Detained former U.S. Marine Whelan attends a court hearing in Moscow
Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who was detained on suspicion of spying, is escorted inside a court building before a hearing regarding the extension of his detention, in Moscow, Russia, May 24, 2019. REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

May 24, 2019

By Tom Balmforth and Maxim Rodionov

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A former U.S. Marine held in Moscow on suspicion of spying said on Friday he had been threatened by a Russian investigator and harassed in custody, accusations that added to strains in U.S.-Russian relations.

Paul Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports, was detained in a Moscow hotel room on Dec. 28 and accused of espionage, a charge he denies. If found guilty, he faces up to 20 years in jail.

Whelan, whose pre-detention was extended until the end of August at a hearing on Friday in Moscow, told reporters he believed the case against him was politically motivated revenge for U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia.

“I have been threatened. My personal safety has been threatened,” he said from inside a cage in the courtroom. “There are abuses and harassment that I am constantly subjected to.”

Whelan said he not been allowed to shower in two weeks nor granted medical and dental treatment. He said he had not received books or correspondence in two months.

“This is typical prisoner-of-war chapter one isolation technique,” he said. “They are trying to run me down so that I talk to them.”

Outside the courtroom, U.S. diplomat Michael Yoder told reporters that Whelan’s comments were “of grave concern to us.”

“I guarantee you we will protest this fact with the Russian government and we will request the opportunity to speak frankly with him about these threats,” he said.

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) detained Whelan after an acquaintance handed him a flash drive containing classified information. Whelan’s lawyer says his client thinks he was set up by the acquaintance and the FSB.

Whelan thought the flash drive contained holiday photos, the lawyer has said.

Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, said his sibling had been falsely accused, wrongfully detained, and will “continue to be mistreated unless one of the governments of the nations of which he is a citizen intervene on his behalf.”

“Paul’s defense team has been clear in their communications to us that Paul is being held, and coerced, in order to gain a confession,” David Whelan told Reuters in an email.

During Friday’s hearing, Whelan asked the court to have FSB investigator Alexei Khizhnyak taken off the case and accused him of “insulting my dignity and threatening my life,” the Interfax news agency reported.

The judge told Whelan he only had the right under Russian law to request the replacement of court or prosecuting officials, but not an investigator.

“I understand that but what am I supposed to do if my rights are being violated?” Whelan was quoted as saying.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Maxim Rodionov in Moscow; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by John Stonestreet, Angus MacSwan and Bill Trott)

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during the European People's Party (EPP) and the Croatian Democratic Union's (HDZ) campaign rally for the European Parliament elections in Zagreb
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Croatian Democratic Union’s (HDZ) campaign rally for the European Parliament elections in Zagreb, Croatia, May 18, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

May 18, 2019

ZAGREB (Reuters) – German chancellor Angela Merkel said on Saturday Croatia was well on track to join the European common currency by 2024, citing the youngest EU member’s economic development.

“The main economic indicators in Croatia are pointing in this direction,” Merkel said after meeting Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic in Zagreb.

Merkel said she regards Croatia’s ambition, “namely the Euro accession during the next period … as very realistic”, referring to the EU commission’s next legislative period through 2024.

There was still a lot to be done but the country was well on track, she added.

Croatia aims to launch its bid to join the euro zone within two months and will commit to further modernizing its economy and cutting debt as part of the accession process, Finance Minister Zdravko Maric said this week.

That process is expected to take the youngest member of the European Union at least four years to complete. The first formal step will be to enter the bloc’s waiting room, the European Exchange Mechanism (ERM-2), for a minimum of two years during which Croatia’s kuna currency must prove its stability.

Croatia hopes to join the ERM-2 in 2020.

(Reporting by Andreas Rinke; Writing by Ludwig Burger; Editing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian)

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Rally of European nationalist and far-right parties ahead of EU parliamentary elections in Milan
Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini holds a placard reading “15%” regarding the flat tax his party is proposing, during a major rally of European nationalist and far-right parties ahead of EU parliamentary elections in Milan, Italy May 18, 2019. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo

May 18, 2019

By Crispian Balmer

MILAN (Reuters) – Nationalist parties from across Europe held a rally on Saturday, led by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, promising to reshape the continent following next week’s EU parliamentary election.

Thousands of flag-waving supporters of Salvini’s League party packed a rain-soaked central Milan square to see far-right and anti-immigrant leaders from 11 European Union countries present a common front in their battle to pull back power from Brussels.

Hundreds of opponents gathered on the sidelines, their boos, jeers and whistles sometimes drowning out the speakers. “Fascists leave Milan,” they chanted as Salvini took the stage.

