The VICE News Guide to the World — Week of October 16

The region is braced for mass demonstrations against any move to strip the restive region's autonomy.
October 19, 2017, 7:05pm

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Spain — October 20, 2017

Spain wants to trigger “nuclear option” to block Catalonia independence

The Spanish government plans to dissolve Catalonia’s parliament and hold fresh elections there in January to thwart the region’s bid for independence, an opposition politician said Friday.

Carmen Calvo, a Socialist party lawmaker who is participating in cross-party talks on the crisis, told Spanish broadcaster RTVE that the opposition would back the Spanish government in calling for fresh elections in January.

The government said Thursday that it had decided to suspend the restive region’s autonomy under Article 155 of the country’s constitution, after Catalonia President Carles Puigdemont refused to drop his push for independence. But the article – which allows the government to use “all measures necessary to compel” a region to abide by the law – has never been used before, and it has been unclear exactly how the government plans to enact it.

Calvo said that the Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez “was absolutely clear that [invoking Article 155 means] Catalonia must hold elections.”

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has called a special Cabinet meeting Saturday to begin the process, is seeking broad political consensus before he invokes Article 155 – considered the “nuclear option” in resolving the crisis. The region is braced for mass demonstrations against any move to strip Catalonian autonomy.

At a news conference in Brussels Friday, Rajoy defended his government’s handling of the crisis, saying the actions of the Catalan regional government had left him no option but to impose direct rule. His government has been locked in a prolonged standoff with the Catalan leader, who has refused to comply with Madrid’s demand to drop his push for independence.

Catalan authorities say about 90 percent of participants in an Oct. 1 referendum vote for independence, but only 43 percent of eligible voters took part. Many opposed to independence boycotted the vote, which had been declared unconstitutional by a Spanish court.

Tim Hume

Australia — October 20, 2017

Private U.S. firm to start fresh search for flight MH370

A U.S. company is restarting the search for the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 on a “no find, no fee” basis — 1,323 days after it was lost.

An Australian lawmaker confirmed Thursday that the private seabed exploration company Ocean Infinity had entered into an agreement with the Malaysian government to search for the missing plane, which disappeared between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing with 239 people on board.

“The Malaysian government has accepted an offer from Ocean Infinity to search for the missing plane, entering into a ‘no find, no fee’ arrangement,” said Darren Chester, Australia’s minister for infrastructure and transport.

The disappearance of flight MH370 on March 8, 2014, remains one of aviation’s great mysteries. More than $155 million was spent on the previous search before it was suspended in January after probing 120,000 square kilometers without success.

Chester said Australia would provide technical assistance for the new mission, which will focus on 25,000 sq. km identified by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau as having a “high probability” of containing the aircraft.

In its final report earlier this month, the bureau said it was “almost inconceivable” that the aircraft had not been found.

— David Gilbert

Malawi — October 19, 2017

Mobs in Malawi have killed six people for being “vampires”

Malawi mobs killed two people accused of being vampires Thursday — the latest in a series of bizarre attacks that have already claimed the lives of six people since September.

Widespread belief in witchcraft pervades Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world. A United Nations Department of Safety and Security report, covered by Reuters earlier this month, specifies that the rumors of vampirism likely began in the neighboring country of Mozambique, though it’s unclear why the rumors emerged at all.

The outbreak in “vampire”-related violence already led the United Nations to pull staff out of two southern Malawi districts earlier this month. Some NGOs in the area also purportedly took their staff out of the area, as villagers had started setting up roadblocks to catch so-called vampires.

“These districts have severely been affected by the ongoing stories of blood sucking and possible existence of vampires,” the United Nations report reads.

Malawi’s government also recently set up a nightly curfew, from 7pm to 5am local time, in order to prevent vampirism-related violence. President Peter Mutharika said in a statement that the issue was “of grave concern” to his office.

Thursday’s mob violence took place in Blantyre, Malawi’s second-biggest city. A national police spokesperson told Reuters that mobs “torched a 22-year-old epileptic man in Chileka, and another man was stoned to death … after being suspected of being a blood sucker.”

— Carter Sherman

Washington — October 19, 2017

Tillerson scolds China for not playing by international rules

Rex Tillerson blasted China for challenging “rules-based order” during a Wednesday speech in Washington, accusing Beijing of undermining the sovereignty of its neighbors.

The secretary of state’s remarks came a day after President Xi Jinping boasted China was ready to take “center stage in the world,” and three weeks before Donald Trump visits the Middle Kingdom.

“China, while rising alongside India, has done so less responsibly, at times undermining the international, rules-based order,” Tillerson’s said during an address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the capital.

