Clashes Erupt in Barcelona as Catalan Separatists Protest Sentences for Leaders

Protesters and police clashed late on Tuesday in Barcelona during rallies against the jailing of nine Catalan separatist leaders, with the unusually tense confrontations turning into a major challenge for Spanish and regional authorities.

Protesters threw cans, stones and flares at riot police, and set garbage containers and cardboard on fire in the middle of several streets in Barcelona, including a thoroughfare housing designer stores and the stock exchange.

Fences were on fire next to La Pedrera, one of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi’s most famous buildings and one of the city’s main tourist attractions.

Police charged several times through the crowd with batons and fired foam projectiles at the protesters. A spokesman for the regional Mossos police said they were trying to make space around the local headquarters of the Spanish government. Four people were detained, the spokesman said.

A Reuters cameraman was hit by police in the leg while filming them charge at protesters. The cameraman, clearly identified as a journalist by a press armband, was hit from behind by a police baton.

This was the second day of protests after the Supreme Court sentenced nine separatist leaders to nine to 13 years in jail over their role in a failed bid to break away from Spain in 2017.

The clashes are a challenge for the regional, pro-independence authorities and the central government in Madrid, both of which are facing a fragmented political landscape and an economic slowdown.

Catalan separatism has long prided itself on being a peaceful movement and its leaders say that has not changed. But there were concerns in Madrid already before Monday’s Supreme Court ruling that heavy jail sentences for the separatist leaders could unleash pent-up frustration among a radicalized fringe, a senior parliamentary source told Reuters.

A spokeswoman for the pro-independence Catalan regional government was quick to say that separatists had proven they were peaceful and that an isolated group behaved violently, sullying their reputation.

“The regional government condemns all violent actions as we always have done,” spokeswoman Meritxell Budo told Spanish national broadcaster TVE.

Spain’s acting government warned in a statement it would step in if needed to guarantee security in the region, without elaborating.

“A minority is trying to impose violence in the streets of Catalan cities,” the statement said. “It is obvious that this is not a peaceful movement,” the government said, while praising coordination between regional and national police Catalonia’s independence drive triggered Spain’s biggest political crisis in decades in 2017 and still dominates much of the country’s fractured political debate. It was a major theme in a parliamentary election in April and will likely be as well for the new, snap election set for Nov. 10.

Security

The leader of Spain’s centre-right People’s Party, Pablo Casado, on Twitter called for acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to activate a national security law and take control of Catalonia’s security forces to “guarantee security and public order.”

Spain’s main parties have consistently refused to hold an independence referendum in Catalonia, although the Socialists say they are open to dialogue on other issues.

Police also charged protesters in the cities of Girona and Tarragona, TV footage showed. Catalan police warned people on Twitter not to approach the epicenter of protests in Barcelona and Girona for safety reasons.

Reuters reporters saw Spanish national police firing blanks in the air from rubber bullet guns in Barcelona. Police could not immediately be reached for comment.

Earlier in the evening, thousands of peaceful demonstrators ad taken to the streets of the regional capital. Some lit candles and chanted “Freedom for political prisoners.”

Pro-independence leaders have vowed to keep pushing for a new referendum on secession, saying Monday’s prison sentences strengthened the movement.

Oriol Junqueras, who was given the longest sentence of 13 years for his role in organizing the 2017 referendum which was ruled illegal, told Reuters in his first interview after the sentence that it would only galvanize the independence movement.

“We’re not going to stop thinking what we think, ideals can’t be derailed by (jail) sentences,” he said, adding that a new plebiscite was “inevitable”.

Demonstrators had blocked railways on Monday and thousands descended on Barcelona’s international airport, where some clashed with police. An airport spokesman said 110 flights were cancelled on Monday and 45 more were cancelled on Tuesday.

Diana Riba, wife of convicted leader Raul Romeva, told Reuters the independence drive would prevail over time.

“This is a very long process, but we will see results as we did with the feminist movement, how they grew until becoming massive and achieving the rights that they were seeking,” she said, calling for “everyone to take to the streets.”