“There are no extremists, racists or fascists in this square,” Salvini said. “Here you won’t find the far-right, but the politics of good sense. The extremists are those who have governed Europe for the past 20 years.”

Salvini is confident his newly forged alliance will win a record number of seats at the May 23-26 election, giving it a strong say in how Europe is run over the coming five years.

However, the gathering in front of Milan’s gothic cathedral was overshadowed by a scandal engulfing one of Salvini’s most prominent allies, Austria’s Freedom Party, whose leader quit on Saturday as government vice-chancellor after he was videoed offering state contracts in exchange for political support.

While the beleaguered Freedom Party had to skip Saturday’s event, parties from 11 countries did show up, including France’s National Rally (RN), Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Dutch anti-Islam Freedom Party (PVV).

“This is an historic moment,” said RN leader Marine Le Pen, telling the crowd that Europe had to be protected from uncontrolled immigration that had brought millions of refugees and asylum seekers to the continent since 2014.

“We say no to this immigration which has submerged our nations, putting our people at risk,” she said, playing up an issue that has helped fuel support for nationalist groups.


Recent polls suggest Salvini’s alliance will end up with the fourth largest bloc of seats in the next EU parliament, but Le Pen said a number of other parties might eventually join it, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party, which is currently anchored to Europe’s mainstream right.

Orban has publicly supported Salvini and promised cooperation after the vote, but he has so far refused to join any alliance with Le Pen, underscoring the divisions which have constantly plagued the nationalist camp.

The parties in the group share the broad goals of returning power to EU member states, curbing immigration and preventing the spread of Islam in Europe.

But they often have different social and economic policies, including budgetary discipline, meaning they might struggle to put forward a coherent policy agenda.

Salvini made no mention of any divisions but focused on what unites the right, playing up Europe’s shared Christian heritage and hailed the legacy of conservative Roman Catholic Pope, John Paul II. The crowd booed when he mentioned the current pontiff, Pope Francis, who has strongly defended migrant rights.

The League is expected to emerge as Italy’s largest party for the first time next week and could double its score from a 2018 national election, when it took some 17 percent.

However, momentum for the party has slowed this month, with opponents accusing him of spending too much time on the campaign trail and not enough time behind his government desk.

Salvini said he was working night and day for Italy. “If it is necessary, I will give my life for Italy, for my children, for you. I will stop at nothing and for nobody,” he said.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Peter Graff and Helen Popper)

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Buddhist devotees worship at the Kelaniya Buddhist temple during Vesak Day, commemorating the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha, in Colombo
Buddhist devotees worship at the Kelaniya Buddhist temple during Vesak Day, commemorating the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha, in Colombo, Sri Lanka May 18, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

May 18, 2019

By Shihar Aneez and Omar Rajarathnam

COLOMBO (Reuters) – Buddhist Sri Lankans marked the festival of Vesak in low key celebrations on Saturday amid heightened religious tensions in the Indian Ocean nation following the deadly Easter Sunday attacks that killed more than 250 people.

Vesak, a festival that commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Lord Buddha, is celebrated on a full moon day in May, with the festivities extending for at least a week.

But the typical colorful lanterns and brightly-lit shelters with descriptions of the life of the Buddha were largely missing, as was the tradition of giving out food to passers-by.

The festival comes a week after mob attacks on Muslim-owned homes, mosques and shops in the island nation’s northwest, in which one person was killed. Authorities said the rioters included Sinhala Buddhist extremists.

The attacks on minority Muslims follow the April 21 bombings by Islamist militants which killed more than 250 people in churches and hotels in and around the capital Colombo.

The number of Buddhist worshippers at the popular Keleni Raja Maha Viharaya temple on the outskirts of Colombo seemed to have halved from last year amid stepped-up security, a Reuters witness said.

A “checked” sticker was pasted on every visitor after they and their belongings were searched outside the temple.

“We can’t only depend on the military, we have to be mindful and do our best to protect ourselves,” said Anette Perera, 64, who was on her way to a temple in the Colombo suburb Kaduwela.

“I still feel unsafe and will make a floral offering at the temple and return (home) as soon as I can.”

Some Sri Lankans tried to preach a message of peaceful co-existence.

At the Gunawardhanaramaya temple in Colombo, Tamil Hindus and Catholics hosted an “iftar” meal for Muslims breaking their holy month of Ramzan fast in the evening. Some Muslims helped decorate Buddhist temples with flags and Vesak lanterns.

(Reporting by Shihar Aneez and Omar Rajarathnam; Editing by Sudarshan Varadhan and Ros Russell)

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Armenia's President Kocharyan speaks to the media after casting his ballot at a polling station in Yerevan
Armenia’s President Robert Kocharyan speaks to the media after casting his ballot at a polling station in Yerevan February 19, 2008. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

May 18, 2019

TBILISI (Reuters) – An Armenian court on Saturday ordered former president Robert Kocharyan freed on bail from pre-trial detention, local news agencies reported.

