Month: October 2019

Former Trump Adviser Next in Line to be Asked About Ukraine

President Donald Trump’s top adviser for Russian and European affairs is leaving his job at the White House just as he’s scheduled to testify before the House impeachment investigators, a senior administration official said.
Tim Morrison owes his job at the National Security Council to Trump, but his testimony Thursday in the House impeachment inquiry might be central to a push to remove the president from office.
A senior administration official said Wednesday that Morrison “has decided to pursue other opportunities.” The official, who was not authorized to discuss Morrison’s job and spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said Morrison has been considering leaving the administration for “some time.”
Morrison has been in the spotlight since August when a government whistleblower said multiple U.S. officials had said Trump was “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”
Now it’s his turn in the impeachment probe’s hot seat.
Morrison, tall and lean with an authoritative voice, will be asked to explain that “sinking feeling” he got when Trump demanded that Ukraine’s president investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and meddling in the 2016 election.
Morrison, who is in his 40s, is a political appointee in the Trump White House, brought on board by former national security adviser John Bolton to address arms control matters and later shifted into his current role as a top Russia and Europe adviser. It was there that he stepped into the thick of an in-house squabble about the activities of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, who had been conversing with Ukrainian leaders outside of traditional U.S. diplomatic circles.
Known as a “hawk” in national security circles, Morrison is set to be the first political appointee from the White House to testify before impeachment investigators. The probe has been denounced by the Republican president, who has directed his staff not to testify.
Regardless of what he says, GOP lawmakers will be hard-pressed to dismiss Morrison, formerly a longtime Republican staffer at the House Armed Services Committee. He’s been bouncing around Washington in Republican positions for two decades, having worked for Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn., Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and as a GOP senior staffer on the House Armed Services Committee, including nearly four years when it was chaired by Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.

Morrison’s name appeared more than a dozen times in earlier testimony by William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, who told impeachment investigators that Trump was withholding military aid unless the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, went public with a promise to investigate Trump’s political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Taylor’s testimony contradicts Trump’s repeated denials that there was any quid pro quo.
Taylor said Morrison recounted a conversation that Gordon Sondland, America’s ambassador to the European Union, had with a top aide to Zelenskiy named Andriy Yermak. Taylor said Morrison told him security assistance would not materialize until Zelenskiy committed to investigate Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company that once employed Biden’s son. A White House meeting for Zelenskiy also was in play.
“I was alarmed by what Mr. Morrison told me about the Sondland-Yermak conversation,” Taylor testified. “This was the first time I had heard that the security assistance – not just the White House meeting – was conditioned on the investigations.”
Taylor testified that Morrison told him he had a “sinking feeling” after learning about a Sept. 7 conversation Sondland had with Trump.
“According to Mr. Morrison, President Trump told Ambassador Sondland that he was not asking for a quid pro quo,” Taylor testified. “But President Trump did insist that President Zelenskiy go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference, and that President Zelenskiy should want to do this himself.” Mr. Morrison said that he told Ambassador Bolton and the NSC lawyers of this phone call between President Trump and Ambassador Sondland.
Morrison told people after Bolton was forced out of his job that the national security adviser had tried to stop Giuliani’s diplomatic dealings with Ukraine and that Morrison agreed, according to a U.S. official, who was not authorized to discuss Morrison’s role in the impeachment inquiry and spoke only on condition of anonymity. The official said Morrison told people that with the appointment of Robert O’Brien as Bolton’s successor, his own future work at the NSC was in a “holding pattern.”
Bolton had brought Morrison into the NSC in July 2018 as senior director for weapons of mass destruction and biodefence. He’s known as an arms control expert or an arms treaty saboteur, depending on who you ask.

Morrison, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota and a law degree from George Washington University, keeps nuclear strategist Herman Kahn’s seminal volume on thermonuclear warfare on a table in his office.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said Bolton and Morrison are likeminded. Kimball said both have been known for calling up GOP congressional offices warning them against saying anything about arms control that didn’t align with their views.
“Just as John Bolton reportedly did, I would be shocked if Morrison did not regard Giuliani’s activities as being out of bounds,” said Kimball, who has been on opposite sides of arms control debates with Morrison for more than a decade.



Ivanka Trump to Promote Women’s Prosperity in Morocco

Ivanka Trump is getting ready to promote her women’s economic development program on an upcoming trip to Morocco.

It will be her third overseas trip this year to promote the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative , which was launched in February to benefit women in developing countries.

President Donald Trump’s daughter and senior adviser will visit the North African country in early November, the White House said. Specific dates for her travel were not released.

In a statement to The Associated Press, Ivanka Trump said the kingdom of Morocco is a valued U.S. ally that has “taken strides” under King Mohammed VI to promote gender equality.

In August, she tweeted her support to the Moroccan government after it began the process of amending its inheritance laws, which say women should receive half as much as men.

Ivanka Trump will travel with Sean Cairncross, CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corp., an independent U.S. foreign aid agency that provides grants to developing countries to help promote economic growth, reduce poverty and strengthen institutions.

They will meet with government officials and local leaders in Morocco’s capital, Rabat, and in Casablanca to discuss how to help women in the region gain a measure of economic independence.

The Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative has a goal of helping 50 million women in developing nations advance economically over the next six years.

