Kremlin critic, facing new charge, sounds alarm on Interpol
By NATALIYA VASILYEVA
Monday, November 19
MOSCOW (AP) — Russian prosecutors announced new criminal charges against U.S.-born Kremlin foe Bill Browder on Monday, days before a Russian police officer could become president of Interpol in a move that some Moscow critics fear might politicize the law enforcement agency.
Browder and other opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin have complained that Russia has tried to use Interpol against them. If a Russian is elected as its new president, it could encourage Moscow to intensify attempts to hunt down its critics abroad.
The new charges leveled against Browder accuse him of forming a criminal group to embezzle funds in Russia. They also alleged that he could be behind the death of his employee, Sergei Magnitsky, in a Russian prison.
Magnitsky, a 37-year-old lawyer who alleged he had uncovered $230 million in tax fraud by Russian officials, died in 2009 while in pre-trial detention. A Russian presidential commission concluded he had been beaten and denied medical care, and two prison doctors were charged with negligence leading to his death; one was acquitted and the other went free because the statute of limitations had expired.
Browder mounted an international campaign to bring Magnitsky’s killers to justice, and in 2012, the U.S. Congress passed the Magnitsky Act that imposed travel and financial sanctions on top Russian officials, including prosecutors. Several other countries have since adopted similar legislation.
Browder, who had owned a major investment fund in Russia before he was barred entry to the country, was convicted in absentia in Russia on charges of tax evasion and funneling money overseas in both 2013 and again last year, and sentenced to nine years in prison.
On Monday, Mikhail Alexandrov of the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office told reporters that they have opened a criminal case into the poisoning of three people described as associates of Browder, saying it was “highly likely” that Magnitsky was poisoned as well with the same military-grade substance.
Browder has blamed Russian prison officials for Magnitsky’s death and dismissed the new charges against him as a sham. He told The Associated Press that he has no relation to the three men named by the prosecutors and described the accusations of poisoning as an attempt to discredit his campaign for justice for Magnitsky.
Putin’s “reaction is so absurd that it only helps our campaign and our cause,” he said.
The Russian prosecutors said they decided to pursue the new charges against Browder after reviewing evidence submitted by Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr. and members of his father’s presidential campaign in 2016 and who lobbied for the repeal of the Magnitsky Act. That meeting at Trump Tower occurred in June 2016 after the younger Trump was told by an intermediary that she represented the Russian government and was offering Moscow’s help defeating Hillary Clinton. Emails later released by Trump Jr. show that she had been described as a “Russian government attorney.”
The timing of the new charges against Browder comes as the Netherlands is preparing to host diplomats from all European Union member states to discuss a pan-EU Magnitsky Act.
But the charges also come two days before Interpol’s general assembly, meeting in Dubai, is expected to elect its new president, and one of the front-runners is Alexander Prokopchuk, who holds the rank of general in the Interior Ministry, which runs the police force. The officer had headed Interpol’s Russian bureau before taking the job of Interpol’s vice president in 2016.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters Monday that the Kremlin is “rooting for the Russian candidate and we would like the Russian candidate to win this election.”
Interpol works as a clearinghouse for national police services that are hunting down suspects outside their borders, issuing “red notices,” or alerts that identify a person wanted by another country.
While its charter explicitly proclaims its neutrality, the organization has faced criticism that governments have abused the “red notice” system to go after political enemies and dissidents.
Two years ago, Interpol introduced measures aimed at strengthening the legal framework around the red notice system. As part of the changes, an international team of lawyers and experts first check a notice’s compliance with Interpol rules and regulations before it goes out. Interpol also says it enhanced the work of an appeals body for those targeted with red notices.
Browder noted the timing of the announcement of the new charges against him and the Interpol election, tweeting: “On the eve of Interpol deciding whether a Russian official should be president of Interpol, the Russian prosecutor’s office holds a huge press conference about me and how they will chase me down anywhere in the world.”
At the news conference, prosecutors said they will be placing Browder on Interpol’s wanted list and they expect its cooperation.
Russia has previously tried to get Browder placed on the wanted list, but the body has rejected the efforts, viewing his prosecution as politically motivated. He was briefly detained in Spain in May but released after police found that the arrest warrant for him was no longer valid.
