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Four-Nation Military Drills Begin Again Near Guam

Multinational amphibious exercises on the U.S. Pacific island of Guam were moving ahead as scheduled Saturday, one day after being suspended when a French landing craft ran aground.

 

First Lt. Joshua Hays, a spokesman for the U.S. 3rd Marine Division, said Japanese soldiers will practice rubber craft raids. On Sunday, U.S. Marines plan to conduct live-fire training with French troops, training that was originally scheduled for Saturday.

The weeklong drills involve U.S., British, French and Japanese troops. They’re intended to show support for the free passage of vessels in international waters amid concerns China may restrict access to the South China Sea.

 

They’re being held around Guam and Tinian islands, U.S. islands that are about 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) south of Tokyo and east of Manila, Philippines.

 

The exercises feature two French ships currently on a four-month deployment to the Indian and Pacific oceans. Some 50 Japanese soldiers and 160 Japanese sailors were due to participate, along with U.K. helicopters and 70 U.K. troops deployed with one of the French ships. 

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Pakistan Reels From IS-claimed Suicide Attack

The Islamic State extremist group claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province that killed at least 25 people and wounded more than 40 others. The attack apparently targeted a leader of an Islamic party in Pakistan, who also was wounded. VOA’s Murtaza Zehri and Naimatullah Sarhadi report.

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Vietnam Issues Warrant for Environmental Activist

Police in a Vietnamese province where a toxic spill caused a 100-ton fish kill last year have issued a rare “wanted” warrant for influential environmental activist Bach Hong Quyen.

On Friday, a day after police attempted to serve the warrant to his wife at the couple’s home in Ha Tinh province, Vietnamese media reported authorities had launched a nationwide manhunt for the 28-year-old activist, who was accused of “disturbing public order” through his organization of an April 3 environmental protest.

Blogger Nguyen Lan Thang posted on Facebook that “the ongoing manhunt is the Ha Tinh police’s revenge of Quyen’s activities aiming at protecting the people in the central area in the Formosa disaster.” He then cautioned the government that it would not be easy to find or arrest Quyen because “there are dozens of organizations, hundreds of social activists and millions of people who will protect him.”

Bui Huong Giang, Quyen’s wife, told the VOA Vietnamese service that police on Thursday tried to serve the warrant at the couple’s house, Quyen’s parents’ house and at another location “in the countryside.” She recorded the police telling her that it was her “responsibility” as Quyen’s wife to “persuade him to report to the police and confess.” She posted the unverified recording to Facebook.

Home watched

Giang also told VOA that their home had been under surveillance since April 3. A protest that day drew 2,000 people angry at the government’s response to the April 2016 toxic spill from Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation and police harassment of protest organizers, including Quyen, the day before.

Giang told VOA that “police are tracking” her husband throughout Vietnam, although she said she did not know his whereabouts.

The police in Ha Tinh province refused to speak with VOA on the telephone about the warrant.

Residents of Ha Tinh and three other central coast provinces are still recovering from the April 6, 2016, fish kill caused by a discharge from Formosa Ha Tinh Steel. The environmental and economic disaster both embarrassed and worried the government as images of piles of dead fish on beaches went viral, fishing communities lost income, and thousands of protesters demonstrated at the plant and in cities throughout Vietnam.

The Ha Tinh fish kill is widely seen throughout Vietnam as having raised environmental awareness and increased activism. The movement saw early success when the Taiwanese-owned steel company accepted full responsibility for the fish kill and pledged to pay $500 million in damages for dumping wastewater laden with phenol, cyanide and iron hydroxide into the sea.

Still sensitive

The event remains a politically touchy topic that Vietnam’s government has tried to play down. The steel plant has become, for many citizens, a symbol of China’s economic influence in Vietnam, even as the two countries face off over disputed territory in the South China Sea.

But protesters and activists have refused to let the government ignore the incident’s aftermath, and it was in that spirit that Quyen and others met for coffee April 2 to discuss the next day’s march.

