Bosnia Adopts EU-required Changes to Criminal Code After Delay

The Bosnian parliament on Monday approved long-delayed changes to a criminal code aimed at bolstering the rule of law and the fight against crime and corruption, which is expected to speed up the country’s progress towards European Union membership.

Bosnia’s top court had given lawmakers a June deadline to bring the country’s criminal procedure code into line with international standards, a key EU requirement for Western Balkan nations aspiring to join the bloc.

But politicians from Bosnia’s three rival ethnic parties could not agree on changes drafted by the Justice Ministry which included the use of undercover police personnel, communications interception, surveillance and the use of informants.

The EU also considered the amendments proposed by the ministry to be too weak, and warned that Bosnian prosecutors would be deprived of one of the major tools to effectively fight against the most serious crime.

A compromise solution agreed under international pressure allows the duration of investigative processes to be cut to a maximum of one year from up to 10 years previously, and reduces the scope for granting immunity to alleged offenders and witnesses.

A majority of lawmakers in Bosnia’s multi-layered parliamentary system have enjoyed immunity from prosecution and analysts in the country, which is mired in corruption, said politicians had resisted major changes to the law in order to keep this privilege.

Disputes among Bosnia’s ethnic leaders have nearly halted the Balkan country’s progress towards the EU and NATO. Bosnia formally applied for EU membership in 2016 but the process of joining is expected to take at least a decade.

Trial for Murder of Honduran Environmental Activist Delayed

Honduras’ supreme court indefinitely suspended the start of a trial Monday of eight men charged in the 2016 killing of prize-winning Honduran indigenous and environmental rights activist Berta Caceres.

 

Judiciary spokesman Melvin Duarte said five related filings in the case have to be resolved first.

 

Caceres’ family and the organization she led said in a statement Monday that the court where the trial was to be held had not guaranteed the rights of the victims or the accused and that it would not be impartial. They petitioned that the case be moved to another court.

“We seek justice amid adverse circumstances and even there find a criminal structure behind the death of Berta,” her family said in a statement.

 

Prosecutors said in a statement that the scientific evidence collected would be the key to convicting the suspects.

 

Caceres was shot to death inside her home in La Esperanza in western Honduras on March 2, 2016, one year after winning the Goldman Environmental Prize for her leadership against a dam project.

 

Two of the accused worked at one time for Desarrollos Energeticos SA, the company behind the hydroelectric project that Caceres and her group Copinh had battled against for years. Caceres had reported death threats from both of them.

 

Another defendant was an active-duty military member, supporting assertions by Caceres’ family that there was collusion between the company and state security forces.

 

“The board of directors of DESA planned the killing of my mother,” charged Olivia Zuniga, one of Caceres’ daughters.

 

Roberto David Castillo Mejia, who was executive president of DESA when Caceres was killed, was arrested last March in the killing, though he is not part of the suspended trial. Prosecutors allege he was in charge of handling logistics for the killing. The company said Castillo and its other employees were “totally unconnected” to the murder.

Caceres had been threatened before and as early as 2009 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had ordered protective measures for her safety. Other members of Copinh had also been killed. The gunmen who killed Caceres also wounded Mexican activist Gustavo Castro Soto, who was at the home that night.

 

Last year, a team of lawyers published a report after studying the case. They said it was a carefully planned effort and “there is evidence to link high-level state and non-state officials to the murder.”

 

The Honduran government has been under significant pressure from abroad to solve the killing in a country where impunity runs high. The group of independent experts warned of irregularities and sloppiness in the investigation.

Last week, Caceres’ daughter Berta Zuniga said in an interview with local radio that authorities want to limit the trial to the killing itself, but the family wants a broader airing of the years of harassment that Caceres suffered because of her opposition to the dam.

 

“It is impossible, truly, to understand the crime against Berta Caceres without understanding what was happening in the community of Rio Blanco with the hydroelectric project Agua Zarca,” Zuniga said.

Former Argentina President Indicted on Corruption Charges

Argentina’s former president Cristina Fernandez was indicted on Monday on charges that her administration accepted bribes from construction companies in exchange for public works contracts, according to an indictment released by a federal judge.

Argentina’s Justice Department is seeking to determine whether Fernandez headed a broad corruption network that involved politicians and businessmen during her two terms as president from 2007-15.

