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RUSSIA, IRAN CRITICIZE TEHRAN SNUB FOR SYRIA TALKS

Tuesday, 21 January 2014 09:38 Published in National News

GENEVA (AP) — Russia and Iran on Tuesday criticized the U.N. chief's decision to withdraw Tehran's invitation to join this week's peace conference on Syria, as diplomats said a new report on Syrian regime atrocities underscored the urgent need to try to end the country's brutal civil war.

The last-minute U.N. invitation for Iran to participate in the so-called Geneva conference threw the entire meeting into doubt, forcing U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to rescind his offer late Monday under intense U.S. pressure after Syria's main Western-backed opposition group threatened to boycott.

After Ban withdrew the invitation, the opposition Syrian National Coalition confirmed that it would attend the talks, stressing the goal should be to establish a transitional government with full executive powers "in which killers and criminals do not participate."

That cleared the way for the conference to open Wednesday as planned in the Swiss resort city of Montreux, with high-ranking delegations from the United States, Russia and close to 40 other countries attending. Face-to-face negotiations between the Syrian government and its opponents — the first of the uprising — are to start Friday in Geneva.

Expectations for a breakthrough at the conference are low. The front lines of the war have been largely locked in place since March, and despite suffering enormous losses, neither the government nor the opposition appears desperate enough for a deal to budge from its entrenched position.

It's also unclear how the opposition coalition, a weak and fractured umbrella group with almost no sway over the most powerful rebel groups inside Syria, could enforce any agreement reached in Geneva.

The determination to hold the talks anyway is a reflection of the urgency felt by the international community to find a political resolution to end the civil war that activists say has killed more than 130,000 people and unleashed a humanitarian crisis.

For some of the more than 2 million Syrian refugees scattered around the region, there is little hope that the peace conference can deliver a solution to the conflict, and scant interest in a settlement with President Bashar Assad's government.

"We lost our faith in the international community. We don't care about the Geneva conference and whether it takes place or not," said Ibraheem Qaddah, a former rebel fighter now holed up in Jordan's sprawling Zaatari refugee camp.

"We have lost a lot of relatives and friends and family members in the fighting and we've lost Syria. We are not looking for reconciliation with Bashar Assad," said Qaddah, whose left arm was amputated after he was severely wounded in the war.

In the latest report of atrocities, three prominent international war-crimes experts said they had received tens of thousands photographs documenting what they called the systematic killing of some 11,000 detainees by Syrian authorities. The images, which were smuggled out by a defector from Syria's military police, showed victims' bodies with signs of torture and maltreatment.

David Crane, one of the three experts who examined the newly revealed images of slain detainees, told The Associated Press that the cache provides strong evidence for charging Assad and others for crimes against humanity — "but what happens next will be a political and diplomatic decision."

"These photographs, if they are real, they reconfirm what we already are thinking and so we hope that the talks in Montreux and further on will produce results," said European Union President Herman Van Rompuy. "We don't need more evidence. If there is other evidence, all the better, but we don't need more evidence on the humanitarian tragedy that is happening there."

Assad's family has ruled since 1970, and Iran is Assad's strongest regional ally. The Islamic Republic has supplied the Syrian government with advisers, money and weapons since the uprising against his rule began in March 2011. Iran's allies, most notably the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, have also gone to Syria to help bolster Assad's forces.

Iran's role has infuriated Syria's opposition forces, which accuse Tehran of in essence invading their country.

The controversy over Iran's participation in the talks highlighted the fundamental differences over Syria between the United States and Russia, which has shielded Assad's regime from U.N. sanctions and continued to supply it with weapons throughout the civil war.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Ban's decision to rescind Iran's invitation was a mistake, but that the Kremlin would try to make the Geneva negotiations work.

"There is no catastrophe, we will push for a dialogue between the Syrian parties without any preconditions," Lavrov told reporters Tuesday.

At the same time, Russia's top diplomat took a jab at Ban, saying his decision on Iran "hasn't helped strengthen the U.N. authority," and that recalling the offer looked "unseemly."

Lavrov reaffirmed Russia's stance that the presence of Iran was essential for the success of the talks, saying Tehran's absence "isn't going to help strengthen the unity of the world's Muslims."

Iran's Foreign Ministry also sharply criticized Ban's diplomatic about-face and called on him to explain the "real reasons" for withdrawing the invite.

