‘The Apprentice,’ about a young Donald Trump, premieres in Cannes

CANNES, France — While Donald Trump’s hush money trial entered its sixth week in New York, an origin story for the Republican presidential candidate premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on Monday, unveiling a scathing portrait of the former president in the 1980s. 

“The Apprentice,” directed by the Iranian Danish filmmaker Ali Abbasi, stars Sebastian Stan as Trump. The central relationship of the movie is between Trump and Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong), the defense attorney who was chief counsel to Joseph McCarthy’s 1950s Senate investigations. 

Cohn is depicted as a longtime mentor to Trump, coaching him in the ruthlessness of New York City politics and business. Early on, Cohn aided the Trump Organization when it was being sued by the federal government for racial discrimination in housing. 

“The Apprentice,” which is labeled as inspired by true events, portrays Trump’s dealings with Cohn as a Faustian bargain that guided his rise as a businessman and, later, as a politician. Stan’s Trump is initially a more naive real-estate striver, soon transformed by Cohn’s education. 

The film notably contains a scene depicting Trump raping his wife, Ivana Trump (played by Maria Bakalova). In Ivana Trump’s 1990 divorce deposition, she stated that Trump raped her. Trump denied the allegation and Ivana Trump later said she didn’t mean it literally, but rather that she had felt violated. 

That scene and others make “The Apprentice” a potentially explosive big-screen drama in the midst of the U.S. presidential election. The film is for sale in Cannes, so it doesn’t yet have a release date. 

Variety on Monday reported alleged behind-the-scenes drama surrounding “The Apprentice.” Citing anonymous sources, the trade publication reported that billionaire Dan Snyder, the former owner of the Washington Commanders and an investor in “The Apprentice,” has pressured the filmmakers to edit the film over its portrayal of Trump. Snyder previously donated to Trump’s presidential campaign. 

Neither representatives for the film nor Snyder could immediately be reached for comment. 

In the press notes for the film, Abbasi, whose previous film “Holy Spider” depicts a female journalist investigating a serial killer in Iran, said he didn’t set out to make “a History Channel episode.” 

“This is not a biopic of Donald Trump,” said Abbasi. “We’re not interested in every detail of his life going from A to Z. We’re interested in telling a very specific story through his relationship with Roy and Roy’s relationship with him.” 

Regardless of its political impact, “The Apprentice” is likely to be much discussed as a potential awards contender. The film, shot in a gritty 1980’s aesthetic, returns Strong to a New York landscape of money and power a year following the conclusion of HBO’s “Succession.” Strong, who’s currently performing on Broadway in “An Enemy of the People,” didn’t attend the Cannes premiere Monday. 

“The Apprentice” is playing in competition in Cannes, making it eligible for the festival’s top award, the Palme d’Or. At Cannes, filmmakers and casts hold press conferences the day after a movie’s premiere. “The Apprentice” press conference will be Tuesday.

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Britain slammed in inquiry for infecting thousands with tainted blood, covering up scandal

LONDON — British authorities and the country’s public health service knowingly exposed tens of thousands of patients to deadly infections through contaminated blood and blood products, and hid the truth about the disaster for decades, an inquiry into the U.K.’s infected blood scandal found Monday.

An estimated 3,000 people in the United Kingdom are believed to have died and many others were left with lifelong illnesses after receiving blood or blood products tainted with HIV or hepatitis in the 1970s to the early 1990s.

The scandal is widely seen as the deadliest disaster in the history of Britain’s state-run National Health Service since its inception in 1948.

Former judge Brian Langstaff, who chaired the inquiry, slammed successive governments and medical professionals for “a catalogue of failures” and refusal to admit responsibility to save face and expense. He found that deliberate attempts were made to conceal the scandal, and there was evidence of government officials destroying documents.

“This disaster was not an accident. The infections happened because those in authority — doctors, the blood services and successive governments — did not put patient safety first,” he said. “The response of those in authority served to compound people’s suffering.”

Campaigners have fought for decades to bring official failings to light and secure government compensation. The inquiry was finally approved in 2017, and over the past four years it reviewed evidence from more than 5,000 witnesses and more than 100,000 documents.

Many of those affected were people with hemophilia, a condition affecting the blood’s ability to clot. In the 1970s, patients were given a new treatment that the U.K. imported from the United States. Some of the plasma used to make the blood products was traced to high-risk donors, including prison inmates, who were paid to give blood samples.

Because manufacturers of the treatment mixed plasma from thousands of donations, one infected donor would compromise the whole batch.

The report said around 1,250 people with bleeding disorders, including 380 children, were infected with HIV -tainted blood products. Three-quarters of them have died. Up to 5,000 others who received the blood products developed chronic hepatitis C, a type of liver infection.

Meanwhile an estimated 26,800 others were also infected with hepatitis C after receiving blood transfusions, often given in hospitals after childbirth, surgery or an accident, the report said.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is expected to apologize later Monday, and authorities are expected to announce compensation of about 10 billion pounds ($12.7 billion) in all to victims. Details about that payment are not expected until Tuesday at the earliest.

The report said many of the deaths and illnesses could have been avoided had the government taken steps to address the risks linked to blood transfusions or the use of blood products. Since the 1940s and the early 1980s it has been known that hepatitis and the cause of AIDS respectively could be transmitted this way, the inquiry said.

Langstaff said that unlike a long list of developed countries, officials in the U.K. failed to ensure rigorous blood donor selection and screening of blood products. At one school attended by children with hemophilia, public health officials gave the children “multiple, riskier” treatments as part of research, the report said.

He added that over the years authorities “compounded the agony by refusing to accept that wrong had been done,” falsely telling patients they had received the best treatment available and that blood screening had been introduced at the earliest opportunity. When people were found to be infected, officials delayed informing them about what happened.

Langstaff said that while each failure on its own was serious, taken “together they are a calamity.”

Andy Evans, of campaign group Tainted Blood, told reporters that he and others “felt like we were shouting into the wind during the last 40 years.”

“We have been gaslit for generations. This report today brings an end to that. It looks to the future as well and says this cannot continue,” he said.

Diana Johnson, a lawmaker who has long campaigned for the victims, said she hoped that those found responsible for the disaster will face justice — including prosecution — though the investigations have taken so long that some of the key players may well have died since.

“There has to be accountability for the actions that were taken, even if it was 30, 40, 50 years ago,” she said.

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London court rules WikiLeaks founder Assange can appeal US extradition order 

London — A British court has ruled that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can appeal against an order that he be extradited to the U.S. on espionage charges.

Two High Court judges on Monday said Assange has grounds to challenge the U.K. government’s extradition order.

The ruling sets the stage for an appeal process likely to further drag out a years-long legal saga. Assange faces 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over his website’s publication of a trove of classified U.S. documents almost 15 years ago.

The Australian computer expert has spent the last five years in a British high-security prison after taking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London for seven years.

