Nicaragua Releases 100 Jailed Protesters to House Arrest

The Nicaraguan government released 100 prisoners to a form of house arrest Monday, including three human rights activists.

The administration of President Daniel Ortega said all 100 face charges of “offenses against security and the public peace,” which have commonly been applied to participants in anti-government protests that started last year.

But opposition figures could not immediately confirm that all those released Monday were protesters. However, relatives did confirm the release of three leaders of a non-governmental group known as the Permanent Human Rights Commission.

The release apparently did not include leaders of the protest movement.

The release came an hour after the opposition had announced it was withdrawing from talks with Ortega’s government, to press its demand for the release of hundreds of jailed protesters and dropping charges against them.

Jose Pallais, one of the members of the opposition Civic Alliance who participated in the talks, said the releases “are a positive gesture, but not enough” to draw Ortega’s opponents back to the talks, which resumed in February.

“They should free all of them so the talks can resume, and ensure that all are freed without charges,” Pallais said.

Last week, 17 people who were arrested in the anti-government protests were wounded in a disturbance at a Nicaraguan prison in which a 57-year-old Nicaraguan-American dual national was shot dead.

Austrian Government Collapses Over Ibiza Video Scandal

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called time Monday on his coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party after its leader was shown on video appearing to offer favors to a purported Russian investor.

Kurz said he was seeking the removal of the country’s interior minister, Freedom Party politician Herbert Kickl, to ensure an unbiased probe into the video.

“I’m firmly convinced that what’s necessary now is total transparency and a completely and unbiased investigation,” Kurz told reporters in Vienna.

The Freedom Party reacted by withdrawing its ministers from the government.

“We won’t leave anyone out in the rain,” said the party’s interim leader, Norbert Hofer.

Kickl’s removal, which must still be approved by Austria’s president, follows the resignation on Saturday of Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who was also Austria’s vice chancellor. 

That came a day after two German newspapers published a video showing Strache pandering to a woman claiming to be a Russian tycoon’s niece at a boozy gathering in Ibiza two years ago, shortly before national elections. Strache and party colleague Johann Gudenus are heard telling the woman that she can expect lucrative construction contracts if she buys an Austrian newspaper and supports the Freedom Party. They also discuss ways of secretly funneling money to the party.

Gudenus, who was instrumental in arranging the meeting, has quit as leader of the party’s parliamentary group and is leaving the party.

The Hamburg-based weekly Der Spiegel and Munich daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung said the meeting in Ibiza was likely a trap that Strache and Gudenus had fallen for. The papers refused to reveal the source of the video.

Kurz noted that at the time the video was shot, Kickl was general-secretary of the Freedom Party and therefore responsible for its financial conduct. The chancellor added that in his conversations with Kickl and other Freedom Party officials following the video’s release, he “didn’t really have the feeling (they had) an awareness of the dimension of the whole issue.”

String of scandals

The ouster of the Freedom Party from the government was a setback for populist and nationalist forces as Europe heads into the final days of campaigning for the European Parliament elections, which run Thursday through Sunday.

Kurz has endorsed a hard line on migration and public finances, and he chose to ally with the Freedom Party after winning the 2017 election. 

The chancellor, who is personally popular, had said Saturday that “enough is enough” — a reference to a string of smaller scandals involving the Freedom Party that had plagued his government. In recent months, those have included a poem in a party newsletter comparing migrants to rats and questions over links to extreme-right groups.

Kickl, a longtime campaign mastermind of the Freedom Party, had already drawn criticism over matters including a raid last year on Austria’s BVT spy agency, which opposition parties claimed was an attempt by the new government to purge domestic political enemies.

Kickl’s party said he had done nothing wrong and sought to portray itself as the victim of a plot. 

Response from Russia

The Russian government, meanwhile, said it couldn’t comment on the video “because it has nothing to do with the Russian Federation, its president or the government.”

