Heiko Maas says Germany ‘not neutral’ on Venezuela, seeking ‘fresh elections’; Germany’s foreign minister told DW that Berlin supports new elections in Venezuela, since Nicolas Maduro “is not a democratically legitimate president.” Meanwhile, Maduro announced Venezuela is closing its US embassy.German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that Berlin and the European Union support holding fresh elections in Venezuela after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself the country’s interim leader. “We are not neutral,” Maas told DW’s Oliver Sallet in New York City, adding that Germany “stands on the side of Guaido” as the leader of the National Assembly. “This is why we we are calling for fresh elections, for the National Assembly to assume responsibility and for the force of constitutional law to be restored to Venezuela. We’ve made that known together with our European partners and that’s going to be our policy in the coming days,” Maas said. “We are not neutral as regards this question, but rather support what Guaido is doing,” he added.
Italy: Court rules far-right leader Salvini can be charged with kidnapping; Prosecutors in Sicily say Interior Minister Matteo Salvini held 177 migrants hostage by stranding them on a ship. The European Council has expressed concern about xenophobia in Italy.A court in Sicily ruled on Thursday that Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini can be charged with kidnapping after he prevented refugees from disembarking an Italian coast guard ship in August. “I confess,” Salvini said in a video posted to his Facebook page, “there is no need for a trial. It’s true, I did it and I’d do it again.” “I risk 3 to 15 years in prison for blocking illegal landings in Italy. I have no words,” wrote Salvini, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Lega (League) party, which now rules Italy in a coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S).
Salvini also claimed on Facebook that #SaliviniNonMollare (“Salvini, don’t give up”) was the top trending hashtag on Italian Twitter, but many of the tweets were English-language posts declaring solidarity with Italian nationalists.
France, Italy ratchet up rhetoric amid migration dispute; France and Italy are no strangers to a diplomatic war of words. However, a dispute over migration, against the backdrop of rising nationalism, has driven modern ties between two of the EU’s biggest members to a new low.”The dealings between French and Italian leadership haven’t been this bad since the war,” columnist Aldo Cazzullo argued in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. His opinion was not a reaction to the latest verbal attack on French President Emmanuel Macron from Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini. In fact, Cazzullo wrote that line back in June 2018. Last summer, the anti-immigration Salvini, who heads the far-right League party, closed Italy’s ports to ships carrying refugees. When Macron referred to right-wing populism and xenophobia in Europe as a “lesion,” Salvini cried hypocrisy because France, too, was denying refugees entry.
Vietnamese-Australian democracy activist ‘detained’ in Vietnam; A pro-democracy opposition group says a prominent member of the Vietnamese community in Australia has been detained incommunicado in Vietnam. Another Vietnamese activist is also believed to have been detained. A Vietnamese-Australian pro-democracy activist has allegedly been detained in Vietnam, the exiled opposition group Viet Tan said Friday. An Australian citizen, Chau Van Kham was detained on January 13 while on a “fact-finding” mission to assess the human rights situation in Vietnam, Viet Tan spokesman in Australia Phong Nguyen said in a statement.”Mr. Kham has been detained incommunicado for almost two weeks and without Australian consular access,” Viet Tan said, adding that the group and Kham’s family were in contact with the Australian foreign ministry. Kham is well-known in Australia’s Vietnamese community as “a long time democracy activist, working with civil society on the ground in Vietnam as well as campaigning for human rights with elected officials in Canberra,” Viet Tan said. Viet Tan is a self-described pro-democracy opposition group advocating for human rights. It is considered a terrorist organization by Vietnam, although it is peaceful and has a presence in several countries.