The top U.S. diplomat, who will visit India next week, also praised the sub-continent as a vital U.S. “partner.”

“We’ll never have the same relationship with China, a non-democratic society,” he said.

Washington seeks a more constructive relationship with Beijing, Tillerson continued, but it will not “shrink from China’s challenges to the rules-based order and where China subverts the sovereignty of neighboring countries and disadvantages the U.S. and our friends.”

Tillerson rebuked China’s construction of islands in the South China Sea, and accused Beijing of acting in a “predatory” fashion when lending money to regional partners, saddling them with “enormous levels of debt.”

On Wednesday, President Xi opened the 19th Communist Party Congress claiming that China had entered a “new era” and was now ready to take “center stage in the world and to make a greater contribution to humankind.”

— Tim Hume

Iran — October 19, 2017

Iran halts execution of 17-year-old boy

Iran has halted the execution of Amirhossein Pourjafar, a convicted child rapist who was sentenced to death when he was just 16-years-old.

Pourjafar, now 17, was scheduled to be hanged in a Tehran jail on Thursday, but late Wednesday night authorities postponed his execution, Amnesty International told VICE News, until they receive further orders from the judiciary.

Pourjafar would have been the fifth person executed in Iran this year for crimes committed when under the age of 18 — something strictly prohibited by the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The U.N. estimates that Pourjafar is one of almost 90 people on death row in Iran for crimes committed as children.

Pourjafar was convicted in September 2016 of the murder and rape of a seven-year-old girl, with the court saying he had attained “mental maturity” at the time of the crime.

Amnesty says Iranian authorities are misleading the public by claiming the execution was “lawful” because according to the lunar Islamic calendar he was 18-years-old rather than 17.

“The authorities’ rush to send a child to the gallows in order to placate public anger is short-sighted and misguided,” Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director, said.

— David Gilbert

Russia — October 18, 2017

Russia’s Paris Hilton is running for president

A Russian TV personally once dubbed the “the bronzed, Slavic version of Paris Hilton” announced Wednesday that she’s running for president against Vladimir Putin.

Ksenia Sobchak has little chance of winning against Putin in next year’s election — not only do polls indicate that Putin will win by a comfortable margin, but critics worry that Sobchak is only running as part of a Kremlin ploy to divide the opposition vote. Her father was the former mayor of St. Petersburg, and helped get Putin his first job in politics.

Sobchak is best known as the host of the reality show Dom 2, a Russian version of MTV’s The Real World. Now, however, she works as an anchor for TV Rain, an independent media outlet, and said she wants to run because she’s tired of always seeing the same candidates in elections.

“When I was 18 and was studying in university, Vladimir Putin became president of Russia. Children who were born that year will go and vote themselves this year,” she said in a video posted online Wednesday. “Just think about that.”

— Carter Sherman

Beijing — October 18, 2017

Xi Jinping says China will take “center stage in the world”

China will take “center stage in the world,” according to President Xi Jinping, who outlined his vision for the country in a three-and-a-half hour speech at the opening of the 19th Communist Party Congress in Beijing Wednesday.

Touting the triumph of “socialism,” albeit with “Chinese characteristics,” Xi said China had “crossed the threshold into a new era” during remarks aimed at cementing his position at the top of the regime. “It is time for us to take centre stage in the world and to make a greater contribution to humankind,” he said.

Pledging to build a “modern socialist country” by 2035, Xi said China would not “mechanically copy the political systems of other countries,” and even took a veiled swipe at President Donald Trump, who recently withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate accord.

“No country can alone address the many challenges facing mankind; no country can afford to retreat into self-isolation,” Xi said.

At the weeklong meeting, 2,300 Communist Party members will select its leadership and its policies for the next five years, with Xi likely to be approved for a second five-year term.

During the address, Xi also highlighted China’s modernization, though no mention was made of the unprecedented crackdown on free speech and dissidents.

— David Gilbert

Afghanistan — October 17, 2017

Taliban launch crippling attacks inside Afghanistan police headquarters

Taliban soldiers stormed multiple Afghan security compounds Tuesday, killing at least 71 people, local officials said.

The deadliest attack took place at police headquarters and a police training facility in Paktia province, where 41 people were killed and another 150 were injured. The Taliban attackers disguised themselves using a stolen security vehicle, and once inside, detonated a number of explosives stored in the vehicle. Others, armed with RPG and AK-47s, then entered the compound and started shooting.

Special police units eventually ultimately overpowered the attackers, a statement from the deputy interior minister said.

