Canberra, Mar 27 (AP/UNB) — Australia's prime minister on Tuesday accused an influential minor political party of trying to "sell Australia's gun laws to the highest bidders" by asking the U.S. gun lobby for donations.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison was responding to an Al Jazeera documentary that reported One Nation party officials Steve Dickson and James Ashby flew to the United States for meetings with pro-gun interests including the National Rifle Association and political donors Koch Industries in September last year seeking money to undermine Australian gun laws.
Dickson and Ashby later told reporters that they had not secured any U.S. money. They also said they had been quoted by Al Jazeera out of context and often after drinking.
The trip took place weeks before the Australian Parliament banned foreign political donations with laws that took effect Jan. 1.
Morrison said the revelations were reasons why Australians should not vote for One Nation at general elections due in May.
"We have reports that One Nation officials basically sought to sell Australia's gun laws to the highest bidders to a foreign buyer and I find that abhorrent," Morrison said.
Morrison said his government had made laws to "criminalize taking foreign political donations so foreign lobbyists cannot seek to influence our politics."
Opposition leader Bill Shorten, whom opinion polls suggest will be prime minister after the election, accused One Nation of a "betrayal of the Australian political system."
"The idea of One National political party operatives going to the United States, seeking millions of dollars, promising to water-down gun law protection in Australia — that was absolutely horrifying," Shorten said.
The Al Jazeera documentary used secret recordings made by a journalist posing as gun lobbyist Rodger Muller with a hidden camera.
One Nation, an anti-Muslim party that had four senators after 2016 election but has been left with two after defections, said in a statement that all party members "have always complied with the law."
One Nation also suggested the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera had breached new laws that prohibit covert foreign interference in Australian politics. The party said it had had complained to Australia's main domestic security agency and police "due to concerns of foreign interference into Australian politics in the lead up to the imminent federal election."
"Al Jazeera are a state owned propaganda arm of the Qatari government that supports Islamic extremist groups and are not a legitimate media organization," the statement said.
"One Nation was invited by Rodger Muller, who has now been outed as a foreign agent working for Al Jazeera to meet with the NRA, American business leaders and attend the Congressional Sportsmen's Dinner" in Washington, the statement said.
The NRA in a statement late Tuesday said Al Jazeera representatives, disguised as members of a group called "Gun Rights Australia," had set up meetings with NRA employees and brought Australian political party members to those meetings. "At no time did the NRA contribute funding to any Australian political party or Gun Rights Australia," NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said in the statement.
Ashby, who is party leader Pauline Hanson's chief of staff, is recorded saying that the party would "own" both the Australian Senate and House of Representatives with a $20 million donation from the U.S. gun lobby. This means the party would hold the balance of power in both chambers and influence a government's legislative agenda.
Ashby also warned that if such a donation became public, it would "rock the boat."
He told reporters on Tuesday that the U.S. trip had been a fact-finding mission to learn campaign tactics.
"These conversations with the NRA were to look at nothing more than their techniques. This was not about sourcing money from the NRA. This was about sourcing technology, sourcing an understanding of how they operate, but never was it about seeking $20 million dollars from the NRA," Ashby told reporters.
The news followed the mosque attacks in New Zealand on March 15 for which an Australian white supremacist has been charged with murder. New Zealand has responded by banning a range of semi-automatic weapons and foreshadowing a government-funded buyback of newly outlawed guns. The country's response is similar to how Australia strengthened its gun laws following the murders of 35 people by a lone gunman in 1996 in Tasmania.
One Nation state president Steve Dickson, who is a Senate candidate at the next election, traveled with Ashby and Muller to the United States to ask for political donations, Al Jazeera reported.
Dickon told NRA officials that the Australian gun control model "will poison us all, unless we stop it," Al Jazeera reported.
Dickson told reporters on Tuesday he supported Australia's gun laws. He said had not solicited donations in the United States, but conceded his party was not wealthy.
"I will tell you the absolute, humble truth. When I was asked: 'Do we need money to run election campaigns?' I said: 'Yes,'" Dickson told reporters.
A former One Nation senator who is now an independent lawmaker, Fraser Anning, has been widely criticized for blaming Muslim immigration for the New Zealand massacre.
Hanson, One Nation's leader who was criticized for wearing a burqa in the Senate, voted for the ban on foreign donations in November.
"Overseas money should not have an influence in our political scene .... so I believe foreign donations should be stopped," Hanson told the Senate.
