Trump Meets Kim at DMZ, Crosses Into North Korea

Donald Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to visit North Korea, stepping across the border during a meeting at the demilitarized zone with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

After shaking hands with Kim at the Panmunjom border village, Trump walked across the military demarcation line separating the two Koreas. Kim and Trump then crossed the border back into South Korea. 

“Good to see you again,” Kim told Trump. “I never expected to see you in this place.” 

“Stepping across that line was a great honor,” said Trump, who invited Kim to the United States for another meeting.

Trump on Saturday had said the meeting would only last two minutes. However, Trump’s private talks with Kim lasted about 50 minutes, turning into an impromptu summit.

When Trump emerged from the meeting, he announced he and Kim had agreed to form teams to restart working level talks. 

“They will meet over the next few weeks and they’re going to start a process and we’ll see what happens,” Trump said. “Speed is not the object…we want a really comprehensive, good deal.” 

Leaving South Korea after a wonderful meeting with Chairman Kim Jong Un. Stood on the soil of North Korea, an important statement for all, and a great honor!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 30, 2019

It is the third meeting between Kim and Trump, following meetings in Singapore last June and in Vietnam in February. Though the DMZ summit raises hopes of revived nuclear talks, it’s not clear how much progress was made.

President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea, Sunday, June 30, 2019.

Nuclear progress?

Trump announced his negotiating team would continue to be led by Steve Biegun, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea. He said that North Korea “was also putting someone in charge who we know and who we like,” though he didn’t elaborate.

After the Singapore summit, Trump also announced his deputies would soon start working level negotiations. But those talks soon broke down over disagreements about how to pace sanctions relief with North Korea’s steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons. 

“It’s where we were about 15 months ago,” says Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “One step forward, two steps back. But this is one step forward.” 

“Given where we were last week, it’s not nothing,” he added. 

The disagreements between the U.S. and North Korea remain vast. Not only has North Korea not provided a list of its nuclear sites, Washington and Pyongyang have not even agreed on what the idea of denuclearization means. 

In recent weeks, North Korea expressed increasing levels of anger at the U.S. refusal to relax sanctions. Trump prefers a “big deal” under which North Korea commits to completely abandoning his nuclear weapons before relaxing any sanctions.

In their public comments Sunday, neither Trump nor Kim gave any indication of softening their stances.

“There was no sign that the two sides were prepared to address the underlying substantive problems, like differences over sanctions relief, that have made diplomacy so difficult,” says Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official and Korea specialist.  

“Unless the working-level negotiators have a mandate to try new, more constructive approaches to these problems, it’s hard to see what they can achieve,” he adds.

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stand on the North Korean side in the Demilitarized Zone, Sunday, June 30, 2019 at Panmunjom.

U.S. officials have given mixed signals about whether they are open to an incremental approach, whereby Pyongyang would give up its nuclear program in stages in exchange for reciprocal steps by Washington.

Building trust or theatrics?

Trump visited the DMZ with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Though the three leaders did not make any public statement together, they briefly appeared together before Trump and Kim met for private talks.

At an earlier military briefing with Moon at a DMZ lookout point, Trump said the demilitarized zone used to be “very, very dangerous…but after our first summit, all the danger went away.” 

Trump also defended his North Korea policy and blasted media that have questioned whether he should meet with Kim, given that talks with North Korea are stalled.  

“I say that for the press, they have no appreciation for what we’ve done,” Trump said.

While many warn the latest summit risked normalizing friendly relations with a brutal dictator, South Korea’s President Moon said the meeting was an important step toward building trust with North Korea.

“We have taken one big step forward,” Moon said. “The…Korean people have been given hope thanks to today.”

But Bonnie Glaser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that for Trump, stepping inside North Korea might not signify any change in policy.

Trump, she said, delights in doing things no president has done before.”

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Schumer: ATF Should Investigate Dominican Republic Deaths

The Senate’s top Democrat called on the U.S. government Sunday to step up its efforts to investigate the deaths of Americans who traveled to the Dominican Republic and is asking the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to get involved.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the agency should step in to lend investigative support to the FBI and local law enforcement officials after at least eight Americans died in the Dominican Republic this year. Family members of the tourists have called on authorities to investigate whether there’s any connection between the deaths and have raised the possibility the deaths may have been caused by adulterated alcohol or misused pesticides.

The ATF – the agency primarily investigates firearms-related crimes but is also charged with regulating alcohol and tobacco – is uniquely positioned to provide technical and forensic expertise in the investigation, Schumer said. The agency also has offices in the Caribbean.

“Given that we still have a whole lot of questions and very few answers into just what, if anything, is cause for the recent spate of sicknesses and several deaths of Americans in the Dominican Republic, the feds should double their efforts on helping get to the bottom of things,” Schumer said in a statement to The Associated Press.

An ATF spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Francisco Javier Garcia, the tourism minister in the Dominican Republic, said earlier this month that the deaths are not part of any mysterious wave of fatalities but instead are a statistically normal phenomenon that has been lumped together by the U.S. media. He said autopsies show the tourists died of natural causes.

Five of the autopsies were complete as of last week, while three were undergoing further toxicological analysis with the help from the FBI because of the circumstances of the deaths.

 

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Israeli PM: Palestinians Are Determined to Continue Conflict

Israel’s prime minister says the Palestinians are “determined to continue the conflict at any price.”

Speaking at his weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu was referring to the Palestinian leadership’s rejection of last week’s Mideast peace conference in Bahrain aimed at providing economic assistance.

Netanyahu says while Israel welcomed the U.S.’s $50 billion Palestinian development plan, the Palestinians themselves denounced it and even arrested a Palestinian businessman who participated in it.

Netanyahu says, “This is not how those who want to promote peace act.”

Palestinian forces have since released businessman Saleh Abu Mayala.

The Palestinian Authority accuses the Trump administration of being biased toward Israel and has boycotted it since it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017. They accuse the U.S. of trying to replace Palestinian statehood with money.

 

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9/11 First Responder Advocate Dies at 53

A leader in the fight for health benefits for emergency personnel who responded to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. has died.

Former New York City Police detective Luis Alvarez died from colorectal cancer Saturday, his family announced in a post On Facebook.

The 53-year-old Alvarez appeared with American comedian and political activist Jon Stewart before a House Judiciary subcommittee on June 11 to appeal for an extension of the September 11 Victims Compensation Fund.