Assange’s lawyers have argued he was a journalist who exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sending him to the U.S., they said, would expose him to a politically motivated prosecution and risk a “flagrant denial of justice.”

The U.S. government says Assange’s actions went way beyond those of a journalist gathering information, amounting to an attempt to solicit, steal and indiscriminately publish classified government documents.

In March, two judges rejected the bulk of Assange’s arguments but said he could take his case to the Court of Appeal unless the U.S. guaranteed he would not face the death penalty if extradited and would have the same free speech protections as a U.S. citizen.

The court said that if Assange couldn’t rely on the First Amendment then it was arguable his extradition would be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, which also provides free speech and media protections.

The U.S. provided those reassurances, but Assange’s legal team and supporters argue they are not good enough to rely on to send him to the U.S. federal court system because the First Amendment promises fall short. The U.S. said Assange could seek to rely on the amendment but it would be up to a judge to decide whether he could.

Attorney James Lewis, representing the U.S., said Assange’s conduct was “simply unprotected” by the First Amendment.

“No one, neither U.S. citizens nor foreign citizens, are entitled to rely on the First Amendment in relation to publication of illegally obtained national defense information giving the names of innocent sources, to their grave and imminent risk of harm,” Lewis said.

The WikiLeaks founder, who has spent the past five years in a British prison, was not in court to hear his fate being debated. He did not attend for health reasons, Fitzgerald said.

Commuters emerging from a Tube stop near the courthouse couldn’t miss a large sign bearing Assange’s photo and the words, “Publishing is not a crime. War crimes are.” Scores of supporters gathered outside the neo-Gothic Royal Courts of Justice chanting “Free Julian Assange” and “Press freedom, Assange freedom.”

Some held a large white banner aimed at President Joe Biden, exhorting: “Let him go Joe.”

Assange’s lawyers say he could face up to 175 years in prison if convicted, though American authorities have said any sentence would likely be much shorter.

Assange’s family and supporters say his physical and mental health have suffered during more than a decade of legal battles, which includes seven years spent inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London from 2012 until 2019. He has spent the past five years in a British high-security prison.

His legal team is prepared to ask the European Court of Human Rights to intervene. But his supporters fear Assange could be transferred before the court in Strasbourg, France, could halt his removal.

Judges Victoria Sharp and Jeremy Johnson may also postpone issuing a decision.

 

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UK and Finland to deepen ties in face of ‘Russian aggression’

LONDON — Britain and Finland will sign a new strategic partnership on Monday to strengthen ties and counter the “threat of Russian aggression,” the U.K. foreign minister said.

The two countries will declare Russia as “the most significant and direct threat to European peace and stability,” according to a Foreign Office press release.

The agreement will be endorsed by U.K. foreign minister David Cameron and his Finnish counterpart Elina Valtonen in London.

“As we stand together to support Ukraine, including through providing military aid and training, we are clear that the threat of Russian aggression, following the war it started, will not be tolerated,” said Cameron.

“This strategic partnership, built on our shared values, will see the UK and Finland step up cooperation to bolster European security as well as seize new opportunities, from science and technology to closer energy ties,” he added.

The countries will work together to counter Russian disinformation, malicious cyber activities and support Ukraine’s recovery, reconstruction, and modernization, according to the Foreign Office.

Since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Finland has joined the NATO military alliance and shut off much of its border with Russia. Britain is a major military supporter of Ukraine.

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Cannes film follows Egypt feminists on brink of adulthood

Cannes, France — Filmmakers Nada Riyadh and Ayman El Amir spent so much time following an all-girl theatre troupe in a remote Egyptian village that at one point someone tried to sell them a house.

“He thought we were always there so we might as well live there,” Riyadh told AFP after the premiere of their documentary at the Cannes Film Festival.

“The Brink of Dreams” follows a group of teenage girls in rural southern Egypt over four years, between rehearsals, as they navigate the tough decisions that will determine their adulthood.

Majda dreams of studying theatre in Cairo, Monika wants to become a famous singer and Haidi is being pursued by the hottest guy in the village.

In their feminist street performances, they boldly rail against the patriarchy, challenging members of the crowd on issues such as self-fulfillment and early marriage.

But soon life takes over and the teenagers from Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority find themselves confronted with these concepts for real.

The camera discreetly captures conversations in the family shop, between a father and daughter, or two lovers, as neighbors and animals go about their daily lives.

“In the beginning there was a lot of people always looking at the camera. Everybody was self-conscious,” said Riyadh.

But “once the trust had been built between them and us, we had that chance to blend in.”

Riyadh said the documentary, which is screening in a sidebar section of the festival, was driven by her and co-director Amin discovering the troupe in 2017.

The film “is intentionally feminist in every way but I think it was also dictated by what this inspiring group of women was already doing,” she said.

It’s “mind-blowing because they’re demanding answers about very important things and opening a dialogue with everybody in their community.”

Co-director Amin said the main challenge was editing down 100 hours of footage to tell this coming-of-age tale and convey a seldom seen side of Egypt.

“Most mainstream films in Egypt tell stories about living in gated compounds and shopping in malls,” Amin said.

“It’s very rare to see stories that take place in the south outside of Cairo or Alexandria and see girls like those girls on screen.”

The documentary has a French distributor, but the filmmakers also hope to show the film widely in Egypt, including in the rural south.

Until then, six of the actors in the film got to attend the Cannes premiere, after a last-minute rush to get them their first passports and visas on time.

Monika, the aspiring singer, has two children now. But on the red carpet, the DJ played the catchy song that she made with a popular Egyptian producer called Molotof for the film’s final credits.

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Colorado clinic provides Ukrainian refugees with care in own language

Almost half a million Ukrainian immigrants have moved to the U.S. since the start of Russia’s invasion, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Two of the biggest challenges they face are finding health care and a job. In one small Colorado city, a local clinic owner, herself a Ukrainian immigrant, is helping out as much as she can. Svitlana Prystinska has the story, narrated by Anna Rice.

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PM shooting hits ‘hostile’ Slovak media hard

Bratislava, Slovakia — When four bullets fired by a lone gunman hit Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, Matus Kostolny’s life as a journalist quickly went from hard to harder.

The 49-year-old editor-in-chief of the independent Dennik N daily, branded “hostile” by the government, immediately started getting threats from readers and accusations from Fico’s political allies.

“Ten minutes after we ran the story about the prime minister being shot, I started receiving messages that I am to blame, that I have blood on my hands and will pay for it,” Kostolny told AFP.

“From day one some politicians from the governing coalition have been saying that… it is certain media including Dennik N that bear responsibility for the attack,” he said in an interview.

Domestic media had in 2018 unveiled links between the Italian mafia and Fico’s government, sparking protests that led to his resignation.

Fico is in intensive care following two long operations, but his life is no longer in danger.

He is serving his fourth term as prime minister of the EU and NATO member of 5.4 million people, leading a coalition of two centrist parties and a smaller nationalist one.

