World News World News en N. Korea slams 'ignorant and stupid' Pence, renews summit threat
Trump is due to meet his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12 for high stakes talks aimed at ridding the reclusive state of its newly acquired nuclear weapons and improving ties after decades of animosity.

The summit announcement came after months of unusually cordial diplomacy between the historic foes brokered by South Korea.

But the newfound bonhomie and the meeting's potential success has been thrown into doubt in recent days with both Washington and Pyongyang raising the prospect of cancelling the talks and trading threats.

The latest broadside from North Korea came Thursday with vice-minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui lambasting a Monday media interview in which Pence warned Kim Jong Un that it would be a "great mistake" to try and play Trump.

Pence also said North Korea could end up like Libya, whose former leader Moamer Khadafi was killed by US-backed rebels years after giving up atomic weapons, "if Kim Jong Un doesn't make a deal".

"I cannot suppress my surprise at such ignorant and stupid remarks gushing out from the mouth of the US vice-president," Choe said in a statement released by the state-run KCNA news agency.

"We will neither beg the US for dialogue nor take the trouble to persuade them if they do not want to sit together with us," she said, adding she would recommend Kim cancel the talks if Washington continues to make such threats.

Similar comments comparing North Korea to Libya from Trump's hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton caused the first threat by Pyongyang last week to cancel the Singapore meeting.

"Whether the US will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decision and behaviour of the United States," she added.

Aides head to Singapore

Politically, Trump has invested heavily in the success of the planned summit, and so privately most US officials, as well as outside observers, believe it will go ahead.

Hand-picked aides – including deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin and deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel – are travelling to the Southeast Asian city-state designated to host the summit, officials said.

They are expected to meet their North Korean counterparts and iron out details of the meeting.

But Trump has also become increasingly lukewarm about meeting Kim, teasing his commitment to talks as keenly as any of his "The Apprentice" season finales.

"On Singapore, we'll see. It could very well happen," he said Wednesday, adding cryptically: "Whatever it is, we'll know next week."

Trump enthusiastically embraced the idea of talks earlier this year – the first-ever meeting between a US president and a leader of North Korea.

But as the date draws nearer, the yawning gulf in expectations between the two sides is coming into sharp relief.

Washington has made it clear it wants to see the "complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation" of the North.

But Pyongyang has vowed it will never give up its nuclear deterrence until it feels safe from what it terms US aggression.

Some analysts have suggested both sides still want to meet in Singapore but are playing hardball in the run-up to the summit to leverage a better negotiation position.

PR battle

Ostensibly the Trump-Kim talks will be about peace on the Korean peninsula and North Korea's nuclear and ballistic weapons.

But even before talk of test freezes, decommissioning or inspections, Washington and Pyongyang are engaged in a public relations battle.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – who has met personally with Kim – said whether the summit goes ahead is now up to North Korea.

"That decision will ultimately be up to Chairman Kim," he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. "He asked for the meeting, the president agreed to meet with him. I'm very hopeful that that meeting will take place."

His remarks reflect an effort to perhaps lay the groundwork for blame should the talks fail.

As part of its own charm offensive, North Korea invited some foreign journalists to witness the slated destruction of the isolated regime's nuclear test site.

The gesture, which experts agree would do little to curb North Korea's long-term nuclear capabilities, is meant to signal that the regime is serious about change.

Pyongyang said it planned to "completely" destroy the Punggye-ri facility in the country's northeast when it made the surprise announcement earlier this month.

The demolition is due to take place sometime between Thursday and Friday, depending on the weather. — AFP]]>
World Thu, 24 May 2018 02:55:32 +0000 theSundaily 550025 at
US-led strike hits regime positions in east Syria: State media
"Some of our military positions between Albu Kamal and Hmeimeh were hit this morning in an aggression by American coalition warplanes," said a military source quoted on state news agency SANA.

The source told SANA the attack only caused "material damage."

Albu Kamal and Hmeimeh lie in Syria's eastern Deir Ezzor province, where Russian-backed Syrian troops and the US-led coalition have been waging separate offensives against the Islamic State group.

A "de-confliction" line in place since last year is meant to keep the two assaults from crashing into each other, and runs along the Euphrates River.

Regime troops are present west of the river while the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are on the east.

A military source from forces allied to Syria's government said the strikes had targeted two regime military positions near a frontline with IS.

"Daesh then launched an attack on the positions. The strikes and attack left a number of Syrian fighters dead and caused material damage," the source told AFP, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

"There are no Iranian or Lebanese fighters among the dead," the source said.

