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Archive for September, 2013

EU mission member killed in Kosovo shooting

September 20, 2013

MITROVICA, Kosovo (AP) — An EU customs officer in Kosovo was shot to death early Thursday in the tense, Serb-dominated north, the EU Rule of Law Mission said.

The incident took place during regular staff rotation when two EULEX vehicles came under fire from unknown attackers, the mission said in a statement. The hospital chief in Mitrovica, Milan Ivanovic, said the victim was shot in the chest and leg and was dead on arrival.

“I condemn in the strongest possible terms the attack that led to the death of the staff member,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement, adding that the dead man was Lithuanian. “The perpetrators must be brought to justice.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the “cowardly attack,” and called for a swift and thorough investigation to bring the perpetrators to justice, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

The EU mission has been overseeing the implementation of the rule of law in Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008 but that remains tense because Serbia and Kosovo Serbs do not recognize the split.

Kosovo’s president, Atifete Jahjaga, blamed the attack on “forces that want to destabilize Kosovo.” She said in a statement the attack happened as the country “is showing political maturity” ahead of the Nov. 3 local elections, the first such poll that should see the minority Serbs voting in an election run by the ethnic Albanian administration in Pristina.

Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic also condemned the attack. “This shooting is not only against EULEX, but against the future of the Serbian people in Kosovo,” he said. EULEX staff members have been manning checkpoints on the border with Serbia, which has angered hardline Serbs who view the border control as confirmation of Kosovo’s independence.

Joint border patrols were negotiated in EU-brokered talks between Serbia and Kosovo. The former foes signed an agreement normalizing ties in April.

Associated Press writers Florent Bajrami in Pristina, Juergen Baetz in Brussels and Jovana Gec in Belgrade contributed.

Berlusconi ministers resign; Italy gov’t in crisis

September 28, 2013

MILAN (AP) — Italy’s fragile coalition government was pushed into a full-fledged crisis Saturday after five ministers from former Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s political party announced their resignations.

The move drew the ire of Premier Enrico Letta, who accused Berlusconi of a “crazy” gesture aimed at covering up his personal affairs. The five-month-old government has teetered for weeks since the high court confirmed Berlusconi’s tax fraud conviction.

Berlusconi’s center-right People of Liberty Party is in an unusual coalition of rival forces with Letta’s center-left Democratic Party, and the resignations signals the end of the alliance. The resignations must be formally submitted to President Giorgio Napolitano, who must decide if there is any way to continue the government or if new elections must be held.

The announcement by the center-right ministers came after Berlusconi urged ministers in his party to step down if the government doesn’t revoke an increase to Italy’s value-added tax that takes effect next week.

Tensions already were swirling around a Senate committee vote next week on whether to revoke Berlusconi’s legislative seat because of the tax fraud conviction. Letta, in a statement issued by his office, said Berlusconi was using the sales tax increase as an alibi “to justify the crazy and irresponsible gesture, all aimed only to cover up his personal affairs.”

Letta said it was Berlusconi who was forcing the government’s hand on the sales tax by depriving it of the stability needed to push through alternative measures. “The Italian people will know to return to the sender such a big lie and attempt to distort reality,” Letta said.

Democratic Party leader Guglielmo Epifani called the center-right ministers’ move “irresponsible.” “They are provoking a crisis and we must evaluate exactly what the consequences are,” he said. Letta had warned on Friday that he will quit unless he receives prompt pledges of solid support in a confidence vote in Parliament on his government, which is struggling to pull Italy out of a recession.

Nearly all of Berlusconi’s senators have vowed to quit, if a Senate committee votes next week to strip him of his Senate seat because of the conviction.

Greek far-right leader, others arrested

September 28, 2013

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Police arrested the leader of Greece’s extreme-right Golden Dawn party and other top members on Saturday, in an escalation of a government crackdown after a fatal stabbing allegedly committed by a supporter.

It is the first time since 1974 that sitting members of Parliament have been arrested. The arrests underline the Greek government’s efforts to stifle the fiercely anti-immigrant party, which has been increasingly on the defensive since the killing.

