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Beirut bloodshed deepens doubts over port blast probe

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BEIRUT, Oct 15 (Reuters) – The fate of a probe into the Beirut port explosion appears in increasing doubt after a bitter political dispute about the actions of the judge leading the investigation set off Lebanon’s bloodiest street violence in more than a decade.

Seven Shi’ite Muslims were killed by gunfire that began as people were assembling for a protest called by the Shi’ite group Hezbollah against Judge Tarek Bitar, in hours of clashes that stirred memories of the country’s ruinous 1975-90 civil war.

The violence, which erupted at a boundary between Christian and Shi’ite Muslim neighbourhoods, has added to concerns for the stability of a country that is awash with weapons and grappling with one of the world’s sharpest ever economic meltdowns.

The heavily-armed Hezbollah has accused the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party that had a powerful militia in the war, of opening fire. The LF denies this, condemning the violence which it blamed on Hezbollah “incitement” against Bitar.

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The army initially said rounds were fired at protesters as they passed through the Teyouneh traffic circle dividing Christian and Shi’ite Muslim neighbourhoods. It later said there had been an “altercation and exchange of fire” as protesters were on their way to the demonstration.

Guns were fired in the air during separate funerals for two of the dead, one in Beirut and the other in a Shi’ite village in the Bekaa Valley where coffins draped in the green flag of the Shi’ite Amal Movement were carried through the street.

Lebanon’s most powerful group, Hezbollah, has led calls for Bitar to be removed from the probe into the blast, which was caused by a huge quantity of unsafely stored chemicals and felt in Cyprus some 260 km (155 miles) away.

The Iran-backed group accuses him of leading a politicised probe that has picked on certain people, a reference to Hezbollah allies whom Bitar has sought to question on suspicion of negligence that led to more than 200 deaths.

In a Reuters interview, the Sunni Prime Minister Najib Mikati suggested concern over Bitar, saying “a constitutional error” may have been committed, echoing a view that he had exceeded his authority in pursuing top officials.

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Many Lebanese including families of the victims are furious, fearing ruling politicians will whitewash the inquiry into one of most powerful non-nuclear explosions ever recorded.

“Lebanon’s ruling establishment will use yesterday’s instability to frame the investigation as doing more harm than good,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.

“The impunity enjoyed by the ruling class will push the port investigation to face the same fate as previous attempts to hold those in power accountable for gross transgressions: an indefinite delay with little hope for meaningful results.”

The Lebanese Judges Association rejected calls to dismiss Bitar and defended the judiciary as the “last bastion of the idea of the state”.

The crisis over the probe has paralysed government as it seeks to dig the country out of the financial meltdown. It also risks complicating ties with Western governments from which Beirut hopes to secure aid.

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The United States and France want a transparent probe.

PILING ON THE PRESSURE

Bitar’s probe was already struggling, with senior politicians refusing to show up for questioning, leading him to issue arrest warrants that were ignored. A judicial source told Reuters Bitar had no intention of resigning, even as his opponents hold him responsible for bloodshed.

“The only way to stop (Bitar) is if he resigns – if they put more personal pressure on him like what happened yesterday,” said Nizar Saghieh, head of The Legal Agenda, a research and advocacy organisation.

All those Bitar has sought to question deny wrongdoing.

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The probe has been criticised by leading Sunnis including former prime ministers who objected to moves to question Hassan Diab, prime minister at the time of the blast, as a suspect.

They have described this as an assault on the post of prime minister, which is reserved for a Sunni.

Mikati, in the interview on Thursday, said it was up to the judiciary, not politicians, to rectify the constitutional error which he said may have been made. It reflects the view of Bitar’s critics who say he exceeded his authority by pursuing senior officials and that any case against such officials should pass through a special parliamentary process and court.

Lebanon’s main Christian parties have been supportive of the probe. The issue is sensitive for the Christian parties partly because, while the port blast killed many Muslims, the bulk of the physical damage was in predominantly Christian areas.Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by William Maclean

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Calm returns as clean-up begins in Solomon Islands -media

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November 28, 2021

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Soldiers and police from Australia and Papua New Guinea were helping to restore calm in the Solomon Islands as clean-up operations started, after several days of rioting left three dead and led to dozens of arrests, local media reported.

The Solomon Star newspaper said Australian soldiers and police and troops from Papua New Guinea had helped to restore normalcy in the country’s capital Honiara, halting the looting, rioting and burning of buildings and shops.

Overnight, clean up operations began in earnest in areas that were particularly hard hit, including the city’s Chinatown, the newspaper said. Footage obtained by Reuters showed heavy machinery moving rubble from burned out shops.

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Three charred bodies were discovered in a store on Friday in the Chinatown district, an area targeted by protesters still resentful the government in 2019 ended diplomatic ties with Taiwan to establish formal links with China.

