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Explainer: What are the allegations against Israel's Netanyahu?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been indicted on corruption charges on Thursday, presenting one of the gravest challenges yet to Israel’s longest-serving leader.

Netanyahu, 70, denies all wrongdoing but now finds himself stuck in political and legal limbo. He has failed to put together a government after two inconclusive elections this year, and now faces a legal process that could drag on for years.

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Here is a guide to the criminal cases against him:

What are the allegations against Netanyahu?

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that he has filed criminal charges against Netanyahu in investigations listed as cases 1000, 2000 and 4000.

Case 1000 centres on allegations that Netanyahu and his wife Sara wrongfully received gifts from Arnon Milchan, a prominent Hollywood producer and Israeli citizen, and Australian billionaire businessman James Packer. Those gifts allegedly included champagne and cigars. He has been charged with fraud and breach of trust. 

Case 2000 alleges that Netanyahu negotiated a deal with the owner of Israel’s best-selling daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, for better coverage. In return, prosecutors say, he offered legislation that would slow the growth of a rival daily newspaper. In this case, Netanyahu has been charged with fraud and breach of trust. 

Case 4000 alleges that Netanyahu granted regulatory favours to Israel’s leading telecommunications company, Bezeq Telecom Israel, in return for positive coverage of him and his wife on a news website controlled by the company’s former chairman. Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, as well as fraud and breach of trust, in this case.

What does Netanyahu say?

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a politically orchestrated “witch-hunt” by the media and the left to remove him from office.

Loyalists in Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party have accused the Israeli justice system of bias, and Netanyahu himself has argued that receiving gifts from friends was not against the law.

His legal team says criminal probes into the relations between politicians and the news media would be a threat to a free press, a central pillar of any democracy.

Will a trial begin soon?

Unlikely. It could take many months before the cases are brought before the court. Netanyahu could also seek a plea deal rather than stand trial.

Netanyahu’s allies in parliament, the Knesset, have said they would push to grant him parliamentary immunity from prosecution. But with Israeli politics in unprecedented turmoil, it is unclear whether such a move is even possible.

Could he go to jail if convicted?

Bribery charges carry a sentence of up to 10 years in jail and/or a fine. Fraud and breach of trust carry a prison sentence of up to three years.

Will there be political fallout?

Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics for more than a decade. But both he and his main centrist rival Benny Gantz have failed to form a government after two elections, in April and September, leaving the country in political and economic stasis.

If there is no political breakthrough in the next three weeks, Israel will face yet another election, which few want.

If he is still in office as prime minister after that, Netanyahu would be under no strict legal obligation to quit. According to Israeli law, a prime minister must step down if ultimately convicted, but can stay in office throughout legal proceedings, including appeals.

It is unclear if allies – who have mostly remained loyal – will continue to stick by him.

Source: Aljazeera

'Referendum on Duque': Thousands march against Colombia president

Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in the streets of Bogota to protest against the country’s right-wing government. [Megan Janetsky/Al Jazeera]

Bogota, Colombia – Hundreds of thousands of protesters marched through the dense city streets of Bogota and other cities across Colombia on Thursday as the country joined a wave of others in South America experiencing anti-government demonstrations.

Protesters sent out a unified cry against the right-wing administration of President Ivan Duque, whose approval ratings have plummeted amid an uptick in violence, a flailing peace process and general unrest country-wide.

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What began as a peaceful demonstration, and one of the biggest in recent years, had descended into chaos by the end of the day. Police clashed with protesters throwing rocks and bottles and a cloud of teargas hovered over the city centre.

“They’re throwing tear gas and dispearsing, abusing the people,” protester Milena Riaño shouted over loud crashes and the roar of the crowd running from police in riot gear. “I’m so scared because I have kids.”

Civil society groups opposing economic reforms by Duque’s right-wing government announced the strike last month. But after weeks of protests in Chile prompted by continuing economic inequality, unrest in Bolivia and riots in Ecuador, Haiti, Venezuela and Brazil, the day morphed into something more potent; an accumulation of growing woes against the Colombian government.

“In my community, in my department of Cauca, they’re killing our social leaders in our indigenous lands … they’re killing us selectively,” said Almayari Barano Yanakuna, a 48-year-old indigenous women who stood among crowds of thousands.

Hoisting a rainbow indigenous flag over her shoulder, she said her home in western Colombia was once defined by bloodshed, and while there was a brief respite in 2016 when the government signed landmark peace accords, violence against her community was once again ticking up, and along with it, their fears.

She travelled to the capital, she said, to send a message to the Duque and the country.

“Today, I want to send the message that they respect our ancestral territories, that they respect life,” she said. “We don’t want any more killings.”

Duque’s slightly-more-than-a-year in office has been marred by deep political divides, tethered especially to the government’s failure to comply with the country’s peace process, corruption and the killings of social leaders.