It’s a U.S. government-wide effort that involves the State Department, the National Security Council and other agencies. It aims to coordinate existing programs and develop new ones to help women in areas such as job training, financial support and legal or regulatory reforms.

Ivanka Trump traveled to Ethiopia and Ivory Coast , in sub-Saharan Africa, in April and to Argentina, Colombia and Paraguay , in South America, in September to promote the initiative.


House Democrats Set Stage for Public Impeachment Inquiry

Democrats in the US House of Representatives will take a crucial step forward in their impeachment investigation of US President Donald Trump Thursday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a vote formalizing the inquiry, addressing Republicans’ arguments the process is illegitimate. As VOA’s Congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson reports from Capitol Hill, the vote also sets the stage for the impeachment inquiry to go public.


Hong Kong in Recession as Protests Slam Retailers, Tourism

Steps from Hong Kong’s main tourist strip, Ashfaqur Rahman’s tailor shop usually is a mainstay for tourists dropping in to peruse neatly stacked rolls of fabric and get measured for custom-made suits.

Not anymore.

Business has dried up since anti-government protests began in early June in the Asian financial center.

On Thursday, the government said Hong Kong’s economy shrank 3.2% in July-September from the previous quarter, pushing the city into a technical recession.

That makes two straight quarters of contraction since the economy contracted 0.5% in April-June on a quarterly basis.

The once-common lines of Chinese shoppers outside Hong Kong’s glittering luxury stores are gone. Jewelry stores have no customers and related businesses like transportation are languishing.

Rahman said his monthly sales have tumbled 80% from an average of 200,000 Hong Kong dollars ($25,500) in better times.

His shop is tucked away in a passage off Nathan Road in the Tsim Sha Tsui district, which teems with posh hotels and upscale jewelry and fashion boutiques, set against the stunning backdrop of Victoria Harbor.

But on recent weekends the neighborhood has become a protest battle zone, with black-clad demonstrators clashing late into the night with riot police unleashing tear gas and water cannons.

“This is the worst we’ve seen,” said Rahman, a Bangladeshi immigrant who opened the shop 14 years ago. His sales now barely cover the rent and he and his business partner are dipping into their own pockets to pay the salaries of their five staff. He’s not sure they’ll be able to carry on if there’s no resolution to the increasingly violent protests.

Restaurant managers, watch shop owners and jewelry salespeople across the district echoed the sentiment. In jeweler Tiffany’s massive showroom, there were at least 10 salespeople and no customers on a recent afternoon.

Thursday’s data showed private spending and exports falling sharply.

The forecast for the year is for a contraction, given “the lack of any signs of improvement in the near term,” the government said.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam warned of the bad news to come.

“The increasingly violent reality since June is hurting Hong Kong’s economy,” Lam said. Retail, catering, transport and other tourism-related industries have borne the brunt, she said.

The protesters have been locked in a standoff with the authorities for more than four months, that began with demands they scrap a now-abandoned extradition bill.

The movement has gained momentum and grown increasingly violent, with hardcore protesters clad in black slinging Molotov cocktails and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with riot police.

Organizers have canceled or relocated a slew of concerts, sporting events and conferences.

Images of the vicious street battles amid clouds of tear gas are tarnishing the city’s reputation as a safe and stable Asian metropolis.

Organizers have canceled or relocated a slew of concerts, sporting events and conferences.

Visitor numbers fell by half in the first half of October, usually a lucrative time thanks to a weeklong Chinese holiday. Retail sales fell by a quarter in August, the steepest annual drop on record.

At times the chaos has crippled major infrastructure, shutting down the city’s busy airport, where arrivals and flight bookings have plummeted.

The protests have paralyzed subways, main roads and tunnels: Hong Kong’s government-owned rail operator, MTR, has been stopping evening subway service hours earlier than usual — a move that further reduces consumer spending.

Staff at a pharmacy on Nathan Road said sales of cosmetics, medicine and baby formula popular with mainland Chinese shoppers are down by up to 90%.

They’re earning less because their hours have been cut.

“No one’s coming,” said Ah Chiu, manager of a watch shop. Sales fell by half in the past two months, he said.

Free spending mainland Chinese used to arrive on the weekends to buy the Bulova, Seiko and Movado watches he stocks.

Chiu, who refused to give his full name, said he had only sold one watch worth a few hundred Hong Kong dollars so far that day. That’s his new normal.

His shop and others in the Tsim Sha Tsui shopping arcade used to stay open even during protests. Now, they roll down their metal shutters and leave at the first sign of any disturbance, crimping any chance of more sales for the day.

“Calling for help won’t work. No one can help you. We can’t see the end,” he said, an air of resignation in his voice. “We’re eating money now.”


HRW: CIA-Trained ‘Death Squads’ Behind Afghan War Crimes

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says CIA-backed Afghan paramilitary forces have “committed summary executions and other grave abuses without accountability” — including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, and attacks on health-care facilities.

In its report, released on Thursday, HRW called on the Afghan government to immediately disband all pro-government paramilitary groups that operate outside the “ordinary military chain of command.”

It is also calling for the Afghan government to “impartially investigate all allegations of abuse by Afghan security forces” and to “prosecute those responsible for war crimes and serious abuses.”