Japan Typhoon Death Toll Climbs to 74, Rescuers Search for Missing People

Rescue workers in Japan searched for the missing on Wednesday as the death toll from one of the worst typhoons to hit the country rose to 74, public broadcaster NHK said, many drowned by flooding after scores of rivers burst their banks.

Public broadcaster NHK said 12 were missing and more than 220 injured after Typhoon Hagibis lashed through the Japanese archipelago at the weekend. Throughout the eastern half of the main island of Honshu, 52 rivers had flooded over.

Click to see an interactive graphic plotting the path of Typhoon Hagibis) Residents in Fukushima prefecture, which has seen the highest number of casualties, were busy dumping water-damaged furniture and rubbish onto the streets. Many elderly remained in evacuation centers, unable to clean up their homes.

In Date city, not far from the site of the nuclear disaster in 2011, farmer Masao Hirayama piled damp books in the street in front of his house, adding to a mound of rubbish from the neighborhood.

He said the water had reached about 2 meters (6.6 feet) deep in his house, when he and his son were rescued by boat and taken to an evacuation centre. His wife and grandchildren had stayed with relatives through the storm.

“I feel down,” Hirayama, 70, said, adding that the flood had swept away all his green houses and farming equipment. “All that is left is the land.”

Hirayama said he had rebuilt his house in 1989, raising the ground level following a flood in 1986. His family plan to live on the second floor until he can make repairs, which he reckons could take three months.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the government would spend 710 million yen ($6.5 million) to facilitate disaster relief.

China Says US House Should Stop Interfering in Hong Kong

China’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday that Beijing resolutely opposed new measures passed by the U.S. House of Representatives related to the Hong Kong protests and urged lawmakers to stop interfering.

China’s relationship with the United States will be damaged should the legislation become law, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement.

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, one of the measures passed by the House, would require the U.S. secretary of state to certify each year that Hong Kong retained its autonomy in order to receive special treatment as a major financial center.

EU: Brexit Deal in Sight but UK Must Still Do More

European Union officials hoped to sketch out a Brexit deal with Britain within hours, but negotiations stretched into early Wednesday in the latest effort at producing an agreement in more than three years of false starts and sudden reversals.
 
The bloc said it might be possible to strike a divorce deal by Thursday’s EU leaders’ summit, which comes just two weeks before the U.K’s scheduled departure date of Oct. 31. One major proviso: The British government must make more compromises to seal an agreement in the coming hours.
 
Britain and the EU have been here before – within sight of a deal only to see it dashed – but a surge in the British pound Tuesday indicated hope that this time could be different. The currency rose against the dollar to its highest level in months.
 
Even though many questions remain, diplomats made it clear that both sides were within touching distance of a deal for the first time since a U.K. withdrawal plan fell apart in the British House of Commons in March.
 
Still, talks that first lingered into Tuesday night turned into negotiating past midnight as no deal materialized between experts from both sides holed up at EU headquarters in a darkened Brussels.
 
Late Tuesday, Martin Schirdewan, a German member of the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group, said an agreement was “now within our grasp” following a breakthrough in negotiations.

This week’s EU leaders’ meeting – the last scheduled summit before the Brexit deadline – was long considered the last opportunity to approve a divorce agreement. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson insists his country will leave at the end of the month with or without an agreement, although U.K. lawmakers are determined to push for another delay rather than risk a chaotic no-deal Brexit.
 
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said at a meeting of the bloc’s ministers in Luxembourg on Tuesday that the main challenge now is to turn the new British proposals on the complex Irish border issue into something legally binding. EU member Ireland has a land border with the U.K.’s Northern Ireland, and both want to keep goods and people flowing freely across the currently invisible frontier.
 
A frictionless border underpins both the local economy and the 1998 peace accord that ended decades of Catholic-Protestant violence in Northern Ireland. But once Britain exits, that border will turn into an external EU frontier that the bloc wants to keep secure.
 
Barnier wants a clear answer by Wednesday morning, so EU capitals can prepare for the bloc’s two-day summit that begins Thursday. “It is still possible this week,” said Barnier. As so often, intricate details kept hopes from turning into immediate reality.

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier speaks with the media as he arrives for a meeting of EU General Affairs ministers, Article 50, at the European Convention Center in Luxembourg, Oct. 15, 2019.

