World

Miwa Moriya cries while she speaks during an interview with Reuters at her house in Yokohama
Miwa Moriya cries while she speaks during an interview with Reuters at her house in Yokohama, Japan, April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-hoon

May 23, 2019

By Chang-Ran Kim

TOKYO (Reuters) – Miwa Moriya was 6 when social workers told her she was going to a Christmas party, but instead moved her into a group home for about 60 children in a small city in western Japan.

The “party” turned into more than eight years of living away from her mother, and the beginning of a long battle with loneliness, bullying, and trauma.

She never knew exactly why she was sent to the home – only that the state thought she would be better off there than with her family.

Unlike most developed countries, which place the majority of children who are abused, neglected, or can’t live with their parents for other reasons in foster homes, Japan puts more than 80% of the 38,000 such children in residential-care facilities, according to government figures.

Once there, about one in seven stay for more than a decade, data show – despite UN guidelines that say children should grow up in a family setting.

The government has made the issue a legislative priority after several high-profile child-abuse deaths and a sharp rise in overall abuse cases. Local authorities have been given a deadline of next March to draw up a plan to improve the situation.

Last summer, the Japanese government said it wanted at least three-quarters of preschoolers in need of state care to live in foster homes within seven years, and the number of adoptions to double to at least 1,000 within five.

Hundreds of care facilities were set up after World War Two to shelter orphaned street children, and state care has largely been relegated to them since then. About 600 are operating today.

Such facilities – most of which house 20 or more children – have helped many, but are a poor alternative to a healthy family setting, experts say. A government investigation last month found sexual violence among children was widespread at institutions.

“Everyone here says, ‘Children are important,’ but that’s bogus,” Yasuhisa Shiozaki, an influential lawmaker who has led efforts to improve children’s welfare in recent years, told Reuters. “Children have always taken a back seat to adults’ interests in Japan. That has to change.”

‘NO ESCAPE’

Miwa, now 23, said that when she first got to the institution, called Kobato Gakuen, in Wakayama Prefecture, she cried at night for days, pining for her mother.

But once Miwa realized that crying wasn’t going to bring her home, she gave up and stopped.

“That made the staff think the children had adapted, but that’s a big mistake,” she said.

Some of the staff were nice, she said. But caretakers came and went without warning. Children lived in fear of the bullies and the strict, chastising adults, she said.

“There’s no escape when you live with your adversaries,” Miwa said.

In such scenarios, and without nurturing attention, institutionalized children can develop what specialists call Developmental Trauma Disorder, said Satoru Nishizawa, a clinical psychologist who has worked with children in state care for nearly 40 years.

“The child doesn’t feel protected and safe,” he said. The disorder can hinder self-control, triggering fits of rage over seemingly petty things. “To calm those tendencies, a person might turn to self-injury, and relationships often go haywire.”

SLEEPLESS NIGHTS

Miwa has many of those symptoms. Every so often, she changes her phone number to sever ties with acquaintances, she said, or is driven to smash things around the flat. The scars on her wrist are a reminder of self-harm.

Still, at Kobato, Miwa considered herself lucky. Unlike the others, she eventually started spending weekends and long breaks with her mother. Many kids rarely, if ever, saw their parents.

She said she never knew why she was living at Kobato, and never thought to ask. It was only in the past six months that she started to wonder.

Her mother told her that welfare workers convinced her Miwa would be better off at a group home, noting she had failed to complete paperwork for Miwa to enter primary school.

In February, Miwa requested the release of her casework to learn more. The 276-page file paints a picture of a struggling mother who needed someone to look after Miwa while searching for work or a place to live away from her partners, including Miwa’s father.

The file shows social workers were in no rush to reunite Miwa and her mother. Miwa doesn’t recall a caseworker ever visiting her when she was little – a fact the records corroborate.

It’s a case in point for critics of the system, who argue that child welfare workers are too busy and may lack the training and expertise to make informed decisions for children.

