Chinese election move sparks HK protests


Thousands protested in Hong Kong on Sunday against a Chinese plan for electoral reform that would prevent critics of Beijing from running for chief executive in the former British colony.
China revealed a framework for universal suffrage – one person, one vote – for the 2017 election of chief executive, the top political job in the Chinese territory, but set tough conditions that would ensure Beijing could vet candidates.

Leaders of the movement, pictured addressing a crowd, have said up to 10,000 people will occupy the city centre

“Hong Kong people will have one person, one vote, but Beijing will select all the candidates – puppets. What is the difference between a rotten apple, a rotten orange and a rotten banana,” said Martin Lee, founder of the Democratic party. “We want genuine universal suffrage and not democracy with Chinese characteristics.”

Pro-democracy protesters switch on their mobile phones during a campaign to kick off the Occupy Central civil disobedience event in Hong Kong

Occupy Central, a pro-democracy group backed by media tycoon Jimmy Lai, said it would proceed with a civil disobedience campaign that would involve blocking a key business district.

Some Chinese commentators have said China might deploy soldiers on the Hong Kong streets if police are unable to control the protests.

“Fight for democracy; never give up . . . Civil disobedience; never bow our heads,” Chan Kin-man, one of the founders of Occupy Central, chanted to the protesters.

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After months of heated debate and rallies over Hong Kong’s political future, China on Sunday said potential candidates for chief executive must receive majority backing from a nomination committee that would consist of 1,200 mostly pro-Beijing members. It would also allow no more than two or three candidates on the ballot.

“This is a very dark day for Hong Kong,” said Anson Chan, the former head of the Hong Kong civil service. “The rest of the world should condemn this decision for what it is . . . it is a colossal big step backwards.”

Pro-democracy activists rally outside the Central Government Offices in Hong Kong

The US state department said Washington believed “the legitimacy of the chief executive will be greatly enhanced if the promise of universal suffrage is fulfilled and if the election provides the people of Hong Kong a genuine choice of candidates representative of the voters’ will”. London said it was studying the ruling.

The ruling will trigger an intense debate in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (Legco), where a two-thirds majority is needed to approve the plan. CY Leung, the pro-Beijing chief executive, will face an uphill battle persuading Democrats to back the proposal.

Under the existing system, a candidate for chief executive needs support from one-eighth of the committee – which has twice allowed Democrats to run. By requiring a majority backing,

Police officers stand guard in the city's financial district after protestors threaten to occupy the area

China has ensured that no Democrat can get on the ballot. Mrs Chan said there was “no chance” any Democrat would support the framework.

Li Fei, deputy secretary-general of China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee, said it would be a “big step backwards” if Legco did not back the plan. If it does not pass, the 2017 election will be run under the current system where the chief executive is elected by a 1,200-strong, mostly pro-Beijing, committee.

Protesters attend a protest rally in Hong Kong Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014. China's legislature's standing committee announced Sunday that all candidates must receive more than half of votes from a special nominating body to go before voters (Vincent Yu/AP)

The debate over democracy has polarised Hong Kong. While people have more political rights than they had under British rule, critics of China are worried that the Communist party is weakening the territory’s freedoms.

Under the deal agreed by Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping, Hong Kong is governed under a “one country, two systems” principle that guarantees autonomy – except over foreign and defence policy – for 50 years after the 1997 handover.

But pro-democracy activists and many locals are increasingly concerned about the growing influence of China on Hong Kong.

Protesters are taken away by police officers in Hong Kong (image from 2 July)

In June, China published a “white paper” on Hong Kong which sparked concern by suggesting that Hong Kong judges needed to be “patriotic”, raisingquestions about judicial independence.

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Putin call for ‘statehood’ talks on southeast Ukraine raises fears

Putin

Vladimir Putin has called for talks on the “statehood” of southeast Ukraine, in a provocative comment that will heighten fears Moscow is seeking the partition of the country.

The comments by the Russian president are the latest escalation in rhetoric from the Kremlin and come as Europe prepares to impose tougher sanctions against Moscow. They follow an intensification of fighting in eastern Ukraine that Kiev and western governments say is being fuelled by an inflow of Russian soldiers and equipment.

“We must immediately begin substantive, meaningful negotiations, not on technical questions but on questions of the political structure of society and of the statehood of southeast Ukraine in order to guarantee the legal interests of people who live there,” Mr Putin said in a television interview.