 
The big question is how far Johnson’s government is prepared to budge on its insistence that the U.K., including Northern Ireland, must leave the European Union’s customs union – something that would require checks on goods passing between the U.K. and the EU, including on the island of Ireland.
 
The British government has given away little detail of the proposals it has made on the issue; even government ministers have not been told specifics. In broad terms, the U.K. is proposing that Northern Ireland – but not the rest of the U.K. – continue to follow EU customs rules and tariffs after Brexit in order to remove the need for border checks.
 
But that sounds like a customs union in all but name – and would mean new checks or tariffs on some goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
 
An EU official said Barnier told a teleconference of some lawmakers that the Irish Sea would largely become the customs border between the EU and the U.K. That would avoid having a visible land border on the island of Ireland between the two. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations were ongoing.
 
But Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, the party that props up Johnson’s minority government, strongly opposes any measures that could loosen the bonds between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
 
After DUP leaders met with Johnson late Tuesday at the prime minister’s office, the party said negotiations continued but “it would be fair to indicate gaps remain and further work is required.”
 
Brexit supporters are also wary that maintaining any kind of customs union with the EU will tie the U.K. to the bloc’s regulations and limit its ability to strike new trade deals around the world – undermining what were supposed to be some of the key benefits of a withdrawal.
 
The customs proposals on the table also appear similar to those put forward by former Prime Minister Theresa May. Opposition from pro-Brexit lawmakers, including Johnson, led to those being rejected by Parliament three times.
 
In public, Johnson has not changed his tune. But the British leader was working hard behind the scenes to secure a deal that would allow him to fulfil his vow to take the U.K. out of the bloc. And some of the staunchest Brexit-backers appeared willing to give him a chance.
 
“I am optimistic that it is possible for us to reach a tolerable deal that I will be able to vote for,” said pro-Brexit Conservative lawmaker Steve Baker.
 
On Tuesday, Johnson called French President Emmanuel Macron – one of the EU leaders most skeptical about Britain’s intentions – to discuss where elements of a compromise could be found. Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, called the conversation “constructive.”
 
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who had a long, intense talk with Barnier early Tuesday, said the EU believes a deal “is difficult, but it is doable.” He said Barnier addressed EU ministers and “did point to progress in the last number of days where the gaps have been narrowed.”
 
Still, Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said the British proposals to keep the Irish border protected from smuggling and fraud once it leaves the bloc were insufficient.
 
EU ministers insisted it was Johnson’s turn to make the next move – and he seemed to be listening. In addition to the call with Macron, Johnson shifted Britain’s weekly Cabinet meeting from Tuesday to Wednesday to give his ministers a better idea of Brexit progress.
 
If talks fail or stumble ahead of the EU summit, there could always be an extraordinary meeting just before the Brexit deadline – or it could be extended again. It has already been postponed twice.
 
“There will be progress tomorrow, the question is how big this progress will be,” said a senior German official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity in line with department rules. “Is this progress so great that work is still needed, but this work can be done in the next few days? Or is the progress such that two more months’ work is needed?”

Democratic Candidates Voice Staunch Support for Trump’s Impeachment

Twelve U.S. Democratic presidential candidates squared off in a spirited debate Tuesday night, all looking to confront President Donald Trump in the 2020 election, even as their Democratic congressional cohorts have accused Trump of political wrongdoing and opened an impeachment inquiry against him. 
 
The dozen challengers all support the four-week-old impeachment probe, although Trump’s removal through impeachment remains unlikely. The candidates, however, wasted no time before telling a national television audience why Trump should be impeached by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives to face trial in the Republican-majority Senate. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, and former Vice President Joe Biden participate in a Democratic presidential candidates debate hosted by CNN/New York Times at Otterbein University, Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio.

In his opening statement, former Vice President Joe Biden, one of Trump’s top challengers, declared, “This president is the most corrupt … in all our history,” an assessment echoed across the debate stage. 

‘No one is above the law’

Another leading candidate, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, said, “Sometimes there are issues that are bigger than politics. Donald Trump broke the law. No one is above the law. Impeachment must go forward.” 
 
