US, Venezuela swap prisoners: Maduro ally for 10 Americans, plus fugitive contractor ‘Fat Leonard’

US, Venezuela swap prisoners: Maduro ally for 10 Americans, plus fugitive contractor ‘Fat Leonard’
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro receives his ally Alex Saab at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas on December 20, 2023. Saab was released by the US government as part of a prisoner swap. (Reuters)
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Updated 21 December 2023
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US, Venezuela swap prisoners: Maduro ally for 10 Americans, plus fugitive contractor ‘Fat Leonard’

US, Venezuela swap prisoners: Maduro ally for 10 Americans, plus fugitive contractor ‘Fat Leonard’
  • US officials said the decision to release Maduro associate Alex Saab was difficult but essential in order to bring home jailed Americans
  • The 10 Americans released include six who have been designated by the US government as wrongfully detained

MIAMI: The United States freed a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in exchange for the release of 10 Americans imprisoned in the South American country and the return of a fugitive defense contractor known as “Fat Leonard” who is at the center of a massive Pentagon bribery scandal, the Biden administration announced Wednesday.

The deal represents the Biden administration’s boldest move yet to improve relations with the major oil-producing nation and extract concessions from the self-proclaimed socialist leader. The largest release of American prisoners in Venezuela’s history comes weeks after the White House agreed to suspend some sanctions, following a commitment by Maduro to work toward free and fair conditions for the 2024 presidential election.
The release of Alex Saab, a Maduro associate long regarded as a criminal trophy by Washington, is a significant concession to the Venezuelan leader. US officials said the decision to grant him clemency was difficult but essential in order to bring home jailed Americans, a core administrative objective that in recent years has resulted in the release of criminals who once once been seen as untradeable.
The 10 Americans released include six who have been designated by the US government as wrongfully detained.
“These individuals have lost far too much precious time with their loved ones, and their families have suffered every day in their absence. I am grateful that their ordeal is finally over,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.
The agreement also resulted in the return to US custody of Leonard Glenn Francis, the Malaysian owner of a ship-servicing company who is the central character in one of the largest bribery scandals in Pentagon history.
But the exchange, a major US concession, angered many hard-liners in the Venezuelan opposition who have criticized the White House for standing by as Maduro has repeatedly outmaneuvered Washington after the Trump administration’s campaign to topple him failed.
In October, the White House eased sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry following promises by Maduro that he would level the playing field for the 2024 election, when he’s looking to add six years to his decade-long, crisis-ridden rule. A Nov. 30 deadline has passed and so far Maduro has failed to reverse a ban blocking his chief opponent, María Corina Machado, from running for office.
Biden told reporters earlier in the day that, so far, Maduro appeared to be “keeping his comment on a free election.” Republicans, echoing the sentiment of many in the US-backed opposition, said Saab’s release would only embolden Maduro to continue down an authoritarian path.
“Disgraceful decision,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, posted on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
The US sanctions remain suspended as part of the deal announced Wednesday. It also requires Maduro’s government to release 21 Venezuelans, including Roberto Abdul, who co-founded a pro democracy group with Machado more than two decades ago, and dismiss three arrest warrants.
Among the Americans behind bars in Venezuela are two former Green Berets, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were involved in an attempt to oust Maduro in 2019. Also detained are Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore and Joseph Cristella, who were accused of entering Venezuela illegally from Colombia. More recently, Venezuela arrested Savoi Wright, a 38-year-old California businessman.
The US has conducted several swaps with Venezuela over the past few years, including one in October 2022 for seven Americans, including five oil executives at Houston-based Citgo, in exchange for the release of two nephews of Maduro’s wife jailed in the US on narcotics charges. Like that earlier exchange, Wednesday’s swap took place on a tarmac in the Caribbean island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Saab, who turns 52 on Thursday, hugged his wife and two young children as he descended the staircase of a private jet at the Simon Bolivar International Airport. Also present to welcome him was Venezuela’s first lady, Cilia Flores.
Saab was arrested in 2019 during a fuel stop in Cape Verde en route to Iran, where he was sent to negotiate oil deals on behalf of Maduro’s government. The US charges were conspiracy to commit money laundering tied to a bribery scheme that allegedly siphoned off $350 million through state contracts to build affordable housing. Saab was also sanctioned for allegedly running a scheme that allegedly stole hundreds of millions in dollars from food-import contracts at a time of widespread hunger mainly due to shortages in the South American country.
After his arrest, Maduro’s government said Saab was a special envoy on a humanitarian mission and was entitled to diplomatic immunity from criminal prosecution under international law. On Wednesday, it celebrated Saab’s return as a victory for its solidarity efforts around the world and renewed calls for the US to remove all sanctions against the oil-rich country.
“Alex Saab is a victim of the US government’s retaliation for his extraordinary efforts to protect the social rights of all Venezuelans in the face of unilateral coercive measures,” the government said in a statement.
Joseph Schuster,, a lawyer for Saab, welcomed his client’s reunion with his family. “We are also very happy for the American citizens who will be able to rejoin their families for Christmas,” he said.
There was no mention of Saab’s past secret meetings with the US Drug Enforcement Administration. In a closed-door court hearing last year, Saab’s lawyers said that he was for years helping that agency untangle corruption in Maduro’s inner circle and had agreed to forfeit millions of dollars in illegal proceeds from corrupt state contracts.
But the value of the information he shared with the Americans is unknown; some have suggested it may have all been a Maduro-authorized ruse to collect intelligence on the US law enforcement activities in Venezuela. Whatever the case, Saab skipped out on a May 2019 surrender date and shortly afterward was charged by federal prosecutors in Miami.
Meanwhile, millions of Venezuelans who have chosen to remain in their country continue to live in poverty. The minimum wage is about $3.60 a month, just enough to buy a gallon of water. The low wages and high food prices have pushed more than 7.4 million people to leave the country.
The deal is the latest concession by the Biden administration in the name of bringing home Americans jailed overseas, including a high-profile prisoner exchange last December when the US government — over the objections of some Republicans in Congress and criticism from some law enforcement officials — traded Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for WNBA star Brittney Griner.
The swaps have raised concerns that the US is incentivizing hostage-taking abroad and producing a false equivalence between Americans who are wrongfully detained abroad and foreigners who have been properly prosecuted and convicted in US courts. But Biden administration officials say securing the freedom of wrongfully detained Americans and hostages abroad requires difficult dealmaking.
Making this deal more palatable to the White House was Venezuela’s willingness to return Francis.
Nicknamed “Fat Leonard,” for his bulging 6-foot-3 frame, Francis was arrested in a San Diego hotel nearly a decade ago as part of a federal sting operation. Investigators say he bilked the US military out of more than $35 million by buying off dozens of top-ranking Navy officers with booze, sex, lavish parties and other gifts.
Three weeks before he faced sentencing in September 2022, Francis made an escape as stunning and brazen as the case itself as he snipped off his ankle monitor and disappeared. He was arrested by Venezuelan police attempting to board a flight from Caracas and has been in custody since.
 