The corruption scandal erupted in August when a local newspaper published notebooks kept by a chauffer of Fernandez’s former planning minister. The notebooks cataloged bags of cash allegedly delivered to government offices and the private residence of Fernandez and her late husband and former President Nestor Kirchner.

A spokesperson for Fernandez did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

As a senator, Fernandez enjoys immunity from arrest, although she is not immune from prosecution.

Federal judge Claudio Bonadio, who is heading the investigation, asked that Fernandez be impeached, a move that is unlikely to garner the support necessary to pass a Senate vote.

“It is necessary to continue this investigation until we have completely clarified how these illegal payments were structured, at least in regards to the officials who were part of the former planning ministry and the entrepreneurs associated with them,” the indictment said.

The scandal has implicated dozens of former officials and business owners in the construction sector, shaking confidence in an industry already burdened by an ailing economy, government cuts to public works and crippling interest rates at 60 percent.

Although Fernandez has already been indicted on other charges, she still enjoys broad popular support, and is widely expected to run for president again next year.

Aid Agency: Greece Must Move Vulnerable Migrants from Island

Greece should urgently move children and other vulnerable migrants and refugees from its most overcrowded island camp to the mainland or to other EU countries for the sake of their mental and physical health, the MSF aid agency said on Monday.

The appeal from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) came days after the governor of the region where the Moria camp is based said it should be closed next month unless authorities clean up “uncontrollable amounts of waste.”

MSF said it had witnessed an unprecedented health crisis in the camp, Greece’s biggest and home to some 9,000 migrants, a third of whom are children. It said many teenagers had attempted to commit suicide or were harming themselves on a weekly basis.

Other children suffer from elective mutism, panic attacks and anxiety, it said in a statement.

“This is the third year that MSF has been calling on the Greek authorities and the EU to take responsibility for their collective failures,” the agency said. “It is time to immediately evacuate the most vulnerable to safe accommodation in other European countries.”

The migrants in the camp, which is on the island of Lesbos, are housed in shipping containers and flimsy tents in conditions widely criticised as falling short of basic standards.

Greece is a gateway into the European Union for hundreds of thousands of refugees who have arrived since 2015 from Syria and other war-ravaged countries in the Middle East and from Africa.

Athens, which exited the biggest bailout in economic history in August, is struggling to handle the thousands of refugees who are stranded on its islands.

It has criticised Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis and some EU member states for being reluctant to share their burden.

Last week, 19 non-governmental organizations urged Greece to take action to alleviate the plight of refugees in all its island camps, not just Moria, to render them more fit for human habitation. 

The total number of migrants and refugees holed up in the island camps exceeds 17,000.

Slovak Authorities Identify Possible Witness in Journalist’s Murder

Slovak authorities have identified a possible witness in the murder of Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak, whose killing last February led mass protests that forced the government to resign, a state prosecutor said on Monday.

It was the first development in the case in the six months since the murder.

“This person may have been present at or close to the crime scene around the time the crime was committed and may have information about the crime,” the prosecutor overseeing the case told a news conference.

He declined to answer questions on whether that person was a suspect or just a witness.

Kuciak, who had written about political corruption in Slovakia, was found shot dead along with his fiancee Martina Kusnirova at their home outside Bratislava in February. They were both 27.

The murder – which police have called a profesional hit – raised fears over media freedom in ex-communist Eastern Europe, and led to mass protests across the nation that forced the departure of previous police chief Tibor Gaspar as well as Prime Minister Robert Fico and interior minister Robert Kalinak.

The cabinet was reshuffled with Fico’s deputy Peter Pellegrini taking over as prime minister but the three-party center-left coalition stayed in power.

The prosecutor, who declined to give his name, said authorities had also whittled down possible motives to two.

He held up a sketch of the possible witness depicting a white man with a beard and dark hair who appeared to be in his late 20s to early 30s. He provided no other details.

“Despite initial mistakes in investigation, we have narrowed down possible motives from 30 to two,” the prosecutor said. “I believe we will be successful in the end.”

The update on Monday came after more than 300 Slovak journalists and publishers last month criticized police for the lack of progress in the murder investigation and alleged corruption described by Kuciak.

“As no fundamental changes to the police or to the prosecutorial bodies have taken place, we have doubts about the independence of the investigation,” they said in a statement.

Kuciak had covered Slovak businessmen mentioned in the Panama Papers and also probed fraud cases involving businessmen with Slovak political ties. He had also been looking into suspected mafia links of Italians with businesses in Slovakia.

