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UN Committee: Britain ‘Going Backwards’ on Rights of Disabled

The U.N. Committee on the rights of disabled people said on Thursday it had more concerns about Britain – due to funding cuts, restricted rights and an uncertain post-Brexit future — than any other country in its 10-year history.

The committee, which reviews states’ compliance with the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, published a 17-page report with recommendations about how Britain could do better.

“The UK is at the moment going backwards in accordance to the information that we have received,” committee member Stig Langvad told a news conference in Geneva.

Britain said it was disappointed by the report. It said it did not reflect the evidence it had provided to the committee, nor did it recognize progress that had been made.

The U.N. committee’s chairwoman Theresia Degener has described the situation in Britain as a “human catastrophe.”

“The austerity measures that they have taken – they are affecting half a million people, each disabled person is losing between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds per year, people are pushed into work situations without being recognized as vulnerable, and the evidence that we had in front of us was just overwhelming,” she said.

The most acute concern was the limitations on independent living.

“Persons with disabilities are in our view not able to choose where to live, with whom to live, and how to live,” Langvad said.

Britain was also not fulfilling its commitment to allow inclusive education, and there was a high incidence of bullying at schools. A growing number of disabled people were living in poverty.

Budgets for local authorities had not only been slashed, but they were no longer ear-marked for disabled people, another committee member, Damjan Tatic, said.

Langvad said people with disabilities should be involved in preparations for Britain’s Brexit talks with the European Union, to avoid losing protections that historically came from the EU.

“Persons with disabilities are afraid of the future since they do not know what is happening and since they do not feel that they are involved in the discussions on how to secure the rights of people with disabilities afterwards,” he said.

Britain’s government said it was a recognized world leader in disability rights, and almost 600,000 disabled people had moved into work in the last four years.

“We spend over 50 billion pounds a year to support disabled people and those with health conditions — more than ever before, and the second highest in the G7,” a government spokesperson said.

Debbie Abrahams, the opposition Labour party’s spokeswoman for Work and Pensions, said the “damning” report was a vindication of Labour’s criticism of the government’s policies.

“This confirms what Labour has been saying all along, that the lack of progress on all convention articles, including cruel changes to social security and the punitive sanctions regime, are causing real misery for sick and disabled people.”

A Labour government would incorporate the convention fully into British law, she said in a statement.

Reporting by Tom Miles, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Richard Balmforth

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Huge WWII Bomb to Be Defused Close to German Gold Reserves

Frankfurt’s city center, an area including police headquarters, two hospitals, transport systems and Germany’s central bank storing $70 billion in gold reserves, will be evacuated on Sunday to allow the defusing of a 1.8-metric ton World War II bomb.

A spokesman for the German Bundesbank said, however, that “the usual security arrangements” would remain in place while experts worked to disarm the bomb, which was dropped by the British air force and was uncovered during excavation of a building site.

The Bundesbank headquarters, less than 600 meters (650 yards) from the location of the bomb, stores 1,710 metric tons of gold underground, around half the country’s reserves.

“We have never defused a bomb of this size,” bomb disposal expert Rene Bennert told Reuters, adding that it had been damaged on impact when it was dropped between 1943 and 1945. Airspace for 1.5 kilometers (nearly a mile) around the bomb site will also be closed.

Frankfurt city officials said more than 60,000 residents would be evacuated for at least 12 hours. The evacuation area will also include 20 retirement homes, the city’s opera house and the diplomatic quarter.

Bomb disposal experts will use a wrench to try to unscrew the fuses attached to the bomb. If that fails, a water jet will be used to cut the fuses away, Bennert told Reuters.

The most dangerous part of the exercise will be applying the wrench, Bennert said.

Roads and transport systems, including the underground, will be closed during the work and for at least two hours after the bomb is defused, to allow patients to be transported back to hospitals without traffic.

It is not unusual for unexploded bombs from World War II air raids to be found in German cities, but rarely are they so large and in such a sensitive position.

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US Orders Russian Consulate in San Francisco to Close

U.S. officials have ordered Russia to close three diplomatic buildings in the United States, part of the ongoing quarrel between the two countries over U.S. sanctions.

The action follows Russia’s demand earlier this month that the U.S. reduce the number of personnel at its diplomatic missions in the country.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to tell him that the United States has fully implemented the decision by the Russian government to reduce the size of the U.S. mission in the country.  

In a statement, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert called the Russian decision “unwarranted and detrimental to the overall relationship between our countries.”  

Nauert continued, “In the spirit of parity invoked by the Russians, we are requiring the Russian government to close its Consulate General in San Francisco, a chancery annex in Washington, D.C. and consular annex in New York City.”

She said the closures would need to be completed by September 2.

Nauert stressed that the U.S. “has chosen to allow the Russian government to maintain some of its annexes in an effort to arrest the downward spiral in our relationship.” A senior administration official stressed that Tillerson and Lavrov both still want to improve U.S.-Russian relations, and described their phone call as professional.

Russia Today reported that Lavrov responded to the closures by “expressing regret” over the escalation of tensions.  He said that Moscow would study the new measures carefully and inform Washington of its reaction.

The diplomatic retaliations stem from U.S. sanctions of Russia over its annexation of Crimea, as well as Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Last month, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill preventing President Donald Trump from easing sanctions on Russia without congressional approval. After Trump signed the bill, Russian authorities denounced it as “trade war.”

A senior U.S. administration official told reporters the Russian Consulate General in San Francisco is the oldest Russian consulate in the United States.  She said the two annexes ordered closed in Washington and New York were primarily trade missions.  She said no Russian diplomats are being expelled – the diplomats in those three building may be reassigned  to other Russian consulates in the U.S.

The senior official said the U.S. has complied with the Russian order to reduce its presence in Russia down to 455 staff members.  The official stressed that with this new U.S. order to close three buildings, the Russian would still have more consulates and annexes in the United States than the U.S. has in Russia.

