Archive for May 25th, 2020

UK official criticized after baby of IS teen dies in Syria

March 09, 2019

LONDON (AP) — British Home Secretary Sajid Javid faced criticism Saturday after the death of a U.K. teenager’s baby in a Syrian camp. Shamima Begum, who had left London as a 15-year-old in 2015 to join the Islamic State group, had pleaded with British authorities before her baby was born to let her return to Britain to raise the child.

But Javid revoked her passport, saying Begum hadn’t shown any remorse. The teen had told newspaper reporters she didn’t have a problem with IS actions, including the beheading of captives. Begum’s infant son died Friday. Begum’s family said the boy appeared to be in good health when he was born on Feb. 17. No clear cause of death has yet been given, but reports suggested he was having respiratory problems.

Fellow Conservative Party lawmaker Phillip Lee said Saturday he was “deeply concerned” by Javid’s handling of the case, suggesting he had taken a hard line in order to please populists. He said it was clear 19-year-old Begum “holds abhorrent views,” but called her a child who was a product of British society. Britain had a moral duty to her and to her baby, he said.

When Begum first started speaking to reporters more than three weeks ago, she said the first two children she had given birth to since joining the extremist group had died of malnutrition and other ailments. She said she wanted to come home so she didn’t lose another child.

Her predicament sparked a national debate on how the U.K. should handle Britons who had joined the extremists and now seek to return because IS has lost its territory in Syria and Iraq. The challenge faces other European countries as the final IS stronghold in Syria is on the brink of falling, giving its fighters and their often youthful spouses no place left to hide.

U.S. President Donald Trump weighed in on the matter last month, saying European countries have a responsibility to take back and put on trial about 800 IS fighters who have been captured by U.S.-backed forces in Syria.

Begum is married to a Dutch national who joined IS extremists and has since been taken into custody. He said last week that he wanted to be able to live in the Netherlands with his wife and newborn son, who is now dead.

Kirsty McNeill, a director at Save the Children UK, said Britain should “take responsibility for their citizens” in Syria to prevent further unnecessary losses. “It is possible the death of this baby boy and others could have been avoided,” she said.

Javid didn’t comment directly on the baby’s death. A government spokesman said “the death of any child is tragic” and reiterated the British government’s advice that citizens avoid travel to Syria.

Israel’s Netanyahu attacks justice system as trial begins

May 24, 2020

JERUSALEM (AP) — To the sounds of his impassioned supporters chanting outside, a defiant Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strode into a Jerusalem courtroom Sunday to face corruption charges in a long-awaited trial that has overshadowed three inconclusive elections and deeply divided the country.

As he entered the courthouse to become the country’s first sitting prime minister to go on trial, Netanyahu launched into a lengthy tirade against the nation’s justice system in which he accused police, prosecutors, judges and the media of a deep state-type conspiracy aimed to oust him against the will of the people.

“I stand before you with a straight back and head raised high,” he said, surrounded by leading Cabinet ministers of his Likud party. “The objective is to depose a strong, right-wing prime minister, and thus remove the nationalist camp from the leadership of the country for many years.”

The standoff, and Netanyahu’s own fiery rhetoric, looked to worsen the nation’s deep divisions just after Netanyahu swore in what he called a “unity” government with a former rival. Critics have said Netanyahu’s repeated attacks on the legal system risk irreversible damage to citizens’ faith in state institutions.

Outside the courthouse, hundreds of supporters rallied in his defense, packing a narrow street while waving Israeli flags and banners denouncing what they called a corrupt prosecution seeking to topple a leader of historic proportion. Others gathered at his official residence to demonstrate against what they called a “crime minister” and carried posters calling for his resignation. They faced off across police barricades with more of the prime minister’s backers.

Netanyahu faces charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of corruption cases stemming from ties to wealthy friends. He is accused of accepting lavish gifts and offering to grant favors to powerful media moguls in exchange for favorable coverage of him and his family. He denies the charges, which come after years of scandals swirling around the family.