He secured this term when his centrist Smer party won a general election in September, calling for a truce over Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

Shortly after, Fico banned four Slovak media — Dennik N, Aktuality, Denník SME and TV Markiza — from entering the government building, labeling them as “hostile media” and “unwelcome guests.”

“We have earned the label of a hostile outlet by existing and doing the kind of journalism we are doing, asking without flattering and publishing critical texts,” said Kostolny.

“Politicians don’t like this, not only Robert Fico… who actually assaulted us from the day we were established.”

Fico’s government is also pushing a controversial bill giving it control over the RTVS public television and radio broadcaster.

A breaking point

As an independent daily, Dennik N gets most of its income from readers, Kostolny said.

It was founded by a group of journalists in 2014. Four years later, Slovakia was shaken by the murder of Aktuality journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée.

An article by Kuciak, published posthumously, reported on government links with the mafia and open war followed between the prime minister and the media.

“Jan Kuciak’s murder was a breaking point. At that time, the society split into us and them,” said Kostolny.

He added Fico had to become more pragmatic as he was trying to avoid prison, chased by media looking for motives behind the Kuciak murder.

“He needed to win the (2023) election and come back to salvage his freedom,” Kostolny said.

Fico shifted toward extreme politics, using a stronger language to woo voters outside the typical Smer electorate.

Extremely dangerous

His uncompromising stance on journalists was reflected by the international Media Freedom Index for 2024, published by Reporters Without Borders, in which Slovakia slid 12 places to 29th in the world.

Its authors singled Fico out — alongside Hungary’s Viktor Orban — as “politicians… trying to reduce the space for independent journalism.”

Kostolny said Wednesday’s attack had made things even worse and that he now expected politicians to interfere in media work.

Deputy Prime Minister Robert Kalinak, Fico’s closest ally, said that media “lies” were the reason “why Robert Fico is fighting for his life today.”

“At the moment the atmosphere is so heated. They are pointing fingers and saying journalists, especially those from Dennik N, are partly responsible for the attack,” said Kostolny.

“This is extremely dangerous, because once you start dealing with problems using violence, you can’t be sure it will not continue.”

A father of two sons, Kostolny said he “would be lying” if he said he was not afraid.

“I’m not sure what we are in for. Over the six years since Jan Kuciak’s murder, we have found out what Fico is capable of,” he said.

“On the other hand, I’m absolutely determined to continue the service we have to provide. I can’t take fright just because they’re attacking us.”

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Europe’s far-right groups launch unofficial campaign for EU elections

Madrid — Europe’s far-right political parties unofficially launched their campaign Sunday for European Union elections in Spain with strong messages against illegal migration and the bloc’s climate policy while declaring their support for Israel in its war against Hamas.

French National Rally party leader Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni tried to rally voters at an event organized by Spain’s far-right Vox party in Madrid ahead of the European Union’s parliamentary elections June 6-9. Analysts say the vote across the bloc’s 27 nations could see a strong rise of the far right.

“We are in the final stretch to make 9 June a day of liberation and hope,” said the French presidential candidate. “We have three weeks left to convince our respective compatriots to go out and vote.”

Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy party has foundations in Benito Mussolini’s fascism, spoke in Spanish via video conference and called for young people to vote. “You are the only possible future for Europe,” Meloni told them.

The defense of the EU’s borders was another main theme of the last of two days of a meeting organized by Vox in an arena in the outskirts of the Spanish capital.

“We are not against human rights, but we want strong borders in Europe… because it is hours,” said Andre Ventura, leader of Chega, a party that won the third largest number of parliamentary seats in Portugal earlier this year. “We cannot continue to have this massive influx of Islamic and Muslim immigrants into Europe,” he added.

Meloni defended her country’s policy of reaching agreements with third countries to try to curb illegal immigration, while Le Pen advocated for reform of the Schengen area — which allows free movement of people within most of the bloc’s borders — so that “Europe allows each country to choose who enters and who leaves its territory.”

Vox’s president, Santiago Abascal, called for unity of the far-right ahead of the European election.

“In the face of globalism we must respond with a global alliance of patriots in defense of common sense, economic prosperity, security and freedom because we share the threat, and that leads us to solidarity,” Abascal said.

The vote will indicate whether the continental political drift will match the rightward swing seen across much of the globe from the Netherlands to Slovakia to Argentina.

Argentina’s flamboyant president, Javier Milei, who was welcomed like a star amidst chants of “Freedom”, dedicated his long speech to bashing socialism. He said that socialism “is an ideology that goes directly against human nature and necessarily leads to slavery or death.”

“There is no other possible destiny,” he said. “To open the door to socialism is to invite death,” he added.

Supporters who packed the Palacio de Vistalegre arena cheered on messages against the European Green Deal and in favor of farm workers, whose protests brought several cities in the continent to a standstill in recent months. They also applauded every speaker’s message in solidarity with Israel in its war in Gaza following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

Israel was represented at the meeting by its minister for diaspora affairs, Amichai Chikli.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the former prime minister of Poland, Mateusz Morawiecki, also spoke from a video screen.

During the event, hundreds of left-wing activists were demonstrating against fascism in the city center in Madrid.

 

“I am here because in Vistalegre we have a summit of hate and we must fight against fascists,” said Frank Erbroder, a Polish activist at the gathering. “I am worried because Hitler won, because of democracy, and I think that maybe we’ll have the same situation.”

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Slovak PM’s life no longer in danger after shooting 

Bratislava — Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico’s life is no longer in danger following an assassination attempt, Deputy Prime Minister Robert Kalinak said on Sunday.

A lone gunman, who appeared in court Saturday, shot Fico four times and he was at one stage said to be fighting for his life.

“He has emerged from the immediate threat to his life, but his condition remains serious and he requires intensive care,” Kalinak, Fico’s closest political ally, told reporters.

The Slovak premier was shot as he was greeting supporters after a government meeting in the central town of Handlova. He underwent a five-hour operation on Wednesday and another on Friday at a hospital in the central city of Banska Bystrica.

“We can consider his condition stable with a positive prognosis,” Kalinak said outside the hospital, adding, “We all feel a bit more relaxed now.”

Kalinak added that Fico would stay at Banska Bystrica for the moment.

The suspected gunman, identified by Slovak media as 71-year-old poet Juraj Cintula, has been charged with premeditated attempted murder and was ordered held in custody at a hearing on Saturday.

Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok said that if one of the shots “went just a few centimeters higher, it would have hit the prime minister’s liver”.

The attempted assassination has highlighted acute political divisions in the country where 59-year-old Fico took office in October after his centrist populist Smer party won a general election.

He is serving his fourth term as prime minister after campaigning on proposals for peace between Russia and Slovakia’s neighbor Ukraine, and to halt military aid to Kyiv, which his government has done.