Ashby and Dickson said Hanson did not speak to the media on Tuesday because she was unwell.
New Zealand, Mar 22 (AP/UNB) — In a day without precedent, people across New Zealand observed the Muslim call to prayer Friday as the nation reflected on the moment one week ago when 50 people were slaughtered at two mosques.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and thousands of others congregated in leafy Hagley Park opposite the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch to observe the call to prayer at 1:30 p.m.
"New Zealand mourns with you. We are one," Ardern said.
Thousands more listened on the radio or watched on live television. The prayer was followed by two minutes of silence.
On a light brown carpet, hundreds of Muslim men sat in socks or bare feet readying for the prayer. One man in the front row was in a Christchurch Hospital wheelchair.
The Al Noor mosque's imam, Gamal Fouda, thanked New Zealanders for their support.
"This terrorist sought to tear our nation apart with an evil ideology. ... But, instead, we have shown that New Zealand is unbreakable," the imam said.
"We are broken-hearted but we are not broken. We are alive. We are together. We are determined to not let anyone divide us," he added, as the crowd erupted with applause.
Fahim Imam, 33, returned to his hometown for the service. He left Christchurch three years ago and now lives in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city.
"It's just amazing to see how the country and the community have come together — blows my mind, actually," Imam said before the event.
When he got off the plane Friday morning, he saw someone holding a sign that said "jenaza," denoting Muslim funeral prayer. He said others were offering free rides to and from the prayer service.
"The moment I landed in Christchurch, I could feel the love here. I've never felt more proud to be a Muslim, or a Kiwi for that matter. It makes me really happy to be able to say that I'm a New Zealander," Imam said.
He called it surreal to see the mosque where he used to pray surrounded by flowers.
The observance comes the day after the government announced a ban on "military-style" semi-automatic firearms and high-capacity magazines like the weapons that were used in last Friday's attacks.
Forty-two people died at the Al Noor mosque and seven at the nearby Linwood mosque. One person shot at one of the mosques died later at a hospital.
An immediate sales ban went into effect Thursday to prevent stockpiling, and new laws would be rushed through Parliament that would impose a complete ban on the weapons, Ardern said.
"Every semi-automatic weapon used in the terrorist attack on Friday will be banned," Ardern said.
The gun legislation is supported not only by Ardern's liberal Labour Party but also the conservative opposition National Party, so it's expected to pass into law. New Zealand does not have a constitutional right to bear arms.
Among those planning to attend Friday's observance was Samier Dandan, the president of the Lebanese Muslim Association in Sydney and part of a 15-strong delegation of Muslim leaders that had flown to Christchurch.
"It was an ugly act of terrorism that occurred in a beautiful, peaceful city," Dandan said.
He said his pain couldn't compare with that of the families he'd been visiting who had lost loves ones. He was inspired by their resilience, he said.
"And I've got to give all my respect to the New Zealand prime minister, with her position and her actions, and it speaks loud," he said.
Ismat Fatimah, 46, said it was sad to look at the Al Noor mosque, which was still surrounded by construction barricades, armed police officers and a huge mound of flowers and messages.
"We're feeling stronger than before, and we are one," she said.
She said she prayed for the people who died.
"I'm just imagining what would be happening last Friday," she said. "People were running around so scared and helpless. It's just not right."
Erum Hafeez, 18 said she felt comforted by the overwhelming response from New Zealanders: "We are embraced by the community of New Zealand, we are not left behind and alone."
The Al Noor mosque's imam said workers have been toiling feverishly to repair the destruction, some of whom offered their services for free. Fouda expects the mosque to reopen by next week.
Canberra, Mar 17 (AP/UNB) — Australia's prime minister on Sunday suggested an anti-Muslim senator should be charged after he slapped a teen who cracked a raw egg over the legislator's head.
Sen. Fraser Anning has been widely condemned for blaming Muslim immigration for racist attacks on two New Zealand mosques that claimed at least 50 lives.
Will Connolly, the 17-year-old boy who egged Anning, has become an online hero for the incident, which was captured on video.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday took Connolly's side, telling reporters: "The full force of the law should be applied to Sen. Anning."
Police allege Connolly, who calls himself "Egg Boy" online, assaulted the senator with the egg.
Anning "retaliated and struck the teen twice" before Connolly was dragged to the ground by Anning supporters, a police statement said.