Browder said Prokopchuk’s possible appointment “puts the organization in a grave danger of being fully discredited.”
Other Kremlin critics also have raised alarm about the possible politicization of Interpol.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who has faced a flurry of detentions and criminal charges, tweeted Monday that his associates “have suffered abuse” from Interpol officials who were complying with Russian warrants to persecute Kremlin opponents.
“I don’t think that a president from Russia will help to reduce such violations,” he said on Twitter.
Similar concerns surfaced when the previous Interpol president, Meng Hongwei, was named because he was a senior security official in the Chinese government. China has also been accused of trying to use Interpol for political ends. Meng is now detained in China as part of a sweeping purge against allegedly corrupt or disloyal officials.
Asked about the upcoming vote at Interpol in connection with the Browder case, Prosecutor General’s Office spokesman Alexander Kurennoy told reporters that Moscow views the organization as “trusted partners” and expressed hope that “the procedures will be followed in a regular manner” when it submits an arrest warrant for Browder.
Democratic senators sue over Whitaker’s appointment as AG
By ERIC TUCKER and MICHAEL BALSAMO
Monday, November 19
WASHINGTON (AP) — Three Senate Democrats filed a lawsuit Monday arguing that Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker’s appointment is unconstitutional and asking a federal judge to remove him.
The suit, filed by Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, argues that Whitaker’s appointment violates the Constitution because he has not been confirmed by the Senate.
Whitaker was chief of staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and was elevated to the top job after Sessions was ousted by President Donald Trump on Nov. 7.
The Constitution’s Appointments Clause requires that the Senate confirm all principal officials before they can serve in their office.
The Justice Department released a legal opinion last week that said Whitaker’s appointment would not violate the clause because he is serving in an acting capacity. The opinion concluded that Whitaker, even without Senate confirmation, may serve in an acting capacity because he has been at the department for more than a year at a “sufficiently senior pay level.”
“President Trump is denying senators our constitutional obligation and opportunity to do our job: scrutinizing the nomination of our nation’s top law enforcement official,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “The reason is simple: Whitaker would never pass the advice and consent test. In selecting a so-called ‘constitutional nobody’ and thwarting every senator’s constitutional duty, Trump leaves us no choice but to seek recourse through the courts.”
The lawsuit comes days after a Washington lawyer challenged Whitaker’s appointment in a pending Supreme Court case dealing with gun rights. The attorney, Thomas Goldstein, asked the high court to find that Whitaker’s appointment is unconstitutional and replace him with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
The state of Maryland also made a similar court filing last week in a legal dispute with the Trump administration over the Affordable Care Act.
Rosenstein, the second-ranking Justice Department official, has been confirmed by the Senate and had been overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Whitaker is now overseeing the investigation.
In a court filing Monday, the special counsel’s office said Whitaker’s appointment has “no effect” on a legal challenge to Mueller’s authority brought by an aide to former Trump confidant Roger Stone, Andrew Miller, who defied a grand jury subpoena last summer and was held in contempt by a judge.
The filing came after the court asked the special counsel’s office and Miller’s lawyers to submit papers that address what, if any, effect Whitaker’s appointment would have on the case.
The Justice Department issued a statement Monday defending Whitaker’s appointment as “lawful” and said it comports with the Appointments Clause, the Federal Vacancies Reform Act and legal precedent.
“There are over 160 instances in American history in which non-Senate confirmed persons performed, on a temporary basis, the duties of a Senate-confirmed position,” Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said. “To suggest otherwise is to ignore centuries of practice and precedent.”
The Federal Vacancies Reform Act allows an acting official to serve in a vacant position for up to 210 days, though the official may continue serving while a president’s nomination to that position is pending before the Senate.
Report: Saudi crown prince to attend G-20 summit
Monday, November 19
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will attend the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires later this month, Saudi media reported Monday.
It would be the crown prince’s first trip abroad after the Oct. 2 slaying of writer Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate, and would bring him face to face with world leaders from the U.S., Turkey, Canada and European countries, among others.
President Donald Trump and other leaders are expected to attend the two-day summit that begins Nov. 30. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has kept international pressure mounting on the kingdom, is also expected to attend.