Fico leads a coalition comprising his Smer party, the centrist HLAS and the small nationalist SNS party.

Kalinak said the government would carry on without Fico “according to the program he has outlined”.

Slovakia was already sharply divided over politics since the 2018 murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee.

Kuciak pointed at links between Italian mafia and Fico’s then government, and his murder sparked nationwide protests that resulted in Fico’s resignation in 2018.

The divisions deepened further with the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Following the attack on Fico, outgoing President Zuzana Caputova and her successor Peter Pellegrini, a Fico ally who takes over in June, tried to quell the tensions.

Following a proposal by Caputova and Pellegrini, several parties have suspended campaigning for European Parliament elections scheduled for June.

But some politicians have been quick to blame the Fico attack on their opponents or media.

SNS chairman Andrej Danko blamed the media just after the shooting, and Kalinak took on the opposition and media in an emotional speech on the Smer website on Friday.

Pellegrini said Sunday that a meeting of parliamentary party leaders he was planning to host on Tuesday to help ease tensions would probably not happen.

“The past few days and some press conferences have shown us that some politicians are simply not capable of fundamental self-reflection even after such a huge tragedy,” said Pellegrini.

“It has turned out that the time is not ripe for a round table with the representatives of all parliamentary parties yet,” he added.

In a debate on the TA3 news channel, Danko said it was “false to say that a meeting on Tuesday would reconcile society”.

Police have meanwhile charged several people who had approved of the attack on Fico on social media.

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange facing pivotal moment in long fight to stay out of US court 

London — The host of a news conference about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition fight wryly welcomed journalists last week to the “millionth” press briefing on his court case.

Deborah Bonetti, director of the Foreign Press Association, was only half joking. Assange’s legal saga has dragged on for well over a decade but it could come to an end in the U.K. as soon as Monday. 

Assange faces a hearing in London’s High Court that could end with him being sent to the U.S. to face espionage charges, or provide him another chance to appeal his extradition.

The outcome will depend on how much weight judges give to reassurances U.S. officials have provided that Assange’s rights won’t be trampled if he goes on trial.

Here’s a look at the case:

What Assange is charged with

Assange, 52, an Australian computer expert, has been indicted in the U.S. on 18 charges over Wikileaks’ publication of hundreds of thousands of classified documents in 2010.

Prosecutors say he conspired with U.S. army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to hack into a Pentagon computer and release secret diplomatic cables and military files on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He faces 17 counts of espionage and one charge of computer misuse. If convicted, his lawyers say he could receive a prison term of up to 175 years, though American authorities have said any sentence is likely to be much lower.

Assange and his supporters argue he acted as a journalist to expose U.S. military wrongdoing and is protected under press freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Among the files published by WikiLeaks was video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack by American forces in Baghdad that killed 11 people, including two Reuters journalists.

“Julian has been indicted for receiving, possessing and communicating information to the public of evidence of war crimes committed by the U.S. government,” his wife, Stella Assange, said. “Reporting a crime is never a crime.”

U.S. lawyers say Assange is guilty of trying to hack the Pentagon computer and that WikiLeaks’ publications created a “grave and imminent risk” to U.S. intelligence sources in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Why the case has dragged on so long

While the U.S. criminal case against Assange was only unsealed in 2019, his freedom has been restricted for a dozen years.

Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012 and was granted political asylum after courts in England ruled he should be extradited to Sweden as part of a rape investigation in the Scandinavian country.

He was arrested by British police after Ecuador’s government withdrew his asylum status in 2019 and then jailed for skipping bail when he first took shelter inside the embassy.

Although Sweden eventually dropped its sex crimes investigation because so much time had elapsed, Assange has remained in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison while the extradition battle with the U.S. continues.

His wife said his mental and physical health have deteriorated behind bars.

“He’s fighting to survive and that’s a daily battle,” she said.

A judge in London initially blocked Assange’s transfer to the U.S. in 2021 on the grounds he was likely to kill himself if held in harsh American prison conditions.

But subsequent courts cleared the way for the move after U.S. authorities provided assurances he wouldn’t experience the severe treatment that his lawyers said would put his physical and mental health at risk.

The British government authorized Assange’s extradition in 2022.

What the latest hearing is about

Assange’s lawyers raised nine grounds for appeal at a hearing in February, including the allegation that his prosecution is political.  

The court accepted three of his arguments, issuing a provisional ruling in March that said Assange could take his case to the Court of Appeal unless the U.S. guaranteed he would not face the death penalty if extradited and would have the same free speech protections as a U.S. citizen.

The U.S. provided those reassurances three weeks later, though his supporters are skeptical.

Stella Assange said the “so-called assurances” were made up of “weasel words.”

WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Kristinn Hrafnsson said the judges had asked if Assange could rely on First Amendment protections.

“It should be an easy yes or no question,” Hrafnsson said. “The answer was, ‘He can seek to rely on First Amendment protections.’ That is a ‘no.’ So the only rational decision on Monday is for the judges to come out and say, ‘This is not good enough.’ Anything else is a judicial scandal.”

The possible outcome

If Assange prevails, it would set the stage for an appeal process likely to further drag out the case.

If an appeal is rejected, his legal team plans to ask the European Court of Human Rights to intervene. But his supporters fear Assange could possibly be transferred before the court in Strasbourg, France, could halt his removal.

“Julian is just one decision away from being extradited,” his wife said.

Assange, who hopes to be in court Monday, has been encouraged by the work others have done in the political fight to free him, his wife said.

If he loses in court, he still may have another shot at freedom.

President Joe Biden said last month that he was considering a request from Australia to drop the case and let Assange return to his home country.

Officials have no other details but Stella Assange said it was “a good sign” and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the comment was encouraging.

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As countries tighten anti-gay laws, more LGBTQ+ seek safety and asylum in Europe

RIETI, Italy — Ella Anthony knew it was time to leave her native Nigeria when she escaped an abusive, forced marriage only to face angry relatives who threatened to turn her in to police because she was gay.  

Since Nigeria criminalizes same-sex relationships, Anthony fled a possible prison term and headed with her partner to Libya in 2014 and then Italy, where they both won asylum. Their claim? That they had a well-founded fear of anti-LGBTQ+ persecution back home.

While many of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who arrive in Italy from Africa and the Mideast are escaping war, conflict and poverty, an increasing number are fleeing possible prison terms and death sentences in their home countries because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, advocates say.

And despite huge obstacles to win asylum on LGBTQ+ grounds, Anthony and her partner, Doris Ezuruike Chinonso are proof that it can be done, even if the challenges remain significant for so-called “rainbow refugees” like them.

“Certainly life here in Italy isn’t 100% what we want. But let’s say it’s 80% better than in my country,” Chinonso, 34, said with Anthony by her side at their home in Rieti, north of Rome. In Nigeria, “if you’re lucky you end up prison. If you’re not lucky, they kill you,” she said. 

