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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Deadlocked jury in Bill Cosby trial struggles to end impasse

Deadlocked jury in Bill Cosby trial struggles to end impasse
 
 AP Photo


NORRISTOWN, Pa. (AP) -- Four days after getting the case, deadlocked jurors in Bill Cosby's sexual assault trial struggled to end their impasse Thursday on charges he drugged and molested a woman in 2004, the prospect of a mistrial growing larger even as the judge directed them to keep talking.

The jurors had deliberated about 30 hours before telling Judge Steven O'Neill they couldn't reach a unanimous decision on any of the counts against the 79-year-old comedian. The judge told them to try again for a verdict.

As evening fell, the panel of seven men and five women was still at it, poised for another marathon session in a case that has already helped torpedo Cosby's career and nice-guy reputation.

The charges involve Cosby's sexual encounter with Andrea Constand, 44, at his suburban Philadelphia home. Constand says Cosby gave her pills that made her woozy, then violated her. His lawyer says Cosby and Constand were lovers sharing a consensual moment of intimacy.

Cosby's spokesman maintained the impasse showed that jurors doubted Constand's story.

"They're conflicted about the inconsistencies in Ms. Constand's testimony," spokesman Andrew Wyatt said. 

"And they're hearing Mr. C.'s testimony, and he's extremely truthful. And that's created this doubt."

Constand's lawyer, Dolores Troiani, said only that the "jury is apparently working very hard." The district attorney's office declined to comment.

Constand passed the time by shooting hoops in a hallway outside the district attorney's office. She tweeted a video that shows her shooting a mini-basketball into a net to the tune of "Sweet Georgia Brown," the theme song of the Harlem Globetrotters. It ended with: "ALWAYS FOLLOW THROUGH."

Constand won a national title with the University of Arizona and played in a pro league in Europe before landing a job with Temple University women's basketball team. It was at Temple she met Cosby, a member of the board of trustees.

With the jury struggling to find common ground, some of the other women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault confronted sign-waving Cosby supporters gathered on the courthouse steps to await the outcome. But the atmosphere remained calm, with accusers and supporters even holding hands at times.

Dozens of women have come forward to say Cosby had drugged and assaulted them, but this was the only case to result in criminal charges.

The 12-member jury must come to a unanimous decision to convict or acquit. If the panel can't break the deadlock, the judge could declare a hung jury and a mistrial. In that case, prosecutors would get four months to decide whether they want to retry the TV star or drop the charges.

Pennsylvania law professor David Rudovsky, a criminal lawyer in Philadelphia, said Thursday that the jurors' inability to agree on a verdict didn't surprise him, given the nature of a case that boiled down to Cosby's word against his accuser's and the legal meaning of consent.

He added a hung jury would be a victory for Cosby.

"In most criminal cases, anything short of a conviction is a win for the defense," said Rudovsky, who isn't involved in the case. "It doesn't surprise me that this jury is split. The prosecution had a strong case, but the defense was able to show a lot of inconsistencies."

The sequestered jurors have appeared increasingly tired and upset as deliberations dragged on. Some of them looked defeated as the judge sent them back to the jury room. One, more upbeat, nodded along.

The jury, bused in from the Pittsburgh area, has paused a half-dozen times to revisit key evidence, including Cosby's decade-old admissions that he fondled Constand after giving her pills.

Each of the three counts of aggravated indecent assault against Cosby carries a maximum 10-year prison term, though the counts could be merged at sentencing if he is convicted.

The case has already helped demolish his image as America's Dad, cultivated during his eight-year run as kindly Dr. Cliff Huxtable on the top-rated "The Cosby Show" in the 1980s and '90s.

The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they grant permission, which Constand has done.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Islamic State claims stunning attack in heart of Iran

Islamic State claims stunning attack in heart of Iran




AP Photo
Police patrol outside Iran's parliament building after an assault by several attackers that was claimed by the Islamic State group, in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, June 7, 2017. Gunmen and suicide bombers attacked Iran’s parliament and the shrine of its revolutionary leader, killing at least 12 people, wounding dozens and igniting an hours-long siege at the legislature that ended with four attackers dead. It marked the first time the Sunni extremists have taken responsibility for an assault in Shiite-majority Iran.

 
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- The Islamic State group claimed responsibility Wednesday for a pair of stunning attacks on Iran's parliament and the tomb of its revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which killed at least 12 people and wounded more than 40.

Tehran Police Chief Gen. Hossein Sajedinia announced late Wednesday night that five suspects had been detained for interrogation, according to a report in the semi-official ISNA news agency. Sajedinia did not offer any further details.

Reza Seifollahi, an official in the country's Supreme National Security Council, was quoted by the independent Shargh daily as saying that the perpetrators of the attacks were Iranian nationals. He did not elaborate.

The bloodshed shocked the country and came as emboldened Sunni Arab states - backed by U.S. President Donald Trump - are hardening their stance against Shiite-ruled Iran.

The White House released a statement from Trump condemning the terrorist attacks in Tehran and offering condolences, but also implying that Iran is itself a sponsor of terrorism.

"We grieve and pray for the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Iran, and for the Iranian people, who are going through such challenging times," the statement said. "We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote."

In recent years, Tehran has been heavily involved in conflicts in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State, but had remained untouched by IS violence around the world. Iran has also battled Saudi-backed Sunni groups in both countries.

Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard indirectly blamed Saudi Arabia for the attacks. A statement issued Wednesday evening stopped short of alleging direct Saudi involvement but called it "meaningful" that the attacks followed Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia, where he strongly asserted Washington's support for Riyadh.

The statement said Saudi Arabia "constantly supports" terrorists including the Islamic State group, adding that the IS claim of responsibility "reveals (Saudi Arabia's) hand in this barbaric action."

The "spilled blood of the innocent will not remain unavenged," the Revolutionary Guard statement said.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, used the attacks to defend Tehran's involvement in wars abroad. He told a group of students that if "Iran had not resisted," it would have faced even more troubles.

"The Iranian nation will go forward," he added.

The violence began in midmorning when assailants with Kalashnikov rifles and explosives stormed the parliament complex where a legislative session had been in progress. The siege lasted for hours, and one of the attackers blew himself up inside, according to Iran's state TV.

Images circulating in Iranian media showed gunmen held rifles near the windows of the complex. One showed a toddler being handed through a first-floor window to safety outside as an armed man looks on.

The IS group's Aamaq news agency released a 24-second video purportedly shot inside the complex, showing a bloody, lifeless body on the floor next to a desk.

An Associated Press reporter saw several police snipers on the roofs of nearby buildings. Police helicopters circled the parliament and all mobile phone lines from inside were disconnected.

Shops in the area were closed as gunfire rang out and officials urged people to avoid public transportation. 

Witnesses said the attackers fired from the parliament building's fourth floor at people in the streets.

"I was passing by one of the streets. I thought that children were playing with fireworks, but I realized people are hiding and lying down on the streets," Ebrahim Ghanimi, who was around the parliament building, told the AP. "With the help of a taxi driver, I reached a nearby alley."

