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US soldier arrested in Russia on theft charges

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Washington, May 7 (IANS/DPA) A US soldier has been arrested in Russia on charges of theft, the media reported.

The soldier had been stationed in South Korea and had travelled to Russia on his own initiative, the US media reported, including broadcasters NBC News, CNN and ABC News, citing US government representatives.

There was initially no direct confirmation from the White House.

When asked about the case, US National Security Council Communications Director John Kirby said: “We are aware of this case.”

He gave no further details and referred further questions to the US Department of Defence.

US Army Spokesperson Cynthia Smith was quoted by broadcasters, including NBC News, which first reported the arrest, that the soldier was apprehended in Vladivostok, near Russia’s borders with China and North Korea, “on charges of criminal misconduct.”

“The Russian Federation notified the US Department of State of the criminal detention in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations,” Smith was quoted as saying in a statement.

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“The Army notified his family, and the US Department of State is providing appropriate consular support to the soldier in Russia. Given the sensitivity of this matter, we are unable to provide additional details at this time.”

–IANS/DPA

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Jurors hear final arguments before deciding Trump's fate in porn star hush money case

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New York, May 28 (IANS) Hearing final arguments from lawyers for the defence and the prosecution on Tuesday, jurors prepared on Tuesday to decide the fate of former President Donald Trump in the historic criminal case charging him with faking business ledgers during an attempt to buy a porn star’s silence.

Trump is the first former President to face a criminal trial and his conviction or acquittal could impact the closely fought presidential election pitching him against President Joe Biden.

This is the only one of four criminal cases pending against him that will be decided before the November election where early opinion polls show them virtually tied with Trump having a 1.1 per cent lead, according to the aggregation of polls by RealClear Politics.

Trump’s lawyers took aim at the credibility of his former attorney and fixer Michael Cohen who paid off the porn star Stormy Daniels to keep her from going public with allegations that she had a sexual encounter with him. The case hinges on a payment of $130,000 to Daniels that was recorded in Trump’s business ledgers as legal fees to Cohen.

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The prosecutors, who were to follow Trump’s lawyers, allege that it is a criminal falsification of business records as the money was a payoff to avoid a scandal during the 2016 election campaign and the money was not lawyer’s fees, and, therefore, the payoff was also an election interference.

Trump’s lawyer Todd Blanche in his closing arguments on Tuesday countered that the business records were accurate as the payments were made directly to Cohen and the former President was not aware of what Cohen did with the checks. He said that the prosecution’s star witness Cohen, who admitted on the witness stand to stealing $30,000 from Trump and made contradictory statements, was not a credible witness.

Blanche said that the sexual encounter claimed by Daniels 18 years ago and denied by Trump was not an issue in the case.

The panel of 12 jurors made up of ordinary citizens under the New York State legal system are expected to begin deliberating the case in private on Wednesday.

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Each juror has a veto because a unanimous verdict is required to convict or acquit him and if they cannot agree on a united verdict, Judge Juan Merchan will have to declare a mistrial, which will not amount to an acquittal, and allow the prosecution to retry him.

The jury could also convict him unanimously on some parts of the charges. If convicted, Trump faces a maximum sentence of four years in prison.

That would create the strange spectacle of Secret Service agents accompanying him to prison to provide protection mandated for him as a former President by US law.

He would certainly appeal a conviction, keeping him out of prison during the presidential campaign and the Republican Party Convention in July that will officially make him the party candidate.

Merchan, however, has threatened Trump with being sent to prison for contempt of court if he continued to criticise persons connected to the case, which Trump has defiantly continued.

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Before entering the court, Trump told reporters: “This is all election hunting, election interfering, going after Joe Biden’s opponent because he can’t do it himself.”

The prosecutor waited seven years to bring the case in the middle of the campaign, he said.

Manhattan Public Prosecutor Melvin Bragg, who brought the case, is a Democrat elected to the post in a partisan election. While the lawyers made their final arguments, outside a raucous scene played out with his supporters and opponents holding demonstrations with colourful banners and posters. President Joe Biden’s campaign added to the drama, bringing Actor Robert DeNiro outside the courthouse to denounce Trump accusing him of wanting to “destroy not only this city and country, but the whole world” and reciting an obscenity-laced litany of the former President’s failings.

(Arul Louis can be contacted at arul.l@ians.in and followed at @arulouis)

–IANS

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Former spy chief chosen to lead right-wing Dutch government

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Amsterdam, May 28 (IANS/DPA) Dick Schoof, the former head of the Dutch intelligence service, is set to become the new Prime Minister of the Netherlands, the incoming right-wing government announced on Tuesday.

Schoof, 67, is the top civil servant at the Justice Ministry and has no current party affiliation.

He is regarded as an expert on security and migration — two burning issues for the four coalition partners.

Schoof was head of the intelligence and security service AIVD, coordinator in the fight against terrorism, and also director of Immigration Services.