Police announced the arrests of 17 Golden Dawn members on charges of forming a criminal organization, including party head Nikos Michaloliakos, the group’s spokesman and three other lawmakers. Of the six lawmakers targeted, only one remains at large.

An operation by the counterterrorism unit was still ongoing early Saturday afternoon, with a total of about 35 arrest warrants for Golden Dawn members issued, two police officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to speak publicly.

“It is an unprecedentedly dynamic response to a neo-Nazi organization,” government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou told The Associated Press, hinting that Saturday’s arrests were the culmination of a long strategy to deal with Golden Dawn as a criminal, not a political force.

“The prime minister and the government were determined to deal with Golden Dawn solely through the justice system…We have succeeded in stripping them of their political cover and deal with them as what they really are, a criminal organization,” Kedikoglou said.

The government ordered an investigation into Golden Dawn’s activities after the death of rapper Pavlos Fyssas on Sept. 18 sparked outrage across Greece. The suspect arrested over his death admitted to police that he had stabbed the 34-year-old and identified himself as a supporter of Golden Dawn. Police investigated his cellphone records and those of over 300 persons connected to Golden Dawn.

Investigations have extended to the police, which have been accused in the past of turning a blind eye to Golden Dawn violence and of mistreating immigrants. A police officer was also arrested on Saturday.

The case is being handled by Greece’s Supreme Court and anti-terrorist squad under organized crime laws. Despite the arrests, the party’s lawmakers retain their parliamentary seats unless they are convicted of a crime. Golden Dawn holds 18 of Parliament’s 300 seats, after winning nearly 7 percent of the vote in general elections last year.

The party has vehemently denied any role in the killing, but the killing has appeared to dent its appeal among Greeks. As calls for a crackdown mounted, the party hinted its deputies might resign to provoke elections in 15 multi-party constituencies.

“There will be no elections, certainly no general elections,” Kedikoglou said. Asked about the likelihood of partial elections if Golden Dawn deputies were to resign, he said “there are ways to deal with that, as well”.

“Justice, stability, no elections,” said prime minister Antonis Samaras, as he hurried from his office to the Athens airport on his way to a 6 day trip to the United States. Samaras was briefed on the arrests by two ministers during a break in his talks with representatives of Greece’s creditors.

Golden Dawn expressed outrage at the arrests in a text message to journalists. “We call upon everyone to support our moral and just struggle against the corrupt system! Everyone come to our offices!,” it said.

A later text message called for supporters to head to police headquarters “with calm and order.” A group of about 100 people, including several deputies, gathered, standing on the sidewalk across the street from the building.

A formerly marginal organization with neo-Nazi roots, Golden Dawn entered Parliament for the first time in May 2012, capitalizing on Greece’s deep financial crisis, rising crime and anti-immigrant sentiment.

The party’s members and supporters have frequently been suspected of carrying out violent attacks, mainly against immigrants. Despite its reputation for violence, the party had enjoyed growing popularity.

Associated Press writer Elena Becatoros contributed to this report.

Clashes break out in Athens anti-fascist rally

September 25, 2013

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Clashes broke out during an anti-fascist demonstration in Athens on Wednesday, a week after a fatal stabbing allegedly committed by a supporter of the extreme right-wing Golden Dawn party led to a nationwide crackdown against the group.

About 30 protesters threw firebombs, rocks and bottles at riot police blocking the main avenue in front of Golden Dawn headquarters as a demonstration of several thousand people headed toward it. Police responded with volleys of tear gas and stun grenades.

The killing of anti-fascist rap singer Pavlos Fyssas on Sept. 18 sparked outrage across Greece and has led to scrutiny of the party’s activities. The suspect arrested over his death admitted to police that he had stabbed the 34-year-old and identified himself as a member of Golden Dawn, a virulently anti-immigrant party that has seen a massive rise in popularity amid Greece’s severe financial crisis.

The party has vehemently denied any role in the killing. Although the suspect has not been officially identified in accordance with Greek law, he has been widely named by Greek media, which has also published photos of him at Golden Dawn events.

