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Italy: Lawmakers Want Salvini to Explain Alleged Russia Deal

Opposition lawmakers in Italy demanded Thursday to have Interior Minister Matteo Salvini appear in Parliament about allegations that a covert Russian oil sale scheme was devised to fund his pro-Moscow League party.

Democratic Party lawmakers pressed for a parliamentary inquiry following another media report with allegations that a former Salvini associate proposed an under-the-table arrangement to pump money into the right-wing party.

The alleged proposal for the multimillion-euro plan was made last year after the League became a partner in Italy’s populist coalition government and ahead of May’s European Parliament elections.

Italian Senator Gregorio De Falco, top right, speaks at the Senate in Rome, July 11, 2019. Opposition lawmakers want to question Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini about allegations of a Russian oil deal to fund his pro-Moscow League party.

As he did when the allegations first surfaced earlier this year, Salvini shrugged off the latest version.

“Never took a ruble, a euro, a dollar or a liter of vodka of financing from Russia,” Salvini said after the BuzzFeed report was published Wednesday.

Salvini has openly admired Russian President Vladimir Putin and vigorously advocates an end to European Union economic sanctions on Russia.

The opposition lawmakers specifically want to question Salvini, the BuzzFeed journalist who reported the allegations, Italy’s ambassador to Moscow, and Russia’s ambassador to Rome.

They also want to hear from Gianluca Savoini, a League associate close to the Russians who allegedly championed the proposed deal.

Allegations

The BuzzFeed article about a Moscow meeting aimed at arranging such a deal in 2018 largely mirrored allegations that appeared months ago in Italian magazine L’Espresso.

BuzzFeed built on L’Espresso’s story, saying it had obtained an audio of the conversation about the purported deal among Italians and Russians at a Moscow hotel.

Both articles said the alleged deal would have involved a Russian energy company selling fuel to an Italian energy company. The fuel would be allegedly offered at a discount, with part of the difference purportedly going to the League’s coffers. 

Both L’Espresso and BuzzFeed stressed the reporters had no confirmation the deal was sealed or evidence that fuel was delivered or funds channeled to the League.  

Reaction from Salvini

Asked what role alleged middleman Savoini has in the League, Salvini replied brusquely, “I don’t know. Ask him. It’s ridiculous, all that I read in the papers.”

Milan daily Corriere della Sera quoted Savoini, in a text message exchange with the newspaper, as saying of the BuzzFeed account: “All conjecture! Nothing concrete because neither money nor funds ever came to the League from Russia. Never!”

The League is the junior partner in a populist coalition with the 5-Star Movement that had led the Italian government since June 2018.

Premier Giuseppe Conte told reporters he hadn’t listened to the audio linked to the BuzzFeed report but had faith in Salvini and welcomes any investigation.

The Italian news agency ANSA said that Milan-based prosecutors had started looking into possible international corruption after L’Espresso’s article in February.

Salvini contends sanctions against Russia unfairly hurt Italian exporters.

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France Adopts Pioneering Tax on Internet Tech Giants After US Threat

France adopted a pioneering tax on internet giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook on Thursday, despite U.S. threats of new tariffs on French imports.

The final vote in favor of the tax in the French Senate came hours after the Trump administration announced an investigation into the tax under the provision used last year to probe China’s technology policies, which led to tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese imports.

”Between allies, we can, and we should, solve our differences without using threats,” Bruno Le Maire said. “France is a sovereign country. It will make its own sovereign decisions on fiscal measures.”

The tax amounts to a 3% annual levy on the French revenues of digital companies with yearly global sales worth more than 750 million euros ($844 million) and French revenue exceeding 25 million euros. The tax primarily targets those that use consumer data to sell online advertising.

”Each of us is seeing the emergence of economic giants with monopolistic attributes and who not only want to control a maximum amount of data and make money with this data, but also go further than that by, in the absence of rules, escaping taxes and putting into place instruments that could, tomorrow, become a sovereign currency,” Le Maire said.

The French Finance Ministry has estimated that the tax would raise about 500 million euros annually ($563 million) at first — but predicted fast growth.

