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.

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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.”

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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.

 

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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.

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New Wind-Driven Wildfire Erupts in Southern California 

A new large wildfire broke out early Wednesday in Southern California, forcing mandatory evacuations at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and nearby neighborhoods. 
 
Ventura County Fire Captain Brian McGrath said the Easy Fire erupted shortly after 6 a.m. local time and torched 165 hectares (400 acres) of dry brush within two hours. 
 
The National Weather Service said the wildfire, which erupted in Simi Valley about 64 kilometers (40 miles) northwest of downtown Los Angeles, ranked among the most dangerous Santa Ana wind events “in recent memory.” 
 
Officials did not how many people had been ordered to leave. 
 
Fire officials said aircraft dropped fire retardant and water on the blaze and that the strong Santa Ana winds pushed flames away from the library. 
 
As firefighters in the southern part of the state prepared overnight for what forecasters expected to be one of the most significant wind events in years, a large wind-driven wildfire in Northern California eased.  

Volunteers help evacuate horses during the Easy Fire, Oct. 30, 2019, in Simi Valley, Calif.

Both regions are dealing with the hot, dry weather that is common at this time of year and raises the risk of big wildfires that spread when the winds blow. 
 
Crews made progress Tuesday against both the Getty Fire in the south and the Kincade Fire in the north, with officials saying each was 15 percent contained. 
 
The worry Wednesday and into Thursday was that the Getty Fire could swell from its current size of about 265 hectares (650 acres) as winds forecast to reach as much as 128 kilometers per hour (80 mph) lift embers and spread them into unburned vegetation or reignite areas that are merely smoldering. 
 
Fire officials also warned that high winds could lead to the grounding of helicopters used to douse the flames from above. 

Better outlook to the north
 
In Northern California’s wine region, officials were expressing more optimism about the weather after days of near-record winds there pushed the Kincade Fire to more than 30,000 hectares (115 square miles) in size.   
 
The National Weather Service said winds would be noticeably lighter Wednesday and that weather conditions looked favorable for the rest of the week, even though the region would remain dry with no rain in the forecast. 
 
Along with the fires, people in California were also dealing with power outages as utility companies tried to prevent fires being sparked by equipment damaged by strong winds. 
 
The Los Angeles Fire Department said Tuesday that the Getty Fire most likely had been caused by a tree branch that broke off in high wind and flew into nearby power lines, causing sparks that ignited brush.  

Marco Alcaraz uses a garden hose to protect his girlfriend’s home as the Easy fire approaches, Oct. 30, 2019, in Simi Valley, Calif.

About 1 million customers in Northern California were dealing with blackouts instituted by utility company Pacific Gas & Electric, which this month has been shutting off power in a series of blackouts that have caused widespread frustration among its customers. 
 
California Governor Gavin Newsom has repeatedly criticized the company and its projections that it needs 10 years to institute reforms that would make the precautionary power shutoffs no longer necessary to mitigate fire risks. 
 
In all, the National Weather Service has issued statewide warnings of dangerous fire conditions covering an 88,000-square-kilometer area (34,000 square miles) that is home to 21 million people. 
 
Some scientists have said climate change is a contributing factor in the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires.  

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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.”
 

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