As the parliament attack unfolded, gunmen and suicide bombers also struck outside Khomeini's mausoleum on Tehran's southern outskirts. Khomeini led the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the Western-backed shah to become Iran's first supreme leader until his death in 1989.

Iran's state broadcaster said a security guard was killed at the tomb and that one of the attackers was slain by security guards. A woman was also arrested. The revered shrine was not damaged.

The Interior Ministry said six assailants were killed - four at the parliament and two at the tomb. A senior Interior Ministry official told Iran's state TV the male attackers wore women's attire.

Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani called the attacks a cowardly act.

Saudi Arabia and Iran regularly accuse each other of supporting extremists in the region. Saudi Arabia has long pointed to the absence of IS attacks in Iran as a sign of Tehran's culpability. For its part, Iran has cited Saudi Arabia's support for jihadists and its backing of hard-line Sunni fighters in Syria.

Trump's first overseas visit to Saudi Arabia last month positioned the U.S. firmly on the side of the kingdom and other Arab states in their stance against Iran. His assurances of Washington's support emboldened hawkish royals in Saudi Arabia, which is at war in Yemen against Iranian-allied rebels.

The attacks are likely to deepen enmity and sharpen the regional battle for power between the two rivals. Tensions are running high this week following a cut in ties between key Arab powers and Qatar over accusations that the energy-rich nation supports terrorist groups and is aligning itself too closely with Iran.

Saudi Arabia has been a target of numerous lethal attacks by IS affiliates who see the kingdom's Western-allied leadership as heretics. The group has also targeted Shiites in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. IS militants are fighting Iranian-backed forces in Syria and Iraq, and they view Shiites as apostates.

Nelly Lahoud, an expert on extremism at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain, said IS leaders may be looking to rally supporters through the attacks in Iran as they lose ground in Syria and Iraq.

"Now that they are unable to maintain the promise of territory, attacking Iran is to their advantage," she said. "It wouldn't surprise me if this were planned for a long time."

On March 27, the IS group posted a 37-minute video in Farsi threatening Iran. The Clarion Project said the speakers claimed to represent various Iranian Sunni ethnic groups, such as the Baluchis and Ahvazis, and encouraged Iranian Sunnis to join the group.

Wednesday's attacks, during the holy month of Ramadan that is observed by both Sunni and Shiite Muslims, came as the Islamic State is competing with al-Qaida for jihadi recruits.

Arab separatists are active in Iran's southern city of Ahvaz, where they killed two policemen three weeks ago. Though most Iranians are Shiite, including separatists in Ahvaz, the eastern Baloch region is majority Sunni, although there are no recent census figures available. There is also a significant Sunni population in southern Hormozgan province.

The attacks drew condemnation from Iran's allies - and also from the United States. That was notable because of the deep distrust between Tehran and Washington, which don't have diplomatic relations.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. expressed condolences to the victims and their families.

"The depravity of terrorism has no place in a peaceful, civilized world," Nauert said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent condolences and confirmed Moscow's willingness to aid its ally. Syria's Foreign Ministry also condemned the attacks, which it said were backed by various governments that it did not specify.

The IS group often claims attacks around the world, even when links to the group cannot be confirmed. Iranian security officials have not said who might have been behind the attacks, although state media called the assailants "terrorists."

There are concerns that a doubling down on security could lead to a wider clampdown on the opposition in Iran. Rights group Amnesty International urged Iranian authorities to carry out impartial investigations into the attacks.

Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at King's College London, said the attacks could provoke a disproportionate counterterrorism response in Iran.

"Iranian officials will be called upon to step up intervention in Iraq (and) Syria big time," he said, adding that Wednesday's attacks will significantly boost IS morale amid battlefield defeats.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Trump wishes Comey luck, allies aim at lawman's credibility

Trump wishes Comey luck, allies aim at lawman's credibility


AP Photo
In this Wednesday, May 3, 2017 photo, then-FBI Director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. A nonprofit issues group is labeling James Comey a political "showboat" in an advertisement set to air on television Thursday, the day the former FBI director testifies on Capitol Hill.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The White House and its allies are scrambling for ways to offset potential damage from fired FBI Director James Comey's highly anticipated congressional testimony, an appearance that could expose new details about his discussions with President Donald Trump about the federal investigation into Russia's election meddling.

Asked about the testimony, Trump on Tuesday was tight-lipped: "I wish him luck," he told reporters before a meeting with lawmakers.

Tuesday evening, a person familiar with the situation said Comey had asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to keep him from being alone with Trump.

The person, who was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press the request was made because of concerns Comey had about Trump.

It was not immediately clear when the conversation occurred. But The New York Times, which first reported the request to Sessions, said it came after Trump had asked Comey in February to end an investigation into Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

Trump's White House and its allies are crafting a strategy aimed at undermining Comey's credibility. Both White House officials and an outside group that backs Trump plan to hammer Comey in the coming days for misstatements he made about Democrat Hillary Clinton's emails during his last appearance on Capitol Hill.

An ad created by the pro-Trump Great America Alliance - a nonprofit "issues" group that isn't required to disclose its donors - casts Comey as a "showboat" who was "consumed with election meddling" instead of focusing on combating terrorism. The 30-second spot is slated to run digitally on Wednesday and appear the next day on CNN and Fox News.

The Republican National Committee has been preparing talking points ahead of the hearing, which will be aired live on multiple TV stations. An RNC research email Monday issued a challenge to the lawmakers who will question Comey. There's bipartisan agreement, the email says, that Comey "needs to answer a simple question about his conversations with President Trump: If you were so concerned, why didn't you act on it or notify Congress?"

Comey's testimony before the Senate intelligence committee marks his first public comments since he was abruptly ousted by Trump on May 9. Since then, Trump and Comey allies have traded competing narratives about their interactions. The president asserted that Comey told him three times that he was not personally under investigation, while the former director's associates allege Trump asked Comey if he could back off an investigation into Michael Flynn, who was fired as national security adviser because he misled the White 
House about his ties to Russia.

Democrats have accused Trump of firing Comey to upend the FBI's Russia probe, which focused in large part on whether campaign aides coordinated with Moscow to hack Democratic groups during the election. Days after Comey's firing, the Justice Department appointed a special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, to oversee the federal investigation.

Despite the mounting legal questions now shadowing the White House, Trump has needled Comey publicly. In a tweet days after the firing, he appeared to warn Comey that he might have recordings of their private discussions, something the White House has neither confirmed nor denied.

White House officials appear eager to keep the president away from television and Twitter Thursday, though those efforts rarely succeed. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the president plans to attend an infrastructure summit in the morning, then address the Faith and Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" conference at 12:30 p.m.

"The president's got a full day on Thursday," Spicer said.

The White House had hoped to set up a "war room" stocked with Trump allies and top-flight lawyers to combat questions about the FBI and congressional investigations into possible ties between the campaign and Russia. However, that effort has largely stalled, both because of a lack of decision-making in the West Wing and concerns among some potential recruits about joining a White House under the cloud of investigation.