District court rebuffs fining Netherlands for Israel jet parts

District court rebuffs fining Netherlands for Israel jet parts
Updated 12 July 2024
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District court rebuffs fining Netherlands for Israel jet parts

District court rebuffs fining Netherlands for Israel jet parts
  • The Hague District Court’s judges agreed on Friday but stressed February’s judgment “said nothing about the route that parts take via other countries for the production of the F-35”

THE HAGUE: Dutch judges on Friday slapped down an urgent request by a trio of rights groups to penalize the Netherlands for not respecting a ban on supplying F-35 fighter jet parts to Israel.
In a landmark verdict in February, an appeals court ordered the Netherlands to stop delivering parts for fighter jets used by Israel in its offensive in the Gaza Strip.
But the rights groups went back to court in June, saying that the ban has not prevented parts ending up in Israeli planes.
Their lawyers accused the Dutch government of continuing “to deliver (parts) to other countries, including the US.”
The three groups asked The Hague District Court in an urgent request to impose a €50,000 per day fine on the state for not respecting the verdict.
Their lawyers said F-35 parts exported by the Netherlands continued to reach Israel via other routes, including the so-called “Global Spares Pool” — a joint stock of spare parts maintained by countries that operate the F-35.
The Hague District Court’s judges agreed on Friday but stressed February’s judgment “said nothing about the route that parts take via other countries for the production of the F-35.”
The judges said the February judgment had a “more limited scope” than the rights group’s current urgent request.
“It has not been demonstrated that the state is not complying with the ban or does not intend to continue to comply,” the judges said.
“Therefore, there is no penalty for a violation,” the judges said.
In its verdict in February, appeals judges found that there was a “clear risk” the planes would be involved in breaking international humanitarian law.
The Dutch government then acknowledged it could not prevent parts shipped to the US from eventually ending up in Israeli F-35s.
But its lawyers said it did not believe the Netherlands had to restrict exports of F-35 parts to countries other than Israel.
The Dutch government added that it would implement the February verdict but announced that it would appeal to the Supreme Court.

