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Pence to Baltic Allies: ‘We Stand With You’

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is in Estonia for talks on military support with the three Baltic members of NATO, to assure them the United States supports its allies who are concerned about Russian expansionism.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all have asked for tangible demonstrations of U.S. military support. Concerns about Russian expansionism have increased sharply in the Baltic region with Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Pence was upbeat on his arrival in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, on Sunday: “President (Donald) Trump sent me to Eastern Europe with a very simple message, and that is that America first doesn’t mean America alone.”

Pence will meet with all three Baltic presidents on Monday, then travel on to Georgia, where troops from the U.S. and other NATO partners began military exercises Sunday, and later to Montenegro, NATO’s newest member.

“Our message to the Baltic States, my message when we visit Georgia and Montenegro will be the same,” Pence said in Tallinn. “To our allies here in Eastern Europe: We are with you, we stand with you on behalf of freedom and it’s a great honor for me to be here.”

The NATO military exercise that began Sunday at Georgia’s Vaziani military base, Tbilisi, marks the first time that U.S. and German heavy military machinery was deployed in the former Soviet republic, which borders Russia.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili attended the opening ceremony at the exercise, dubbed Noble Partner 2017. A total of 2,800 soldiers from five NATO members — the U.S., Britain, Germany, Turkey and Slovenia — joined troops from NATO partner countries Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia.

Pence said the U.S. is making it very clear “that Russia’s destabilizing activities, its support for rogue regimes, its activities in Ukraine are unacceptable.”

 

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Thousands Rally in Istanbul Against Israel’s Al-Aqsa Mosque Measures

Thousands of people rallied in Turkey’s largest city on Sunday against security measures Israel has imposed at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, shortly after Israel removed other measures that led to two weeks of violent Palestinian protests.

The rally in Istanbul, called “The Big Jerusalem Meeting” and organized by Turkey’s Saadet Party, drew some five thousand people to the Yenikapi parade ground on the southern edge of Istanbul.

Protesters were brought in by buses and ferries from across the city, waved Turkish and Palestinian flags, and held up posters in front of a giant stage where the chairman of the Saadet party and representatives from NGOs addressed the crowd.

“The Al-Aqsa mosque is our honor,” read a poster.

“You should know that not only Gaza, but Tel Aviv also has their eyes on this parade ground. Netanyahu does as well, and he is scared”, said Saadet Party Chairman Temel Karamollaoglu, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Turkey has opposed the security measures installed at the entry points of the mosque compound, with President Tayyip Erdogan warning Israel that it would suffer most from the dispute.

Erdogan accused Israel of inflicting damage on Jerusalem’s “Islamic character”, in comments that Israel’s foreign ministry called “absurd”.

The dispute over security at the mosque compound – where Israel installed metal detectors at entry points after two police guards were shot dead this month – has touched off the bloodiest clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in years.

On Friday however, the main prayer session at the Al-Aqsa mosque ended relatively calmly after Israel removed the tougher security measures, though it barred entrance to men under age 50.

Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the Old City and the holy compound, in the 1967 Middle East war. It annexed the area in a move that has never been recognized internationally.

Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine, sits in the heart of the Old City. It is also the holiest place in Judaism – the venue of two ancient temples, the last destroyed by the Romans. Jews pray under heavy security at the Western Wall at the foot of the elevated plaza.

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Egypt Officials Say Resort Knife Attacker Tasked by IS

Security officials said on Sunday that the Egyptian man who stabbed to death three tourists and wounded three others earlier this month in the Red Sea resort of Hurghada was tasked by the Islamic State group to carry out an attack against foreigners.

The officials said that investigations revealed 29-year old Abdel-Rahman Shaaban had communicated with two IS leaders on social media after they recruited him online.

One of them gave Shaaban daily lessons for a month after which he got in touch with the other, who asked him carry out an attack against tourists in either the resort city of Sharm al-Sheikh or Hurghada, to prove his allegiance to the group, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

Shaaban rode a bus from the Nile Delta province of Kafr el-Sheikh to Hurghada on July 14 and headed to a beach hotel where he killed two German women and wounded two Armenians, a Ukrainian and a Czech woman, using a knife that he bought earlier from a store, the officials added. Shaaban was arrested shortly after he was chased by hotel workers and security guards who handed him over to the police.

The Czech woman, who was hospitalized with back and leg injuries after the attack, died last week.

Shaaban is a resident of Kafr el-Sheikh where he attended the business school of the local branch of Al-Azhar University – the world’s foremost seat of learning of Sunni Islam and the target of mounting criticism in recent months over its alleged radical teachings and doctrinal rigidity.

The resort attack took place just hours after five policemen were killed in a shooting near some of Egypt’s most famous pyramids in the greater Cairo area. The Interior Ministry said last week that its forces killed four suspects and arrested two others who were behind the killing of the policemen.

Egypt’s government has been struggling to contain an insurgency by Islamic militants led by an Islamic State affiliate that is centered in the northern region of the Sinai peninsula, though attacks on the mainland have recently increased.

The extremist group has been mainly targeting security personnel and Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

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Gunman Kills 1, Injures 3 in German Nightclub; Terrorism Ruled Out

A gunman who killed one person and injured three others in a nightclub in southern Germany on Sunday was an Iraqi citizen who had lived in the country for a long time and was not an asylum seeker, police said, ruling out terrorism as a motive.