A frail Alvarez told the panel, “This fund is not a ticket to paradise, it’s to provide our families with care.” He went on to say “You all said you would never forget. Well, I’m here to make sure that you don’t.”

Alvarez was diagnosed with cancer in 2016. His illness was traced to the three months he spent searching for survivors in the toxic rubble of the World Trade Center’s twin towers that were destroyed in the terrorist attacks.

He was admitted to a hospice on Long Island, New York within a few days of his testimony in Washington.

Legislation to replenish the $7.3 billion compensation fund that provides health benefits to police officers, firefighters and other emergency responders passed the full committee unanimously.

The federal government opened the fund in 2011 to compensate responders and their families for deaths and illnesses that were linked to exposure to toxins. Current projections indicate the fund will be depleted at the end of 2020.

Other responders who spent weeks at the site have also been diagnosed with A variety of cancers and other illnesses.

The World Trade Center Health Program, a separate program associated with a fund run by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said more than 12,000 related cases of cancer had also been diagnosed as of May.

 

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Trump Vows Appeal After Judge Blocks Use of Border Wall Funds

U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday vowed to appeal a U.S. judge’s ruling blocking his administration from using $2.5 billion in funds intended for anti-drug activities to construct a wall along the southern border with Mexico.

“[W]e’re immediately appealing it, and we think we’ll win the appeal,” Trump said during a press conference on Saturday at a summit of leaders of the Group of 20 (G20) major economies in Osaka, western Japan.

“There was no reason that that should’ve happened,” Trump said.

Trump has sought to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, but has so far proven unsuccessful at receiving congressional approval to do so.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle sits near the wall as President Donald Trump visits a new section of the border wall with Mexico in Calexico, Calif., April 5, 2019.
Judge Blocks Plans to Build Part of Southern Border Wall
A federal judge blocked on Friday President Donald Trump from building sections of his long-sought border wall with money secured under his declaration of a national emergency.

U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam, Jr., immediately halted the administration’s efforts to redirect military-designated funds for wall construction. His order applies to two high-priority projects to replace 51 miles (82 kilometers) of fence in two areas on the Mexican border.

Gilliam issued the ruling after hearing arguments last week in two cases.

In February, the Trump administration declared a national emergency to reprogram $6.7 billion in funds that Congress had allocated for other purposes to build the wall, which groups and states including California had challenged.

U.S. District Court Judge Haywood Gilliam in Oakland, California said in a pair of court decisions on Friday that the Trump administration’s proposal to transfer Defense Department funds intended for anti-drug activities was unlawful.

One of Gilliam’s rulings was in a lawsuit filed by California on behalf of 20 states, while the other was in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in coordination with the Sierra Club and the Southern Border Communities Coalition.

“These rulings critically stop President Trump’s illegal money grab to divert $2.5 billion of unauthorized funding for his pet project,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “All President Trump has succeeded in building is a constitutional crisis, threatening immediate harm to our state.”

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Hong Kong Protests Stir Questions in Macau

Since Portugal’s colony of Macau reverted to Chinese control in 1999, it has become known for operating the world’s most profitable gaming industry and a go-along, get-along attitude toward Beijing.

However, the continuing protests in Hong Kong over a controversial extradition bill may be triggering some small change of political attitudes in Macau, 65 kilometers (40.4 miles) away by ferry. Hong Kong businesses closed to support protests, so did some Macau shops, for example.

FILE – Macau lawmaker and member of the election committee, Jose Coutinho, speaks to the media, July 26, 2009.

Jose Pereira Coutinho, president of the pro-democracy New Hope party in Macau, and one of the most influential members of its legislative assembly, told VOA that despite the different legal systems in Macau and Hong Kong, the two Special Administrative Regions of China “are highly similar in the ways of life and their societies in general. We always reflect on what happens in Hong Kong. The recent protests there … are a lesson for the Macau government to not step into a wrong decision, so that the mistakes would not happen … in Macau.”

His is not the only voice hinting at change.

‘One citizen, one photo’ protest

Macau Concealers, a pro-democracy newspaper, organized a “one citizen, one photo” event that asked people to submit photos of themselves holding protest signs.

Jia Lu, a Macanese journalist, said in his commentary on the Hong Kong protest: “Liberty is never free bread to be taken for granted. Today, as long as you are a human, there is no reason to be silent.”

Some Macau activists traveled across the Pearl River estuary to join the Hong Kong protests.

FILE – Police officers use pepper spray during a rally against a proposed extradition law at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, June 10, 2019.

Macanese reporter Jiajun Chen posted on Facebook during the first week of protests that he was injured by the hot chili spray the Hong Kong police used to control protesters as he covered the crowds. Then, while receiving first aid at the scene, he received another stinging dose from the Hong Kong police. Chen said his press pass was visible during both sprays.

“We are just so used to complaining, often in private, but rarely take action,” Di Ng, 27, a Macanese independent filmmaker, told VOA in a phone interview.

“Macau is a very traditional society largely controlled by different she tuan,” he said. She tuan are foundations and associations organized according to industries, interests, family ties and social identities.

“The elderly get to organize the social order, and they are usually pro-[Beijing]. Even youngsters who want to speak out are discouraged by this social structure.”

“Only after coming to Taiwan did I realize that the definition of a modern society should include democracy, not just fancy mega-casinos and free cash from the government,” said Ng, who is now doing graduate work in film at Taipei’s National Taiwan University of Arts.

FILE – Protesters march along a road demonstrating against a proposed extradition bill in Hong Kong, China, June 12, 2019.

Macau vs Hong Kong

Meng U Ieong, an assistant professor from the department of government and public administration in University of Macau, cautioned that the values of modern Western democracies are less popular in Macau than they are in Hong Kong, even though Macau was a Portuguese colony for 442 years, or 286 longer years than Hong Kong was under British rule.

“The social mobilization mechanism is very different between Hong Kong and Macau,” he told VOA in an email.

He pointed to the large-scale protest in Macau in 2014 that halted a controversial pension plan for retired officials as the kind of event used as evidence that Macanese will take to the streets only for pocketbook issues.

Abstract “social issues which do not relate to very specific and tangible interests,” such as the extradition bill upsetting Hong Kong, are unlikely to generate protests in Macau, according to Ieong. 

Since 2008, Macau’s government has given an annual cash handout to residents. For 2018, all local permanent residents received a cash handout of 10,000 patacas, or about $1,245. Nonpermanent residents received 6,000 patacas.

