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Australia repatriating 8 youth from Islamic State families
By ROD McGUIRK | Mon, June 24, 2019 03:11 EDT
CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Eight Australian offspring of two slain Islamic State group fighters had been removed from Syria in Australia’s first organized repatriation from the conflict zone, Australia’s prime minister said on Monday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the eight children being repatriated were in the care of Australian government officials. He would not identify the children or say when they would reach Australia.
Media reported that they include five children and grandchildren of Sydney-born convicted terrorist Khaled Sharrouf and three children of Islamic State group fighter Yasin Rizvic, from Melbourne. Both men and their wives died in the conflict zone.
The children had been taken by an aid agency on Sunday to Iraq, The Australian newspaper reported.
“The opportunity now is for these young children who are coming back to Australia, they can’t be held responsible for the crimes of their parents,” Morrison told reporters.
The children would be provided with support services so that “they can fully integrate into a happy life in Australia,” Morrison said.
“They’ve got off to a horrible start in life as a result of the appalling decisions of their parents and they’ll find their home in Australia and I’m sure they’ll be embraced by Australians and as a result of that embrace, I’m sure they’ll live positive and happy lives,” Morrison added.
Morrison had for months said he would not risk any Australian official to rescue Australians from Islamic State group-held territory.
Critics had argued that he had not been prepared to take the political risk of repatriating families of Islamic extremists until he won a narrow election victory on May 18.
Morrison said on Monday he had kept his government’s efforts “very low-key” in the interests of the safety of everyone involved, including the aid agencies that had helped the government.
Sharrouf’s Sydney-based mother-in-law Karen Nettleton has launched several attempts to rescue the children from Syria and has led the campaign for Australian government intervention.
Her lawyer Robert Van Aalst said he hoped Nettleton was with the children in Iraq, but had no direct communication with her due to security concerns.
The eldest child, Zaynab, turned 18 last week and has been expecting her third child. Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported she’d yet to give birth.
Zaynab would return to Australia with the newborn, her two children — Ayesha, 3, and Fatima, 2 — her 16-year-old sister Hoda, and her 8-year-old brother, Humzeh.
“There will be medical examinations and various other support provided by the government which they have told us about to help the children acclimatize,” Van Aalst told ABC.
“There are also some wounds that may need to be attended to. Young Hoda was wounded in the leg. Zaynab, I believe, had shrapnel wounds. It is not just physical wounds that have to be looked into but there is some other psychological issues, no doubt, that will have to be looked into,” he added.
The Rizvic children are two boys and a girl aged between 6 and 12, The Australian reported.
Clarke Jones, an Australian National University criminologist who specializes in radicalization, said the children would need treatment for trauma and could be radicalized. They could also be threatened by elements of the Australian community.
“There are a lot of people who don’t want them back at all,” Jones said. “Because of that, they would also be under threat.”
Australian National University counterterrorism researcher Jacinta Carroll wrote in a research paper last week that Zaynab had become both a victim and supporter of terrorism in a case that was legally and morally complex.
Zaynab became a prominent Islamic State group propagandist making social media posts supporting atrocities and the activities of her father and her husband Mohamed Elomar, an Australian Islamic State group fighter who was killed while she was pregnant in 2015, Carroll said.
She had lived a relatively privileged life under the Islamic State regime in Syria in a house with slaves, posting photographs of herself with other veiled women with assault rifles and a luxury BMW sedan. She boasted a “luxury jihad” life in Syria, Carroll said,
Carroll said disengagement services, also known as deradicalization programs, were available in Australia to help the children integrate into the mainstream Australian community.
“I think that will be very challenging for the Sharroufs,” Carroll said. “The profile and the publicity around this family will also make it quite problematic for them to just integrate back into normal life in Australia.”
Mat Tinkler, director of the Save the Children Fund charity, said there were at least 50 Australian women and children in Syrian refugee camps and all should be repatriated.
Khaled Sharrouf horrified the world in 2014 when he posted a photograph on social media of his young son clutching the severed head of a Syrian soldier.
Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described that image as “one of the most disturbing, stomach-turning, grotesque photographs ever displayed.”
Sharrouf’s wife, Tara Nettleton, brought their five children from Sydney to Syria in 2014. She died in a hospital a year later of a perforated intestine. Her husband and two eldest sons later died in an airstrike.
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Protesters block Hong Kong building access, plan new action
By DAKE KANG | Mon, June 24, 2019 03:53 EDT
HONG KONG (AP) — Protesters fearing an erosion of Hong Kong’s legal autonomy blocked access to a government office building for nearly two hours Monday and plan more demonstrations to draw the attention of leaders attending the G-20 summit this week.
About 100 demonstrators jammed the entryway and lobby of the Inland Revenue Tower, a skyscraper in the Wan Chai district in the city center.
Earlier, one of the main protest groups announced a demonstration planned on Wednesday to try to draw the attention of world leaders attending the Group of 20 summit in Japan.
The leaders of the Civil Human Rights Front said they hope the world leaders meeting in Osaka will hear the protesters’ concerns over the weakening of the city’s legal autonomy by mainland China.
Hundreds of thousands of people have filled the streets and sidewalks in recent weeks to oppose legislation seen as increasing Beijing’s control and police treatment of the protesters. The activists spoke on Monday near the city government headquarters, where a few protesters remained though the offices in the building had reopened.
Kelvin Ho, one of the group’s several leaders, said the protest was meant to “urge the international community to give stress on Beijing that we need democracy.”
China has rejected foreign commentary over the protests and the extradition issue as interference in its internal affairs.
At a briefing in Beijing, Zhang Jun, an assistant foreign minister, said “I can tell you that for sure the G-20 will not discuss the issue of Hong Kong and we will not allow the G-20 to discuss the issue of Hong Kong.”