Konstanz police spokesman Fritz Bezikofer told the n-tv broadcaster that after an initial investigation into the events surrounding the shooting at the nightclub in Konstanz on the border with Switzerland investigators ruled out terrorism.

“The motives of the man who acted alone are unclear,” he said. “We are still investigating but the circumstances surrounding the events at the disco in the evening before the shooting are a bit clearer and this led us to rule out a terrorism background.”

The 34-year-old man was fatally wounded in a gunfight with police officers outside the music venue after they rushed to the scene shortly after the incident began around 0230 GMT. He died later in hospital. One police officer was also injured in the exchange of fire.

On Friday, a failed asylum seeker killed one person and injured six others in the northern city of Hamburg. Officials said he was an Islamist known to security forces and he was psychologically unstable.

 

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At Least 20,000 Flee Concert as Stage Burns

A spectacular fire at a music festival in Spain has forced the evacuation of more than 20,000 concertgoers in Barcelona, the regional government says.

 

Images show towering flames consuming a large outdoor stage Saturday night at the Tomorrowland electronic music festival at Barcelona’s Parc de Can Zam.

 

Barcelona firefighters say there were no serious injuries during the concert evacuation. The event’s private security told authorities they treated 20 people for minor injuries or anxiety during the evacuation.

 

Firefighters are investigating the cause of the fire. The Tomorrowland website published a statement saying the “stage caught fire due to a technical malfunction.”

 

The festival in Barcelona was one of several offshoot events of a main Tomorrowland festival in Belgium. Organizers say the Barcelona event has been canceled following the fire.

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Seven Turkish Journalists Released From Prison

Seven Turkish journalists were freed Saturday after spending nine months in prison, but they expressed sorrow that four of their colleagues were still being detained on charges of having aided terror groups.

The staff members from Cumhuriyet, a Turkish opposition newspaper, were released from Silivri jail on the outskirts of Istanbul. They must still stand trial, with the next hearing scheduled for September 11. If convicted, they face terms of up to 43 years in prison.

The journalists are charged with using their news coverage to support three groups Turkey considers terrorist organizations: the Kurkistan Workers’ Party, or PKK; the leftist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party; and the followers of a U.S.-based spiritual leader, Fethullah Gulen, who is accused of backing last year’s coup attempt.

“To be honest, I thought I would be very happy the moment I was released,” said cartoonist Musa Kart in a statement. “But I cannot say that I am very happy today. Unfortunately, four of our friends are still incarcerated in Silivri Prison. I do not think that the image of journalists in prison is one that becomes this country.”

An Istanbul court ruled Friday that the seven journalists should be freed, but it kept the most prominent of the Cumhuriyet journalists behind bars: commentator Kadri Gursel, investigative journalist Ahmet Sik, editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu and chief executive Akin Atalay.

Sik, who was jailed in 2011-12 over a book he’d authored, was jailed again in December over the content of his Twitter feed. Prosecutors said they planned to charge him additionally for a statement in court Wednesday that was fiercely critical of Turkey’s ruling party.

Indictment called ‘trash’

In what was expected to be a defense statement, Sik lashed out with a tirade about press freedom. He called the indictment against him and his colleagues “trash” and referred to the judiciary as a “lynch mob.” He said the purpose of the charges against him and his colleagues was to scare and silence people who would speak out against the government.

Following last year’s coup attempt, Turkey instituted a crackdown on journalists that resulted in the closure of more than 100 media outlets.

The independent watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists, which tracks press freedom issues, says Turkey jails more journalists than any other country, due to broadly worded laws on supporting terrorism and “insulting Turkishness.” As of December 2016, at least 81 journalists were being held in Turkish jails, all of them facing charges that they were working against the state, CPJ said.

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Putin Pardons 2 Women Given Prison Terms for Text Messages

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday pardoned two women who were sentenced to prison terms for sending text messages to Georgian acquaintances about the movement of Russian military equipment on the eve of a war in 2008.

Two orders published by the Kremlin said Annik Kesyan and Marina Dzhandzhgava would not have to complete the rest of their sentences. It cited humanitarian principles for the decision.

Kesyan and Dzhandzhgava were found guilty of treason for sending text messages about the movement of Russian military hardware near the border with Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia not long before a war broke out in 2008.

Kesyan was sentenced to eight years in prison, while Dzhandzhgava was given a prison term of 12 years, according to Team 29, an association of lawyers based in St. Petersburg.

Putin in March pardoned a third woman, Oksana Sevastidi, who was also convicted of treason for sending a text message to a Georgian acquaintance about a train carrying Russian military equipment.

Rights groups had criticized the sentences given to the women.

Team 29 said in an article on its website that in April 2008 Kesyan had sent a text message to a friend saying “Yes, they are moving”, in response to a question about whether Russian tanks were moving in Sochi.

Dzhandzhgava was accused of treason for sending a text message to a Georgian acquaintance about the movement of a train carrying Russian troops, Team 29 said.

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EU Launches Legal Action Over Poland’s Court Reforms

The European Union has launched an infringement procedure against Poland over reforms the country made to its judiciary, which the EU fears will affect the impartiality of Poland’s courts.