Those tensions have only deepened in recent weeks with a massacre of indigenous people by criminal groups in the Cauca and the resignation of Duque’s defence minister after a bombing targeting dissidents of the demobilised Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group, killed at least eight children.

‘A referendum on Duque’

While student and indigenous groups in the country have rallied in past months, the rallies brought with them violence, but little change. Thursday’s protests, dubbed #ParoNacional, or #NationalStrike, appeared to strike a different chord.

Collective support by student, indigenous, labour, political and social groups – each bringing with them their own tribulations – turned the day into what Andes Director of Washington Office on Latin America Gimena Sanchez called a “referendum on Duque”. While social leaders, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities denounced growing assassinations and threats against them, university students railed against corruption and the chronic underfunding of education.

“It’s not just a protest about ‘Can we change whoever is in the government,'” Sanchez said, “But it’s the fact that the whole political and economic system is failing the needs of the broader Latin Americans.”

Camila Romero, an 18-year-old university student had taken part three times before in student demonstrations that were marked by a violent crackdown by Colombian security forces. She said Thursday’s protest was not just about the students any more, and because of that, she hoped it would have a larger ripple effect.

“This is different than the others,” Romero said. “It’s a national event. It’s not just a small part of the population, of the citizens that have come to protest. No, it’s everyone.”

Colombia

In the lead up to the protests, Duque’s administration called for extra security forces and permitted local government extra powers to avoid violence.

In a video, the president called for peace, but said the government would  “guarantee order and defend you with all the tools the constitution grants us”.

Thursday’s protest remained peaceful for the vast majority of the day, but when protesters began throwing rocks and bottles and chanting “get out Duque”, police in swat gear who had lined the streets in Bogota’s city centre, Plaza Bolivar, pushed back.

With concentrated clashes with police stretching into the night how Duque chooses to respond could be a turning point for the South American country, Sanchez said.

“It can be an opportunity for positive constructive change,” she added. “It depends a lot on how the government takes this. Do they take this as a warning sign that they need to shift their approach … or do they buckle down and make this about something else?”

Colombia protests

Source: Aljazeera

Trump team pushed Ukraine for Biden investigation: Witnesses

Fiona Hill and David Holmes are sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill [Andrew Harnik/AP Photo]

Washington, DC – Two key witnesses told the United States House of Representatives impeachment inquiry that a number of officials openly pushed Ukraine for partisan investigations with the knowledge and backing of President Donald Trump as US military aid was being withheld from the Eastern European country.

Fiona Hill, the former senior director for Russia and Europe at the White House National Security Council, and David Holmes, the top political counsellor at the US embassy in Kyiv, testified on the fifth day of public hearings in the impeachment inquiry.

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Trump is likely to face an impeachment vote in the House of Representatives in mid-December. If he is impeached, he would face a lengthy trial on the charges in the Republican-majority US Senate in January and February just months before the 2020 presidential election.

Holmes and Hill, both career foreign service officers, gave first-hand accounts of meetings and conversations at the White House and in Kyiv that Democrats said were damning to the president’s claims he did nothing wrong. Trump has repeatedly asserted he did not pressure Ukraine to announce an investigation of Trump’s US domestic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

House Democrats leading the impeachment probe have focused on a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the actions leading up to and following the call of three top officials Trump had been directed to work on Ukraine policy.

The three officials – who jovially called themselves the “Three Amigos” – were Energy Secretary Rick Perry, EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland and Ukraine Special Envoy Kurt Volker.

“The president did, in fact, have knowledge that those senior officials were using the levers of our diplomatic power to induce the new Ukranian president to announce the opening of a criminal investigation against Trump’s political opponent,” Holmes told the impeachment inquiry.

Holmes described a key meeting in Kyiv on July 26, the day after Trump asked Zelenskyy in the phone call to open an investigation of Biden and a conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, had hacked Democratic Party emails in 2016.

Perry, Sondland and Volker met with Zelenskyy and his top advisers at the Presidential Administrative Building in Kyiv. Zelenskyy was seeking a commitment from the Americans to a White House meeting with Trump. During the meeting, Zelenskyy noted that “three times Trump had mentioned sensitive issues”, later understood to mean the Biden and 2016 investigations, Holmes said.

After the group meeting, Sondland – who had been pushing the Biden and 2016 investigations for Trump – met one-on-one behind closed doors with Andriy Yermak, a top aid to Zelenskyy.

TRUMP IMPEACHMENT

Holmes said he was prevented by Yermak’s assistant from joining the meeting as the US embassy’s representative and was told that “Ambassador Sondland and Mr Yermak had insisted that the meeting be one-on-one, with no note-taker,” Holmes told the inquiry.

Sondland, Holmes and two other aides then went to lunch at Kyiv restaurant where Sondland ordered wine for the table and placed a cellphone call to Trump “to give him an update”, Holmes recalled.