Ukrainian troops evacuated from the rebel-held town of Starobesheve

The use of the word “statehood”, while imprecise, is likely to antagonise Kiev. Dmitry Peskov, the president’s spokesman, sought to play down the remarks. He said Mr Putin had been calling for inclusive talks with the separatists to start as soon as possible, but that it was “absolutely wrong” to interpret his words as calling for independence for eastern Ukraine.

However, the escalation in the Ukraine conflict is likely to draw a western response this week. General Philip Breedlove, Nato’s supreme allied commander in Europe, said the alliance would “take head on” the engagement of Russian troops in Ukraine at a summit in Wales starting on Thursday. European leaders agreed on Saturday to prepare new sanctions against Moscow within a week.

In his TV interview, Mr Putin indirectly addressed allegations that Russian troops were fighting in Ukraine. “It must be taken into account that Russia cannot remain indifferent to the fact that people are being shot almost point-blank,” he said, before clarifying that he was referring to the Russian people, not the government.

Ukrainian loyalists hold their flag as they rally at the last checkpoint on the eastern side of Mariupol (picture from 30 August)

Russia, which annexed Crimea following a disputed referendum in March, has been calling for the federalisation of Ukraine since the pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovich was ousted in February. However, Moscow has stopped short of calling for the independence or annexation of eastern Ukraine.

Mr Peskov said Mr Putin’s words were a call for “negotiations within Ukraine, addressing the internal, Ukrainian structures which would take into account the interests of the eastern regions of the country”.

Late last week, Mr Putin made an address to “the militia of Novorossiya” – a politically loaded term that rebels and Russian nationalists use for areas of south and eastern Ukraine for which they seek independence. Mr Putin has only used the term publicly once before.

The EU will this week begin drawing up a comprehensive blacklist of people and companies involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

However, there is still disagreement over the extent to which sanctions should be strengthened. Although Britain, France and Germany want harder measures against the Russian financial and energy sectors by the end of the week, many eastern European countries fear that a trade war with Moscow could cripple their economies.

The EU summit came after Kiev and the west accused Russia of direct military incursions to help pro-Russian separatists launch a new front with Ukraine’s army. Separatists seized the town of Novoazovsk which borders Russia in the country’s far south-eastern corner. Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement in the conflict.

On a recent visit to Novoazovsk, the FT saw a handful of better-equipped soldiers, standing out from average rebel forces. They resembled the so-called “green men”, Russian soldiers without identifying insignias who appeared throughout Crimea earlier this year.

 

However, none admitted to be being from Russia. Nato’s Gen Breedlove said “it’s clear Russian troops are engaged in eastern Ukraine”.

The capture of Novoazovsk threatens to reverse gains made by Ukraine’s army in past weeks towards encircling separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk, their stronghold cities further north.

Nato allies at odds over response to Russian aggression

Paratroopers from the U.S. Army's 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team participate in training exercises with the Polish 6 Airborne Brigade soldiers at the Land Forces Training Centre in Oleszno near Drawsko Pomorskie, north west Poland, May 1, 2014. American ground troops who arrived in Poland last week took part in military exercises with Polish parachuters as a part of NATO cooperation. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel (POLAND - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS) - RTR3NFCA
Paratroopers from the US 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team participate in training exercises with the Polish 6th Airborne Brigade in north west Poland in May

In late March, Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, made a plea to Nato: put 10,000 troops in Poland, permanently, he asked.

But to the consternation of many in Poland and the Baltics, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, last week slapped down any notion of Nato boots in a long-term positioning on eastern European soil during a visit to Latvia.

In the wake of Russia’s land-grab in Ukraine, the debate over how Nato should respond has been an impassioned one that threatens to divide the alliance.

“What Ukraine has done is put in perspective Russia’s policy, which is threatening to overturn the basic principles of European security,” says Michael Clarke, director-general of the Royal United Services Institute in London. “There’s almost a view for some that we are walking into a new Cold War or a new 1930s.”

At its biennial summit this week, Nato will hope to bridge the member states’ divisions with the unveiling of its new “readiness action plan”, the result of weeks of detailed negotiation among alliance ambassadors in Brussels.

The plan is not yet set in stone and, hawkish critics warn, is at risk of degenerating into a feat of linguistic acrobatics with little substance.

