Iceland Seeks Financial Crash Closure with Last Prosecution

The Lehman Brothers bankruptcy threw the United States into an epoch-defining financial storm. Imagine 300 of them going bust at once.

That, in relative terms, is what Iceland endured a decade ago during its banking crisis, which on this rugged island steeped in myths of gods and giants is now known as “hrunid” – the collapse.

The last in a series of prosecutions of those deemed responsible started this month and the hope is that it will give this country of 330,000 people some closure after years of reckoning and reconstruction. Icelanders have become more cynical about political and business leaders, to the point of drafting a new constitution. The top financial entrepreneurs of a generation have been thrown behind bars and the economy has had to be reinvented more profoundly than most countries affected by the crisis.

“Icelanders experienced the crash as a deep betrayal, not just as a serious economic loss,” says Jon Olafsson, a professor who advises the prime minister on ways to improve trust in the government. “Politicians, businessmen and the media told the public, over and over, that everything was fine and people believed them.”

Everything was not fine. Over the span of one week, 90 percent of the financial sector defaulted.

The collapse of Iceland’s three major commercial banks – which had grown 20-fold over the previous seven years through debt-fueled acquisitions abroad – amounted to the third-largest bankruptcy in modern financial history, according to the Icelandic financial regulator. For the United States, an economy 1,100 times bigger, it would be like if 300 Lehman Brothers defaulted simultaneously, it notes.

An economic depression followed that saw people line up for food aid, an unprecedented sight in this country with a progressive welfare state. Families stockpiled goods from supermarket shelves and thousands emigrated.

Johanna Thorvaldsdottir, a goat farmer, had a mortgage in a foreign currency – a common practice then because of the strength of the local currency and lower interest rates abroad – when the Icelandic krona lost nearly half of its value overnight. The cost of her debt soared.

“I worked every evening, sometimes until midnight,” she says. Had it not been for a crowdfunding campaign, raising $90,000 from donors worldwide, the family estate would have been seized by bank creditors.

“We were lucky,” she says. “Many people were not.”

As big as the shock of the financial crisis was, so was the country’s determination to put things right. It emerged from recession in 2011 as it refocused the economy on tourism and technology, and it has been more aggressive than most countries in going after the culprits of the crisis.

Altogether, 29 men and two women have been sentenced to a combined 99 years of prison, for crimes ranging from insider trading to market manipulation. Six cases are still in the appeals process. By comparison, no top Wall Street executives have been prosecuted in the U.S.

Last week, Hreidar Mar Sigurdsson, the former CEO of Kaupthing Bank, stood trial in the last criminal prosecution related to the financial crisis.

The 48-year old has been sentenced in four prior cases, to a total of seven years in prison. He now stands accused of rigging share prices in his bank two months before it crashed. He denies wrongdoing. While a guilty sentence is unlikely to send him back to prison, as he has already served the maximum time for such crimes, it would help draw a line under the cases, which have dragged on for years.

Sigurdsson began his career at a fish factory in a small town before entering finance, and was during the booming years hailed as a self-made genius.

In some ways, his story reflects that of the country, which in the 1990s embraced the flashy world of finance to attain the wealth that the traditional industries could not provide. The media frequently referred to aggressive entrepreneurs like Sigurdsson as modern-day Vikings raiding foreign shores for acquisitions. In the end, it led to disaster.

Iceland is bent on “learning every lesson from the crisis,” says Iosif Kovras, director of Accountability after Economic Crisis, a research project based in City University-London.

He contrasted Iceland’s approach with that of Ireland, where the crisis was also traumatic but took longer to unfold. The country received a bailout from fellow European nations that took years of reforms to complete.

“It did not prompt the same political urgency,” says Kovras. “Iceland’s apocalyptic crash cleared the way for gathering evidence and data.”

The University of Iceland this month marked the 10-year anniversary of the crash with a symposium hosting over 100 speakers. They ruminated on topics like the crisis’ impact on cardiovascular health, pop-song lyrics, patriarchy and popular protests.