"If there isn't a strategy, a coherent, effective one, this is really going to put us all behind the eight ball. We need to start fighting back. And so far, I don't see a lot of fight," said Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign aide.

Still, Trump supporters say they are willing to step in to help the White House deflect any accusations from Comey.

"If we feel he crosses a line, we'll fire back," said Ed Rollins, chief strategist of Great America PAC, the political arm of the group airing the Comey ad.

Rollins and others with Great America say they plan to stand up for Trump in cable appearances Thursday.

He said the White House has "improved" its communications with surrogates, starting with the president's recent trip abroad, and frequently holds call-ins to discuss what story lines they'd like to push.

"I assume they'll do the same thing with this," Rollins said of the Comey hearing. However, he added, he had not heard from the White House about the Comey hearing as of midday Tuesday.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

European leaders: climate change deal can't be renegotiated

European leaders: climate change deal can't be renegotiated


AP Photo
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and China's Premier, Li Keqiang, left, talk during a contract signing ceremony as part of a meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, June 1, 2017.

BERLIN (AP) -- Top European leaders pledged Thursday to keep fighting against global warming as U.S. President Donald Trump announced he was pulling out of the Paris climate accord, but they rejected his suggestion that the deal could later be renegotiated.

The leaders of France, Germany and Italy said in a joint statement that they regretted the United States' decision to withdraw from the accord, but affirmed "our strongest commitment" to implement its measures and encouraged "all our partners to speed up their action to combat climate change."

While Trump said the United States would be willing to rejoin the accord if it could obtain more favorable terms, the three European leaders said the agreement cannot be renegotiated, "since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies and economics."

President Emmanuel Macron of France repeated that belief in an English-language speech from the presidential palace, unprecedented from a French president in an address at home. He said, "I do respect this decision but I do think it is an actual mistake both for the U.S. and for our planet."

"Wherever we live, whoever we are, we all share the same responsibility: make our planet great again," Macron added.

The European Union's top climate change official, Miguel Arias Canente, said in a statement that Trump's decision to leave the Paris accord made it "a sad day for the global community," adding that the bloc "deeply regrets the unilateral decision."

Canete also predicted that the EU would seek new alliances from the world's largest economies to the most vulnerable island states, as well as U.S. businesses and individuals supportive of the accord.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement "a major disappointment" and said it was "crucial that the United States remains a leader on environmental issues," according to his spokesman.

Norway's largest pension fund with 53 billion euro ($59.5 billion) in assets under its management said it would continue to invest in renewable energy despite the American president's decision, saying in a statement that "Donald Trump is jumping off a train that has already left the station."

Chief executive Odd Arild Grefstad cited the growth of renewable energy in U.S. states such as Texas, New York and California as signs that "the world has started the transition from fossil to a renewable economy."

In Mexico, former President Vicente Fox criticized Trump's move, saying on Twitter: "He's declaring war on the planet itself."

Fox, who has clashed with Trump since last year's presidential campaign, said the U.S. leader's decision "condemns this generation and those to come" and would leave "a dark legacy just to satisfy your greediness."

The U.S. Conference of Mayors said it strongly opposed Trump's action and vowed to continue efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the group's vice president, said withdrawal from the agreement was "shortsighted" and called climate change a grave threat to coastal communities such as his, as well as the nation and the world.

Inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk said he would keep his promise to end his participation in two presidential councils after Trump issued his decision.

"Climate change is real. Leaving Paris is not good for America or the world," the CEO of electric car maker Tesla Inc. tweeted shortly after Trump officially withdrew the U.S. from the global climate pact.

Meanwhile, General Motors, the No. 1 U.S. automaker, said it would continue its commitment to "creating a better environment." The automaker highlighted its development of the Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicle with 238 miles of range on a single charge and a net price of less than $30,000.

Bill Ford, chairman of the Ford Motor Co., also weighed in, saying: "We believe climate change is real, and remain deeply committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in our vehicles and our facilities."

Before Trump announced his decision Thursday afternoon, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told reporters during a visit to Berlin that fighting global warming was a "global consensus" and an "international responsibility."

Without mentioning the U.S. specifically, Li said that "China in recent years has stayed true to its commitment" and pointed out that his was one of the first countries to ratify the 2015 Paris Agreement.

While traveling abroad last week, Trump was repeatedly pressed to stay in the deal by European leaders and Pope Francis. Withdrawing would leave the United States as one of just three countries outside the agreement. The other two are Syria and Nicaragua.

Russia joined the chorus speaking out for the climate accord. Speaking to reporters on Thursday before Trump's decision was announced, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin said Russia "thinks highly" of the accords and sees no alternative to it. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov added that its implementation will not be as effective "without the key signatories."

Scientists say Earth is likely to reach more dangerous levels of warming sooner if the U.S. retreats from its pledge because America contributes so much to rising temperatures. Calculations suggest withdrawal could release up to 3 billion additional tons of carbon dioxide a year - enough to melt ice sheets faster, raise seas higher and trigger more extreme weather.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Portland mayor calls for cancellation of free-speech rally

Portland mayor calls for cancellation of free-speech rally

AP Photo
Coco Douglas, 8, leaves a handmade sign and rocks she painted at a memorial in Portland, Ore., on Saturday, May 27, 2017, for two bystanders who were stabbed to death Friday while trying to stop a man who was yelling anti-Muslim slurs and acting aggressively toward two young women. From left are Coco's brother, Desmond Douglas; her father, Christopher Douglas; and her stepmother, Angel Sauls.
 
The mayor of Portland, Oregon, on Monday urged U.S. officials and organizers to cancel a "Trump Free Speech Rally" and similar events, saying they are inappropriate could be dangerous after two men were stabbed to death on a train as they tried to help a pair of young women targeted by an anti-Muslim tirade.

Mayor Ted Wheeler said he hopes the victims will inspire "changes in the political dialogue in this country."

Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, 23, and Ricky John Best, 53, were killed as they tried to stop Jeremy Joseph Christian from harassing the women, one of whom was wearing a hijab, authorities say. Another who stepped in was seriously injured.

Christian's social media postings indicate an affinity for Nazis and political violence. He was charged with aggravated murder, intimidation - the state equivalent of a hate crime - and being a felon in possession of a weapon and was scheduled to be in court Tuesday.

The federal government has issued a permit for the free-speech rally Saturday and has yet to give a permit for an event June 10. The mayor says his main concern was the participants "coming to peddle a message of hatred," saying hate speech is not protected by the Constitution.

A Facebook page for the event says there would be speakers and live music in "one of the most liberal areas on the West Coast." It features Kyle Chapman, who describes himself as an American nationalist and ardent supporter of President Donald Trump. Chapman was arrested at a March 4 protest in Berkeley, California.

Trump condemned the stabbing, writing Monday on Twitter: "The violent attacks in Portland on Friday are unacceptable. The victims were standing up to hate and intolerance. Our prayers are w/ them."

Wheeler said he appreciated Trump's words but stressed the need for action.

"I hope we rise to the memory of these two gentlemen who lost their lives," the mayor told reporters. "Let's do them honor by standing with them and carrying on their legacy of standing up to hate and bigotry and violence."