Shiozaki, the lawmaker, is still trying to push through changes that would boost the number of child welfare workers and require state-level certification, but opposition has been fierce, with critics citing a lack of both people and money. 

Miwa’s psychological state also isn’t discussed much in the records until she was a teenager.

In 2008, she began having trouble sleeping at night. Soon after, doctors diagnosed Miwa with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, characterized by delays in socialization skills. A year later, they prescribed Paxil for depression, the files show.

By the time the welfare office sent Miwa back to her mother, she was 15.

Kobato Gakuen and Wakayama prefecture declined to discuss Miwa’s case with Reuters, citing privacy policies.

SOCIAL PATHOLOGY

Government surveys show that when children leave state care and enter the “real world” at age 18, they struggle most with loneliness and financial strife. Only a third enter university, versus 80% of high-school graduates nationwide.

With few options, about a tenth end up in work that provides housing. Many can’t hold down a job; a tenth end up on welfare, and some become homeless.

As social costs mount, Japan has asked local governments to draw up by next March a roadmap to base alternative care around family scenarios. That includes recruiting foster and adoptive parents, and turning large group homes into family-sized units.

“We have the laws and policies in place,” said Shiozaki, who as a cabinet minister helped revise the Child Welfare Law in 2016 to state that children – not just parents – have rights. “Now the problem is implementation, and making sure things actually change.”

Many experienced caretakers say it won’t be easy.

A ten-fold rise in child-abuse cases in the past two decades raises the question of whether Japanese society has what it takes to properly care for its most vulnerable young members, they say.

“Personally, I want to know what took the government so long,” said Norihisa Kuwahara, who heads a group home in western Japan and is chairman of the national council of children’s residential-care facilities.

Kuwahara says he has no objections to family-based care. But as someone who has worked at the same facility for more than 50 years, he said he knows first-hand the difficulty of caring for a growing number of abused children with increasingly complex psychological scars.

“Now, when the family unit has become so fragile and child-rearing so dysfunctional, rushing through these changes is the wrong approach.”

(Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim; Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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FILE PHOTO - Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attends a ceremony of consecration of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia
FILE PHOTO – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attends a ceremony of consecration of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia, Brazil May 21, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

May 23, 2019

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazil’s lower house of Congress has rebuffed President Jair Bolsonaro’s move to put decisions on indigenous land claims in the hands of the Ministry of Agriculture.

The chamber voted late on Wednesday to restore land delineation decisions to the National Indigenous Affairs agency Funai, which will also be placed under the Ministry of Justice again. The reversal still must be voted on by the Senate.

The right-wing president had alarmed anthropologists and environmentalists by planning to assimilate Brazil’s 800,000 indigenous people into Brazilian society and open reservation lands to commercial agriculture and mining, even in the Amazon rainforest.

Bolsonaro’s first decree reorganizing the executive branch the day he took office in January put Funai under a newly created Women, Family and Human Rights Ministry headed by an evangelical pastor who wants to Christianize indigenous people.

Land decisions were moved to the Agriculture Ministry, led by farm representatives that believe Brazilian tribes have too much land, with indigenous people who account for less than 1% of the country’s population living on 13% of its territory.

Brazil’s main indigenous organization APIB called Wednesday’s vote a historic victory against the government’s plan to open up tribal lands to agribusiness.

Bolsonaro has said the tribes live in poverty and should not be held inside reservations “like animals in a zoo” but be allowed to engage in commercial activity and charge royalties from mining companies.

Tribal leaders protested that without their ancestral lands, indigenous languages, cultures and ways of life would die.

“Our relation with the land is about sustainability and respect for Mother Nature,” APIB said in a statement.

