- Pakistan marks democratic milestone in close-fought election
- Former Guatemala dictator Rios Montt convicted of genocide
- Pressure rises on White House over Benghazi talking points
Posted: 10 May 2013 08:35 PM PDT
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistanis began voting on Saturday in a landmark election that will bring the first transition between civilian governments in a country ruled by the military for more than half of its turbulent history.
The people of Pakistan hope the polls will deliver change and ease frustrations with a feeble economy, widespread corruption, chronic power cuts and crumbling infrastructure.
Disenchantment with the two mainstream parties appeared this week to have brought a late surge of support for former cricket star Imran Khan, who could end up holding the balance of power if there is no clear-cut winner.
If that happens, weeks of haggling to form a coalition will follow and raise the risk of an unstable government in a country ruled by the military for more than half of its history.
That would only make it more difficult to reverse the disgust with politicians felt among the country's 180 million people and drive through the reforms needed to revive its near-failed economy.
Power cuts can last more than 10 hours a day in some places, crippling key industries like textiles, and a new International Monetary Fund bailout may be needed soon.
Dozens of people have been killed in the run-up to the vote by the al-Qaeda-linked Pakistan Taliban, which regards the poll as un-Islamic and has vowed to disrupt the process with suicide bombings.
"The problems facing the new government will be immense, and this may be the last chance that the country's existing elites have to solve them," said Anatol Lieven, a professor at King's College, London, and author of a book on Pakistan.
"If the lives of ordinary Pakistanis are not significantly improved over the next five years, a return to authoritarian solutions remains a possibility," Lieven wrote in a column in the Financial Times on Friday.
The army stayed out of politics during the five years of the last government, but it still sets the nuclear-armed country's foreign and security policy and will steer the thorny relationship with Washington as NATO troops withdraw from neighbouring Afghanistan next year.
The party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif looks set to win the most seats in the one-day vote, which gets under way across the country at 8 a.m. (0300 GMT).
However, Khan's dark-horse challenge could deprive Sharif of a majority and dash his hopes for a return to power 14 years after he was ousted in a military coup, jailed and later exiled.
Pakistan's best-known sportsman, who led a playboy lifestyle in his younger days, Khan is seen by many as a refreshing change from the dynastic politicians who long relied on a patronage system to win votes and are often accused of corruption.
THREAT OF ATTACKS
Voters will elect 272 members of the National Assembly and to win a simple majority, a party would have to take 137 seats.
However, the election is complicated by the fact that a further 70 seats, most reserved for women and members of non- Muslim minorities, are allocated to parties on the basis of their performance in the contested constituencies. To have a majority of the total of 342, a party would need 172.
Khan appeals mostly to young, urban voters because of his calls for an end to corruption, a new political landscape and a halt to U.S. drone strikes on Pakistani soil.
The 60-year-old is in hospital after injuring himself in a fall at a party rally, which may also win him sympathy votes.
Early opinion polls had put the share of votes for his Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) party as low as single figures. However, a survey released on Wednesday showed 24.98 percent of voters nationally planned to vote for his party, just a whisker behind Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).
The Herald magazine poll showed Sharif's party remained the front-runner in Punjab, which, with the largest share of parliamentary seats, usually dictates the outcome of elections.
It also pointed to an upset for the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which led the last government, placing it third. Pakistan's politics have long been dominated by the PML-N and the PPP, whose most prominent figure is President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of assassinated former premier Benazir Bhutto.
"The PPP didn't take care of the poor masses and always engages in corrupt practices whenever they come to power," said Sher Nabi, a banker from Peshawar.
"So we've decided to vote for the PTI candidate this time and test Imran Khan to see if he proves as honest as he claims."
Pakistan, which prides itself on its democratic credentials, ordered the New York Times bureau chief in Islamabad to leave the country on the eve of national elections, the newspaper said on Friday.
A two-sentence letter was delivered by police officers to the home of the bureau chief, Declan Walsh, at 12:30 a.m. local time on Thursday, it said.
"It is informed that your visa is hereby cancelled in view of your undesirable activities," the Times quoted the letter as saying. "You are therefore advised to leave the country within 72 hours."
In the violence ahead of the election, militants mostly targeted secular-leaning parties in the PPP's outgoing coalition and largely spared more conservative parties that question Pakistan's participation in the U.S.-led campaign against militancy, including those of both Khan and Sharif.
Many Pakistanis still plan to vote despite the bloodshed.
"I want to go out and vote but my parents are scared there will be a bomb or a shooting," said 21-year-old Nargis Fatima, a student in Quetta, one of Pakistan's most volatile cities.
"This is the first time I'm old enough to vote and I'll try my best to go out there and feel that I am part of whatever new set-up comes into place."