The U.S. president’s response to the tensions has also sparked controversy.  When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the U.S. diplomats were being expelled, Trump responded by saying,  “I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down the payroll.”

White House officials later told reporters the president was being sarcastic.

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Turkey Protests US Indictment Charging Erdogan’s Security

Turkey’s foreign ministry says the country protests “in the harshest way” a U.S. court decision to indict 19 people, including 15 Turkish security officials.

The statement published late Wednesday follows Tuesday’s grand jury decision in Washington to charge the defendants with attacking peaceful demonstrators during a visit by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 16.

Turkey has repeatedly told U.S. officials that security outside the ambassador’s home was negligent and didn’t ensure the safety of Erdogan’s entourage amid sympathizers of an outlawed Kurdish militant group, according to the statement.

The ministry called the indictment “biased” and “regretful,” claiming it also accused people who had never been to the U.S.

It announced Turkey would follow legal paths to fight the decision.

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New Russian Ambassador to US Calls for Resumed Military Contacts

Moscow and Washington should re-establish direct contacts between their military and foreign policy chiefs, Russia’s new ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, said Wednesday.

“The time has come to resume joint meetings of Russia’s and the United States’ foreign and defense ministers in a ‘two plus two’ format,” Antonov said in an interview published on the Kommersant business daily’s website.

Military contacts between Moscow and Washington were frozen in 2014 due to the Ukraine crisis.

Antonov also called for meetings between the heads of Russia’s Federal Security Service and Foreign Intelligence Service and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency.

A “working cooperation” between Russia’s Security Council and the U.S. National Security Council could also help fight terrorism and cyberthreats and help strategic stability, he said.

Antonov, a former deputy foreign minister, is subject to European sanctions over his role in the conflict in Ukraine.

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German and Don’t Know Who to Vote For? Ask the Vote-O-Meter

Three weeks before Germany’s election and with at least one poll suggesting nearly half of all voters don’t know what they will do, the government has unveiled an updated online tool to help them decide.

Around two dozen young people from around Germany helped launch the “Wahl-O-Mat” (roughly Vote-O-Meter) on Wednesday – a website that matches people with a party after they answer a series of policy questions.

One of the first to try was Hubertus Heil, general secretary of the Social Democrats (SPD), junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition.

“I got 100 percent,” he beamed after completing the 10-minute process.

Participants choose whether they agree, disagree or are neutral about 38 issues identified in recent months by 26 young people chosen from 500 volunteers. The issues center on key topics such as increased video surveillance, raising taxes on diesel cars, and setting limits on migration.

Merkel is widely expected to win a record-tying fourth term, with her CDU/CSU conservatives maintaining a two-digit lead over the SPD despite continuing concerns over her 2015 decision to allow in over a million migrants.

But it remains unclear which parties will be involved in the next coalition government.

A poll by the Allensbach Institute last week showed that 46 percent of voters had not made up their minds on how to vote – the highest rate since in two decades so close to an election, which is being held on September 24.

The voter tool is available online at www.wahl-o-mat.de or via apps on mobile phones. A pared-down analogue version will also tour Germany over the next three weeks for those not online.

The tool has been around before, and less official versions have been available in other countries. But Thomas Krueger, head of the Federal Agency for Civic Education, which created it, expects many millions of hits.

It was used over 13.2 million times in the last national election in 2013 and even more people are expected to participate this time, he said.

“We’ve seen that about six percent of those who were not planning to participate in the election changed their minds after using the tool,” he said.

Markus Blume, general secretary of the CSU, the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s CDU, said voter participation had been higher in recent state elections and he hoped the trend would continue for the national election.

“Germany is experiencing a re-politicization because people realize we are living in uncertain times, that a great deal is at stake in this parliamentary election, and that it’s not irrelevant who’s elected.”

Richard Hilmer, director of the Berlin think tank Policy Matters, said the tool was critical, especially for younger voters who had not been involved in politics before.

“Interest is definitely higher in this election, but so is uncertainty. It remains to see how that will affect participation. It could well be that if people remain uncertain that they simply stay home.”

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Merkel Backs EC in Dispute With Poland Over Courts

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday threw her weight behind the European Commission in its row with Warsaw over freedom of Poland’s court system.

The previously reticent Merkel, speaking in Berlin, said she took the issue “very seriously” and would talk about it with Commission President Jean-Claude Junker on Wednesday.

In July, the commission, the European Union’s executive, gave Warsaw a month to address its concerns about reforms it saw as interfering with an independent judiciary.

Warsaw’s reply signaled that the ruling nationalist and euroskeptic Law and Justice (PiS) party had no intention of backing down and even doubted the commission’s right to intervene.

While two of the new Polish laws questioned by the commission have been sent back for reworking by an unexpected presidential veto, a third one, giving the justice minister powers to fire judges, has become law.

The commission said it undermined the independence of the courts and therefore EU rules.

“This is a serious issue because the requirements for cooperation within the European Union are the principles of the rule of law. I take what the commission says on this very seriously,” Merkel said at a news conference.

“We cannot simply hold our tongues and not say anything for the sake of peace and quiet,” she said.

‘Political emotions’

Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said Merkel’s remarks showed the criticism was political, rather than factual.

“I’m convinced that Polish government will be executing its targets despite political emotions that appear in politicians’ statements,” Ziobro told reporters in Warsaw.

“Every country which is independent within the EU has its own laws and should settle its problems within democratic mechanisms,” he said in remarks broadcast on state TV.

In its reply to the commission on Monday, the Polish foreign ministry said the legislative process of overhauling its judiciary was in line with European standards.

It called the commission’s concerns groundless and noted that judiciary was the province of national governments, not the commission.

