Four go on trial in France over 2018 Christmas market attack

Four go on trial in France over 2018 Christmas market attack
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This court sketch made at the Vaucluse’s Assizes Court in Avignon, on Feb. 19, 2024, shows defendant Ilias Akoudad and Ismael Boujti during the trial for the murder of French police officer Eric Masson. (AFP)
Four go on trial in France over 2018 Christmas market attack
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French police search for evidence at the site where Cherif Chekatt, the alleged gunman who had been on the run since allegedly killing three people at Strasbourg’s popular Christmas market, was shot dead by police on Dec. 13, 2018 in Strasbourg. (AFP)
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Updated 29 February 2024
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Four go on trial in France over 2018 Christmas market attack

Four go on trial in France over 2018 Christmas market attack
  • The four men on trial in Paris are accused of crimes ranging from “terrorism” to helping supply weapons
  • The trial opened at the Paris court with the suspects confirming their names

PARIS: Four men went on trial on Thursday over a 2018 Christmas market attack in France’s eastern city of Strasbourg, with a key suspect insisting he did not know the plans of the radical Islamist who killed five people before being shot dead by police after a 48-hour manhunt.
The traditional Christmas market was in full swing on December 11 when Cherif Chekatt — a convicted criminal featured on a list of possible extremist security risks — opened fire on revellers, shouting “Allahu Akbar” (“God is Greatest” in Arabic).
The four men on trial in Paris are accused of crimes ranging from “terrorism” to helping supply weapons, including the 19th-century revolver Chekatt used in the attack.
The trial opened at the Paris court with the suspects confirming their names.
One of them, Audrey Mondjehi, faces the maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted of “terrorism.” The others risk 10 years imprisonment.
The trial, due to last until early April, is the latest legal process over the militant attacks that have hit France since 2015, with most of those in the dock accused of complicity since the actual perpetrators were generally killed while carrying out their attacks.
In December 2022, a Paris court convicted all eight suspects in the trial over a 2016 truck attack in the Mediterranean city of Nice, which left 86 dead, including the driver.
In the highest-profile case, 20 defendants were convicted in June 2022 over their roles in the November 2015 attack in the French capital, when 130 people were killed.
The Daesh group claimed the Strasbourg attack, but the then-French interior minister Christophe Castaner said it was taking credit for an attack it hadn’t planned.
A video pledging allegiance to the group was however found at the assailant’s home.
Of the accused only Mondjehi, 42, was charged with “terrorism,” while the three others — all in their 30s — face criminal conspiracy charges for their role in supplying weapons.
A fifth defendant, in his mid-80s, may be tried at a later date after a medical examination found his health was not compatible with taking part in the current long trial.
Mondjehi, a former cellmate of the assailant, played “a key role in supplying a weapon” by putting him in touch with sellers, and “could not have been unaware of, or may have even shared, all or part of Cherif Chekatt’s radical convictions,” according to the indictment.
Mondjehi told the court this was not true.
“Never could I have known that this weapon could have been for an attack,” he said.
His lawyer Michael Wacquez said he was concerned Mondjehi could be used as a scapegoat.
“Mondjehi should not be an outlet for the grief of the victims and should not be condemned because Cherif Chekatt is not there,” he said.
According to the investigation, there was no evidence of the other suspects having been aware of Chekatt’s plans.
Although Chekatt cannot now be brought to justice, survivors and relatives of victims said the trial was still crucial.
The attack “turned my whole life upside down,” said Mostafa Salhane, a 53-year-old former taxi driver who spent 15 terrifying minutes with Chekatt who climbed into his cab with a gun in his hand as he fled the scene.
A lawyer representing some of the families, Arnaud Friederich, said the trial was a “key moment” for his clients.
“There will be a before and an after,” he said.
Claude Lienhard, a lawyer for several dozen people, said there was a perception the investigation has been dragging on.
“There’s a fear that this will be a low-cost trial compared with other terror trials, as many feel they have been forgotten,” he said.
Audrey Wagner, who saw Chekatt wound one of her friends, said she expected proceedings to be “distressing” but important to “turn the page.”
Jean-Yves Bruckman, a now-retired firefighter who aided one of the victims said he needed answers “to heal.”
“One question keeps coming back to me: How can you kill someone like that?“


Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin resumes duty after undergoing procedure at Walter Reed

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin resumes duty after undergoing procedure at Walter Reed
Updated 5 sec ago
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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin resumes duty after undergoing procedure at Walter Reed

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin resumes duty after undergoing procedure at Walter Reed

WASHINGTON: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin underwent a medical procedure at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Friday evening and has resumed duty after temporarily transferring power to his deputy, Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement.
Austin is continuing to deal with bladder issues that arose in December following his treatment for prostate cancer, Ryder said.
The procedure was successful, elective and minimally invasive, “is not related to his cancer diagnosis and has had no effect on his excellent cancer prognosis,” the press secretary said.
Austin transferred authority to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks for about two-and-a-half hours while he was indisposed, the Pentagon said.
The Pentagon chief returned home after the procedure. “No changes in his official schedule are anticipated at this time, to include his participation in scheduled Memorial Day events,” Ryder said.
Austin, 70, has had ongoing health issues since undergoing surgery to address a prostate cancer diagnosis. He spent two weeks in the hospital following complications from a prostatectomy. Austin faced criticism at the time for not immediately informing the president or Congress of either his diagnosis or hospitalization.
Austin was taken back to Walter Reed in February for a bladder issue, admitted to intensive care for a second time and underwent a non-surgical procedure under general anesthesia at the time.
The Pentagon has notified the White House and Congress, Ryder said.