The key sticking point has been whether Nato should discard – or bend – rules laid out in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty and subsequent documents, which proscribe “new” permanent deployments of troops, effectively ruling out bases in eastern Europe and the Baltics.

Though Russia itself declared a moratorium on the CFE Treaty in 2007, Nato members such as Germany believe the alliance should still abide by the spirit of the document.

In crafting its new policy, Nato has therefore walked a careful line on troop deployments.

“We are not going to use any reference, not even in colloquial communication, on permanent basing,” says one senior Nato official. “We will talk about ‘appropriate presence’.”

What such “appropriate presence” may amount to has been left deliberately open-ended, the official added. The crucial shift in language, for the alliance, is on how the readiness plan will focus on Nato’s “frontier” – a reference to the Baltics and eastern Europe.

The plan calls for it to be strengthened with improved swift deployment capabilities and increased military exercises and deployments in frontier states.

“The deal with the Russians that there wouldn’t be any forward Nato positions in these ‘no mans’ states’ cannot be sustained,” says Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the chair of Britain’s parliamentary intelligence and security committee. “Nato assets must be positioned in all Nato countries that require them,” he says.

Sven Mikser, Estonia’s defence minister, told the Financial Times that he wants to see “an Allied presence on our soil as a way of reassurance and deterrence.”

But, Mr Mikser added: “We don’t mean The Cold War-style of a very heavy, static presence. We are not talking of divisions.”

The alliance’s plan will feature a new high-readiness brigade, capable of being deployed in hours and significant propositioning of materiel in Poland, as well as a permanent command centre at Szczecin on the Baltic coast.

Some of this will dovetail with ongoing Nato work. The US has just begun to put in place its new “European Activity Set”, a battalion-sized arsenal first used in military exercises in June. Currently based in Grafenwoehr in Germany, it will be relatively easy to relocate the EAS to Poland, replicate it there, or augment it.

A more significant part of the plan will be the increased military exercises and deployments.

Nato allies have already ramped up their efforts in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. The US, for example, has deployed 600 paratroopers from its 173rd Airborne Brigade equally divided between basis at Swidwin in Poland, Paldiski in Estonia, Adazi in Latvia, and Rukla in Lithuania. Denmark, France and Britain have meanwhile sent fighter jets to Amari in Estonia and Malbork in Poland.

But even Nato’s biggest military exercises do not come close to matching the scale of those undertaken on its borders by Russia. Spring Storm, the largest ever Baltic war game in late May involved 6,000 troops. By comparison, Russia’s emergency war-games on the Ukrainian and Baltic state borders in February involved 150,000 troops.

“I don’t think we will go back to a full Cold War-type posture where we had millions of troops involved in exercises on both sides of the Fulda Gap,” says Admiral James Stavridis, who until last year was Nato’s supreme allied commander and is now dean of the Fletcher School at Tuft’s university. But Mr Stavridis predicted a sizeable increase from the slimmed-down exercises of the past decade.

“In two words,” he says, “the message we need to send is unity and capability.”

Nato exercises

Update: The Netherlands set to join Nato rapid reaction force in Ukraine

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte has described Russia’s latest moves in Ukraine as ‘extremely worrying’ as claims emerge the Netherlands is to join a 10,000 strong Nato mission to halt Putin’s expansionism.

Speaking ahead of a meeting of EU leaders in Brussels, Rutte said Russia is doing nothing to stabilise the situation in eastern Ukraine, where Russian troops are fighting alongside pro-Russian rebels.

Rutte also wants the European Commission to investigate the impact of European sanctions against Russia to date. He believes the economic consequences are considerable but that Russian president Vladimir Putin is ignoring them, news agency ANP reported.

Bitcoin promoter to plead guilty to unlicensed money transmission

Bitcoin Foundation Vice Chairman Charlie Shrem exits the Manhattan Federal Courthouse in New York January 27, 2014.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Bitcoin entrepreneur Charlie Shrem has reached a plea deal to resolve U.S. charges that he engaged in a scheme to sell over $1 million of the digital currency to users of illicit online marketplace Silk Road, his lawyer said Friday.

Shrem, the former vice chairman of the Bitcoin Foundation, will plead guilty next Thursday in New York federal court to unlicensed money transmission, Marc Agnifilo, his lawyer told Reuters in an email.

Prosecutors had previously charged Shrem with operating an unlicensed money transmitting business, money laundering conspiracy and failing to file suspicious activity reports with government banking authorities.