“We have received the reply from the Polish government. Regarding the point that we have no competence in this sphere, this is something that we would actually quite powerfully refute,” a commission spokeswoman said.

“The rule of law framework sets out how the commission should react should clear indications of a threat to the rule of law emerge in a member state. The commission believes that there is such a threat to the rule of law in Poland,” she said.

The commission said in July that it would launch legal action against Poland over the judicial reforms. It also said that if the government started firing Supreme Court judges, the commission would move to suspend Poland’s voting rights in the EU — an unprecedented punishment that would, however, require the unlikely unanimous support of all other EU governments.

Merkel’s remarks on Tuesday followed openly critical statements from French President Emmanuel Macron, who said last Friday that Poland was isolating itself within the EU and Polish citizens “deserved better” than a government at odds with the bloc’s democratic values and economic reform plans.

Logging

In another unprecedented sign of defiance against the EU, the Polish government ignored an order by the EU’s highest court to cease logging in the Bialowieza forest.

The court will convene September 11 to decide how to react to Warsaw’s failure to honor the injunction, the first in EU history.

As the EU’s spats with the PiS government get increasingly tense, the bloc’s member states are due to discuss again this autumn whether the situation in their largest ex-communist peer merits launching an unprecedented Article 7 punitive procedure.

The maximum punishment under the procedure, however unlikely, would be stripping Poland of its voting rights in the EU over not respecting democratic principles on which the bloc is built.

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Notre-Dame’s Crumbling Gargoyles Need Help

The Archbishop of Paris is on a 100 million-euro ($120 million) fundraising drive to save the crumbling gargoyles and gothic arches of the storied Notre-Dame cathedral.

Every year, 12 million to 14 million people visit the 12th-century Parisian landmark on an island in the Seine river. Groundbreaking for the structure occurred in 1163 and construction was completed in 1345. Pollution and exposure to elements over time have resulted in losses of large chunks of stone.

“If we don’t do these restoration works, we’ll risk seeing parts of the exterior structure begin to fall. This is a very serious risk,” said Michel Picaud, president of the Friends of Notre-Dame charity set up by the archbishop.

Church officials, who have created what they are calling a “stone cemetery” from fallen masonry, say the cathedral remains safe to visit.

Entry to the cathedral is free, and the French state, which owns the building, devotes 2 million euros a year to repairs.

But that is not enough to embark on major restoration works, the last of which were carried out during the 1800s, officials at the cathedral and charity said.

Hugo’s book

Notre-Dame has long drawn tourists from around the world.

It is most famous in popular culture as the locale for 19th-century author Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” and films of the same name, including the 1939 classic with Charles Laughton and the 1996 Disney musical animation.

The latter in particular raised the cathedral’s profile for modern-day tourists from China to the United States.

“It’s the movie for me. I just think of the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and the book as well. After reading that book, I actually really wanted to come see it,” said U.S tourist Claire Huber as she visited the cathedral.

Church authorities hope the cathedral’s worldwide fame will attract donors, particularly from the United States.

“Gargoyles are what people want to see when they come to Paris. If there are no more gargoyles, what will they see?” Notre-Dame communications chief Andre Finot said.

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Source: Barcelona Attackers’ Suspected Supplier Arrested in Morocco

Moroccan authorities have arrested a man suspected of supplying gas canisters to a jihadist cell that carried out a double attack in Catalonia earlier this month that killed 16 people, a source from the Spanish investigation said.

The cell accumulated around 120 canisters of butane gas at a house in a town south of Barcelona with which, police say, it planned to carry out a larger bomb attack.

Police believe the cell accidentally ignited the explosives on Aug. 16, the eve of the Barcelona attack, triggering a blast that destroyed the house in the town of Alcanar.

The remaining attackers then decided to use hired vans to mow down crowds along Barcelona’s most famous avenue and later mount an assault in the resort town of Cambrils.

Moroccan police arrested the man in the city of Casablanca, the source said, without giving further details.

Spain’s interior minister, Juan Ignacio Zoido, said on Tuesday that Moroccan authorities had arrested two people linked to the attacks but declined to give details about them.

Spanish news agency EFE said the second man was arrested in the city of Oujda and was a relative of one of the members of the Barcelona cell. The source did not confirm that.

Zoido, speaking after a meeting with the Moroccan interior minister in Morocco’s capital Rabat, said Spanish and Moroccan authorities were working closely together in the investigation.

Most of the suspected attackers were Moroccan and an imam suspected of radicalizing the cell traveled there shortly before the attack took place.

Six of the attackers were shot dead by police and two died in the explosion at the house in Alcanar. Four other people were arrested over the assaults, two of whom have now been released under certain conditions.

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IOM: No Reports of Migrant Deaths in Mediterranean in Past 20 Days

The International Organization for Migration reports no migrants have died while crossing the Mediterranean Sea over the past 20 days. It adds migrant fatalities in general appear to be on the decline.

The central Mediterranean Sea route from Libya to Italy is much favored by African migrants who risk their lives on smugglers boats desperate to reach Europe. While this route might become a gateway to a better life for some, it also is notorious for taking the lives of many.

The International Organization for Migration reports a total of 2,410 Mediterranean Sea fatalities so far this year. IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle says it is remarkable to go without a single reported death for 20 days. He acknowledges it is very hard to know exactly why.

“The flows from Libya have diminished.  If you recall in July, there were days when 3,000 people were picked up in one weekend. You remember that. Now, we have very, very few. So, something is happening. We are not sure what is behind it all. We see somewhat of a decline of migrant flows coming in from Niger, but not enough to justify or to explain why the flows across the Mediterranean have gone down,” Doyle said.

IOM data show the number of fatalities on the Mediterranean Sea generally has declined. Just 19 deaths have been recorded across the region this month, which is a sharp drop from the 689 recorded in August 2015 and 62 the same month last year.