The mother of one of the targets of the rant said she was overwhelmed with gratitude and sadness for the strangers who died defending her daughter, 16-year-old Destinee Mangum.

Mangum told news station KPTV that she and her 17-year-old friend were riding the train when Christian started yelling at them. She said her friend is Muslim, but she's not.

"He told us to go back to Saudi Arabia, and he told us we shouldn't be here, to get out of his country," Mangum said. "He was just telling us that we basically weren't anything and that we should kill ourselves."

The teens moved toward the back of the train, preparing to get off at the next stop.

"And then we turned around while they were fighting, and he just started stabbing people, and it was just blood everywhere, and we just started running for our lives," Mangum said.

Micah David-Cole Fletcher, 21, was stabbed in the neck. His girlfriend, Miranda Helm, told The Oregonian/OregonLive that he was recovering his strength in the hospital and eating.

Telephone messages left at the home of Christian's mother Sunday and Monday were not returned. It was not clear if he had a lawyer yet.

Christian served prison time after holding up employees at a convenience store with a gun in 2002, court records show. He was sent back after pleading guilty in 2011 to being a felon in possession of a firearm. He went back again in 2013 for violating a condition of his release, according to court records.

Tomica Clark told The Oregonian/OregonLive that she has known Christian since elementary school. She said she was surprised to hear people call Christian racist. Clark is black and said Christian had many black friends.

"He never disrespected me," Clark said, but added that he changed after he got out of prison.

"Prison took the real him away," she said.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Rash of media murders highlights deadly threats in Mexico

Rash of media murders highlights deadly threats in Mexico
 

AP Photo
Journalists hold up photos of slain colleague Javier Valdez during a protest to call attention to the latest wave of killings of journalists, at the Angel of Independence in Mexico City, Tuesday, May 16, 2017. Valdez, an award-winning reporter who specialized in covering drug trafficking and organized crime, was slain Monday in the northern state of Sinaloa. "In Mexico they are killing us," wrote a dozen reporters in Spanish at the base of the Angel of Independence monument, next to the phrase "No to silence". The messages were constructed using photo copies of the journalists who were killed in recent years.
  
MEXICO CITY (AP) -- A journalist is shot dead as she pulls out of her garage in the morning with her young son. Gunmen ambush another journalist while he lazes in a car wash hammock. An award-winning reporter is hauled out of his vehicle and gunned down a block from his office.

On Monday, Javier Valdez became the sixth journalist slain in Mexico since early March, a deadly spree unusual even in a country that ranks behind only Syria and Afghanistan for such murders. There's no evidence directly linking the killings to each other, but collectively they are a grim signal that lawlessness and impunity continue to threaten the lives and work of journalists across much of the country.

The killings come at a time when overall homicides rose 29 percent in the first three months of the year from the same period in 2016; high-stakes state elections and a presidential vote next year have been bitterly contested; corruption scandals are regular news; and a decade-old militarized offensive against brutal drug cartels shows no sign of being won.

"Mexico has become more dangerous in general over the past year, and that is affecting the way there is more fighting," Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope said. "Tensions are running really high in the underworld, so I think that people that are covering this are getting themselves into much riskier situations."

Valdez wrote the "Mala Yerba" column for Riodoce, the publication he helped found, in which he told stories without using real names. His last entry was titled "El Licenciado," a possible allusion to a Sinaloa cartel boss who used that nickname. Valdez also reported on organized crime, incidents involving state security forces such as a police attack on three women and alleged corruption during the term of Sinaloa state's previous governor.

Eduardo Buscaglia, an international organized crime expert and consultant, said Valdez and Riodoce had interviewed him many times and probed "links between politics, society and criminal groups, and that entails ... enormous risk."

The chief prosecutor of Sinaloa said he was unaware of any threats against the journalist. But the national newspaper La Jornada, to which Valdez contributed, said he had recently received threats "of a different caliber" that caused him and his wife to be concerned. Valdez traveled to Mexico City to consult with colleagues, who recommended he leave the country.

The spate of six killings began March 2 with the murder of Cecilio Pineda, an independent journalist in the southern state of Guerrero. The rest came in quick succession: March 19 in Veracruz. Four days later in Chihuahua. April 14 in Baja California Sur. May 2 in Morelos.

There were plenty of other non-fatal attacks during the same span, including the wounding of a media executive in Jalisco the same day that Valdez was slain; an assault and robbery of seven traveling reporters by a mob of 100 gunmen in Guerrero over the weekend; and an attempt on a reporter's life in Baja California Sur that killed his bodyguard.

One commonality running through all the states where the killings have taken place is the presence of both organized crime and endemic corruption, a particularly toxic combination.

Security analyst Raul Benitez noted that in several states, such as Sinaloa, Veracruz and Chihuahua, political control recently changed from one party to another. That can destabilize illicit alliances and force criminal gangs to adjust and seek new ones.

In Sinaloa there has also been a fragmentation and power struggle among factions in the drug cartel of the same name following the arrest and extradition to the United States of notorious kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. Chihuahua is in a similar situation. Meanwhile, Baja California Sur, Sinaloa and Veracruz have seen homicide spikes this year that far outpace the nationwide increase.

"The bands of killers have no leader and are taking vengeance on whomever they want," Benitez said.

In some places such as Tamaulipas state, critical media expression has become practically nonexistent, with criminal gangs and corrupt public servants essentially setting editorial lines. Self-censorship as a survival mechanism is common, leading to news blackouts on sensitive topics. Some journalists are bought off by criminals or corrupt officials, or threatened with death if they won't accept bribes for favorable or soft coverage.

None of the killings attracted more attention or generated more outrage than that of Valdez, who was pulled from his car a block from the offices of Riodoce, shot dead and left in the street.

On Tuesday some Mexican media outlets went dark online in protest, and editorials and headlines lamented the slaying. "They are killing us in Mexico," demonstrating journalists scrawled on the pavement at the capital's Angel of Independence monument. At a wake in Culiacan, Valdez's body lay in a coffin crowned by his trademark Panama-style hat.

Riodoce did not respond to requests to make someone available for an interview, and the paper's future without a man known as a highly prolific journalist is unclear. In April the newspaper Norte in Chihuahua state announced it was shutting down in part for security reasons after the March 23 killing of Miroslava Breach, one of its contributors.

At a news conference, journalists from Riodoce and other outlets angrily questioned Sinaloa Gov. Quirino Ordaz about Valdez's killing.

"We are clear that in the face of these acts words are not enough and a government response is required," federal Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said at a separate event.

President Enrique Pena Nieto called Valdez's murder an "outrageous crime" and ordered an investigation.

But many Mexican journalists accused the government of doing too little to combat the problem.

This year's killings "are apparently unconnected occurrences but they are happening in a pre-electoral context and in an environment of tension in which there are groups that may want to create fear," said Jose Reveles, a journalist and writer specializing in drug trafficking.

The government "is paralyzed and doesn't know what to do, and that can multiply the violent acts," he added.

Valdez, 50 years old and married with two children, was always conscious of the risks he faced.

