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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