Doyle says no deaths for 20 days might be a cause for celebration. He warns, though, this number can easily go up as smugglers continue to prey on vulnerable migrants, risking their lives while exploiting them for profit.

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After Violent Eviction, Rome Allows Some African Refugees to Stay

Public sentiment on unauthorized immigration continues to sour across Europe, prompting authorities to respond with decisive, sometimes violent, action.

An example occurred last week in Rome, when Italian police forcibly evicted hundreds of refugees from a building near the Piazza Indipendenza.

 

Police used water cannon and beat people with batons, resulting in 13 people being treated for injuries at the scene and four hospitalizations, according to Doctors Without Borders in Italy. The force was necessary, police said, to defend themselves against rocks and gas canisters hurled by the refugees.

Following an international outcry, Rome’s city council said Friday it will allow 40 refugees — mostly children, elderly and people with disabilities — to stay in the building for six months; but, hundreds of others remain homeless, and thousands of recent arrivals throughout Italy continue to struggle to integrate with the society.

Violent eviction

 

An evictee interviewed by VOA’s Amharic Service described the chaotic scene as police forced refugees out of the building.

 

“I was running with everyone, and I was in front of the men so that they wouldn’t beat them, and then two police hit me,” she said.The woman says she was beaten on her hands, back and torso as she tried to protect another evictee.

 

“And then they hit me on my head, and I didn’t know what was going on,” she says. “When I tried to run, I got dizzy and fell because of the spraying water.”

 

An estimated 800 people, mostly Eritreans and Ethiopians, were living inside the building, and most fled when authorities arrived. Several hundred people stayed outside to protest, and about 100 people, mostly women, children and those with disabilities, remained inside. They were cleared out by authorities at 6 a.m. local time the following day.

 

Police said those evicted were illegally squatting. Immigrants had been occupying the building since 2013.

 

Calls for accountability

 

“Italian authorities need to ask hard questions about this shocking eviction and, in particular, whether the force used by police was necessary and proportionate,” said Judith Sunderland, associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “Using police in riot gear to force vulnerable people out of their homes with little warning and nowhere to go is just about the opposite of how things should be handled,” she said.

 

Laetitia Bader, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Italian courts had first ordered the eviction in December 2016, and the refugees had been warned that it would take place five days prior to the police action.

 

The temporary housing offered by authorities, however, was considered substandard by the refugees and far from the city center, Bader said, adding that the government has a legal responsibility to provide housing to the displaced.

 

“Our concern is both that the notification was very abrupt [and] that [insufficient]… accommodation has been offered to these individuals,” she told VOA. “It’s absolutely key that the government looks into and investigates the abusive police action.”

 

Negative sentiment

 

In Italy, public opinion toward refugees has grown increasingly hostile.

According to research published by Pew last September, 53 percent of Italians think diversity makes their country a worse place to live, and 77 disapprove of the EU’s handling of refugees. Sixty percent of Italians think refugees will increase domestic terrorism.

 

Politicians across the country have seized on this sentiment, often running on overtly anti-immigrant platforms. In June, center-right parties were decisive in local races, winning mayoral elections in 15 cities, according to The Guardian newspaper.

 

Italy’s burden and responsibility

 

Italians have seen record numbers of refugees reach their shores in recent years. At the end of 2016, Italy hosted nearly a quarter million “persons of concern,” including about 150,000 refugees and about 100,000 asylum-seekers, according to the U.N.’s refugee agency.

 

Despite its prominence as a point of entry into Europe, Italy hosts fewer persons of concern than both France, where more than 300,000 refugees live, and Germany, home to nearly 700,000 refugees and well over a half-million asylum seekers.

 

Italy has 20 million fewer people than does Germany, but hosts three times fewer persons of concern per capita.

 

It’s also processing far fewer asylum-seekers. In 2015 and 2016, 45 percent of asylum applications were handled in Germany, compared to 8 percent in Italy.

 

Within the country, some regions have been far more active in hosting refugees. Last summer, Italian newspaper La Stampa reported that just a quarter of the country’s 8,000 municipalities currently host migrants on humanitarian grounds.

 

In Rome, an Ethiopian woman interviewed by VOA’s Amharic Service last Friday said many of those evicted from the building are now sleeping on the streets.

 

She said they plan to continue protesting their treatment by Italian police. “They don’t have any respect for us. They think black people are flies and donkeys, and they are saying, ‘We don’t care if you die,'” she said.

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Wealthy Cocaine Users Funding Slavery, Says Former UK Drug Chief

Middle-class cocaine users are turning a blind eye to the link between their drug habit and sex trafficking, slavery and murder, said the former head of UK drug strategy.

“These are middle-aged, middle-class people at dinner parties,” Tony Saggers, former head of drugs threat at the National Crime Agency, told The Times on Tuesday, in his first interview since leaving the post.

“They will find sweatshops abhorrent, slave labor a brutal, terrible thing to be happening in their neighborhood, and the news that a 16-year-old has been knifed to death in London will shock them,” he added.

Britain has one of the highest rates of cocaine use in Europe, according to the European Commission and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) with 4.2 percent of young adults having taken the drug in 2015.

Saggers said this was funding the exploitation of women in the sex industry, as well as slavery and gun violence.

“The consequences of buying cocaine are more abhorrent than most of what the people using it find abhorrent,” he said.

In Britain, there are an estimated 13,000 victims of forced labor, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude, most of them from Albania, Nigeria, Poland and Vietnam.

Saggers said there was a lack of action among employers in tackling the prevalence and acceptance of cocaine use in some industries, particularly among banks and other companies in the City of London, Britain’s financial center.

Companies should address the problem through schemes that educate their staff about the impact of cocaine abuse on their health and wider society, he added.

Tamara Barnett, projects leader at the Human Trafficking Foundation, said “we need to do all we can to emphasize the role the public can play in eradicating human trafficking.”

