Peru Opposition Slams High-stakes Vote Over President’s Proposals

Peruvian opposition lawmakers on Monday criticized as unconstitutional a call by President Martin Vizcarra to hold a vote of confidence over his proposed anti-graft reforms, a high-stakes move that could force out the Cabinet and Congress.

Late on Sunday, centrist Vizcarra declared four anti-graft bills he has proposed a matter of confidence in his Cabinet, summoning a debate in Congress on Wednesday.

If the opposition-controlled Congress delivers a vote of no confidence, Vizcarra would have to replace his entire Cabinet.

But because the current Congress has already dismissed one Cabinet in this government, the constitution allows him to respond by dissolving Congress and calling new legislative elections.

The escalation in tensions between Congress and the presidency is ushering in a new period of uncertainty in Peru, the world’s second-biggest copper producer that has a stable economy but has suffered a rocky year of political instability.

Vizcarra’s move was condemned by Popular Force, the conservative party with a majority in Congress.

“It has errors and interpretations with unconstitutional undertones in both form and content,” Congresswoman Ursula Letona, a spokeswoman for Popular Force, said at a news conference, without giving specifics.

Popular Force lawmaker Daniel Salaverry, the president of Congress, said that Vizcarra’s call for a vote of confidence did not comply with “some characteristics in the constitutional framework.”

Osias Ramirez, another Popular Force lawmaker, accused Vizcarra of trying to stage a coup d’etat against the legislative branch.

Vizcarra denied the move was authoritarian.

“On the contrary, a motion of confidence is done with strict adherence to the constitution and that strengthens the democracy,” Vizcarra told journalists on the sidelines of an event on Monday.

The procedure could be vulnerable to different legal interpretations. Under Peru’s constitution, which was passed in 1993 by former authoritarian president Alberto Fujimori, no president has yet summoned a vote of confidence with the potential closure of Congress on the line.

Vizcarra proposed the anti-graft measures, which include new rules for selecting judges and prosecutors and stricter campaign financing laws, in late July following an influence-peddling scandal involving judges, lawmakers and businessmen.

Salaverry said the reforms, which would require modifying the constitution, should not be rushed.

The fresh political tensions come six months after former president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned in a graft scandal on the eve of near-certain impeachment by Congress.

It was unclear when the vote of confidence might be held.

Salaverry said lawmakers would let Vizcarra’s prime minister make his case on Wednesday but would start debate another day.

Cuban Agriculture Faces Another Hard Year as Produce Sales Drop

Cuba moved nearly 15 percent less produce through domestic markets during the first six months of the year, compared with the same period in 2017, signaling another bad year for its agricultural sector, according to a government report.

The market sales in the report, issued over the weekend, account for 10 percent to 15 percent of agricultural output, according to a local expert, who requested anonymity due to restrictions on talking with journalists.

The remainder of food production is earmarked for processing plants, tourism, exports, a rationing system and meals at workplaces, hospitals, schools and other social uses, he said.

The country is dotted with outdoor markets and kiosks, more than 70 percent of which are state-run and have fixed prices for many items.

The report is the first this year on agriculture and indicates Hurricane Irma, which devastated the country a year ago, and unseasonable rainfall during the first months of 2018 took a toll on the sector, which has stagnated for a decade.

More than 60 percent of Cuban produce is harvested from January through June.

The National Statistics Office report said 237,000 tons of produce such as potatoes, plantains, tomatoes, mangos, rice and beans moved through the markets, compared with 277,000 tons during the same period in 2017.

Sales of pork and other meats were up nearly 6 percent to 7,400 tons, but the availability of eggs, a critical source of protein in the country, fell dramatically, according to the report.

Irma destroyed numerous chicken farms.

Cuba imports more than 60 percent of the food it consumes at a cost of around $2 billion annually.

The communist-run country is currently squeezed for cash and has slashed imports by 25 percent since 2015.

The state owns 80 percent of the land and leases most of that to farmers and cooperatives. The remainder is owned by family farmers.

The government often blames bad weather and the U.S. trade embargo for poor production, while critics charge it is due to a lack of private property and foreign investment, rickety infrastructure and a Soviet-style command economy.

Cuba’s government under former President Raul Castro began leasing land, decentralizing decision-making and introducing market mechanisms into the sector a decade ago. But the state has backtracked on the reforms, once more assigning resources, setting prices and controlling most distribution.