"The incident is being actively investigated by Victoria Police in its entirety," the statement said, including Anning's actions.
Anning came under blistering criticism over tweets on Friday, including one that said, "Does anyone still dispute the link between Muslim immigration and violence?"
"The real cause of the bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place," he said in a later statement.
Anning has now been assigned a federal police security detail, a precaution usually reserved for the prime minister.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for the first time on Sunday joined the public condemnation of Anning.
Asked by a journalist what she thought of Anning's comments, she replied simply: "They're a disgrace."
A GoFundMe page set up to raise 2,000 Australia dollars ($1,400) to pay for Connolly's "legal fees" and "more eggs" had exceeded AU$25,000 on Sunday.
The site says most of the money will go to Christchurch victims.
"Love the spunk of egg boy who puts his egg where we'd like it to be!" donor Val Lehmann-Monck posted.
"This kid is awesome. The senator will not get re-elected due to the publicity and those comments and his reaction," donor Nikhil Reddy wrote.
After the egging, Anning supporters pinned Connolly to the ground until journalists appealed for him to be allowed back on his feet, The Sun-Herald newspaper reported.
Far-right activist Neil Erikson, who was involved in tackling Connolly, shouted for reporters to be removed from the area.
"Get the journalists out of here ... If you don't like, get out," Erikson was quoted as saying.
Police say they arrested Connolly, took his details and then released him without charge.
Connolly urged his online followers not to follow his example.
"Don't egg politicians. You get tackled by 30 bogans at the same time," he said in a video, using Australian slang for a poor, ignorant white person.
"I learnt the hard way," he added.
Melbourne, Mar 14 (AP/UNB) — Formula One Race Director Charlie Whiting has died from a pulmonary embolism three days before the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. He was 66.
The federation for international auto racing issued a statement saying Whiting died on Thursday morning in Melbourne.
FIA President Jean Todt said he was shocked by the sudden death of the long-time F1 official and described Whiting "a great Race Director, a central and inimitable figure in Formula One who embodied the ethics and spirit of this fantastic sport."
A pulmonary embolism is a blockage in the lung, usually caused by a blood clot.
Whiting began his F1 career in 1977 working at the Hesketh team. He joined the FIA in 1988 and became a race director in 1997.
"Formula One has lost a faithful friend and a charismatic ambassador in Charlie," Todt said in a statement. "All my thoughts, those of the FIA and entire motor sport community go out to his family, friends, and all Formula One lovers."
The Red Bull Racing team said Formula One had "lost one of its most loyal and hard-working ambassadors."
"I am deeply saddened to hear the terrible news," Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. "Charlie has played a key role in this sport and has been the referee and voice of reason as Race Director for many years.
"He was a man with great integrity who performed a difficult role in a balanced way. At heart, he was a racer with his origins stretching back to his time at Hesketh and the early days of Brabham."
Melbourne, Mar 12 (AP/UNB) — The most senior Catholic to be convicted of child sex abuse will be sentenced to prison in Australia on Wednesday in a landmark case that has polarized observers. Some described the prosecution as proof the church is no longer above the law, while others suspect Cardinal George Pell has been made a scapegoat for the church's sins.
Pope Francis' former finance minister, who had been described as the third-highest ranking Catholic in the Vatican, has spent two weeks in a Melbourne remand jail cell since a sentencing hearing in the Victoria state County Court on Feb. 27 in which his lawyers conceded the 77-year-old must spend time behind bars.
Pell had been convicted in December of orally raping a 13-year-old choirboy and indecently dealing with the boy and the boy's 13-year-old friend in the late 1990s, months after Pell became archbishop of Melbourne and initiated a compensation scheme for victims of clergy sexual abuse. A court order had prohibited media from reporting on the verdict until two weeks ago, when prosecutors abandoned a second trial on charges that Pell had groped two boys in a public swimming pool in the 1970s.
Chief Judge Peter Kidd will sentence Pell on five convictions, each carrying a potential 10-year maximum sentence. Most of the sentences for each conviction are likely to be served concurrently.
Pell's sentence will also reflect court standards of two decades ago, when his crimes were committed. In those days, judges placed less weight on the damage done to children by sexual abuse.
In an unusual move for an Australian court that acknowledges intense international interest in the case, the judge will allow his sentencing remarks to be broadcast on live television.
After centuries of impunity, cardinals from Australia to Chile and points in between are facing justice in both the Vatican and government courts for their own sexual misdeeds or for having shielded abusers under their watch.