Quyen told VOA on April 3 that the group spotted plainclothes officers in the cafe. As the activists prepared to leave, police roughed them up, and then they fired on a crowd that gathered. Although nobody was shot, Quyen told VOA at least nine people were injured.

“My husband is innocent,” Giang told VOA on Thursday. “Anything he has done is legal and correct, because what he has done is help local people in the village raise their voice about the pollution caused by Formosa.”

An Ton contributed to this report, which originated on the VOA Vietnamese service.

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Chinese Rights Lawyer’s Wife Says Xie Yang Released but Under Heavy Surveillance

Chinese rights lawyer Xie Yang has been released on bail after recanting accusations of police torture during his trial on Monday. But he is still under tight surveillance by secret police, according to his wife.

A court in the central Chinese city of Changsha has yet to announce a verdict, and legal experts say a ruling may not come any time soon.

Rights groups suspect that Xie’s swift release is likely a trade-off and another way of controlling rights advocates without having to put them in formal detention, a tactic that will make it harder for the international community to keep the pressure on.

No genuine freedom

Xie’s wife, Chen Guiqiu, has fled China and is now in the United States with her two daughters.

“Escorted by secret police, Xie Yang arrived home on May 9 to celebrate his mother’s 80th birthday. But hours later was taken away along with his [octogenarian] parents to a residence in a remote village deep into the mountains. He still has no genuine freedom,” Chen told VOA.

Chen says that when she spoke with Xie on Wednesday, her husband sounded indifferent when she shared details of the intimidation and harassment suffered by their family while in China and recounted their escape in March to the United States.

She said she thinks it was inconvenient for Xie to speak freely, but also noted that his responses were strange and abnormal. Chen said her husband demanded she and their daughters return to China from the United States, promising that Chinese authorities would keep the family safe.

Despite this, Chen said their daughters were overjoyed to learn of their father’s release.

“They are thrilled, in particular, my eldest daughter burst into tears after learning of his release. [They] miss their father very much. It’s been almost two years since they last saw their father, who was arrested without any warning,” Chen said, adding that she holds little hope that Xie will one day be allowed to visit them in the U.S.

Trade-off

The family’s lawyer, Chen Jiangang, who was denied access to Monday’s trial, believes Xie’s release is part of a trade-off.

He insisted what he disclosed in January about Xie’s torture by Hunan police was based on Xie’s own words during their meetings, even though his client denied the allegations in court.

Now that Xie has successfully been silenced, Chen said authorities are working to shut him up as well. Chen’s family was briefly detained in the southern province of Yunnan last week.

“Xie Yang lied and denied being tortured. That helped the Chinese government save face and, in return, the Chinese government would promise to let him keep his license. This is a trade-off,” Chen told VOA.

“Why are they after me? They are seeking revenge as I was the one who made public his allegations of torture,” which invited criticism from 11 countries, he added.

Another show trial

Frances Eve, a researcher with Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said Xie’s release, likely in exchange for his guilty plea, was the government’s latest show trial to incriminate rights defenders.

She said as the 19th Communist Party Congress draws closer, China appears to be pushing the cases of rights lawyers through the judicial system because holding them in pre-trial detention easily becomes “a lightning rod for international criticism.”

“It’s a way to control people without having them in formal detention, which is harder for international advocacy efforts to keep the pressure on because it’s harder to know what is exactly happening to them when they’re kind of just being controlled in house arrest [or] surveillance,” Eve said.

Keep speaking up

 

But such tactics are unlikely to silence the larger debate and widespread concerns about a nationwide crackdown on rights lawyers that began on July 9, 2015.

 

More than 300 lawyers have been caught up in the crackdown, which is aimed at those assisting dissidents and government critics. Most of those lawyers have been released, but 32 have been indicted and seven others are awaiting trial.

 

On Friday, Wang Qiaoling, the wife of prominent rights lawyer Li Heping, and other supporters filed a suit with the Supreme Court demanding an investigation into the police’s torture of Li as well as information surrounding the disappearance of another lawyer, Wang Quanzhang.