Environmentalists have defended the reservations as the best way to stop deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, considered by many as nature’s best defense against global warming, with its trees absorbing huge amounts of carbon dioxide.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Bernadette Baum and James Dalgleish)

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FILE PHOTO: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves Southwark Crown Court after being sentenced in London
FILE PHOTO: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange leaves Southwark Crown Court after being sentenced in London, Britain, May 1, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/File Photo

May 23, 2019

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department unveiled 17 criminal charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Thursday, saying he unlawfully published the names of classified sources and conspired and assisted ex-Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in obtaining access to classified information.

The superseding indictment comes a little more than a month after the Justice Department unsealed a narrower criminal case against Assange. He was charged with conspiring with Manning to gain access to a government computer as part of a 2010 leak by WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands of U.S. military reports about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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Undertaker and candidate for town councillor at the municipality of Sykies, Baboulas, greets locals next to his family's funeral parlor in Thessaloniki
Undertaker and candidate for town councillor at the municipality of Sykies, Konstantinos Baboulas, greets locals next to his family’s funeral parlor in Thessaloniki, Greece, May 17, 2019. Picture taken May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

May 23, 2019

By Renee Maltezou

THESSALONIKI, Greece (Reuters) – Printing campaign leaflets that look like funeral announcements and handing out coffin-shaped car fresheners, a Greek undertaker is using gallows humor to win votes in a city council election.

Konstantinos Baboulas has also written a slogan for the May 26 vote that plays on his surname which means “Bogeyman” in Greek, telling voters: “To support Baboulas, means to win life, otherwise … “

“The way to demystify death is with humor,” said Baboulas, who is seeking a seat on a municipal council in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second biggest city.

“We should all try to face our biggest fear, and humor is the best way to deal with it,” he said.

Despite his light-hearted approach, the 31-year-old father said his campaign was no joke. “All my life I complained about local government and then the moment came where an offer was made to me to quit moaning and do something,” he said.

Baboulas, who runs the funeral business started by his father, said he wants to bring entrepreneurial spirit to a public institution so it will better serve residents.

“We should view our municipality as a non-profit business … with the best interests of people in mind,” he said.

As for his name, Baboulas said it suited the family trade but success depended on delivering a good service. “Otherwise, it would have become our gravestone,” he said with a grin.

(Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Edmund Blair)

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FILE PHOTO: U.S.-born John Walker Lindh is led away by a Northern Alliance soldier after he was captured near Mazar-i-Sharif
FILE PHOTO: U.S.-born John Walker Lindh (L) is led away by a Northern Alliance soldier after he was captured among al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners following an uprising at the Fort Qali-i-Janghi prison near Mazar-i-Sharif December 1, 2001 REUTERS/STR/File Photo

May 23, 2019

(Reuters) – John Walker Lindh, the American captured in Afghanistan in 2001 fighting for the Taliban, is to be released early from federal prison on Thursday as some U.S. lawmakers fear he remains a security risk.

Lindh, photographed as a wild-eyed, bearded 20-year-old at his capture, will leave a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, on probation after serving 17 years of a 20-year sentence, according to a prison official.

Now 38, Lindh is among dozens of prisoners set to be released over the next few years after being captured in Iraq and Afghanistan by U.S. forces and convicted of terrorism-related crimes following the attacks by al Qaeda on Sept. 11, 2001.

His release brought objections from elected officials who asked why Lindh was being freed early and what training parole officers had to spot radicalization and recidivism among former jihadists.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Lindh’s release “unexplainable and unconscionable.”

“There’s something deeply troubling and wrong about it,” he said on Fox News on Thursday morning.

Leaked U.S. government documents published by Foreign Policy magazine show the federal government as recently as 2016 described Lindh as holding “extremist views.”

“What is the current interagency policy, strategy, and process for ensuring that terrorist/extremist offenders successfully reintegrate into society?” asked U.S. Senators Richard Shelby and Margaret Hassan in a letter to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Lindh’s parents, Marilyn Walker and Frank Lindh, did not respond to requests for comment. Lindh’s lawyer Bill Cummings declined to comment.