Read More: U.S. Troops will face the deadliest Taliban yet

A Taliban spokesperson claimed the Paktia attack on Twitter, explaining that the attack was meant to take out the police unit, which houses up to 450 officers. Several officers and recruits were among the casualties, including the police chief for the Paktia city of Gardez, Special Br, Paktia’s deputy governor told a Turkish state-run news agency.

The Taliban spokesperson also claimed responsibility for car bombings inside a security compound in the nearby Ghazni province, which killed another 30 people and wounded at least 15 more. Many of the dead and injured were police officers.

This isn’t the first time this year that the Taliban has launched deadly attacks inside Afghan security grounds. In April, 10 suicide attackers disguised as soldiers entered an Afghan Army base in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and killed 140 soldiers. It was one of the deadliest terror attacks the county had experienced in recent years.

— Carter Sherman

Indonesia — October 17, 2017

Indonesia’s drugs czar says killing dealers saves money

Killing a drug dealer is a real money saver, Indonesia’s drugs czar said last week, because it removes the cost of jail food.

Speaking to reporters, Budi Waseso — who heads Indonesia’s National Narcotics Agency — said his agents are instructed “not to hesitate to shoot to kill if they have to [because] if drug offenders go to jail they get free meals, which are paid for by the state.”

Indonesia’s authorities have adopted many of the hardline tactics of President Rodrigo Duterte’s “drugs war” in recent years, with Waseso heaping praise on the Philippine strongman.

Having declared “the life of a [drug] dealer meaningless” in 2016, Waseso hailed Duterte’s lethal campaign in July, claiming the president is “taking care of his citizens.” Duterte’s “drugs war” has killed anestimated 12,000 people in 15 months.

Indonesia has seen a sharp rise in drug dealer deaths at the hands of the police. Some 49 deaths were reported in the first six months of 2017, compared to 14 in all of 2016, and just 10 in 2015.

University of Melbourne analysis estimates that one-third of these killings happen after the suspect has surrendered to police.

Human Rights Watch called on the government to fire any officers who flout the rule of law.

“As long as senior police officials such as Waseso are allowed to advocate extrajudicial executions as an acceptable crime control solution, there is a serious risk that police will interpret those exhortations as a license to kill,” Phelim Kine, the deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, said.

— David Gilbert 

Malta — October 16, 2017

Reporter who investigated Panama Papers killed in car bomb

Daphne Caruana Galizia, a journalist who relentlessly investigated corruption in her home country of Malta, was killed Monday afternoon in a car bomb outside her home. One of Malta’s leading politicians has called it “political murder” motivated by her reporting.

“What happened today is not an ordinary killing,” said Adrian Delia, a leader of Malta’s political opposition.

Galizia was perhaps most famous for her reporting linking Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, his wife, and several associates to the Panama Papers, a trove of documents detailing several heads of states’ connections to secret offshore shell companies in Panama. Galizia alleged that Muscat’s wife, Michelle, owned one of these companies, and that the company had received a series of payments from an account linked to the government of Azerbaijan.

Muscat and his associates denied any wrongdoing, but that didn’t dampen Galizia’s international prominence: Her blog, Running Commentary, was regularly read by 400,000 people — even though just 420,000 people live on Malta. Earlier this year, Politico dubbed Galizia a “one-woman WikiLeaks, crusading against untransparency and corruption in Malta, an island nation famous for both.”

Muscat has condemned Galizia’s death, calling it a “barbaric attack on a person and on the freedom of expression in our country.” But Adrian Delia, Muscat’s main opposition, went further, calling it “a consequence of the total collapse of the rule of law which has been going on for the past four years.”

Police said they are investigating the incident as a murder.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 27 journalists have died in 2017 while doing their jobs. Of the 1,255 reporters who’ve been killed since 1992, nearly 600 covered politics, and another 255 focused on exposing corruption.

— Carter Sherman 

Spain — October 16, 2017

Spain just jailed two Catalan independence leaders on sedition charges

A Spanish judge jailed two leaders of the Catalan independence movement Monday on charges of sedition, the BBC reported, in a move that will likely only worsen a national crisis that has pitted the Spanish government against one of its wealthiest regions.

Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart are now being held without bail for their alleged role in orchestrating Catalonia’s Oct. 1 vote for independence, which Madrid deemed illegal. Specifically, the pair stand accused of having organized a September “siege”-like protest that trapped law enforcement officers in Catalan government offices, and destroyed police vehicles.

Sánchez and Cuixart — who respectively lead the pro-independence groups the Catalan National Assembly and Omnium Cultural — refused to answer the judge’s questions about their actions, despite being brought into court twice.

