Hong Kong, Jun 12 (AP/UNB) — Hundreds of protesters surrounded government headquarters in Hong Kong on Wednesday as the administration prepared to open debate on a highly controversial extradition law that would allow accused people to be sent to China for trial.
The overwhelmingly young crowd of demonstrators overturned barriers and tussled with police as they sought to enter government headquarters and offices of the Legislative Council.
Under its "one country, two systems" framework, Hong Kong was guaranteed the right to retain its own social, legal and political systems for 50 years following its handover from British rule in 1997. However, China's ruling Communist Party has been seen as increasingly reneging on that agreement by forcing through unpopular legal changes.
The government pushed ahead with plans to present the amendments to the legislature on Wednesday despite a weekend protest by hundreds of thousands of people that was the territory's largest political demonstration in more than a decade. A crowd began gathering outside the Legislative Council on Tuesday night, and U.S. Consulate is warning people to avoid the area, exercise caution and keep a low profile. Some businesses decided to close for the day, and while labor strikes and class boycotts have also been called, it wasn't immediately clear if those were widely heeded.
The legislation has become a lightning rod for concerns about Beijing's increasing control over the semi-autonomous territory.
"We're young but we know that if we don't stand up for our rights, we might lose them," said an 18-year-old protester who gave only her first name, Jacky, to avoid possible retaliation from authorities.
Police called in reinforcements and closed off access to the area around the Legislative Council and government headquarters, patrolling in the heat and humidity but without any immediate conflict with protesters.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has consistently defended the legislation as necessary to close legal loopholes with other countries and territories. The legislature's president, Andrew Leung, has scheduled a vote on June 20.
Sunday's protest was widely seen as reflecting growing apprehension about relations with the Communist Party-ruled mainland, whose leader, Xi Jinping, has said he has zero tolerance for those demanding greater self-rule for Hong Kong.
Critics believe the extradition legislation would put Hong Kong residents at risk of being entrapped in China's judicial system, in which opponents of Communist Party rule have been charged with economic crimes or ill-defined national security offenses, and would not be guaranteed free trials.
Lam, who canceled her regular question and answer session on Wednesday, said the government has considered concerns from the private sector and altered the bill to improve human rights safeguards. She said without the changes, Hong Kong would risk becoming a haven for fugitives.
She emphasized that extradition cases would be decided by Hong Kong courts.
Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a lawyer and member of Lam's administration advisory committee, said Sunday's protest showed a lack of trust in Hong Kong's administration, partly because Lam was selected by a small number of electors rather than by popular vote. However, China's patience with Hong Kong's demands has its limits, Tong said.
"We need to gain the trust and confidence of Beijing so they can allow us the freedom of political reform," Tong said. "They don't want to see Hong Kong as a base of subversion. And I'm sorry, we're doing exactly that."
Opponents of the proposed extradition amendments say the changes would significantly compromise Hong Kong's legal independence, long viewed as one of the crucial differences between the territory and mainland China.
Hong Kong Bar Association Chair Philip Dykes said a lack of faith in Beijing's commitment to respecting Hong Kong's unique status remains a crucial issue.
"The government is asking these people with decades of mistrust suddenly to trust the system and to accept assurances that the (Chinese) mainland will offer that they be honored. And that's clearly not persuading the people," Dykes said in an interview.
Hong Kong currently limits extraditions to jurisdictions with which it has existing agreements and to others on an individual basis. China has been excluded from those agreements because of concerns over its judicial independence and human rights record.
Supporters have pointed to the case of Chan Tong-kai, a Hong Kong man who admitted to Hong Kong police that he killed his girlfriend during a trip to Taiwan. Because Hong Kong and Taiwan don't have an extradition agreement, he has not been sent to Taiwan to face charges there, though he has been jailed in Hong Kong on money laundering charges.
Under its "one country, two systems" framework, Hong Kong maintains its own social, legal and political systems and residents enjoy far greater freedoms than people on the mainland, such as the freedom to protest or publicly criticize the government.
The mainland's ruling Communist Party exerts influence on the Hong Kong government. Lam was elected in 2017 by a committee dominated by pro-Beijing elites and was widely seen as the Communist Party's favored candidate.
The Legislative Council includes a sizable camp of pro-Beijing lawmakers.
Beijing has made substantial efforts in recent years to integrate Hong Kong with the mainland. Last October, China opened the world's longest sea-crossing bridge, connecting Hong Kong and Macau to the city of Zhuhai in southern Guangdong province.
Those in Hong Kong who anger China's central government have come under greater pressure since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.
The detention of several Hong Kong booksellers in late 2015 intensified worries about the erosion of Hong Kong's rule of law. The booksellers vanished before resurfacing in police custody in mainland China. Among them, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai is currently being investigated on charges of leaking state secrets after he sold gossipy books about Chinese leaders.