Melissa Kimberley, a spokeswoman for the prison in Terre Haute, could not confirm details of Lindh’s release other than it would be on Thursday.

U.S.-born Lindh converted from Catholicism to Islam as a teenager. At his 2002 sentencing he said he traveled to Yemen to learn Arabic and then to Pakistan to study Islam.

He said he volunteered as a soldier with the Taliban, the radical Sunni Muslim group that ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, to help fellow Muslims in their struggle or “jihad.” He said he had no intention “to fight against America” and never understood jihad to mean anti-Americanism.

Lindh told the court he condemned “terrorism on every level” and attacks by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden were “completely against Islam.”

But a January 2017 report by the U.S. government’s National Counterterrorism Center, published by Foreign Policy, said that as of May 2016, Lindh “continued to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts.”

NBC News reported that Lindh wrote a letter to its Los Angeles station KNBC in 2015 expressing support for Islamic State, saying the Islamic militant group was fulfilling “a religious obligation to establish a caliphate through armed struggle.”

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Richard Chang and Jeffrey Benkoe)

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Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah arrives at the party headquarters after learning the initial election results, in New Delhi,
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah arrives at the party headquarters after learning the initial election results, in New Delhi, India, May 23, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

May 23, 2019

By Sanjeev Miglani

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – With India’s ruling Hindu nationalists headed for a stunning election victory on Thursday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s powerful right hand man, Amit Shah, could reap his reward as a potential home minister, an analyst and a party official said.

Shah, who has long been Modi’s backroom strategist, helped run one of India’s most divisive election campaigns over the past six weeks to rouse the Bharatiya Janata Party’s nationalist base and overcome the loss of key state elections in December.

Their efforts blunted voter discontent at lack of jobs and farm distress by portraying the opposition as weak and indecisive at best and at worst, appeasing minority Muslims and arch foe Pakistan, to deftly exploit national security fears.”Modi and Shah work in tandem,” said a BJP official who has worked closely with the steely-eyed 54-year-old Shah.

“There is no doubt that Modi is India’s most popular leader and national figure. Translating his personal popularity into a political victory…requires planning and execution to the last detail. Shah has done that to near perfection.”

Vote-counting trends suggest Modi’s ruling alliance could win an even bigger parliamentary majority than in 2014, showing that the BJP not only held the northern heartland but made huge gains in the east, a political strategy that Shah launched.

Now his reward could be a top government post, probably the federal home, or interior, ministry, bringing vast powers over security forces and domestic intelligence, said political analyst Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.

“From a backroom guy who was a bit diffident about all the charges pending against him, Amit Shah’s transition is complete. He is now the legitimized inheritor of Modi’s legacy.”

Modi ran the government for five years with unquestioned authority while Shah, a Hindu hardliner who also hails from the prime minister’s western home state of Gujarat, presided over the BJP with an iron hand, as its chief.

For more than a year, he focused propaganda efforts on the eastern state of West Bengal, which is ruled by a firebrand regional leader supported by the state’s Muslims.

Shah fueled nationalist sentiment by accusing his rivals of appeasing Muslims with funding for clerics and religious schools that turned the state into a replica of neighboring Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country and source of illegal immigrants.

“The BJP may just have cracked open the formula to winning over Bengali votes, and the credit is Shah’s,” said Sandeep Shastri, pro vice chancellor of Jain University in the southern city of Bengaluru.

Shah kicked off a campaign last month against Muslim immigrants, likening them to termites, while backing citizenship measures for Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs from neighboring countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Then he mocked Rahul Gandhi, the chief of the biggest opposition Congress party, for choosing to run from a Muslim-dominated constituency in the southern state of Kerala.

“When a procession is taken out there, it is difficult to make out whether it is an Indian or a Pakistani procession,” he said, sparking renewed accusations that Muslims were not seen as citizens.