Saudi media outlets, including Al-Arabiya, quoted Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih as saying that the crown prince’s stop in Argentina will be part of a foreign tour, but no further details were immediately released.
World leaders, many of whom are expected at the G-20 summit, have strongly condemned Khashoggi’s slaying and have urged Saudi Arabia to hold everyone involved in the killing accountable.
U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that the crown prince ordered the killing, and experts say such an operation is unlikely to have occurred without the knowledge of the crown prince, who controls all major levers of power in the kingdom.
Saudi authorities, who have offered a series of conflicting accounts since Khashoggi first went missing, deny the crown prince was involved in the killing.
Saudi investigators say a 15-man team sent to Istanbul exceeded their authority when the lead negotiator decided to kill Khashoggi for refusing orders to return to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi prosecutors said last week they’re seeking the death penalty against five men suspected of killing Khashoggi, who had written critically of the crown prince in columns for The Washington Post.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia say that after the agents killed Khashoggi, they then dismembered his body, which has not been found.
UK leader has eye on rebellion as EU braces for Brexit push
By JILL LAWLESS and RAF CASERT
Monday, November 19
LONDON (AP) — The U.K. and the European Union plowed ahead Monday with plans to have their divorce deal signed, sealed and delivered within days as British Prime Minister Theresa May waited to see whether rebel lawmakers opposed to the agreement had the numbers to challenge her leadership.
The draft agreement reached last week triggered an avalanche of criticism in Britain and left May fighting to keep her job even as British and EU negotiators raced to firm up a final deal before a weekend summit where EU leaders hope to rubber-stamp it.
The 585-page, legally binding withdrawal agreement is as good as complete, but Britain and the EU still need to flesh out a far less detailed seven-page declaration on their future relations.
May said “an intense week of negotiations” lay ahead to finalize the framework.
The deal has infuriated pro-Brexit lawmakers in May’s Conservative Party. The Brexiteers want a clean break with the bloc and argue that the close trade ties called for in the agreement May’s government agreed would leave Britain a vassal state, bound to EU rules it has no say in making.
Two Cabinet ministers, including Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, resigned in protest, and rebels are trying to gather the signatures of 48 lawmakers needed to trigger a no-confidence vote.
One pro-Brexit Conservative lawmaker, Simon Clarke, urged wavering colleagues Monday to join the rebellion, saying “it is quite clear to me that the captain is driving the ship at the rocks.”
Even if May sees off such a challenge, she still has to get the deal approved by Parliament. Her Conservatives don’t have a parliamentary majority, and whether she can persuade enough lawmakers to back the agreement is uncertain.
It is also unclear what would happen if Parliament rejected the deal when it is put to a vote, likely next month.
May’s government relies for survival on the votes of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which struck a deal last year to back the Conservatives on major legislation, including finance bills. But the DUP opposes the Brexit deal’s plans for keeping the border between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland open after Britain leaves the bloc.
In a warning to May, DUP lawmakers abstained Monday during several votes on the government’s finance bill.
May argues that abandoning the plan, with Britain’s March 29 departure date just over four months away, could lead to Brexit being delayed or abandoned, or to a disorderly and economically damaging “no deal” Brexit.
But opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said his lawmakers would vote against May’s agreement and also try to block a “no-deal” exit.
The agreement also must be approved by the European Parliament. Manfred Weber, who leads the EU legislature’s largest group, said the initial assessment of the center-right European People’s Party was “very encouraging, very positive.”
But, he added, “it must be clear to our British partners that there will be no renegotiation of this text that is now on the table.”
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said the deal “is the best one possible.”
“There is no better one for this crazy Brexit,” Asselborn said as EU foreign ministers met in Brussels before the Sunday summit of member country leaders at which the bloc intends to sign off on the deal.
Most contentious negotiating issues have been resolved, but Spain insisted at the Brussels meeting that it needed more clarity on how Gibraltar, the British territory at the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula, would be dealt with.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said the EU foreign ministers “have agreed to the principle” of a one-off extension of the post-Brexit transition period if the two sides need more time to finalize a trade deal.
Under the divorce agreement, Britain would be bound by EU rules during the transition. It is due to end in December 2020 but can be extended by mutual agreement if more time is needed.