The 64-year-old ex-president was arrested last July after peaceful protests drove his former ally and successor, Serzh Sarksyan, from power and propelled opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan into the prime minister’s job.

Kocharyan, who was president from 1998 to 2008, has been charged with acting unlawfully by introducing a state of emergency in March 2008, following a disputed election. At least ten people were killed in clashes between police and protesters.

He was freed on bail of 1 million drams ($2000). He faces up to 15 years in prison if found guilty.

Kocharyan told Reuters earlier this month that powerful opposition forces were coming together to challenge the country’s new leadership soon, and that he hoped to be among them.

(Reporting by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Peter Graff)

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) meets Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (not pictured) at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/Pool

May 18, 2019

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China’s senior diplomat Wang Yi told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that recent U.S. words and actions had harmed the interests of China and its enterprises, and it should show restraint, China’s foreign ministry said on Saturday.

Speaking to Pompeo by telephone, Wang said the United States should not go “too far” in the current trade dispute between the two sides, adding China was still willing to resolve differences through negotiations, but they should be on an equal footing.

Speaking on Iran, he also said China hoped all parties will exercise restraint and act with caution to avoid escalating tensions.

(This story corrects title of Pompeo to Secretary of State in first paragraph)

(Reporting by Twinnie Siu in HONG KONG and David Stanway in SHANGHAI)

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FILE PHOTO - An electrician tests LED-light fitted boards with symbols of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and main opposition Congress party at a workshop in Ahmedabad
FILE PHOTO – An electrician tests LED-light fitted boards with symbols of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and main opposition Congress party at a workshop in Ahmedabad, India, April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Amit Dave

May 18, 2019

By Munsif Vengattil and Zeba Siddiqui

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has one unwanted lead in this month’s general election race – according to data from an electoral watchdog it is fielding the most candidates among the major parties who are facing criminal charges. Its main rival, Congress, is just a step behind.

Election laws allow such candidates to run so long as they have not been convicted, on grounds both of fairness and because India’s criminal justice system moves so slowly that trials can take years, or even decades, to be resolved.

Still, the number of such candidates accused of offences ranging from murder to rioting has been rising with each election.

Analysts say political parties turn to them because they often have the deepest pockets in steadily costlier elections, and that some local strongmen are seen as having the best chance of winning.

Nearly one-in-five candidates running for parliament in the current election has an outstanding criminal case against them, inching up from 17% in the previous election and 15% in 2009, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a non-profit organization that analyzed candidates’ declarations.

The data shows that 40% candidates from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP face criminal charges, including crimes against women and murder, followed by the Congress party at 39%.

Among the smaller parties, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has an even higher proportion, with 58 percent of its candidates embroiled in criminal cases.

Polls have suggested that the BJP and its allies lead the race to win the mammoth, staggered election that began last month and ends on Sunday. Votes will be counted on Thursday.

“Parties only think about winnability and they know that money power and muscle power of such candidates ensures that win,” said Anil Verma, head of the ADR.

With 240 cases against him, K Surendran of the BJP tops the list of candidates with the most outstanding criminal complaints that include rioting, criminal trespass and attempted murder.

He said most of the cases stem from his involvement in the BJP campaign to oppose the entry of women and girls of menstruating age into the Sabarimala temple in his home state of Kerala.

“I understand that an outsider might feel that I am a grave offender but, in reality, I am completely innocent of these charges,” he said. “It was all politically motivated.”

Dean Kuriakose from the Congress party has 204 criminal cases against him, the second highest, the data showed. Most of the cases were related to a political agitation against the ruling Communist Party in Kerala, which turned violent.

He was not available for comment. But a party spokesman said Kuriakose was innocent.

Political analysts say that often people vote for candidates who face criminal charges because they are seen as best placed to deliver results. In some parts of India local strongmen mediate in disputes and dispense justice.

“Powerful people, even if criminals, offer a kind of parallel system of redressal,” said K.C. Suri, a professor of political science at the University of Hyderabad.

A separate ADR survey of more than 250,000 voters last year found 98% felt candidates with criminal backgrounds should not be in parliament, though 35% said they were willing to vote for such a candidate on caste grounds or if the candidate had done “good work” in the past.

(Reporting by Munsif Vengattil and Zeba Siddiqui; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Alex Richardson)

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Argentina's former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner waves to supporters after the presentation of her book
Argentina’s former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner waves to supporters after the presentation of her book “Sinceramente”, at the Buenos Aires book fair, in Buenos Aires, Argentina May 9, 2019. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

May 18, 2019

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner will run as a vice presidential candidate in elections later this year, a surprise move by the firebrand former leader who had been widely expected to be the main challenger to incumbent Mauricio Macri.