It says both the United States and the Afghan government should also “cooperate with independent investigations of all allegations of war crimes and other human rights abuses.”

It also says the U.S. government should “investigate any U.S. personnel” involved in abuses, and should “cease supporting Afghan forces that have been responsible for serious violations.”

HRW documented 14 cases from late 2017 to mid-2019 in which it said CIA-backed “strike groups” committed grave abuses during night raids, such as one in the southeastern province of Paktia in which a paramilitary squad killed 11 men, including eight who were home for the Eid holidays.

In some cases, HRW says, troops detained men and didn’t tell families where they were being held.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has disputed the HRW report, saying many of the claims against Afghan special forces were “likely false or exaggerated.”

“In ramping up operations against the Taliban, the CIA has enabled abusive Afghan forces to commit atrocities including extrajudicial executions and disappearances,” said Patricia Gossman, the report’s author and HRW’s associate Asia director.

“In case after case, these forces have simply shot people in their custody and consigned entire communities to the terror of abusive night raids and indiscriminate air strikes,” Grossman said.

Night raids, which combine surprise, overwhelming firepower, and night-vision equipment, are a tactic preferred by special forces.

FILE – Taliban fighters stand with their weapons in Ahmad Aba district, on the outskirts of Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, Afghanistan, July 18, 2017.

On several occasions, raids which usually take place in Taliban-controlled areas were backed by airstrikes that “indiscriminately or disproportionately” killed civilians, HRW said.

According to data released this week by NATO, the United States conducted 1,113 air and artillery strikes in September, a large increase on previous months that came as talks between Washington and the Taliban collapsed.

CIA spokesman Timothy Barrett said the agency’s operations abroad are conducted in “accordance with law and under a robust system of oversight.”

Barrett accused the Taliban of spreading misinformation and noted that the militants do not operate under any similar rules.

“Unlike the Taliban, the United States is committed to the rule of law,” officials added in a CIA statement.

“We neither condone nor would knowingly participate in illegal activities, and we continually work with our foreign partners to promote adherence to the law.”

Afghanistan’s CIA-backed militias, whose tradition goes back to the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s, are seen as a critical tool in the fight against Taliban and Islamic State militants.

Such paramilitary groups are officially under Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) but often operate almost independently of Afghan authorities.

Speaking to HRW, one unnamed diplomat referred to them as “death squads.”

The NDS did not immediately comment.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a U.S. government monitor, says Afghan special forces conducted 2,531 ground operations from January-September this year, more than the total of 2,365 for all of last year.

A U.N. report earlier this month said 1,174 civilians were killed and 3,139 wounded in Afghanistan from July to September this year — a 42 percent increase over the same period last year.



US Watchdog Warns of ‘Improper Influence’ in Tariff Process 

A federal watchdog is criticizing the way the Trump administration handles taxes on imported steel and aluminum, saying a lack of transparency creates the appearance of “improper influence.” 
The Commerce Department’s inspector general is raising questions about a process that lets steel and aluminum importers request relief from tariffs imposed in March 2018. 
Other companies — mostly U.S. steel and aluminum producers that benefit from the tariffs — can object to the exemption requests. 
In an Oct. 28 report, the IG said Commerce officials had discussed the requests with “interested parties” without mentioning the exchanges in official records. It also said Commerce had made it harder to get exemptions after hearing from a tariff supporter. 
Commerce said it was taking the IG’s critique “seriously” and planned “to further improve transparency.” 


US Fed Cuts Rates but Signals Pause in Easing Cycle 

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday cut interest rates for the third time this year, as expected, in a move to ensure the U.S. economy weathers a global trade war without slipping into a recession, but it  signaled that its rate-cut cycle might be at a pause. 
In lowering its policy rate by a quarter of a percentage point to a target range of between 1.50% and 1.75%, the U.S. central bank dropped a previous reference in its policy statement that it “will act as appropriate” to sustain the economic expansion — language that was considered a sign of future rate cuts. 
Instead, the Fed said it would “monitor the implications of incoming information for the economic outlook as it assesses the appropriate path” of its target interest rate, a less decisive phrase. 
Kansas City Fed President Esther George and Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren dissented from the decision. They have opposed all three Fed rate cuts this year as unnecessary. 

View of economy changes little
The Fed’s description of the U.S. economy on Wednesday remained largely unchanged, with labor markets said to be “strong” and economic activity “rising at a moderate rate.” 
As in its previous policy statement, the Fed said it took the action to reduce borrowing costs “in light of the implications of global developments for the economic outlook as well as muted inflation pressures.” 
The Fed said business investment and exports remained “weak.” 
Expectations for additional cuts after October have diminished significantly in recent weeks. 
U.S. stocks, down modestly before the Fed’s statement, pared some of their losses and were little changed on the day. The benchmark S&P 500 Index, which had hit a record high earlier in the week, was down fractionally. 
Bond yields also showed little reaction, with the 10-year Treasury note yield at 1.80%, down about 3 basis points on the day. The dollar edged up to the day’s high against a basket of the currencies of top U.S. trading partners. 
“It’s pretty much what was expected,” said Jim Powers, director of investment research at Delegate Advisors. “The more important outcome is they removed the phrase ‘act as appropriate.’ It looks like the market is taking that to mean that there will be a pause in the declining rate path they were on beforehand. That’s what was expected, and that’s generally a good thing.” 