EU commissioners decided to start the legal action Wednesday, prior to the publication of the new Polish law, with the main concern that the justice minister now can extend the mandates of judges, and dismiss and appoint court presidents.

“The new rules allow the minister of justice to exert influence on individual ordinary judges through, in particular, the vague criteria for the prolongation of their mandates thereby undermining the principle of irremovability of judges,” the European Commission said in a statement on Saturday.

Also of concern to commissioners is that female judges are required to retire five years earlier than their male counterparts.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party wants to push forward with the court reforms because it says the courts are too slow and bogged down with communist-era thinking.

According to the EU statement, the Polish ruling party has a month to respond to the notice, which informed the country it is infringing on EU laws.

The Polish government has called the court reforms an internal matter. Poland’s deputy foreign minister for European affairs, Konrad Szymanski, told the PAP news agency that the EU decision was “unfounded,” and he said the new law met legal requirements.

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Spain Evacuates 300 as Forest Fire Spreads

Regional government authorities in southeastern Spain say a wildfire has forced the evacuation of 300 people and burned 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) of pine forest.

 

Francisco Martinez, the regional head of agriculture, environment and rural development for Castilla-La Mancha, says residents from 10 small towns and visitors at a campsite have been relocated.

 

More than 150 firefighters supported by air units were fighting the fire Saturday. The blaze started Friday and spread into the National Park of Los Calares del Rio Mundo.

 

Spain and neighboring Portugal are prone to forest fires during the typically dry and hot summer months.

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Spanish Court Rejects Extradition of Lawyer Wanted in Brazilian Graft Probe

Spain’s high court has rejected an extradition request from Brazil for a lawyer accused of involvement in corruption involving oil company Petrobras.

Brazilian prosecutors have accused Rodrigo Tacla Duran of helping to launder money for homebuilders in a scheme between building firms and executives at Brazil’s Petrobas, a police statement in November said.

The case against Duran, a dual Brazilian-Spanish citizen, will be processed in Spain, the high court said in a statement.

Duran is being investigated for belonging to an organized crime network, bribery and money laundering, the court added.

The office of Brazil’s general prosecutor said in a statement it would evaluate whether to send the case to Spanish authorities in the hope they would prosecute Duran. They did not say when a decision would be made.

It was not immediately possible to contact Duran’s lawyers.

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Turkish Court Remands 4 Opposition Newspaper Staff in Custody, Releases 7

A Turkish court ruled on Friday that four prominent members of an opposition newspaper must remain in detention but freed seven others for the duration of the trial, in a case seen by critics of President Tayyip Erdogan as an attack on free speech.

Since the first hearing in the case on Monday, hundreds of people have protested outside the central Istanbul court against the prosecution of 17 writers, executives and lawyers of the secularist Cumhuriyet newspaper.

The court remanded in custody the chairman of Cumhuriyet’s executive committee Akin Atalay, its chief editor Murat Sabuncu, and reporters Kadri Gursel and Ahmet Sik until the next hearing on Sept. 11, citing the gravity of the charges they face.

‘Judicial probation’

Chief judge Abdurrahman Orkun Dag freed seven others until the next hearing on “judicial probation” — meaning they cannot leave the country and must report regularly to a police station.

Turkish prosecutors are seeking up to 43 years in jail for the newspaper staff, who stand accused of targeting Erdogan through “asymmetric war methods.”

The 324-page indictment alleges Cumhuriyet was effectively taken over by the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is blamed for a failed coup last July, and used to “veil the actions of terrorist groups.”

Cumhuriyet says the charges are “imaginary accusations and slander.”

‘They’re telling us to kneel’

Gursel, along with Sabuncu and other senior staff, has been in pre-trial detention for more than 260 days.

“They’re telling us to kneel. Members of this rotten entity, with its gunmen and tyrants who lack honour, should know very well that until today I’ve only kneeled before my mother and father, and will never ever kneel before anybody else,” Sik told the crowded courtroom.

The court ordered an investigation into Sik, who once wrote a book critical of Gulen’s movement, for comments he made during his defense.

Social media posts comprised the bulk of evidence in the indictment, along with allegations that staff had been in contact with users of Bylock, an encrypted messaging app the government says was used by Gulen’s followers.

Following Friday’s ruling, lawyers marched outside the courthouse, chanting “right, law, justice,” as armored police vehicles and officers stood with tear gas and automatic weapons.

Former chief editor Can Dundar, who is living in Germany, is being tried in absentia, and the court said an arrest warrant for him remained in force.

Rights groups and Turkey’s Western allies have complained of deteriorating human rights under Erdogan. In the crackdown since last July’s failed coup, 50,000 people have been jailed pending trial and some 150,000 detained or dismissed from their jobs.

Observers call for release of 17 defendants

In a joint statement, several international observers, including Reporters without Borders, called for the release of all 17 defendants, saying the case amounted to a “politically motivated effort to criminalize journalism.”

During Turkey’s crackdown, some 150 media outlets have been shut and around 160 journalists jailed, the Turkish Journalists’ Association says.

Authorities say the crackdown is justified by the gravity of the coup attempt, in which rogue soldiers tried to overthrow the government, killing 250 people, mostly civilians.