“Highlighting the exploitation and abuse behind certain drug production could make some people think twice before they purchase drugs, or at least twice before boasting about doing something that has for too long been seen just as a fashionable lifestyle choice,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In 2015 a report by the National Police Chiefs’ Council found that commercial cultivation of cannabis was used to fund human trafficking.

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Poland Tells EU Its Overhaul of Judiciary in Line with EU Standards

Poland said on Monday that the legislative process overhauling its judiciary is in line with European standards and called the European Commission’s concerns about rule of law in the country groundless.

On July 26, the Commission said it would launch legal action against Poland over the reforms and gave Warsaw a month to respond to concerns that the process undermines the independence of judges and breaks EU rules.

Last month, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed into a law a bill giving the justice minister the power to replace heads of ordinary courts, but after mass street protests blocked two other bills.

The vetoed bills would have empowered the government and parliament to replace Supreme Court judges and most members of a high-level judicial panel.

“In response … the Polish side emphasized that the legislative process which has the primary goal of reforming the justice system is in line with European standards and answers social expectations that have been growing for years, therefore the Commission’s doubts are groundless,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

The ministry also said that “in the spirit of loyal cooperation” it has provided the European Commission with all necessary information on the situation in Poland.

Poland’s right-wing, eurosceptic government says the reforms are needed to streamline a slow, outdated legal system and make judges more accountable to the people. It has already tightened control of state media and took steps that critics said politicized the constitutional court.

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Putin Visits Hungary for Judo Competition, Energy Talks

Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Hungary for the second time this year on Monday, attending the World Judo Championships in Budapest and discussing mutual energy interests with his Hungarian counterpart. 

Putin, who made an official trip to Hungary in February, sat in a VIP box at the Laszlo Papp Budapest Sports Arena with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and other officials.

Discussions between the two leaders centered on energy issues, including Russia’s construction of new reactors for Hungary’s Soviet-built nuclear power plant and Hungarian imports of natural gas from Russia.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said the expansion of the power plant in Paks, in central Hungary, would begin next year, after what he said had been a 22-month delay while the European Union examined the project’s compliance with EU rules.

“The procedures regarding the European Union have taken longer than expected and they have taken longer than they should have,” Szijjarto said after dining with Orban and the Russian delegation. “The real construction work will start in January and nothing will stop the investment from now on.”

Szijjarto also said that Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary would upgrade parts of their natural gas pipelines to allow the transport of up to 10 billion cubic meters of Russian gas to the region by the end of 2019.

Critics voice opposition

Hungarian opposition parties protested Putin’s trip amid concerns that Orban has become too close to the Russian leader. Orban used to be highly critical of Russian influence in the region.

Activists from the Together party blew whistles as Putin’s motorcade arrived at the arena and held up a banner in the stands reading “We Won’t Be A Russian Colony” before police escorted them out of the building.

A few supporters of Momentum, a new party whose recent campaign led Budapest to withdraw its bid for the 2024 Olympic Games, donned Putin masks and wore T-shirts with the slogan “Let’s go freedom of speech, let’s go Hungarians.”

Critics say the nuclear project is rife with corruption risks and increases Hungary’s dependency on Moscow.

“Putin is looking for colonies in the former Soviet bloc, not allies,” political activist Gabor Vago said. “Only Russia benefits from the nuclear deal, which ties Hungary for decades to an obsolete technology.”

Russia has loaned Hungary 10 billion euros ($11.9 billion) for the nuclear development plan, an amount expected to cover about 80 percent of the costs.

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European Security Organization Urges Trump to Stop Attacks on the Press

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is urging U.S. President Donald Trump to stop his attacks on the press, saying they “degrade” the essential role of the media in a democracy.

The OSCE’s media freedom representative, Harlem Desir, Monday said Trump’s comments about the media are “deeply problematic,” adding that such statements, especially those identifying the media as “the enemy of the people,” could make journalists more vulnerable to being targeted with violence.

“I urge the United States administration to refrain from delivering such attacks on the media,” said Desir in a letter addressed to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Desir highlighted remarks Trump made last week in Phoenix, Arizona in which the president accused the media of being “truly dishonest,” “fake,” “crooked,” and of making up stories and deepening divisions within the country.

Desir said the comments are “particularly worrying given the United States’ long-standing position as one of the global leaders in defending free speech and press freedoms.” He said the media play a key role in democracies to hold governments accountable and to offer a platform for diverse voices.

The Vienna-based OSCE monitors security and election issues across the group’s 57 member states, including Europe, much of central Asia, Russia and the United States.

Trump has popularized use of the term “fake news” to criticize news media and reporters that he contends treat him unfairly.

A poll released last week by Quinnipiac University found that the majority of Americans agrees with Trump: 55 percent of voters said they disapprove of the way in which the news media report on Trump, compared to 40 percent who approve.

An even larger number of voters – 62 percent – said they disapprove of Trump’s negative comments about reporters and their employers. Thirty-five percent of those surveyed said they agree with Trump on such issues.

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Romania: Protests Held in 6 Cities Over Judicial Changes

More than 1,000 people have participated in protests in Romania’s capital and other cities to show opposition to against proposed changes to the judicial system.

Demonstrators gathered outside government offices in Bucharest on Sunday called the ruling Social Democratic Party “the red plague” and yelled “A government of thieves and Mafioso!”

 

People took to the streets in half a dozen cities around the country to protest the proposals submitted by Justice Minister Tudorel Toader.

 

Toader recommended having the president no longer appoint the general prosecutor and the chief anti-corruption prosecutor, a main function of Romania’s presidency.

 

He also suggested a process to punish prosecutors and judges for erroneous rulings and prosecutions.

 

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis has criticized the proposal. Protesters said it would slow efforts to root out corruption.