President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who took office this year, has not changed that policy.

Cuban Agriculture Faces Another Hard Year as Produce Sales Drop

Cuba moved nearly 15 percent less produce through domestic markets during the first six months of the year, compared with the same period in 2017, signaling another bad year for its agricultural sector, according to a government report.

The market sales in the report, issued over the weekend, account for 10 percent to 15 percent of agricultural output, according to a local expert, who requested anonymity due to restrictions on talking with journalists.

The remainder of food production is earmarked for processing plants, tourism, exports, a rationing system and meals at workplaces, hospitals, schools and other social uses, he said.

The country is dotted with outdoor markets and kiosks, more than 70 percent of which are state-run and have fixed prices for many items.

The report is the first this year on agriculture and indicates Hurricane Irma, which devastated the country a year ago, and unseasonable rainfall during the first months of 2018 took a toll on the sector, which has stagnated for a decade.

More than 60 percent of Cuban produce is harvested from January through June.

The National Statistics Office report said 237,000 tons of produce such as potatoes, plantains, tomatoes, mangos, rice and beans moved through the markets, compared with 277,000 tons during the same period in 2017.

Sales of pork and other meats were up nearly 6 percent to 7,400 tons, but the availability of eggs, a critical source of protein in the country, fell dramatically, according to the report.

Irma destroyed numerous chicken farms.

Cuba imports more than 60 percent of the food it consumes at a cost of around $2 billion annually.

The communist-run country is currently squeezed for cash and has slashed imports by 25 percent since 2015.

The state owns 80 percent of the land and leases most of that to farmers and cooperatives. The remainder is owned by family farmers.

The government often blames bad weather and the U.S. trade embargo for poor production, while critics charge it is due to a lack of private property and foreign investment, rickety infrastructure and a Soviet-style command economy.

Cuba’s government under former President Raul Castro began leasing land, decentralizing decision-making and introducing market mechanisms into the sector a decade ago. But the state has backtracked on the reforms, once more assigning resources, setting prices and controlling most distribution.

President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who took office this year, has not changed that policy.

Bosnia Adopts EU-required Changes to Criminal Code After Delay

The Bosnian parliament on Monday approved long-delayed changes to a criminal code aimed at bolstering the rule of law and the fight against crime and corruption, which is expected to speed up the country’s progress towards European Union membership.

Bosnia’s top court had given lawmakers a June deadline to bring the country’s criminal procedure code into line with international standards, a key EU requirement for Western Balkan nations aspiring to join the bloc.

But politicians from Bosnia’s three rival ethnic parties could not agree on changes drafted by the Justice Ministry which included the use of undercover police personnel, communications interception, surveillance and the use of informants.

The EU also considered the amendments proposed by the ministry to be too weak, and warned that Bosnian prosecutors would be deprived of one of the major tools to effectively fight against the most serious crime.

A compromise solution agreed under international pressure allows the duration of investigative processes to be cut to a maximum of one year from up to 10 years previously, and reduces the scope for granting immunity to alleged offenders and witnesses.

A majority of lawmakers in Bosnia’s multi-layered parliamentary system have enjoyed immunity from prosecution and analysts in the country, which is mired in corruption, said politicians had resisted major changes to the law in order to keep this privilege.

Disputes among Bosnia’s ethnic leaders have nearly halted the Balkan country’s progress towards the EU and NATO. Bosnia formally applied for EU membership in 2016 but the process of joining is expected to take at least a decade.

Trial for Murder of Honduran Environmental Activist Delayed

Honduras’ supreme court indefinitely suspended the start of a trial Monday of eight men charged in the 2016 killing of prize-winning Honduran indigenous and environmental rights activist Berta Caceres.

 

Judiciary spokesman Melvin Duarte said five related filings in the case have to be resolved first.

 

Caceres’ family and the organization she led said in a statement Monday that the court where the trial was to be held had not guaranteed the rights of the victims or the accused and that it would not be impartial. They petitioned that the case be moved to another court.

“We seek justice amid adverse circumstances and even there find a criminal structure behind the death of Berta,” her family said in a statement.

 

Prosecutors said in a statement that the scientific evidence collected would be the key to convicting the suspects.

 

Caceres was shot to death inside her home in La Esperanza in western Honduras on March 2, 2016, one year after winning the Goldman Environmental Prize for her leadership against a dam project.