Federal authorities shut down Silk Road last year, though a new Internet marketplace under the same name was launched in November. Prosecutors contend Silk Road enabled users to buy and sell illegal drugs and other illicit goods and services.

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - APRIL 26: A pile of Bitcoin slugs sit in a box ready to be minted by Software engineer Mike Caldwell in his shop on April 26, 2013 in Sandy, Utah. Bitcoin is an experimental digital currency used over the Internet that is gaining in popularity worldwide. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

Soon after his arrest in January, Shrem stepped down from his role at the Bitcoin Foundation, a well-known trade group. He was previously CEO of BitInstant, a bitcoin exchange company.

A notice of a plea hearing in the case of Shrem and his co-defendant, Robert Faiella, was included in a calendar distributed by court officials earlier Friday.

It was not immediately clear if Faiella, a Florida man who faced similar charges as Shrem, will plead guilty or move ahead with trial Sept. 22. He has previously pleaded not guilty.

But Faiella, 54, is expected to fly to New York for the hearing, according to a court order filed Friday.

A lawyer for Faiella did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara declined comment.

Prosecutors are pursuing a separate case against Ross William Ulbricht, the man accused of creating and operating Silk Road under the name “Dread Pirate Roberts.” He is set to face trial Nov. 3.

The case is U.S. v. Faiella, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 14-cr-00243.

Turkish army chief says has not seen road map for Kurdish peace process

Turkish army chief Necdet Özel and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during Victory Day ceremonies. AA Photo
Turkish army chief Necdet Özel and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during Victory Day ceremonies. AA Photo

Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel said he does not know the content of the road map of the peace process led by the government to end the 30-year-long Kurdish issue.

“The government has a policy and this policy is ongoing. We do not know the road map of the peace process. Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay has said their work would be sent to public institutions, nothing has been sent [to us] yet,”

Gen. Özel told reporters during a reception on Victory Day on Aug. 30 at the Çankaya Presidential Palace in Ankara, hosted by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his wife.

Özel said he can comment on the road map after he sees it.

Kurdish Pishmarga Forces Recapture Oil-Rich Town in Iraq's Mosul

 

Özel also said “what’s necessary will be done if the red lines are exceeded.” Responding a question pertaining to whether the “red lines” have changed in past decade over the issue,

Özel said there are some differences over the definition of “red lines” on the Kurdish issue today compared to 10 years ago. Recalling that the government seeks to end the Kurdish problem with the ongoing peace process,

Özel said “They [the government] say mothers should not cry any more. This is what we want too.” Özel also underlined that the unity of the country is significant for them and that is the red line.

In a separate subject, Gen. Özel said they have not received any official application over the introduction of paid military service yet. Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz previously said they have been working on reintroducing paid military service.

Özel also responded the question over the release of several military officers, including high-level soldiers, from the prison after the Constitutional Court’s decision over the Balyoz (Sledgehammer) coup plot case trials.

“The Constitutional Court made its decision, our friends are free. What’s important for me is they are free now. I am relieved right now, but the cases have not concluded yet. I will be very happy if they are acquitted. This is what I wish now. It’s important to close this case,” he said upon questions about the release of Balyoz case suspects.

Gen. Özel also said they have demanded information and files from the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) and the Security General Directorate over the claims about the “parallel structure” within the army.

The term “parallel structure” is widely used by the Turkish government to define the members of the Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen who allegedly infiltrated the state institutions and collected information for their own agenda. Özel said they cannot take any action with notices and need concrete files and evidences.

Jewish Lev Tahor Sect ‘Forced From’ Guatemalan Village

Children of the Lev Tahor in San Juan la Laguna. (Reuters)

Group claim they were threatened by locals who ordered them out of village

An Orthodox Jewish community has been forced from a village in a remote Guatemalan countryside, after a dispute with members of the local indigenous Mayan people became increasingly venomous.

Mayan elders asked the Lev Tahor community to leave the village of San Juan La Laguna, which is about 150km west of capital Guatemala City.

Lev Tahor members prepare to leave the village of San Juan La Laguna.

They claimed the Jews had shunned the other villagers, and attempted to impose their customs and religion. On Friday the Lev Tahor loaded their luggage and bags onto buses bound for the capital.

“We are a people of peace and in order to avoid an incident we’ve already begun to leave,” Lev Tahor member Misael Santos told the AFP news agency.