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Albania’s Prime Minister Names Smaller, Restructured Cabinet

Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama has named a restructured Cabinet with a goal of increasing the country’s economic growth from 3.8 to 5 percent in four years.

Rama on Sunday told his Socialist Party leadership that his Cabinet would be reduced from 20 to 14 ministerial posts, making it “a smaller but more cooperative one.”

The new structure merges the finance ministry with the economy ministry, and the energy ministry with the transport and infrastructure ministry. A new ministerial post has been created to oversee the Albanian diaspora and to coordinate with businesses.

Most of the appointees are holdovers from the previous government, but serving in different positions. Four are new appointments. The new Cabinet preserves an equal number of women and men.

The left wing Socialists secured a second mandate in a June election, winning 74 seats in the 140-seat parliament and can run the government without allies.

The opposition Democratic party won 43 seats while the Socialist Movement for Integration Party that was in Rama’s governing coalition in the previous mandate secured 19 seats. Four other seats were won by a smaller political grouping.

The Democrats said the Cabinet picks represented “the return to power of the former communist elite” that would lead to “deepening Edi Rama’s and a small group’s private reigning.”

Rooting out corruption, fighting drug trafficking, improving pay and lowering unemployment are some of the key issues in Albania, a NATO member since 2009 that wants to launch membership negotiations with the European Union next year.

The new Cabinet will be subject to a vote when parliament convenes early next month.

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Jordan, Germany Said to Disagree on Status of German Troops

A Jordanian official said Sunday that Jordan is negotiating with Germany over the legal status of German troops to be stationed in the kingdom, amid reports that disagreements delayed deployment.

The German magazine Der Spiegel reported that Germany seeks immunity in Jordan for 250 soldiers who are part of the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State group extremists. The report says Jordan balked at the demand.

 

The Jordanian official said talks with Germany are “subject to international diplomatic rules” and “equal mutual treatment.” He demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters on the issue.

 

Germany’s Defense Ministry played down the report saying the negotiation process is ongoing and that “we are in fruitful talks with Jordan.”

 

“We already started the deployment… and are expecting to be fully operational by October,” said a spokesman for the German Defense Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with department policy.

 

Germany chose Jordan after previous host Turkey prevented German lawmakers from visiting the troops there.

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IS Claims Brussels Knife Attacker is One of Their Own

The Islamic State news agency Aamaq has claimed the Brussels attacker who assaulted three soldiers with a knife as an Islamic State group soldier.

In a statement Sunday, it said he carried out the Friday evening attack in response to calls to target countries of the coalition that is fighting IS.

Belgian prosecutors have opened an attempted terrorist murder probe after attacker assaulted the soldiers while shouting “Allahu akbar!” — Arabic for “God is great.” He was shot dead by troops.

The Federal Prosecutor’s Office said the man was known to police for assault charges but had no previous terror-related offenses.  The suspect, a Belgian citizen of Somali origin, was also carrying a fake firearm and copies of the Quran.

IS often claims attacks by people who have no known link to the group.

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UK Opposition to Offer Alternative ‘Soft’ Brexit in Policy Shift

Britain’s main opposition Labour Party is announcing a policy shift which opens the possibility of the country remaining in the European Union’s single market and customs union for several years as part of a “soft” Brexit, a spokesman said on Saturday.

The party would propose the same “basic terms” as Britain’s current relationship with the EU during a transition period following Brexit in 2019, and after that for all options to be open, a spokesman for Labour said.

His comments came in response to a report in Britain’s Guardian and sister newspaper Observer in which shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer backed “continued membership of the EU single market beyond March 2019, when Britain leaves the EU,” so that Labour would become the party of a “soft Brexit” and offer a smoother economic outcome.

Jeremy Corbyn’s party would also “leave open the option of the UK remaining a member of the customs union and single market for good, beyond the end of the transitional period”, the paper said.

However, a longer-term arrangement would only be considered if a Labour government could by that point have persuaded the rest of the EU to “agree to a special deal on immigration and changes to freedom of movement rules,” the paper said.

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Saakashvili Says Georgia to Charge Him With Plotting Coup

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is also a former governor of Ukraine’s Odesa region, has accused the authorities of Georgia and Ukraine of planning to accuse of planning a coup in Georgia.

Saakashvili wrote on Facebook on Saturday that the Georgian authorities “in complete coordination with officials in Ukraine” were planning to make the accusation soon.

“They promised [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko that they would file the charges before September 10,” he wrote.

Saakashvili said the charges would give Ukrainian authorities “a legal basis” for detaining him if he entered Ukraine.

He added that the charges were risible and politically motivated.

Earlier the same day, Nika Gvaramia, the head of Georgia’s Rustavi-2 television, said he believed charges of plotting a coup might be filed against Saakashvili.

Background

Saakashvili, 49, once a lauded pro-Western reformist, served two terms as Georgia’s president, from January 2004 to November 2013.

His popularity declined toward the end of his second term, in part because of a five-day war with Russia during which Moscow’s forces drove deep into the South Caucasus country, and his long-ruling party was voted out of power in a 2012 parliamentary election.

In 2015, Saakashvili forfeited his Georgian citizenship by accepting an offer from his old college friend, Poroshenko, to become governor of Ukraine’s southwestern Odessa Oblast province — a post that required Ukrainian citizenship.

Saakashvili, who harbors Ukrainian political ambitions, resigned as governor of Odessa in November 2016, complaining of official obstruction and corruption. He accused Poroshenko of dishonesty and said his central government had sabotaged democratic reforms required for membership to the European Union and NATO.

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Man in London Sword Attack Being Questioned by Police

A man who assaulted police officers with a four-foot sword outside Queen Elizabeth’s Buckingham Palace residence shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) was being questioned by counterterrorism police on Saturday.

Two unarmed officers suffered slight cuts as they detained the man, who drove at a police van on Friday evening, then took the sword from the front passenger foot-well of his car, London’s Metropolitan Police said.