Netanyahu entered the Jerusalem courtroom wearing a blue surgical mask, following public health restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic. He refused to sit until TV cameras left the room, and remained in the front row throughout the session.

During the proceedings, the lawyers and judges also wore masks, with the three-judge panel sitting behind a glass divider. In a hint of what could lie ahead, his lawyer said the defense would need several months to study the hundreds of reams of evidence and to build its legal team.

Netanyahu did not speak during the one-hour session, rising just once to confirm he understood the charges. He will not be required to attend future hearings during a case that legal analysts expect to stretch over several years. The next hearing was scheduled for July 19.

Before the session, Netanyahu said police and prosecutors had conspired “to stitch up” a case against him, and said the evidence was “contaminated” and exaggerated. He called for the court proceedings to be broadcast live on TV to ensure “full transparency.”

“While the media continues to deal with nonsense, with these false, trumped up cases, I will continue to lead the state of Israel and deal with issues that really matter to you,” he said, including efforts to resuscitate the economy and prepare for a possible second wave of the coronavirus.

Netanyahu is not the first prime minister to go on trial. His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, went to prison for corruption but resigned long before the trial. Netanyahu’s fitness for office was the key issue in the three deadlocked elections over the past year. After vowing never to sit with an indicted prime minister, Netanyahu’s challenger, Benny Gantz, agreed in March to form a power-sharing coalition with his rival, in part to prevent another election.

Gantz, who has made the defense of the legal system one his hallmarks, said he was sure Netanyahu would receive a fair trial. “I repeat and emphasize that my colleagues and I have full faith in the justice system and law enforcement,” he tweeted.

Their new government was sworn in just last week for Netanyahu’s fourth consecutive term. Netanyahu held his first Cabinet meeting with the new government just hours before heading to court. Neither he nor any of his ministers addressed the looming trial.

Netanyahu and his allies have spent months lashing out at the law enforcement system, and a new round of attacks could test the new government. Dozens of Netanyahu supporters outside the court in east Jerusalem wore masks and T-shirts depicting Netanyahu as a martyr and held posters lambasting the attorney general who indicted him.

“We won’t allow an image of Netanyahu being humiliated,” said Ran Carmi Buzaglo, one of the protesters. “The only reason that they forced him to come here, even though the law allows him to be absent, is to show an image of him in the defendant’s chair.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who recently filed a police complaint following anonymous threats against him, vowed that the case will be handled like any other — “in a professional, business-like manner and within the courtroom halls.”

“We will continue to act without fear, even against the preposterous attempts to associate non-professional interests to law enforcement agencies,” he said. Several of Netanyahu’s Likud Cabinet ministers, including the newly appointed internal security minister who overseas the police, came to the court to back him.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said that Netanyahu’s “wild and inciteful outburst” at the courthouse was “final proof that a criminal defendant cannot continue to be prime minister.” In a sign of the tensions, the prosecutor in the case left the courtroom accompanied by a state-issued bodyguard because of threats against her.

Under the coalition deal, Netanyahu will remain prime minister for the next 18 months, and “alternative prime minister” for the 18 months after. He will not be legally required to step down during what is expected to be a lengthy trial.

Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion contributed to this report.

Israel’s Netanyahu, unbeaten in elections, is going on trial

May 23, 2020

JERUSALEM (AP) — After entering the record books last year as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu will once again make history when he becomes the country’s first sitting leader to go on trial.

Surrounded by security guards, Netanyahu is set to march into Jerusalem’s district court for arraignment on a series of corruption charges on Sunday. The stunning scene will push Israel into uncharted political and legal territory, launching a process that could ultimately end the career of a leader who has been undefeatable at the ballot box for over a decade.

Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of cases. He is accused of accepting expensive gifts, such as cartons of champagne and cigars, from wealthy friends and offering favors to media moguls in exchange for favorable news coverage of him and his family.

In the most serious case, he is accused of promoting legislation that delivered hundreds of millions of dollars of profits to the owner of a major telecom company while wielding behind-the-scenes editorial influence over the firm’s popular news website.