"Journalism is walking an invisible line drawn by the bad people who are in drug trafficking and in the government," he once wrote. "One must beware of everything and everyone."

He earned a national and international reputation as a courageous authority on drugs and security in Sinaloa, winning prestigious awards from the Committee to Protect Journalists and Columbia University.

Everard Meade, the director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego who collaborated closely with Valdez, said the reporter specialized in recounting the human side of the violence that surrounded him. Beyond merely the production and distribution of drugs, Valdez was interested in where power resided and how it was used.

"How the difference between soldiers, drug traffickers, different police agencies and other armed men, for ordinary people, is almost nonexistent," Meade said.

He added that lately Valdez had been writing more about connections between organized crime and elected officials, and he wondered if those "blistering critiques" may have been what got him killed.

Valdez had been particularly outspoken about the killing of Breach, who like him also contributed to La Jornada. Breach was the woman shot dead in her driveway while taking her son to school.

"Miroslava was killed for talking too much," Valdez tweeted two days after she was slain. "May they kill all of us, if that is the death penalty for reporting on this hell. No to silence."

Trump asked Comey to shut down Flynn investigation

Trump asked Comey to shut down Flynn investigation
 

AP Photo
FILE - In this May 8, 2017, file photo, then-FBI Director James Comey speaks to the Anti-Defamation League National Leadership Summit in Washington. The White House is disputing a report that President Donald Trump asked Comey to shut down an investigation into ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn.
  
WASHINGTON (AP) -- FBI Director James Comey wrote in a memo that President Donald Trump had asked him to shut down an FBI investigation into ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press Tuesday.

The person had seen the memo but was not authorized to discuss it by name and spoke on condition of anonymity. The existence of the memo was first reported Tuesday by The New York Times.

The White House denied the report.

"While the President has repeatedly expressed his view that General Flynn is a decent man who served and protected our country, the President has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn," the White House said in a statement.

Trump abruptly fired Comey last week, saying he did so based on his very public handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe.

But the White House has provided differing accounts of the firing. And lawmakers have alleged that the sudden ouster was an attempt to stifle the bureau's investigation into Trump associates' ties to Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Comey's memo detailing his conversation with Trump would be the clearest proof to date that the president has tried to influence that investigation. The Times said it was part of a paper trail Comey created documenting what he saw as Trump's efforts to improperly interfere in the ongoing probe.

The Justice Department declined to comment.

According to the Times, Comey wrote in the February memo that Trump told him Flynn had done nothing wrong. But Comey did not say anything to Trump about limiting the investigation, replying, "I agree he is a good guy."

The newspaper said Comey was in the Oval Office that day with other national security officials for a terrorism threat briefing. When that ended, Trump asked everyone to leave except Comey, and he eventually turned the conversation to Flynn.

On Tuesday, for the second night in a row, Senate Republicans and Democrats were caught off-guard as they entered the chamber for a scheduled vote.

"I don't know the facts, so I really want to wait until I find out what the facts are before commenting," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters.

Asked if it would be obstructing justice for Trump to have asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation, Cornyn said: "You know, that's a very serious charge. I wouldn't want to answer a hypothetical question."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., emphatically said he's not commenting on news stories anymore.

"Let's get to the bottom of what happened with the director. And the best way to get to the bottom of it, is for him to testify. ... I'm not going to take a memo, I want the guy to come in," Graham told reporters, adding, "If he felt confident enough to write it down, he should come in and tell us about it."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Comey needs to come to Capitol Hill and testify.

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he will ask Comey for additional material as part of the panel's investigation. "Memos, transcripts, tapes - the list keeps getting longer," he said.

Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut tweeted: "Just leaving Senate floor. Lots of chatter from Ds and Rs about the exact definition of 'obstruction of justice.'"

There is no sign the FBI's Russia investigation is closing. Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe told Congress last week the investigation is "highly significant" and said Comey's dismissal would do nothing to impede the probe.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

White ex-officer pleads guilty in black man's slaying

White ex-officer pleads guilty in black man's slaying

AP Photo
Judy Scott raises her hands to praise God for justice for her dead son, Walter Scott, as other family members and the family's lawyer stand nearby during a news conference, Tuesday, May 2, 2017, in Charleston, S.C. Michael Slager, a white former police officer whose killing of an unarmed Walter Scott running from a traffic stop was captured on cellphone video pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal civil rights charges that could send him to prison for decades.

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) -- A white former police officer whose killing of an unarmed black man running from a traffic stop was captured on cellphone video pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal civil rights charges that could send him to prison for decades.

The plea from Michael Slager, 35, came five months after a jury deadlocked on state murder charges against him in the 2015 shooting of Walter Scott. South Carolina prosecutors had planned to retry Slager, but as part of Tuesday's plea bargain, they agreed to drop the murder case.

Slager admitted violating Scott's civil rights by shooting him without justification. He could get up to life in prison and a $250,000 fine at sentencing, though prosecutors agreed to ask for about 20 years behind bars. 

No sentencing date was set.

A bystander's grainy video of the shooting, viewed millions of times online, showed the 50-year-old motorist breaking away after struggling with Slager over the officer's Taser. Slager then began firing at Scott's back from 17 feet away. Five of eight bullets hit him.

The former North Charleston officer spoke little in court except to quietly answer the judge's questions. Several of Scott's relatives sat in the front row in the gallery as the prosecutor read a bare-bones description of the shooting. One of them closed his eyes tightly, while another hung his head.

Slager, who has been out on bail for much of the time since the shooting, was led away in handcuffs as the family looked on.

"God never fails," Scott's mother, Judy Scott, said outside court.

The chilling video helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged around the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It was seized on by many as vivid proof of what they had been arguing for years: that white officers too often use deadly force unnecessarily against black people.

When the jury failed to reach a verdict in the murder case in December, many black people and others were shocked and distressed, because the video seemed to some to be an open-and-shut case. Some despaired of ever seeing justice.

The plea agreement made no mention of race but said Slager used deadly force knowing that it was "unnecessary and excessive, and therefore unreasonable under the circumstances."

The state prosecutor who pursued the murder charges, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, said in a statement that she is satisfied with the case's resolution. She said it "vindicates the state's interests" by holding Slager accountable.

Slager had pulled Scott over on April 4, 2015, because of a broken brake light on his 1990 Mercedes. Scott's family said he may have bolted because he was worried about going to jail because he was $18,000 behind on child support.

The officer, who was fired after the video became public, testified at his murder trial that he feared for his life because Scott was trying to grab his stun gun.

The video showed Slager picking the Taser up off the ground and dropping it near Scott's body in what prosecutors suggested was an attempt to plant evidence. Slager denied that, testifying he was following his training in accounting for his weapons.

Slager also testified last year that he regretted what happened, saying, "My family has been destroyed by it. The Scott family has been destroyed by it. It's horrible."

Outside court Tuesday, Chris Stewart, an attorney who won $6.5 million for the Scott family in a settlement with the city of North Charleston, said: "We know what justice truly looks like. It doesn't look like a big settlement check. It looks like today."