It was too early to say what the man was planning to do, said Commander Dean Haydon, the head of the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command.

“We believe the man was acting alone and we are not looking for other suspects at this stage,” he said. “It is only right that we investigate this as a terrorist incident at this time.”

Europe has been on high alert following a string of militant attacks, including four this year in Britain which killed 36 people. The country’s threat level remains at severe, meaning an attack is highly likely.

No members of the royal family were present in the palace, which is a magnet for tourists in Britain’s capital in the peak August holiday weekend.

“I want to thank the officers who acted quickly and bravely to protect the public last night demonstrating the dedication and professionalism of our police,” Prime Minister Theresa May said in a message on Twitter.

Suspect from Luton

The suspect was initially arrested on suspicion of grievous bodily harm and assault on police. He was then further arrested under Britain’s Terrorism Act.

Police said they were investigating a 26-year-old man from the Luton area, an ethnically diverse town 55 km (35 miles) north of London where police have carried out investigations linked to other militant attacks, including one earlier this year on London’s Westminster Bridge.

“My partner saw a sword (…) as well as a policeman with blood on him, looking like his hand or chest was injured. The police officer had it in his hand, walking away with it,” said an unnamed witness quoted by The Times newspaper, who said tourists were running away from the scene.

“Something happened before, which is why the people ran away. I’m not sure what this was. But people were already scared and I saw the policeman pull the man from the car” the witness said.

The suspect was treated at a London hospital for minor injuries, and there were no other reported injuries.

“This is a timely reminder that the threat from terrorism in the UK remains severe,” Haydon added. “The police, together with the security services, are doing everything we can to protect the public and we already have an enhanced policing plan over the Bank Holiday weekend to keep the public safe.”

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EU Ponders Tough Action Against Migrant-source Countries

The EU’s commissioner for migration says Brussels may withhold development aid and impose trade and visa restrictions on migrant-source countries in Africa and Asia to force them to take back failed asylum-seekers.

In an interview with Britain’s The Times published Saturday, Dimitris Avramopoulos said EU chiefs “are considering stopping funding of major development projects. We invested in these regions to create opportunities and keep people there.”

He said countries which failed to cooperate with repatriations could face blanket visa restrictions. Germany recently threatened to withhold visas from the ruling elites of migrant-source countries that do not accept returnees.

But Avramopoulos appeared to indicate a much broader visa embargo is now being contemplated, saying “thousands of foreigners, from diplomats and doctors to students and researchers” would be impacted by the travel restrictions now under discussion.

“The EU is not afraid to make use of leverages in trade or visa policy. Let’s be honest: it is neither good for Africa nor for Europe that so many people cross the Mediterranean,” he said.

This is the first time EU commissioners have threatened to block access to European markets in response to a long-running migration crisis that’s roiling the continent and threatening to upend traditional party politics and empower populist nationalists.

The “hard borders” approach now being considered is being condemned by humanitarian NGOs, which often embrace a “no border” ideology.

On Monday, President Emmanuel Macron of France will chair talks featuring European and African leaders in Paris in a renewed bid to thrash out a more effective strategy to stem migrant flows. African leaders are likely to argue they need more development aid.

Italy’s dilemma

The following day EU national leaders will hold one of their regular summits in which the migration issue will figure prominently.  Both Italy and Germany have national elections in coming months and Italy’s Paolo Gentiloni and Germany’s Angela Merkel will likely want to show voters they are shutting down migrant routes.

Italy will push the EU to try to replicate with Libya a deal that was struck with Turkey last year, which largely shut down the migrant route through the Balkans. But analysts say such a deal would be unworkable when it comes to Libya given the lack of an effective central authority in the northern Africa state.

The migration influx has morphed into a political crisis for Italy’s left-leaning coalition government. In municipal elections earlier this year the coalition lost ground to center-right parties such as Matteo Salvini’s Northern League, which has called for a “stop to the invasion.”

Italy’s right-wing Forza Italia party has campaigned for the denial of landing rights to NGO ships carrying migrants. And even the maverick radical Five Star Movement is moving to an anti-immigrant position, calling for a halt to any new migrants being lodged in Rome.

Gentiloni has accused fellow EU nations of “looking the other way,” and not doing enough to assist Italy with the surge in migrants crossing the Mediterranean. A burden-sharing system across the EU has failed with just a few thousand taken off Italy’s hands by other EU member states.

Libya has become the main gateway to Europe for migrants and refugees from across sub-Saharan Africa, and also from the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Syria and Bangladesh. Many are fleeing war and persecution, but most who are using Libya are seeking to escape poverty. Italy has become the main point of arrival of those rescued off the coast of Libya.

As the economic migration has grown, with only a small proportion of asylum-seekers coming from countries engulfed in war, so sentiment in Italy has shifted with Italians becoming enraged at the strain the influx is having on the country’s migrant facilities, which are now all full, and the appearance of migrants even in far-flung villages.

600,000 asylum seekers

This week, police evicted more than a hundred Eritreans and Ethiopians from an abandoned office building near Rome’s central railway station. The occupants — who had been given refugee status — complained that Italy doesn’t help asylum-seekers integrate, fails to house them and provide language classes.

In fact, the Italian authorities do, housing many in villages across the country, providing months-long language tuition and up to 45 euros a day per refugee. But many refugees bolt the system, preferring to live in large cities such as Rome, Naples, Milan and Bologna and to try their luck.

The sheer numbers — more than 600,000 asylum-seekers have entered Italy since 2014 — are overwhelming. And the assistance asylum-seekers do receive is increasingly infuriating ordinary Italians in villages migrants are sent to for temporary periods. “I don’t get that money from the government and we are struggling as well — we don’t have enough jobs for our kids and now migrant kids will be competing for the few jobs that are around,” says Anna-Maria Bianchi, a mother-of-two from a Lazio village just north of Rome.