FILE – A croupier counts the chips at a baccarat gaming table inside a casino during the opening day of Sheraton Macao Hotel at the Sands Cotai Central in Macau.

This largesse is because of Macau’s gaming industry. Its revenues overtook those from the Las Vegas Strip in 2007, according to Reuters.

In 2018, the “Vegas of China” tallied $38 billion, according to the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. In Las Vegas, the haul was $6.6 billion in 2018, according to the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

For both Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997, and Macau, the changeover from European colony to Chinese territory came with the concept of “one country, two systems.” Communist Party reformer Deng Xiaoping designed the concept as a way to gather Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan into China, while preserving their political and economic systems. 

Taiwan remains independent. Hong Kong has met Beijing’s tightening controls with protests, including the most recent, and largest, ones over a proposed law that would allow extradition for trial in China. The law is backed by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who is closely aligned with Beijing and who has apologized for the current controversy.

In 2014, Beijing’s interference with the selection of candidates for the chief executive position spawned the Occupy Central or Umbrella Movement. It focused on demands for universal suffrage, which is a long-term goal of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

Success story

Macau, however, emerged as the “one country, two systems” success story. Unlike Hong Kong, with its global reputation as a business center bound by the rule of law, Macau largely depends on gaming and has shown little resistance to Beijing’s influence, according to a recent Foreign Policy article.

“There is stronger Chinese influence [in Macau]. Plus, we usually just see things in economic terms, unlike Hong Kongers who uphold the value of democracy that they inherited from the British,” said a 17-year-old Macanese student. A freshman at a Los Angeles area college, she asked to remain anonymous because she was in Hong Kong attending orientation for non-U.S. students when the protests erupted.

Eilo Yu, an associate professor in the department of government and public administration at University of Macau, expects the Hong Kong protests to influence Macau’s August vote for its chief executive.

“If Mr. Ho Iat Seng, whom I believe will be the only candidate, cannot manage well in responding [to the protest], this will hurt his legitimacy in ruling when he becomes the CE,” Yu said to VOA in an email. “The current situation may be good to his campaign [in] that he need not make a firm statement for a possible extradition between Mainland and Macao. However, if Carrie Lam is going to resign during the Macau election, Ho will be questioned and pressured on his possible resignation when his performance” disappoints Macao citizens.

“We were known for being silent,” said Ng, the filmmaker. “But with the Hong Kongers setting the example, things might be different in the future.”

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Senate Fails to Limit Trump War Powers 

Political unease over the White House’s tough talk against Iran is reviving questions about President Donald Trump’s ability to order military strikes without approval from Congress.

The Senate fell short Friday, in a 50-40 vote, on an amendment to a sweeping Defense bill that would require congressional support before Trump acts. It didn’t reach the 60-vote threshold needed for passage. But lawmakers said the majority showing sent a strong message that Trump cannot continue relying on the nearly 2-decade-old war authorizations Congress approved in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The House is expected to take up the issue next month.

Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 29, 2019.

“A congressional vote is a pretty good signal of what our constituents are telling us — that another war in the Middle East would be a disaster right now, we don’t want the president to just do it on a whim,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a co-author of the measure with Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. “My gut tells me that the White House is realizing this is deeply unpopular with the American public.”

The effort in the Senate signals discomfort with Trump’s approach to foreign policy. Four Republicans joined most Democrats in supporting the amendment, but it faces steep resistance from the White House and the Pentagon wrote a letter opposing it.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., holds a news conference ahead of the Fourth of July break, at the Capitol in Washington, June 27, 2019.

McConnell: ‘Trump Derangement Syndrome’

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called it nothing more than another example of “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” which he explained as whatever the president’s for “they seem to be against.”

McConnell said putting restrictions on the White House would “hamstring” the president’s ability to respond militarily at a time of escalating tension between the U.S. and Iran.

“They have gratuitously chosen to make him the enemy,” McConnell said. “Rather than work with the president to deter our actual enemy, they have chosen to make him the enemy.”

Trump: No congressional approval needed

Trump’s approach to the standoff with Iran and his assertion earlier this week that he doesn’t need congressional approval to engage militarily has only sparked fresh questions and hardened views in Congress.

Trump tweeted last week that the U.S. came within minutes of striking Iran in response to its shooting down of an unmanned U.S. drone until he told the military to stand down. He said he was concerned over an Iranian casualty count estimated at 150.

“We’ve been keeping Congress abreast of what we’re doing … and I think it’s something they appreciate,” Trump told The Hill website. “I do like keeping them abreast, but I don’t have to do it legally.”

As the popular Defense bill was making its way through the Senate, Democrats vowed to hold back their support unless McConnell agreed to debate the war powers. The defense bill was roundly approved Thursday on a vote of 86-8.

FILE – Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., joined at right by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks to reporters at the Capitol in Washington, April 9, 2019.

Schumer urges Congress to act

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York assembled his caucus earlier this week. In a series of closed-door meetings he argued that Congress had ceded too much authority to presidents of both parties, according to a person granted anonymity to discuss the private sessions. Schumer said the amendment would prohibit funds to be used for hostilities with Iran without the OK of Congress.

Schumer also said that the American people are worried that U.S. and Iran are on a dangerous collision course and that even though Trump campaigned on not wanting to get the U.S. embroiled in wars he “may bumble us into one.”

“It is high time that Congress re-establishes itself as this nation’s decider of war and peace,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.

FILE – Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks to reporters after a classified members-only briefing on Iran, May 21, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Romney counters

To counter the Democrats’ effort, Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah pushed forward an alternative to Udall’s amendment that reaffirmed the U.S. can defend itself and respond to any attacks. But Romney said his version is not an authorization to use force against Iran.

“I fully concur with my Senate colleagues who desire to reassert our constitutional role,” Romney said on the Senate floor. But he warned that the Udall amendment goes too far. “The president should not have his hands tied.”

The debate over whether the legislative or executive branch has sole power over war-making depends on how one interprets the Constitution, experts said.

In recent years, the U.S. military has been deployed under old war authorizations passed in 2001 and 2002 for conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some lawmakers have pushed to pass new war powers acts, but none have materialized, though the House last week voted to sunset those authorizations.