As for what punishment Slager should receive, Scott's brother, Anthony, said, "Murder deserves life in prison."

Slager attorney Andy Savage had little to say outside court. "This is a day for the Scott family and the government," he said.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

NKorea detains US citizen, the 3rd American being held there

NKorea detains US citizen, the 3rd American being held there
 

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) -- North Korea has detained a U.S. citizen, officials said Sunday, bringing to three the number of Americans now being held there.

Tony Kim, who also goes by his Korean name Kim Sang-duk, was detained on Saturday, according to Park Chan-mo, the chancellor of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

Park said Kim, who is 58, taught accounting at the university for about a month. He said Kim was detained by officials as he was trying to leave the country from Pyongyang's international airport. A university spokesman said he was trying to leave with his wife on a flight to China.

The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang said it was aware of a Korean-American citizen being detained recently, but could not comment further. The embassy looks after consular affairs for the United States in North Korea because the two countries do not have diplomatic relations.

The State Department said it was aware of the report about a U.S. citizen being detained, but declined further comment "due to privacy considerations."

Park said Kim had taught at the Yanbian University of Science and Technology in China before coming to Pyongyang. He said he was informed that the detention had "nothing to do" with Kim's work at the university but did not know further details.

As of Sunday night, North Korea's official media had not reported on the detention.

The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology is the only privately funded university in North Korea. 
It held its first classes in 2010. It is unique in the North for its large number of foreign staff.

Colin McCulloch, the director of external affairs, said the university was not under investigation and was continuing its normal operations. He said he could not immediately confirm Kim's hometown.

Though no details on why Kim was detained have been released, the detention comes at a time of unusually heightened tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. Both countries have recently been trading threats of war and having another American in jail will likely up the ante even further.

Last year, Otto Warmbier, then a 21-year-old University of Virginia student from suburban Cincinnati, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in prison after he confessed to trying to steal a propaganda banner.

Kim Dong Chul, who was born in South Korea but is also believed to have U.S. citizenship, is serving a sentence of 10 years for espionage.

Another foreigner, a Canadian pastor, is also being detained in North Korea. Hyeon Soo Lim, a South Korean-born Canadian citizen in his 60s, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2015 on charges of trying to use religion to destroy the North Korean system and helping U.S. and South Korean authorities lure and abduct North Korean citizens.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Manhunt underway for man who livestreamed homicide

Manhunt underway for man who livestreamed homicide
 

CLEVELAND (AP) -- A manhunt is underway for a suspect who police say killed a man on the street Sunday while streaming it live on Facebook.

Law enforcement is searching the Cleveland area and beyond for Steve Stephens, the suspect police say walked up to an elderly man and shot him while on video, said Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams.
The victim has been identified as 74-year-old Robert Goodwin Sr.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson publicly urged Stephens to turn himself into police and not to "do anymore harm to anybody."

"Any problems he is having, we can have a conversation," Jackson said.

In the video, Stephens claimed to have killed more than a dozen other people. Williams said police have not verified that information.

"There are no more victims that we know are tied to him," he added.

The chief also said they've been talking with Stephens' friends and family.

"What happened today was senseless," Williams said.

Authorities say Stephens broadcast the video live on the social media network Sunday afternoon. It was up for about three hours before it was removed. Stephens Facebook page has also been removed.

"This is a horrific crime and we do not allow this kind of content on Facebook," said a spokesperson for Facebook. "We work hard to keep a safe environment on Facebook, and are in touch with law enforcement in emergencies when there are direct threats to physical safety."

Police say Stephens should be considered armed and dangerous.

Williams said Stephens may be driving a newer model white Ford Fusion, possibly with a temporary license plate. He is described as a black man with a bald head and beard, standing 6 foot 1 inch and weighing 240 pounds. Anyone with information is asked to call 911.


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Chicago-area chef, cancer worker charged in terrorist case

Chicago-area chef, cancer worker charged in terrorist case

CHICAGO (AP) -- Two suburban Chicago men who posed for photos holding a black Islamic State group flag at a Lake Michigan beach park were arrested Wednesday on federal terrorist charges, and an undercover operative said one of the men suggested homosexuals should be thrown off the city's tallest building.

An FBI sting begun in 2015 compiled evidence that Joseph D. Jones and Edward Schimenti sought to provide material support to Islamic State, including by provided cellphones to one person working for the FBI and posing as an IS supporter believing the phones would be used to detonate car bombs in Syria, the 65-page complaint says.

Jones, a part time chef, and Schimenti, who worked at a cancer treatment center, drove the FBI operative to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport last week on what they thought would be the first leg of a journey to Syria. The complaint says Schimenti told him to "drench that land ... with blood."

The 35-year-old men looked tired standing in street clothes with their hands folded behind their backs during a brief initial hearing Wednesday in federal court in Chicago. When Magistrate Judge David Weisman asked if they understood the charges, both answered calmly that they did.

If convicted, the two would face a maximum prison term of 20 years. A detention hearing was set for Monday, after which they would enter pleas.

The complaint includes photos of them holding the IS flag at the Illinois Beach State Park in Zion, where they live. It also included details of postings on their social media accounts.

While he helped the man he believed would go to Syria get into condition at a local gym, Schmimenti conceded he wasn't close to fighting shape, the complaint says. "I'm all big, fat," he is quoted as saying. "But (God willing), the brothers will just have me be the one to cut the neck."

Schimenti, who also went by "Abdul Wali," allegedly told one person in on the sting in February that he was angry about a co-worker because the person was gay. Under Islamic Law, Schimenti was quoted as saying, "We are putting you (homosexuals) on top of Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) and we drop you."

A photo posted on Schimenti's Google Plus profile shows a masked man holding a knife, and caption written in capital letters says that if you can't travel abroad to fight, "then slaughter the pagans next to you." After watching an IS video of captured soldiers being burned alive as they spoke a language he didn't understand, Schimenti says, "I don't know what they're saying but I love it," the complaint says.

A video was posted on Jones' Google Plus profile entitled, "Some of the Deadly Stabbing Ways: Do not Forget to Poison the Knife," the complaint says. Another time, a person in on the FBI sting asked Jones if he ever thought about traveling to Syria to live in Islamic State territory. Jones, who was also known as "Yusuf Abdulhaqq," allegedly answered: "Every night and day."

This is the latest of several area cases related to Islamic State. A Chicago federal judge last year sentenced former Illinois National Guard Hasan Edmonds to 30 years in prison and his cousin, Jonas Edmonds, to 21 years for plotting to join Islamic State fighters and to attack a National Guard armory just outside Chicago.

The complaint makes a brief reference to Schimenti allegedly suggesting in March that the Naval Station Great Lakes, a training ground for U.S. sailors just south of Zion, could be a terrorist target.

The sting started in September 2015 when an undercover agent approach Jones at the Zion Police Department - where Jones was being questioned about the killing of one of his friends - and the two began talking about Islam. The complaint didn't offer details about the killing.