After a 669-day detention, Li returned home earlier this week after being convicted of state subversion late last month and sentenced to three years in prison with a four-year reprieve. Li’s wife insists he suffered cruel torture and urged authorities to get to the bottom of the alleged abuse of power.

Meanwhile, the Washington D.C.-based Congressional-Executive Commission on China has expressed alarm about what it called China’s continued assault against rights lawyers.

 

“If China persists in viewing its own citizens with suspicion and hostility and if it continues to ruthlessly disregard their most basic rights, it will never be viewed as a responsible global stakeholder,” the commission said in a statement.

“The international community needs to acknowledge that Xi Jinping’s increasingly severe suppression of internationally-recognized civil and political right has real implications for regional stability and bilateral cooperation,” it added.

Brian Kopczynski contributed to this report

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US Afghan Policy Not Decided Yet

It has been three months since the top commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan said he needed “a few thousand” more troops to break a “stalemate” in the war-torn country, and officials say the Trump administration’s plan for Afghanistan could provide him with that manpower. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb explains.

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Christian Teachers at North Korean Academy Vulnerable to Arrest

The recent detention of two American educators by North Korean authorities is raising questions about whether the Christian-funded academy where they taught should be operating in this highly repressive state, where proselytizing is a serious crime.

North Korean state media confirmed this week that Kim Hak-song, a Chinese-Korean and naturalized U.S. citizen, who was working as an agriculture researcher at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), was arrested on suspicion of “hostile acts” against the state.

A PUST accounting instructor, Kim Sang Dok, a U.S. citizen who also goes by the name Tony Kim, was arrested in April on the same vague charges at the Pyongyang International Airport.

It is unclear if these two American citizens were apprehended for trying to spread Christian beliefs in North Korea, which is a capital crime and considered an existential threat to the unquestionable authority of the ruling Kim family. But their connections to the Christian-funded school and North Korea’s precedent of charging missionaries with “hostile acts” suggest the pretext of illicit religious activities may be used to justify their arrests.

Constant surveillance

A spokesman for the university said the arrests of the two faculty members were “not connected in any way with the work of PUST.”

The school, founded in 2010 by Korean-American evangelical Christian James Kim educates the children of the North Korean elite. There are 500 undergraduate students and 60 graduate students.

Korean-American writer Suki Kim taught English at PUST in 2014 and later documented her experience in the book, Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. 

During a 2015 Google Talk seminar, she described how the faculty was always under surveillance, their classes recorded, movements restricted, and how her government counterpart minder would casually refer to topics she included in personal emails.

“So I would say (in an email) for example I woke up today at 4 a.m., or whatever, and then the minder would repeat that to me. He would say, ‘Did you get up at 4 a.m. this morning? You must be tired,’” Suki Kim said.

Vulnerable situation

Although the school adheres to the government prohibition on proselytizing, it also attracts many evangelical Christians to become volunteer faculty members that receive no income for teaching. Kim Hak Song, who was arrested this week, had been doing missionary work in China before joining PUST.

Suki Kim recently wrote in the Washington Post that while PUST complies with the restrictions on overt religious activities, their long-term mission is to convert North Koreans, “through seemingly unconditional kindness, with the hopes of those beneficiaries eventually turning to the religion out of gratitude.”

She also wrote that the American evangelicals on the PUST faculty are in a particularly vulnerable situation if the Kim Jong Un government wants to send a political warning to the United States, and that, “the timing of North Korea’s arrest of Tony Kim is no accident.”

Tensions between North Korea and the United States have risen over Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests. U.S. President Donald Trump has been pressuring China to increase sanctions on Pyongyang to halt its nuclear program and has emphasized the United States would consider the use of military force to respond to future tests.

North Korea in the past had detained Americans to gain outside concessions for their release, which sometime involved high-profile U.S. missions sent to secure the release of detainees.

Sanctions

PUST spends roughly $2 million annually on operating expenses, the school said in a statement. Much of it comes from Korean churches in the United States and South Korea. The education is free, and the curriculum includes electronic and computer engineering, international finance, and agriculture and life sciences.