 

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Moldova President Sees Move Towards Russia-led Trade Union in 2017

Moldova’s Moscow-backed President Igor Dodon said on Friday he hoped the ex-Soviet nation would be granted observer status to a Russia-led customs union before the end of 2017, despite a government push for closer integration with the European Union.

Since his inauguration in 2016, Dodon has been at loggerheads with the pro-Western government over his desire for Moldova to abandon a trade agreement with the European Union and move further into Russia’s orbit.

Dodon told Reuters in an interview it was unlikely Moldova could join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a trade bloc that includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, in the next three to four years.

“The roadmap to join the EEU is very complicated,” he said. “I hope that by the end of 2017 we will get observer status.” This week, the deep divide between pro- and anti-Russian factions in Moldova is in particular focus due to the 25th anniversary of Russia’s deployment of troops in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transdniestria.

“In Moldova it has always been this way. And unfortunately it won’t be possible to get over this [the differences] in the immediate years ahead,” Dodon said.

After the interview, Moldovan authorities stopped a plane from landing in Chisinau airport that was transporting Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to anniversary celebrations in Transdniestria.

Dodon, who plans to attend the ceremony on Saturday in defiance of the Moldovan government’s opposition to the event, said the authorities’ actions would affect Moldova’s future relations with Moscow.

“We will have partner-like, friendly and strategic relations with Russia, but this bitter after-taste will remain of course,” he said.

Referendum blocked

Dodon has sought to increase his presidential powers since a $1 billion corruption scandal that sapped the popularity of pro-EU leaders helped propel him to electoral victory last November.

However, he suffered a setback on Thursday when a court rejected his plan to hold a referendum in September that might have granted him the authority to dissolve parliament and call a snap election.

Dodon sees the ruling as evidence of governmental pressure. “I think they will block any decision and attempt by the president to carry out reforms, but the people see this, the people understand,” he said. “Ahead is a year of difficult struggle between on the one hand the president, and on the other hand the parliament and the government.”

Dodon wants parliamentary elections in 2018 that he believes would be won by the opposition, pro-Russian Socialist party, which he led before becoming president.

Moldova has been governed by pro-Western leaders since 2009 and inked the EU Association Agreement with the EU in 2014. Russia retaliated by halting imports of Moldovan farm produce, depriving Europe’s poorest country of a key market for its wine, fruit and vegetables.

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Hitler Exhibition in Berlin Bunker Asks: How Could It Happen?

More than 70 years after Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker in the final days of World War II, an exhibition in the capital examines how he became a Nazi and what turned ordinary Germans into murderers during the Third Reich.

For decades it was taboo in Germany to focus on Hitler, although that has begun to change with films such as 2004’s Downfall, chronicling the dictator’s last days, and an exhibition about him in 2010.

Hitler — How Could It Happen? is set in a bunker in Berlin that was used by civilians during World War II bombing raids — close to the bunker where Hitler lived while Berlin was being bombed, which is not accessible to the public.

The exhibition examines Hitler’s life from his childhood in Austria and time as a painter to his experience as a soldier during World War I and his subsequent rise to power. Other exhibits focus on concentration camps, pogroms and the Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews.

It ends with a controversial reconstruction of the bunker room where Hitler killed himself on April 30, 1945, complete with grandfather clock, floral sofa and an oxygen tank. The exhibit is behind glass and is monitored by camera, with visitors forbidden to take photographs.

‘Where the crimes ended’

Exhibition curator Wieland Giebel, 67, said the reconstruction had been likened to “Hitler Disney,” but he defended the exhibition, saying it focused on the crimes carried out by Hitler’s regime.

“This room is where the crimes ended, where everything ended,” he said, “so that’s why we’re showing it.”

He said he had been asking how World War II and the Holocaust came about ever since playing in the rubble of postwar Germany as a child. The exhibition, he said, attempts to answer that question.

“After World War I a lot of Germans felt humiliated due to the Versailles Treaty,” Giebel said, referring to the accord signed in 1919 that forced defeated Germany to make massive reparation payments.

“At the same time there was anti-Semitism in Europe and not just in Germany … and Hitler built on this anti-Semitism and what people called the ‘shameful peace of Versailles’ and used those two issues to mobilize people,” he said.

Giebel, who has a personal interest in the topic because one of his grandfathers was part of a firing squad while the other hid a Jew, said he also wanted the exhibition to show how quickly a democracy could be abolished and make clear that undemocratic movements needed to be nipped in the bud.

He said the exhibition showed some Germans became Nazis as they stood to gain personally when the property of Jews was expropriated, while others were attracted to the Nazis because they were unhappy about the Versailles Treaty and “followed Hitler because he promised to make Germany great again.”

The exhibition, which features photographs, Hitler’s drawings, films portraying his marriage to longtime companion Eva Braun, and a model of Hitler’s bunker, has attracted around 20,000 visitors since opening two months ago.

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Prince William Quits Job as Air Ambulance Pilot

Britain’s Prince William is hanging up his flight suit for the last time.

The heir to the British throne worked the night shift Thursday at the East Anglian Air Ambulance, where he has been flying medical crews to emergencies for about two years.

The 35-year-old Duke of Cambridge is giving up his job to become a full-time royal.

“As I hang up my flight suit, I am proud to have served with such an incredible team of people, who save lives across the region every day,” he wrote in an exclusive story in the Eastern Daily Press, a newspaper that serves the community near the ambulance service’s base at southern England’s Cambridge airport.