Pompeo lists Iran’s aggressions

In ticking off a list of Iranian acts of “unprovoked aggression,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently asserted that a late May car bombing of a U.S. convoy in Kabul, Afghanistan, was among a series of threats or attacks by Iran and its proxies against American and allies interests. At the time, the Taliban claimed credit for the attack, with no public word of Iranian involvement.

Pompeo’s inclusion of the Afghanistan attack in his list of six Iranian incidents raised eyebrows in Congress. Pompeo and other administration officials have suggested that they would be legally justified in taking military action against Iran under the 2001 authorization.

That law gave President George W. Bush authority to retaliate against al-Qaida and the Taliban for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It has subsequently been used to allow military force against extremists elsewhere, from the Philippines to Syria.

The Senate amendment addressed the question about how much Congress can restrict the president, said Scott R. Anderson, a legal expert at Brookings Institution.

“If they actually pass it, it would be very substantive because it would be putting limits on the president that have never been there before,” Anderson said.

Even though the measure failed to reach the 60 votes needed, the House will likely try to attach its own limits on military action in Iran with its Defense bill next month. 
 

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Charlottesville Neo-Nazi Sentenced to Life in Prison

A federal judge imposed a life sentence on the self-described neo-Nazi who killed Heather Heyer by crashing his car into a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., after a white supremacist rally, saying release would be “too great a risk.” 

James Fields, 22, of Maumee, Ohio, was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He had sought a lesser sentence, apologizing after the court viewed video of him plowing his car into a crowd after the Aug. 12, 2017, “Unite the Right” rally, also injuring 30 people. 

U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski, was unmoved by his 
plea, saying he had to avert his eyes while the court viewed 
graphic video of the attack that showed bodies flying into the air as Fields crashed into them. 

“Just watching them is terrifying,” Urbanski said. “The 
release of the defendant into a free society is too great a 
risk.” 

Alt-right

The rally proved a critical moment in the rise of the 
“alt-right,” a loose alignment of fringe groups centered on 
white nationalism and emboldened by President Donald Trump’s 2016 election. 

Trump was criticized from the left and right for initially 
saying there were “fine people on both sides” of the dispute 
between neo-Nazis and their opponents at the rally. 

Subsequent alt-right gatherings failed to draw crowds the size of the Charlottesville rally. 

After the sentencing, Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, said she 
hoped her daughter would be remembered as a regular person who stood up for her beliefs. 

“The point of Heather’s death is not that she was a saint — 
and, Lord, my child was never a saint — but that an ordinary 
person can do a simple act … that can make all the difference in the world,” Bro said in an interview. 

Ahead of Friday’s sentencing hearing, prosecutors noted that 
Fields had long espoused violent beliefs. Less than a month 
before the attack he posted an image on Instagram showing a car plowing through a crowd of people captioned: “you have the right to protest but I’m late for work.” 

Fields remained unrepentant afterward, prosecutors said, 
noting that in a December 2017 phone call from jail with his 
mother, he blasted Bro for her activism after the attack. 

“She is a communist. An anti-white liberal,” Fields said, 
according to court papers filed by prosecutors. He rejected his mother’s plea to consider that the woman had “lost her 
daughter,” replying, “She’s the enemy.” 

U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen, center, speaks to reporters during a news conference after the sentencing of James Alex Fields Jr. in federal court in Charlottesville, Va., June 28, 2019.

‘Anathema to our country’ 

Prosecutors noted that hate crimes, particularly those 
driven by white supremacist views, are on the rise in the United States. The FBI’s most recent report on hate crimes, released in November, showed a 17% rise in 2017. 

Citing recent attacks on synagogues and burnings of African-American churches in Louisiana, they told a news conference that the U.S. government will continue to focus resources on prosecuting hate crimes. 

“Hate-filled violence based on white supremacy and racism is anathema to our country,” said Eric Dreiband, assistant U.S. attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. “Our government will use its immense power and resolve to identify the perpetrators of these crimes and prosecute them.” 

Fields pleaded guilty to the federal hate crime charges in 
March under a deal with prosecutors, who agreed not to seek the death penalty. 

He was photographed hours before the attack carrying a 
shield with the emblem of a far-right hate group. He has 
identified himself as a neo-Nazi. 

Fields’ attorneys suggested he felt intimidated and acted to 
protect himself. They asked for mercy, citing his relative youth and history of mental health diagnoses. 

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Putin Says Liberalism ‘obsolete’; Elton John Disagrees

Elton John on Friday called out Russian President Vladimir Putin for saying that liberalism is “obsolete” and conflicts with the “overwhelming majority” in many countries.

In a story published by the Financial Times newspaper, Putin said “the liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.” 

John said in a statement released Friday that he disagrees with Putin’s “view that pursuing policies that embrace multicultural and sexual diversity are obsolete in our societies.”

Putin also said Russia has “no problem with LGBT persons … let everyone be happy” in the interview.

John called Putin’s words hypocritical since a Russian distributor censored LGBTQ-related scenes from “Rocketman,” the film based on John’s life and career.

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Biden Faces Tough Sledding in His First Democratic Debate

In a sea of more than 20 candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, former vice president Joe Biden entered the second of two nights of early Democratic primary debates Thursday with a big bulls-eye on his back.

The front-runner before he even announced his candidacy, Biden was expected to ignore attacks from fellow Democrats as much as possible and to focus instead on challenging U.S. President Trump, trying to create the impression that the real race isn’t the primary at all, but an eventual Biden v. Trump showdown.

And from the get-go, that really did seem like Biden’s strategy. But as the former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson once observed, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Biden was repeatedly challenged on his record by his opponents and by moderators from television networks NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, which jointly hosted the event. His answers were often angry and defensive, even to attacks that he must certainly have known were coming.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Representative from California Eric Swalwell speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Passing the torch

During the two-hour debate in Miami, which shoehorned 10 candidates onto a single stage for the second night in a row, the first person to take a swing at Biden was California Rep. Eric Swalwell. The 38-year-old four-term congressman went after the 76-year-old former vice president over his age, pointing out that when Swalwell was 6 years old, in 1982, Biden had come to the California Democratic Convention as a presidential candidate and declared that it was time for America to pass the torch to a new generation.

Biden dodged the first attack deftly, parrying with comments about improving educational outcomes and cutting student debt.