"From our point of view, the withdrawal is deplorable," ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said, adding that the U.N. chief must have done so under immense pressure.

Syria's civil war has unleashed sectarian hatreds that have rippled across the wider region. It also has developed into a proxy war between Iran, the region's Shiite Muslim power, and Saudi Arabia, the Sunni heavy weight.

In the latest evidence that the unrest is spilling over Syria's borders, a car bombing in the Lebanese capital's southern suburbs early Tuesday. The explosion struck a Shiite area that is a bastion of support for Hezbollah, killing at least two people.

Lebanon is deeply divided by the war in Syria, and Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites have lined up behind their brethren in Syria on opposing sides of the war.

The last-minute flap over Iran's participation set a chaotic tone for the run-up to the conference.

In another bizarre twist, Syrian state TV said the government delegation stopped in Athens but couldn't leave because Greek authorities weren't allowing them to refuel the plane. It said the delegation, led by Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, would be delayed several hours and could miss meetings.

Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman Constantinos Koutras said the delay was caused by a procedural issue, and that the plane had been cleared to depart.

___

Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas in Beirut, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Omar Akour in Zaatari Camp, Jordan, Elena Becatoros in Athens, and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

SNOWDEN COULD USE A TRIAL TO SHOWCASE SPY CLAIMS

Tuesday, 21 January 2014 09:37 Published in National News

WASHINGTON (AP) — Should Edward Snowden ever return to the U.S., he would face criminal charges for leaking information about National Security Agency surveillance programs. But legal experts say a trial could expose more classified information as his lawyers try to build a case in an open court that the operations he exposed were illegal.

A jury trial could be awkward for the Obama administration if the jurors believe Snowden is a whistle-blower who exposed government overreach. Snowden surely would try to turn the tables on the government, arguing that its right to keep information secret does not outweigh his constitutional right to speak out.

"He would no doubt bring First Amendment defenses to what he did, emphasizing the public interest in his disclosures and the democratic values that he served," said David Pozen, a Columbia Law School professor and a former legal adviser at the State Department. "There's been no case quite like it."

Administration officials say the possibility of a public spectacle wherein Snowden tries to reveal even more classified information to make his case has not lessened the Justice Department's intent to prosecute him, and Attorney General Eric Holder has not warmed to calls for clemency for the former NSA systems analyst.

Department spokesman Andrew Ames last week indicated there was no change in the department's intent to prosecute, and that point was reinforced by National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.

"There's been no change in our position: Mr. Snowden is accused of leaking classified information and faces felony charges here in the United States," Hayden said. "He should be returned to the U.S. as soon as possible, where he will be accorded full due process and protections."

A former NSA general counsel, Stewart Baker, drawing from conversations with his former associates after New York Times and Guardian editorials called for clemency, said the issue "has been more of a media idea than something that is being seriously debated inside the government."

Both newspapers, along with The Washington Post, have received and reported on some of the documents Snowden took.

"I haven't talked to anyone in government who considers this a possibility," Baker said.

Officials have called Snowden's leaks the single largest theft of secrets in U.S. history.

The Justice Department breaks those alleged misdeeds into three charges filed in federal court in Virginia: theft of government property; under the Espionage Act, the unauthorized communication of national defense information; and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.

A November Washington Post/ABC News poll found 52 percent of Americans supported charging Snowden with a crime, while 38 percent opposed it.

Escaping conviction would be difficult.

Snowden has admitted taking and distributing the documents, explained Jason Weinstein, a former deputy assistant attorney general. The documents were first published in the Guardian and the Post in June, based on some of the thousands of documents Snowden handed over to Barton Gellman of the Post, Brazil-based American journalist Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, a U.S. filmmaker.

It would be tough, too, to make a legal argument that Snowden was acting as a whistle-blower, exposing criminal wrongdoing by the government.

"To the legal argument that the programs were illegal, the government's answer would be that the programs were legally authorized," Weinstein said.

"Your personal judgment as to whether the government is doing something illegal is not an element of the crime. You disclosed something you did not have permission to disclose."

No court has allowed a leaker of classified information to escape punishment on those grounds, Pozen wrote in a Lawfare blog post on the subject.