His team assisted people in life-threatening moments such as a heart attack or a car crash. William said he was glad he could contribute and be part of a team that changed people’s lives.

“I have been invited into people’s homes to share moments of extreme emotion, from relief that we have given someone a fighting chance, to profound grief,” he said.

The job change also has to do with location. William and his wife, the former Kate Middleton, will be spending less time in their Norfolk residence and be carrying out more duties in London, where their 4-year-old son, Prince George, is due to start school.

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Italy Plans Naval Patrols Off Libya to Stop Migrants

Italy is planning to send warships to help Libya’s coast guard combat smugglers who have transported thousands of migrants to Italian shores.

Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said Thursday that the move could be a “turning point” in the migrant crisis that has gripped Europe for months.

This year alone, 100,000 migrants from Africa, South Asia and the Middle East have arrived in Italy, a 7 percent rise from the same period last year. More than 2,000 others have died attempting the treacherous voyage.

With the foundering of a European Union plan to redistribute thousands of migrants rescued at sea and brought to Italy, Gentiloni said his center-left government would brief lawmakers next week about Libya’s request for Italian navy vessels to patrol its Mediterranean shores.

Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, who leads a U.N.-backed unity government based in Tripoli, met in Rome with the Italian leader on Wednesday and asked for the assistance. Gentiloni said his government was working out the details of a naval mission.

Military ships from European nations, vessels organized by aid organizations and commercial cargo ships frequently pick up men, women and children making the perilous Mediterranean Sea crossing. Lately, most of those rescued at sea have been economic migrants from African nations unlikely to win asylum.

The migrant crisis has stoked tensions between Italy and the rest of the European Union, which has been reluctant to share the burden of the migrants flowing into Italy, even though most of the migrants wish to resettle in other European nations.

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2 Ministers Leave Swedish Cabinet in Wake of Security Breach

In a bid to avert a government crisis, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven on Thursday reshuffled his minority Cabinet, replacing two members, after opposition parties demanded the ouster of three government ministers over one of the largest security breaches in the country’s history.

Lofven says the heads of the interior and infrastructure ministries had requested to leave but that Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist will remain in the Cabinet because the no-confidence proposal against him was unfounded.

 

Addressing a news conference, Lofven described the opposition motion to file a no-confidence vote against the three government ministers as “hasty and ill-planned,” and said he did not want to continue the political crisis in Sweden.

 

“Now it’s up to the Parliament,” Lofven said.

 

The four right-wing opposition parties announced their plan on Wednesday but did not file the no-confidence motion. It was unclear if they would revise the planned motion to include only Hultqvist.

 

The crisis came to a head when the populist, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats said they would back the opposition in a no-confidence vote, giving them the required majority to oust the ministers.

 

The 2015 breach allowed IT workers abroad to access confidential information in Sweden’s government and police database when the Transport Agency outsourced some of its services to IBM in the Czech Republic.

 

The three government ministers are blamed for incompetence and delaying the release of information. Lofven, who described the incident as a disaster that put Sweden and Swedes in harm’s way, said he first heard about it in January — some 18 months after the leak occurred.

 

Officials say they do not know if the breach caused any tangible damage. The head of the Transport Agency was fired in January for negligence and waiving security clearance requirements for some foreign IT workers, Swedish reports said.

 

 

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After the Tourists Leave, Beefeaters Lift a Quiet Pint

After the hordes of tourists with their cameras and selfie sticks depart from the Tower of London every evening, a private drinking hole for Beefeaters comes to life within the walls of the royal fortress.

Officially called Yeoman Warders and instantly recognizable with their distinctive hats and uniforms, the 37 Beefeaters live with their families inside the fortified complex which houses the Crown Jewels, glittering symbol of the British monarchy.

While living in a castle on the bank of the Thames has a unique cachet, Beefeaters share their home with close to 3 million visitors a year and spend much of their time conducting tours, answering questions and posing for photographs.

​Yeoman Warders’​ Club

After the daily hubbub fades, they can change out of their uniforms and head for a quiet drink at the Yeoman Warders’ Club, their own private bar in a discreet corner of the sprawling fortress — a much-needed respite.

“There are certainly two sides to life here at the Tower,” club chairman John Donald, who has been a Beefeater for 3½ years, said.

“When we are here looking after the general public, we’re very much in the public domain, very, very busy answering lots of questions. And then come 6 o’clock it becomes our own little village again, where as a community we can relax and enjoy ourselves.”

​Bespoke brews

That relaxation could take the form of a pint of Beefeater Bitter, a beer made by Marston’s Brewery in Staffordshire, central England, and available only in the Yeoman Warders’ Club.

The brewery also produces a craft lager called Yeoman 1485 also only available in the private bar. Both drinks are “very lovely,” Donald said.

Colorful traditions

In keeping with the history of the Tower of London, which has served many purposes over the centuries from royal residence to the prison where two of King Henry VIII’s wives were beheaded, the club is decorated with unusual objects.

Among them is a plaque that reads “SITE OF SCAFFOLD,” kept as a souvenir after it was removed from the site where executions took place. For good measure, the Yeoman Gaoler’s ax hangs just above it, a ghoulish reminder of the gruesome past.