“Here you can live as you like,” she said.

Most European countries don’t keep statistics on the number of migrants who claim anti-LGBTQ+ persecution as a reason for seeking refugee protection under international law. But non-governmental organizations that track the phenomenon say the numbers are rising as countries pass or toughen anti-homosexuality laws — a trend being highlighted on Friday’s observance of the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia.

To date, more than 60 countries have anti-LGBTQ+ laws on the books, most of them in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.

“The ultimate result is people trying to flee these countries to find safe haven elsewhere,” said Kimahli Powell, chief executive of Rainbow Railroad, which provides financial, legal and logistical support to LGBTQ+ people needing asylum assistance.

In an interview, Powell said his organization had received about 15,000 requests for assistance last year, up from some 9,500 the year before. One-tenth of those 2023 requests, or about 1,500, came from Uganda, which passed an anti-homosexuality law that year that allows the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” and up to 14 years in prison for “attempted aggravated homosexuality.”

Nigeria also criminalizes consensual same-sex relations between adults and the public display of affection between same-sex couples, as well as restricting the work of groups that advocate for gay people and their rights, according to Human Rights Watch. In regions of Nigeria where Sharia law is in force, LGBTQ+ people can face up to 14 years in prison or the death penalty.

Anthony, 37, said it was precisely the threat of prison that compelled her to leave. She said her family had sold her into marriage, but that she left the relationship because her husband repeatedly abused her. When she returned home, her brother and uncles threatened to turn her into police because she was gay. The fear and alienation drove her first to attempt suicide, and then take up a trafficker’s offer to pay for passage to Europe.

“At a certain point, I couldn’t take all these sufferings,” Anthony said through tears. “When this man told me that I should abandon the village, I immediately accepted.”

After arriving in Libya, Anthony and Chinonso paid traffickers for the risky boat trip across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy, where they both claimed asylum as a member of a group – LGBTQ+ people – who faced persecution in Nigeria. According to refugee norms, applicants for asylum can be granted international protection based on being a “member of a particular social group.”

But the process is by no means easy, straightforward or guaranteed. Privacy concerns limit the types of questions about sexual orientation that migrants can be asked during the asylum interview process. Social taboos and a reluctance to openly identify as gay or transgender mean some migrants might not volunteer the information immediately. Ignorance on the part of asylum interviewers about anti-gay laws in countries of origin can result in unsuccessful claims, according to the EU Agency for Asylum, which helps EU countries implement asylum norms.  

As a result, no comprehensive data exists about how many migrants seek or win asylum in the EU on LGBTQ+ grounds. Based on estimates reported by NGOs working with would-be refugees, the numbers in individual EU countries ranged from two to three in Poland in 2016 to 500 in Finland from 2015-2017 and 80 in Italy from 2012-2017, according to a 2017 report by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights.

An EU directive grants special protection for people made vulnerable due to sexual discrimination, prescribing “special procedural guarantees” in countries that receive them. However, it doesn’t specify what those guarantees involve and implementation is uneven. As a result, LGBTQ+ asylum seekers don’t always find protected environments once in the EU.

“We’re talking about people who are unfortunately victims of a double stigma: being a migrant, and being members of the LGBTQIA+ community,” said lawyer Marina De Stradis.

Even within Italy, the options vary widely from region to region, with the better-funded north offering more services than the less-developed south. In the capital Rome, there are only 10 beds specifically designated for LGBTQ+ migrants, said Antonella Ugirashebuja, an activist with the Arcigay association.

She said the lack of special protections often impacts female migrants more negatively than male, and can be especially dangerous for lesbians.

“Lesbians leaving Africa often, or more frequently, end up in prostitution and sexual exploitation networks because they lack (economic) support from their families,” she said. “The family considers them people to be pushed away, to be rejected … Especially in countries where this is punishable by law.”

Anthony and Chinonso consider themselves lucky: They live in a neat flat in Rieti with their dog Paddy, and dream of starting a family even if Italy doesn’t allow gay marriage.

Chinonso, who was studying medicine in Nigeria, is now a social and health worker. Anthony works at the deli counter in a Carrefour supermarket in Rome. She would have liked to have been able to continue working as a film editor, but is happy.

“It gave me the opportunity to grow,” she said.

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In Spain, Argentine president snubs officials, courts far-right

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Even before kicking off a three-day visit to Madrid on Friday, Argentina’s libertarian President Javier Milei stirred controversy, accusing the socialist government of bringing “poverty and death” to Spain and weighing in on corruption allegations against the prime minister’s wife.

In such circumstances, a typical visiting head of state may strive to mend fences with diplomacy.

Not Milei. The brash economist has no plans to meet Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez during his three days in the Spanish capital — nor the Spanish king, nor any other government official. Instead, he’ll attend a far-right summit Sunday hosted by Sánchez’s fiercest political opponent, the Vox party.

The unorthodox visit was business as usual for Milei, a darling of the global far right who has bonded with tech billionaire Elon Musk and praised former U.S. President Donald Trump. Earlier this year on a trip to the United States, Milei steered clear of the White House and took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, where he railed against abortion and socialism and shared a bear hug with Trump.

Milei presented his 2022 book, The Way of the Libertarian, in Madrid on Friday at a literary event organized by La Razón, a conservative Spanish newspaper.

The book — withdrawn from circulation in Spain earlier this month because the back-flap biography erroneously said Milei had earned a doctorate — traces his meteoric rise in politics from eccentric TV personality to national lawmaker and outlines his radical free-market economic ideas.

To thunderous applause, Milei condemned socialism as “an intellectual fraud and a horror in human terms.”

“The good thing is that the spotlight is shining on us everywhere and we are making the reds (leftists) uncomfortable all over the world,” Milei said.

He took the opportunity to promote the results of his harsh austerity campaign in Argentina, celebrating a decline in monthly inflation in April though making no mention of the Buenos Aires subway fares that more than tripled overnight.

Repeating a campaign pledge to eliminate Argentina’s central bank — without giving further details — Milei promised to make Argentina “the country with the most economic freedom in the world.”

At the event Milei gave a huge hug to his ideological ally Santiago Abascal, the leader of the hard-right Vox party and the only politician with whom Milei has actual plans to meet in Madrid.

The Vox summit Sunday seeks to bring together far-right figures from across Europe in a bid to rally the party’s base ahead of European parliamentary elections in June. Milei described his attendance a “moral imperative.” He also has plans to meet Spanish business executives Saturday.

Tensions between Milei and Sánchez have simmered since the moment the Spanish prime minister declined to congratulate the libertarian economist on his shock election victory last November.

But hostility exploded earlier this month when one of Sánchez’s ministers suggested Milei had taken narcotics. The Argentine presidency responded with an unusually harsh official statement accusing Sánchez’s government of “endangering the middle class with its socialist policies that bring nothing but poverty and death.”