The tech industry is warning that consumers could pay more. U.S. companies affected included Airbnb and Uber as well as those from China and Europe.

The bill aims to stop multinationals from avoiding taxes by setting up headquarters in low-tax EU countries. Currently, the companies pay nearly no tax in countries where they have large sales like France.

France failed to persuade EU partners to impose a Europe-wide tax on tech giants, but is now pushing for an international deal with the 34 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

”The internet industry is a great American export, supporting millions of jobs and businesses of all sizes. Global tax rules should be updated for the digital age — and there is a process to do so underway at the OECD — but discriminatory taxes against U.S. firms are not the right approach,” said Jordan Haas of the Internet Association, an industry trade group whose members include Facebook, Google and Uber.

Another U.S. trade group, the Computer and Communications Industry Association, also said the French proposal discriminated against American companies.

The U.S. investigation got bipartisan support from the top members of the Senate Finance Committee. In a joint statement, Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa, committee chairman, and Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon said: “The digital services tax that France and other European countries are pursuing is clearly protectionist and unfairly targets American companies in a way that will cost U.S. jobs and harm American workers.”

Also on Thursday, Britain moved ahead with similar plans as the government published draft legislation for a “digital services tax.” Starting in April, search engines, social media platforms and online marketplaces that “derive value from U.K. users” will be subject to a new 2% percent tax.

Small companies and unprofitable startups will also be spared in the British proposals. The levy will apply to companies with more than 500 million pounds ($626 million) in revenue, if more than 25 million pounds comes from British users.

The tax is temporary and would be replaced by a global deal, which Britain has also been pushing for through the OECD and the Group of 20 major economies.

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US Targets Venezuela Intelligence Agency with Sanctions

The Trump administration imposed sanctions Thursday on Venezuela’s military intelligence agency, which is accused of torturing to death a navy captain in its custody.
 
The latest move by the U.S. Treasury Department to pressure President Nicolas Maduro from power followed another round of negotiations in Barbados between Maduro’s government and opposition leaders aimed at ending Venezuela’s political crisis.
 
Maduro’s spokesman Jorge Rodriguez said the talks moderated by Norway that closed Wednesday resulted in a successful exchange, but gave no details and it wasn’t immediately clear if any agreements had been reached.
 
The U.S.-backed opposition is demanding early presidential elections, contending that Maduro’s re-election last year was invalid.
 
Few hold out hope for the most recent attempt at dialogue. Several rounds of talks have failed to lead to solutions as Venezuela’s political and financial crisis has deepened in recent years, sparking one of the worst migration crises in Latin America’s history.
 
Maduro often says he’s willing to negotiate to end hostilities and bring peace to the South American nation, bu the opposition accuses the socialist government of using talks as a stalling tactic while continuing to threaten, torture and kill political opponents.
 
The Vatican extended its institutional prestige in 2016, attempting to mediate a dialogue that the pope later said went up in smoke,'' placing blame on Maduro. A year later, a fresh round of talks in the Dominican Republic also fizzled with no constructive outcome.<br />
 <br />
Meanwhile, crippling U.S. oil sanctions have exacerbated a crisis marked by food, fuel and medicine shortages that sent 4 million people _ more than 10% of Venezuela's population _ fleeing the country in recent years.<br />
 <br />
The new U.S. sanctions target Venezuela's General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence. The sanctions appear to be largely symbolic because they prohibit Americans' dealings with the agency, which likely has few already.<br />
 <br />
The agency arrested Capt. Rafael Acosta on suspicion of plotting to assassinate Maduro. His attorney says he showed signs of torture before dying after a court appearance.<br />
 <br />
The politically motivated arrest and tragic death… was unwarranted and unacceptable,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.  
 
Mnuchin said Treasury is committed to ending the Maduro regime’s “inhumane treatment of political opponents, innocent civilians, and members of the military in an effort to suppress dissent.”
 
The Trump administration has sanctioned dozens of top Venezuelan officials, including Maduro, accusing them stealing from the once-wealthy nation’s coffers for personal gain while using the funds to repress critics.
 