Other memorabilia includes a framed document bearing the signature of Rudolf Hess. The Nazi politician was briefly imprisoned at the Tower in 1941 after being caught in Scotland during a failed secret peace mission. He was one of the last prominent people to be held prisoner there.

On a more cheerful note, the bar also boasts glass cases displaying objects linked to the Beefeaters’ colorful traditions.

There are silver tankards used by new Beefeaters to have a drink of port after their formal swearing-in ceremonies while their colleagues proffer the toast: “May you never die a Yeoman Warder.”

That dates back to a time when if they retired from the corps, Beefeaters could sell the job to someone else, but if they died while in office the Constable of the Tower would pocket the money instead. That system no longer exists.

State dress uniforms

Another glass case displays one of the Beefeaters’ scarlet state dress uniforms, known to gin lovers around the world from the labels on bottles of Beefeater Gin, but now worn only on special occasions such as Queen Elizabeth’s birthday.

In their day-to-day duties, Beefeaters now wear a dark blue and red “undress” uniform, while at the private club they can relax in everyday clothes.

Donald appeared content for the elaborate state dress uniform, with its heavy tunic, knee-breeches and tight white neck ruff, to be in a glass case.

“The state dress, we only wear for a couple of days a year and only for a couple of hours at a time, so we kind of grin and bear it,” he said.

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Is Washington Sending a Signal of Renewed Commitment to the Western Balkans?

As Vice President Mike Pence prepares to visit Montenegro and hold talks with Western Balkan leaders in August, a senior State Department official says U.S. engagement in the region remains strong. This is being welcomed by those countries leaders amid concerns that deep cuts in the proposed budget for the State Department could diminish Washington’s role in these fragile democracies exposed to Russian interference. VOA’s Keida Kostreci reports.

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EU Warns US it May Respond Swiftly to Counter New Sanctions on Russia

The European Union warned on Wednesday that it was ready to act within days to counter proposed new U.S. sanctions on Russia, saying they would harm the bloc’s energy security.

Sanctions legislation overwhelmingly approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday has angered EU officials: they see it as breaking transatlantic unity in the West’s response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Brussels also fears the new sanctions will harm European firms with connections to Russia, and oil and gas projects on which the EU is dependent.

“The U.S. bill could have unintended unilateral effects that impact the EU’s energy security interests,” EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker said in a statement issued after a meeting at which European commissioners were united in their views, according to a senior EU official.

“If our concerns are not taken into account sufficiently, we stand ready to act appropriately within a matter of days. ‘America First’ cannot mean that Europe’s interests come last,” he said, mentioning President Donald Trump’s guiding slogan.

A EU document prepared for the commissioners, seen by Reuters, laid out the EU’s plans to seek “demonstrable reassurances” that the White House would not use the bill to target EU interests.

The bloc, it says, will also prepare to use an EU regulation allowing it to defend companies against the application of extraterritorial measures by the United States.

If diplomacy fails, Brussels plans to file a complaint at the World Trade Organization. “In addition, the preparation of a substantive response that would deter the U.S. from taking measures against EU companies could be considered,” it says.

However, most measures taken by Brussels would require approval from all 28 EU member governments, which could expose potential differences in individual nations’ relations with Moscow and Washington.

Despite changes to the U.S. bill that took into account some EU concerns, Brussels said the legislation could still hinder upkeep of the gas pipeline network in Russia that feeds into Ukraine and supplies over a quarter of EU needs. The EU says it could also hamper projects crucial to its energy diversification goals, such as the Baltic Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project.

The new sanctions target the disputed Nord Stream 2 project for a new pipeline running from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea. But the EU note says: “the impact would in reality be much wider.”

A list prepared by the EU executive, seen by Reuters, shows eight projects including those involving oil majors Anglo-Dutch Shell, BP and Italy’s Eni that risk falling foul of the U.S. measures.

Voicing frustration at the fraying in the joint Western approach to Moscow, Juncker said “close coordination among allies” was key to ensuring that curbs on business with the Russian energy, defense and financial sectors, imposed in July 2014, are effective.

EU sources said Juncker told Commissioners the risk to EU interests was collateral damage of a U.S. domestic fight between Trump and U.S. lawmakers.

It was unclear how quickly the U.S. bill would reach the White House for Trump to sign into law or veto. The bill amounts to a rebuke of Trump by requiring him to obtain lawmakers’ permission before easing any sanctions on Moscow.

Rejecting the legislation — which would potentially stymie his wish for improved relations with Moscow — would carry a risk that his veto could be overridden by lawmakers.

Industry concerns

European energy industry sources voiced alarm at the potentially wide-ranging damage of the new U.S. measures.

“This is pretty tough,” one industry source told Reuters.

“We are working with EU officials to see what safeguards can be anticipated to protect our investment and give us certainty.”

Five Western firms are partnered with Russia’s Gazprom in Nord Stream 2: German’s Wintershall and Uniper, Anglo-Dutch Royal Dutch Shell, Austria’s OMV and France’s Engie.

But EU officials warn the U.S. measures would also hit plans for the LNG plant on the Gulf of Finland in which Shell is partnering with Gazprom.

The EU document shows they might jeopardize Eni’s 50 percent stake in the Blue Stream pipeline from Russia to Turkey as well as the CPC pipeline, carrying Kazakh oil to the Black Sea, involving European groups BG Overseas Holdings, Shell and Eni.