“Pavlos is alive, crush the Nazis,” the protesters chanted as they set off from the capital’s main Syntagma Square, where an earlier anti-fascist concert had been held. In Thessaloniki, Greece’s No. 2 city, about 2,000 protesters also heading to local Golden Dawn offices. Greek media said other rallies were also planned in several other cities.

The government ordered an investigation into Golden Dawn’s activities after Fyssas’ death, with the case being handled by Greece’s Supreme Court and anti-terrorist squad under organized crime laws. Separately, Health Minister Adonis Georgiadis said Wednesday that authorities were also investigating reports that a psychiatrist at Athens’ main state psychiatric hospital had been granting certificates for gun licenses to Golden Dawn members without conducting the required tests, and that the psychiatrist had been calling for the military to take up arms against the government.

The crackdown against Golden Dawn has included raids on party offices and supporters suspected of being involved in attacks. Police said Wednesday they arrested a 34-year-old in Crete after a raid on his house uncovered a replica gun, a military-style knife and a collapsible metal baton. Golden Dawn membership cards and other paraphernalia with the party logo were also found.

Golden Dawn, whose senior members have expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler although they deny being neo-Nazi, won nearly 7 percent in 2012 general elections and holds 18 seats in the country’s 300-member Parliament.

Its members and supporters have frequently been suspected of carrying out violent attacks, mainly against immigrants. The party had appeared to grow bolder in recent weeks, with alleged actions taking on a more political, rather than racist hue. Earlier this month, party supporters were accused of attacking Communist party members putting up posters in a district west of Athens, leaving nine requiring hospital treatment.

Despite its reputation for violence, the party had enjoyed growing popularity as poverty has risen in Greece. But Fyssas’ death — the first killing attributed to political motives and allegedly involving the party — appears to have dented its appeal.

Recent opinion polls show drops in popularity in recent days, although it is still the third most popular party in Greece. A poll conducted by the Alco company for the news website Newsit published Wednesday showed support for Golden Dawn sliding to 6.8 percent after last Wednesday’s killing, compared to 10.8 percent in a similar poll in June.

The poll was conducted by telephone interviews of 1,000 people nationwide. It didn’t provide a margin of error.

Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki contributed to this report.

Royal Mint coins to mark Prince George christening

September 28, 2013

LONDON (AP) — The christening of Prince William and Kate’s firstborn, Prince George, will be marked with a set of commemorative coins, the Royal Mint said Saturday.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s baby son will be christened at the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace on Oct. 23, just over three months after his birth. It is the chapel where the coffin of coffin of William’s late mother, Princess Diana, was laid before the chapel’s altar for her family to pay last respects before her funeral in 1997.

The production of the commemorative coins, approved by William, his wife Kate and Queen Elizabeth II, will be the first time that new coins are produced to mark a royal christening in Britain. The 5-pound coins will be made of solid gold, silver, and a more affordable option, and will sell for as much as thousands of pounds (dollars). The designs of the coins have not yet been revealed.

Buying the coins may be the only way the public can take part in celebrating Prince George’s christening, which will be a private event, attended only by close family. Official photographs will be released after the ceremony, Kensington Palace said.

The venue of the ceremony is a break from recent tradition: William, his father Prince Charles and the queen were all christened at Buckingham Palace, while Prince Harry was christened at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

The Chapel Royal at St. James’ Palace is a lesser known and more intimate venue. Constructed by Henry VIII, it was decorated by Hans Holbein in honor of the king’s short-lived marriage to Anne of Cleves.

Prince George is the third in line to the throne, after William and Charles. His christening will be conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. The baby will wear a replica of a christening gown made for Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter in 1841.

Croatia promises to change extradition law

September 25, 2013

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s newest member, Croatia, promised Wednesday to meet EU demands and change a law on banning extradition of suspected criminals as soon as possible.

The EU had threatened sanctions such as suspending EU funds for Croatia’s border controls if Zagreb didn’t comply. Croatian Justice Minister Orsat Miljenic said his government “will swiftly … take all measures to unconditionally make the law comply with European law.”