The same Spanish judge reportedly released Catalonia’s regional police chief and a colleague on Monday, after the judge questioned the chief about being too lax toward separatists prior to the Oct. 1 vote. The chief was also facing potential sedition charges, though they ultimately did not materialize.

In videos recorded before their detention, Sánchez and Cuixart asked supporters to continue to peacefully demonstrate. Workers are set to strike Tuesday at noon, while people are planning to protest at the Madrid government’s Catalonian headquarters on Tuesday evening, the Associated Press reported.

Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s separatist leader, called the jailing “very bad news,” but failed to clarify his quixotic position regarding the region’s independence.

Puigdemont signed a declaration of independence for the region last Tuesday, but has since said that the declaration would be suspended so that his group could negotiate with Madrid. This has not pleased Spain’s President Mariano Rajoy, who has declined such talks and repeatedly demanded Puigdemont clarify whether his regional government officially declared independence or not.

Puigdemont blew off Rajoy’s 10 a.m. Monday deadline, however.

— Carter Sherman

Mogadishu — October 16, 2017

Somalia suffers the deadliest terror attack in its history

More than 300 people were killed by Saturday’s truck bomb that hit the Somali capital of Mogadishu, officials said Monday. A further 300 victims are seriously injured in the worst terror attack in the country’s turbulent history.

The Somali government has blamed al-Shabaab for the attack, but there has so far been no claim of responsibility by the Islamist terror group.

The lorry, packed with explosives, detonated near the entrance of a hotel in the center of the capital. The surrounding streets were packed with cars in a traffic jam.

Officials announced Monday more victims had died of their wounds, pushing the death toll above 300. It is expected to rise again.

Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a U.S. citizen, called the attack a “heinous act” and declared three days of mourning.

“Today’s horrific attack proves our enemy would stop at nothing to cause our people pain and suffering. Let’s unite against terror,” he said.

Al-Shabaab, which has terrorized the region for a decade, vowed earlier this year to step up attacks after the Trump administration promised a renewed military effort against the group.

— David Gilbert

Spain — October 16, 2017

Catalonia independence leader just ignored Spain’s ultimatum

The Catalan president has brushed aside an ultimatum from Madrid to clarify whether his region declared independence last week and called again for talks to resolve the crisis.

The Spanish government had given Carles Puigdemont a deadline of 10 a.m. local time Monday (4 a.m. ET) to explain whether a speech he delivered to the regional parliament last week amounted to a declaration of independence from Spain.

Puigdemont signed a unilateral declaration of independence last Tuesday, which said that the Oct. 1 referendum in the wealthy northeast region had created a mandate for an independent state. But he then said the effects of the declaration would be suspended for a few weeks to allow for talks with Madrid.

Puigdemont’s response to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy Monday did little to clarify his position.

“The suspension on our side of the results that come out of the vote on Oct. 1 shows our firm commitment to find a solution, and avoid confrontation,” Puigdemont wrote. “Our call for dialogue is sincere and honest. That is why over the next two months our main objective is to  invite you to have dialogue.”

The Spanish government responded Monday by reiterating it would refuse to engage in any talks with Catalonia until its leaders dropped their push for independence, which is illegal under the country’s constitution. Spain’s deputy prime minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría said that the restive region had until Thursday to back down on its push for independence, or it would face the imposition of direct rule from Madrid.

“No one is denying him the chance for dialogue, but dialogue has to be carried out within the law,” she said, adding that Madrid “deeply regrets” Catalonia’s decision not to clarify its position.

Spain has been plunged into a constitutional crisis by the Oct. 1 referendum, which Catalan authorities held in defiance of a ban by a Spanish court, and amid scenes of violence as police attempted to block voters from polling booths. Catalan authorities say about 90 percent of voters backed independence, although only 43 percent of eligible voters took part, with many opposed to independence staying away.

— Tim Hume

Bangladesh — October 16, 2017

Rohingya refugees face “catastrophe” after escape from Myanmar

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — Fatima Kahtun escaped unimaginable horror in Myanmar, fleeing her home in the northern Rakhine state after government forces raided her village and killed her husband. She crossed the Naf river with her four young children in mid-September — finally safe from the systematic killings and torture that brought her here. But now she’s facing another crisis: keeping her children fed and healthy in squalid refugee camps vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases like cholera and measles.

“I need food and basic necessities,” she pleaded. “I’m not getting enough help.”

Kahtun is one of thousands of Rohingya refugees struggling in the makeshift camps scattered throughout Cox’s Bazar, a fishing district on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Aid agencies warn that there will be a “humanitarian catastrophe” if conditions here don’t improve immediately.

Read moreRohingya refugees face “catastrophe” after escape from Myanmar

Read VICE News Guide to the World: September