Gay congressman Jean Wyllys leaves Brazil, citing death threats; Jean Wyllys told a Brazilian paper that he had left the country and would not be returning to start his third term. The advocate for LGBT rights described the atmosphere under new President Jair Bolsonaro as “unsafe.”Jean Wyllys, a prominent openly gay congressman in Brazil, said he was stepping down from his position in response to death threats. Wyllys made the announcement in an interview published on Thursday in the daily Folha de S. Paulo. In it, he said that he was currently outside of the country and had no plans to return. He told the paper that he intended to work in academia going forward. “This was not an easy decision, and it involved a lot of pain, because I am also giving up being close to my family, my dear friends, and the people who love me and want me near them,” Wyllys said in the interview.
Austrian interior minister accused of ‘attacking rule of law’; Herbert Kickl, Austria’s far-right populist interior minister, came out for tough asylum laws. He even questioned the European Convention on Human Rights, infuriating Austria’s president and Amnesty International. If he meant to provoke, he succeeded. Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl’s comments against the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) drew a sharp rebuke from government officials and President Alexander Van der Bellen. When asked by an Austrian public broadcaster whether curfews for asylum-seekers and speedy deportations could violate the rule of law, Kickl referred to the rights conventions saying that there are “strange legal structures, sometimes many years old and developed under totally different circumstances, that prevent us from doing what is necessary. I would like to take on those rules.”
Russia, Venezuelan military top brass back Maduro; A day after Venezuela’s National Assembly head Juan Guaido proclaimed himself the country’s interim president in a move welcomed by the US, Canada and several countries in the hemisphere, Venezuela’s top military officials delivered vows of loyalty to Maduro. Around half-dozen generals belonging largely to district commands and with direct control over thousands of troops joined Maduro in accusing the US of meddling in Venezuela’s affairs and said they would uphold the socialist leader’s rule. Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, a key Maduro ally, later delivered his own proclamation, dismissing efforts to install a “de-facto parallel government” as tantamount to a coup. “It’s not a war between Venezuelans that will solve our problems,” he said. “It’s dialogue.” enezuelans are heading into uncharted political waters after Guaido declared himself acting president following the widely contested May 2018 presidential election. Under Venezuela’s constitution, a vacancy in the presidency must be filled by the head of the National Assembly until new elections are held. Shortly after Washington’s recognition of Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president, Maduro dug in for fight, breaking diplomatic ties with the US and giving US diplomats in Venezuela 72 hours to leave the country. On Thursday, the US ordered non-emergency embassy staff to leave Venezuela but stopped short of complying with the full expulsion demanded by Maduro. The US State Department also said that US citizens “should strongly consider departing Venezuela”. Earlier, Maduro announced that Venezuela was to close its embassies and all consulates in the US. Russia meanwhile has backed Maduro, with Putin calling his Venezuelan counterpart to express “support for the legitimate authorities of Venezuela in the context of a domestic political crisis that has been provoked from the outside”, said the Kremlin. Moscow has warned Washington against any attempts to militarily intervene in Venezuela. Russia has extensive economic interests in Venezuela and has invested billions of dollars in its energy sector
Greek MPs to vote on Macedonia name change; Greek lawmakers are due to vote Friday on a deal to change the name of neighbouring Macedonia and resolve a diplomatic dispute that has dragged on for nearly 30 years.The vote was originally scheduled for after midnight Thursday but had to be postponed to Friday because some 230 lawmakers wanted to speak on the issue, the parliament speaker said. Hundreds opposed to the deal protested outside parliament on Thursday evening, with police using tear gas to disperse them. The vote on the agreement to rename Macedonia as the Republic of North Macedonia is now planned for around 2:30 pm (1230 GMT). “Tomorrow is a crucial vote… now is the time to break free of the vicious cycle of nationalism and look at… future cooperation,” Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told the chamber. Macedonia’s parliament on January 11 backed a constitutional revision to change the country’s name but for the deal to go through, it must also be approved by Greek MPs. Communist party activists Thursday draped giant banners outside the Acropolis, the ancient citadel on an rocky outcrop overlooking Athens, reading: “No to the Tsipras-Zaev agreement.” That was a reference to the landmark compromise agreed in June between Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev.