The Netherlands has been in political limbo since November’s general election, which sent shockwaves across Europe.

Geert Wilders’ nationalist and right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV) scored a dramatic victory, but not enough to govern outright.

It took months for the “anti-Islam, anti-immigration and anti-EU” firebrand to persuade other parties to join him in a coalition.

Wilders has promised “the strictest asylum policy ever” and drastic curbs on immigration.

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His programme also includes relaxing environmental regulations for farmers and cancelling subsidies for sustainable energy.

In a concession to make the coalition possible, Wilders said he would not seek to be Prime Minister and renounced some of his most controversial demands, such as the ban on mosques.

Wilders finally announced two weeks ago that his PVV had agreed a four-way coalition with the liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the conservative New Social Contract (NSC) party and the populist Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB).

Wilders said Schoof, who was once a member of the centre-left Labour Party, “stands above the parties and has our trust”.

It is expected to take several weeks before a Cabinet line-up will be finalised and King Willem-Alexander swears them into office.

Rutte, who has been Prime Minister since 2010, is on track to become NATO’s next Secretary General toward the end of the year.

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–IANS/DPA

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Taiwan's opposition-led Parliament amends law to expand power

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Taipei, May 28 (IANS/DPA) Taiwan’s Parliament, dominated by the China-friendly opposition, on Tuesday amended a controversial law to expand the lawmakers’ investigative powers, which opponents have slammed as an erosion of democracy.

Outside the Parliament building, more than 30,000 protesters showed their outrage by giving the move a thumbs-down.

“This is a law that is most difficult to operate and enforce because it had never been fully discussed,” Puma Shen, a lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), said at the legislative session after the passage of the amendment, adding that the legislative procedure lacks transparency.

Protesters said the amendment’s passage would hinder the normal functioning of the government under new President Lai Ching-te of the independence-leaning DPP, who took office last week, and create chilling effects on Taiwan’s democracy.

In Taiwan, the directly-elected President appoints the premier to head the Executive Yuan, which formulates policy.

The Legislative Yuan then reviews policies and enacts laws.

The DPP lost its majority in the Legislative Yuan in January’s elections.

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The opposition lawmakers have moved to increase their powers over the work of the president and the executive. Now the president should deliver the state-of-the-nation report during the legislature’s annual assembly and he must appear himself in person, according to state-run Central News Agency.

The new rules also stipulate that counter-questions are not allowed when being questioned by lawmakers, and the person being questioned may not refuse to reply or else they will be considered in contempt.

Violators can be fined up to NT$200,000 ($6,215).

In addition, lawmakers have expanded the number of people they can call in to question to include government agencies, military units, legal representatives, groups or other relevant people.

Those who refuse to appear can be fined up to NT$100,000 by resolution of the legislature.

Tuesday’s demonstration was the fourth since mid-May.

The protesters have expressed concerns about what they see as a dysfunctional legislature and the violation of procedures by China-friendly opposition parties, including the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP).

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KMT chairman Eric Chu said on Facebook on Tuesday that this reform is not only in line with public opinion after the 2024 presidential election, but is also a milestone in Taiwan’s third wave of democratic reforms.

Chu called on President Lai to abide by the constitutional system, respect the Legislative Yuan, and comply with the expectations of the majority.

KMT legislative caucus whip Fu Kun-chi said on Tuesday that, with the amendment, opposition lawmakers will soon launch investigations into certain corruption cases as soon as possible.

“We will bring sunlight into Taiwan,” Fu told reporters.

But DPP legislator Kuo Kuo-wen said, “The Parliament will become a platform for secret leakage because Beijing can gain key information through China-friendly lawmakers.”

“We, as people from the civil society, will urge the Executive Yuan to ask the legislature to reconsider the amendment,” Taiwan Economic Democracy Union convener Lai Chung-chiang told the crowd outside Parliament, saying that the government is entitled to do so in accordance with the constitution.

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“Why are the adults in power unable to practise the rules and spirit of democracy?” Chiu She-ching, a high-school student said on the stage to the crowd.

“I cannot tolerate irresponsible lawmakers skipping the procedure to review the bill clause by clause. I’m so worried about the gradual erosion of democracy and freedom,” a woman surnamed Lai, 39, with her two-year-old girl sleeping in a baby cart, told dpa at the protest.

On stage, Wu Rwei-ren, a researcher at the prestigious Academia Sinica’s Institute of Taiwan History, told protesters that foreign observers had pointed out that Taiwan’s opposition-controlled Parliament was seeking to rebalance power.

“The third reading passed today in Taiwan will ultimately benefit the Beijing regime,” Wu said, citing a new article in the current affairs magazine — The Diplomat.

–IANS/DPA

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Praying defeat for PM Modi, ex-Pak minister sends 'good wishes' to Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal and Mamata Banerjee

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Islamabad, May 28 (IANS) Former Pakistan minister Fawad Chaudhry on Tuesday wished “good luck” to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, hoping that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his “extreme ideology” is defeated in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections.