Sondland told Trump that Zelenskyy “loves your a**”, Holmes said.

Trump was then overheard asking “So, he’s gonna do the investigation?” Holmes testified.

Sondland replied, “He’s gonna do it”, adding that Zelenskyy would do “anything you ask him to”, the official said.

‘Hand grenade’

Democrats asked Hill to recount a July 10 White House meeting with Ukrainian security officials.

Near the end of the meeting, convened by former National Security Adviser John Bolton, Sondland raised the president’s interest in the political investigations. Bolton “stiffened” and ended the meeting, Hill said.

After the meeting, Hill said Bolton told her: “Rudy Giuliani is a hand grenade that is going to blow everyone up.”

The problem from Bolton’s perspective was that Giuliani was “frequently on TV bringing up troublesome issues” and “making incendiary comments about everyone involved” with Ukraine, Hill said. 

“It became very clear that the White House meeting itself was being predicated” on Ukraine announcing investigations of Biden and 2016, Hill told the inquiry.

Bolton instructed Hill to report Sondland’s inquiry to the Ukrainians to a White House lawyer with the instruction, “I’m not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up.”

Mick Mulvaney is the acting White House chief of staff.

Hill told the inquiry that a narrative being pushed now by Republicans in defence of Trump that Russia did not intervene in US 2016 elections, it may have been Ukraine “is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves”. 

Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, argued that it was legitimately within Trump’s authorities as president to express concerns to Ukraine about what happened in the 2016 election and Biden’s role.

“Isn’t that the commander-in-chief’s authority,” Nunes said.

Democrats have sought to impeach Trump from the beginning of his presidency, Nunes said.

Republican Will Hurd allowed that after five days the impeachment testimony showed Trump administration had made mistakes but the president had not committed an impeachable act.

Source: Aljazeera

Iran loosens internet restrictions after protest shutdown

Protests began on November 15 in several provincial towns after the government announced gasoline price hikes of at least 50 percent [Reuters]

Iran began restoring internet access in the capital and a number of provinces after a five-day nationwide shutdown meant to help stifle deadly protests over fuel-price hikes.

The country’s elite Revolutionary Guard security force said calm had now returned across Iran on Thursday, state TV reported.

“The internet is being gradually restored in the country,” the semi-official news agency Fars reported, quoting unidentified “informed sources”.

The National Security Council that ordered the shutdown approved reactivating the internet in “some areas”, it said.

According to news reports, fixed-line internet was restored in Hormozgan, Kermanshah, Arak, Mashhad, Qom, Tabriz, Hamadan and Bushehr provinces, as well as parts of Tehran.

“We again have internet as of an hour ago,” a retired engineer, who declined to be named, said by telephone from the capital.

Iran was rocked by nationwide protests sparked by growing anger and frustration after authorities rolled out a petrol-rationing scheme and slashed subsidies in a move that sent prices soaring by 50 percent.

A top cyberspace security official in Iran told journalists on Thursday he believed the country’s internet would be fully turned on “within the next two days”.

Abolhassan Firouzabadi, secretary of the Supreme Cyberspace Council, said the organisation discussed the matter at a meeting.

“We hope conditions will improve soon so that this unwanted measure is stopped and everyone can have access to the internet again,” said Firouzabadi.

“Some businesses have lost profits as a result of cutting off the internet and a decision will be made on compensating for their losses after the current situation is over.”

He also called for the creation of a more powerful and effective national intranet for times of crisis.

Death toll dispute

Amnesty International said on Tuesday more than 100 demonstrators had been killed by security forces, a figure rejected as “fabricated” by Iran’s government.

Iranian officials said the steep fuel-price increase was imperative because of crippling American sanctions devastating its oil-based economy, and the money raised would be given to the nation’s poorest people.

The government said the price rises were intended to raise about $2.55bn a year for extra subsidies to 18 million families struggling on low incomes.

The internet blockage made it difficult for protesters to post videos on social media to generate support and also to obtain reliable reports on the extent of the unrest.

Internet blockage observatory NetBlocks said the restoration of connectivity in Iran covered only about 10 percent of the country. News agencies and residents said only fixed-line internet, not mobile internet, was partially available.

‘Death and tragedy’ 

US President Donald Trump on Thursday accused the government of shutting down internet access to cover up “death and tragedy” during a wave of street protests.

“Iran has become so unstable that the regime has shut down their entire internet system so that the great Iranian people cannot talk about the tremendous violence taking place within the country,” Trump tweeted.

“They want ZERO transparency, thinking the world will not find out the death and tragedy that the Iranian Regime is causing!”

The IMF said it regretted the violence and loss of life during the protests and had not discussed the fuel-price hike with Iran.