More Australian Federal Police would arrive in the South Pacific nation on Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a televised news conference.

“Although things are very unstable at this point … plans, we know, are being made, to ensure there can be calm,” he said.

Some 50 officers from the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary arrived in Honiara on Friday, a day after Australia sent its own forces to the capital, both in response to requests from the Solomon Islands government for help.

(Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Tom Hogue)

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Australia to introduce new laws to force media platforms to unmask online trolls

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November 28, 2021

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia will introduce legislation to make social media giants provide details of users who post defamatory comments, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Sunday.

The government has been looking at the extent of the responsibility of platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, for defamatory material published on their sites and comes after the country’s highest court ruled that publishers can be held liable for public comments on online forums.

The ruling caused some news companies like CNN to deny Australians access to their Facebook pages.

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“The online world should not be a wild west where bots and bigots and trolls and others are anonymously going around and can harm people,” Morrison said at a televised press briefing.

“That is not what can happen in the real world, and there is no case for it to be able to be happening in the digital world.”

The new legislation will introduce a complaints mechanism, so that if somebody thinks they are being defamed, bullied or attacked on social media, they will be able to require the platform to take the material down.

If the content is not withdrawn, a court process could force a social media platform to provide details of the commenter.

“Digital platforms – these online companies – must have proper processes to enable the takedown of this content,” Morrison said.

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“They have created the space and they need to make it safe, and if they won’t, we will make them (through) laws such as this.”

(Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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In Honduras, parties flag fears of fraud ahead of pivotal vote

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November 28, 2021

By Gustavo Palencia and David Alire Garcia

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – Warnings of potential foul play are flying from all sides ahead of Sunday’s presidential election in Honduras, raising fears of possible disputes and unrest if leading challenger Xiomara Castro does not win by a clear margin.

The charged political atmosphere reflects memories of the disputed 2017 election, which the ruling National Party won after a delayed count and that the Organization of American States said was riddled with irregularities before calling for a fresh vote.

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The opposition said the result was fraudulent and both sides claimed victory. More than two dozen people were killed in the ensuing riots and repression.

The current election cycle has already claimed more political violence than four years ago, with more than 30 killed so far, according to researchers at Honduras’ national university.

Salvador Nasralla, the 2017 runner-up, is the current candidate for vice president for the leading opposition slate led by self-declared democratic socialist Castro. He accuses the National Party of planning a repeat of what he said was voter suppression in 2017.

“I don’t have any confidence in our electoral process,” he told Reuters.

The conservative National Party routinely uses its full control of government institutions and funds to reward supporters, punish opponents and influence elections, politicians from both sides say.

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This week, the party itself issued a statement blasting the electoral authority for already committing errors including a lack of transparency that could lead to a “national crisis” with delayed and suspect results.

“It creates a situation of high risk to the election,” it said.

Sunday’s vote will mark the latest fraught political showdown in Central America, after Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega cruised to re-election this month after detaining all leading rivals.

In a sign of concerns in the final week before the election, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden took the unusual step of sending a high-level delegation to meet with the main candidates, government officials and election organizers.

After the visit, a senior U.S. State Department official said the main objective of the delegation was to encourage a fair, free and peaceful election, given what it describes as democratic backsliding in the region.

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If poll leader Castro wins, she would bring the Honduran left to power for the first time since her husband, former President Manuel Zelaya, was ousted in a 2009 coup.

If ruling party candidate Nasry Asfura prevails, he will have overcome the unpopularity of outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who is fighting accusations of corruption and links to drug smugglers.

Hernandez denies wrongdoing.

A LOOK AT THE CANDIDATE’S PHONE

During an interview, Nasralla showed Reuters a video on his phone he said was captured by his home-security cameras a few days ago. It showed someone painting slurs on a wall of his house. In the video, the person can be seen removing an outer layer of clothing to reveal a shirt bearing the logo of Castro’s Libre party underneath.

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Nasralla said the video was evidence that National Party agitators were disguising themselves as Libre supporters, and worried they will provoke violence or property destruction to erode opposition votes.

“They’re the ones that cause violence,” he said.

The National Party did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Friday, a handful of businesses in the capital Tegucigalpa covered glass store entrances with wood and metal panels, in a sign some were taking the possibility of unrest seriously.

Rixi Moncada, the Libre Party’s representative on the electoral council, said the government and the National Party have caused “a lot of obstruction” in its efforts to organize a fair vote.

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She specifically accused the finance ministry of interfering with the council’s budget and causing delayed deliveries of polling station equipment, like printers and finger-print readers.

Moncada, a lawyer, expressed concern that any post-election dispute might reach the courts, widely seen as loyal to the ruling party.

“This country has very little faith in our system of justice,” she said.

(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia and David Alire Garcia; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Daniel Flynn and Nick Zieminski)

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