In April, nine leaders of a 2014 pro-democracy protest movement known as the "Umbrella Revolution" were convicted on public nuisance and other charges.
In May, Germany confirmed it had granted asylum to two people from Hong Kong who, according to media reports, were activists fleeing tightening restrictions at home. It was the first known case in recent years of a Western government accepting political refugees from Hong Kong.
Bangkok, Jun 11 (AP/UNB) — Thailand's junta leader has been officially proclaimed prime minister after the king endorsed Parliament's vote to allow him to keep the position.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha knelt to a portrait of King Maha Vajiralongkorn during a ceremony at his government office Tuesday to accept a royal endorsement for him to continue his role as prime minister.
Prayuth has served as prime minister since he led a military coup that toppled an elected government in 2014. The junta will cease power once a new Cabinet is inaugurated.
Prayuth's government had enacted new election laws that gave him an advantage in a general election held in March.
Prayuth did not contest the election but won a joint Parliament vote last week to become prime minister.
Seoul, Jun 11 (AP/UNB) — A human rights group said Tuesday it has identified hundreds of spots where witnesses claim North Korea carried out public executions and extrajudicial state killings as part of an arbitrary and aggressive use of the death penalty that is meant to intimidate its citizens.
The Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group said its research was based on interviews with 610 North Korean defectors conducted over four years who helped locate the sites with satellite imagery.
The group didn't reveal the exact locations of the 323 sites because it's worried that North Korea will tamper with them, but said 267 of them were located in two northeastern provinces near the border with China, the area where most of the defectors who participated in the study came from.
North Korea's public executions tend to happen near rivers, in fields and on hills, and also at marketplaces and school grounds — places where residents and family members of those sentenced are often forced to attend the killings, the report said.
The group also said it documented 25 sites where the dead were allegedly disposed of by the state and also found official locations that may have documents or other evidence related to the killings.
The Associated Press could not independently verify the report, and the group acknowledged that its findings weren't definite because it doesn't have direct access to North Korea and cannot visit the sites defectors told it about. Heeseok Shim, one of the report's authors, also said interviews with defectors suggest that public executions in North Korea are becoming less frequent, although it's unclear whether that's because more people are being executed in secret.
South Korea's Korea Institute for National Unification, a state-sponsored think tank, expressed similar views on its annual white paper on North Korea's human rights released last week. The institute said the North still uses public executions to provoke fear and control the behavior of its citizens, particularly in city and border areas where crimes are more prevalent.
The Transitional Justice Working Group is a nongovernment organization founded by human rights advocates and researchers from South Korea and four other countries. The group said the new report was made possible by funding from the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy, which is funded by the U.S. Congress.
North Korea didn't immediately respond to the report, but the nation bristles at outside criticism of its human rights record and claims negative assessments are part of U.S.-led pressure campaigns meant to tarnish the image of its leadership and destroy the country's political system. In a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in May, North Korea said it "consistently maintains the principle of ensuring scientific accuracy, objectivity and impartiality, as well as protecting human rights in dealing with criminal cases."
A 2014 United Nations report on North Korea's human rights conditions, however, said state authorities carry out executions, "with or without trial, publicly or secretly," in response to political and other crimes that are often not among the most serious offenses. While public executions were more common in the 1990s, North Korea continues to carry them out for the purpose of instilling fear in the general population, the report said.
The new report said its findings show arbitrary executions and extrajudicial killings under state custody have continued under the rule of young leader Kim Jong Un despite international criticism over how North Korea supposedly applies the death penalty without due judicial process.
Since assuming leadership in 2011, Kim has shown a brutal side while consolidating his power, executing a slew of members of the North Korean old guard, including his uncle Jang Seong Thaek, who was convicted of treason, and senior officials accused of slighting his leadership.
Following a provocative run in nuclear and missile tests, Kim initiated diplomacy with Washington and Seoul in 2018 in attempting to leverage his arsenal for economic and security benefits. But North Korea's human rights issues have so far been sidelined in the summitry between Kim, President Donald Trump, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Almost all of the state killings documented in the report were public executions by firing squad. Public executions are almost always preceded by brief "trials" on the spot where charges are announced and sentences are issued without legal counsel for the accused, the report said.
Criminal charges for executions commonly cited by interviewees included violent crimes such as murder, rape and assault, but property crimes like stealing copper or cows and brokering defections. With a lack of due process in the North's judicial system, it's unclear whether the charges announced at the executions would actually match the act of the accused, the report said.
Bodies of people killed by state agents are not typically returned to the family and are often dumped in mountainous areas, buried in the ground without markers, or thrown into a gorge or ravine, the report said.
Authorities often force family members of those sentenced and residents, including children, to watch public executions. Some defectors reported incidents in the mid-2010s where guards used metal detectors to find and confiscate mobile phones from witnesses to prevent them from recording the events, which showed the government's concern about the information on public executions getting outside the country, the report said.