The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet recently published a report accusing Venezuelan officials of human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and measures to erode democratic institutions.
 
Maduro says the United State seeks to replace him with a puppet government headed by opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido amid an economic war against his socialist country.
 

 

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Cameroon Fights Boko Haram Recruitment with Goats, Sheep

The government of Cameroon this week began rolling out an unlikely weapon in the fight against Boko Haram militants.

Authorities are distributing thousands of goats and sheep to young Cameroonians in villages along with border with Nigeria.

The program aims to providing livestock for a basic income in order to stop the Islamist militant group’s recruiting tactics. The hope is that the livestock will empower thousands of vulnerable families and stop them from joining the extremists, who promise jobs.

In the village of Salak, 17-year-old Oumar Nafisatu received four sheep.

Nafisatu says she is looking forward to having baby sheep so she can sell them to pay for her school fees. She is the only one to take care of herself, she says, after her father and mother passed away.

Beneficiaries of the initiative take possession of their livestock in Maroua, Cameroon, July 11, 2019. (M. Kindzeka/VOA)

Boko Haram fighters killed Nafisatu’s parents, along with 21 others, when they attacked her village in 2017, forcing her to flee.

Just a week later, Nafisatu’s only sister was killed in a suicide bomb attack in a mosque at Kolofata. Boko Haram had recruited her with promises of a job as a house cleaner, then forced her to carry out the attack.

Cameroon’s government plans to distribute 60,000 goats and sheep by the end of the year.  The minister of livestock, known only as Dr. Taiga, said the animals will go to those who have suffered in the fight against Boko Haram.

He said the initiative is to help families who are vulnerable by providing animals that are fruitful and enable them to have money. They will provide for their basic needs, said Taiga, take care of their families, and help to avoid temptations that can jeopardize peace and bring chaos.

Cameroon’s minister of livestock, known only as Dr. Taiga, speaks in Maroua, Cameroon, July 11, 2019. (M. Kindzeka/VOA)

The Lake Chad Basin Commission, with eight member nations in the region including Cameroon, says some areas attacked by Boko Haram have unemployment rates as high as 90 percent.

Midjiyawa Bakary, governor of Cameroon’s Far North region, notes there have been no major Boko Haram attacks in the past year but says the militants are still recruiting, and the military remains on alert.

He said people should be vigilant because Boko Haram is recruiting jobless youths with promises to improve their living conditions.  Village militias, known as self-defense groups, should be reactivated to work in collaboration with the military, officials, traditional rulers and the clergy, said Bakary. He said they can share information on any suspected activities that may upset the peace that has been returning to villages and towns.

 

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Ukraine-Russia Conflict Sparks Human Rights Debate

A U.N. report on extensive human rights violations in the Russian-backed separatist regions of eastern Ukraine and in the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula has triggered a fiery debate at the U.N. human rights council.  

The conflict between Russian-backed rebels and the Ukrainian government in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk is entering its sixth year. U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore says 5 million people are directly affected by ongoing hostilities along the contact line, the area that separates the two warring forces.

“Shelling, use of small arms and light weapons, mines, explosive remnants of war — these continue to kill and injure civilian women and men, girls and boys,” she said.

FILE – Men speak outside a residential building, which locals said was damaged during recent shelling, in the suburb of the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk, Ukraine, June 28, 2019.

Thirteen people have been killed and 78 injured this year, Gilmore said, adding that people in the rebel-controlled areas also suffer from extreme poverty because they do not receive their pensions from the government in Kyiv. She criticized the self-proclaimed authorities in eastern Ukraine for denying human rights monitors access to the detainees, many of whom she said have been subjected to torture.

She also accused the Russian Federation of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in March 2014.

“Those who criticize the occupation or advocate broadly for human rights are intimidated, even imprisoned,” she said. “Crimean Tatars have been subjected to arrests [and] convictions for affiliation with Muslim groups declared as ‘extremist organizations’ under Russian law.”    