Last week, France's senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, was convicted of failing to report a known pedophile priest to police. He was given a six-month suspended sentence.
Francis last month defrocked the onetime leader of the American church after an internal investigation determined Cardinal Theodore McCarrick sexually molested children and adult men. It was the first time a cardinal had been defrocked over the child abuse scandal.
Pell has denied any wrongdoing and will appeal his convictions at the Victoria Court of Appeal on June 5. His lawyers canceled an application to keep him free on bail before then.
The appeal grounds include that the "verdicts are unreasonable and cannot be supported" by the evidence of more than 20 witnesses who testified, including clerics, choristers and altar servers.
"It was not open to the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt on the word of the complainant alone," the filings said.
That view has been expressed in some sections of the media.
"Pell was found guilty beyond reasonable doubt on the uncorroborated evidence of one witness, without forensic evidence, a pattern of behavior or a confession," veteran crime reporter John Silvester wrote in Melbourne's The Age newspaper.
"Pell has become a lightning rod on the worldwide storm of anger at a systemic cover-up of priestly abuses. But that doesn't make him a child molester," Silvester added.
An Australian academic who wrote an opinion piece describing Pell's "accusers" as "wicked" last week apologized for the article, which was published in a Catholic monthly newspaper that was later pulled by the church.
"Pell is a tough man and he will, by the grace of God, survive the wickedness of his accusers and the silence of many who should defend him but won't," Tasmania University think-tank director David Daintree wrote in the Tasmania-based Catholic Standard newspaper.
In his written apology issued by the Hobart Archdiocese, Daintree said, "It was never my intention to cast doubt on survivors."
Sky News Live, an Australian cable and satellite television station, protected advertisers' reputations by removing all ads from prominent conservative commentator Andrew Bolt's nightly program after he flagged he would be venting his own misgivings about the verdict.
"Pell could well be an innocent man who is being made to pay for the sins of his church and made to pay after an astonishing campaign of media vilification," Bolt said.
The judge, prosecutor and defense lawyer repeatedly told both Pell's juries that they must not make Pell a scapegoat for the church. The first trial ended in a deadlocked jury and the second jury delivered unanimous guilty verdicts.
Judge Kidd told the sentencing hearing last month, "The Catholic Church is not on trial ... I'm imposing sentence on Cardinal Pell for what he did."
Pell is guilty as charged in the eyes of many who have been quick to distance themselves from the cardinal since the convictions were made public. Melbourne's Richmond Football Club quickly dropped Pell as the Australian Rules Football team's honorary ambassador. Pell was contracted to the club as a budding professional footballer in 1959 before he joined the priesthood.
St. Patrick's College, the prestigious Catholic school where Pell was educated in his hometown of Ballarat, announced that a building named after him would be renamed and Pell would be removed from the school honor board.
"The jury's verdict demonstrates that Cardinal Pell's behaviors have not met the standards we expect of those we honor as role models for the young men we educate," headmaster John Crowley said.
But the Australian Catholic University said its Pell Center at its Ballarat campus would not be renamed until the appeal process was completed, angering academic staff.
The university's president, Greg Craven, and former Prime Minister John Howard are among 10 prominent Australians whose character references were submitted to Judge Kidd to take into consideration when deciding an appropriate sentence.
Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher told a congregation on the first Sunday after the convictions were made public that they should withhold judgment on Pell until the appeal.
"If we are too quick to judge, we can end up joining the demonizers or the apologists, those baying for blood or those in denial," Fisher said.
Fisher, a former lawyer, holds the church post in Australia's largest city that Pell held before he was elevated to the Vatican.
In the Vatican, Pell is facing a church investigation that could lead to his removal from the priesthood.
When Australian Archbishop Philip Wilson last year became the most senior Catholic cleric ever found guilty of covering up child sex abuse, he initially refused to resign pending an appeal.
But Wilson quit two months later after then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called on Pope Francis to fire him. Wilson's conviction was eventually quashed on appeal in December, but he has not been reinstated to his former role.
Current Prime Minister Scott Morrison is willing to hold off acting on Pell until his appeal is settled. A petition with more than 130,000 signatures has called for Pell to be stripped of an Australian honor awarded in 2005 for his service to the church, education and social justice.
"I was appalled and shocked," Morrison said of the convictions. "I think any Australian would be to read of those events, but it shows that no one is above the law in this country."