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Rights Group Says 63 dead, 15 missing from Nicaragua Unrest

Thu, 26 Apr 2018 18:55:54 -0400

A non-governmental rights group said Thursday that it has confirmed that 63 people died during days of protests over social security changes that convulsed Nicaragua last week, a figure that was not immediately confirmed or denied by the government.  The Permanent Commission on Human Rights added that at least 15 other people are missing and that it had counted over 160 people wounded by gunfire, including nine who lost an eye and two who were left paralyzed.  “What took place is a massacre,” said Marcos Carmona, the group’s director.  Authorities did not immediately respond to the announcement. The last official death toll provided by the government, 12, came Monday.  Carmona said the organization’s count of deaths had increased from 39 the previous evening based on reports coming in from associates across the country.  “We have evaluated them name by name,” Carmona said.  Another group, the Nicaraguan Center on Human Rights, said it had received reports from relatives of the dead that they were made to sign letters saying they would not file complaints before being allowed to receive the remains of their loved ones.  President Daniel Ortega’s government had implemented a plan to increase the payroll tax and cut pension benefits to shore up Nicaragua's social security system. That sparked widespread protests, which included many university students, and Ortega canceled the overhaul Sunday. He agreed to talks with different sectors of society.  

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US Citizen Charged in Attack at Iran's DC Office

Thu, 26 Apr 2018 18:46:15 -0400

U.S. prosecutors have charged an American man of Iranian origin with assaulting and kidnapping staff at Iran's diplomatic office in Washington. Alireza Fakhar, 55, appeared in a Washington court on Thursday to hear the charges related to the previous day's violent incident at the Iranian Interests Section in a northwest Washington office building. Prosecutors filed three charges against Fakhar, including assault with a dangerous weapon, kidnapping and damaging property owned by a foreign government. If convicted of the charges, Fakhar could face a maximum sentence of life in prison for kidnapping, and up to five and 10 years for property damage and assault, respectively. One employee of the Iranian office was wounded in the incident and was sent to a hospital. Other staff members told U.S. news media that the assailant had threatened them with a knife and what appeared to be a gun. U.S. Secret Service and police officers detained Fakhar at the scene. He did not resist arrest. This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Persian service. 

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Mexico Economy Minister Says NAFTA Revamp Talks 'Not Easy'

Thu, 26 Apr 2018 18:42:10 -0400

Much remains to be done before a new North American Free Trade Agreement is reached, Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo said Thursday, tempering hopes for a quick deal as ministers met in Washington for a third successive day. Negotiators from the United States, Mexico and Canada have been working constantly for weeks to clinch a deal, but major differences remain on contentious topics such as autos content. Complicating matters, the Trump administration has threatened to impose sanctions on Canadian and Mexican steel and aluminum on May 1 if not enough progress has been made on NAFTA. President Donald Trump, who came into office in January 2017 decrying NAFTA and other international trade deals as unfair to the United States, has repeatedly threatened to walk away from the agreement with Canada and Mexico, which took effect in 1994. "It is going, it's going, but not easy — too many things, too many issues to tackle," Guajardo told reporters after a meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. Now under way for eight months, the talks to revamp the accord underpinning $1.2 trillion in trade entered a more intensive phase after the last formal round of negotiations ended in March with ministers vowing to push for a deal. Lighthizer is due to visit China next week, and when asked if a deal was possible before the USTR left, Guajardo said: "It will depend on our abilities and creativity. We are trying to do our best, but there are still a lot of things pending." Although Washington is keen for an agreement soon to avoid clashing with a July 1 Mexican presidential election, the three NAFTA members remain locked in talks to agree on new rules governing minimum content requirements for the auto industry. Still, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland rejected the notion that discussion of the so-called rules of origin for the automotive sector was holding up the process. "I would very much disagree with the characterization of the autos conversation as being log-jammed," she said as she entered the USTR offices. "This is a week when very good, significant progress is being made on rules of origin for the car sector." Freeland said she would skip a planned visit to a NATO summit in Brussels on Friday, and vowed to stay in Washington for "as long as it takes." Guajardo, too, said he was ready to remain in Washington this week for more talks. Disagreements The three sides are also trying to settle disagreements over U.S. demands to change how trade disputes are handled, to restrict access to agricultural markets and to include a clause that would allow a country to quit NAFTA after five years. Bosco de la Vega, head of Mexico's National Agricultural Council, the main farm lobby, said he believed the three would be able to reach an agreement on agricultural access. But the auto sector rules were still contentious, he added. "It's the most important issue there," he said, adding that he had earmarked May 10 as the deadline for a quick deal. Separately, Canada on Thursday unveiled details of how it plans to prevent the smuggling of cheap steel and aluminum into the North American market in a bid to avoid the U.S. tariffs. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who announced the plan last month, said Ottawa would hire 40 new trade officers to probe complaints, including those related to steel and aluminum.