Trump’s opponents hurled some of their toughest attacks against the president for his withdrawal in recent days of American troops from northern Syria, leaving Kurdish fighters, who were U.S. battlefield allies in the war against Islamic State terrorists, vulnerable to an onslaught from Turkish troops invading from the north. 
 
Biden called Trump’s abandonment of Kurdish fighters the “most shameful thing I’ve ever seen a president do.” California Senator Kamala Harris called the bloodshed in northern Syria “a crisis of Donald Trump’s making,” while Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar said, “Our president blew it and he’s too proud to say it.”

While mostly targeting Trump, some of the candidates aimed salvos at Warren, who has surged in recent polling, even overtaking Biden in some surveys of Democratic voters. Klobuchar and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg attacked Warren’s call for a government-run national medical insurance plan, claiming she is being evasive about how she would pay for it.

Tuesday’s debate was the fourth in a string of almost monthly get-togethers for the Democratic challengers seeking to win the party’s nomination to face Trump. But with the 12 candidates lined up on a stage at Otterbein University in the Midwestern state of Ohio, it was the largest such gathering and came as new drama has engulfed the U.S. political world about a year before voters head to the polls in the national balloting. 
 
House Democrats opened the quick-moving impeachment probe after a whistleblower in the U.S. intelligence community raised questions about whether Trump had put his own political survival ahead of U.S. national security concerns when he asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for “a favor” in a late July call. Trump called for Kyiv to open an investigation into the role played by Biden in helping oust a Ukrainian prosecutor when he was former President Barack Obama’s second in command, and also to probe the lucrative service of Biden’s son Hunter on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. 
 
Both Bidens have denied wrongdoing, although the younger Biden, 49, told ABC News this week that he exercised “poor judgment” in serving on the Burisma company board because it had become a political liability for his father. 
 
The elder Biden said he had never discussed with Hunter Biden his decision to join the Ukrainian company’s board, which he left earlier this year. Hunter Biden now has pledged not  to work for any foreign company if his father is elected president. 

Trump’s criticism
 
Trump has repeatedly described his call with Zelenskiy as “perfect,” said he has done nothing wrong and assailed the impeachment probe as another attempt to overturn his 2016 election victory. 

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, participates in a Democratic presidential candidates debate at Otterbein University, Oct. 15, 2019, in Westerville, Ohio.

The elder Biden, at 76 on his third run for the U.S. presidency, is the nominal leader in national surveys of Democratic voters of their choice as the party’s standard bearer to face Trump, 73, and often defeats Trump in hypothetical polling matchups. So does Warren, a former Harvard law professor.
 
Biden and Warren, 70, were at center stage Tuesday, alongside Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist who currently stands as the third choice among Democrats. Sanders, 78, recently suffered a heart attack, raising questions about his health as the oldest of the presidential contenders. 

Asked about his stamina to campaign for the presidency, Sanders said he would be “mounting a vigorous campaign all over this country.” Biden, who would turn 80 during his presidency if he is elected, deflected a question about his age, saying that with it “comes wisdom. I know what has to be done.”

The candidates railed against income inequality in the United States, where the income gap between corporate chieftains and everyday workers is pronounced. 
 
“We need a wealth tax to protect the next generation,” Warren said. She has called for a 2% annual tax on the wealthiest of Americans, those with more than $50 million in assets. 
 
“No one on this stage wants to protect billionaires,” said Klobuchar, but she stopped short of Warren’s plan. Klobuchar said she would repeal “significant portions” of tax-cutting legislation Trump pushed through Congress earlier in his administration. Biden warned against “demonizing wealth,” but he said he would double the taxation of capital gains collected by stock investors. 

Buttigieg said the tax debate in Washington, however, often devolves into lawmakers “saying all the right things and nothing happens.”

The nine other candidates on the debate stage besides Biden, Warren and Sanders faced a daunting challenge, how best to distinguish themselves from the front-runners and gain new traction in national polls and surveys of voters in states where Democrats are holding party nominating contests starting in February.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, right, speaks next to South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg during a Democratic presidential candidates debate at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, Oct. 15, 2019.

All nine currently are polling in the single digits, compared with Biden and Warren in the upper 20% range, with Sanders about 15%. 