Supporters say this type of assistance and engagement will change hearts and minds over time, and foster constructive future relationships between the next generation of North Korean leaders and the outside world.

However critics like Joshua Stanton, a Washington-based attorney and author of the One Free Korea blog, has accused the school of providing vital technical training to future North Korean hackers and has called for PUST to be suspended in accordance with United Nations sanctions prohibiting activities that may contribute to the “proliferation sensitive nuclear activities or ballistic missile-related programs.”

“One could hardly invent a better demonstration of how ‘engagement’ has failed to change Pyongyang than a hostage crisis at PUST,” he recently wrote in his blog.

Korean-American Kim Dong Chul is also serving 10 years on espionage charges and Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in 2016 for removing a propaganda poster from a hotel.

Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.

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Philippines Makes More Child Cybersex Crime Arrests, Rescues

Authorities in the Philippines have rescued four girls and arrested a mother and two other women for allegedly livestreaming sexually exploitative videos of children to men paying by the minute to watch from the United States.

 

Three sisters ages 8, 9 and 12, and an 11-year-old found in a separate rescue, are now in a shelter for abused children while the women face prosecution. 

 

The arrests came two weeks after Filipino authorities raided the home of an American man suspected of similar cybersex crimes, arresting David Timothy Deakin, 53. During that bust, agents from the National Bureau of Investigation rescued two girls, 10 and 12, who had spent time in Deakin’s home, and made one of the largest seizures of illicit digital content in the Philippines. Dozens of hard drives and a handful of computers must now be analyzed to search for other possible victims, as well as buyers. 

 

Deakin denied wrongdoing.

Nations cooperate

The series of arrests and rescues underscore a rapidly growing crime in which children, even toddlers, are made to remove their clothes and touch themselves in obscene ways while adults, often their parents, train video cameras on them in exchange for payment from pedophiles abroad. Police in the Philippines are collaborating with their counterparts in Europe, Australia and the U.S. to investigate and prosecute. 

 

The Australian Federal Police and U.S. FBI separately provided Filipino authorities information that led to the arrests of the mother and two other women on May 5, rescuing four girls. They were allegedly making the girls engage in sexually explicit acts while men in Australia and the U.S. watched. The women have been charged with human trafficking, child abuse, child pornography and cybercrime. 

 

Police officer Arlyn Torrendon said she was part of a team that rescued three of the children and arrested the three women, including the mother of the siblings, Friday in a house in Bacolod city on an island about 445 miles (717 kilometers) south of Manila.

 

“The children were innocent. They were not even aware that they were being used in a crime,” Torrendon told the AP by telephone from Bacolod. 

 

She said the children came from an impoverished family; their mother was a widow. 

 

Cybersex crimes increasing

Gen. Liborio Carabbacan at the National Police Women and Children Protection Center said the incidents are increasing in the Philippines because many people are gaining access to the internet and English fluency is common, making it possible to communicate with would-be customers. Also, he said, parents and relatives, motivated by greed, are often not aware that it is against the law to exploit their children. 

 

The livestream abuse happens in many of Philippines’ densely populated, impoverished neighborhoods, said attorney Gideon Cauton, who works with the nonprofit International Justice Mission. The organization provides social workers, shelters, lawyers and even former U.S. police detectives to local law enforcement, who don’t have enough resources to tackle all cases of online sexual exploitation of children.

 

In metropolitan Manila, where gleaming condominium high-rises and stores selling designer clothes and cars stand in stark contrast to the squalor of the slums, Cauton pointed to Wi-Fi antennas rising from rooftops above a long stretch of shanties and rundown houses. In the past, the antennas amid crushing poverty were red flags, sparking suspicion of cybersex crimes. Today pocket Wi-Fi, cellphone internet and other technology have rendered those irrelevant, driving the crime even further behind the scenes. 

 

“This type of crime is really hidden,” he said. “Usually the family and community, they are complicit, and these are tight-knit communities, very dense areas.” 