“There is no formula for restoring a peaceful, democratic society,” former President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson said in an evening-long public broadcast reflecting on the events. “Amid the crisis, when the situation was revolution-like, I feared not for the economy but our recovery as a nation.”

Reforms of the financial sector have focused on making it less risky. Already there are those saying the rules should be relaxed to allow for faster growth, as the U.S. did this year. President Donald Trump’s administration eased a 2010 law that had sought to limit risk in the financial sector and protect taxpayers from bailing out banks. Critics including Trump saw it as red tape holding the economy back.

Others suggest that loosening the rules would merely increase the likelihood of a new crisis and that Icelanders already seem to be forgetting the lessons of the crash.

Thorhallur Thorhallsson, who works as a tour guide in the capital, notes the proliferation of building cranes rising from the skyline.

“We are so used to cranes occupying the sky that it was decided to make them our national bird,” he tells a half dozen tourists gathered by the statue of the Norse explorer who is said to have settled the island 1,100 years ago.

“In fact, today, Reykjavik has more building cranes than before the 2008 crash.”

Hopes for Brexit Deal Foiled by Irish Border Issue

Days ahead of a summit once seen as the moment Britain and the European Union would have to reach a Brexit deal, both sides are still staring at each other over the question of the Irish border, refusing to blink.

A flurry of diplomatic meetings over the weekend had raised hopes for an agreement, only to be disappointed by the issue that has dogged the talks for months — how to ensure no hard border is created between the EU’s Ireland and Britain’s Northern Ireland once Brexit happens on March 29.

The EU has proposed keeping Northern Ireland in a customs union to avoid a hard border between it and Ireland. The fear is that such a border could revive tensions between Northern Ireland’s pro-Irish Catholic and pro-U.K. Protestant communities, in which over 3,700 people died over 30 years of “troubles” ending in 1998.

Britain says it will only accept that plan if it is temporary and does not hive Northern Ireland off permanently from the rest of the U.K. in terms of customs arrangements.

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman James Slack said Monday that negotiations are stuck because the EU “continues to insist on the possibility of a customs border down the Irish Sea,” a move it feels will effectively split up the U.K., which is made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The acrimony means it is almost impossible that EU leaders will reach a deal at their summit, which begins Wednesday and had long been pegged as the date an agreement should be reached by. The British and EU parliaments need to approve any deal, a process that could take months ahead of the official exit in March.

“Whether we do this week or not, who knows?” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told reporters in Luxembourg where EU foreign ministers are meeting.

If Britain leaves the EU without an agreement on future relations, there could be chaos — tariffs would go up on trade, airlines could no longer have permits to fly between the two sides, and freight could be lined up for miles at the borders as customs checks are restored overnight.

To avoid this, the prospect of an extra meeting in November was raised, but only if there was decisive progress this week.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney admitted to being “frustrated” by the delay, saying that apart from Britain, Ireland is the country with most to lose from Brexit.

Coveney suggested that May is reneging on part of its commitment to ensure that no hard border involving lengthy customs checks and controls emerges on the Irish island.

He said Britain agreed in December and again in March that an unpopular “backstop” guarantee would remain in place until a better solution is found, but now appears to only want it used for a limited time.

“A backstop cannot be time-limited. That’s new. It hasn’t been there before,” he said. “Nobody wants to ever trigger the backstop, but it needs to be there as an insurance mechanism to calm nerves that we’re not going to see physical border infrastructure re-emerging.”

Britain denied it is reneging on its December commitment to avoid a hard Irish border. “We don’t resile from the commitments we have made in relation to the backstop,” said May’s spokesman, James Slack.

Like Britain’s Hunt, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said of a deal: “it seems that this week it will not be possible, but this week is not the end.”

He said that he foresees no problems between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar.

“It’s not a rock in the way,” Borrell said, referring to the nickname of the British territory bordering Spain. He added that the Irish border problem is “more difficult to solve than Gibraltar.”

Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak said: “There is no reason to panic. There is still time.”

May is under intense pressure from her Conservative Party and its parliamentary allies not to give any more ground in negotiations, especially on the border issue.

May’s political allies, the Democratic Unionist Party, stand ready to scuttle a Brexit deal over the Irish border issue. The party opposes any border customs checks but EU officials say that may be the only way to avoid a hard border.

DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson said “it is probably inevitable that we will end up with a no-deal scenario” because there was no agreement that would be accepted by Britain’s Parliament.

In Luxembourg, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he hopes “that in the end good sense will win the upper hand.”

“Time is really pressing now,” Maas warned.

Germany Deporting Convicted 9/11 Suspect to Morocco

A Moroccan man convicted of helping Mohamed Atta and the other Hamburg-based Sept. 11 suicide pilots as they plotted their attacks on New York and Washington was deported Monday from Germany to his native country.


Mounir el-Motassadeq, who was convicted of membership in a terrorist organization and accessory to the murder of the 246 passengers and crew on the four jetliners used in the 2001 attacks, was flown by helicopter from a Hamburg prison on Monday morning.


Blindfolded and with his hands and ankles shackled, the 44-year-old was then led by two police officers to another helicopter while other heavily armed police in balaclavas patrolled the area and watched from rooftops.


Authorities wouldn’t comment on the operation for security reasons.


“Mr. Motassadeq will leave the country soon,” Hamburg Interior Ministry spokesman Frank Reschreiter told The Associated Press. “All the necessary procedural steps for this have been ticked off according to plan.”


El-Motassadeq was released shortly before completing his 15-year-sentence on the condition that he agree to be deported to Morocco. That would allow Germany to re-arrest him if he ever returned to the country.


It wasn’t immediately clear what awaited him in Morocco.


El-Motassadeq was convicted of being part of the so-called Hamburg cell, including Atta and fellow Sept. 11 pilots Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad Jarrah.


German courts ruled that el-Motassadeq was aware the three planned to hijack and crash planes, even though he might not have known specifics of the plot. They said el-Motassadeq helped “watch the attackers’ backs and conceal them” by helping them keep up the appearance of being regular university students paying tuition and rent and transferring money.


El-Motassadeq acknowledged training at an al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan, but insisted he knew nothing of his friends’ plans to attack the U.S.


“I swear by God that I did know the attackers were in America,” he shouted in accented German at a sentencing hearing. “I swear by God that I did not know what they wanted to do.”


Originally arrested in Hamburg in November 2001, el- Motassadeq was convicted in 2003 of membership in a terrorist organization and thousands of counts of accessory to murder — taking into account victims on the ground — becoming the first person convicted anywhere on charges related to Sept. 11. He was sentenced to the maximum 15 years in prison.


However, a federal court overturned that verdict in 2004, largely because of a lack of evidence from al-Qaida suspects in U.S. custody, and sent the case back to Hamburg.


After a 2005 retrial, el-Motassadeq was again convicted of membership in a terrorist organization that included Atta, al-Shehhi and Jarrah. But he was acquitted of being an accessory to murder after the court ruled it didn’t have enough evidence that he knew of the hijackers’ plot.


El-Motassadeq was sentenced to seven years in prison at the time, but was freed in early 2006 until his appeal could be heard.


Later that year, the federal court reversed the Hamburg court’s acquittal of el-Motassadeq on the accessory to murder charges, ruling that the evidence knew the plotters planned to hijack and crash planes. It limited the number of counts, however, to the 246 people killed aboard the airplanes and the 15-year sentence was restored.









Germany’s Old Political Guard Suffers Another Setback

Since 1966 Germany’s conservative Christian Social Union has been the majority party in its home-state of Bavaria, but on Sunday the long-run ended when voters disillusioned with its courting of the far-right flocked to the Green Party.

The Christian Social Union, or CSU, the Bavarian sister party of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat Union, or CDU, has dominated politics in Bavaria since the end of World War II.  For only three years in the past seven decades has the CSU not been the majority party in Bavaria’s parliament.