The lengthy government statement also accused Sánchez of having “more important problems to deal with, such as the corruption accusations against his wife.”

The allegations of influence peddling and corruption brought by a right-wing group against Sánchez’s wife, Begoña Gómez, had prompted Sánchez, one of Europe’s longest serving Socialist leaders, to consider stepping down.

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Climate activists glue themselves at Munich airport

BERLIN — Six climate activists broke through a security fence at the Munich airport Saturday and glued themselves to access routes leading to runways, temporarily halting flights. 

The activists from the group Last Generation were protesting flying as the most polluting form of transportation, said the German news agency dpa. Police detained the six. 

Some 60 flights were canceled during the disruption that lasted a couple of hours, and passengers were rebooked on alternative flights, airport spokesperson Robert Wilhelm told dpa. Fourteen flights that were due to land in Munich were diverted to other airports, according to police. 

Last Generation accused the German government of downplaying the negative effects of flying on the environment instead of “finally acting sincerely,” in a post on the social media platform X. 

German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser called for an end to such protests. “Such criminal actions threaten air traffic and harm climate protection because they only cause lack of understanding and anger,” she wrote on X. 

Fraser also applauded police efforts to bring order back to the airport and called for airport safety measures to be checked. 

Minister for Transport Volker Wissing said that his ministry was already working on further tightening existing laws. 

The general manager of the German Airports Association, Ralph Beisel, also criticized the activists’ actions. “Trespassing the aviation security area is no trivial offense. Over hundreds of thousands of passengers were prevented from a relaxed and punctual start to their Pentecost holiday,” he told dpa. 

Beisel also called for harsher penalties for activists who break into airports. 

Climate activities blocked flights at Hamburg and Duesseldorf airports for several hours in July. 

In January, Last Generation — known for its members gluing themselves to streets to block traffic, which has infuriated many Germans — said it would abandon the tactic and move on to holding what it calls “disobedient assemblies.” Their actions have been widely criticized, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz described them as “completely nutty.” 

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Taliban raise death toll to 6 in gun attack on Western tourists

ISLAMABAD — The Taliban government said Saturday that the death toll from an overnight gun attack on Western tourists in central Afghanistan had risen to at least six, including three Spaniards.

Interior Ministry spokesperson Abdul Mateen Qani said in a video statement that the Friday evening shooting in Bamiyan city by unknown assailants left three Afghans dead.

He said that four foreigners and three Afghans were among those wounded. Qani said that Taliban security forces had apprehended seven suspects in connection with the attack, reiterating his government’s resolve to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Spain’s government confirmed the fatalities of its three nationals, saying another was among the injured tourists.

The Spanish foreign ministry said Saturday a group of its diplomats was traveling to the Afghan capital, Kabul, to assist Spaniards affected by the attack.

On Friday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez posted on X that he was “shocked by the news of the murder of Spanish tourists in Afghanistan.”

Nationals from Norway, Australia and Lithuania were also among the group of foreigners that were targeted by gunmen.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the deadly shooting.

A spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy at the European Union condemned the armed attack against the tourists visiting Bamiyan.

“Our thoughts are with the families and loved ones of the victims who lost their lives and those injured in the attack,” Nabila Massrali said in a statement Friday.

The United States said it was “deeply saddened to hear about the shooting attack” in Bamiyan. “Our thoughts are with those who lost their loved ones. Violence is not the answer,” Thomas West, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, said on X.

Friday’s attack on foreign tourists was the first of its kind since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021.

According to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Bamiyan, one of the poorest regions in impoverished Afghanistan, is a popular destination for foreign tourists because it contains Buddhist monastic ensembles and sanctuaries.

The scenic city was also the spot where the Taliban destroyed two large Buddha statues in March 2001 during their previous rule in Afghanistan. The group said the statues were blasphemous under Islam.

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Court orders suspect in Slovak PM shooting be detained

PEZINOK, Slovakia — The man accused of attempting to assassinate Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was ordered to remain behind bars Saturday. Fico is in serious but stable condition after surviving multiple gunshots, officials said.

Slovakia’s Specialized Criminal Court ordered the detention of the suspect after prosecutors said they feared he could flee or carry out other crimes if set free, a court spokesperson said. The suspect can appeal the order to the Supreme Court.

Fico, 59, was shot in the abdomen as he greeted supporters following a government meeting Wednesday in the former coal mining town of Handlova, officials said. The shooter fired five rounds before being tackled and arrested.

Prosecutors told police not to publicly identify the man or release other details about the case, but unconfirmed media reports said he was a 71-year-old retiree known as an amateur poet who may have once worked as a mall security guard in the country’s southwest.

Government authorities gave details that matched that description. They said the suspect didn’t belong to any political groups, although the attack itself was politically motivated.

The courthouse in Pezinok, a small town outside the capital, Bratislava, was guarded by police wearing helmets and balaclavas and carrying rifles. News media were not allowed in and reporters were kept behind a gate outside.

The suspect left the courthouse just hours after government ministers announced that Fico’s condition looked promising after two hours of surgery Friday to remove dead tissue from multiple gunshot wounds. But he still is not healthy enough to travel to a hospital in Bratislava.

“Several miracles have occurred … in the past few days, coming from the hands of the doctors, nurses and entire medical staff,” Defense Minister Rober Kalinak said outside F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital in Banska Bystrica, where Fico was taken by helicopter after the shooting. “I can’t find words of gratitude for the fact that we are steadily approaching that positive prognosis.”

Police on Friday took the suspect to his home in the town of Levice and seized a computer and some documents, Markiza, a Slovak television station, reported. Police didn’t comment.

With police remaining largely silent about the case, it was not clear how the suspect came to possess a firearm. Slovakia has strict rules on firearms, and gun owners must have a good reason to possess one and are required to pass a test.

As a consequence, Slovakia has one of the lowest gun ownership rates in Europe. It was ranked 23rd out of 27 European Union countries with a gun ownership rate of 6.5 per 100 people, according to the Association of Accredited Public Policy Advocates to the EU.

World leaders have condemned the attack and offered support for Fico and Slovakia.

Fico has long been a divisive figure in Slovakia and beyond. His return to power last year on a pro-Russia, anti-U.S. platform led to worries among fellow European Union and NATO members that he would abandon his country’s pro-Western course, particularly on Ukraine.

At the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, Slovakia was one of Ukraine’s staunchest supporters, but Fico halted arms deliveries to Ukraine when he returned to power, his fourth time serving as prime minister.

Fico’s government has also made efforts to overhaul public broadcasting — a move critics said would give the government full control of public television and radio. That, coupled with his plans to amend the penal code to eliminate a special anti-graft prosecutor, have led opponents to worry that Fico will lead Slovakia down a more autocratic path.

Thousands of demonstrators have repeatedly rallied in the capital and around the country of 5.4 million to protest his policies.

Fico said last month on Facebook that he believed rising tensions in the country could lead to the killing of politicians, and he blamed the media for fueling tensions.