The coalition has carried out several deadly strikes against Syrian government forces and allied fighters in recent months.

In February, coalition bombing raids in Deir Ezzor province killed at least 100 regime and allied fighters, including Russian nationals, in retaliation for an attack on SDF positions.

And in September 2016, US-led strikes on regime military positions in the east left more than 60 Syrian troops dead. The coalition later said it had mistaken the fighters for IS jihadists.

There was no immediate comment on Thursday from either the US-led coalition or the SDF, which are fighting to clear IS from a final series of villages on the eastern bank of the Euphrates.

IS overran swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, but separate offensives across both countries have seen its grip on territory shrink dramatically.

On Monday, Syrian troops and allied forces ousted IS from the last districts it held in the capital Damascus.

After a fierce month-long battle, an evacuation deal saw the remaining diehard jihadists bussed out of the city towards small pockets of land still held by IS in Syria's Badiya.

The Badiya is the vast desert stretching from the country's centre to its eastern border with Iraq.

The day after the transfer, IS fighters in the Badiya launched an attack on a nearby government position, leaving more than two dozen Syrian troops and allied fighters dead. — AFP]]>
World Thu, 24 May 2018 02:55:33 +0000 theSundaily 550019 at
US demands two Venezuelan diplomats leave within 48 hours: State Dept
"This action is to reciprocate the Maduro regime's decision to declare the Charge d'Affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission of the US Embassy in Caracas personae non grata," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

The Charge d'Affaires of the Venezuelan embassy and the Deputy Consul General of the Venezuelan consulate in Houston had likewise been declared personae non grata and were directed to leave within two days, she said.

Venezuela's move to expel US diplomats earlier this week followed a US tightening of sanctions over Nicolas Maduro's controversial presidential re-election.

Caracas had charged it was the victim of a "political and financial lynching" – accusations Nauert branded "unjustified."

"Our Embassy officers have carried out their official duties responsibly and consistent with diplomatic practice," Nauert said.

"We reject any suggestion to the contrary."

Maduro announced the expulsions after being officially proclaimed the winner of Sunday's election in the South American nation mired in an acute economic crisis and facing growing international isolation.

The vote was boycotted by the main opposition parties and widely condemned by the international community, including the United States, which denounced it as a "sham." — AFP]]>
World Thu, 24 May 2018 02:55:33 +0000 theSundaily 550021 at
Cuba's new leader brings hope for gay rights
Now, the island's LGBT community is pinning its hopes on new leader Miguel Diaz-Canel to fight their corner in the battle for equal rights – with same-sex unions the ultimate goal.

The first Cuban president from outside the Castro family in over 40 years, Diaz-Canel was groomed within the Communist Party and was little known to the wider world before he assumed top office last month.

At home, however, the 58-year-old is known for having signalled support for the LGBT community when he was a provincial secretary for the party.

"He showed a sensitivity on the topic when he was leading the party" in the central Villa Clara province, Francisco Rodriguez, a journalist, Communist Party activist, and gay rights campaigner, told AFP.

Rodriguez – who goes by the nickname "Paquito" – said Diaz-Canel had been strongly supportive of a cultural centre in Villa Clara called El Mejunje, known as a haven for the local LGBT community.

Installed in the ruins of an old hotel, El Mejunje – which means "The Mixture" – was the only venue in Cuba to host drag performances back in the 1990s.

Cuba has a troubled history when it comes to gay rights: after Fidel Castro's revolutionaries came to power in 1959, gay people were stigmatized, and many were rounded up by police or forced into re-education camps.

Socially marginalized and barred from public jobs, many LGBT intellectuals and artists were forced to flee the country in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

By the early 2000s, however, the tide had started to turn, and a watershed came in 2010 when Fidel Castro – in a rare instance of self-criticism – admitted responsibility for the "injustices" perpetrated against homosexuals.

Raul and Mariela

After Fidel's brother Raul took over the presidency in 2008, Raul's daughter Mariela Castro became a powerful advocate for gay rights as the head of the government-funded National Center for Sex Education, Cenesex – fighting against political discrimination towards the LGBT community, and in favour of marriage equality.

The lawmaker credits her late mother, Raul Castro's wife Vilma Espin, for making the first efforts to change the status quo by raising awareness of the issue among the party's younger generation – which included a youthful Diaz-Canel.

Today, Mariela Castro maintains that her father has been quietly supportive of gay rights.

"What he did as the first secretary of the Communist Party and as president... was to cautiously lead the way towards a new consensus," she said.

She expects Diaz-Canel to pick up where her father left off.