Although its fall from political grace in Sunday’s state polls had been widely predicted, the scale of the massive losses it sustained will impact Merkel’s coalition government in Berlin, say analysts.

Preliminary results gave the CSU just 37.2 percent of the vote, down from 47.7 percent in 2013.

To add to Merkel’s woes her other coalition partner, the leftist Social Democrat Party, or SPD, was also dealt a massive blow Sunday.  Its share of the vote in Bavaria was halved from 20.6 percent in 2013 to only 10 percent, the worst result for the party in the state since the 1930s, adding to a grim picture of SPD decline nationally.

The beneficiaries Sunday were former fringe parties with the pro-immigration, environmentalist Greens coming in second place with 17.5 percent, and the far-right, anti-immigration Alternative for Deutschland party, or AfD, taking 10.2 percent of the vote.  That performance will give the AfD seats in the Bavarian parliament for the first time, a stunning result for a party that’s never before competed in a Bavarian state election.

Sunday’s election is adding to the picture of a fragmentation of German politics, testimony to the continued resonance of the 2015 refugee crisis and disputes over migration.  It confirms the country’s once traditional parties are in decline and are seen by a swathe of the electorate as no longer representing them adequately.  

“Germany’s political fragmentation, which was shown strongly in the 2017 federal elections, is continuing at full speed,” according to Leopold Traugott of the Open Europe research group.

The problem for the traditional parties is how to halt the electoral fragmentation as center ground of German politics gives way.  As Germany’s old political guard cracks, it is compounding Merkel’s immediate problem of keeping intact her shaky coalition government, formed in March after four months of testy negotiations.

The “Iron Lady” of German politics is increasingly beleaguered and even her most faithful supporters aren’t convinced she will be able to see out her full electoral term due to end in 2021.

Since her Christian Democrat party’s dismal performance in last year’s parliamentary elections she’s been beset by one crisis after another.  Last month she lost her key parliamentary henchman, Volker Kauder, the head of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the CSU in the German Bundestag.  He was ousted by disgruntled coalition lawmakers

Merkel’s grand coalition has come close to collapse over migration issues and a scandal involving the country’s spy chief.  Before the Bavarian polls infighting broke out over accusations the Christian Social Union was pandering to the far-right.

Sunday’s election is likely to have far-reaching consequences by prompting major reassessments by all the government parties about the viability of a coalition that’s doing none of them any electoral good.

Monday Social Democrat Party Vice Chairman Ralf Stegner tweeted, “There’s no reason to hang on to the grand coalition at any price.”  He added that the Bavarian outcome showed the coalition’s “stability is dwindling.”

A third of SPD members were against joining Merkel’s coalition in the first place after last year’s federal elections.  An exit poll in Bavaria indicated 76 percent of SPD voters say the party should quit the coalition.

Later this month, Merkel’s party will face another challenge with a regional election in the state of Hesse, where her party heads the government.  Opinion polls there suggest the party could see its share of the vote reduced by a quarter.

Jamal Khashoggi’s ‘Disappearance’ Highlights Growing Threat to Journalists

The threat is growing — and so, too, the toll.

Forty-eight journalists have been killed so far this year, according to a VOA tally, adding to the thousand killed in the past decade-and-half.

Some died on dangerous reporting assignments in conflict zones as they courted similar risks to combatants and were killed in crossfire or bombings.

They include 9 Afghan reporters, among them three from VOA’s sister public broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

All were killed in the same bombing incident in Kabul in April, likely planned to cause a high media death toll. It was the most lethal attack on the media in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, making the country the deadliest in the world for the press this year.

But others were targeted individually, earmarked by armed groups, criminals, drug-dealers and terrorists — and, more disturbingly, by governments and politicians.

Until recently attacks on journalists more often than not occurred in less advanced countries. But now the threat is shifting to the West, where the media has traditionally been immune from violence and where media freedom is lauded and seen traditionally as an important check on authority and government wrongdoing.