Guatemala Defies Court Order on Return of Anti-Graft Chief 

Guatemala will not allow the head of the the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, to return to the country, defying an order by the constitutional court.

Late Sunday, the country’s top court ruled that President Jimmy Morales must let Ivan Velasquez back into the country. 

Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart announced Monday that Morales’ administration would defy the court order. Instead, Foreign Minister Sandra Jovel said she had asked the United Nations to send a list of possible replacements for Velasquez for Guatemala’s approval. 

Morales came under international condemnation when he announced in late August that he was closing the CICIG and barring Velasquez from the country.

Velasquez had conducted a number of high-profile corruption investigations, include one pending against the president. 

Morales said Velasquez is “a person who attacks order and public security in the country.” 

Survey Finds Support in Europe for Some Restrictions on Muslim Clothing   

Most Western Europeans favor at least some restrictions on the religious clothing that Muslim women can wear in public, according to research released Monday by the Pew Research Center.

A median 50 percent of non-Muslim adults in the 15 countries surveyed said Muslim women should be allowed to wear religious clothing unless it covers their face. A median of 23 percent said that Muslim women should not be allowed to wear any religious clothing at all. Only 25 percent said they supported no such restrictions.

Portugal stood out as the only country where a majority of respondents said Muslim women should face no restrictions, at 52 percent.

Sixty six percent of respondents said they would accept a Muslim as a family member. But even in this group, a majority of 55 percent supported banning facial coverings.

“This is not a small group of people,” survey conductor Scott Gardner told VOA News. “Even though the majority have open and positive feelings towards Muslims, even those who say they would accept a Muslim as a family member favor at least some restrictions.”

Portugal was again unique in this category, with 60 percent of those who would accept a Muslim family member saying they supported having no restrictions on clothing.

The survey reflects government policy across the region. Last August, Denmark made it illegal for Muslim to wear facial coverings such as niqabs and burqas in public. Similar policies have been in enacted in Austria, Belgium, and France in recent years as Muslim immigrants have flocked to Europe in large numbers, escaping violence in Syria and other majority-Muslim nations.

The influx of Muslims into European countries has led to the rise of populist anti-immigration political movements in many of the countries surveyed, led by figures like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France. 

Russian Communists Say Election Stolen by Pro-Putin Candidate

Hundreds of Russian Communist Party supporters took to the central square of Vladivostok on Monday to protest against what they said was the brazen rigging of a regional election in favor of a politician backed by President Vladimir Putin.

With just under 99 percent of votes counted on Sunday night, Kremlin-backed incumbent Andrei Tarasenko was trailing his Communist rival by over 2 percentage points.

But on Monday, the election commission said Tarasenko had won by just over 1 percentage point, with results showing he had received almost every one of the almost 20,000 final votes counted, an unlikely turnaround that the Communists called evidence of rigging.

Galina, a 44-year-old state employee, said she was not a supporter of the Communists, but had gone to vote for the first time in 10 years — for their candidate Andrei Ishchenko — because she wanted change.

“What’s the point of voting if everything has already been decided for us?” she said, declining to give her surname.

Gennady Zyuganov, the veteran leader of the Communist Party, called the situation “criminal lawlessness” and said planned nationwide protests by his party on Saturday would make the rigged election one of their central issues.

“… They stopped the vote count for four hours and started stuffing the ballot boxes using special bandit methods,” Zyuganov told a news briefing in Moscow, calling the imbroglio “a political Chernobyl.”

The scandal is awkward for Putin whose own ratings are under pressure from plans to raise the pension age.

Putin met Tarasenko, who is formally an independent but is widely seen as the ruling United Russia’s candidate, a week ago, ahead of Sunday’s second round, and told him that “everything will be OK,” according to a Kremlin transcript of the meeting.

The comment was widely seen as a personal endorsement of Tarasenko, whom Putin appointed acting governor last year.

Ella Pamfilova, head of the central election commission, told Ekho Moskvy radio her officials were analyzing the vote and that she would send a special commission to investigate.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters the Kremlin was watching the situation and would be guided by Pamfilova.

Tarasenko failed to pass the 50-percent threshold for an outright win in the first round in the Primorsky Region, which includes the Pacific port of Vladivostok, 6,400 km (4,000 miles) east of Moscow.

That, and three other reversals in elections to select regional governors, amounted to the worst showing for Kremlin-backed candidates since 2012. Though there is no immediate threat to the United Russia party’s grip on power, it suggests growing discontent over living standards.