Barnier wouldn’t give a specific end-date for the extension. It’s a delicate issue for May, because some in her party worry the extension could be used to trap Britain in the EU’s rules indefinitely.
May says any extension must be finished before the next U.K. election, scheduled for the first half of 2022.
May tried to build public and business support for the deal on Monday, telling business lobby group the Confederation of British Industry that it “fulfills the wishes of the British people” to leave the EU, by taking back control of the U.K.’s laws, money and borders.
May confirmed the government’s plan to end the automatic right of EU citizens to live and work in the U.K., saying Britain’s future immigration policy will be based on skills, rather than nationality.
She said EU nationals would no longer be able to “jump the queue ahead of engineers from Sydney or software developers from Delhi” — a phrase that risked further upsetting EU citizens in Britain, who have faced more than two years of uncertainty about their future status.
British businesses, longing for an end to uncertainty about what rules they will face after Brexit, have broadly welcomed the agreement. But some are unhappy with the immigration plans, which have yet to be revealed in detail.
Carolyn Fairbairn of the Confederation of British Industry urged the government not to make “a false choice between high- and low-skilled workers” that would leave many sectors short-staffed.
May said she was confident the deal “will work for the U.K.”
“And let no one be in any doubt – I am determined to deliver it,” she said.
In Brussels, Austria’s minister for Europe, Gernot Bluemel, struck a more melancholy tone.
“A painful week in European politics is starting,” he said. “We have the divorce papers on the table; 45 years of difficult marriage are coming to an end.”
Raf Casert reported from Brussels.
See the AP’s Brexit coverage at: https://www.apnews.com/Brexit
White House to restore Acosta’s pass, with a warning
By DAVID BAUDER and CATHERINE LUCEY
Monday, November 19
NEW YORK (AP) — The Trump administration on Monday abruptly dropped its effort to bar CNN reporter Jim Acosta from the White House, but warned he could have his credentials pulled again if he doesn’t follow guidelines governing journalists’ behavior.
The White House said reporters would be permitted one question each if called upon at news conferences and allowed follow-ups only at the discretion of the president.
In a letter to Acosta, White House communications director Bill Shine and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said they will be forced to reconsider the decision “if unprofessional behavior occurs.”
CNN said that, as a result, it has dropped its lawsuit against the White House filed on Acosta’s behalf.
“Thanks to everyone for their support,” Acosta tweeted. “As I said last Friday … let’s get back to work.”
The White House initially revoked Acosta’s credentials after he and Trump tangled verbally during a Nov. 7 press conference. The administration’s initial reasoning was that Acosta had manhandled a White House intern seeking to take his microphone, but that fell apart after Sanders distributed a doctored video sped up to make Acosta look more aggressive than he actually was.
Instead, the White House focused on behavior they deemed disrespectful to the president. Acosta and CNN have been frequent targets of a president who has derided coverage of his administration as “fake news” and called the media the enemy of the people.
CNN filed suit to get Acosta’s credentials restored, arguing that the action violated the constitutional right to freedom of the press and that he had been denied due process. In Washington, D.C. District Court Judge Timothy Kelly cited the due process argument last Friday in granting Acosta a two-week injunction to get back to work.
The White House initially fought back, saying it had made a preliminary decision to keep Acosta out when the two weeks were up. But after CNN requested a hearing, Shine and Sanders changed course.
“The view from here is that White House interaction with the press is, and generally should be, subject to kind of a natural give and take,” Shine and Sanders wrote. “President Trump believes strongly in the First Amendment and interacts with the press in just such a way. It would be a great loss for all if, instead of this give-and-take, and instead of relying on the professionalism of White House journalists, we were compelled to devise a lengthy and detailed code of conduct.”
Still, they did outline rules compelling journalists at news conferences to physically surrender microphones if the president hasn’t granted them a follow-up question, and said a failure to abide by these standards could result in them losing their passes.
In Acosta, the media had an imperfect First Amendment champion. Even some critics in the media world have said he occasionally seems more interested in making a point than in asking a question. In the Nov. 7 news conference, he and Trump briefly argued over the president’s contention that a group of Latin American migrants headed to the southern U.S. border represented an invasion.