In the past 12 months, three reporters have been killed in the European Union. The murder earlier this month of Bulgarian journalist Viktoria Marinova, who was beaten, raped and strangled, may not have been because of her journalism, but that still remains unclear. Days before her murder she hosted a program exploring the defrauding of EU funds by companies operating in Bulgaria.

Marinova aside, observers and analysts have no doubt that Slovakia’s Ján Kuciak, who was shot in his home alongside his fiancée, and Malta’s Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was blown up in a car bomb, were targeted because of their investigative journalism.

Caruana Galizia had been a thorn in the side of the powers that be on the Mediterranean island for years thanks to her probes into government corruption and nepotism and into the links between Malta’s online gambling industry and organized crime.

According to Reporters without Borders, their deaths “have capped a worrying decline for the continent’s democracies” when it comes to the defense of press freedom. “The traditionally safe environment for journalists in Europe has begun to deteriorate,” according to the group, which notes that this year has seen “unprecedented verbal attacks on the media” as well as rising threats to investigative reporters.

In the past week, the ‘disappearing’ of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who vanished after visiting his country’s consulate in Istanbul, where Turkish officials suspect he was murdered on the orders of the Saudi government, has prompted worldwide media outrage and a business backlash.

On Sunday, Afghan journalists joined in the chorus of condemnation, with the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee saying the possible killing of the prominent Saudi journalist was “an inhuman act no matter who or what country was behind such an offense.”

Murdering a media critic on foreign soil is being seen by journalists as yet another escalation in a dismal trend that’s seen the press increasingly targeted by the powerful or corrupt across the globe.

“From intimidation to restrictive laws and curbs on information, media outlets and individual journalists face a variety of threats to maintaining their independence and integrity in print and online,” warns Britain’s Chatham House.

This month the storied international affairs think tank gave its prestigious award annual Chatham House Prize to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in recognition for the non-profit’s efforts “to defend the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal and at a time when the free press is under serious pressure in many parts of the world.”

In September, the CPJ’s executive director warned the United Nations that governments collectively have failed to raise their voices in defense of press freedom and have allowed an alarming climate to build up by not ensuring there are consequences for attacks on the media — from intimidation and harassment of reporters to their imprisonment and murder.

On the jailing of journalists, he noted “the list is long — in fact, it’s never been longer.”

Simon complained: “Governments are directly responsible for this grave abuse, and the U.N. has a culture of rarely calling out its members. But the jailing of journalists has reached unprecedented levels. At the end of last year, there were 262 journalists jailed around the world, the highest number ever recorded by CPJ. The jailing of journalists is a brutal form of censorship and is having a profound impact on the flow of information around the world. The time has come to speak out and to name names.”

But whether names will be named is another matter, say analysts. The case of Jamal Khashoggi has clearly captured international public attention, but the slow erosion of press freedom and the targeted of journalists has been building for years, they say.

In Europe, from Hungary to Poland, Germany to Italy, populists from right and left of the political spectrum have targeted the media for rhetorical disdain, say analysts. In Germany supporters of the the far-right Alternative for Germany have dug out the old Nazi slogan Lügenpresse (lying press) to taunt reporters.

In Slovakia, Prime Minister Robert Fico has dubbed reporters “filthy anti-Slovak prostitutes” and “idiotic hyenas.” In the Czech Republic President Milos Zeman once brandished a dummy Kalashnikov inscribed with the word “journalists” at a press conference, after suggesting they should be “liquidated.” And in Serbia President Aleksandar Vucic accuses journalists who criticize him of being “spies in foreign pay.”

Britain, too, is seeing a rise in threats against reporters. The BBC has had to provide on several occasions a bodyguard for the corporation’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg because of online threats mainly from the left-wingers, who accuse her of being biased against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

“Political leaders are increasingly the source of the verbal attacks and harassment that create a hostile climate for journalists,” says RSF.