Netanyahu has denied the charges, claiming he is the victim of an “attempted coup” by overaggressive police, biased prosecutors and a hostile media. “It’s the classic deep state argument,” said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at Israel’s Hebrew University. Netanyahu claims “an unelected movement is trying to remove him from power just because he is a representative of the right,” she said.

Netanyahu is not the first Israeli leader to go on trial. Both former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former President Moshe Katsav went to prison in the 2010s — Olmert on corruption charges and Katsav for rape. But they stepped down to fight the charges.

As opposition leader in 2008, Netanyahu led the calls for Olmert to leave office, famously saying a leader “up to his neck” in legal troubles had no business governing a country. But as the investigations have piled up, culminating with his indictment last November, Netanyahu has changed his tune. He has rejected calls to resign while repeatedly lashing out at the country’s legal system.

Among his favorite targets have been a former police chief and the current attorney general — both Netanyahu appointees — and the country’s Supreme Court. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit recently filed a complaint to police over anonymous threats sent to his mobile phone.

Netanyahu’s conspiratorial claims of victimhood have played well with his base of religious and nationalist supporters. But it is unclear whether they will hold up in court, given the lack of evidence.

In the courtroom, the legal arguments are more likely to focus on his claims that his gifts were genuine shows of affection from close friends and that he never received anything in return for the favors he is accused of offering.

The case is expected to last for several years, given the vast number of witnesses and documents that are expected to be presented. Netanyahu has done his best to avoid this moment. During a three-year investigation, which was slowed by Netanyahu’s trips abroad and occasional security crises, he repeatedly claimed that investigators would “find nothing because there is nothing.”

He briefly tried, but failed, to win parliamentary immunity from prosecution. In March, his hand-picked justice minister delayed the trial by two months, citing coronavirus restrictions. This week, judges rejected Netanyahu’s request to stay home on Sunday and allow his lawyers to represent him. Netanyahu had argued that his presence was unnecessary and costly, and that having his security detail in the courtroom would violate social-distancing requirements.

Nonetheless, he enters the courtroom with renewed strength. After three bruising elections over the past year, Netanyahu was sworn into office this week for a fourth consecutive term. All three elections were seen as referendums on his fitness for office, and all ended in deadlock. After the most recent vote in March, his rival, Benny Gantz, appeared to have mustered enough support in parliament to pass legislation that would have disqualified Netanyahu from serving as prime minister while under indictment.

But in a stunning turnaround, Gantz, citing fears of a fourth expensive election and the coronavirus pandemic, agreed to shelve the legislation and instead form a power-sharing government with Netanyahu.

The Supreme Court cleared the way for Netanyahu to remain in power. In a key ruling, it said an indicted politician may serve as prime minister — even though Israeli law requires all other office-holders to resign if charged with a crime.

Under their deal, Netanyahu was forced to yield some powers to Gantz, with each wielding a veto over most key decisions. Gantz will hold the title of “alternate prime minister,” and after 18 months, they will swap jobs.

Talshir, the political scientist, said the agreement creates troubling conflicts of interest. Netanyahu made sure he would be involved in the appointments of key officials, including Supreme Court judges and the next attorney general, who could influence any appeals process.

“Netanyahu’s perspective all this year was interfering with his own trial,” she said. Under the deal, the alternate prime minister, like the premier, will not be required to resign due to criminal charges. That could ensure that Netanyahu remains in office throughout his trial and even into a possible appeals process.

It will also give him the opportunity to continue to attack the legal system. Netanyahu’s eldest son Yair, who often acts as his unofficial spokesman, posted a profile picture on Twitter that spells the word “prosecution” with a sewing machine as the first letter. The message: the case against the prime minister is unfairly “stitched up.”

Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, said such attacks on the courts have caused great damage by persuading many Israelis to question the authority and integrity of Israel’s democratic institutions.

“It might be the most harmful thing that has happened to Israel’s democracy, this one and a half years of attacking the whole basis of the rule of law,” he said. “I hope we will have a long rehabilitation from that. But we’re not even in the start of it.”