 


Teenage migrant in Spain’s Canaries sleeping rough after coming of age

Teenage migrant in Spain’s Canaries sleeping rough after coming of age
Updated 12 July 2024
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Teenage migrant in Spain’s Canaries sleeping rough after coming of age

Teenage migrant in Spain’s Canaries sleeping rough after coming of age
  • Around 19,000 migrants, mainly from West Africa, arrived on the islands in the first six months of 2024, a 167 percent increase from the same period a year earlier, according to government figures

MADRID: When Abdellatif Bouhlal landed on the Spanish island of Gran Canaria after surviving the perilous sea journey from Morocco on a rickety dinghy, he was alone and just 15 years old.
Having been picked up at sea, Bouhlal spent three years in a reception center for unaccompanied minors, but when he came of age, he had to leave and find his shelter.
With the authorities slow to process the paperwork he needs as a foreigner to be able to work in Spain, he was forced to sleep rough and beg for money, he said.
“On the same day I turned 18, they dumped me out on the streets like a dog,” he said from a makeshift tent on El Cabron beach in the town of Arinaga.
Bouhlal’s story is shared by thousands of young migrants who attempt the perilous journey on the deadly Atlantic route, only to find a host country that struggles to cope with an unprecedented number of arrivals and integrate them into the domestic jobs market.
Around 19,000 migrants, mainly from West Africa, arrived on the islands in the first six months of 2024, a 167 percent increase from the same period a year earlier, according to government figures.
Disagreements on migration policy have driven a wedge between the conservative People’s Party, or PP, and the far-right Vox, which ruled five Spanish regions together until Thursday when the PP backed a plan by Spain’s central Socialist-run government to move around 400 under-18 migrants from the Canary Islands to the mainland.
Bouhlal, born in the north-central Moroccan city of Beni Mellal, said he had left his country because he saw no future.
His scant belongings include a bare mattress, a cardboard box with second-hand clothes, and a few candles.
On windy nights, he covers his head with a blanket to protect his eyes from the sand being blown around.
Bouhlal said that when he begs for money, he faces the dilemma of spending it on food or the bus fare to the island’s capital, Las Palmas, for appointments with officials handling his residency case.
He has not seen his mother in 3 1/2 years.
A tearful Bouhlal, who does not have a phone, said he closes his eyes every night and pictures having dinner with her and his little sister. “Not talking to her really hurts,” he said.

 


Russian assassination plots against those supporting Ukraine uncovered in Europe, official says

Russian assassination plots against those supporting Ukraine uncovered in Europe, official says
Updated 12 July 2024
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Russian assassination plots against those supporting Ukraine uncovered in Europe, official says

Russian assassination plots against those supporting Ukraine uncovered in Europe, official says
  • The plots have sometimes involved recruiting common criminals in foreign countries to conduct the attacks
  • One major plot recently uncovered had targeted Armin Papperger, CEO of defense company Rheinmetall

WASHINGTON: Western intelligence agencies have uncovered Russian plots to carry out assassinations, arson and other sabotage in Europe against companies and people linked to support for Ukraine’s military — one of the most serious being a plan to kill the head of a German arms manufacturer, a Western government official said.
The plots have sometimes involved recruiting common criminals in foreign countries to conduct the attacks, said the official, who is familiar with the situation but not authorized to comment and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
One major plot recently uncovered had targeted Armin Papperger, CEO of defense company Rheinmetall, the official said.
The official declined to offer any details on other plots, which were first reported by CNN. The CNN report said the US informed Germany, whose security services were able to protect Papperger and foil the plot.
Rheinmetall is a major supplier of military technology and artillery rounds for Ukraine as it fights off Russian forces. The company last month opened an armored vehicle maintenance and repair facility in western Ukraine and also aims to start production inside the country.
White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson declined to comment on the alleged plot to kill Papperger but said, “Russia’s intensifying campaign of subversion is something that we are taking extremely seriously and have been intently focused on over the past few months.”
“The United States has been discussing this issue with our NATO allies, and we are actively working together to expose and disrupt these activities,” Watson added. “We have also been clear that Russia’s actions will not deter allies from continuing to support Ukraine.”
Neither Rheinmetall nor the German government would comment Friday on the reported plot against Papperger. The Interior Ministry can’t comment on “individual threat situations,” spokesperson Maximilian Kall said, but he added that more broadly, “we take the significantly increased threat from Russian aggression very seriously.”
“We know that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s regime wants above all to undermine our support for Ukraine in its defense against the Russian war of aggression, but the German government won’t be intimidated,” Kall said.
He noted that German security measures have increased significantly since 2022 and that “the threats range from espionage and sabotage, through cyberattacks, to state terrorism.”
European officials gathered for the NATO summit in Washington this week spoke of dealing with an escalation of “hybrid” attacks that they blame on Russia and its allies.
That includes what authorities called suspicious recent fires at industrial and commercial sites in Lithuania, Poland, the United Kingdom, Germany and other nations, and charges that Russia-allied Belarus was sending large numbers of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa to the borders of Poland, Latvia and other countries belonging to NATO.
When asked at a news conference at the NATO summit Thursday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he could not comment on the CNN report. He did note a widespread campaign by Russian security services to conduct “hostile actions” against NATO allies, including sabotage, cyberattacks and arson.
“These are not standalone instances. These are part of a pattern, part of an ongoing Russian campaign. And the purpose of this campaign is, of course, to intimidate NATO allies from supporting Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said.
In April, German investigators arrested two German-Russian men on suspicion of espionage, one of them accused of agreeing to carry out attacks on potential targets, including US military facilities, in hopes of sabotaging aid for Ukraine.
Germany has become the second-biggest supplier of weapons to Ukraine after the United States since Russia started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dismissed the report of a plan to kill Papperger. “All of this is again presented in the fake style, so such reports cannot be taken seriously,” he told reporters Friday.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to his Russian counterpart, Andrei Belousov, on Friday, their second call in less than a month, Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh announced at a briefing Friday. The call was initiated by the Russian defense minister, Singh said.
She did not have further details to share, including whether the two leaders spoke about the accusations that Russia had attempted to assassinate top officials of Western defense firms producing weapons systems that are sent to Ukraine, but said “maintaining lines of communication is incredibly important right now.”