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Inter-American Court Hears First Case on Mexico Military Abuse

Thu, 26 Apr 2018 18:20:24 -0400

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights on Thursday began hearing the first case of alleged state-led human rights violations in Mexico to be brought since the country militarized its battle against violent drug cartels over a decade ago. The case of Alvarado Espinoza et al vs. Mexico will be held in San Jose, in Costa Rica, on Thursday and Friday. It is expected to shine a harsh light on Mexico's military assault on warring drug gangs, which the government has recently sought to enshrine in law, despite criticism from rights groups. In December 2009, three years after former President Felipe Calderon sent in the army to curb drug violence, a group of soldiers stormed two houses belonging to three members of the Alvarado family in the northern border state of Chihuahua, the family and rights groups say. After being bundled into the soldiers' vehicles, Nitza Paola Alvarado, Jose Angel Alvarado and Rocio Irene Alvarado were never seen again. "The last words I remember my mother saying were 'I'll be right back,'" Nitza's daughter, Paola, told Reuters. "But she never returned. We're still looking for her." Jaime Alvarado, a relative of one of the people who disappeared, said he hoped the court would take his family's experiences into account. "I would ask the court, please, that they each put themselves in our shoes ... and what we have lived," said Alvarado, who said he had to flee from his home town due to death threats. During at least 10 investigations into the incident, troops from the Mexican army's 35th battalion were implicated, according to Mexican advocacy group the Center for Women's Human Rights (CEDEHM), which is representing the family of the missing Alvarados. None of the probes resulted in a conviction. The CEDEHM alleges that the Mexican government's failures in the case raise hard questions about its drug war. The Defense Ministry, which oversees the military and the air force, said it did not have information about the case. The Washington Office on Latin America found that between 2012 and 2016, the Mexican attorney general opened 505 cases in which members of the military were accused of violating the human rights of civilians. Mexico's Supreme Court is examining the legality of a contentious new security law, which has sparked fierce criticism by opponents who fear it could open the door to more abuses. The government says the law sets out rules under which the armed forces can operate in the battle with organized crime, but backlash against the legislation led President Enrique Pena Nieto to send it to the court in December for review. Mexico suffered at least 200,000 homicides between 2007 and 2017, according to official figures, and last year posted the highest murder tally since modern government records began. The Inter-American Court hears cases of human rights abuses in Latin America and can order governments to investigate crimes and compensate victims.

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Seeing Red: Teacher Walkouts Shut Arizona, Colorado Schools