In launching the 11th annual campaign against homophobia and transphobia – ushered in earlier this month with a colourful parade through the streets of Havana – Mariela Castro highlighted Diaz-Canel's track record of working with Cenesex, ever since his days as a party youth activist.

Same-sex marriage?

LGBT rights in Cuba have evolved by leaps and bounds in recent years, from the army opening up its ranks to gay soldiers, to the state covering the costs of gender reassignment surgery.

In 2012 a transgender woman became the first to win municipal office, as a city councillor in Caibarien, in Villa Clara province.

But while the Communist Party now officially bans employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, same-sex civil unions remain beyond reach, in spite of Catholicism being less prevalent in Cuba than other parts of Latin America.

Obtaining legal recognition for same-sex marriage is now the main goal of Cuba's gay rights movement today.

"It's not just about sex and nightlife – we have the right to have a family," Alex Duchel, a 37-year-old restaurant worker, told AFP at the march.

Rodriguez has high hopes that Diaz-Canel will take things further by being the first Cuban president to openly acknowledge and address the LGBT community, and the challenges it faces, in his speeches.

Diaz-Canel was not at Mariela Castro's side for the annual march against homophobia on May 14. However his musician children Jenny and Miguel were in attendance, wrapping up the event with their band.

For his part, LGBT rights activist Julio Cesar Gonzalez said he hopes "that in four or five years many of the rights we're claiming now will have been granted."

Legalizing same-sex unions would first require a change to the country's 1976 Constitution – an issue Mariela Castro said was "discussed quite extensively" at the plenary assembly of the party's central committee.

"So we're moving forward," she said. — AFP]]>
World Thu, 24 May 2018 02:55:33 +0000 theSundaily 550015 at
Macron backs Rwandan candidate for Francophonie group
After meeting in Paris with his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame, Macron said he supported a bid to appoint Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo as secretary general of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF).

"The Rwandan foreign minister has every competence to carry out this role," Macron said. "I will support her."

The Paris meeting comes after decades of tension between France and the small East African country over the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Rwanda has accused France of complicity in the mass killings through its support of ethnic Hutu forces who carried out most of the slaughter.

France has admitted it made mistakes but insists it never had a role in the massacre.

More than 800,000 lives were lost during the violence, most of them ethnic Tutsis and some of them moderate Hutus.

Kagame, who is also the current president of the African Union (AU), last visited the Elysee Palace in 2011, a year after then-president Nicolas Sarkozy admitted France had made "serious errors" in the genocide but gave no apology.

Wednesday's meeting is the third between Macron and Kagame in a year.

Macron also said he would attend an AU summit in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott on July 1 and 2.

He praised Kagame for sharing his belief in "strong multilateralism," while Kagame said, "We hope to continue working together... both on the bilateral level and for the African continent."

Resolving "the complexities of the past... will probably take time," Macron said, adding however that "what brings us together are the questions of peace and security in Africa."

Rwanda was part of German East Africa from 1894 to 1918.

After World War I, it was administered by Belgium, becoming a republic in 1961, and has a long association with the international francophone community.

But in 2009, it joined the English-speaking Commonwealth after Mozambique, the only other member of that organisation not to have historic ties to Britain.

The OIF comprises 84 states and observers. Its current secretary-general is Michaelle Jean, 60, a Haitian-born Canadian, whose term expires in mid-October.

Ottawa is backing her for a second term.

Jean "actively promotes our priorities at the heart of the Francophonie, such as equality between men and women and entrepreneurial activities of youth and women," said Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canada's minister responsible for the Francophonie. — AFP]]>
World Thu, 24 May 2018 00:07:05 +0000 theSundaily 550005 at
Nicaragua's way out of crisis is early elections: OAS
"Anyone who thinks there is a solution for Nicaragua other than an electoral one is seriously wrong," said Luis Almagro, head of the Washington-based Pan-American group.

Almagro said he was calling for a "free, fair and transparent electoral process" in the Central American nation led by leftist President Daniel Ortega.

Initially triggered by now-aborted reforms to the near-bankrupt social security system, Nicaragua's protest movement has broadened into a rejection by many Nicaraguans of Ortega along with his wife and vice president Rosario Murillo.

Demonstrators have voiced frustrations over corruption, the autocratic style of Ortega and Murillo, limited options to change the country's politics in elections, and the president's control over Congress, the courts, the military and the electoral authority.

Ortega is a former Sandinista guerrilla who first ruled between 1979 and 1990, before returning as president 11 years ago.

He kept power by maintaining leftist rhetoric while keeping ties with a powerful private industry and continuing to trade with the United States.