US keeps barring Chinese officials over rights

US keeps barring Chinese officials over rights
Updated 12 July 2024
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US keeps barring Chinese officials over rights

US keeps barring Chinese officials over rights
  • The State Department didn’t identify or give a number of those who would be denied visas
  • The US has kept up pressure on China, including by expanding restrictions on technology exports

WAHSINGTON: The United States said Friday it would keep denying visas to Chinese officials over human rights concerns in Xinjiang, Tibet and elsewhere, vowing accountability despite a thaw in tensions between the powers.
Unlike previous high-profile actions against Chinese officials, the State Department did not identify or give a number of those who would be denied visas or specify if additional people were being blacklisted.
State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said that United States was restricting visas to current or former officials “for their involvement in repression of marginalized religious and ethnic communities.”
Beijing “has not lived up to its commitments to respect and protect human rights, as demonstrated by the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, the erosion of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong, persistent human rights abuses in Tibet and transnational repression around the world,” he said in a statement.
He called on China to accept recommendations in the latest UN review of its rights record, including releasing citizens “it has arbitrarily and unjustly detained.”
Under previous president Donald Trump, the United States publicly named several officials who would be denied entry including Chen Quanguo, the architect of China’s hard-line policies in Tibet and then Xinjiang who has since retired.
Under President Joe Biden, the United States has kept up pressure on China, including by expanding restrictions on technology exports, but has also pursued dialogue to keep tensions in check.
The United States says that China is carrying out genocide against the mostly Muslim Uyghur people in Xinjiang, pointing to accounts of vast detention camps, allegations strongly rejected by Beijing.


UN says world population to peak at 10.3 billion in the 2080s

UN says world population to peak at 10.3 billion in the 2080s
Updated 12 July 2024
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UN says world population to peak at 10.3 billion in the 2080s

UN says world population to peak at 10.3 billion in the 2080s
  • Size of world’s population in 2100 will be six percent lower, or 700 million people fewer

NEW YORK: Earth’s population will peak in the mid-2080s at around 10.3 billion people, then drop slightly to a level much lower than anticipated a decade ago, the United Nations said.
The current population of 8.2 billion people will rise to that maximum over the next 60 years, then dip to 10.2 billion by the end of the century, says a report released Thursday entitled “World Population Prospects 2024.”
It said the size of the world’s population in 2100 will be six percent lower, or 700 million people fewer, than what was anticipated in June 2013.
“The demographic landscape has evolved greatly in recent years,” said Li Junhua, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs.
He said the unexpected population peak stems from several factors that include lower levels of fertility in some of the world’s largest countries, especially China.
He said this lower maximum will also come earlier than previously calculated and this is a hopeful sign as the world fights global warming: fewer humans accounting for less aggregate consumption would mean less pressure on the environment.
“However, slower population growth will not eliminate the need to reduce the average impact attributable to the activities of each individual person,” this official said.
More than a quarter, or 28 percent, of the world’s population now lives in one of 63 countries or areas where the population has already peaked, including China, Russia, Japan and Germany, the report said.
Nearly 50 other countries should join that group over the next 30 years, including Brazil, Iran and Turkiye.
But population growth will continue in more than 120 countries beyond 2054. These include India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan and the United States, said the UN.
A rise in global life expectancy — interrupted by the Covid pandemic — has resumed, with an average of 73.3 years of longevity in 2024. It will average 77.4 years in 2054.
So the world’s population will get more and more gray. By the late 2070s, the number of people 65 or older is projected to be 2.2 billion, surpassing those under 18, the study predicts.