Thu, 26 Apr 2018 17:41:24 -0400

A sea of teachers clad in red shirts and holding "Money for Schools" signs reached the Arizona Capitol to press lawmakers for action Thursday, a key event in an unprecedented walkout that closed most of the state's public schools and built on an educator uprising that bubbled up in other parts of the U.S. Tens of thousands of teachers and their supporters headed through downtown Phoenix to a rally to demand increased school funding on top of big pay hikes offered by the Republican governor. Widespread walkouts also were under way in Colorado, where teachers protested at their own Capitol and some schools were shut down. Educators in both states want more classroom resources and have received offers either for increased school funding or pay, but they say the money isn't guaranteed and the efforts aren't enough. The walkouts are the climax of an uprising that spread from West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky. A lack of resolution led Arizona educators to launch the first-ever statewide strike to force their demands. It comes as about half of all Colorado students will see their schools shuttered over two days as teachers take up the Arizona movement's #RedforEd mantle. "I feel like funding for the schools should be at the top of the list," said Brandon Hartley, a charter school teacher from the Phoenix suburb of Peoria who brought his 7-year-old son to the rally at the Arizona Capitol. Other parents who brought their children to the Phoenix protest expressed their support despite school closures that led makeshift day care operations to open at schools and recreation centers to help working parents. Food banks and some schools also were providing free meals that many students rely on. Mariaelena Sandoval brought her 11-year-old daughter and held a sign that said, "I'm a Republican, I'm voting and I'm #RedforEd." She said she had a "wake-up call" for school funding when she learned about a teacher paying out of pocket for a field trip. "I'm walking for her," Sandoval said of her daughter. The crowd, many of whom carried water jugs and umbrellas, walked 2 miles in heat that reached the mid-90s as employees at courthouses and office buildings left work to watch. The state Department of Public Safety estimated the crowd size at 40,000. In much cooler Colorado, several thousand educators rallied around the Capitol, with many using personal time to attend two days of protests expected to draw as many as 10,000 demonstrators. They chanted, "Education is our right" and "We're not gonna take it anymore," drawing honks from passing cars. Lawmakers there have agreed to give schools their largest budget increase since the Great Recession. But teachers say Colorado has a long way to go to recover lost ground because of strict tax and spending limits. Arizona proposal Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has proposed 20 percent raises by 2020 and said he has no plans to meet with striking teachers or address their other demands, including about $1 billion to return school funding to pre-Great Recession levels and increased pay for support staff. Teachers and some lawmakers say the proposal relies on rosy revenue projections. A key legislative leader says a budget deal that could provide money for teachers is likely still at least several days away as lawmakers work out issues over how Ducey's plan will be structured. Joe Thomas of the Arizona Education Association, the state's largest teacher membership group, has said the walkout has no end date, and educators may have to consider a ballot initiative seeking education funding if lawmakers do not come up with their own plan. School districts across Arizona have closed, including the state's largest three. Teachers also protested on both sides of the state. South in Tucson, they waved signs on sidewalks and corners at a downtown intersection, while up north, protesters marched to Flagstaff City Hall and others gathered on the Navajo reservation. [...]

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UN Peacekeepers Uncover Suspected Mass Graves in DRC

Thu, 26 Apr 2018 17:36:51 -0400

U.N. investigators have uncovered what they believe to be five mass graves in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the scene of nearly 20 years of fierce ethnic fighting. A new report says U.N. peacekeepers found the suspected mass burials last month in Ituri province, where a recent surge in violence left towns and villages in ruins and more than 260 people dead. Congolese officials say they have no knowledge of mass graves and are asking the U.N. for a copy of its report. Fighting over land use, politics and other differences between ethnic Hema cattle herders and Lendu farmers erupted in the eastern part of the country in 1999. Hundreds of thousands of Hemas have fled their homes across Lake Albert into neighboring Uganda, while others sought refuge in other Congolese villages. The Hemas largely blame the Lendu farmers for the attacks, saying they use spears, bows and arrows, machetes, and guns. The Lendu have accused Hemas of planning a genocide.

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Parents Sue North Korea over Death of Detainee Otto Warmbier

Thu, 26 Apr 2018 17:31:29 -0400

The parents of U.S. college student Otto Warmbier  have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against North Korea, saying its government tortured and killed their son. Fred and Cindy Warmbier filed the lawsuit Thursday in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.  The lawsuit seeks compensation for the death of Otto Warmbier, who was arrested by North Korean authorities in January 2016 for stealing a propaganda poster and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He died in June 2017, days after he was repatriated to the U.S. with severe brain damage.  Fred Warmbier said in a statement that his son “was taken hostage, kept as a prisoner for political purposes, used as a pawn and singled out for exceptionally harsh and brutal treatment by Kim Jong Un.”

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Peru's Ex-President, Wife to Be Released from Prison

Thu, 26 Apr 2018 17:28:09 -0400

A high court in Peru ruled Thursday that former President Ollanta Humala and his wife must be freed from prison while prosecutors investigate their alleged involvement in multimillion-dollar kickback schemes. Humala and Nadine Heredia were sent to separate prisons last summer as prosecutors investigated them for allegedly taking money from Odebrecht, the Brazil-based multinational construction company that has admitted to bribing dozens of politicians in Latin America. But with prosecutors still not pressing formal charges against the couple, Peru's Constitutional Court ruled that their arrest and imprisonment failed to comply with due process laws. The ruling comes on the heels of the resignation of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who stepped down last month after a group of opposition congressmen published documents that showed one of his companies had done consulting work for Odebrecht. Former President Alejandro Toledo is also wanted by Peruvian prosecutors for allegedly taking $20 million in bribes from the Brazilian company in exchange for a highway contract. Toledo claims he is innocent and is currently at large in the United States, where he has argued that the investigations of him are politically motivated. The corruption scandals have upended Peruvian politics and led to calls for swift action against the country's political elite. But on Thursday, Peru's high court encouraged prosecutors to be more careful in how they proceed with graft cases. "We need to make sure our fight against corruption is legal, so that it does not lose legitimacy," said the court's president, Ernesto Blume.