The left-leaning populist, a divisive character in South America’s No. 2 economy, said in a video posted on social media on Saturday she would run for the deputy position with former cabinet chief Alberto Fernandez as the presidential candidate.

Argentines will head to the polls in October, with Macri increasingly under fire amid a biting recession and inflation that has hurt the market friendly leader in the polls.

Cristina Fernandez, who has a strong core following, was seen as the most likely threat to Macri, although many in the country remain wary of turning back to the president who led the country between 2007-2015.

Alberto Fernández served as chief of staff for former President Nestor Kirchner, Cristina Fernandez’s late husband, and continued in his post for a few months during her first administration. He is considered a moderate within the broad Peronist political flank.

(Reporting by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Alison Williams and Tom Brown)

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Presidential security squads (Paspampres) take part in a drill, ahead of the announcement of the presidential election results after the last month election, in Jakarta
Presidential security squads (Paspampres) take part in a drill, ahead of the announcement of the presidential election results after the last month election, in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 14, 2019 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Hafidz Mubarak A/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT.

May 18, 2019

JAKARTA (Reuters) – The U.S. embassy in Jakarta has issued a security alert ahead of election results due on Wednesday, as Indonesian authorities have arrested nearly 30 suspected militants, including some who police say are able to detonate bombs using Wi-Fi networks.

The embassy advised U.S. citizens to avoid areas where large demonstrations may occur in Jakarta, and in other cities including Surabaya in East Java and Medan in North Sumatra, in a statement that was dated on Friday, May 17.

Indonesian authorities have said they are heightening security ahead of May 22, when the official result of last month’s presidential election will be announced.

Indonesian National Police spokesman, Muhammad Iqbal, told reporters in a briefing on Friday that police this month have arrested 29 suspects linked to Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) – the largest Islamic State-linked group in the country – and confiscated at least five homemade bombs in various locations across Java and North Sulawesi.

Some of the suspects have had paramilitary training and went to Syria as foreign fighters, Iqbal said.

Indonesian police also revealed that some of the suspects have learned how to use Wi-Fi to detonate explosive devices, but it was not immediately clear how advanced their plans were.

Detonating bombs using a Wi-Fi network is considered a new technique, Dedi Prasetyo, another National Police spokesman, told Reuters on Tuesday, and gets around using phone signals, which can be jammed during rallies involving large crowds.

“If there is (cell phone) jammer, then phones are not operable but the Wi-Fi signal will not be disturb, especially when using signal amplifier,” Prasetyo said.

The police spokesmen did not answer or return phone calls on Saturday to get more information.

The police arrested EY, a local leader of JAD in Bekasi, near the capital Jakarta, on May 8 in the capital for plotting attacks during next week’s announcement of the presidential election. The police identified the suspect only by his initials.

JAD does not have an official spokesman, and it is not known if any of the suspects have retained legal representation.

“For this group, democracy is an ideology that they do not agree with,” Iqbal said on Friday, adding that the National Police advise people not to make unnecessary trips on the day the results are announced.

“This would be dangerous because they want to attack anyone, including officers, with bombs,” he said.

The arrests are part of the authority’s efforts to tighten security ahead of an announcement by the General Election Commission (KPU) on May 22, when nearly 32,000 police and military personnel will be on standby in Jakarta.

The announcement is expected to confirm unofficial counts by private pollsters that showed incumbent President Joko Widodo as having won the race, a result which has been publicly disputed by his contender, ex-general Prabowo Subianto.

Prabowo’s supporters have pledged to protest peacefully if the official result confirms Widodo’s victory, and large groups of people could be out in the streets after the announcement.

(Reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa and Tabita Diela; Additional reporting and writing by Fransiska Nangoy; Editing by Tom Hogue)

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FILE PHOTO: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing
FILE PHOTO: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (C) meets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (not pictured) at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/Pool/File Photo

May 18, 2019

(Reuters) – Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Saturday he did not believe a war would break out in the region as Tehran did not want a conflict and no country had the “illusion it could confront Iran”, the state news agency IRNA reported.

Tensions have escalated in recent days, with growing concerns about a potential U.S.-Iran conflict. Earlier this week the United States pulled some diplomatic staff from its embassy in Baghdad following weekend attacks on four oil tankers in the Gulf.

“There will be no war because neither we want a war, nor has anyone the idea or illusion that it can confront Iran in the region,” Zarif told IRNA before ending his visit to Beijing.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Alison Williams)

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