Hong Kong’s government “has taken a series of measures to safeguard fairness and justice of society and to block loopholes in the legal system. We believe what they have done is completely necessary and the central government supports these measures,” he said.
Joshua Wong, another activist who helped galvanize mass pro-democracy protests in 2014, said on Twitter that he was urging his followers to join the protest on Wednesday.
Pro-democracy activists and legislators and others critical of the extradition bill have insisted they are not satisfied with apologies from the authorities over the handling of the unpopular legislation and over police moves during protests that many Hong Kong residents considered overly aggressive.
Hong Kong has a separate legal system from the rest of China under an agreement struck before Beijing took control of the former British colony in 1997. The extradition legislation would enable some suspects to be sent from Hong Kong to stand trial in mainland Chinese courts.
The opponents’ concern is that suspects might be pursued for corrupt or political reasons and be unable to get fair trials in courts dominated by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Bonnie Leung, another leader in the Civil Human Rights Front, said the extradition bill, which has been indefinitely shelved for now, would affect not just Hong Kong residents but potentially anyone visiting the city.
“The whole world who have connection with HK would be stakeholders,” she said. “This is not about a power struggle. This is about the values that make the world a better place, such as the rule of law.”
“If you also treasure these values please speak up and do speak up before it is too late,” she said.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who has apologized over the controversy but refused calls to step down, said the legislation was needed to ensure criminals would not use the territory to evade capture and to meet international standards such as rules against money laundering.
Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.
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Thai cave boys mark year since ordeal with Buddhist rites
Mon, June 24, 2019 02:14 EDT
MAE SAI, Thailand (AP) — The 12 young Thai soccer players and their coach who grabbed global attention last year when they were trapped in a flooded cave for more than two weeks have marked the anniversary of their ordeal start with a religious ceremony.
The members of the Wild Boars took part in a Buddhist ceremony Monday before attending a news conference to talk about their lives over the past year.
Many of the boys — now aged 12-17 — say they still dream of becoming professional soccer players, while others say they want to become Navy SEALs like those who took part in their rescue.
The boys were lost in a cave in northern Thailand for nine nights before being found. It took another eight days for all to make it out safe.
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Crowd at huge Prague rally says Czech democracy is at risk
By KAREL JANICEK | Sun, June 23, 2019 02:53 EDT
PRAGUE (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of people rallied Sunday in Prague to urge Prime Minister Andrej Babis to resign, assembling from across the Czech Republic for the capital’s biggest anti-government protest since the 1989 pro-democratic Velvet Revolution that brought down the communist regime.
The demonstration at Letna Park, a site of massive gatherings that significantly contributed to the fall of communism in what 30 years ago was Czechoslovakia, was the largest from two months of street protests opposing Babis.
The protesters of 2019 said they didn’t come to overthrow the current political system but to defend it.
They consider Babis, a populist billionaire, as a threat to democracy, including the independence of the country’s legal system.
“We demand the resignation of Andrej Babis,” said Mikulas Minar, a student who put his studies on hold to help lead the recent demonstrations organized by a group called Million Moments for Democracy.
Babis has repeatedly said he has no reason to resign.
“It will likely be a long run,” another organizer, Benjamin Roll, told the crowd. “The current situation is unacceptable.”
Opposition to Babis has been fueled by the appointment of a new justice minister as prosecutors are deciding whether to indict Babis over alleged fraud involving European Union funds.
The protesters fear the new minister might undermine the independence of the Czech legal system, a threat that has brought the governments of Poland and Romania warnings from the European Union.
Justice Minister Marie Benesova is a close ally of Babis’ and voted against a police request to strip the prime minister of parliamentary immunity to face a criminal investigation.
A preliminary European Union report leaked in May concluded that Babis might have had a conflict of interest over EU subsidies involving his former business empire.
Babis denied wrongdoing and accused the EU of trying to destabilize the Czech Republic.
Besides demanding the prime minister and justice minister’s resignations, many of the demonstrators accused Babis and his key ally, President Milos Zeman, of undermining Czech politics and democracy overall.
Babis also faces allegations he collaborated with Czechoslovakia’s secret police before 1989, as well as criticism of his government’s power-sharing deal with the Communist Party.
“What is happening is more than we can tolerate,” said Dagmar Kratochvilova, a 60-year-old pottery maker who traveled across the country on a bus to reach Prague with others from the eastern city of Frydek Mistek.
The peaceful crowd chanted “Resign, resign,” and “We’ve had enough” while waving Czech and also European Union flags. “No Tolerance for Lies and Fraud,” read a banner unrolled by the demonstrators.
“I’m fed up with the government,” Natalie Bartkova, 18, a student from just south of Prague. “Babis seems to think that anything goes for him.”
Babis’ critics cited a new source of frustration, blaming him is for contributing to the inability of European Union leaders to agree on a plan to make the bloc’s economy carbon neutral by 2050.
The protesters announced another major protest at the same location for Nov.16 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.
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UN rights chief: Relatives of ex-IS fighters should go home
Mon, June 24, 2019 04:21 EDT
GENEVA (AP) — The U.N. human rights chief says thousands of relatives of former foreign fighters in the Islamic State group should be repatriated, insisting that children in particular have suffered “grievous violations” of their rights.
Michelle Bachelet also expressed “regret” at Saudi Arabia’s “dismissal” of a report by an independent U.N. human rights expert last week criticizing the kingdom over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
She also commended a decision by Chinese authorities to delay a bill on extradition that fanned protests in Hong Kong.
Bachelet made the comments Monday as the U.N.-backed Human Rights Council opened its latest session.
Her main focus was on thousands of former IS members and their relatives held by U.S.-backed fighters in Syria and Iraq’s government, saying many lived in “deeply sub-standard” conditions.