It further warns that BP would be forced to halt some activities with Russian energy major Rosneft.

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Objects From Auschwitz Death Camp to Tour Europe, America

Officials at the museum of the Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz say some exhibits are going on a tour of Europe and North America to bring its tragic truth about the Holocaust to a wider audience.

The museum says Wednesday this will be its first-ever traveling exhibition and will include some 600 items. Most of them will come from the museum, but also from other collections, like Israel’s Yad Vashem.

 

The “Not long ago: Not far away” exhibit will include personal items of the victims and an original barrack from the Auschwitz-Monowitz part of the camp, a German freight wagon the Nazis used to bring inmates in.

 

Some 1.1 million people, mostly Europe’s Jews, were killed in the camp that Nazi Germans operated in occupied Poland during World War II.

 

 

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Luxury Firms’ Online Battle Boosted by EU Court Adviser’s Coty Stance

A decade-long battle by luxury brands to defend their image neared an end on Wednesday when an adviser to Europe’s top court said Coty can block a German retailer from selling its beauty products via online marketplaces.

“A supplier of luxury goods may prohibit its authorized retailers from selling its products on third-party platforms such as Amazon or eBay,” Advocate General Nils Wahl at the European Union’s Court of Justice said in a non-binding opinion.

Wahl’s view relates to a dispute between the German business of Coty, whose brands include Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein and Chloe, and German retailer Parfumerie Akzente, which sells Coty’s goods on sites including Amazon against its wishes.

Luxury brands say they should have the right to choose who sells their products to protect their image and exclusivity.

Judges at Europe’s highest court, who follow their advisers’ opinions in four out of five cases, will rule on the case “Coty Germany GmbH v Parfumerie Akzente GmbH” in the coming months.

Coty did not respond to a request for comment.

Denis Waelbroeck, a lawyer at Ashurst, said there is a rationale to the luxury brands’ arguments against so-called free riders, companies who may benefit from others’ marketing efforts without paying the costs.

“I don’t think free riding deserves a particular reward. Competition rules do not allow free riding on heavy investments made by luxury goods companies,” he said.

EU antitrust regulators crafted rules in 2010 which allow brand owners with less than a 30 percent market share to block online retailers without a bricks-and-mortar shop from distributing their products.

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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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Italy Seeks ‘Code of Conduct’ for Charity Ships as Death Toll Rises

The Italian government on Tuesday threatened to shut down humanitarian groups that operate migrant rescue ships in the Mediterranean out of the country’s ports if they do not sign a “code of conduct.”

Italy fears that the ships are making it too easy for smugglers to operate and that they act as an incentive for migrants who want to reach Europe. An Italian court has also suggested they collude with Libya-based smugglers, which the charities deny.

Italy’s coastguard coordinates all rescues off the coast of Libya, which has been shattered by years of civil war. Almost 100,000 have been brought to Italy this year, adding to the half a million brought over the three previous years.

As a high-ranking Interior Ministry official illustrated the 12-point document that charities fear will limit their capacity to save lives, one of the groups, Proactiva Open Arms, recovered 13 bodies off the Libyan coast.

Accused of working with smugglers

A photograph posted on Twitter showed the corpses strewn across the bottom of a large yellow raft that had been crammed with more than 160 migrants. More than 2,200 people have died in the Central Mediterranean this year.

“Several pregnant women and mothers among the (dead),” Proactiva’s founder Oscar Camps wrote on Twitter, adding, “and we are apparently the only ones who need a code of conduct.”

Members of the nine non-governmental groups working at sea sought changes to the document, ultimately driving Mario Morcone, chief of staff for Interior Minister Marco Minniti, to express his frustration, according to a source who attended the meeting.

“Your solidarity with Italy is hypocritical,” he quipped, according to the source.

There will be another meeting on Friday at the ministry, when the NGOs must submit the changes that they are seeking.

Since February the charities have been accused of colluding with people smugglers and attacked in the Italian media. This week a dozen far-right activists are setting out to sea to monitor their work.

The NGOs have repeatedly denied any ties to smuggling and no evidence of wrongdoing has ever been presented. They say their only objective is to save lives.

‘Urgent need of support’

“We are fully aware that Italy is in urgent need of support from European member states,” Sandra Mammamy, a Sea-Watch coordinator, told Reuters after the meeting. “But the code of conduct is a desperate attempt to blame someone else for Italy’s problem.”

Among the most controversial points is one that asks NGOs to let police on board so they can search for smugglers hidden amongst the migrants.

Another point forbids ships from transferring people to other boats, a measure apparently aimed at shutting down smaller rescue ships that normally transfer migrants to larger vessels to be brought to Italy.

Violation of maritime law

Fulvio Vassallo, a professor of international law at the University of Palermo, said in an interview on Radio Radicale that many points in the “code of conduct” would be in violation of international maritime law.

“The code of conduct isn’t meant to save more lives but to limit the number of people rescued by the NGOs,” Vassallo Paleologo said. “It’s being sold to the public as something that will lower departures from Libya, which it will not do. Unfortunately, it could increase the number of victims.”

 

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EU to Turkey: Respect for Rights ‘Imperative’ to Join Bloc

The European Union on Tuesday delivered its most public criticism yet of Turkey’s security crackdown since last year’s failed coup, saying there could be no progress on Ankara’s bid to join the bloc without an end to human rights abuses.