The law was adopted just a day before Croatia formally became an EU member on July 1. It included a retroactive prohibition on Croatian citizens being extradited, which goes against EU practice. Miljenic said the law, which was officially intended to protect veterans of its 1991-95 war for independence from prosecution abroad, would change by Jan. 1 at the latest and fall fully in line with the EU’s European Arrest Warrant, which eases the handover of criminals and suspects to other EU nations.

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding didn’t remove the threat of sanctions despite the promises, waiting for an assessment from EU member states by Oct. 5 and Croatian moves to effectively change the law.

“What we expect now is that the official declaration … will be translated swiftly into action, into law,” Reding said. Croatia’s opposition said the law was intended to protect former Croatian intelligence chief Josip Perkovic — who is sought by Germany in the murder of a Croatian dissident allegedly killed by the former Yugoslav secret service in Germany in 1983. Perkovic, who created Croatia’s secret service once Croatia split from the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, worked for Communist Yugoslavia’s secret service in the 1980s.

EU lawmakers welcomed Croatia’s commitment. “It is good that Croatia finally understood the risk of incorrect implementation of this key EU crime-fighting measure on the future freedom of movement of its citizens,” said ALDE liberal Sarah Ludford, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on the European Arrest Warrant.

Chile shuts luxury jail for dictatorship criminals

September 27, 2013

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Chile’s president announced Thursday that he will close a luxury prison for dictatorship-era military officials convicted of crimes against humanity, taking away their tennis courts, barbecues and a pool.

The Cordillera prison, located on an army base, offers the officers jailed for killings, torture and other abuses during Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-90 dictatorship far better conditions than Chile’s normal penitentiaries. The inmates live in small cabins with private bathrooms, have hot showers and get lots of natural light.

President Sebastian Pinera said his government decided to close Cordillera taking into account “equality before law” as well as the security of the prison’s 10 inmates, who will now serve time at Punta Peuco, another special jail for human rights offenders.

The decision came after Manuel Contreras, the former chief of Pinochet’s secret service gave an interview inside Cordillera ahead of the 40th anniversary of the military coup. Contreras, who is serving combined sentences of more than 100 years for kidnappings and murders, mocked prison guards, saying they were only there “to hold his cane,” and he claimed that all of the thousands of disappeared during the dictatorship were armed leftists killed in gunfights.

Cordillera was built in 2004 during the presidency of Ricardo Lagos to avoid overcrowding at Punta Peuco. Former President Michelle Bachelet, who was held and tortured during the dictatorship, praised the decision to close Cordillera.

“This means that the country now has the political conditions to do this,” said Bachelet, who is the front-runner in the campaign for the Nov. 17 presidential election. The privileged conditions at Cordillera have been criticized ever since it was built.

But the public outcry reached a high point Wednesday when supporters of former Brigadier Miguel Krassnoff tried to organize a BBQ in his honor at Cordillera, where he is serving a 144-year sentence. An event honoring Krassnoff in 2011 ended in clashes between his supporters and human rights activists.

“It’s unbelievable that Chilean society allowed jails with these types of luxuries for human rights criminals,” Claudio Escobar Caceres, 51, said at a demonstration by human rights activists outside the prison. He held up a sign that read in Spanish: “Justice. Nothing more.”

The current governing coalition, led by the Independent Democratic Union and the National Renovation, is the first conservative government since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990. Members of both parties supported Pinochet’s dictatorship and several Pinochet-era officials now serve as lawmakers.

In 2011, Pinera’s government officially recognized 9,800 more victims of the dictatorship. That increased the total list of people killed, tortured or imprisoned for political reasons during Pinochet’s regime to 40,018. The government estimates 3,095 of those were killed, including about 1,200 who were forcibly “disappeared.”

About 700 military officials face trial for the forced disappearance of dissidents and about 70 have been jailed for crimes against humanity. A recent report by police said the 10 inmates at Cordillera have been looked after by 35 guards, compared to one guard per 50 prisoners at regular Chilean prisons.

“How much did this luxury jail for murderers cost?” said Carolina Soto, 33, a teacher protesting outside the prison.

Associated Press writer Eva Vergara contributed to this report.

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