Unusual situation
The central bank and U.S. economy are at an unusual juncture. 
Unemployment is near a 50-year low, inflation is moderate, and data earlier on Wednesday showed gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 1.9% in the third quarter, a slowdown from the first half of the year but not as sharp a decline as many economists had expected and some Fed officials had feared. 
But parts of the economy, particularly manufacturing, have stuttered in recent months as the global economy slowed. 
Businesses have pared investment in response to the U.S.-China trade war that both raised tariffs on many goods and made the world a riskier place in which to make long-term commitments. 
While that has not had an obvious impact yet on U.S. hiring or consumer spending, Fed officials felt a round of “insurance” rate cuts was appropriate to guard against a worse outcome. The Fed cut rates in July and again in September, and by doing so hoped to encourage businesses and consumers with more affordable borrowing costs. 
The approach was successful in the 1990s when risks developed during another prolonged period of economic growth. 


Saudi Arabia’s ‘Davos of the Desert’ Economic Conference Draws Powerful Crowd

Saudi Arabia has been hosting more than 300 of the world’s political and economic leaders at its three-day “Davos in the Desert” conference, which is focusing on investments, infrastructure and technology for the future of the kingdom.

Saudi-owned media touted the economic gathering in Riyadh, which its chairman says has become “one of the top three such gatherings in the world.”

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and President Donald Trump’s influential son-in-law Jared Kushner were in attendance, while some international figures are expected to address the conference via satellite-link.

Participants watch U.S. White House senior adviser Jared Kushner on a screen during his speech in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 29, 2019.

Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdel Aziz Bin Salman told the gathering the long-expected IPO for Saudi oil-giant Aramco would take place when Saudi leaders determined it was the right time to do so. 

Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV reported the IPO, according to its sources, would take place in December.

Jordan’s King Abdallah II told the gathering’s opening session that investing in the future of the Arab world and its youth is a wise move:

“The future starts here, in this region, with this talented, creative and forward-looking youth, 70% of our population. Their innovation knows no bounds, their energy knows no limits and their potential is so full of promise. You can find them all across the Arab world, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Gulf, and here in Saudi Arabia, you will find an eager youth cohort, ready to play their part, but incentivized by a leadership that speaks their language.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the participants in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 29, 2019.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also addressed the conference, vaunting India’s expected growth in the coming years and its attractive business environment.

Modi said India is aiming for a $5-trillion economy in the next five years and is becoming a startup hub, from research and development to tech enterprise. He said it the world’s third largest startup ecosystem, and it is doing well in sectors from hospitality and medical treatment to tourism. Infrastructure, Modi emphasizes, is an opportunity multiplier.

Brazilian President Jair Balsonaro, also due to speak, told Arab media his country was a good place to invest.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during the Future Investment Initiative forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 30, 2019.

He said Brazil has truly changed, and the facts and figures of the economy are evidence of that change. More and more countries, he said, want to do business with Brazil, which stands with open arms to ensure that business opportunities take place via agreements and partnerships that allow everyone to win.

Saudi economic adviser Majed Soueigh told Saudi state TV the kingdom was hoping to take advantage of the Riyadh conference “to help propel its economy into the new, non-oil future, amid ongoing initiatives to improve non-oil sectors of the economy, including tourism and various economic projects now being undertaken.”

Theodore Karasik, Washington-based Gulf analyst, told VOA the conference is “successfully moving Saudi Arabia’s agenda forward,” especially in the areas of “investment and future strategies, despite dissenting voices.”

Karasik underscores the gathering also “demonstrates that Africa is a key part of the kingdom’s future.”


Global Trafficking Networks Behind British Migrant Tragedy

British and Belgian police are continuing to investigate the people-smuggling networks that helped to transport the 39 migrants who were found dead in the back of a refrigerated truck near London last week. It’s believed they suffocated in the sealed container. Henry Ridgwell reports on the growing industry in human cargo that brings tens of thousands of migrants to Europe every year.


Facebook Removes 3 Russian Networks It Says Engaged in Foreign Interference in Africa

Less than a week after the Africa-Russia Summit, Facebook has suspended three networks of Russian accounts it says were engaging in foreign interference in Africa.

Facebook said the accounts targeted Madagascar, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon. The accounts supported select political figures and derided pro-democracy activists in the countries.

Russia has had an increasing interest in engaging with African countries on trade and policy as sanctions continue to hurt its economy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin organized the first Russia–Africa Summit and Economic Forum, which promoted increased economic relations between Russia and the continent earlier in October in Sochi, Russia.

According to documents leaked by The Guardian, companies and groups affiliated with the Russian government have been cooperating with African politicians and interfering in elections. According to the documents, Madagascar’s president Andry Rajoelina won the election with Russian support. Rajoelina has denied the allegation.

The Stanford Internet Observatory also reported that Russia was working with local media organizations on the African continent to spread disinformation.

This represents a new tactic compared to what occurred with Russian influence ahead of the U.S. 2016 presidential election.