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said of the woman in the Strache video that set off the crisis: “We don’t know who that woman is and whether she’s Russian or not.” 

Pledging to ensure stability in Austria over the coming months, Kurz said vacancies in the government left by the Freedom Party’s departure would be filled with civil servants and technocrats.

His government, meanwhile, may find it difficult to continue as planned until Austria holds early elections, likely in September. Opposition parties plan to call for a vote of no confidence in Kurz’s government in the coming days. 

French Drug Smuggler Sentenced to Death in Indonesia

Indonesia on Monday sentenced a French drug smuggler to death by firing squad, in a shock verdict after prosecutors had asked for a long prison term.

The three-judge panel in Lombok handed a capital sentence to Felix Dorfin, 35, who was arrested in September at the airport on the holiday island next to Bali, where foreigners are routinely charged with drugs offenses.

Indonesia has some of the world’s strictest drug laws — including death for some traffickers.

It has executed foreigners in the past, including the masterminds of Australia’s Bali Nine heroin gang.

While Dorfin was eligible for the death penalty, prosecutors instead asked for a 20-year jail term plus another year unless he paid a huge fine equivalent to about $700,000.

But Indonesian courts have been known to issue harsher-than-demanded punishments.

Dorfin was carrying a suitcase filled with about three kilograms (6.6 pounds) of drugs including ecstasy and amphetamines when he was arrested.

“After finding Felix Dorfin legally and convincingly guilty of importing narcotics … (he) is sentenced to the death penalty,” presiding judge Isnurul Syamsul Arif told the court.

The judge cited Dorfin’s involvement in an international drug syndicate and the amount of drugs in his possession as aggravating factors.

“The defendant’s actions could potentially do damage to the younger generation,” Arif added.

The Frenchman made headlines in January when he escaped from a police detention center and spent nearly two weeks on the run before he was captured.

A female police officer was arrested for allegedly helping Dorfin escape from jail in exchange for money.

It was not clear if the jailbreak played any role in Monday’s stiffer-than-expected sentence.

Wearing a red prison vest, Dorfin, who is from Bethune in northern France, sat impassively through much of the hearing, as a translator scribbled notes beside him.

After the sentencing, he said little as he walked past reporters to a holding cell.

“Dorfin was shocked,” the Frenchman’s lawyer Deny Nur Indra told AFP.

“He didn’t expect this at all because prosecutors only asked for 20 years.”

The lawyer said he would appeal against the sentence, describing his client as a “victim” who did not know the exact contents of what he was carrying in the suitcase.

“If he had known, he wouldn’t have brought it here,” Indra added.

In Paris, the French foreign ministry said it was “concerned” by the sentence and reiterated France’s opposition to the death penalty.

“We will remain attentive to his situation,” the statement said, adding that seven French people faced the death penalty worldwide.

In 2015, Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran — the accused ringleaders of the Bali Nine  — were executed by firing squad in Indonesia.

The Bali Nine gang’s only female member was released from jail last year, while some others remain in prison.

The highly publicized case sparked diplomatic outrage and a call to abolish the death penalty.

“The death penalty verdict marks another setback for human rights in Indonesia,” Human Rights Watch campaigner Andreas Harsono said Monday.

“The Indonesian government’s many pledges about moving toward abolishing the death penalty clearly meant nothing in Lombok”.

There are scores of foreigners on death row in Indonesia, including cocaine-smuggling British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford and Serge Atlaoui, a Frenchman who has been on death row since 2007.

Last year, eight Taiwanese drug smugglers were sentenced to death by an Indonesian court after being caught with around a tonne of crystal methamphetamine.

Battle Breaks out for WikiLeaks Founder Assange’s Computers

With Julian Assange locked away in a London jail, a new battle has broken out over what may contain some of the WikiLeaks founder’s biggest secrets: his computers.

On Monday, judicial authorities from Ecuador carried out an inventory of all the belongings and digital devices left behind at the London embassy following his expulsion last month from the diplomatic compound that had been his home the past seven years.  