“In Pakistan, everyone wants to see Narendra Modi lose the elections… It is important that he faces defeat,” Chaudhry, who was a Federal Minister in the erstwhile Pakistan government led by Imran Khan, told IANS.

“An Indian voter’s benefit lies in having good relations with Pakistan and that India moves ahead as a progressive nation. This is why Narendra Modi and his extremist ideology need to be defeated. Whoever defeats him — be it Rahul ji, Kejriwal ji, or Mamata Banerjee — our good wishes should be with them,” he added.

Chaudhry was responding to the comments made by PM Modi during an exclusive interview with IANS on Monday where he mentioned that consistent messages of support from Pakistan for some Indian political leaders merit an investigation.

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Expressing shock and surprise over Pakistani voices of endorsement and praise for a select few Indian counterparts in the middle of the Lok Sabha elections, PM Modi asserted that Indian voters are mature enough to see through their gimmicks.

“I don’t understand why some select group of people, apparently those who harbour animosity against us, get endorsements from Pakistan, why voices of support emanate from there for certain individuals,” he said in the exclusive chat with IANS.

The PM added: “This is a grave matter and calls for an investigation. I think I shouldn’t comment on such issues, given the position I hold, but I do understand the concern.”

Chaudhry, who’s no stranger to controversies, has been expressing his point of view on the ongoing Indian elections.

On May 1, the former minister wrote on X, “Rahul on fire” while tagging his video, where the latter was seen criticising the BJP, targeting the Prime Minister in particular.

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The Pakistani politician also reacted after Delhi CM Kejriwal was granted bail, even though it drew sharp condemnation from the AAP chief himself.

However, political leaders commenting on Indian elections is not a common sight in Pakistan.

In fact, many Pakistani politicians have refrained from reacting to the developments taking place during the ongoing elections in the neighbouring country.

Fawad Chaudhry has been by far the most vocal of the political lot so far.

Many believe Chaudhry’s frequent statements are a result of him not being associated with any political party in the country right now, or holding any position in the government, thus giving him the leverage to express himself in his individual capacity.

–IANS

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Ukraine tops list of EU ministers' five defence priorities

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Brussels, May 28 (IANS/DPA) European Union defence ministers on Tuesday agreed five broad priorities for Europe’s defence, including support for Ukraine.

The “EU’s unwavering support to Ukraine” is the first priority mentioned in the member states’ announcement, which was agreed at a meeting of defence ministers in Brussels.

“The EU will use all tools at its disposal,” a press statement said.

Among these tools is an off-budget fund called the European Peace Facility, under which the EU has pledged €5 billion ($5.4 billion) worth of military aid to Ukraine.

However, payments are being held up by Hungary.

Each EU member state has a veto over the legislation required to begin payments.

“This delay can be measured in terms of human lives,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Monday, after a meeting of EU foreign ministers.

“We have agreed that the Hungarian contribution to the European Peace facility will not be used to supply military support to Ukraine.”

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The Dutch government announced on Tuesday that it will lead an initiative among some European countries to supply a Patriot air defence missile system to Ukraine.

“Ukraine, of course, is still under attack. Airstrikes continue,” said Dutch Defence Minister Kajsa Ollongren as she arrived at the defence ministers’ meeting.

“Patriot systems are scarce in Europe and NATO, but we are now taking a step forward, so we will supply components of Patriot systems,” she added.

A press statement from the Dutch Ministry of Defence said “the Netherlands has identified which countries could offer additional Patriot parts and munitions” in order to deliver a complete system to Ukraine.

It does not mention which countries are involved.

Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary-General of the NATO military alliance, said air defence is the “most urgent need”.

He said EU countries are “stepping up the delivery of ammunition, air defence systems, and in particular, the most advanced ones, the Patriot systems”.

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Stoltenberg took part in the defence ministers’ meeting on Tuesday.

Next on the defence ministers’ priority list is strengthening the EU’s industrial capacity to produce armaments and defensive technologies.

The declaration “stresses the vital need to improve access to public and private finance” for the European defence industry.

In March, the European Commission proposed a €1.5 billion plan to strengthen Europe’s armaments industry, in order that it might be better equipped to defend itself and to arm Ukraine.

Third on the list is allowing the EU itself to do more in the domain of security and defence policy, which is mostly a national matter.

The EU points to the recently-launched EU naval mission ASPIDES, which aims to protect commercial shipping from attacks by Houthi militants operating in the Red Sea.

Fourth is bolstering the EU against hybrid warfare, such as foreign disinformation and cyber warfare.

Fifth, defence ministers want to see the EU “strengthen, deepen and expand” defence partnerships with organisations such as the UN and NATO.

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Ministers also agreed to renew existing sanctions against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, extending the expiry date by another year to June 1, 2025. The sanctions target 316 people and 86 organisations.

–IANS/DPA

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