The three networks are among the first subjects of Facebook’s new policies aimed at curbing “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

Facebook defined coordinated inauthentic behavior in an October press release as using fake accounts and deceiving people on the origins of pages and groups.

According to The Stanford Internet Observatory, a total of 1.72 million accounts “liked” the now removed Facebook pages. Though some of these “likes” could be from the same account across multiple pages.

The removal of the networks demonstrates Facebook’s commitment to prevent manipulation on its platforms, but it also shows the evolving nature of Russian methods since 2016.



Peru’s Top Court Accepts Lawsuit Against Vizcarra’s Closure of Congress

Peru’s top court on Tuesday accepted a lawsuit to determine whether President Martin Vizcarra exceeded his powers by dissolving Congress last month amid a long-running standoff with lawmakers over anti-corruption reforms.

The seven members of Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal unanimously voted to admit the suit, court president Ernesto Blume said, the latest development in a battle between Vizcarra and lawmakers that has rattled the South American country.

Pedro Olaechea, the former Congress president who now leads a smaller permanent parliamentary commission, submitted the appeal earlier this month against the “arbitrary” dissolution of Congress.

Vizcarra’s shutdown of Congress garnered support from the armed forces in the copper-rich nation, as well as the police and Peru’s voters. A poll showed his popular support had jumped to the highest level during his administration.

The past three years in Peru have been marked by repeated clashes between the executive and legislative branches and back-to-back corruption scandals, including one that led former president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski to resign in March last year.

Blume said on Tuesday the court would not for now overturn the closure of Congress, and previously at least two members of the court have said that the legal process could take up to three or four months.

There are legislative elections already scheduled for Jan. 26 to elect new Congress members.



New ‘Star Wars’ Movie Era in Disarray After ‘Game of Thrones’ Creators Exit

The exit of the “Games of Thrones” creators from the next “Star Wars” film left future stories in the science fiction saga up in the air Tuesday, although some fans welcomed their departure.

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had been hired in 2018 to write and produce a trilogy of new movies in the blockbuster Walt Disney Co franchise, with the first scheduled for release in December 2022.

But the creators of HBO’s hit fantasy series said they were stepping away from the project to focus on new work for streaming service Netflix.

“We love Star Wars. When George Lucas built it, he built us too,” Benioff and Weiss said in a statement late Monday.

“But there are only so many hours in the day, and we felt we could not do justice to both Star Wars and our Netflix projects. So we are regretfully stepping away,” they added.

Disney had said the trilogy from Benioff and Weiss was expected to tell a story separate from the Skywalker series that began with the 1977 film starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, and which is due to conclude with the December movie “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”

Disney and Lucasfilm did not return requests for comment Tuesday on how their withdrawal would affect the planned 2022 movie, details of which had not been announced.

The “Star Wars” franchise is one of the most valuable in Hollywood. The 2017 film “The Last Jedi” took $1.3 billion at the global box office and Disney earlier this year opened “Star Wars” lands at its theme parks in California and Florida.

Fans ‘relieved’

Fans seemed relieved at the exit of Benioff and Weiss, given widespread disappointment at the conclusion earlier this year of their medieval fantasy TV series “Game of Thrones.”

“I am very relieved to read that D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have stepped away from their Disney/Lucasfilm deal (to create a new trilogy). The last two seasons of #GameOfThrones proved without source material … they are lost,” wrote Marty Kottick on Twitter.

Others hoped their departure would clear the way for the first woman, or person of color, to direct or write a “Star Wars” movie.

“Consider how many people who aren’t white men LOVE #StarWars, and would be more than happy to be a part of the next phase of the franchise!” tweeted a user, Liz Shannon Miller.

Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy in a statement called Benioff and Weiss “remarkable storytellers.”

“We hope to include them in the journey forward when they are able to step away from their busy schedule to focus on Star Wars,” she added.

In the works

Disney also has announced a separate “Star Wars” trilogy in the works by “The Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson. No release date has been unveiled.

Meanwhile, “Star Wars” embarks on another phase on Nov. 12 when spinoff TV series “The Mandalorian” begins streaming on the new Disney+ service.


For Yazidis, Baghdadi’s Death ‘Doesn’t Feel Like Justice Yet’

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death will mean nothing to 19-year-old rape victim Jamila unless the Islamic State militants who enslaved her are brought to justice.

Jamila, who asked not to be identified by her last name, is one of thousands of women from the Yazidi minority religion who were kidnapped and raped by IS after it mounted an assault on the Yazidi homeland in northern Iraq in August 2014.

“Even if Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead, it doesn’t mean Islamic State is dead,” Jamila told Reuters outside the tent that is now her temporary home in the Sharya camp for displaced Yazidis in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.

FILE – This file image made from video posted on a militant website July 5, 2014, purports to show the leader of the Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivering a sermon at a mosque in Iraq.

“This doesn’t feel like justice yet,” she said. “I want the men who took me, who raped me, to stand trial. And I want to have my voice heard in court. I want to face them in court. … Without proper trials, his death has no meaning.”

Baghdadi, who had led IS since 2010, detonated a suicide vest after being cornered in a raid by U.S. special forces in northwest Syria, U.S. President Donald Trump announced Sunday.

Inspired by his edicts to enslave and slaughter Yazidis, whom IS regard as infidels, his followers shot, beheaded and kidnapped thousands in a rampage which the United Nations called a genocidal campaign against them.