Protest call

Ishchenko told a crowd of hundreds of people in central Vladivostok on Monday that the vote count had been rigged, and urged supporters to protest every evening until the result was overturned.

“At least 30,000 votes were stolen from us,” he told the crowd, saying the results had been rewritten overnight. “We shouldn’t stand for it. We have gathered here today to show the authorities that we are the power here, that we decide what happens.”

Ishchenko had earlier said he would go on hunger strike until the result was annulled.

The crowd, some of whom were waving red Communist Party flags with the hammer and sickle, booed United Russia and shouted for Tarasenko to resign.

United Russia accused the Communists of buying votes during the campaign, something the Communists deny.

Standing outside local government headquarters on Monday to protest, Viktoria, a 29-year-old businesswoman who voted for Ishchenko, said she had started celebrating his win the previous night, then woken up to a result she had not expected.

“After this vote, I feel like a nobody. Like I don’t count, someone who doesn’t have the right to vote,” she said.

Colombia Protests Incursion from Venezuelan Soldiers

Colombia said on Monday it had sent a letter of protest to Caracas after Venezuelan soldiers crossed into its territory last week and detained three Colombian citizens, the latest setback to relations between the two South American neighbors.

Colombia’s foreign ministry said the citizens were arrested on an island in the Orinoco River that has been part of Colombia since 1931. It had conducted an investigation to verify that the incident took place, the ministry said in a statement.

“In the name of the Colombian government the Ministry of Foreign Relations has sent a letter of protest complaining about these kind of actions, which violate national sovereignty, and about the arbitrary detention of three Colombian citizens,” it said.

Venezuela’s socialist government responded later on Monday, saying that a National Guard commission had detected a cocaine lab and arrested three armed Colombians at the site. The statement by the Foreign Ministry called the island by a different name and said it was part of Venezuela.

Colombia was trying to “fabricate” a story as part of its “aggression” against President Nicolas Maduro’s government, Caracas said.

Colombia is the top destination for Venezuelans fleeing food and medicine shortages amidst their country’s deep economic crisis.

Maduro frequently spars with his neighbor’s right-wing government and unauthorized crossings by Venezuelan military personnel along the porous border occur fairly regularly.

Colombia last month said soldiers and helicopters from Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard had entered the country without permission, in a “violation to Colombia’s sovereignty.”

Tesla’s Musk Sued for Calling Thai Cave Rescuer Pedophile

Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, was sued for defamation on Monday for falsely suggesting that a British caver who helped save 12 boys and their soccer coach from a Thailand cave in July was a pedophile and child rapist.

Vernon Unsworth sued over Musk’s reference to him in a July 15 tweet as a “pedo guy,” a comment for which Musk later apologized. The suit also claims that Musk called Unsworth a child rapist and sex trafficker in an Aug. 30 email to BuzzFeed News.

Tesla did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Musk and the company.

The complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles seeks at least $75,000 of compensatory damages, plus unspecified punitive damages.

The case adds to a slew of litigation against Musk, including over his running of Palo Alto, California-based Tesla, which the billionaire has said has caused him severe stress.

Unsworth became a target for Musk after cave rescuers rejected Musk’s offer of a mini-submarine created by his rocket company SpaceX to rescue the soccer team, which was finally freed after 18 days in the cave on July 10.

Though Unsworth told CNN three days later Musk’s offer was a “PR stunt” that had no chance of working and that Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts,” he said that did not justify Musk’s use of Twitter and the media to defame him.

The July 15 tweet by Musk touted the mini-submarine and then, referring to Unsworth with a shorthand description of pedophile, said, “Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it.”

Musk apologized on July 18, referring to Unsworth in saying “his actions against me do not justify my actions against him,” and that “the fault is mine and mine alone.”

But the complaint said that in the August 30 email, Musk urged a BuzzFeed reporter to “stop defending child rapists,” and then said Unsworth spent decades in Thailand until moving to Chiang Rai, “renowned for child sex-trafficking,” to take a 12-year-old bride.

Unsworth said all of these accusations were false, and that the defamatory statements “were manufactured out of whole cloth by Musk out of a belief on his part that his wealth and stature allowed him to falsely accuse Mr. Unsworth with impunity” because he disagreed with him about the mini-submarine.

The case is Unsworth v Musk, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, No. 18-08048.