It came as Sweden announced it was seeking Assange’s arrest on suspicion of rape, setting up a possible future tug-of-war with the United States over any extradition of Assange from Britain.

It’s not known what devices authorities removed from the embassy or what information they contained. But authorities said they were acting on a request by the U.S. prosecutors, leading Assange’s defenders to claim that Ecuador has undermined the most basic principles of asylum while denying the secret-spiller’s right to prepare his defense.  

“It’s disgraceful,” WikiLeaks’ editor in chief, Kristinn Hrafnsson, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Ecuador granted him asylum because of the threat of extradition to the U.S. and now the same country, under new leadership, is actively collaborating with a criminal investigation against him.”

Assange, 47, was arrested on April 11 after being handed over to British authorities by Ecuador. He is serving a 50-week sentence in a London prison for skipping bail while the U.S. seeks his extradition for conspiring to hack into military computers and spill secrets about U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hrafnsson, who has visited the Australian activist in jail, said Assange saw his eviction coming for weeks as relations with President Lenin Moreno’s government deteriorated, so he took great care to scrub computers and hard drives of any compromising material, including future planned leaks or internal communications with WikiLeaks collaborators.

Still, Hrafnsson said he fully expects Moreno or the Americans to claim revelations that don’t exist. He called Monday’s proceedings a “horse show” because no legal authority can guarantee Assange’s devices haven’t been tampered with, or the chain of custody unbroken, in the six weeks since his arrest.

“If anything surfaces, I can assure you it would’ve been planted,” he said. “Julian isn’t a novice when it comes to security and securing his information. We expected this to happen and protections have been in place for a very long time.”

A group of Assange’s supporters gathered outside Ecuador’s Embassy in London to protest the judicial proceeding. Demonstrators put banners on the railings with images of Assange, his mouth covered by an American flag, and chanted “Thieves! Thieves! Thieves! Shame on you!”

Ecuadorian authorities said they will hand over any belongings not given to U.S. or Ecuadorian investigators to Assange’s lawyers, who weren’t invited to Monday’s inventory-taking. Hrafnsson said he didn’t have a full inventory of Assange’s devices.

Moreno decided to evict Assange from the embassy after accusing him of working with political opponents to hack into his phone and release damaging personal documents and photos, including several that showed him eating lobster in bed and the numbers of bank accounts allegedly used to hide proceeds from corruption.

Moreno’s actions immediately were celebrated by the Trump administration, which was key in helping Ecuador secure a $4.2 billion credit line from the International Monetary Fund and has provided the tiny South American country with new trade and military deals in recent weeks.

“The Americans are the ones pulling the strings, and Moreno their puppet dancing to the tune of money,” said Hrafnsson.

Separately on Monday, Swedish authorities issued a request for a detention order against Assange.

On May 13, Swedish prosecutors reopened a preliminary investigation against Assange, who visited Sweden in 2010, because two Swedish women said they were the victims of sex crimes committed by Assange.

While a case of alleged sexual misconduct against Assange in Sweden was dropped in 2017 when the statute of limitations expired, a rape allegation remains. Swedish authorities have had to shelve it because Assange was living at the embassy at the time and there was no prospect of bringing him to Sweden.

The statute of limitations in the rape case expires in August next year. Assange has denied wrongdoing, asserting that the allegations were politically motivated and that the sex was consensual.

According to the request for a detention order obtained by The Associated Press, Assange is wanted for “intentionally having carried out an intercourse” with an unnamed woman “by unduly exploiting that she was in a helpless state because of sleep.”

Austrian Government Heads for Collapse Over Video Scandal

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said Monday he is seeking the removal of the country’s interior minister over a video scandal that has rocked the Alpine nation in recent days.

The move, which must be approved by Austria’s president, is expected to trigger a walk-out of Interior Minister Herbert Kickl’s far-right Freedom Party from the coalition government.