But that arrangement looks to be falling apart, with business groups distancing themselves from him over the violence exhibited by his police against protesters, and the military saying they will not repress the people.

The protests that erupted on April 18 were the worst his government has faced, badly shaking his tight grip on power over the country, one of the poorest in Latin America.

Ortega made a series of concessions after coming under sharp domestic and international criticism over the use of security forces to put down the protests – and curbs on independent media to report them.

Yet on Monday, thousands of demonstrators pushed for his immediate resignation. Ortega and Murillo were elected in November 2016 for a term that ends in January 2022.

Before protests broke out, Almagro and an OAS team had been trying to mediate in a process aimed at bringing about new elections, as well as electoral reforms.

Almagro was blunt in his critique of Managua's handling of OAS involvement and the deadly unrest.

"They lied trying to hide our condemnation of the killings of demonstrators; they lied about our efforts to send a human rights team there; they lied about our position on early elections in Nicaragua, and they lied about there being secret agreements with the Government," he stressed. — AFP]]>
World Thu, 24 May 2018 00:07:05 +0000 theSundaily 550008 at
Was Philip Roth misogynist? His death reopens debate
Roth's characterization of women in his novels and at least one volatile relationship shot back to the spotlight on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after his death from congestive heart failure in a Manhattan hospital.

"Farewell Philip Roth," tweeted one London reader, Ruth Robinson. "You were a gr8 writer and a massive misogynist. You were obsessed with sex but disliked, perhaps even despised women."

Charlie Leddy-Owen, a sociology lecturer at Britain's University of Portsmouth, took to Twitter to call 1995 novel "Sabbath's Theater" by Roth "probably the most enjoyable but equally disgusting novel I've ever read.

"Not sure how many women will have enjoyed reading about his sexist, narcissistic leading characters – but what a writer he was."

Accusations of misogyny began in the 1970s with the rise of feminism, fueled by a portrayal of domestic abuse in his 1974 novel "My Life as a Man."

While critics debate the extent to which Roth's work was autobiographical, in his 1990 novel "Deception" Roth imagines his main character defending himself on charges of misogyny in court.

Following their messy breakup, British actress Claire Bloom painted a grim picture of life with Roth in the 1996 memoir "Leaving a Doll's House."

In a 2006 article, Chicago Tribune critic Julia Keller called Roth "a great writer with a large and terrible flaw: his women have no souls."

His women "are mere mirrors to men. Echoes and shadows. Pale parallels," she wrote.

Two years later, the feminist critic Vivian Gornick, compared Roth negatively to that other late 20th century literary great, Saul Bellow.

"If in Bellow misogyny was like seeping bile, in Roth, it was lava pouring forth from a volcano," she wrote in Harper Magazine.

Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University who has taught Roth texts for 25 years, says the novels include passages that students today consider "really disturbing."

"The fiction is misogynist," he told AFP. "I was always surprised the MeToo movement did not catch up to him, even if only to focus on the content of his fiction."

Blake Bailey, friend and biographer, flatly denied that Roth was in favour of sexual harassment and sexual misbehaviour, pointing to the presence of several of his ex-girlfriends at his deathbed.

"He was one of the most decent men I have ever known," Bailey told AFP.

Nevertheless, the writer was among those who worried that the #MeToo movement and sexual harassment watershed in the United States, could "get out of hand."

"It was only the innocent he was worried about... not the people who deserved punishment," he added. — AFP]]>
World Thu, 24 May 2018 00:07:05 +0000 theSundaily 550003 at
Ukrainian journalist jailed in Belarus for eight years
"Pavlo Sharoiko has been sentenced to more than eight years in prison in Belarus," foreign ministry spokeswoman Maryana Betsa told AFP, without specifying what he was found guilty of or when the verdict was announced.

"We are monitoring his situation closely and ensuring that his rights are protected," added Betsa.

No information could be obtained immediately from the Belarussian authorities.

Sharoiko, a correspondent in Minsk for Radio Ukraine International since 2011, has been detained in Belarus since October 2017.

According to Betsa, Sharoiko is being held in a KGB prison in Belarus and has been visited by a Ukrainian consul.

The Belarussian KGB, which has kept its name from the Soviet era, accused him of "setting up a spy ring" of Belarussian citizens who were paid to transmit military and political information.

Kiev rejected the accusations. According to the intelligence service from the Ukrainian defence ministry, Sharoiko had been the spokesman for this service until 2009 before leaving his post for medical reasons, resuming his job as a journalist.

Belarus is a former Soviet republic led by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, and is an ally of Russia.