“We have a right to be there, but they threatened us with lynching if we don’t leave,” he added.

The Lev Tahor members said that they had been subjected to verbal abuse, and threats had been made to cut off their water and electricity supplies since they arrived from Canada in March.

A man from the Lev Tahor loads bags onto a bus as the community depart San Juan La Laguna. (Reuters)
A man from the Lev Tahor sect loads bags onto a bus, as the community depart San Juan La Laguna.

Their customs clashed with those of the locals, who claimed that the Lev Tahor were trying to undermine their Catholic faith.

“We felt intimidated by them in the streets. We thought they wanted to change our religion and customs,” village elder Miguel Vasquez Cholotio told Reuters.

Founded in the 1980s by Israeli Shlomo Helbrans, the group practices a fundamentalist form of Judaism. Their name means “Pure Heart” in Hebrew.

AFP

In Canada, critics and relatives of group members accused Lev Tahor of keeping children in unsanitary conditions, underage marriage and physical abuse.

The group will not settle in Israel, as they regard the Jews as a people in exile.

EU to expand Russia sanctions in a week

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, right, talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during an European People's Party summit ahead of the EU summit in Brussels, Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014. EU leaders, in a one day summit, are set to decide who will get the prestigious job as the 28-nation bloc's foreign policy chief for the next five years. They will also discuss the current situation in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)

The EU gave itself one more week to decide how to expand economic sanctions against Moscow on Sunday, although Ukraine’s president warned that time was running out to prevent a full-scale war.

Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, attended an EU summit in Brussels to urge the 28-member bloc – Russia’s most significant trade partner – to use its economic leverage to prevent an escalation of the conflict.

“I think that we are very close to the point of no-return. The point of no return is full-scale war, which has already happened in the territory controlled by separatists and regular Russian troops,” Mr Poroshenko said.

Bulgaria: EU Leaders Give Russia 7 Days to Reverse Course in Ukraine or Face New Sanctions

Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, insisted the EU would select more targets for sanctions within a week but rejected suggestions that the West could arm Ukraine.

“We shouldn’t even create the impression that with weapons shipments and strengthening the Ukrainian army we could create a solution,” she said.

In their conclusions recommending sanctions, the 28 states said the European Commission, the EU’s legislative arm, should “include in its proposal a provision on the basis of which every person and institution dealing with the separatist groups in the Donbass will be listed.”

Despite increasing evidence of Russian troops fighting in eastern Ukraine, the EU remains divided on how severely to toughen sanctions.

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Several nations fear that harder measures will spark an open trade war with Russia, which has threatened to retaliate against core European manufacturing industries. Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Cyprus expressed concerns about a tightened embargo, which must be unanimously agreed, a diplomatic source told the Financial Times.

Still, the larger EU nations such as Britain and France are likely to secure a list of further targets by the end of the week. François Hollande, French president, said the sanctions “have to be set and fully implemented and durably so”.

Ms Merkel said that the forthcoming sanctions would target the same sectors as earlier measures, meaning banking, energy and defence.

Russia reacted to last month’s sanctions imposed by Brussels by banning food imports from the EU. Threatening a deeper trade conflict, Moscow has said that it could extend its embargo to aerospace, cars and shipbuilding.

Dalia Grybauskaite, Lithuania’s president, had argued before the summit that EU support should go further than the imposition of sanctions. “Russia is practically at war with Europe,” she said. “We need militarily to support and send military materials to Ukraine.

Mr Poroshenko declined to answer whether he would seek foreign arms, against the wishes of Ms Merkel and Mr Hollande, but said that military relations between Ukraine and the West were reaching a “new stage” before a Nato summit in Wales next week.

Vladimir Chizhov, the Russian ambassador to the EU, said accusations Russian troops had joined the fight were “highly regrettable” and said they were the work of “Kiev’s propaganda” intended to goad European leaders into another round of sanctions.

The most hardline approach to further sanctions would involve preventing Russia from selling sovereign bonds, limiting its access to syndicated bank loans and restricting its purchases of high-tech gas equipment.

But diplomats said it was more likely that those measures would be kept in reserve and that a greater range of Russian companies would be denied access to western financial instruments.

Earlier sanctions targeted sales of high-tech European equipment needed for Russian oil projects. The next round could expand this to include kit needed for gas projects, including liquefied natural gas.

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