However, it didn’t take long for the next blow to land.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Senator for California Kamala Harris speaks to the press after the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Busing opposition

California Sen. Kamala Harris, who is African American, challenged Biden over his past opposition to integrating public schools through busing, as well as recent comments he made about his ability to strike deals with openly racist members of the U.S. Senate during his early days in Congress. (Biden had mentioned his ability to work with Georgia Sen. Herman Talmadge and Mississippi Sen. James Eastland, both staunch segregationists from the distant past, as evidence that the Senate used to be a more “civil” place.)

“It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country,” Harris said. “And, you know, there was a little girl in California, who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools. And she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”

Defensive, angry

If, coming into the debate, Biden had planned to rise above attacks on him, he abandoned that plan when Harris confronted him. He responded angrily, denying that he had praised Talmadge and Eastland — something Harris never claimed — and launching into a defense of his opposition to busing.

Only a few minutes later, Biden was challenged again, when moderator Chuck Todd asked about his recent assertion that, if he were elected, Republicans in Congress would drop their resistance to Democratic ideas and negotiate. Pointing out that President Barack Obama had made similar comments near the end of his first term, only to be proved wrong, Todd said, “It does sound as if you haven’t seen what’s been happening in the United States over the past 12 years.”

Again, Biden responded angrily, reciting a list of accomplishments during his vice presidency that involved cooperation with Republicans in Congress, including a deal that avoided a federal government default.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Senator for Colorado Michael Bennet speaks in the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

He was immediately blasted by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who pointed out that the deal he mentioned involved extending controversial Republican tax cuts indefinitely.

Later, Biden was challenged by moderator Rachel Maddow on his vote in favor of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Rather than defending his vote, he instead focused on his efforts, as vice president, to finally bring U.S. combat troops home, again sounding angry and defensive.

Campaign test

Thursday night was a major test for Biden, who has not campaigned for any office since 2012. He won re-election as a senator in 2008, at the same time that he was elected vice president. Biden has not run by himself on any ticket since 2002, 18 years before the election he is hoping to win next year.

Biden only announced his candidacy in late April, but for long before that he was the clear front-runner in the Democratic primary nomination. On May 4, one week after he officially announced his campaign, Biden held a dominant lead over the rest of the field, with 36.8% of the vote, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average. His closest rival at the time, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, had less than half that support, at 16.4%.

Democratic presidential hopeful Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren participates in the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 26, 2019.

In the intervening months, much has changed. As of June 26, Biden’s support in the RCP average had dropped to 32%. Sanders had gained only a little, at 16.9%. But the big story was Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. At 8 percent a week after Biden announced, she had surged to 12.8% in the week before the first debates. Warren was the only one of the five highest-polling candidates to appear in the first debate.

In the final moments of Thursday’s debate, Biden did his best to move his focus back to President Trump, declaring that he wanted to “restore the soul” of the nation, which he said has been “ripped” out by the incumbent. 

If Thursday night demonstrated anything, though, it was that the former vice president’s opponents have no intention of allowing him to keep his focus on the current president. Or to remain comfortable at the top of the polls.
 

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Former US VP Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris Clash Over Racial Issues

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was at center stage Thursday on the second night of Democratic presidential debates, but one of his main challengers, Sen. Kamala Harris, sharply questioned his relations with segregationist lawmakers four decades ago and his opposition to forced school busing to integrate schools.

Harris, a California lawmaker and former prosecutor, turned to Biden, saying, “I do not believe you are a racist.” But the African American senator drew cheers from the crowd in an auditorium in Miami, Florida, when she said it was “hurtful to hear” Biden recently as he described how as a young senator he worked with segregationist Southern senators to pass legislation.

“That’s a mischaracterization of my position across the board,” a stern-faced Biden responded. “I did not praise racists.”

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Senator for California Kamala Harris speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

But Harris persisted in a sharp exchange, demanding of Biden, “Do you acknowledge it was wrong to oppose busing?” Harris said she had benefited from busing to attend desegregated schools.

Biden defended his longtime support for civil rights legislation, but he did not explain his opposition to school busing in the state of Delaware, which he represented in the U.S. Senate.

Democratic presidential hopeful former U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Divisive issue

Court-ordered school busing was a divisive issue in numerous American cities in the 1970s, especially opposed by white parents whose children were sent to black-majority schools elsewhere in their communities to desegregate them.

The Harris-Biden exchange was one of the most pointed of the debate, perhaps catching Biden off guard. The issue of race was triggered midway through the debate when Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, was questioned about his handling of the recent fatal shooting of a black man by a white police officer.

Democratic presidential hopeful Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Buttigieg, who temporarily suspended his campaign to return to his city, said the shooting is under investigation, but added, “It’s a mess and we’re hurting.”

Many in the black community have protested Buttigieg’s handling of the police incident and the relatively small number of black police officers on the South Bend force.

Biden leading early survey

Biden currently leads Democratic voter preference surveys for the party’s presidential nomination, but he was facing some of his biggest rivals, with millions watching on national television. He often defended his long role in the U.S. government, most recently as former President Barack Obama’s two-term vice president.

He was joined in the debate by nine other presidential candidates, including Senators Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist from Vermont, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Michael Bennet of Colorado.

In the early moments of the debate, Biden, Sanders and Harris all attacked President Donald Trump for his staunch support for a $1.5 trillion tax cut Congress enacted that chiefly benefited corporations and the wealthy.

“Donald Trump has put us in a horrible situation,” Biden said. “I would be going about eliminating Donald Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy.” Sanders called for the elimination of $1.6 trillion of student debt across the country, while Harris said she would change the tax code to benefit the American middle class, not the wealthy.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Senator for Vermont Bernie Sanders arrives for the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

‘The fraud he is’

Sanders attacked Trump in the most direct way of any of the Democratic contenders, declaring, “Trump is a phony, pathological liar and a racist.” He said Democrats need to “expose him as the fraud he is.”

In a wide-ranging debate, some of the contenders voiced disagreements on how to change U.S. health care policies. Sanders, Harris and Gillibrand all, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren the night before, called for the controversial adoption of a government-run health care program to replace the current U.S. system, which is based on workers buying private insurance policies to pay most of their health care bills.

But the other candidates disagreed. Biden, a staunch supporter of the Obamacare plan adopted while he was vice president that helped millions of Americans gain health insurance coverage, said that the existing plan should be improved, not abandoned.

“I’m against any Democrat who takes down Obamacare,” Biden said.

Candidates taking part in Thursday’s Democratic debate in Miami, June 27, 2019.