Kurz, who became chancellor with help from the Freedom Party in 2017, said Austrians want clarity on the apparent influence-peddling scandal involving Kickl’s party and a purported Russian investor.

“I’m firmly convinced that what’s necessary now is total transparency and a completely and unbiased investigation,” he told reporters in Vienna.

Pledging to ensure stability over the coming months, Kurz said that if the Freedom Party leaves his government — as it has threatened to do — vacant positions would be filled with civil servants and technocrats until the next national elections, which are expected in September.

Kickl’s imminent removal follows the resignation on Saturday of Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who was also Austria’s vice chancellor, after two German newspapers published a damning video showing him pandering to a woman claiming to be a Russian tycoon’s niece at a boozy gathering in Ibiza two years ago.

In the video, Strache and party colleague Johann Gudenus are heard telling the woman that she can expect lucrative construction contracts if she buys an Austrian newspaper and supports the Freedom Party. Gudenus has quit as leader of the party’s parliamentary group and is leaving the party.

Kurz noted that at the time the video was shot, Kickl was general-secretary of the Freedom Party and therefore responsible for its financial conduct.

Kurz added that in conversations with Kickl and other Freedom Party officials following the video’s release, he “didn’t really have the feeling (they had) an awareness of the dimension of the whole issue.”

Strache’s resignation represents a setback for populist and nationalist forces as Europe heads into the final days of campaigning for the European Parliament elections, which run from Thursday through Sunday.

Kurz has endorsed a hard line on migration and public finances, and chose to ally with the Freedom Party after winning the 2017 election. 

The 32-year-old, who is personally popular, said Saturday that “enough is enough” — a reference to a string of smaller scandals involving the Freedom Party that had plagued his government. In recent months, those have included a poem in a party newsletter comparing migrants to rats and questions over links to extreme-right groups.

Kickl, a longtime campaign mastermind of the Freedom Party, has drawn criticism over matters including a raid last year on Austria’s BVT spy agency, which opposition parties claimed was an attempt by the new government to purge domestic political enemies.

His party said he had done nothing wrong. 

The Russian government, meanwhile, said it couldn’t comment on the video “because it has nothing to do with the Russian Federation, its president or the government.”

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said of the woman in the Strache video that set off the crisis: “We don’t know who that woman is and whether she’s Russian or not.” 

China Bars Taiwan From World Health Assembly

Taiwan is protesting China’s decision to exclude the island from participation in the annual World Health Assembly, calling such action an unjustified political move that could harm global health. 

The 72nd session of the World Health Organization’s World Health Assembly takes place May 20-28 in Geneva, Switzerland. 

This move is particularly ironic this year, as the theme of the assembly is universal health coverage. Taiwan’s national health system is widely considered one of the best in the world.Taiwan’s minister of health and welfare, Chen Shih-chung, says the island is ready to share its experiences on how to achieve affordable, efficient universal health coverage with the global community.

“However, under pressure from the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan is currently excluded by WHO from the global health network,” Chen said. “Inviting Taiwan to participate in the WHA would be consistent with WHO’s espousal of health for all.”

The health minister notes Taiwan’s exclusion poses health risks to everyone. Chen says diseases do not stop at borders, and international cooperation is needed to combat epidemics that could spread to every corner of the world.

Chen tells VOA he has written several letters to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to protest Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Assembly. Chen says he has received no response. He says WHO has even rejected Taiwan’s offer for help in combating the Ebola epidemic in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Our president announced we would donate $1 million U.S. to combat Ebola; but this donation, even this donation was not accepted by the WHO. So, this is a pity in our situation. We want to do something, but WHO did not accept us to do something for the world,” Chen said.

WHO estimates it needs $98 million to run its Ebola operation. It is facing a funding shortfall of some $63 million.

Despite pressure from China, Taiwan’s officials say they have received support for their bid to join the WHO from a number of countries including the United States, Japan, Germany and Australia.