Along with thousands of other women and children, Jamila said she was enslaved by the militants and kept in captivity for five months in the city of Mosul along with her sister.

She was just 14 when she was seized. But her problems did not end after she and her sister managed to escape when, she said, their guards were high on drugs.

“When I first came back, I had a nervous breakdown and psychological problems for two years, so I couldn’t go to school,” she said.

No plans to go home

Now instead of working or catching up on her years of lost schooling, she looks after her mother, with whom she shares her cramped tent at the camp.

“My mother can’t walk and has health problems, so I have to stay and take care of her because my older siblings are in Germany,” she said.

The prospect of going home to Sinjar in northern Iraq is not an option for Jamila, and many others. The city still lies in ruin four years after the IS onslaught, and suspicion runs deep in the ethnically mixed area.

“Sinjar is completely destroyed. Even if we could go back, I wouldn’t want to because we’d be surrounded by the same Arab neighbors who all joined IS in the first place, and helped them kill us (Yazidis),” she said.

Displaced people from the Yazidi religious minority buy vegetables at the Sharya camp, in Duhok, Iraq, Oct. 29, 2019.

IS trials

Thousands of men are being tried in Iraqi courts for their ties to IS. Iraq has so far not allowed victims to testify in court, something community leaders and human rights groups say would go a long way in the healing process.

“It is deplorable that not a single victim of Islamic State’s horrific abuses including sexual slavery has gotten their day in court,” said Belkis Wille, Iraq Researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Iraq’s justice system is designed to allow the state to exact mass revenge against suspects, not provide real accountability for victims.”

For some of the nearly 17,000 Yazidis at the Sharya camp, Baghdadi’s death was a first step in that direction, though they fear the IS fighters who are still alive.

Mayan Sinu, 25, can dream of a new life after the camp as she and her three children have been granted asylum by Australia. But she also wants the men who shot her husband in the legs and dragged him off to be brought to justice. He has been missing since the incident five years ago.

“I hope Baghdadi is suffering more than we ever did, and my God we suffered,” said Sinu. “I wish he (Baghdadi) hadn’t blown himself up so I could have slaughtered him myself with my bare hands.”


Hungary Shakes Up Top Jobs in Justice, Highlighting Govt’s Struggle for Influence

Hungary is set to reappoint its chief prosecutor to a new 9-year term and will remove its main judicial administrator, in moves that critics say highlight premier Viktor Orban’s mixed success in influencing the judiciary which remains one of the most independent bodies in Hungarian society.

Despite constant clashes with Western partners over the rule of law, the conservative populist Orban has solidified his grip over most walks of Hungarian life.

He rejects allegations that his government has eroded checks and balances and has said his strong mandate received in democratic elections empowers his Fidesz party to change laws.

While the country’s prosecution system has been under the direct control of chief prosecutor Peter Polt, an Orban loyalist, the National Association of Judges has resisted Orban and has been engulfed in a bitter dispute over administrative attempts to rein it in, via appointments or financial pressure.

President Janos Ader, a former head of Fidesz party and Orban’s key ally, proposed reappointing Polt as chief prosecutor for a second nine-year term on Tuesday. He gave no reasoning.

Parliament, where Fidesz holds a large majority, will have to confirm Polt.

The European Union said in 2019 Hungary lacked determined action to prosecute corruption in high-level cases and “the effective functioning of the prosecution service remains a concern.”

Polt has dismissed those claims as “baseless”.

Tunde Hando, the wife of Fidesz stalwart and European Parliament member Jozsef Szajer, will leave her position as chair of the judiciary administration a year early.

As chief administrator she was ultimately responsible for the operation of the court system, with a say over issues like the nomination of new senior judges or budgeting.

Hando said she always acted by the law, adding Hungary’s Constitution makes clear the fundamental division of powers.

Balazs Toth, a legal expert at the rights group Hungarian Helsinki Committee, who has represented clients in cases against the government, said Fidesz wants a country without checks and balances, but judges have withstood the propaganda and pressure.

Fidesz has nominated Hando to the Constitutional Court, once Hungary’s top arbiter of law but greatly weakened after Orban’s party started to appoint its members.

Prosecutors filter criminal cases and decide which cases to investigate and how, choosing which cases to refer to the courts – a power that critics have said it used selectively to block cases detrimental to Fidesz or Orban’s associates.

When investigating a case of suspected fraud in 2014 involving Orban’s son-in-law Istvan Tiborcz, Polt’s prosecutors found no wrongdoing. A later probe by the European anti-fraud body OLAF however, detailed alleged fraud totalling 13 billion forints ($44 million) and recommended Hungary investigate.

Polt reopened the case but again dismissed it.

Tiborcz has not commented on the case, in which he and his business partners were never charged, as matters did not proceed to court.

Polt has rejected allegations of complicity.

($1 = 296.3900 forints)



Guinea-Bissau president names new PM but old one refuses to go

Guinea-Bissau President Jose Mario Vaz named a new prime minister on Tuesday but his sacked predecessor refused to step down, intensifying a bitter power struggle between Vaz and the ruling party weeks ahead of a presidential election.