Next debate

When the candidates next debate, on November 20, the national Democratic party has set the standards even higher to gain a spot on the stage. The candidates must have bigger polling numbers — at least 3% support in four national polls or 5% support in polls of people in states that are early on the voting calendar — and more financial support, from at least 165,000 individual donors.

The other challengers included New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, former U.S. housing chief Julian Castro, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and Tom Steyer, a wealthy environmental activist who launched national television ads calling for Trump’s impeachment long before Washington political figures undertook the current inquiry.

Thousands Pack Hong Kong Rally for US Support

Thousands of Hongkongers rallied this week to show support for the U.S. Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, up for a vote in Congress as early as this week. The Act, if passed, would require the U.S. to annually review Hong Kong’s special economic status and impose sanctions on officials who undermine its autonomy — a move that could further complicate the U.S.’ trade war with China, and overall relations between the world’s two largest economies. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Hong Kong.

More Victims, More Damage Found in Japan Typhoon Aftermath

The toll of death and destruction from a typhoon that tore through central and northern Japan climbed Tuesday, as the government said it was considering approving a special budget for the disaster response and eventual reconstruction.
 
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a parliamentary session that the number of deaths tied to Typhoon Hagibis had climbed to 53 and was expected to rise, as at least another nine people are presumed dead. Kyodo News agency, citing its own tally, put the death toll at 69.

 Abe pledged to do the utmost for the safety and rescue of those missing or those who had to evacuate.
 
 “We put the people’s lives first,” he said.

 Hagibis hit Japan’s main island on Saturday with strong winds and historic rainfall that caused more than 200 rivers to overflow, leaving thousands of homes flooded, damaged or without power. Rescue crews on Tuesday were still searching for those missing, thought to number about 20.

Some 34,000 homes were without power and 110,000 lacked running water. More than 30,000 people were still at shelters as of late Monday, according to the Cabinet Office’s latest tally.

Business appeared nearly back to normal in central Tokyo, and residents in areas where floodwater subsided started cleaning up. Lives, however, remained paralyzed in Nagano, Fukishima and other hard-hit areas that were still inundated.

Some residents in Nagano returned to their homes, only to find they not be habitable.

Retired carpenter Toshitaka Yoshimura, who grew up in the Tsuno district of Nagano, was stunned when he returned to his home after staying at an evacuation center during the storm. His house was a mess. Doors were knocked out, his handmade furniture was tossed around and damaged, and everything from a futon to electronics were broken and covered with mud.

 “I put a lot of effort in this house. I made all the furniture with my wife. Now look what happened in one day,” he said, with his voice trembling with emotion. “Now this makes me want to cry.”

At least some of his memorable photos with his family and relatives were intact, along with toys and games that his younger relatives played when they gathered at his house.

 “I’m glad they survived at least,” said his nephew Kazuki Yoshimura. “Perhaps we can still do something about the house, but nothing can be more precious than life.”

In Fukushima, 11 bags containing possibly radioactive soil and debris removed as part of decontamination efforts from the 2011 meltdown of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, were washed from two outdoor temporary storage sites and found downstream, the Environment Ministry said. Most of the remaining 5,000 bags stacked up at the two sites _ one in Tamura City and another Iitate _ remained in place.

 There was no risk to the environment because the waterproof bags were intact and hadn’t leaked, the ministry said. It said, however, officials will take preventive measures ahead of future rainstorms.
 
A massive number of such bags are still being kept at 760 similar sites across Fukushima. Their transfer to a longer-term storage facility near the plant is expected to be completed by March 2022.

 Speaking in parliament, Abe said there are concerns of lasting effects of the storm in hard-hit areas. He pledged speedy support for residents.

Abe said the government is funding the disaster response from the 500-billion yen ($4.6 billion) special reserve from the fiscal 2019 budget and may compile a supplementary budget if needed.

West Japan Railway Co. said its Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet train services connecting Tokyo and Kanazawa in the central north were reduced because of flooding of six trains at its railyard in Nagano. The trains sat in a pool of muddy water that was up to their windows.

 Questions have been raised about the site of the railyard, which sits in an area noted on a prefectural hazard map as a flood area. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the operator’s preparedness should be investigated later but the priority is to get the trains out of the water. Some water has been pumped out, but more than half of the railyard is still underwater.