In US, 8.2 million reports

 

In the U.S., the proliferation of crimes, along with new mandatory reporting, led to 8.2 million reports last year to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline related to online child sexual exploitation. That compares with 8.3 million reports in the 17 years prior. 

 

One of those reports led authorities in the U.S. to Karl Touset, 72, of Marietta, Georgia, who was sentenced to prison for 10 years in March after Homeland Security Investigations agents found evidence on his computers that he had paid facilitators in the Philippines more than $55,000 over three years for images of girls being sexually exploited.

 

“Unfortunately, extreme poverty in many parts of the world affords individuals like Touset the opportunity to exploit children across national borders,” said U.S. Attorney John Horn in a statement after the sentencing. 

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First Time in 20 Years, Nepalese to Vote in Local Elections

Much has changed since Nepal last held local elections 20 years ago: The Himalayan country’s 240-year monarchy was abolished, federal democracy was introduced and political wrangling took center stage. Earthquakes ravaged the country. A Maoist insurgency left thousands dead. And widespread poverty ensured daily life for many remained a struggle if not a misery.

 

Through it all, Nepal’s 29 million citizens have had only government-appointed bureaucrats to look to for answers or help with settling local disputes. Many voters said they were excited for the chance this weekend to choose local representatives for the first time since 1997. 

 

“We can finally get our true representatives back in our neighborhoods,” said 19-year-old university student Suman Sharma of Kathmandu. “The last time these elections were held, I wasn’t even born.”

Two rounds of voting

 

Nepal will hold the first of two rounds of voting Sunday, with nearly 50,000 candidates vying for 13,556 positions on village and city councils covering nearly half the country. 

 

For weeks, campaign posters have lined village roads. Political party flags flapped in the mountain breeze. And more than 40,000 police officers were fanning out to polling stations to keep the peace. 

 

Candidates were going door to door to greet villagers with promises of building roads and schools, improving water sanitation facilities, providing electricity or even metro systems. 

 

“This election is very important because these local bodies bring the government to people’s front yard,” said Surya Prasad Sharma, spokesman for the Election Commission. 

 

Democracy stabilizing

More importantly, analysts said the local balloting offered a signal that Nepal’s fractious democracy may be stabilizing. 

Two years ago, lawmakers passed a new constitution to replace the old system of monarchy, and to lay out the rules for provincial and parliamentary polls. The constitution was considered a major victory, following eight years of political bickering over its terms. But not everyone was happy, and its passage sparked months of protests by ethnic groups in the south that felt shortchanged by how the document divided the country’s districts. 

 

“A lot of issues like the ethnic troubles could have been avoided if there had been continued representation in the local level,” said political analyst Dhruba Hari Adhikary.

 

Janak Joshi, who works as a clerk in a government land registry office, agreed the lack of representative government at the local level had hurt society overall. 

 

“For the past 20 years, government-appointed officials have been functioning in these positions. They didn’t represent the people or care about what was wrong or needed in city or neighborhood,” Joshi said. “Now we will finally get people who would at least listen and work for us.”

List of needs

 

Many voters said they were eager for help in pressing the government to reconstruct hundreds of thousands of homes toppled in a devastating earthquake in 2015. So far, less than 4 percent have been rebuilt.

 

Others hoped local representatives would prioritize the need for justice after a decadelong Maoist insurgency that ended in 2006, leaving 17,000 dead. The government has yet to address more than 58,000 complaints of murder, abuse and or other human rights violations. Nor has it been able to reveal what happened to some 1,500 who disappeared during the fighting. 

 

Some voters wondered if newly elected representatives could help revive local economies, sorely needed with some 25 percent of the population living in poverty. And some saw a chance to advance progressive policies for improving education or rights and opportunities for women.

Little trouble was expected at Sunday’s polls, though one small Maoist party has called a general strike, saying the country needs more political reform before it can be ready for such polls. 

 

The second round of voting, scheduled for June 14, could see protests among ethnic groups unhappy with district boundaries in southern areas of the country, election officials said.