Vaz, who is running for again in the Nov. 24 poll, dissolved the government late on Monday saying the political situation was undermining the normal functioning of state institutions in the West African country.

It has suffered repeated bouts of instability since it became independent from Portugal in 1974, including nine coups or attempted coups and a surge in cocaine trafficking from South America that has been linked to senior military officials.

The country has been largely peaceful since Vaz came to power in a 2014 election that followed a coup two years earlier.

But he has repeatedly clashed over the balance of power in the semi-presidential system with a string of prime ministers put forward by the African Party of the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), which controls a majority in parliament.

In a decree on Tuesday, Vaz named as prime minister Faustino Fudut Imbali, who served in the same post from 2000-2003 and represents the small Manifest Party of the People.

FILE – Aristide Gomes, speaks to journalists, Nov. 13, 2008, at his party’s headquarters in Bissau.

Aristides Gomes, who was put forward for the job by PAIGC, told Reuters he was refusing to go: “I am in my office, working.”

Gomes said Vaz’s orders were illegitimate since the president’s term technically expired on June 23. West African regional bloc ECOWAS declared a few days later that Vaz could stay in office through to the November election.

Vaz won the 2014 presidential election as the PAIGC’s candidate but fell out with the party after sacking his prime minister in 2015. He is now running for re-election as an independent candidate.

In a rare political protest, demonstrations from a party opposed to Gomes’s government took to the streets of the capital Bissau at the weekend, demanding the election be postponed so that voter lists could be checked for irregularities.

One protester died on Saturday and several were wounded, according to the government, a hospital source and march organizers.

Instability in Guinea-Bissau has typically taken the form of military coups, led by officers drawn mostly from a narrow military elite who fought for independence in 1963-1974.



Trump Tweets Photo of Military Dog Wounded in Baghdadi Raid

President Donald Trump on Monday outed a military working dog that tracked down the head of the Islamic State.

Trump tweeted a photo of a Belgian Malinois that he said worked with a team of special forces in the capture of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a tunnel beneath a compound in northeastern Syria.

The name and other details about the dog remain a secret.

“We have declassified a picture of the wonderful dog (name not declassified) that did such a GREAT JOB in capturing and killing the Leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi!” the president tweeted.

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told reporters earlier Monday that the animal “performed a tremendous service” in the Saturday night raid.

Al-Baghdadi set off an explosion that killed himself and three children and apparently wounded the dog.

Milley said the dog was “slightly wounded” but is now recovering and has returned to duty with its handler at an undisclosed location. He and Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the U.S. is protecting the dog’s identify by keeping any information about the canine classified for now.

“We are not releasing the name of the dog right now,” Milley said. “The dog is still in theater.”

The U.S. military commonly uses the Belgian Malinois to guide and protect troops, search out enemy forces and look for explosives. The breed is prized for its intelligence and ability to be aggressive on command, said Ron Aiello, president of the United States War Dogs Association.

“That’s the kind of dog you want to lead a patrol like this,” said Aiello, a former Marine dog handler whose organization helps active duty and retired military dogs. “They are the first line of defense. They go out front.”

Not releasing the name makes sense as a security precaution for the same reason you wouldn’t identify the troops who take part in the raid, he said. “There could be retaliation.”

A Belgian Malinois service dog named Cairo accompanied U.S. Navy SEALs in the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida, in Pakistan. President Barack Obama met the canine at a ceremony to honor the commandos.

Trump gave a dramatic account of the raid in Syria, variously saying there was one dog and multiple canines involved in the operation. He said that as U.S. troops and their dogs closed in, the militant went “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” to his death.

“He reached the end of the tunnel, as our dogs chased him down,” Trump said.



Envoy for North Korea Expected to Get No. 2 State Dept. Job

The U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, is expected to be nominated as early as this week to be second-in-command at the State Department, officials said Monday.

Two Trump administration officials and a congressional aide familiar with the selection process said the White House is expected to nominate Biegun to be the next deputy secretary of state in the coming days. The officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Biegun would replace John Sullivan, who has been nominated to be the next U.S. ambassador to Russia. Both positions require Senate confirmation.

Biegun has had a prominent role in the delicate negotiations that led to historic meetings between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

A former Ford Motor Co. executive who served in previous Republican administrations and has advised GOP lawmakers, Biegun has led as yet unsuccessful negotiations to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons since being appointed to his current post in August 2018. He is expected to keep the North Korea portfolio if he is confirmed to the new post, the officials said.

His nomination has been expected since mid-September, but its timing has been unclear amid turmoil in the State Department over the House impeachment inquiry into the administration’s policy toward Ukraine.

Sullivan was nominated to be envoy to Moscow in September although his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was just set for Wednesday, making Biegun’s nomination to fill the soon-to-be vacant No. 2 spot at the State Department more urgent.

Sullivan’s confirmation hearing is likely to be dominated by questions from committee Democrats about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and his role in Ukraine policy.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testified to impeachment investigators earlier the month that Sullivan was the official who informed her that she had lost Trump’s confidence and was being recalled early from Kyiv. Democrats are expected to use Wednesday’s confirmation hearing to press Sullivan on the extent of his involvement in Ukraine and why the department bowed to a campaign to oust Yovanovitch spearheaded by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.