 

Russia’s Putin Seeks to Enhance Ties With US-Allied UAE

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, as part of a Mideast tour aimed at strengthening ties between Moscow and this longtime U.S. ally amid tensions in the wider Persian Gulf.

Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, met Putin at the airport and traveled with him to the Qasr Al Watan palace. As they arrived, troops on horseback flanked their limousine as military jets flew overhead and left a trail of smoke in the color of the Russian flag.

The martial demonstrations, mirroring one given to Pope Francis in February, showed the importance the UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula, put on Putin’s first visit since 2007.

Part of that is simply business. Russians increasingly have turned to the UAE’s skyscraper-studded city of Dubai to both do business and vacation along its beaches. Other emirates as well see Russian travelers, with some hotels having their signs in Cyrillic.

Russia and other nations also have joined OPEC in a grouping called OPEC+, cutting their production to help boost prices. Crude oil sold for over $100 a barrel in the summer of 2014 before bottoming out below $30 a barrel in January 2016. On Monday, it traded just under $60 a barrel for benchmark Brent crude.

The region’s security situation is the other part. Russia has worked with Iran to support embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country’s long war. While opposing Assad at the beginning of the conflict, the UAE now seems to accept Assad will remain in power there. Abu Dhabi has reopened its embassy in Damascus and is encouraging renewed business ties.

Meanwhile, the Emirates has tried to ease tensions with Iran after President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers over a year ago. Oil tankers off the UAE’s coast came under attack by what the U.S. Navy described as Iranian magnetic mines, something denied by Tehran. Iran also seized a UAE-based oil tanker in recent months as well.

In the time since, Abu Dhabi quietly has reached out to Iran and pulled troops from a Saudi-led war in Yemen targeting Shiite rebels there aligned with Tehran. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Monday acknowledged a high-level official from the UAE had traveled to Iran for talks recently and said the relations between the two countries had improved recently.

Yet all this comes as the U.S. remains the major security partner for the UAE. Some 5,000 American troops are stationed in the UAE and Dubai’s Jebel Ali port remains the Navy’s top overseas port of call.

In remarks at Qasr Al Watan, Sheikh Mohammed praised Russia’s relationship with the Emirates.

“I hope this visit will have a deep effect to enhance the strategic relationship between our countries,” the crown prince said.
 

Hong Kong Democracy Protesters Call For US Congress Proposed Sanctions

Hong Kong pro-democracy advocates are urging the U.S. Congress to pass a human rights bill that could impose trade sanctions on this international financial center, a measure that critics say could cause more harm than good.
 
At a massive pro-American, pro-democracy rally on Monday evening in central Hong Kong, supporters called for the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act that would put at risk Hong Kong’s special economic status with the United States and impose sanctions on officials who are deemed to be “suppressing basic freedoms.” The bill has bipartisan support and is expected to be brought up in the House for consideration as soon as this week. However  it remains in committee in the Senate with no set timeline for legislative action.
 
An 18-year-old student who spoke out at the rally said the U.S. human rights bill, “will be the most powerful weapon we have so far against the Chinese communists.” The student said he would not give his name for fear of retaliation from the Hong Kong government.  
 
For more than four months pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong have taken to the streets, holding mass rallies and marches, to oppose what they see as efforts from the Beijing government to erode their civil liberties and their autonomy. While a part of China, Hong Kong has been allowed to maintain its own political and legal systems under a “one country – two systems” agreement.
 
Pro-democracy supporters are encouraged to see the United States take a strong stand in support of their movement.
 
“It’s time for the world to react, because this is not only a fight for Hong Kong people, it’s a fight for the whole world, it’s a fight for democracy and freedom. And that’s what the Americans stand for,” said Ken Yu at Monday’s rally.
 
Senators support
 

Two Republicans senators, Ted Cruz from Texas and Josh Hawley from Missouri, were in Hong Kong over the weekend to support the democracy protesters, who are demanding democratic reforms that include universal suffrage. Currently Hong Kong voters elect about half the legislature, committees representing business interests select a number of seats, and Beijing appoints the city chief executive.
 