Critics have long accused the BJP of a deep-seated hostility against India’s 180 million Muslims. The party denies any bias but says it opposes appeasement of any community.

“Amit Shah represents the sinister face of muscular politics that has zero respect for communal harmony, institutional integrity and fair play,” said Congress spokesman Sanjay Jha.

Shah’s office did not respond to a request for an interview or comments. But party spokesman G.V.L. Narasimha Rao said the opposition had built its campaign on charges against Shah that had not stuck.

“The election is a slap for the abusive opposition that made baseless charges and spread lies,” he added.

CAULDRON

Both Modi and Shah emerged from the cauldron of politics in their western home state of Gujarat.

A relentless politician, Shah has himself run 29 elections from municipal bodies to parliament and lost none. He traveled 150,000 km (93,200 miles) to address 161 public rallies during the election, he said last week.

“They have been political associates for 30 years-plus,” said a Gujarat state official. “They know each other’s secrets, theirs has been a relationship of mutual trust, and gains from the association.”

Both have been exonerated over concerns about their conduct towards Muslims.

In 2002, Modi faced accusations of looking the other way when mobs attacked Muslims in revenge for the burning of Hindu pilgrims in a train in the worst sectarian bloodletting in independent India. But a special investigation ordered by the Supreme Court absolved him of complicity.

Shah himself was acquitted in 2014 of charges leveled in 2010 over the extra-judicial killing of Muslims accused of terrorism, when he was the home minister in Gujarat. Shah could be a potential replacement once Modi bows out when he turns 75 in 2025, a rule the prime minister adopted to edge out older party leaders who had sought to resist his rise.

“It’s some time off, but at the moment he is best placed to succeed him,” added Mukhopadhyay, who has specialized in studying the BJP and right-wing groups allied to it.

Shah was not gunning for any post, said the official who had worked with him, but added that he would be ready for any government responsibility as Modi’s “man of the match”, using the cricketing parlance beloved of millions of Indians.

(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani; Additional reporting by Neha Dasgupta and Shounak; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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FILE PHOTO: Extraordinary European Union leaders summit in Brussels
FILE PHOTO: Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel arrives at an extraordinary European Union leaders summit to discuss Brexit, in Brussels, Belgium April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo

May 23, 2019

By Philip Blenkinsop

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Linguistically-split Belgium holds a national election on Sunday that polls show is unlikely to allow Prime Minister Charles Michel to renew his center-right government.

Michel, 43, has been running the country of 11 million people in a caretaker capacity since December and could face many more months in that role if party leaders struggle to form a new coalition after the vote.

In 2010, that task took a world record 541 days until Elio Di Rupo, who still leads the francophone Socialists, finally took office.

“The lesson from 2010 is we can cope for some time with a caretaker government. There will be a government, but it could be in 2020,” said Carl Devos, political analyst at Ghent University.

Belgium effectively runs two separate elections in the Dutch and French-speaking regions, with no national parties, after which it will somehow have to weld together a federal government from a more left-leaning south and right-leaning north.

Wallonia in the south is forecast in polls to shift more to the left, making the Socialist Party (PS) the biggest with the hard left Workers Party (PTB) gaining ground. Michel’s liberal Reformist Movement (MR) is seen losing seats in both Wallonia and the capital Brussels.

Among Dutch speakers, the center-right New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which ultimately wants to make richer Flanders a separate country, is expected again to win the most seats, while the far-right Vlaams Belang is also seen making gains.

N-VA, expected to be the largest overall party with some 30 percent of the Flemish vote, could push for further devolution to Belgium’s regions, which already have wide powers over transport, agriculture and aspects of economic policy including foreign trade.

That is something the poorer south resists, fearing it will only become worse off.

Belgians simultaneously elect federal and regional assemblies, as well as participating in the European Parliament vote.

Climate change has emerged as one key campaign theme, to the benefit of the Greens. Mainstream parties are expected to see support slipping, as in other European countries.