All 10 contenders said they supported providing health care coverage for undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Biden, reflecting other candidates’ comments, said, “You cannot let people be sick no matter where they came from.”

Trump, who was following the debate from the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, blasted the democratic candidates’ position.

All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited healthcare. How about taking care of American Citizens first!? That’s the end of that race!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 28, 2019

Biden twice has failed to win the party’s presidential nomination, in 1988 and 2008. But he has consistently led national polling this year, both over his Democratic rivals for the party nomination and over Trump in a hypothetical 2020 general election matchup.

Democratic presidential hopeful Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren participates in the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 26, 2019.

Biden’s closest Democratic challengers are Sanders and Warren of Massachusetts, the key contender among 10 on the debate stage Wednesday, when more than 15 million people tuned in to see the first major political event of the 2020 campaign.

Biden has attempted to portray himself as a steady alternative to the unpredictable Trump, one who would restore frayed U.S. relations with foreign allies and undo conservative domestic policies Trump has adopted.

But more progressive Democrats have questioned Biden’s bona fides and political history over four decades in Washington as the party’s key current figures have aggressively moved toward more liberal stances on a host of key policy issues, including health care and abortion, taxes and immigration.

Some critics also have suggested that Biden might be too old to become the U.S. leader. Now 76, Biden would be 78 and the oldest first-term president if he were to defeat the 73-year-old Trump and take office in January 2021. Trump often mocks him as “Sleepy Joe.”

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Representative from California Eric Swalwell speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

‘Pass the torch’

Congressman Eric Swalwell of California jabbed at Biden, recalling that 32 years ago, when Biden first ran for president, Biden contended the U.S. needed to “pass the torch” to a new generation of leaders. Swalwell said Biden was right when he said that then and joked that “he’s right today.”

Biden laughed at the reference, responding, “I’m still holding on to that torch.”

In the Midwestern farm state of Iowa recently, Trump assessed his possible Democratic opponents, saying of Biden, “I think he’s the weakest mentally, and I think Joe is weak mentally. The others have much more energy.”

Biden, for his part, labeled Trump “an existential threat” to the U.S.

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Key Quotes From Second Democratic Presidential Debate

The second set of 10 Democrats took the stage Thursday night for the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 U.S. election cycle in the race to try to oust Republican President Donald Trump from the White House.

On stage were Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.), former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Rep. Eric Swalwell (Calif.), author Marianne Williamson and businessman Andrew Yang.

Here is a look at the top quotes from the spirited debate:

Democratic presidential hopeful former U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Joe Biden

As the front-runner, Biden faced tough questions.

He was questioned over his recent comments about working well with segregationist senators and his past opposition to busing plans used to desegregate public schools.

Kamala Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, said to Biden: “I do not believe you are a racist and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground. But I also believe, and it is personal, and I was actually very — it was hurtful, to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing.”

Biden hit back: “It’s a mischaracterization of my position across the board: I did not praise racists. That is not true.”

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Senator for Vermont Bernie Sanders arrives for the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Bernie Sanders

Sanders was pressed over his self-description as a socialist, including a question on whether his proposals like Medicare for All would lead to higher taxes on the middle class.

“Every proposal that I have brought forth is fully paid for,” he said, arguing that insurance premiums would be lower under his proposal. “Yes, they will pay more in taxes but less in health care for what they get.”

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Representative from California Eric Swalwell speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Eric Swalwell

Eric Swalwell was the first of the night to attack Joe Biden. He says he remembers being a child when a Democratic candidate came to California and talked about the need to “Pass the torch” to young people.

“That man was Joe Biden,” Swalwell said. “And yes, we need to ‘Pass the torch.’”

“I’m still holding onto that torch,” Biden said.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Senator for California Kamala Harris speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Kamala Harris

After some squabbling among the candidate, the moderators tried to move the discussion on. Harris comes in with a line of her own. “Americans don’t want to watch a food fight,” she said. They want to know how they will be able to “put food on the table.”

Democratic presidential hopeful Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Pete Buttigieg

Asked during the debate why he didn’t manage to hire more black police officers in South Bend, where 26% of the population is black. 

“Because I couldn’t get it done,” Buttigieg responded.

“It’s a mess, and we’re hurting,” he said. “And I could walk you through all the things that we have done as a community. All of the steps that we took from bias training to de-escalation. But it didn’t save the life of Eric Logan. And when I look into his mother’s eyes, I have to face the fact that nothing that I say will bring him back.”

Buttigieg said that these issues South Bend faces are really a national problem, and that across the country it’s important to combat systemic racism in police departments.

“I am determined to bring about a day when a white person driving a vehicle and a black person driving a vehicle, when they see a police officer approaching feels the exact same thing — a feeling not of fear, but of safety,” Buttigieg said.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. author Marianne Williamson speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019.

Marianne Williamson

Williamson called the policy proposals for the country’s health care plans “superficial fixes” and railed against the current system as a “sickness system” rather than a “health care system.”

“If you think we are going to beat Donald Trump with all these plans, you are wrong,” she said, a tacit swipe at several candidates, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who have offered multiple policy proposals.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Senator for Colorado Michael Bennet speaks in the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Michael Bennet

Bennet swiped at President Donald Trump directly over his 2017 tax cuts, tariffs he’s levied as president and poor conditions at migrant detention centers.

“The president has turned the border of the United States into a symbol of nativist hostility,” Bennet said.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Senator for New York Kirsten Gillibrand speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Kirsten Gillibrand

The New York senator criticized Trump, pointing to the deaths of seven migrant children in U.S. custody during Trump’s tenure in the White House.

“He’s torn apart the moral fabric of who we are, when he started separating children at the border with their parents. The fact that seven children have died in his custody,” Gillibrand said.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. entrepreneur Andrew Yang speaks in the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

Andrew Yang

Yang was asked to defend his proposal to pay $1,000 a month, to every American, from the federal government.

“It’s difficult to do if you have companies like Amazon, trillion-dollar companies, paying zero in taxes,” Yang said, suggesting he would seek to close tax loopholes used by companies. He said he would also add a “mild” value-added tax, a kind of consumption tax used by European countries.

“Just the value gained by having a stronger, healthier, mentally healthier population” would be worth billions to the U.S. economy, Yang said, plus savings, as incarceration rates and homelessness declined.

Democratic presidential hopeful former Governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, June 27, 2019.