“Sometimes the fate of one city defines a challenge of a whole generation. Fifty years ago it was Berlin. Today, it’s Hong Kong,” said Senator Hawley on Twitter.
 
Senator Cruz told journalists in Hong Kong that Chief Executive Carrie Lam canceled a scheduled meeting with him after he refused to keep the conversation confidential.
 
“She seems to misunderstand how free speech operates, and also how freedom of the press operates,” said Cruz, a vocal critic of China.
 
Foreign interference
 
Pro-Beijing officials in Hong Kong, who could be targeted for sanctions under the U.S. human rights bill, see it as unwarranted interference in Hong Kong’s autonomy.
 
If the Americans want to intervene in our affairs, such as dictating the pace of democratic development, they’re interfering in our high level of autonomy. It’s not for them to judge,” said Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing member of the Hong Kong legislature and the chairperson of the New People’s Party.

Many business leaders see possible trade sanctions as harming the people of Hong Kong, who would suffer from the loss of jobs and the flight of capital from this global financial center.
 
Hong Kong continues to be rated the world’s freest economy by the Heritage Foundation, for its high level of free trade, few restrictions on foreign ownership, and strong government integrity. However, the Washington D.C.-based conservative think tank also noted that political freedoms in Hong Kong have “been strained by PRC [People’s Republic of China] political interference in recent years.”
 
U.S. caution

 
President Donald Trump has downplayed the democracy protests in Hong Kong while emphasizing resolving difficult trade talks with China.
 
Richard Bush, an analyst with the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, said by openly encouraging the protests in Hong Kong, Washington may give Beijing an excuse to crack down against the democracy movement that the Chinese have long charged was instigated by the United States.
 
“Anything that we do that seems like it’s taking the side of the protesters will only confirm for Beijing’s propagandists that we really are trying to create a color revolution in their terms,” said Bush.
 
On a visit this week to Nepal, Chinese President Xi Jinping said anyone attempting to split China “will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones.”
 
Recent protests have resulted in clashes between police and protesters, and provoked condemnation from pro-Beijing officials, who call the emboldened protesters “terrorists.”
 

 

UN: Afghan Election-Related Violence Killed 85 Civilians

A United Nations investigation has found insurgent attacks targeting the recent presidential electoral process in Afghanistan caused nearly 460 civilian casualties, including 85 deaths.

The special report by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released Tuesday, blames more than 80 percent of the casualties on the Taliban’s deliberate campaign of violence and intimidation to disrupt the September 28 election.

The insurgent group had repeatedly made public statements warning Afghan voters to stay away from the election and ordered its fighters to attack organizers as well as security forces guarding the electoral process.  

On the polling day alone, it noted, the violence killed 28 civilians and injured around 250 others. More than one-third of civilian casualties were children.

UNAMA not only documented civilian casualties but also highlighted a pattern of abductions, threats, intimidation and harassment carried out by the Taliban against civilians leading up to and during the election.

“Many Afghan people, however, defied the threats and cast their votes – brave acts that I commend,” said Tadamichi Yamamoto, head of UNAMA.

He denounced as unacceptable and a breach of international humanitarian law Taliban attacks against voters, election workers, campaigners, rally sites and polling centers.

“These attacks, along with public statements made by the Taliban, revealed a deliberate campaign intended to undermine the electoral process and deprive Afghan citizens of their right to participate in this important political process, freely and without fear,” said Yamamoto.

The initial official results from the Sept. 28 polls are not expected until late October, while final results are expected next month. Initial assessments suggest participation in the first round of the presidential vote is at a record low, mainly because of security concerns.

The Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) has also run into technical and logistical issues in gathering and transferring biometric data to its servers from over 26,000 biometric devices used to record fingerprints and pictures of voters, which may delay the results.

Two rival candidates, Abdullah Abdullah, and former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have already questioned the transparency of the electoral process, alleging a large number of votes cast for incumbent Afghan President Ashraf Ghani were fraudulent and without biometric verification.

Abdullah and Ghani have already claimed victories, raising fears of a repeat of what happened in the 2014 fraud-marred Afghan presidential election, when the United States had to intervene to help the two men negotiate a power-sharing deal, ending months of nationwide chaos.