Investors Return to Saudi Arabia as Lucrative Oil IPO Looms

Lured by a long-looming stock offering of Saudi Arabia’s massive state-run oil company, investors and business leaders have returned to the kingdom’s capital for an investment forum that was overshadowed last year by the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Yet drawing big names to the Future Investment Initiative alone does not mean Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s dream of having Saudi Aramco offer a sliver of itself at a $2 trillion valuation will become a reality.

King Salman’s son needs to raise $100 billion required to fund his ambitious development plans for a kingdom desperate to offer jobs to its 34 million people as unemployment remains above 10%.

Stagnant global energy prices and a Sept. 14 attack on the heart of Aramco already spooked some. One ratings company downgraded the oil giant. Meanwhile, questions persist over how the initial public offering will be handled even as Saudi Aramco offers sweeteners and promises of an estimated $75 billion dividend next year.  

“Tepid oil prices, the fraught politics of the Middle East and the demonization of fossil fuel producers in response to climate change fears have all made the initial public offering a mission impossible,” wrote Roberto Sifon-Arevalo of the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s.

The Future Investment Initiative, which begins on Tuesday, will draw 6,000 people and international firms to Riyadh for a forum that’s the brainchild of the 34-year-old Prince Mohammed. Already, the forum announced Dow Chemicals, HSBC, Samsung and other global firms will be partners to the event.

Heads of state also will attend, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II both scheduled to speak Tuesday. Also scheduled is Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and a White House adviser.

It again will be held in part at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which served as a detention facility during a 2017 purge targeting businessmen, princes and others. Described at the time as an anti-corruption campaign, the arrests targeted wealthy potential challengers to the prince and cemented his grip on power amid allegations of torture denied by the kingdom. Authorities later said it saw the government recoup over $100 billion.   

However, there will be big names not taking part. Among them is Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and the owner of the Post, who had been in negotiations to open data centers in the kingdom before the killing and dismemberment of Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, the Post reported Monday.

FILE – A Turkish police officer walks past a picture of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi prior to a ceremony, near the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, marking the one-year anniversary of his death, Oct. 2, 2019.

Khashoggi’s death cast a pall over last year’s forum, which saw Prince Mohammed give a fiery speech in which he described the killing as “a heinous act that is unjustifiable.” However, U.S. officials and a recent United Nations’ special rapporteur report suspect Prince Mohammed had a role in the slaying as members of the team of assassins sent to kill Khashoggi had links to the prince.

“It inconceivable that an operation of this scale could be implemented without the crown prince being aware, at a minimum, that some sort of mission of a criminal nature, directed at Mr. Khashoggi, was being launched,” the U.N. report read.

Investors appear poised to move beyond the columnist’s killing for one major reason: The long-discussed initial public offering of Saudi Aramco. The firm, formally known as the Saudi Arabian Oil Co., was founded in 1933 with America’s Standard Oil. By 1980, the kingdom owned 100% of the firm, which runs like a Western-style firm and refers to the government as its sole “shareholder” in its corporate documents.

The Aramco IPO has been pitched by Prince Mohammed since 2016 as a means to generate cash to fund development in the kingdom. Aramco’s scale remains impressive, able to pump 10 million barrels of crude oil a day, some 10% of daily global oil demand. In its first-ever half-year results, it reported income of $46.8 billion. Yet analysts say a $2 trillion valuation — Apple and Microsoft separately for instance are $1 trillion — may be a stretch.

Yet questions remain about Saudi Aramco, such as the health and the size of its oil reserves, something held as a state secret by the kingdom.

“Publicly traded oil companies faced financial disclosure regulations that required them to make information about the size and the health of their oil reserves public,” wrote Aramco expert Ellen R. Wald in her recent book “Saudi, Inc.” “Saudi Aramco had no such requirement and released only the information it chose.”

The global business press also frantically following each step of the IPO has raised repeated questions over its constant delays. It appears like the kingdom is preparing to offer a first part of the IPO on the local Tadawul stock exchange. The firm’s ties to the kingdom also have raised questions about whether it would take the risk of listing in the West, where it could be targeted by lawsuits.

FILE – A production facility is seen at Saudi Aramco’s Shaybah oilfield in the Empty Quarter, Saudi Arabia, May 22, 2018.

Saudi Aramco has sought to assure investors. A presentation posted to Aramco’s website this month announced the intent to offer a $75 billion dividend for investors in 2020. That’s the payment per share that a corporation distributes to its stockholders as their return on the money they have invested in its stock.

It also pledged that some 2020 through 2024, any year with a dividend under $75 billion would see “non-government shareholders” prioritized to get paid.

But beyond the stocks, worries persist that Saudi Arabia could be hit by another attack like the one Sept. 14, which the U.S. blames on Iran. Iran denies it launched the cruise missiles and drones used in the attack. Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility, but analysts say the weapons used wouldn’t have the range to reach their targets.

Yet worries about the firm are nothing new. Even as far back as 1953, when Aramco still was held by American oil firms, then-U.S. Ambassador Raymond Hare linked the company’s success to the kingdom’s own.

“A strong Aramco meant a strong Saudi Arabia and a weakened Aramco a weakened Saudi Arabia,” he once told the kingdom’s first ruler.