John Hickenlooper

“As Colorado governor, I brought in progressive policies. Socialism is bad, and will re-elect Trump.”

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Germany’s Merkel Seen Shaking Again at Berlin Event

German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared unsteady and was seen shaking for the second time in just over a week at a ceremony in Berlin on Thursday.

Merkel, 64, folded her arms across her chest while her body trembled for around two minutes as she stood alongside President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at an indoor event where Germany’s new justice minister was being formally appointed.
 
The chancellor was handed a glass of water but rejected it. She appeared fine when she arrived in parliament half an hour later.
 
Merkel set off to Japan a few hours later for the annual summit of the Group of 20 global powers.
 
Her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told news agency dpa that “everything is going ahead as planned. The chancellor is fine.”
 
Merkel’s office wouldn’t comment on the cause or otherwise elaborate. It is not publicly known if Merkel has any health problems. German privacy laws are very strict on that type of information.
 
On Tuesday last week, Merkel’s whole body shook as she stood outside in hot weather alongside Ukraine’s president. Merkel said afterward that she was fine after drinking three glasses of water, which she “apparently needed.”
 
Hot weather in Germany has continued this week, though outdoor temperatures in Berlin dropped significantly overnight after peaking at around 37 degrees Celsius (99 Fahrenheit) on Wednesday.
 
Merkel has been German leader since 2005.
 
Last week, dpa reported that Merkel had previously been seen shaking under similar circumstances in the hot sun. It did not give a date for that incident, but said it was also ascribed to Merkel not drinking enough water.
 
The chancellor has a reputation for stamina garnered in years of late-night domestic and European negotiating marathons.
 
On Wednesday, she was on her feet in public for around two hours _ first answering lawmakers’ questions in parliament, then giving a speech across town. There was no sign then of any health issues.
 
Merkel has rarely had to cut back her work schedule significantly – though she did so for a few weeks in 2014 when she cracked her pelvis while cross-country skiing in Switzerland during a winter vacation.
 
Merkel said last year that she won’t seek a fifth term as chancellor and won’t seek any other political job after her current term ends in 2021.
 
She gave up the leadership of her center-right party after a pair of poor state election performances that followed a rocky start to her fourth-term government. She has shown no sign since of wanting to give up the chancellorship before her term is up.

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Trial Opens over Bangladesh Teen’s Grisly Murder

At least sixteen people were facing the death penalty in a trial that started Thursday over the gruesome death of a young Bangladeshi woman that sparked protests and government promises of tough action.

Nusrat Jahan Rafi, 19, was set on fire in April after allegedly refusing to withdraw claims of sexual harassment against the head teacher of the Islamic seminary she attended.

She was lured onto the seminary rooftop in the southeastern town of Sonagazi, doused in kerosene and set alight, prosecutors say. She died five days later, triggering countrywide outrage.

The 16 people indicted — including the teacher — could face the death penalty if convicted. All defendants pleaded not guilty, while eight of the accused told the court that police forced them to sign written statements confessing involvement in the murder.

A special tribunal opened the trial Thursday at a crowded courtroom in the southeastern Feni district, with the first testimony by Rafi’s elder brother Mahmudul Hasan Noman who filed the case.

Noman — one of 92 people due to testify — described the killing in the court, saying the murder could have been avoided if police had acted upon Rafi’s harassment complaint.

The trial is expected to finish in six months, but Noman has urged the court to fast-track the hearings.

“Several defendants have alleged they were tortured and given electric shocks to sign confessional statements,” defence lawyer Giasuddin Ahmed told AFP, adding the case has become “politically motivated”.

Rafi had gone to police in March to report the alleged harassment. A leaked video shows the then district police chief registering her complaint but dismissing it as “not a big deal”.

The police official was later dismissed and arrested early this month for failing to properly investigate her allegations.

Police said at least five people — including three of Rafi’s classmates — tied her up with a scarf before setting her on fire. The plan was to stage the incident as a suicide case.

Rafi suffered burns to 80 percent of her body and died on April 10. But she recorded a video before her death, repeating her allegations against the head teacher.

Rights groups are closely monitoring the case as it came amid a spike in the number of rape and sexual assaults reported in Bangladesh.

They have said “a culture of impunity” is partly to blame for rise in sexual violence in the country.

According to Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, a women’s rights group, only three percent of rape cases end in convictions.

It said about 950 women were raped in Bangladesh last year.

 

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Afghan President Begins Pakistan Visit

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has begun a two-day official visit to Pakistan to pursue what aides say would be the normalization of the relationship between the two uneasy neighboring countries.

The Afghan leader held delegation-level talks with Prime Minister Imran Khan shortly after arriving in Islamabad at the head of a large delegation comprising Cabinet ministers, advisors and Afghan business community leaders.

In this photo released by the Foreign Office, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, second from right, talks with visiting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Islamabad, Pakistan, June 27, 2019.

Officials said the discussions focused on strengthening mutual cooperation in a number of areas, including political, trade, economic, security as well as peace and reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan. Ghani is also scheduled to address a conference of Pakistani and Afghan businessmen.

Allegations that the Pakistani military supports and shelters Taliban leaders are at the center of long-running bilateral tensions and mistrust. Pakistan rejects the charges and in turn accuses the Afghan spy agency of providing refuge to militants waging terrorist attacks against the Pakistani state.

The two countries share a nearly 2,600 kilometer, largely porous border, which critics say encourages illegal movement in both directions. Pakistan is unilaterally installing a robust fence along most of the frontier and believes it would address mutual security concerns.

FILE – Pakistani soldiers stand guard at a newly erected fence between Pakistan and Afghanistan at Angore Adda, Pakistan, Oct. 18, 2017.

Officials in Islamabad see Ghani’s latest visit as an indication his government “now realizes and accepts the centrality of Pakistan” to resolve bilateral issues and promote the Afghan peace process.

A senior foreign ministry official underscored the need for regular, direct and uninterrupted institutional-level engagement between the two countries. The official spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity.

“While Afghanistan realizes the importance of Pakistan in medium to long term, Pakistan also feels that it is important to remain engaged with the government of Afghanistan regardless of who heads it,” stressed the Pakistani official.

Last week, Pakistan hosted a “peace conference” of around 60 top Afghan political personalities, mostly opposition leaders, to try to underscore its neutrality in the conflict-torn Afghanistan.