Before Fico returned to power last year, many of his political and business associates were the focus of police investigations, and dozens have been charged.

His plan to overhaul the penal system would eliminate the office of the special prosecutor that deals with organized crime, corruption and extremism.

Despite nobody being named as temporary leader, there was nothing imminent that needed the premier’s attention and the government was operating as planned and moving forward with Fico’s agenda, Kalinak said.

Communication with Fico was limited given his condition, Kalinak said.

The next government session is planned for Wednesday, and Kalinak will be in charge, the Slovak government office said.

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Vatican moves to adapt to hoaxes, Internet

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican on Friday overhauled its process for evaluating alleged visions of the Virgin Mary, weeping statues and other seemingly supernatural phenomena that have marked church history, putting the brakes on making definitive declarations unless the event is obviously fabricated.

The Vatican’s doctrine office revised norms first issued in 1978, arguing that they were no longer useful or viable in the internet age. Nowadays, word about apparitions or weeping Madonnas travels quickly and can harm the faithful if hoaxers are trying to make money off people’s beliefs or manipulate them, the Vatican said.

The new norms make clear that such an abuse of people’s faith can be punishable canonically, saying, “The use of purported supernatural experiences or recognized mystical elements as a means of or a pretext for exerting control over people or carrying out abuses is to be considered of particular moral gravity.”

The Catholic Church has had a long and controversial history of the faithful claiming to have had visions of the Virgin Mary, of statues purportedly weeping tears of blood and stigmata erupting on hands and feet evoking the wounds of Christ.

When confirmed as authentic by church authorities, these otherwise inexplicable signs have led to a flourishing of the faith, with new religious vocations and conversions. That has been the case for the purported apparitions of Mary that turned Fatima, Portugal, and Lourdes, France, into enormously popular pilgrimage destinations.

Church figures who claimed to have experienced the stigmata wounds, including Padre Pio and Pope Francis’ namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, have inspired millions of Catholics even if decisions about their authenticity have been elusive.

Francis himself has weighed in on the phenomenon, making clear that he is devoted to the main church-approved Marian apparitions, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe, who believers say appeared to an Indigenous man in Mexico in 1531.

But Francis has expressed skepticism about more recent events, including claims of repeated messages from Mary to “seers” at the shrine of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, even while allowing pilgrimages to take place there.

“I prefer the Madonna as mother, our mother, and not a woman who’s the head of a telegraphic office, who sends a message every day at a certain time,” Francis told reporters in 2017.

The new norms reframe the Catholic Church’s evaluation process by essentially taking off the table whether church authorities will declare a particular vision, stigmata or other seemingly divinely inspired event supernatural.

Instead, the new criteria envisages six main outcomes, with the most favorable being that the church issues a noncommittal doctrinal green light, a so-called “nihil obstat.” Such a declaration means there is nothing about the event that is contrary to the faith, and therefore Catholics can express devotion to it.

The bishop can take more cautious approaches if there are doctrinal red flags about the reported event. The most serious envisages a declaration that the event isn’t supernatural or that there are enough red flags to warrant a public statement “that adherence to this phenomenon is not allowed.”

The aim is to avoid scandal, manipulation and confusion, and the Vatican fully acknowledged the hierarchy’s own guilt in confusing the faithful with the way it evaluated and authenticated alleged visions over the centuries.

The most egregious case was the flip-flopping determinations of authenticity by a succession of bishops over 70 years in Amsterdam about the purported visions of the Madonna at the Our Lady of All Nations shrine.

Another similar case prompted the Vatican in 2007 to excommunicate the members of a Quebec-based group, the Army of Mary, after its founder claimed to have had Marian visions and declared herself the reincarnation of the mother of Christ.

The revised norms acknowledge the real potential for such abuses and warn that hoaxers will be held accountable, including with canonical penalties.

The norms also allow that an event might at some point be declared “supernatural,” and that the pope can intervene in the process. But “as a rule,” the church is no longer in the business of authenticating inexplicable events or making definitive decisions about their supernatural origin.

And at no point are the faithful ever obliged to believe in the particular events, said Argentine Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, the head of the Vatican doctrine office.

“The church gives the faithful the freedom to pay attention” or not, he said at a news conference.

Despite the new criteria, he said the church’s past decision-making on alleged supernatural events — such as at Fatima, Guadalupe or Lourdes — remains valid.

“What was decided in the past has its value,” he said. “What was done remains.”

To date, fewer than 20 apparitions have been approved by the Vatican over its 2,000-year history, according to Michael O’Neill, who runs the online apparition resource The Miracle Hunter.

Neomi De Anda, executive director of the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton, said the new guidelines represent a significant and welcome change to the current practice, while restating important principles.

“The faithful are able to engage with these phenomena as members of the faithful in popular practices of religion, while not feeling the need to believe everything offered to them as supernatural as well as the caution against being deceived and beguiled,” she said in an email.

Whereas in the past the bishop often had the last word unless Vatican help was requested, now the Vatican must sign off on every recommendation proposed by a bishop.

Robert Fastiggi, who teaches Marian theology at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan and is an expert on apparitions, said at first glance that requirement might seem to take authority away from the local bishop.

“But I think it’s intended to avoid cases in which the Holy See might feel prompted to overrule a decision of the local bishop,” he said.

“What is positive in the new document is the recognition that the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Mother are present and active in human history,” he said. “We must appreciate these supernatural interventions but realize that they must be discerned properly.”

He cited the biblical phrase that best applies: “Test everything, retain what is good.”

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Turkish court hands pro-Kurdish politicians lengthy sentences over deadly protests

Diyarbakir, Turkey / Washington — A Turkish court gave several lengthy prison sentences to pro-Kurdish politicians for instigating protests in southeastern Turkey in 2014 when the Islamic State group attacked the Syrian border town of Kobani.

Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, the former co-leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), on Thursday received the longest sentences among the 108 defendants, 18 of whom had been in pretrial detention.

Demirtas was sentenced to 42 years for a total of 47 crimes, including “disrupting the unity and the integrity of the state,” while Yuksekdag received just over 30 years in prison for “attempts to challenge the unity of the state, of inciting criminal acts, and of engaging in propaganda on behalf of a terror organization.”

The trial stemmed from the 2014 Kobani protests, in which hundreds of pro-Kurdish protesters took to the streets in predominantly Kurdish provinces of Turkey over the government’s inaction toward IS militants who were advancing to capture Kobani in October 2014.

HDP, which initiated the call for protests, demanded the opening of a corridor to Kobani through Turkey so that military aid from other parts of Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan could reach the IS-besieged town.

During the protests, in which 37 people died and 761 people were injured, clashes occurred between the security forces and protesters and between the Islamist Kurdish groups and protesters. HDP later called for de-escalation.