Speaking after a meeting with Turkey’s foreign and EU affairs ministers in Brussels, the European commissioner who oversees the membership talks said he needed to see “a reversal of the trend” towards authoritarianism.

“Human rights, the rule of law, democracy, fundamental freedoms including media freedom are all basic imperative requirements for any progress towards the European Union,” Johannes Hahn told a joint news conference with Turkey’s top diplomat Mevlut Cavusoglu, EU Affairs Minister Omer Celik and the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

Tensions on display

Despite what Mogherini described as a constructive and open meeting, the tensions over Turkey’s aspirations to join the EU were on show, as both sides sparred publicly over whether new areas of negotiation, or chapters, should be opened.

Cavusoglu also responded to Mogherini and Hahn’s criticism of the trial of prominent journalists and the arrest of 10 rights activists by telling the bloc not to be misled by “pseudo-journalists who help terrorist activities.”

“There are those journalists, soldiers, politicians who helped the coup attempts last year. They need to also face the sentences that are necessary,” Cavusoglu said.

‘Charage’

Turkey’s imprisonment, pending trial, of 50,000 people and the detention or dismissal from their jobs of some 150,000 more have brought its decade-long talks to join the EU to a halt. One EU diplomat described the accession bid as a “charade.”

While the EU has condemned the July 2016 coup attempt against President Tayyip Erdogan, the extent of the crackdown and the deterioration of human rights have alienated Brussels.

Although a deal with Turkey to prevent migrants leaving its shores for Europe is still holding, many areas of negotiation on upgrading diplomatic and economic ties with Ankara are now blocked, including talks on visa-free travel for Turks in the EU and deepening free trade links, the EU diplomat said.

“Turkey is clearly moving away from EU standards. The destruction job against human rights and rule of law continues,” the diplomat said, noting some EU countries now wanted a discussion on cutting the money that Turkey receives to help it prepare for eventual EU accession.

Turkish officials say the scale of the crackdown, which has broad popular support at home, is justified by the gravity of events on July 15, 2016, when rogue soldiers commandeered tanks, fighter jets and helicopters, bombing parliament and government buildings in their attempt to seize power.

Turkey’s message

EU officials had initially held back from public criticism of Turkey, a vital ally of the West in the war against Islamic State militants and in tackling Europe’s migrant crisis.

But Turkey’s escalating row with Germany over access to Turkey’s NATO air bases and the detention of the head of Amnesty International in Turkey have driven relations to a new low.

Mogherini met the secretary general of Amnesty, Salil Shetty, before the meeting with the Turkish officials and was photographed holding up a petition signed by almost a million people calling for the release of rights activists in Turkey.

“The European Union has to recognize that with the arrest of the Amnesty chair and director, Turkey is really signalling that they don’t really care about any kind of consequences,” Shetty told reporters.

 

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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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Prosecutor Files Request to Resume Landmark Srebrenica Trial

Serbia’s new chief war crimes prosecutor has filed a request to resume the landmark trial of eight former Bosnian Serb police officers charged with taking part in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

 

The proceedings were halted after an appeals court ruled this month that the charges were invalid because they were filed when Serbia did not have a chief war crimes prosecutor. The trial marked the first time that a Serbian court had dealt with the killings by Bosnian Serb troops of around 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, Europe’s worst single atrocity since World War II.

 

Serbia’s human rights groups had criticized the ruling, warning of state obstruction of war crimes trials in the Balkan country seeking to become a member of the European Union. The request to resume the trial was filed last week by the chief war crimes prosecutor, Snezana Stanojkovic, her office said.

 

The eight former officers were charged with participating in the killing of 1,313 people in a warehouse in Kravica, a village outside Srebrenica. They were crammed into a warehouse in the village and then killed with grenades and machine guns as they tried to escape the Serb onslaught.

 

Special police unit commander Nedeljko Milidragovic, also known as “Nedjo the Butcher,” was the defendant accused of organizing the killings. An indictment alleged that Milidragovic fired his pistol at those who still showed signs of life after the night-long rampage.

 

Serbia actively supported and armed Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-95 war that left over 100,000 people dead and forced millions from their homes.

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Poland’s President to Veto 2 Controversial Bills on Judiciary

Poland’s president says he is vetoing two of three bills recently passed by lawmakers to reform the country’s judicial system.

Andrzej Duda announced his decision on television Monday, days after mass street protests.

“I have decided to send back to parliament, which means I will veto, the law on the Supreme Court, as well as the one about the National Council of the Judiciary,” he said.

Both bills are generally seen as challenges to the independence of the judicial system and are part of a legal overhaul, planned by the ruling Law and Justice Party. 

The third bill reorganizes the functioning of local courts and Duda said he would sign it.

The bill on the Supreme Court would have put the judiciary under the political control of the ruling party, with the justice minister, who is also prosecutor general, having the power to appoint judges. Duda has rejected such power for a prosecutor general.

In making his decisions, Duda broke openly for the first time with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who is the leader of Law and Justice Party, de facto leader of the country, but does not hold a formal government post.

The president said he believed that Poland badly needs reform of the judiciary, but he did not feel that these bills would raise the sense of security and justice in the country.

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