Schimenti grew increasingly suspicious about the undercover agents, suggesting that at least some weren't actually Islamic State sympathizers. He once suggested something was "fishy" about them, adding that he had a good sense of that because of his own criminal history. Jones also spoke about past convictions, the complaint says.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Michigan boy, 11, hangs himself after social media prank

Michigan boy, 11, hangs himself after social media prank
  

DETROIT (AP) -- Tysen Benz was at home when he saw social media posts indicating that his 13-year-old girlfriend had committed suicide. The posts were a prank, but the 11-year-old boy apparently believed them.

Moments later, his mother found him hanging by the neck in his room in Marquette, Michigan. Now a prosecutor is pursuing criminal charges against a juvenile accused of being involved in the scheme, which Katrina Goss described as "a twisted, sick joke."

Goss described her son as appearing "fine" just 40 minutes before she found him.

"I just want it be exposed and be addressed," Goss said of school bullying in general and cyberbullying in particular. "I don't want it be ignored."

Using a cellphone he bought without his mother's knowledge, Tysen on March 14 was reading texts and other messages about the faked suicide and decided he would end his life too, his mother said.

After seeing the posts about his girlfriend, Tysen replied over social media that he was going to kill himself, and no one involved in the prank told an adult, Goss said.

The boy died Tuesday at a Detroit-area hospital.

Authorities would not release the age of the juvenile charged or comment on what relationship the person had with Tysen. The juvenile is being charged with malicious use of telecommunication services and using a computer to commit a crime.

The girl whose death was faked and friends who were in on the prank attended the same school as Tysen, Goss said. Even though the prank occurred outside of school, she said, the school should have done more to protect her son.

"The principal, the assistant principal - that's their job, especially for little kids," she said. "Kids take things to heart."

In a statement released Thursday, Marquette Area Public Schools Superintendent William Saunders agreed with Goss's concerns about the dangers of social media. He said the district has been educating students and parents through its health curriculum, health fairs, community forums and other efforts.

"After the gut-wrenching loss of a student, we ask ourselves, 'How can we do more?'" Saunders wrote.

Most states, including Michigan, have enacted legislation designed to protect children from bullies.

Michigan's anti-bullying act, signed in 2011 by Gov. Rick Snyder, requires school districts to have anti-bullying policies on the books. It was known as "Matt's Safe School Law" after Matt Epling, a 14-year-old who killed himself after a 2002 hazing incident.

The law was updated two years ago to direct school districts to add language to those policies that address cyberbullying.

Former Republican state Rep. Phil Potvin, who sponsored the original bill, said schools have a responsibility to do more than include anti-cyberbullying rules in their written policies.

"They have to have a person - spelled out - to make sure that policy is followed," said Potvin, of Cadillac in northern Michigan. "Some schools have failed to do that. They may have put something in, but there is no follow-up. There is no checking up on these things."

In 2006, Megan Meier committed suicide after a woman who lived in her family's neighborhood in St. Charles County, Missouri, encouraged the 13-year-old to kill herself. The woman had created a fake MySpace admirer named "Josh," who befriended Megan.

The woman was convicted in a California federal court of three misdemeanors, but a judge overturned the conviction.

Pranks "definitely happen," said Tina Meier, who runs a national bullying and cyberbullying prevention foundation named after her daughter.

"The problem is when they are pranking somebody ... to them it's just been a joke," Meier said. "To the other person, it's been real."

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Gorsuch heads for confirmation as Senate tears up own rules

Gorsuch heads for confirmation as Senate tears up own rules

AP Photo
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. signals a thumbs-up as he leaves the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 6, 2017, after he led the GOP majority to change Senate rules and lower the vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees from 60 votes to a simple majority in order to advance Neil Gorsuch to a confirmation vote.
  
WASHINGTON (AP) -- In a confrontation that could reshape the Supreme Court for generations, Republicans tore up the Senate's voting rules Thursday to allow Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch to ascend to the high court over furious Democratic objections.

Democrats denounced the GOP's use of what both sides dubbed the "nuclear option" to put Gorsuch on the court, calling it an epic power grab that would further corrode politics in Congress, the courts and the nation. Many Republicans bemoaned reaching that point, too, but they blamed Democrats for pushing them to it.

"We will sadly point to today as a turning point in the history of the Senate and the Supreme Court," declared Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.

"This is going to be a chapter, a monumental event in the history of the Senate, not for the better but for the worse," warned Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a senior Republican.

A final confirmation vote on Gorsuch is expected Friday, and he should be sworn in soon to hear the final cases of the term. He was nominated by President Donald Trump shortly after the January inauguration.

The Senate change, affecting how many votes a nominee needs for confirmation, will apply to all future Supreme Court candidates, likely ensuring more ideological justices chosen with no need for consultation with the minority party. Trump himself predicted to reporters aboard Air Force One that "there could be as many as four" Supreme Court vacancies for him to fill during his administration.

"In fact, under a certain scenario, there could even be more than that," Trump said. There is no way to know how many there will be, if any, but several justices are quite elderly.

Even as they united in indignation, lawmakers of both parties, pulled by fierce political forces from left and right, were unwilling to stop the confirmation rules change.

The maneuvering played out in a tense Senate chamber with most members in their seats, a rare and theatrical occurrence.

First Democrats tried to mount a filibuster in an effort to block Gorsuch by denying him the 60 votes needed to advance to a final vote. That was successful only briefly, as Gorsuch fell five votes short. Then Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., raised a point of order, suggesting that Supreme Court nominees should not be subjected to a 60-vote threshold but instead a simple majority in the 100-member Senate.

McConnell was overruled, but he appealed the ruling. And on that he prevailed on a 52-48 party-line vote. The 60-vote filibuster requirement on Supreme Court nominees was effectively gone, and with it the last vestige of bipartisanship on presidential nominees in an increasingly polarized Senate.

The developments were accompanied by unusually bitter accusations and counter-accusations. And yet in many ways the showdown had been pre-ordained, the final chapter in years of partisan warfare over judicial nominees.

In 2005, with the Senate under GOP control, Republicans prepared to utilize the "nuclear option" to remove the filibuster for lower-court nominees. A bipartisan deal at the time headed off that change. But then in 2013, with Democrats in charge and Republicans blocking President Barack Obama's nominees, the Democrats did take the step, removing the filibuster for all presidential appointments except the Supreme Court.

McConnell accused Democrats of forcing his hand by trying to filibuster a highly qualified nominee in Gorsuch, 49, a 10-year veteran of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver with a consistently conservative record.

"This is the latest escalation in the left's never-ending judicial war, the most audacious yet, and it cannot and will not stand," McConnell said.

But Democrats were unable to pull back from the brink, partly because they remain livid over McConnell's decision last year to block Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, who was denied even a hearing after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016. Instead McConnell kept Scalia's seat open, a calculation that is now paying off for Republicans and Trump.

Even as Graham and other senior Republicans lamented the voting change, McConnell and some allies argued that all they were doing was returning to a time, not long ago, when filibusters of judicial nominees were unusual, and it was virtually unheard-of to try to block a Supreme Court nominee in that fashion. Even Clarence Thomas got onto the court without a filibuster despite highly contentious confirmation hearings involving sexual harassment claims.