At the time of the protests, Ankara was involved in a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated as a terror organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. However, the peace process ended in 2015, and Ankara accused the HDP in connection with the deaths in the 2014 protests. The party denies any involvement.

Convictions

The first hearing in the Kobani trial was held in 2021. In the more than 3,000-page indictment, senior HDP members were listed as defendants and charged with 29 offenses, including “homicide and harming the unity of the state.”

In the end, 12 defendants were acquitted of all charges and 24 defendants were convicted. The other 72 defendants at large are to be tried in the future.

The defendants’ lawyers and the pro-Kurdish DEM Party, the HDP’s successor, view the trial as political. Lawyer Nahit Eren, the head of the Diyarbakir Bar Association and a member of the legal team, told VOA Turkish that they would appeal the verdict.

On Friday, Turkish Justice Minister Yilmaz Tunc said, “There is no place for calls for violence in democracies.”

“Therefore, in this sense, it is a decision made by our independent and impartial judiciary. This is the decision of the first level court, there are the first and second level of appeal processes. We will wait for the result of these processes together,” he added.

Turkish Deputy Minister of Interior Bulent Turan noted that there were acquittals and sentences in the verdict.

“Although it did not please some people, justice was served,” Turan said in a post on X.

Following the verdict on Thursday, local governors imposed a four-day ban on protests in the predominantly Kurdish cities of Diyarbakir, Siirt, Tunceli and Batman. On Friday, police officers did not let DEM Party members gather for a demonstration in Diyarbakir but allowed them to make a media statement.

Reactions

Human Rights Watch said in a statement Friday that the trial was “manifestly political and unjust.”

“The conviction of Selahattin Demirtaş, Figen Yuksekdag and other leading Kurdish opposition politicians in a mass trial is the latest move in a campaign of persecution that has robbed mainly Kurdish voters of their chosen representatives, undermined the democratic process and criminalized lawful political speech,” Hugh Williamson, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia director, said in the statement.

The convictions of pro-Kurdish politicians come at a time when “normalization” between the ruling Justice and Development Party and the opposition is a hot topic on the Turkish political agenda.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met main opposition Republican People’s Party leader Ozgur Ozel on May 2, and both leaders have been vocal about ending Turkey’s polarized political environment.

Some experts think that the convictions are causing the Kurdish public to question the statements on normalization.

“While the normalization is talked about so much, the fact that such a normalization was not reflected in the judiciary will cause serious damage to the Kurdish public,” Roj Girasun, the director of Diyarbakir-based Rawest Research, told VOA Turkish.

“Is this final verdict a postponement of normalization or a complete shelving? It is too early to answer,” Girasun said.

Another expert and political scientist, Vedat Kacal, thinks that the verdict is a bureaucratic move to try to discourage Kurdish voters from hoping for a solution to the Kurdish question in Turkey through elections.

“[The verdict] can be interpreted as a psychological method of pushing Kurdish voters back into the narrow patterns of the Kurdish right by making them despair about the ballot box and the future of Turkish politics,” Kacal told VOA Turkish.

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Turkey sends Syrian mercenaries to Niger to secure strategic interests

washington — Hundreds of Syrian mercenaries have been sent by Turkey to Niger in recent months to protect Ankara’s economic and military interests in the West African nation, a rights group and experts said. 

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has researchers throughout Syria, reports that recruitment of Syrian fighters for deployment to Niger has been going on for several months. 

“We have confirmed that about 1,100 Syrian fighters have already been deployed to Niger since September of last year,” said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory. 

Syrian nationals are being recruited from areas under the control of Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian armed groups in northwest Syria, Abdulrahman told VOA. 

Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), a France-based advocacy group, said it has also documented such recruitments. 

“These Syrian fighters are being transported from Syria into Turkey, and then using Turkish airports, they are sent [to Niger] by Turkish military airplanes,” Bassam Alahmad, executive director of STJ, told VOA. 

Turkey has in the past deployed Syrian fighters to other conflict zones, including Azerbaijan and Libya, through SADAT International Defense Consultancy, a private military company that reportedly has close ties with the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

“It’s very clear that in Niger, Turkey is just extending a policy that views Africa as clear area of growth for Turkey in terms of commercial and military interests, and in terms of extending Turkey’s power in the world,” says Nicholas Heras, a Middle East expert at the New Lines Institute, a research organization in Washington. 

Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory also said that SADAT was behind the recruitment of Syrian nationals from areas under the control of Turkey. 

The Istanbul-based company declined to comment. VOA also contacted Turkey’s Foreign Ministry but has received no response. 

A Syrian fighter, who went by the name Ahmed, told AFP this week that a Turkey-backed Syrian militia called the Sultan Murad Division was involved in recruiting him for the Niger deployment. 

The Syrian fighter, who was in Aleppo province, said new recruits will be trained at camps before participating in battles in Niger. 

“The first two batches of fighters have already gone, and a third batch will follow soon,” he said. 

Another Syrian fighter told AFP that he was recruited for duty in Niger “on a six-month contract with a salary of $1,500.” 

A third Syrian fighter said that after two weeks of military training, he was tasked with guarding a site near a mine in Niger, according to AFP. 

Syrian fighters have cited economic incentives as the main motive for accepting such job offers. 

The Syrian Observatory said the Turkey-backed Syrian mercenaries have been stationed in the tri-border area between Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. 

“For those getting wounded in battle, they receive up to $30,000 in compensation,” Abdulrahman said. “For those getting killed, their families receive up to $60,000.” 

The United Nations says the tri-border region in recent years has become a major hotspot for insecurity, including terror activities carried out by militant groups. 

This comes at a time when Nigerien and U.S. defense officials are discussing plans to withdraw all American forces from the country. Niger’s military junta, which overthrew the country’s democratically elected president in July of last year, has demanded an end to U.S. military presence in the country.

In December 2023, France also ended its military presence in Niger after a similar demand was made by the junta leaders. 

Experts say Niger’s junta recognizes a continued need for security support, so they are increasingly relying on mercenaries deployed by Russia and Turkey. 

“France and the United States were security partners that were there supporting Nigerien forces through cooperation and agreements that didn’t cost the Nigerien public significant tax dollars,” said Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington. “Now upon their departure you have smaller contingents of Russian mercenaries, or these reports of Syrian mercenaries being sent by Turkey.” 

“You’re just witnessing this very strange rhetoric around the reclaiming of national sovereignty by Niger’s junta, which has no legitimate claim to popular political support, and then them ceding that sovereignty to these mercenaries and spending Nigerien tax dollars on hiring these groups whether they be Russian or Turkish,” he told VOA. 

Eizenga said the number of fatalities linked to attacks by Islamist militant groups in Niger has increased significantly since the junta took power in July 2023, arguing that coup leaders’ interests are not aligned with national interests in Niger. 

“The fact that they are inviting and courting these mercenary groups to come in is another example of exactly that,” he said. 

This story originated in VOA’s Kurdish Service with some information from AFP. 

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