(Additional reporting by Mehreen Zahra-Malik in ISLAMABAD, Gul Yousafzai in QUETTA, Mubasher Bukhari in LAHORE and Jibran Ahmed in PESHAWAR; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 10 May 2013 06:44 PM PDT
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt was found guilty on Friday of genocide and crimes against humanity during the bloodiest phase of the country's 36-year civil war and was sentenced to 80 years in prison.
Hundreds of people who were packed into the courtroom burst into applause, chanting, "Justice!" as Rios Montt received a 50-year term for the genocide charge and an additional 30 years for crimes against humanity.
It was the first time a former head of state had been found guilty of genocide in his or her own country.
Rios Montt, now 86, took power after a coup in 1982 and was accused of implementing a scorched-earth policy in which troops massacred thousands of indigenous villagers thought to be helping leftist rebels. He proclaimed his innocence in court.
"I feel happy. May no one else ever have to go through what I did. My community has been sad ever since this happened," said Elena de Paz, an ethnic Maya Ixil who was two years old in 1983 when soldiers stormed her village, killed her parents and burned her home.
Prosecutors say Rios Montt turned a blind eye as soldiers used rape, torture and arson to try to rid Guatemala of leftist rebels during his 1982-1983 rule, the most violent period of a 1960-1996 civil war in which as many as 250,000 people died.
He was tried over the killings of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixil indigenous group, just a fraction of the number who died during his rule.
A throng outside the court chanted "Justice! Justice!" when the guilty verdicts were handed down on Friday.
"They convicted him, they convicted him. I can't believe it," said Marybel Bustamante, whose brother was 'disappeared,' a euphemism for kidnapped and murdered, the day that Rios Montt took power.
The human rights group Amnesty International hailed it as the trial of the decade.
"He had full knowledge of everything that was happening and did not stop it," Judge Yasmin Barrios, who presided over the trial, told a packed courtroom where Mayan women wearing colourful traditional clothes and head-dresses closely followed proceedings.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu was among them.
"Today we are happy, because for many years it was said that genocide was a lie, but today the court said it was true," she said.
Barrios called a hearing for Monday to discuss compensation for the victims of Rios Montt's rule.
Rios Montt's intelligence director, Jose Rodriguez Sanchez, also stood trial, but he was acquitted on both charges.
During the trial, which began on March 19, nearly 100 prosecution witnesses told of massacres, torture and rape by state forces. At one point, the trial hung in the balance when a dispute broke out between two judges over who should hear the case.
Rios Montt denied the charges in court on Thursday, saying he never ordered genocide and had no control over battlefield operations.
"I am innocent," he told the courtroom, sporting thick glasses and a gray moustache. "I never had the intent to destroy any national ethnic group.
"I have never ordered genocide," he added, saying he took over a "failing" Guatemala in 1982 that was completely bankrupt and full of "subversive guerrillas."
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan provided support for Rios Montt's government and said in late 1982 that the dictator was getting a "bum rap" from rights groups for his military campaign against left-wing guerrillas during the Cold War.
He also once called Rios Montt "a man of great personal integrity".
Defence attorneys said earlier they would appeal if Rios Montt was convicted. They argued that prosecution witnesses had no credibility, that specific ethnic groups were not targeted under Rios Montt's 17-month rule and that the war pitted belligerents of the same ethnic group against one another.
Rios Montt has been under house arrest for more than a year. The right-wing party that he founded changed its name this year to distance itself from its past.
Guatemala's civil war ended with peace accords signed in 1996 but the Central American nation remains a deeply divided society with very poor indigenous areas.
President Otto Perez, a former army general during the civil war, says he was part of a group of captains that stood up to Rios Montt.
Declassified U.S. documents from the civil war years suggest Perez was one of the Guatemalan army's most progressive officers and that he played a key role in an ensuing peace process.
But Perez was himself implicated in war crimes during the trial when one prosecution witness testified that soldiers under his command had burned down homes and executed civilians during Rios Montt's rule.
Perez has argued that genocide did not take place during the war, underlining the divisions that persist in Guatemala over the conflict, which pitted leftist insurgents against a string of right-wing governments.
Perez, who took office in 2012, is the first military man to run the country since the war ended, and rights groups were concerned he could interfere with human rights trials.
Courts in Guatemala have only recently begun prosecutions for atrocities committed during the conflict.
Until August 2011, when four soldiers received 6,060-year prison sentences for mass killings in the northern village of Dos Erres in 1982, no convictions had been handed down for massacres carried out during the war.
A judge who initially presided over pre-trial hearings cast a new shadow of doubt over the Rios Montt case on Friday when she confirmed a decision she had announced on April 18 to wind back proceedings to November 2011, and void all developments since then.