More than 300 buried in Papua New Guinea landslide, local media says

More than 300 buried in Papua New Guinea landslide, local media says
Updated 17 min 36 sec ago
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More than 300 buried in Papua New Guinea landslide, local media says

More than 300 buried in Papua New Guinea landslide, local media says
  • Hundreds are feared dead in the landslide that hit Kaokalam village

SYDNEY: More than 300 people and over 1,100 houses were buried by a massive landslide that levelled a remote village in northern Papua New Guinea, local media reported on Saturday.
Hundreds are feared dead in the landslide that hit Kaokalam village in Enga Province, about 600 km (370 miles) northwest of capital Port Moresby, around 3 a.m. on Friday (1900 GMT on Thursday).
The landslide in the Pacific nation north of Australia buried more than 300 people and 1,182 houses, the Papua New Guinea Post Courier said, citing comments from a member of the country’s parliament, Aimos Akem. Akem did not immediately respond to Reuters request for comment via social media.
The Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported on Saturday that four bodies had been retrieved from the area after emergency teams reached the sparsely populated area, where the death toll is expected to rise.
The landslide has blocked highway access, making helicopters the only way to reach the area, the broadcaster reported.
Social media footage posted by villager Ninga Role showed people clambering over rocks, uprooted trees and mounds of dirt searching for survivors. Women could be heard weeping in the background.
Prime Minister James Marape has said disaster officials, the Defense Force and the Department of Works and Highways were assisting with relief and recovery efforts.


French court sentences 3 Syrian officials to life in prison in absentia for war crimes

French court sentences 3 Syrian officials to life in prison in absentia for war crimes
Updated 25 May 2024
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French court sentences 3 Syrian officials to life in prison in absentia for war crimes

French court sentences 3 Syrian officials to life in prison in absentia for war crimes
  • The trial focused on the officials’ role in the alleged 2013 arrest in Damascus of Mazen Dabbagh, a Franco-Syrian father, and his son Patrick, and their subsequent torture and killing
  • Former intelligence officials Ali Mamlouk, Jamil Hassan, and Abdel Salam Mahmoud are the most senior Syrian officials to go on trial in a European court over crimes allegedly committed during the country’s civil war

PARIS: A Paris court sentenced three high-ranking Syrian officials in absentia to life in prison Friday for complicity in war crimes in a landmark case against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the first such case in Europe.

The trial focused on the officials’ role in the alleged 2013 arrest in Damascus of Mazen Dabbagh, a Franco-Syrian father, and his son Patrick, and their subsequent torture and killing. The four-day trial featured harrowing testimonies from survivors and searing accounts from Mazen’s brother.
Though the verdict was cathartic for plaintiffs, France and Syria do not have an extradition treaty, making the outcome largely symbolic. International arrest warrants for the three former Syrian intelligence officials — Ali Mamlouk, Jamil Hassan, and Abdel Salam Mahmoud — have been issued since 2018 to no avail.
They are the most senior Syrian officials to go on trial in a European court over crimes allegedly committed during the country’s civil war.
The court proceedings came as Assad has started to shed his longtime status as a pariah that stemmed from the violence unleashed on his opponents. Human rights groups involved in the case hoped it would refocus attention on alleged atrocities.
Clémence Bectarte, the Dabbagh family lawyer from the International Federation for Human Rights, said the verdict was the “first recognition in France of the crimes against humanity of the Syrian regime.”
“It is a message of hope for all Syrian victims who are waiting for justice. It is a message that must be addressed to states so that they do not normalize their relations with the regime of Bashar Assad,” she said.
The trial began Tuesday over the alleged torture and killing of the French-Syrian father and son who were arrested at the height of Arab Spring-inspired anti-government protests. The two were arrested in Damascus following a crackdown on demonstrations that later turned into a brutal civil war, now in its 14th year.
The probe into their disappearance started in 2015 when Obeida Dabbagh, Mazen’s brother, testified to investigators already examining war crimes in Syria.
Obeida Dabbagh and his wife, Hanane, are parties to the trial along with non-governmental organizations. They testified in court on Thursday, the third day of the trial.
Obeida Dabbagh said he hoped the trial would set a precedent for holding Assad accountable. “Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died. Even today, some live in fear and terror,” he said.
Despite the defendants’ absence, the trial’s significance was underscored by Brigitte Herremans, a senior researcher at the Human Rights Center of Ghent University. “It’s very important that perpetrators from the regime side are held accountable, even if it’s mainly symbolic. It means a lot for the fight against impunity,” she said.
 