Bavarian Voters Punish Merkel Allies in State Election

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative allies lost their absolute majority in Bavaria’s state parliament by a wide margin Sunday, according to projections from a regional election that could cause more turbulence in the national government.

The Christian Social Union was on course to take just over 35 percent of the vote, down from 47.7 percent five years ago, projections for ARD and ZDF public television based on exit polls and a partial vote count indicated.

That would be the socially conservative party’s worst performance in Bavaria, which it has traditionally dominated, since 1950. Squabbling in Merkel’s national government and a power struggle at home have weighed in recent months on the CSU, which has taken a hard line on migration tradition.

There were gains for parties to its left and right. The Greens were expected to win up to 19 percent to secure second place, more than double their support in 2013. And the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, was set to enter the state legislature with around 11 percent of the vote.

The center-left Social Democrats, Merkel’s other coalition partner in Berlin, were on course for a disastrous result of 10 percent or less, half of what the party received in 2013 and its worst in the state since World War II.

The CSU has held an absolute majority in the Bavarian parliament for all but five of the past 56 years and governed the prosperous southeastern state for 61 years.

Needing coalition partners to govern would in itself be a major setback for the party, which only exists in Bavaria and has long leveraged its strength there to punch above its weight in national politics.

“Of course this isn’t an easy day for the CSU,” the state’s governor, Markus Soeder, told supporters in Munich, adding that the party accepted the “painful” result “with humility.”

Soeder pointed to goings-on in Berlin and said “it’s not so easy to uncouple yourself from the national trend completely.”

But he stressed that the CSU still emerged Sunday as the state’s strongest party and a mandate to form the next Bavarian government.

He said his preference was for a center-right coalition — which would see the CSU partner with the Free Voters, a local center-right party that was seen winning 11.5 percent, and possibly also the Free Democrats, who may or may not secure the 5 percent needed to win state parliament seats.

The Greens, traditionally bitter opponents, with a more liberal approach to migration and an emphasis on environmental issues, are another possibility.

Bavaria is home to some 13 million of Germany’s 82 million people.

In Berlin, the CSU is one of three parties in Merkel’s federal coalition government along with its conservative sister, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, and the Social Democrats.

That government has been notable largely for internal squabbling since it took office in March. The CSU leader, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, has often played a starring role.

Back in Bavaria, a long-running CSU power struggle saw the 69-year-old Seehofer give up his job as state governor earlier this year to Soeder, a younger and sometimes bitter rival.

Seehofer has sparred with Merkel about migration on and off since 2015, when he assailed her decision to leave Germany’s borders open as refugees and others crossed the Balkans.

They argued in June over whether to turn back small numbers of asylum-seekers at the German-Austrian border, briefly threatening to bring down the national government.

Seehofer also starred in a coalition crisis last month over Germany’s domestic intelligence chief, who was accused of downplaying recent far-right violence against migrants.

Seehofer, who has faced widespread speculation lately that a poor Bavarian result would cost him his job, said he was “saddened” by Sunday’s outcome, but didn’t address his own future.

It remains to be seen whether and how the Bavarian result will affect the national government’s stability or Merkel’s long-term future.

Any aftershocks may be delayed, because another state election is coming Oct. 28 in neighboring Hesse, where conservative Volker Bouffier is defending the 19-year hold of Merkel’s CDU on the governor’s office. Bouffier has criticized the CSU for diminishing people’s trust in Germany’s conservatives.

“Clearly the choices of subjects and the debates of recent weeks led to our friends in the CSU being unable to put their successful regional record at the center of their election campaign,” said the CDU’s general secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.


UK’s Ex-Brexit Chief Urges Cabinet to Rebel against PM May

Britain’s former Brexit secretary is urging members of Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet to rebel against her proposed deal with the European Union over the terms of Britain’s departure from the bloc.

David Davis wrote in the Sunday Times that May’s plans for some continued ties with the EU under her Chequers plan is “completely unacceptable” and must be stopped. The fellow Conservative Party member said the time has come for ministers to shoot down May’s plan.