The rights group said the information it gathered will be crucial if a political transition in North Korea allows for the identification of victims, the return of remains to families and investigations into human rights abuses committed by the government.
The group released an earlier report in 2017 based on a smaller number of interviews. It said the new report is better sourced, based on accounts of direct witnesses or those who heard from direct witnesses and were able to provide geographic information of the sites.
Srinagar, Jun 10 (AP/UNB) — A court on Monday sentenced three Hindu men, including a police officer, to life imprisonment for kidnapping, raping and murdering an 8-year-old Muslim girl in Indian-controlled Kashmir, in a case that has exacerbated tensions in the disputed region.
Judge Tejwinder Singh sentenced three other policemen to five years in prison for destroying evidence, prosecutor Santokh Singh told reporters. The judge acquitted another defendant due to insufficient evidence.
An eighth suspect, a minor, will be tried separately by a juvenile court, Santokh Singh said.
The girl, who was a member of a nomadic tribe, was grazing her family's ponies in the forests of the Himalayan foothills when she was kidnapped in January 2018. Her mutilated body was found in the woods a week later.
The case sparked protests across Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region where rebels have been fighting for years for independence or unification with Pakistan and there is great distrust of the government.
Singh said prosecutors plan to appeal to a higher court and seek the death penalty for the three defendants who received life sentences.
Thousands of members of a radical Hindu group had demanded the release of the defendants, insisting they were innocent.
The trial was shifted to Pathankot, a town in neighboring Punjab state, following accusations that local Hindu leaders and politicians were trying to block the investigation.
The prosecution said the girl was raped in a small village temple in Kathua district after having been kept sedated for four days, and was then bludgeoned to death.
The girl's father, Mohammed Akhtar, told The Associated Press by phone that the men should be "punished speedily, not just convicted."
"Our family has gone through hell," he said. "Our hearts are bleeding. These beasts should be hanged."
India has been shaken by a series of sexual assaults in recent years, including the gang rape and murder of a student on a New Delhi bus in 2012. That attack galvanized a country where widespread violence against women had long been quietly accepted.
While the government has passed a series of laws increasing punishment for rape, it's rare for more than a few weeks to pass without another brutal sexual assault being reported.
Islamabad, Jun 10 (AP/UNB) — Pakistan's anti-graft body on Monday arrested former President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of assassinated ex-Premier Benazir Bhutto, in a multi-million dollar money laundering case that has shaken the country.
The development came hours after a court in Islamabad rejected a request by Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur for an extension of their bail that would have allow them to remain free pending trial in the case.
The court's decision paved the way for the National Accountability Bureau to arrest the two. However, the anti-graft body did not arrest Zardari's sister; no explanation was given.
Zardari, a lawmaker in the lower house of Parliament, and his sister, also a politician, have been accused of having dozens of bogus bank accounts. Earlier on Monday, the two attended the court hearing amid tight security where their bail extensions were denied.
Zardari, who appeared calm when officers came to his home shortly afterward to take him, speeding away in a convoy of vehicles, "did not resist arrest," said former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, a senior leader of Zardari's party.
TV footage showed Zardari hugging his tearful daughter Aseefa Bhutto Zardari before officers took him to the Islamabad office of the anti-graft body which will arraign him before a judge on Tuesday.
Supporters of Zardari, whose Pakistan People's Party has urged calm, blocked key roads and clashed with police in various parts of the country, disrupting normal traffic.
Zardari has previously been jailed for eight years after being found guilty of corruption.
His party at the time also said the charges against him were politically motivated.
In recent weeks, the party had accused Prime Minister Imran Khan's government of intentionally targeting political opponents.
"This is political victimization," said Shazia Marri, a lawmaker from Zardari's party.
The anti-graft body has arrested several politicians and businessmen on corruption charges since Khan took office last year after winning a narrow majority in parliamentary elections.
Khan's predecessor, Nawaz Sharif who was removed from office by the Supreme Court over corruption allegations, is currently in prison in the eastern city of Lahore after being sentenced to seven years in a corruption case.
Sharif and Zardari are longtime political rivals but their parties recently joined together, vowing to launch a protest campaign against Khan's government over increasing inflation and a spike in prices of essential food items.
Zardari became president in 2008 after Pakistan's former military dictator Pervez Musharraf was forced to resign. Zardari's wife Benazir Bhutto served twice as a prime minister before being killed by the Taliban in 2007.
The Bhutto family has been dogged by tragedy. The party's founder, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was ousted in a military coup and hanged by dictator Gen. Ziaul Haq. Both his sons were killed by unknown assailants. Benazir Bhutto's only surviving sibling, her sister Sanam, lives in Britain and has stayed out of politics.
Zardari served as Pakistan's president for five years, until 2013.