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Senior Afghan Official Killed

Thu, 26 Apr 2018 16:58:40 -0400

A senior Afghan provincial official has been killed in eastern Afghanistan after militants attacked his vehicle, Afghan officials told VOA. Qamaruddin Shikib, the deputy governor of eastern Logar province, was traveling to the capital, Kabul, when his vehicle was ambushed in Mohammad Agha district of eastern Logar province. In a statement released Thursday, the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG), a government institution overseeing local governance, condemned the attack and confirmed the death of Shikib. Abdul Wali Wakil, a member of Logar’s provincial council, told VOA that Shikib was on his way to Kabul for official business when he was attacked by a group of unknown armed men.  The deputy governor reportedly was traveling with Haqiq Rahman, a provincial judiciary official, a driver and two bodyguards. His driver was reportedly killed in the attack and the two bodyguards and the judiciary official have been wounded.  There also were unconfirmed reports that Saleem Khan Saleh, the provincial government’s spokesperson, was traveling with the deputy governor and had been killed.  The news of Saleh’s death has not yet been confirmed by authorities.  No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but officials suspected it was carried out by the Taliban. 

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Russia, Ukraine Top NATO Agenda 

Thu, 26 Apr 2018 16:54:41 -0400

NATO foreign ministers meet Friday in Brussels, where tensions with Russia are set to top the agenda.  The summit comes weeks after Western countries accused Moscow of poisoning a former spy in Britain. Tensions were further increased following Russia ally Syria’s alleged chemical weapons attack, and the retaliatory airstrikes by the United States, France and Britain. While that military action was not organized through NATO, the bloc offered its approval at the time. Friday’s summit will be the last big meeting in NATO’s old Brussels building before its international staff and 29 embassies move to a new $1.5 billion headquarters in June. The same challenges remain, however. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday that the primary focus would be what he called Moscow’s “dangerous behavior.” “This includes the illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea, the destabilization of eastern Ukraine, meddling in democratic processes, cyberattacks and disinformation,” Stoltenberg told reporters. Foreign ministers will also discuss security in the Middle East and north Africa, especially Iraq. “We are currently planning for a training mission of several hundred [people]. They will train Iraqi instructors and help build Iraqi military schools,” added Stoltenberg. New U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is headed to Brussels for the NATO talks ahead of a trip to the Middle East. Pompeo, who was sworn in on Thursday, succeeds Rex Tillerson, whom President Donald Trump fired last month. Trump is expected at the leaders’ summit in July. Analysts say NATO allies will be hoping for further reassurances of U.S. commitment. Enlargement also is on the summit agenda, with Ukraine restating its ambitions to join the organization. At a Kyiv security conference last week, NATO’s deputy secretary-general, Rose Gottemoeller, offered measured encouragement to her hosts. "I think those are very important and realistic goals but I’m not going to hide from you that you have a lot of heavy lifting to do before you are ready for NATO membership. Important reforms have to be carried out. They are the reforms of defense institutions, the security institutions,” said Gottemoeller. The conflict with Russia has driven a big change in Ukrainians’ attitudes toward NATO, according to Orysia Lutsevych of Chatham House, a London-based policy institute. “If you compare the public support before the war with Russia and now, it almost doubled. So, there’s also a public support for that policy. Now again, as with many things in Ukraine, the devil is in the implementation. And if Ukraine manages to pool all the necessary human, financial resources and proper coordination, then I think it has a success story to tell to its NATO partners,” said Lutsevych. Ukraine’s admission would open up a new NATO border with Russia in a highly volatile region, and the process is expected to take years or decades. NATO’s secretary-general emphasized Thursday that dialogue with Moscow was crucial, adding that the organization was working toward a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council. That forum was suspended in 2014 following Russia’s forceful annexation of Crimea.

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