Yet dozens of news organizations filed briefs supporting CNN in its case against the White House.
“We are not the enemy of the people,” Acosta tweeted Monday. “I am not your enemy. You are not my enemy. It is wrong to call your fellow Americans the enemy. We are all on the same team. We are all Americans.”
The administrations got in one last twist Monday. CNN was informed of the decision to drop the case in a letter to Acosta — delivered after his competitor, Fox News Channel’s John Roberts, tweeted the “SCOOP” that the White House would not seek to revoke his pass.
Lucey reported from Washington.
Yemeni rebels say they will halt rocket fire at Saudi Arabia
By AHMED AL-HAJ and BRIAN ROHAN
Monday, November 19
SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Yemen’s Shiite rebels said Monday that they will halt rocket fire into Saudi Arabia for the sake of peace efforts, answering a key Saudi demand in the latest push to stop the civil war in the Arab world’s poorest country.
But the rebels also said they had fired a ballistic missile into Saudi Arabia overnight in response to an attempted border incursion and a Saudi airstrike, and that they reserved the right to respond to attacks.
For the past three years, a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition has been waging war against the Iran-aligned rebels, known as Houthis, to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government. The rebels say they have long been excluded from that government and aim to rectify historic grievances.
Rebel leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi announced in a statement that the rebels had ordered the cessation of rocket and drone attacks on the Saudis and forces loyal to the United Arab Emirates, a leading coalition member, at the request of U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths.
“We are ready to freeze and stop military operations on all fronts in order to achieve peace,” al-Houthi said. He mentioned the rockets specifically as part of a longer statement in which he blamed the United States for being the main driver behind “the aggression” against Yemen.
The Houthis swept down from northern Yemen in 2014 and captured the capital, Sanaa, with the help of forces loyal to longtime strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been forced from power by an Arab Spring-inspired popular uprising. Saleh was killed in internal fighting between the Houthis and their allies last year.
The government fled Sanaa in early 2015, and Saudi Arabia, citing fears that its nemesis Iran was trying to make inroads on the Arabian Peninsula, began launching airstrikes against the rebels in March of that year.
Riyadh formed a coalition of Sunni Arab states, including the UAE, Kuwait, Egypt and Sudan, and launched ground assaults on several fronts but failed to take the capital. After major setbacks, including the death of some elite officers, it outsourced the ground fighting to local troops, including a group trained by the UAE in the south.
Tens of thousands of people are believed to have been killed in the war, and two-thirds of Yemen’s 27 million people rely on aid. More than 8 million are at risk of starvation in what has become the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.
The latest Saudi-led offensive, which began in the summer, has been focused on capturing the key rebel-held port city of Hodeida, through which almost all of Yemen’s food and desperately needed humanitarian aid flows.
A U.N. draft resolution circulated by Britain on Monday urges the warring parties to relaunch peace talks and take urgent steps to address the humanitarian crisis. It also calls for an immediate cease-fire around Hodeida.
Griffiths, the U.N. envoy, announced on Friday that both sides had agreed to attend talks in Sweden “soon” aimed at ending the conflict. The internationally backed government said Monday that it would attend, but also insisted the Houthis do so “unconditionally.”
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, in an annual policy speech Monday, called Yemen a “priority” and said he supports a U.N.-sponsored political solution to end the war. But he also railed against the Houthis, saying Saudi Arabia was supporting the Yemeni people against the “aggression of Iranian-backed militias.”
The coalition has long demanded the rebels withdraw from all major cities they have taken, which the Houthis refuse to do.
It was not immediately clear to what extent the Houthi move to stop missile fire into the kingdom would halt the overall violence. While the guns have gone silent inside central Hodeida, fighting continues on its outskirts and elsewhere in the country, and several previous peace initiatives have failed.
International outrage over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in October focused attention on the war in Yemen, leading the U.S. to scale back its support for the coalition and call for a cease-fire by the end of this month.
But the U.S. call for a truce was immediately followed by a renewed coalition onslaught on Hodeida, with dozens of fighters and civilians killed on both sides. A week later, the stalemate resumed, with the Houthis still firmly dug in on the city’s outskirts.
Rohan reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.