Some senators fear that the next to go could be the legislative filibuster, one of the last remaining mechanisms to force bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware were circulating a letter to colleagues Thursday in support of keeping the filibuster in place for legislation.

With his final vote set for Friday, Gorsuch counts 55 supporters: the 52 Republicans, along with three moderate Democrats from states that Trump won - Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana. A fourth Senate Democrat, Michael Bennet from Gorsuch's home state of Colorado, refused to join in the filibuster Thursday but announced he would vote against Gorsuch's confirmation.

Pressure builds on Syria's Assad after chemical attack

Pressure builds on Syria's Assad after chemical attack
 

AP Photo
President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov speaks with The Associated Press in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, April 6, 2017. Peskov tells The Associated Press that Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar Assad is not unconditional, with Putin's Spokesman talking just days after a suspected chemical weapons attack on a Syrian rebel-held province.
  
BEIRUT (AP) -- President Bashar Assad's government came under mounting international pressure Thursday after a chemical attack in northern Syria, with even key ally Russia saying its support is not unconditional.

Turkey, meanwhile, said samples from victims of Tuesday's attack, which killed more than 80 people in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, indicate they were exposed to sarin, a highly toxic nerve agent.

Syria rejected the accusations, and Moscow warned against apportioning blame until an investigation has been carried out.

The United States said it hopes for a vote late Thursday on a U.N. Security Council resolution that would condemn the chemical attack. President Donald Trump hinted at military action and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Assad should no longer have a role in governing the Syrian people.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview with The Associated Press that "unconditional support is not possible in this current world."

But he added that "it is not correct to say that Moscow can convince Mr. Assad to do whatever is wanted in Moscow. This is totally wrong."

Russia has provided military support for the Syrian government since September 2015, turning the balance of power in Assad's favor. Moscow has used its veto power at the Security Council on several occasions since the civil war began six years ago to prevent sanctions against Damascus.

The two countries "enjoy a relationship of cooperation, of exchange of views and full mutual support," said Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin. Assad and his army are "the only real power in Syria that can resist terrorists on the ground," he said.

Syria maintains it didn't use chemical weapons, blaming opposition fighters for stockpiling the chemicals. Russia's Defense Ministry said the toxic agents were released when a Syrian airstrike hit a rebel chemical weapons arsenal and munitions factory on the eastern outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun.

"I stress, once again, that the Syrian Arab Army did not and will not use such weapons even against the terrorists who are targeting our people," Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told reporters in Damascus.

Trump said the attack crossed "many, many lines," and put the blame squarely on Assad's forces. Speaking Thursday on Air Force One, Trump would not discuss what the U.S. might do in response but hinted at military action. He said the attack "shouldn't have happened, and it shouldn't be allowed to happen."

Asked if Assad should remain in power, he said that "he's there and I guess he's running things so something should happen."

On Wednesday, his U.N. envoy Nikki Haley strongly hinted some U.S. action was coming if the Security Council doesn't act.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes Trump will take military action, Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency quoted him as saying.

Erdogan said Turkey would be prepared to do "whatever falls on us" to support possible military action, the news agency reported.

At the U.N., the United States, which currently holds the presidency of the Security Council, it drafted a resolution along with Britain and France that condemns the use of chemical weapons, particularly in the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, "in the strongest terms."

Russia objected to key provisions in the resolution and negotiations have been underway to try to bridge the differences.

Britain's deputy ambassador Peter Wilson said "what we want is a unanimous resolution ... and we want to see this done soon."

A day earlier, Russia had argued against holding Assad's government responsible.

France's U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre indicated difficulty in reaching agreement on a resolution.

"We have engaged into negotiations in good faith to adopt a resolution - but make no mistake about it we need a robust text," he said. "We cannot be willing to have a text at any cost."

"There are fundamentals we cannot compromise with when it's about the barbaric murder of civilians, among them many children, with chemical weapons," Delattre said adding that he didn't know whether the council will be able to adopt a resolution. If Russia cast a veto, he said, "that would be a terrible responsibility in front of history."

But Delattre told the AP later he thought there was "still a chance" for an agreement with Russia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the attack "barbaric" and a war crime, and she said everything must be done to investigate it urgently. She also criticized the Security Council for failing to pass a resolution condemning the attack, saying those who don't support it "should think about what responsibility they are shouldering."

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault urged a resumption of peace talks and said he wants Assad's government prosecuted. He told CNews television that a U.N. resolution and peace negotiations should be a top priority - not new military interventions.

"France is still seeking to talk with its partners on the Security Council ... Russia in particular," Ayrault said.

"These crimes must not remain unpunished. ... One day, international justice will rule on Assad," he added.

After the attack, hospitals around Khan Sheikhoun were overwhelmed, and paramedics sent victims to medical facilities across rebel-held areas in northern Syria, as well as to Turkey. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group put the death toll at 86.

The attack happened in Syria's Idlib province about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Turkish border, and the Turkish government - a close ally of Syria's rebels - set up a decontamination center at a border crossing in Hatay province, where the victims were treated initially.

Turkish officials said nearly 60 victims of the attack were brought to Turkey for treatment and three of them died.

Victims showed signs of nerve gas exposure, including suffocation, foaming at the mouth, convulsions, constricted pupils and involuntary defecation, the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders said. Paramedics used fire hoses to wash the chemicals from the bodies of victims.

Visuals from the scene were reminiscent of a 2013 nerve gas attack on the suburbs of Damascus that left hundreds dead.

In Turkey, Anadolu and the private DHA news agencies on Thursday quoted Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag as saying "it was determined after the autopsy that a chemical weapon was used."

The Turkish Health Ministry said later that "according to the results of the first analysis, there were findings suggesting that the patients were exposed to chemical substance (sarin)."

WHO experts took part in the autopsies in the Turkish city of Adana late Wednesday, Turkish media reported.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it has "initiated contact" with Syrian authorities and its Technical Secretariat has been collecting and analyzing information about the allegations. 

"This is an ongoing investigation," it said.

Russia has warned against fixing blame for the attack until an investigation is completed.

At a news conference in Damascus, Moallem echoed that statement, saying the Syrian army bombed a warehouse belonging to al-Qaida's branch in Syria that contained chemical weapons. He did not say whether the government knew in advance that the warehouse contained chemical weapons.

The minister said al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have been bringing chemical weapons from neighboring Iraq.

Asked whether Syria would give access to a fact-finding mission on the use of chemical weapons, Moallem said: "Our experiences with international investigating committees were not encouraging, because they come out of Damascus with certain indications, which then change at their headquarters."

Syria wants guarantees that any investigation would be impartial and not politicized, Moallem said.

The area of Khan Sheikhoun is difficult to access, and as more time passes since the attack, it will be increasingly difficult to determine exactly what happened.

Jan Egeland, the top humanitarian aid official with the U.N.'s Syria office, said he believes an awareness of the need to protect civilians is finally "sinking in."

He expressed hope for a "watershed moment" with "all of these world leaders saying that they have again woken up to the suffering of the civilians that we see every day."

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