U.S.-Taliban peace talks

Ghani’s visit comes at a time of intensified diplomatic efforts the United States is making to find a political settlement with the Taliban insurgency to end the nearly 18-year-old war in Afghanistan.

It also comes ahead of the next round of peace negotiations between U.S. and insurgent delegations to be hosted by Qatar on Saturday.

The Afghan government has been excluded from the dialogue process because of the Taliban’s refusal to deal with what the insurgents dismiss as an illegitimate “puppet” regime in Kabul.

Islamabad takes credit for arranging the U.S.-Taliban peace dialogue, insisting peace in Afghanistan is key to Pakistan’s own long-term security.

U.S. officials acknowledge Pakistani efforts in promoting the Afghan peace but they are seeking more help from Islamabad in terms of persuading the Taliban to show flexibility in the talks.

“Pakistan has a particularly important role to play in this process…Progress has been made. We will continue to look to Pakistan for practical measures, cooperation on peace talks and the implementation of any agreement,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a visit to Kabul.

FILE – This Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs photo from Feb. 25, 2019, shows U.S. and Taliban representatives meeting in Doha to discuss ways to end the Afghan war.

Taliban and U.S. officials have held six rounds of talks in the nearly year-long process. The two sides say they have drafted a primary agreement that would bind the Taliban to stop terrorists from using insurgent-control areas for international terrorism. In turn, Washington would announce a troop withdrawal timetable.

But the Taliban rejects calls for a permanent cease-fire and the start of a formal intra-Afghan peace dialogue until it secures a U.S. troop withdrawal deal.

 

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Trump Heads to Japan for G-20 Summit

Just a month after a state visit to Japan, U.S. President Donald Trump is heading to the East Asian country again.

In Osaka, Trump will attend the Group of 20 leaders’ summit, during which he is scheduled to meet one-on-one on the sidelines with such fellow world leaders as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Before leaving Wednesday, Trump told reporters on the White House South Lawn that he’ll be meeting with leaders of a lot of different countries “many of whom have been taking advantage of the United States — but not anymore.”

A senior administration official told reporters Monday that Trump is “quite comfortable [with] his position going into the meeting” with China’s President Xi following the breakdown of U.S.-China trade talks and increased tariffs on Beijing by Washington.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives at the State Council’s meeting in Moscow, Russia, June 26, 2019.

U.S. officials say there is no fixed agenda for Trump’s meeting with Putin although they acknowledge issues involving Iran, Ukraine, the Middle East and Venezuela are almost certain to be discussed. 

When asked Wednesday if he would ask Putin not to meddle in future U.S. elections, Trump said it was “none of your business.”

Casting a pall over the G-20 discussions will be nervousness about the deteriorating situation between Washington and Tehran. Leaders in both capitals have been reiterating they want to avoid war but have also repeatedly stated they will not hesitate to defend their interests if provoked.

Economic pressure on Iran

Trump is to stress to his fellow leaders at the G-20 that the United States intends to continue to increase economic pressure on Iran, which finds itself under escalating U.S. sanctions, and eliminate all of the country’s petroleum exports. 

“I don’t think Iran is a distraction,” according to James Jay Carafano, vice president of the Heritage Foundation’s national security and foreign policy institute. “I think that’s under control. Trump should strive for a no drama G-20.”  

The G-20 itself no longer has the significance it did after the group’s first several summits late in the previous decade when it cooperated to avert a meltdown of the global economy.

Trump prefers bilateral discussions and agreements over multinational events. Administration officials, however, are attempting to counter the notion that they no longer see these types of meetings as vital, pointing to U.S. leadership on advancing 21st century economic issues.

“We believe that G-20 economies need to work together to advance open, fair and market-based digital policies, including the free flow of data,” a senior administration official told reporters Monday on a conference call, also stressing promotion of women’s economic empowerment.

White House senior adviser Ivanka Trump and Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney walk from the Marine One helicopter as they depart Washington for the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, June 26, 2019.

Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a White House adviser, is to give a keynote address on the latter topic at a G-20 side event in Osaka.

G-20 host Shinzo Abe, as prime minister of Japan, and many European participants are trying to maintain the international system and its principles.

“This is where the absence of the U.S. is really harming it,” said Heather Conley, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of its Europe program. “We’re seeing the slow death of multilateralism in many respects. It’s a death by a thousand cuts.”

While the U.S. pulls back from such groups, the world is witnessing “the Chinese using international organizations so effectively to shape agendas,” said Conley, a former deputy assistant secretary of state.  
 
Trump-Xi meetings

Some analysts expect the Trump-Xi meeting in Osaka to be a repeat of their previous dinner last year in Buenos Aires, when the two leaders agreed to trade talks and tasked their trade ministers with reaching a deal within 90 days. 
 
“I think that that is the most likely outcome, that they’re going to reach some sort of accommodation, a truce like that and push this forward,” said Matthew Goodman, a CSIS senior vice president and senior adviser for Asian economics.  

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, June 25, 2019.

“It’s not going to solve the immediate problems,” contended Goodman, who previously served as director for international economics on the National Security Council staff, helping then-President Barack Obama prepare for G-20 and G-8 summits. “Even if we get a deal, it’s unlikely to solve some of the deep structural differences between us in the role of the state in the economy, the governance of technology and data.”

Much attention will also be on the Trump-Putin encounter.

“Whenever President Trump and President Putin meet there is a very strong [U.S.] domestic backlash after that meeting,” noted Conley. “In part, it’s because there’s a total lack of transparency about the topics of discussion and what the agenda is, and I think the president would have a better policy approach domestically if, again, there was clarity of what the agenda would be, that there would be people participating in that meeting — secretary of state, national security adviser and others.”  
 
Trump is also scheduled to hold talks in Osaka with leaders from Australia, Germany, India, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

From Japan, Trump flies to Seoul, where he will be hosted by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to discuss how to further ease tensions with North Korea.

White House officials brush off speculation Trump could meet on the Korean peninsula with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which would be their third encounter after summits in Singapore and Hanoi. And U.S. officials are not commenting on a possible presidential visit to the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the two Koreas.

There is little pressure on Trump to make any breakthroughs during his visit to Japan and South Korea, according to Carafano. 

“I think the U.S. is in the driver’s seat with regards to both North Korea and China negotiations,” Carafano told VOA. “If they come to the table now, fine. If not, fine. Trump can wait until after the 2020 election.” 

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