Guatemalan Boy Dies in US Border Custody

A Guatemalan boy in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody died Monday, a day after beginning treatment for the flu. 

Carlos Gregorio Hernandez-Vasquez, 16, was found “unresponsive” while being held at the Weslaco Border Patrol Station. 

U.S. officials have not determined the cause of death, which is generally issued after an investigation by multiple federal agencies.

Hernandez-Vasquez complained he was not feeling well on Sunday morning at CPB’s Rio Grande Valley Central Processing Center where he was being held.

A health check by a nurse practitioner that day indicated he had Influenza A. He was prescribed Tamiflu, an antiviral drug, a CBP official familiar with the case told reporters on a phone call Monday.

He was then sent to the Weslaco station on Sunday to “segregate” him and await transfer to a facility for minors, the official said.

Staff last checked on Hernandez-Vasquez an hour before he was found dead.

If the boy was sick a week earlier when officials detained him on May 13 near Hidalgo, Texas, after entering the country unlawfully, he showed no signs of illness severe enough to prompt a higher level of care, the official said. 

CBP said that after being held in two facilities for detained migrants, the teen was set to be transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services tasked with caring for unaccompanied children who cross the border.

U.S. law requires unaccompanied children who aren’t from Canada or Mexico generally be transferred from border or immigration officials to HHS custody within 72 hours.

Asked why Hernandez-Vasquez was not transferred on the proscribed timeline, the CBP official told reporters that HHS officials had determined when and where he would be transferred. Why HHS took a week to sort out the boy’s placement remains unclear.

While he was originally going to be sent to a facility in Homestead, Florida, HHS instead decided to send him to one in Brownsville, Texas, to shorten travel times for the sick teen. 

The boy was able to call his family twice during custody, the CBP official added. The last time was May 16. 

Hernandez-Vasquez is the fifth Guatemalan child to die in U.S. official custody at the border since December. His death comes as U.S. border officials are detaining an increasing number of unaccompanied minors and families crossing the southern border.

That figure climbed from roughly 4,968 children in October to nearly 8,897 in April; and from 23,116 families to 58,474 families in the same period, leaving officials scrambling to provide adequate services.

Google to Restrict Huawei From Android Operating System

The giant U.S. internet search engine Google said Monday it is restricting China’s Huawei from access to its Android operating system in compliance with the Trump administration’s blacklisting of the world’s second biggest smartphone maker as a national security threat.

Google said it is “reviewing the implications” of last week’s order requiring export licenses for technology sales to Huawei.

The U.S. and Chinese companies said millions of Huawei phones already in use around the world would continue to have access to such popular Google services as Gmail, YouTube and maps.

But last week’s U.S. order would curb the future transfer of hardware, software and services to Huawei, possibly limiting the Chinese company’s expansion globally and its efforts to overtake South Korea’s Samsung as the world’s biggest smart phone manufacturer.

Google services were already banned in China, so analysts say the impact of the curb on technology sales could mostly affect Huawei’s international sales, making its phones less attractive to customers if they do not have Google features. Last year, Huawei sold nearly half of its production of 208 million smart phones overseas and the rest in China.

“Huawei will continue to provide security updates and after-sales services to all existing Huawei and Honor smartphone and tablet products, covering those that have been sold and that are still in stock globally,” a Huawei spokesman said.

The Chinese firm is at the center of ongoing trade disputes between Washington and Beijing. The U.S. contends that Huawei’s technology could be used to spy on Americans, allegations Huawei has repeatedly denied.

China and the U.S. are in the midst of months-long trade talks with the world’s two biggest economies engaging in tit-for-tat tariff increases on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of each other’s exports.

Ukraine’s New Leader Sworn In, Dissolves Parliament

Ukrainian TV star Volodymyr Zelenskiy was sworn in as the country’s new president on Monday, promised to stop the war in the country’s east against Russian-backed separatists and immediately disbanded parliament, which he has branded as a group only interested in self-enrichment.