 

Two of the accused worked at one time for Desarrollos Energeticos SA, the company behind the hydroelectric project that Caceres and her group Copinh had battled against for years. Caceres had reported death threats from both of them.

 

Another defendant was an active-duty military member, supporting assertions by Caceres’ family that there was collusion between the company and state security forces.

 

“The board of directors of DESA planned the killing of my mother,” charged Olivia Zuniga, one of Caceres’ daughters.

 

Roberto David Castillo Mejia, who was executive president of DESA when Caceres was killed, was arrested last March in the killing, though he is not part of the suspended trial. Prosecutors allege he was in charge of handling logistics for the killing. The company said Castillo and its other employees were “totally unconnected” to the murder.

Caceres had been threatened before and as early as 2009 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had ordered protective measures for her safety. Other members of Copinh had also been killed. The gunmen who killed Caceres also wounded Mexican activist Gustavo Castro Soto, who was at the home that night.

 

Last year, a team of lawyers published a report after studying the case. They said it was a carefully planned effort and “there is evidence to link high-level state and non-state officials to the murder.”

 

The Honduran government has been under significant pressure from abroad to solve the killing in a country where impunity runs high. The group of independent experts warned of irregularities and sloppiness in the investigation.

Last week, Caceres’ daughter Berta Zuniga said in an interview with local radio that authorities want to limit the trial to the killing itself, but the family wants a broader airing of the years of harassment that Caceres suffered because of her opposition to the dam.

 

“It is impossible, truly, to understand the crime against Berta Caceres without understanding what was happening in the community of Rio Blanco with the hydroelectric project Agua Zarca,” Zuniga said.

Former Argentina President Indicted on Corruption Charges

Argentina’s former president Cristina Fernandez was indicted on Monday on charges that her administration accepted bribes from construction companies in exchange for public works contracts, according to an indictment released by a federal judge.

Argentina’s Justice Department is seeking to determine whether Fernandez headed a broad corruption network that involved politicians and businessmen during her two terms as president from 2007-15.

The corruption scandal erupted in August when a local newspaper published notebooks kept by a chauffer of Fernandez’s former planning minister. The notebooks cataloged bags of cash allegedly delivered to government offices and the private residence of Fernandez and her late husband and former President Nestor Kirchner.

A spokesperson for Fernandez did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

As a senator, Fernandez enjoys immunity from arrest, although she is not immune from prosecution.

Federal judge Claudio Bonadio, who is heading the investigation, asked that Fernandez be impeached, a move that is unlikely to garner the support necessary to pass a Senate vote.

“It is necessary to continue this investigation until we have completely clarified how these illegal payments were structured, at least in regards to the officials who were part of the former planning ministry and the entrepreneurs associated with them,” the indictment said.

The scandal has implicated dozens of former officials and business owners in the construction sector, shaking confidence in an industry already burdened by an ailing economy, government cuts to public works and crippling interest rates at 60 percent.

Although Fernandez has already been indicted on other charges, she still enjoys broad popular support, and is widely expected to run for president again next year.

Aid Agency: Greece Must Move Vulnerable Migrants from Island

Greece should urgently move children and other vulnerable migrants and refugees from its most overcrowded island camp to the mainland or to other EU countries for the sake of their mental and physical health, the MSF aid agency said on Monday.

The appeal from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) came days after the governor of the region where the Moria camp is based said it should be closed next month unless authorities clean up “uncontrollable amounts of waste.”

MSF said it had witnessed an unprecedented health crisis in the camp, Greece’s biggest and home to some 9,000 migrants, a third of whom are children. It said many teenagers had attempted to commit suicide or were harming themselves on a weekly basis.

Other children suffer from elective mutism, panic attacks and anxiety, it said in a statement.

“This is the third year that MSF has been calling on the Greek authorities and the EU to take responsibility for their collective failures,” the agency said. “It is time to immediately evacuate the most vulnerable to safe accommodation in other European countries.”

The migrants in the camp, which is on the island of Lesbos, are housed in shipping containers and flimsy tents in conditions widely criticised as falling short of basic standards.

Greece is a gateway into the European Union for hundreds of thousands of refugees who have arrived since 2015 from Syria and other war-ravaged countries in the Middle East and from Africa.

Athens, which exited the biggest bailout in economic history in August, is struggling to handle the thousands of refugees who are stranded on its islands.