“It is time for the cabinet to exert their collective authority,” he said. “This week the authority of our constitution is on the line.”

May is struggling to build a consensus behind her Brexit plans ahead of a cabinet meeting Tuesday that will be followed by an EU summit Wednesday in Brussels.

If Davis’ call for a rebellion is effective, the cabinet meeting Tuesday would be a likely place for opposition to surface.

Davis and former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson resigned from the cabinet this summer to protest May’s Brexit blueprint. Both have become vocal opponents of her plan, calling it a betrayal of the Brexit vote that would leave Britain in a weakened position.

May also faces obstacles from the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, which has played a crucial role in propping up her minority government in Parliament.

DUP leader Arlene Foster remains opposed to any Brexit plan that would require checks on goods traveling between Northern Ireland and Britain, as some EU leaders have suggested as part of a “backstop” plan.

The Chequers plan has also been questioned by some opposition Labour Party lawmakers, further complicating the prime minister’s hopes of winning parliamentary backing for any Brexit deal she reaches with EU officials.

Saudis Rebuff Trump Threat of Sanctions for Missing Journalist

Saudi Arabia has rebuffed U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat to punish it over the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying Sunday it would retaliate with “greater” economic actions of its own if Trump were to sanction Riyadh.

The Saudi stock market plunged seven percent before recovering to a five percent loss for the day after Trump told CBS there would be “severe punishment” if it is determined, as Turkey believes, that Saudi agents killed Khashoggi inside Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago.

The Saudis have said the allegation is “baseless,” but have provided no proof that Khashoggi left the diplomatic outpost alive after arriving to pick up documents for his impending marriage.

The official Saudi Press Agency quoted an unnamed government source as saying, “The Kingdom affirms its total rejection of any threats and attempts to undermine it, whether by threatening to impose economic sanctions, using political pressures, or repeating false accusations.”

The statement said the Saudi government “also affirms that if it receives any action, it will respond with greater action,” noting that its economy, as the world’s biggest oil exporter, “has an influential and vital role in the global economy.”

Trump, in excerpts released Saturday from an interview to be aired Sunday on CBS’s 60 Minutes show, warned there would be “severe punishment” for Saudi Arabia if it is determined that Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate. Khashoggi was living in self-imposed exile in the United States and had criticized Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in columns written for The Washington Post.

Trump said “nobody knows yet” what happened inside the consulate, “but we’ll probably be able to find out” if Salman ordered Khashoggi’s murder. Trump added the United States “would be very upset and angry if that were the case.”

But Trump, who has frequently boasted about his business ties with the kingdom, suggested during the interview that ending U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia would not be an option, saying, “I don’t want to hurt jobs.”

A key U.S. lawmaker, Republican Senator Marco Rubio, told CNN on Sunday that if Saudi agents “went medieval” on Khashoggi, “that would be an outrage.”

He said any response to Khashoggi’s killing “needs to be strong, not symbolic,” including the possibility of cutting off U.S. weapons sales to Riyadh, or it would undermine the U.S.’s moral standing in the world.

In protest of Khashoggi’s disappearance, several U.S. businesses leaders have pulled out of next week’s Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, dubbed “Davos in the Desert,” after the annual meeting of world economic interests in Switzerland. Rubio said U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin should also withdraw, but White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the Treasury chief is still planning to go.

Media reports say Khashoggi may have recorded his own death on his Apple Watch.

Accounts say Khashoggi turned on the sound recording capability on his device as he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2.

The watch is reported to have been connected to the iCloud and the cell phone that he left with his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, before he entered the consulate. Cengiz said she waited for Khashoggi to come out of the consulate, but he never left.

The reports say the watch recorded not only Khashoggi’s interrogation and torture, but also his murder.

The Washington Post reported in recent days that the Turkish government informed U.S. officials it was in possession of video recordings that prove Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate, but have not made them public.