Even before he disbanded the Supreme Rada, which had been one of his campaign promises, the 41-year-old Zelenskiy had upended the traditions of Ukrainian politics. 

He ditched the idea of a traditional motorcade to his inauguration, walking to the parliament through a park packed with people. Flanked by four bodyguards, he was giving high-fives to some spectators and even stopped to take a selfie with one of them.

Before he made the announcement, Zelenskiy asked the Supreme Rada to adopt a bill against illegal enrichment and support his motions to fire the country’s defense minister, the head of the Ukrainian Security Service and the Prosecutor General. All of them are allies of former President Petro Poroshenko, who lost the presidential election in a landslide to the comedian with no previous political experience. 

In a feisty speech after his inauguration, Zelenskiy told the Rada that his main goal for the presidency is to bring peace to eastern Ukraine, where government troops have been fighting Russia-backed separatists for five years.

“I’m ready to do everything so that our heroes don’t die there,” he said. “I’m ready to lose my popularity and, if necessary, I’m ready to lose my post so that we have peace.”

Zelenskiy garnered 73% of the vote at the presidential election last month in a victory that reflected Ukrainians’ exhaustion with politics-as-usual. For years, he has played the Ukrainian president in a popular television show.

The new president wrapped up his speech at parliament by referring to his career as a comedian.

“Throughout all of my life, I tried to do everything to make Ukrainians laugh,” he said with a smile. “In the next five years I will do everything so that Ukrainians don’t cry.”

Sweden Requests Detention Order for WikiLeaks’ Assange

Swedish authorities on Monday issued a request for a detention order against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is now jailed in Britain, a Swedish prosecutor said.

Prosecutor Eva-Marie Persson says if the Swedish court decided to detain Assange “on probable cause suspected for rape … I will issue a European Arrest Warrant.”

The development sets up a possible future tug-of-war between Sweden and the United States over any extradition of Assange from Britain.

Assange was evicted last month from the Ecuadorian Embassy where he had been holed up with political asylum since 2012. He was then immediately arrested by British police on April 11 and is currently serving a 50-week sentence in Britain for jumping bail in 2012.

The Australian secret-spiller also faces a U.S. extradition warrant for allegedly conspiring to hack into a Pentagon computer.

Persson said Monday that British authorities will decide any conflict between a European arrest warrant and U.S. extradition request for Assange.

On May 13, Swedish prosecutors reopened a preliminary investigation against Assange, who visited Sweden in 2010, after two Swedish women said they were the victims of sex crimes committed by Assange.

While a case of alleged sexual misconduct against Assange in Sweden was dropped in 2017 when the statute of limitations expired, a rape allegation remains. Swedish authorities have had to shelf it because Assange was living at the embassy at the time and there was no prospect of bringing him to Sweden.

The statute of limitations in the rape case expires in August next year. Assange has denied wrongdoing, asserting that the allegations were politically motivated and that the sex was consensual.

​According to the request for a detention order obtained by The Associated Press, Assange is wanted for “intentionally having carried out an intercourse” with an unnamed woman “by unduly exploiting that she was in a helpless state because of sleep.”

The request added there was “an aggravating circumstance” because Assange didn’t use a condom.

The 47-year-old Australian met the two Swedish woman in connection with a lecture in August 2010 in Stockholm. One was involved in organizing an event for Sweden’s center-left Social Democratic Party and offered to host Assange at her apartment. The other was in the audience.

A police officer who heard the women’s accounts decided there was reason to suspect they were victims of sex crimes and handed the case to a prosecutor. Neither of the alleged victims has been named publicly.

Assange faces a maximum of four years in prison in Sweden if he is convicted of the rape.

Persson said the day and time for the detention hearing regarding Assange at the Uppsala District Court north of Stockholm that will make the decision has not yet been decided. 

“However, in my view, the Swedish case can proceed concurrently with the proceedings in the U.K.,” Persson said in a statement.