Minsk has distanced itself from Russia since the start of a Moscow-backed insurgency in April 2014 which followed Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, leaving 10,000 people dead. — AFP]]>
World Thu, 24 May 2018 00:07:05 +0000 theSundaily 549998 at
ABC accused of exploitation over Michael Jackson show
US broadcast network ABC says "The Last Days of Michael Jackson" will feature never-before-seen interview footage and the testimony of a tour operator who was outside his mansion in southern California the day he died.

The Jackson estate issued a statement saying the special, scheduled to air Thursday, "is not sponsored or approved by the estate" of the pop sensation, who died in 2009.

Disney-owned ABC, which has not responded, is accused of unauthorized use of a copyrighted photo and silhouette image in trailers and promotional materials, but those items have since been removed from the program.

"We are told ABC intends to use music and other intellectual property owned by the estate such as photos, logos, artwork and more in the program itself, without having licensed the rights to any such material," the statement said.

"Imagine if this was done with any of ABC's intellectual property. We believe the special to be another crass and unauthorized attempt to exploit the life, music and image of Michael Jackson without respect for Michael's legacy, intellectual property rights or his children."

Jackson is estimated to have sold over 350 million records, including "Thriller," the best-selling album of all time.

He amassed 13 Grammy Awards, 13 number one solo singles in the United States and became the first artist in history to have a top ten single in the Billboard Hot 100 in five different decades.

He was 50 when he died on June 25, 2009, while he was in the Los Angeles area practising for a planned series of concerts in London entitled "This Is It."

The cause was given as an overdose of the anaesthetic propofol. His personal doctor, Conrad Murray, was convicted in 2011 for administering the fatal dose of medication to Jackson. — AFP]]>
World Thu, 24 May 2018 00:07:05 +0000 theSundaily 549996 at
Trump can't block his critics on Twitter, judge rules
Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald said the blocking of Trump critics – which prevents them from seeing and interacting with the president's tweets – violated the free speech rights of those users guaranteed in the Constitution's First Amendment.

In a 75-page opinion, the New York federal judge said the users "were indisputably blocked as a result of viewpoint discrimination" and that this was "impermissible under the First Amendment".

The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit filed by a group of Twitter users and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

The lawsuit contended that because Trump uses Twitter for a variety of policy announcements, the account is "a designated public forum" that cannot exclude people due to their political views.

The judge acknowledged that even though the president has certain free speech rights, he cannot violate the rights of other Twitter users.

"While we must recognise, and are sensitive to, the president's personal First Amendment rights, he cannot exercise those rights in a way that infringes the corresponding First Amendment rights of those who have criticized him," she said in her opinion.

Buchwald stopped short of accepting the request for an injunction against Trump and his social media aide, Dan Scavino, who was also named in the complaint, saying she expected the White House to abide by her "declaratory" ruling.

Not above the law

"Because no government official is above the law and because all government officials are presumed to follow the law once the judiciary has said what the law is, we must assume that the president and Scavino will remedy the blocking we have held to be unconstitutional," she wrote.

The White House directed queries to the Department of Justice, where a spokeswoman said in a statement, "We respectfully disagree with the court's decision and are considering our next steps."

Jameel Jaffer, the Knight Institute's executive director, welcomed the ruling, saying it "reflects a careful application of core First Amendment principles to government censorship on a new communications platform."

Jaffer added in a statement, "The president's practice of blocking critics on Twitter is pernicious and unconstitutional, and we hope this ruling will bring it to an end."

In the lawsuit, the seven individual plaintiffs, including a University of Maryland professor, a Texas police officer and a New York comic, said they were blocked from the @realDonaldTrump account after posting tweets critical of his policies.

Although they were still able to see the tweets without logging in to Twitter, and to quote Trump's tweets in their own messages, their comments were excluded from the threads that make up a public "conversation" involving the president and his 52 million followers.

The case could affect other social media interactions involving public officials.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group which backed the lawsuit, said the case is part of a "broader issue" on how public officials use social media.

"We receive reports about how governmental officials manipulate social media comments to exclude opposing views to create the impression that hotly contested policies are not contested at all," EFF said on Twitter after the case was filed.

The Knight Institute said it was lodging an appeal in the case of a Virginia resident blocked on Facebook by a local public official.

A supporting brief in the New York case argued that the case is important in guaranteeing political speech.

"In light of social media's importance to modern life, President Trump's practice of blocking individual users robs them of a singularly valuable opportunity to make their speech heard," said the brief filed by the Georgetown University Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection. — AFP]]>
World Thu, 24 May 2018 00:47:28 +0000 theSundaily 549938 at