Economists at ING said the next government was unlikely to follow up the initial reforms of Michel’s center-right government and could even reverse some, such as an increase in the retirement age to 67 from 65.

They also say maintaining stable public finances of a country’s whose public sector debt to economic output ratio is set to be the fourth highest in the euro zone this year will be a major challenge for any new government.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

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FILE PHOTO: New bollard-style U.S.-Mexico border fencing is seen in Santa Teresa
FILE PHOTO: New bollard-style U.S.-Mexico border fencing is seen in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, U.S., March 5, 2019. Picture taken March 5, 2019. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson – RC1FD8531B60/File Photo

May 23, 2019

By Andrew Hay

TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – Two more New Mexico counties have declared their opposition to taking in migrants in a growing revolt against federal authorities dropping off a surge in Central American families in the state’s rural, southern communities.

The record influx of asylum seekers has overwhelmed border detention facilities and shelters, forcing U.S. immigration authorities to bus migrants to nearby cities and even fly them to California.

Las Cruces, New Mexico, has received over 6,000 migrants since April 12. Deming, population 14,183, gets 300 to 500 a day, according to City Administrator Aaron Sera.

Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has dismissed President Donald Trump’s claims of a border security crisis and advocated a humanitarian response. She is in Washington seeking federal funds to reimburse cities that give support.

But some New Mexico counties say they want nothing to do with sheltering migrants, with officials saying the governor’s approach may worsen the border crisis.

Sierra County, population 11,116, was one of two Republican-controlled New Mexico counties to pass resolutions on Tuesday evening opposing the relocation of migrants to their communities.

Sierra County also called on Trump to close the border to immigration to end the crisis.

“We have to take care of our veterans, our seniors, our residents, first and foremost,” said County Manager Bruce Swingle. “We’re a very impoverished county.”

Sierra County has a median annual household income of $29,690 and a 21 percent poverty rate, according to Data USA.

‘FEEDING PIGEONS’

To the east, Lincoln County passed a resolution that it was not prepared to spend taxpayer dollars on housing “illegal immigrants,” said Commissioner Tom Stewart.

“We have a tight budget and need to focus on a new hospital that we are building,” Stewart said. “As long as we continue to extend citizen benefits to unregistered aliens the flows will continue.”

The moves followed a similar May 2 resolution by neighboring Otero County.

County Commission Chairman Couy Griffin said sheltering migrants sent the wrong message to other Central Americans thinking of leaving their homes and would deepen the border crisis.

“If you begin to feed pigeons in the parking lot, pretty soon you have every pigeon in town,” Griffin said.

Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said there was no evidence humanitarian aid encouraged people to leave their homes.

“They are moving because they have no other choice and its frankly un-American to suggest we close our doors to people in need,” he said.

The border situation is taking a tragic toll on the migrants themselves. On Wednesday, the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees unaccompanied child migrants, said a 10-year-old girl from El Salvador died in its custody in September, bringing to six the number of children who have died in U.S. custody, or shortly after release, in the last eight months.

(Reporting By Andrew Hay; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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FILE PHOTO: Iranian Revolutionary Guards speed boats are seen near the USS John C. Stennis CVN-74 as it makes its way to gulf through strait of Hormuz
FILE PHOTO: Iranian Revolutionary Guards speed boats are seen near the USS John C. Stennis CVN-74 (not pictured) as it makes its way to gulf through strait of Hormuz, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed/File Photo

May 23, 2019

GENEVA (Reuters) – The standoff between Iran and the United States is a “clash of wills”, a senior commander of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards said on Thursday, suggesting any enemy “adventurism” would meet a crushing response, Fars news agency reported. 

Tensions have spiked between the two countries after Washington sent more military forces to the Middle East in a show of force against what U.S. officials say are Iranian threats to its troops and interests in the region.

“The confrontation and face-off of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the malicious government of America is the arena for a clash of wills,” Iran’s armed forces chief of staff Major General Mohammad Baqeri said.