Saudi officials have denied any involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance and said he departed the consulate shortly after entering. Saudi Interior Minister Prince Abdel Aziz bin Saud bin Nayef has called the reports the government ordered Khashoggi killed “lies and baseless allegations.”

A group of 15 Saudi men is reported to have flown into Istanbul the day that Khashoggi went to the consulate. Media reports say the men were in the consulate when Khashoggi was there. The men stayed at the consulate for a few hours and then took flights back to Saudi Arabia.

One of the members of the group, according to CNN, has been identified by Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency and the Sabah newspaper as Salah Muhammed al-Tubaiqi, whom the media outlets say is listed on an official Saudi health website as the head of the forensic medicine department at the Interior Ministry.


Navalny Released; Detained Twice in Two Months

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was released from jail Sunday after three weeks behind bars for organizing anti-Kremlin protests, his second spell in detention in as many months.

The 42-year-old activist left a detention center in the south of Moscow early in the morning and spoke briefly to journalists before leaving in a waiting car.

“Over the 50 days I have been in jail we have seen yet more evidence that this regime is in complete decline,” he said, referencing recent embarrassments to Moscow’s intelligence services abroad and the launch failure of a manned Russian space rocket. 

“If anyone thinks that with arrests … they can scare or stop us, that is clearly not the case,” he said after thanking those who supported him.

Authorities have turned up the heat on Vladimir Putin’s main opposition since the Russian president’s approval ratings took a beating over deeply unpopular pension reforms.

The Kremlin critic finished a 30-day sentence in September for organizing a rally at the start of the year, but was arrested as soon as he was released to face further charges over another protest.

The latter demonstration, against the raising of the retirement age, was time to coincide with regional elections last month.

The Kremlin suffered rare defeats in those polls, with voters rejecting candidates from the ruling United Russia party in at least two regions. 

Migrant Truck Crash Kills 22 in Turkey

Twenty-two people, including children, died on Sunday when a vehicle carrying migrants reportedly heading for EU member Greece plunged off the highway into a waterway in western Turkey.

The vehicle, described as a lorry, was traveling on a highway in the Izmir region close to Izmir airport when it flipped over and fell into the channel several meters below, state-run Anadolu news agency said.

The nationality of the migrants was not made clear. Twenty-two people were killed, the agency said, lifting an earlier toll of 19, while 13 more were injured.

Turkish television pictures showed the stricken wreckage of the vehicle, which was reduced to burned-out metal by the impact of the crash with corpses strewn beside.

The DHA news agency said the driver of the vehicle, a Turkish man aged 35, survived and told police from his hospital bed that he had swerved to avoid an oncoming white vehicle.

The dead included two babies and two children as well as a pregnant woman, it said.

Once the driver’s hospital treatment is completed, he will be sent to court with a demand to be arrested, Anadolu said. Regional prosecutors have opened an investigation, it added.

DHA said that the vehicle was headed for the coast of the Izmir region, from where the migrants planned to take inflatable dinghies, which had been packed into their vehicle, to Greece’s Samos island.

Samos is just a few kilometers north of Turkey’s Dilek peninsula that juts out from the Izmir region.

Key transit point

Turkey is a key transit points for migrants from troubled countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa seeking a new life in Europe.

A million migrants crossed from Turkey into Greece in 2015, mostly by boats, in a crisis which forced a deal between Ankara and the EU to stem the flow of people.

Numbers have fallen since but people are still undertaking what is a highly perilous journey and the flow has ticked up this year from 2017.

According to UN figures, more than 24,500 migrants have arrived in Greece by sea so far this year, with 118 people losing their lives via this route.

Last week, eight migrants were found drowned off the Karaburun district, also in Izmir province, after their boat capsized.

Twenty-six others are still officially listed as missing after that accident, according to Anadolu.

The trips of migrants towards Greece are often organized by smugglers who demand hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars per person to sort out the logistics.

After the disaster off Karaburun, four suspected smugglers were arrested following evidence given by an Iraqi who survived, Anadolu said. They had demanded a fee of $1,500 from each migrant.