It has criticised Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis and some EU member states for being reluctant to share their burden.

Last week, 19 non-governmental organizations urged Greece to take action to alleviate the plight of refugees in all its island camps, not just Moria, to render them more fit for human habitation. 

The total number of migrants and refugees holed up in the island camps exceeds 17,000.

Slovak Authorities Identify Possible Witness in Journalist’s Murder

Slovak authorities have identified a possible witness in the murder of Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak, whose killing last February led mass protests that forced the government to resign, a state prosecutor said on Monday.

It was the first development in the case in the six months since the murder.

“This person may have been present at or close to the crime scene around the time the crime was committed and may have information about the crime,” the prosecutor overseeing the case told a news conference.

He declined to answer questions on whether that person was a suspect or just a witness.

Kuciak, who had written about political corruption in Slovakia, was found shot dead along with his fiancee Martina Kusnirova at their home outside Bratislava in February. They were both 27.

The murder – which police have called a profesional hit – raised fears over media freedom in ex-communist Eastern Europe, and led to mass protests across the nation that forced the departure of previous police chief Tibor Gaspar as well as Prime Minister Robert Fico and interior minister Robert Kalinak.

The cabinet was reshuffled with Fico’s deputy Peter Pellegrini taking over as prime minister but the three-party center-left coalition stayed in power.

The prosecutor, who declined to give his name, said authorities had also whittled down possible motives to two.

He held up a sketch of the possible witness depicting a white man with a beard and dark hair who appeared to be in his late 20s to early 30s. He provided no other details.

“Despite initial mistakes in investigation, we have narrowed down possible motives from 30 to two,” the prosecutor said. “I believe we will be successful in the end.”

The update on Monday came after more than 300 Slovak journalists and publishers last month criticized police for the lack of progress in the murder investigation and alleged corruption described by Kuciak.

“As no fundamental changes to the police or to the prosecutorial bodies have taken place, we have doubts about the independence of the investigation,” they said in a statement.

Kuciak had covered Slovak businessmen mentioned in the Panama Papers and also probed fraud cases involving businessmen with Slovak political ties. He had also been looking into suspected mafia links of Italians with businesses in Slovakia.

Guatemala Defies Court Order on Return of Anti-Graft Chief 

Guatemala will not allow the head of the the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, to return to the country, defying an order by the constitutional court.

Late Sunday, the country’s top court ruled that President Jimmy Morales must let Ivan Velasquez back into the country. 

Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart announced Monday that Morales’ administration would defy the court order. Instead, Foreign Minister Sandra Jovel said she had asked the United Nations to send a list of possible replacements for Velasquez for Guatemala’s approval. 

Morales came under international condemnation when he announced in late August that he was closing the CICIG and barring Velasquez from the country.

Velasquez had conducted a number of high-profile corruption investigations, include one pending against the president. 

Morales said Velasquez is “a person who attacks order and public security in the country.” 

Survey Finds Support in Europe for Some Restrictions on Muslim Clothing   

Most Western Europeans favor at least some restrictions on the religious clothing that Muslim women can wear in public, according to research released Monday by the Pew Research Center.

A median 50 percent of non-Muslim adults in the 15 countries surveyed said Muslim women should be allowed to wear religious clothing unless it covers their face. A median of 23 percent said that Muslim women should not be allowed to wear any religious clothing at all. Only 25 percent said they supported no such restrictions.

Portugal stood out as the only country where a majority of respondents said Muslim women should face no restrictions, at 52 percent.

Sixty six percent of respondents said they would accept a Muslim as a family member. But even in this group, a majority of 55 percent supported banning facial coverings.

“This is not a small group of people,” survey conductor Scott Gardner told VOA News. “Even though the majority have open and positive feelings towards Muslims, even those who say they would accept a Muslim as a family member favor at least some restrictions.”

Portugal was again unique in this category, with 60 percent of those who would accept a Muslim family member saying they supported having no restrictions on clothing.

The survey reflects government policy across the region. Last August, Denmark made it illegal for Muslim to wear facial coverings such as niqabs and burqas in public. Similar policies have been in enacted in Austria, Belgium, and France in recent years as Muslim immigrants have flocked to Europe in large numbers, escaping violence in Syria and other majority-Muslim nations.

The influx of Muslims into European countries has led to the rise of populist anti-immigration political movements in many of the countries surveyed, led by figures like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France.