He pointed to a battle during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war where Iran was victorious and said the outcome could be a message that Iran will have a “hard, crushing and obliterating response” for any enemy “adventurism”.

On Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh, Editing by William Maclean)

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May 23, 2019

By Devjyot Ghoshal

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Honest, intelligent and open to new ideas is how officials of India’s main opposition Congress describe their leader, Rahul Gandhi, but the party’s election performance has been so poor he now risks losing even his family’s traditional seat.

As vote-counting trends on Thursday showed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party winning 285 seats against just 53 for Congress, current and former party officials blamed a lackluster campaign and a failure to overhaul its top team.

“If they want to change anything, change the leadership,” said a Congress official in the western state of Rajasthan, referring to the old guard around Gandhi. “You need to give young people a chance.”

He was among five current and three former party officials who told Reuters that Gandhi’s inability to jettison older leaders responsible for a major debacle in the 2014 general election and push forward newer, younger faces was a mistake.

All eight sources sought anonymity.

Gandhi’s office did not respond to a request from Reuters for an interview.

Still, the 48-year-old Gandhi remains powerful within a party that has ruled India for most of its history since independence from Britain in 1947, and is unlikely to face a leadership challenge immediately.

But Congress’s continued slide has raised questions both about its future and the role of his family.

Younger Indians find it difficult to accept that Gandhi was appointed Congress president only because of his lineage as the son, grandson, and great-grandson of prime ministers, said prominent historian and columnist Ramachandra Guha.

“The Congress should dump the Dynasty,” he said on Twitter.

In May 2014, after Congress slumped to its worst performance in a general election, with 44 seats, Gandhi told reporters, “There’s a lot for us to think about, and, as vice president of the party, I hold myself responsible.”

Five years on, his party has suffered a further drubbing at the hands of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and he was himself trailing in the family borough of Amethi in northern Uttar Pradesh, though he was leading in a second constituency from which he is contesting, in southern India.

Congress also proved unable to effectively parry Modi’s campaign emphasis on national security, after aerial clashes and heightened tension with arch rival Pakistan following a suicide attack in disputed Kashmir that killed 40 Indian policemen.

At the end of last year, Congress’s hopes of upsetting Modi had increased, after it won three heartland states in elections, largely driven by voter concerns about weak farm incomes and a lack of jobs.

But Congress fumbled communications on key policies, with a publicity campaign this year that escaped the notice even of some of its own workers, and failed to forge pre-election alliances in key states, said the party officials who spoke to Reuters.

The campaign was substantially delayed because of disagreements between 66-year-old Anand Sharma and other senior leaders, two party officials said.

Sharma denied the accusation, saying that putting together the campaign was a complex process. “There was no delay whatsoever in the launch of Congress campaign,” he added.

The campaign was launched on April 7, just four days before the first round of voting began in a general election spread over seven phases across 39 days.

In Rajasthan, which Congress won last year, its choice of 68-year-old Ashok Gehlot as chief minister, instead of 41-year-old Sachin Pilot, backfired, losing it the support of a key caste grouping, the official said, leaving the BJP likely to sweep all 25 seats.

“COLLEGE OF SYCOPHANTS”

Gandhi was encircled by a “college of sycophants”, said a former Congress official who joined a rival bloc this year.

“It doesn’t matter if you have talent or merit,” the former official said, adding, “What matters is you have the right family name or the right mentor.”

In contrast to Modi, a tea vendor’s son who rose through party ranks, Gandhi’s lineage is a weakness the prime minister has repeatedly exploited.

In Uttar Pradesh, which elects the bulk of India’s lawmakers, Congress this year drafted in Gandhi’s charismatic sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, to burnish its fortunes. But that made little difference to results.

(Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal; Additional reporting by Neha Dasgupta; Editing by Martin Howell and Clarence Fernandez)

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