The only good news as far as Italian authorities are concerned is that there has been a fall-off in the rate of new arrivals this August and July. Official figures show arrivals in Italy from North Africa dropped by more than 50 percent in July from a year earlier and August arrivals are down even further, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The decline is being put down to several factors — from changeable sea conditions to a heightened Libyan coastguard presence and a reduction in humanitarian rescue-refugee operations.  There are also several probes by Italian authorities, who say NGOs have been colluding with people-traffickers. 

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NATO Says Russia Should Be Transparent About Its Military Drills

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Friday the alliance would closely watch Russian military exercises in western Russia and Belarus next month, urging Moscow to be transparent about the drills.

The maneuvers, the largest in years, with tanks, naval and air units operating in and around the Baltic and North Sea, have raised NATO’s concern that the official number of troops participating might be understated.

‘Watching very closely’

“We are going to be watching very closely the course of these exercises,” Stoltenberg told reporters after meeting Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo on a visit to check on the deployment of the U.S.-led alliance’s forces in the country’s east.

“All countries have the right to exercises of their armed forces, but the countries should also respect the obligation to be transparent.”

Russia has said that 13,000 troops will participate in the Sept. 14-20 drills, which under an international agreement is the limit for not requiring the presence of external observers. Western estimates have put the number of troops involved much higher.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Friday the drills were purely defensive and concerns about troop numbers were “inflated hype of an artificial nature” in Western media.

“We would like to emphasize that it is precisely these actions which lead to increased military tension in Europe,” the ministry said in a statement.

More meetings

Stoltenberg will meet with Polish, Turkish and Romanian foreign ministers later on Friday before visiting NATO troops in Poland’s Orzysz, about 57 kilometers (35 miles) south of Russia’s Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad, where Moscow has stationed nuclear-capable missiles and an S-400 air missile defense system.

“[The NATO deployment] is a clear signal that an attack on one ally is an attack on the whole alliance,” Stoltenberg said. “The matter here is to prevent conflicts and not to provoke them.”

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Man Arrested Over Assault on Police at Buckingham Palace

A man armed with a knife was detained Friday evening outside London’s Buckingham Palace, and two police officers were injured while arresting him, police said.

The Metropolitan Police force says two officers suffered minor injuries while detaining the suspect, who is being held on suspicion of grievous bodily harm and assaulting police.

Police said the officers did not require hospital treatment. No other injuries were reported.

A large number of police vehicles could be seen in the Mall, the wide road outside the palace.

Police said it was too early to say whether the incident was terrorism-related.

Buckingham Palace is one of London’s main tourist attractions, and the London home of Queen Elizabeth II.

The queen, however, usually spends August in Scotland at her Balmoral estate with family members.

Police stepped up patrols around major U.K. tourist sites after attacks with vehicles and knives earlier this year on Westminster Bridge, which is near Parliament, and London Bridge.

Buckingham Palace, which is surrounded by tall gates, has seen past security breaches. Last year, a man convicted of murder climbed a wall while the queen was at home, and was detained in the grounds.

In 1982, an intruder managed to sneak into the queen’s private chambers while she was in bed. Elizabeth spent 10 minutes chatting with him before calling for help.

A palace spokeswoman said the palace did not comment on security issues.

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Suspected Drug Ring Mastermind Arrested in London, Faces Extradition to US

The suspected mastermind of an international drug-smuggling operation has been arrested in London and faces extradition to the United States on charges that carry at least 30 years in prison upon conviction, prosecutors in New York said Friday.

Muhammad Asif Hafeez, 58, a Pakistani national known as “The Sultan,” was charged with trafficking several tons of heroin and methamphetamine, U.S. prosecutors said. He faces three counts in federal court in Manhattan, each with a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years.

Lawyers for Hafeez could not immediately be identified.

Prosecutors said that from 2013 until his arrest, Hafeez conspired to import methamphetamine into the United States. They said that at one point, Hafeez and others sought to establish a methamphetamine production facility in Mozambique, but had to abandon that plan after authorities seized several tons of ephedrine from a factory in India that was to be used to make the methamphetamine.

Prosecutors have also accused Hafeez of conspiring to import heroin into the United States with Baktash Akasha Abdalla, the leader of an organized crime family in Kenya, and others.

Akasha was arrested in 2014 in a U.S.-led sting operation and was extradited along with three others to face charges in New York in January.

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Mattis: US ‘Actively Reviewing’ Sending Defensive Lethal Weapons to Ukraine

American Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to restoring Ukraine’s soverignty and territorial integrity during a visit to the eastern European country. Mattis met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak. And as VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports, the question over whether the United States will provide Ukraine with lethal weapons loomed large during Thursday’s talks

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Norway, China Launch Free Trade Talks

Norway and China have resumed talks on a bilateral free trade deal, Norway’s Industry Ministry said Thursday, in another sign that their relationship was thawing after a row over the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo.

Beijing suspended discussions immediately after the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the prize to Liu in 2010.

The dissident was jailed for 11 years in 2009 for “inciting subversion of state power” after he helped write a petition known as “Charter 08” calling for sweeping political reforms.

Liu died on July 13 from liver cancer.

China and Norway agreed to resume full diplomatic relations late last year and in June stepped up energy cooperation.

Several Norwegian firms, including Statoil, signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with Chinese partners.

“It is good that negotiations are resuming,” Trade and Industry Minister Monica Maeland said in a statement.

The two sides had agreed to meet once more before the end of the year to discuss the trade of goods, services and investments, the statement said.

Initial reports from Norwegian negotiators were “very promising,” Maeland said.

A free trade deal would benefit producers of farmed salmon — Norway is the world’s largest producer — such as Marine Harvest, Salmar, Leroey, Norway Royal Salmon and Grieg Seafood.

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