Some 45,000 Rohingya have fled fighting in Myanmar: UN

Some 45,000 Rohingya have fled fighting in Myanmar: UN
Updated 25 May 2024
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Some 45,000 Rohingya have fled fighting in Myanmar: UN

Some 45,000 Rohingya have fled fighting in Myanmar: UN

GENEVA: The United Nations warned on Friday that escalating fighting in conflict-torn Myanmar’s Rakhine State had forced around 45,000 minority Rohingya to flee, amid allegations of killings and burnings of property.
“Tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced in recent days by the fighting in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships,” UN rights office spokeswoman Elizabeth Throssell told reporters in Geneva.
“An estimated 45,000 Rohingya have reportedly fled to an area on the Naf River near the border with Bangladesh, seeking protection,” she said.
Clashes have rocked Rakhine since the Arakan Army (AA) attacked forces of the ruling junta in November, ending a ceasefire that had largely held since a military coup in 2021.
The AA says it is fighting for more autonomy for the ethnic Rakhine population in the state, which is also home to around 600,000 members of the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority.
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled Rakhine in 2017 during a crackdown by the military that is now the subject of a United Nations genocide court case.
“Over a million Rohingya are already in Bangladesh, having fled past purges,” Throssell pointed out.
UN rights chief Volker Turk was urging Bangladesh and other countries “to provide effective protection to those seeking it, in line with international law, and to ensure international solidarity with Bangladesh in hosting Rohingya refugees in Myanmar,” she said.
James Rodehaver, head of the rights office’s Myanmar team, described the horrifying situation many were fleeing from.
He said his team had received testimonies and seen satellite images, online videos and pictures indicating that Buthidaung town had been “largely burned.”
“We have received information indicating that the burning did start on May 17... two days after the military had retreated from the town... and the Arakan Army claimed to have taken full control of the village.”
He stressed that the UN rights office was still working to corroborate that information, to clearly establish “who were the perpetrators.”
One survivor had described seeing dozens of dead bodies as he fled Buthidaung, while another had said he was among tens of thousands who fled the town only to find themselves blocked by the AA on the road west toward Maungdaw town.
Other survivors also said AA members had abused them and extorted money from them as they tried to make their way to Rohingya villages south of the town.
In the weeks leading up to the burning of Buthidaung, Rodehaver said the rights office had documented renewed attacks on Rohingya civilians by both AA and the military in northern Rakhine, including through air strikes.
The team had documented “at least four cases of beheadings,” he said, adding that they had determined with a high level of confidence that those were carried out by the AA.
Beyond Buthidaung, Throssell warned of “clear and present risks of a serious expansion of violence.”
She pointed to the beginning of a battle for Maungdaw town, where the military has outposts and where a large Rohingya community lives.
“In this appalling situation, civilians are once more victimized, killed, their properties destroyed and looted, their demands for safety and security ignored,” she said.
“They are again forced to flee their homes in a recurring nightmare of suffering.”


Zelensky says Ukrainian forces now control area where Russia pushed into Kharkiv region

Zelensky says Ukrainian forces now control area where Russia pushed into Kharkiv region
Updated 25 May 2024
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Zelensky says Ukrainian forces now control area where Russia pushed into Kharkiv region

Zelensky says Ukrainian forces now control area where Russia pushed into Kharkiv region
  • A late-night report by the General Staff said Ukrainian forces had repelled 10 Russian attacks in the area, including around Vovchansk.
  • Russian forces were using less infantry around Vovchansk and instead firing from a distance, with limited accuracy.

President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday that Ukrainian forces had secured “combat control” of areas where Russian troops staged an incursion this month in northern parts of Kharkiv region.

“Our soldiers have now managed to take combat control of the border area where the Russian occupiers entered,” Zelensky said in his nightly video address.
Zelensky’s comments, after holding a meeting of military and regional officials in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, appeared to be at variance with comments by Russian officials.
Viktor Vodolatskiy, a member of Russia’s State Duma lower house of parliament, was quoted by Tass news agency as saying Russian forces controlled more than half the territory of the town of Vovchansk, 5 km (three miles) inside the border.
Vodolatskiy was quoted as saying that once Vovchansk was secured, Russian forces would target three cities in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region — Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Pokrovsk.
Reuters was unable to verify independently battlefield accounts from either side.

Russian forces pushed into border regions of Ukraine’s Kharkiv region this month and Russia’s Defense Ministry said they had secured control of about 12 settlements.
Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials had been reporting success in “stabilising” the area.
The Ukrainian military’s General Staff, in its evening report on Friday said the situation in Vovchansk was “tense but controlled by the defense forces.”
“The Russian army today launched air terror against this town — eight guided bombs hit the town,” it said. Attacks were launched on at least two other settlements north of Kharkiv.
A late-night report by the General Staff said Ukrainian forces had repelled 10 Russian attacks in the area, including around Vovchansk.
It also noted Russian forces had achieved “partial success” in areas near Kupiansk, further east in Kharkiv region, and the Pokrovsk sector where heavy fighting has been taking place further south in Donetsk region.
Ukrainian military bloggers said Ukrainian troops had been holding their ground around Vovchansk and Russian forces were using less infantry in the area and instead firing from a distance, with limited accuracy.