Prosecutors insist that decision is illegal and are preparing legal challenges to the ruling, while defence attorneys have argued that the decision is binding and the trial should never have proceeded.
(Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Kieran Murray, Peter Cooney and Paul Simao)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 10 May 2013 05:08 PM PDT
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's administration fought back on Friday against Republican accusations that it covered up details of last year's deadly assault on a U.S. mission in Libya, after a news report that memos on the incident were edited to omit a CIA warning of a threat posed by al Qaeda.
The report by ABC News gave new momentum to the highly partisan flap over whether the administration tried to avoid casting the September 11, 2012, attack as terrorism at a time when the presidential election was less than two months away.
ABC released 12 versions of the administration's "talking points" on Benghazi that appeared to show how various agencies - particularly the State Department and the CIA - shaped what became the Obama's administration's initial playbook for explaining how four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in the attack.
The report came two days after a hearing in a House of Representatives committee in which Gregory Hicks, a former U.S. diplomat in Libya, gave a dramatic account of the night of the attack and what he described as a poorly handled response to it.
The report prompted a flurry of inter-agency finger-pointing and a hastily scheduled White House background briefing for reporters, as officials tried to defuse any political fallout.
Republicans have stepped up efforts to criticize the administration's response to the attack by suspected Islamist militants, with an increasing focus on the role of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a possible Democratic presidential contender in 2016.
TENSION BETWEEN AGENCIES
The "talking point" memos were used to prepare Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, before she appeared on television talk shows a few days after the attack.
The ABC report on the emails between the White House, State Department and intelligence agencies about the attack showed the final talking points went through a series of revisions that scrubbed them of references to previous terror warnings.
In one email exchange, the State Department's spokeswoman at the time, Victoria Nuland, objected to including the CIA's reference to intelligence about the threat from al Qaeda in Benghazi and eastern Libya.
That "could be abused by members (of Congress) to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings, so why would we want to feed that either? Concerned," Nuland wrote in the email.
A source familiar with the Benghazi memos said Nuland was concerned that the talking points went further than what she was allowed to say during her briefings and that "the CIA was attempting to exonerate itself at the State Department's expense."
But the source said the deletion of references to al Qaeda and the CIA's warnings came after a White House meeting on the day before Rice appeared on five Sunday morning TV talk shows, and that Nuland was not at the meeting.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Friday that the changes were part of a broad effort to ensure that Rice was talking about facts and not speculation. The final talking points were approved by a CIA official the day before Rice's appearances on the talk shows, he said.
"The overriding concern of everyone involved in that circumstance is always to make sure that we are not giving to those who speak in public about these issues information that cannot be confirmed, speculation about who was responsible," Carney said.
He said the White House made stylistic changes to the talking points to clarify that the Benghazi mission was not a consulate.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said critics were "cherry-picking" details from the memos but that "what was clear throughout was that extremists were involved in the attack."
A national security official with direct knowledge of the talking point process said the State Department had objected to a draft produced by the CIA because it made it seem as if State had ignored previous intelligence warnings about the dangers in Benghazi.
The tension between government agencies revealed in the documents offered an unusual peek into the Obama administration's internal rivalries and displayed a rare crack in its usual discipline about messaging and public image.
'PURE, PROLONGED POLITICAL PROCESS'
Democrats have dismissed the Republican attacks as politically motivated, and they had not gained much public momentum until this week.
"It's a tragedy, but I hate to see it turned into a pure, prolonged, political process that really doesn't tell us anything new about the facts," Secretary of State John Kerry, who replaced Clinton, said in a Google+ Hangout chat.
During the House hearing on Wednesday, Republicans renewed their months-old claims that the email traffic shows that the administration tried to play down the Benghazi assault because it came at the height of the U.S. presidential campaign and might have made Obama look weak on national security.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner demanded on Thursday that the administration release emails on its handling of the attack. The emails reported by ABC had been shown to members of Congress, but lawmakers and staff were not given copies, officials said.
Meanwhile, Republican advocacy groups entered the fray.
The pro-Republican group American Crossroads released a web video that raises questions about Clinton's role in a possible "cover-up" over the White House's evolving explanations for the incident.
In the days after the attack the administration - citing intelligence reports - essentially claimed that it had been a demonstration that turned violent. The story soon changed to an acknowledgement that Islamist militants were behind the assault.
"Americans deserve the truth," the American Crossroads video says.
The Republican National Committee sent out portions of the ABC report in an email headlined "Obama's Bungled Benghazi Response."
Congressman Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat on the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the Republican accusations were an attempt to damage Clinton in case she decides to run for president in 2016.
"It is so much an effort ... to harm her before she even makes a decision and then to make sure they've got some material after she decides to run for president, assuming she does," he told MSNBC.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Mark Felsenthal; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by David Lindsey and Christopher Wilson)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
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