Reaction from Ukraine

Following Gilmore’s statement, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Yuri Klymenko, lashed out at Russia’s occupation of Crimea. He accused the Kremlin of violating international humanitarian law in support of the separatists in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

“The temporary occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as well as in Crimea, Russia stubbornly imposes its citizenships on the local population, thus violating the norms of international humanitarian law and the sovereignty of Ukraine,” Klymenko said. “Russia has not come to Donbas to protect anyone.  Russia, as an aggressor state, has come to kill.”  

Ukraine’s criticisms did not sit well with the Russian representative at the council. Second secretary at the Russian mission to the U.N. in Geneva, Kristina Sukacheva, sneered at Ukraine’s efforts to blame Russia for violations in the Donbas and Crimea. She called the accusations unsubstantiated and farcical.

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Labor Secretary Defends His 2008 Plea Deal With Billionaire Sex Offender

U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta has defended a plea deal he helped broker with Jeffrey Epstein in 2008 in Florida. The billionaire financier, who socialized with U.S. President Donald Trump and former President Bill Clinton, is detained in New York where federal prosecutors have charged him with sex trafficking of minors between 2002 and 2005. Acosta is under pressure to step down because as U.S. attorney in Florida, he agreed to a mild sentence for Epstein. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.
 

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Cambodia Scraps Pay-to-Stay ‘Hotel’ Prison Plans

The Cambodian government is abolishing a controversial “hotel” prison project, according to Ministry of Interior officials.

The government had announced earlier this month that it would soon open the new prison facilities, in which inmates can pay to stay. The facilities are said to be more comfortable than the regular cells at prison Prey Sar, which have been criticized for being severely overcrowded. Interior Minister Sar Kheng had dubbed the new prison complex a “hotel,” and at other times Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak called it a “5-star prison.” Construction started in 2017 by Kunn Rekon Holdings Co Ltd.

But in a turn of events, Interior Ministry Department of Prisons spokesman Nouth Savna told Voice of America those plans would now be scrapped, pending official notification.

“I think the whole paid idea, the concept … has been dropped,” he said. “But we need to go through a formal process with clearing with the company and informing the government. … There will be no paid prison.”

Savna declined to elaborate further on reasons for canceling the plan, and multiple attempts to reach him later for comment failed.

FILE – Cambodian land activist Tep Vanny speaks to journalists outside Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh, Aug. 21, 2018.

Change of plans

Earlier, Savna explained that the government was concerned the company, Kunn Rekon Holdings Co. Ltd., would not be able to meet international and national standards for the facility, which was initially designed to hold up to 400 prisoners, and would therefore likely nationalize the prison. Savna said the government might have to pay the company compensation for terminating the contract, as the complex has been built.

A company employee, who declined to be named, said his company was not in a position to comment to journalists as they were under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior.

Asked about the change of plans, the employee said he could not provide further information.

“We haven’t gotten any official notification from them, that’s all I know,” he said.

Criticism of ‘two-class’ prison

The prison project had drawn criticism for creating a “two-class” system.

Chak Sopheap, executive director of Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said in an email that prisons in Cambodia posed an “acute human rights concern.”

“Cambodian prisons are overcrowded to a dangerous degree,” she said. A prison in which inmates could pay to stay for more comfort, however, would not be an adequate solution, she said.

“It sends the message that if you commit a crime, your punishment will depend on the amount of money you have at your disposal. As usual, when it comes to access to justice, the poor will suffer the most,” she said.

Rhona Smith, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, had also expressed concerns about the prison in her 2018 report. 

“All detainees should be afforded the same conditions of detention, conditions that meet, and even exceed, the minimum standards specified in the United Nations treaties Cambodia accepts and additional guidelines,” she said in her statement.

Tackling prison overcrowding

In an email to VOA, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights representative Simon Walker said that overcrowding could be tackled in various ways. For example, he said his organization had been working with the government on reducing pretrial detention and “promoting alternatives to sentencing” to reduce the number of inmates.

Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the government would take over the facility. 

“Please be informed that after debated, the plan has been canceled,” he said in a message to VOA. “We drop the plan. No more thinking about that, no more writing about that,” he said in a brief follow-up phone call.

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