IMF spokeswoman Camilla Andersen added: “In general, the IMF continues to advise oil-producing countries in the Middle East and Central Asia region to reduce fuel subsidies … while compensating the poor with targeted cash transfers, which we understand is the approach Iran has taken.”

Amnesty International said it had documented at least 106 protesters killed by security forces, which would make it the worst street unrest in Iran in at least a decade and possibly since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iran’s UN mission on Wednesday blasted “biased” Amnesty and said only the government could provide an accurate death toll.

Source: Aljazeera

US sends first Honduran to Guatemala under new asylum deal

A man carries empty boxes past the graffiti that reads, ‘No third country’ near Congress in Guatemala City [File: Oliver de Ros/AP Photo]

Guatemala City, Guatemala – The first Honduran asylum seeker arrived in Guatemala on Thursday from the United States under a new agreement between the Trump administration and Guatemalan government that has been slammed by rights groups.

The Honduran migrant, who has not been identified, arrived in Guatemala City from El Paso, Texas on Thursday morning.

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Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart confirmed that more flights with asylum seekers will arrive in the coming week.

“We are awaiting for the United States to indicate to us how many people will be ready,” he said. 

On Wednesday, The Trump administration officially published details of the so-called “safe third country” agreement, which was signed in July by Degenhart. The agreement allows US immigration authorities to require asylum seekers to first apply for asylum in Guatemala prior to attempting to come to the US.

Immigrant rights groups have criticised the plan, saying it is inconceivable that migrants would be sent to a country that has high levels of violence and poverty. Tens of thousands of Guatemalans fled the country last year to seek asylum in the US. 

“The government is incapable of receiving these people,” said Eva Arriaza, a 41-year-old migrant rights activist in La Libertad, Guatemala.

“[The government] is incapable of supporting its own people, there is extreme malnutrition, for example,” she told Al Jazeera.

According to Degenhart, the asylum-seeking man, who arrived on Thursday, will be processed and eventually sent back to Honduras at his request.

Degenhart told Reuters News Agency on Saturday that he expected some Salvadorans and Hondurans would request to return to their home countries instead of waiting in Guatemala.

On Thursday, Degenhart said asylum seekers would be processed in Guatemala, but their stay and shelter in the country would be the responsibility of the UN immigration and asylum agencies.

‘Putting people at risk’

The agreement faced legal challenges in Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court. The court initially blocked the agreement, ruling on July 14 that the agreement must be approved by the country’s congress. 

But Degenhart said his office had determined that there was no need for approval from congress.

Degenhart said, “This work that is being done in conjunction with the United States is to pursue and disarticulate the operational capacities of the structures of transnational organised crime.”

But rights groups say such policies will push more migrants to pursue dangerous means to arrive in the US.

“People are looking for other forms of reaching the United States,” Wolkte said. “These policies are not disincentivising migration, but rather it is putting people further at risk.”

The US Department of Homeland Security did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request at the time of publication.

Source: Aljazeera

Sandler, Pattinson indie films top Spirit Award nominations

The winners will be announced at the Spirit Awards on February 8 [Mark Blinch/Reuters]

Adam Sandler and Robert Pattinson saw their Oscar hopes boosted on Thursday as, Uncut Gems, and, The Lighthouse, led the Film Independent Spirit Awards nominations with five each, in the unofficial start to Hollywood’s annual prize-giving season.

While major studio releases are not eligible for the Spirit Awards, the prizes are still seen as a strong indicator of the independent movies that could eventually be Oscar winners.

Sandler stars as a brash, larger-than-life New York jewel dealer in the high-octane drama, Uncut Gems, from the Safdie brothers, who also earned a directing nod.

Former Twilight and Harry Potter-star Pattinson underlined his indie credentials with a nomination for Robert Eggers’ black-and-white tale of two lighthouse keepers on a remote island.

Both films were made by production house A24, which once again dominated, earning 18 nods. The indie powerhouse is behind previous Oscar winner, Moonlight, as well as, Lady Bird, and, The Disaster Artist.

Actresses Zazie Beetz (Joker) and Natasha Lyonne (Orange Is The New Black) presented the nominations at a Los Angeles news conference.

Film Independent President Josh Welsh described 2019 as “a year of bold, audacious and accomplished film-making” despite significant change and challenges affecting the movie industry.

Netflix’s, Marriage Story, was selected to receive the Robert Altman Award, which is bestowed upon one film’s director, casting director and cast.

The movie, starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, will vie with Uncut Gems for the best feature prize.

While Sandler and Pattinson will compete for best male lead, A-listers Renee Zellweger (Judy) and Elisabeth Moss (Her Smell) were nominated for best female lead, and Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers) will vie for the best supporting female award.

Five best feature winners this decade have gone on to best picture glory at the Academy Awards, including Moonlight, Spotlight and Birdman.

Source: Aljazeera