s prime minister has officially launched his ruling party’s campaign for a “yes” vote in a referendum on ushering a presidential system, which critics fear will concentrate too many powers in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

 

Binali Yildirim formally got campaigning going on Saturday telling supporters in a sports arena that the proposed new system would build a strong Turkey capable of surmounting terror threats and make its economy more robust.

 

Yildirim said: “We are taking the first steps on the path of a future strong Turkey.”

The proposed reforms – to be voted on April 16 – will give the largely ceremonial presidency executive powers and abolish the office of the prime minister.

 

Opponents say the proposed system foresees too few checks and balances on Erdogan’s rule.