The first person convicted of espionage for furnishing classified data to a journalist was Samuel Loring Morison, who was employed at the Naval Intelligence Support Center in Suitland, Md., from 1974 to 1984. He was convicted of spying for leaking intelligence photographs in 1984 to Jane's Defence Weekly, a British military magazine. Morison was sentenced to two years in jail, and later was pardoned by President Bill Clinton.

The Obama administration has pursued leakers aggressively, and Snowden's breach was far more sweeping than Morison's.

Snowden's defense strategy could rest on "graymail," said national security lawyer Mark Zaid, in which the defense threatens to reveal classified information in the trial if the prosecution insists on pursuing the case.

Zaid, who has defended clients in similar cases, said that could force government lawyers to argue to close much of the hearings, only feeding Snowden's argument that the government is trying to hide misdeeds from the public behind a cloak of secrecy.

Snowden's legal representative, Ben Wizner at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the government likely would not ever let the jury hear his client's arguments for releasing the information on moral grounds.

"The Justice Department has successfully barred defendants in leaks prosecutions from mounting any kind of public interest defense by using the Espionage Act," Wizner said. He said all the government would have to prove is that Snowden took national defense information and gave it to someone who wasn't allowed to receive it.

"The government doesn't have to prove that the disclosures were harmful to the country. The defendant can't defend himself on basis that documents shouldn't have been classified ... and lower courts have upheld that," Wizner said. "That's why Edward Snowden is not taking his chances in a federal court. He wouldn't be able to explain himself."

Snowden is living under temporary asylum in Russia, which has no extradition treaty with the United States. If he decided to stay there or move to another country also without an extradition treaty with the U.S., he conceivably could live out his life without prosecution.

SEX ABUSE FILES ON 30 CHICAGO PRIESTS GOING PUBLIC

Tuesday, 21 January 2014 09:35 Published in National News

CHICAGO (AP) — Thousands of pages of documents showing how the Archdiocese of Chicago handled the sexual abuse of children by priests will be made public Tuesday, providing the broadest look yet into the details of what the archdiocese knew and did — or didn't do — about the scandal.

The archdiocese, one of the largest and most influential in the U.S., handed over last week more than 6,000 pages of documents to victims' attorneys, who said they will show the archdiocese concealed abuse for decades, including moving priests to new parishes where they molested again.

The disclosures involving 30 priests were made as part of legal settlements with abuse victims, and are similar to disclosures made in other dioceses in the U.S. in recent years that showed how the Roman Catholic Church shielded priests and failed for many years to report child sex abuse to authorities.

Chicago officials said most of the abuse occurred before 1988 and none after 1996.

Debra Brian, a 24-year-old Catholic from Chicago, had not yet seen or heard what was included in the documents, but said Sunday that the church is doing the right thing by acknowledging what occurred.

"Hopefully it will help people come forward," said Brian.

Cardinal Francis George, who has led the archdiocese since 1997, released a letter to parishioners on Jan. 12 in which he apologized for the abuse and said releasing the records "raises transparency to a new level." He also stressed that much of the abuse occurred decades ago, before he became archbishop. He said all of the incidents eventually were reported to civil authorities and resulted in settlements with victims.

"I apologize to all those who have been harmed by these crimes and this scandal, the victims themselves, most certainly, but also rank and file Catholics who have been shamed by the actions of some priests and bishops," George wrote.

The archdiocese has paid millions of dollars to settle sexual abuse claims, including those against Father Daniel McCormack, who was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty in 2007 to abusing five children while he was parish priest at St. Agatha Catholic Church and a teacher at a Catholic school. The next year, the archdiocese agreed to pay $12.6 million to 16 victims of sexual abuse by priests, including McCormack.

Files on McCormack will not be among those released; they have been sealed by a judge because of pending court cases, said Chicago attorney Marc Pearlman, who has represented about 200 victims of clergy abuse in the Chicago area. Pearlman said he and St. Paul, Minn., attorney Jeff Anderson will re-release the McCormack documents that they have.

Many of the accused priests are dead, and the documents will include only 30 of 65 priests for whom the archdiocese says it has credible allegations of abuse.

Peter Isely, Midwest director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said it's important for all Chicago-area Catholics to read the documents.

"This is about a part of their story as Chicago Catholics that ... has been systematically hidden," Isely said.

___

Associated Press Writer Sara Burnett contributed to this report.

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