Frustration and sadness as Italy migrant centre closed; “I found a family here, I worked with the parish priest, I helped with mass, I went to school,” said Nigerian Anthony Ehikwe, one of hundreds of migrants being expelled from Italy’s second-largest migrant centre. “And now I do not even have the time to say goodbye.” Italian authorities are this week removing migrants from the reception centre at Castelnuovo di Porto, just north of Rome, after far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s tough anti-migrant decree became law.
France’s Macron calls election of Venezuela’s Maduro ‘illegitimate’; Macron said in his tweet that Europe supports the restoration of democracy, and “welcomes the courage of the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who march for their freedom”. Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim leader on Wednesday, winning the support of Washington and parts of Latin America and prompting Maduro, who has led the oil-rich nation since 2013, to sever diplomatic ties with the United States. The European Union has imposed sanctions on Venezuela and boycotted Maduro’s swearing-in, but stopped short of following Washington’s line. However, it called on the authorities in Venezuela to respect his “civil rights, freedom and safety” and appeared to support calls for a peaceful transition of power away from Maduro.
Nissan, Renault confirm to cooperate; Nissan President Hiroto Saikawa said he talked with Renault’s new chairman Jean-Dominique Senard on the phone. He said they confirmed they’ll cooperate to help synergize the alliance. Saikawa told reporters on Friday, “I told Mr. Senard we’ll work hard together. It’s a new start, and I’d like to keep close communication.” Saikawa said he intends to endorse Senard as a Nissan director in an extraordinary shareholders meeting planned for mid-April. But there are differences between the two automakers on who will take the lead at Nissan after the arrest of chairman Carlos Ghosn.
Dai-ichi to buy US insurer’s unit for $1.2 bil; Dai-ichi Life Holdings has decided to buy the individual life insurance and annuity unit of a US life insurer. Japanese insurance companies have been looking abroad for growth as their home market shrinks. Dai-ichi Life says its wholly owned US subsidiary will buy a total of about 240 thousand policies from Colorado-based Great-West Life & Annuity Insurance. The 1.2 billion-dollar transaction is expected to close in the first half of this year. Dai-ichi Life has been accelerating its market expansion in the US since 2015. That’s when it purchased local insurer Protective Life and turned it into its US arm.
France: Nissan should abide by agreement; French economy minister Bruno Le Maire says one of the top executives of Nissan should be from Renault, based on an agreement made by the two companies. France apparently wants Renault to maintain its influence over the Japanese partner. Renault announced on Thursday that Jean-Dominique Senard will be the firm’s new chairman, after Carlos Ghosn gave up his executive positions. Senard is currently the CEO of tire manufacturer Michelin. Le Maire spoke to NHK in Switzerland. He said Senard’s first job is to strengthen the alliance with Nissan. Le Maire said, “There is a clear agreement. We have to stick to the agreement between France and Japan about the alliance. That, for us, is the key point.” The French government is the top shareholder in Renault. And Renault is Nissan’s largest shareholder, with a 43-percent stake. Some Nissan executives want the companies to review their capital ties to ensure that the Japanese automaker maintains its managerial autonomy. Le Maire said the issue is not even on the table.
US Navy ships sail through Taiwan Strait; Two US Navy vessels have passed through the Taiwan Strait in an apparent action to keep China in check amid tension between the two countries over trade issues and the South China Sea. The US Pacific Fleet said in a statement that the destroyer USS McCampbell and the replenishment vessel USNS Walter S. Diehl conducted a routine Taiwan Strait transit on Thursday. The statement said the transit demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. It added the US Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows. The US Navy also sailed ships through the strait in November. US President Donald Trump’s administration has been increasing the pace of dispatch of naval ships to the region. In a related development, Taiwanese defense authorities said multiple Chinese warplanes, including H6 bombers, conducted flight drills near Taiwan on Tuesday and Thursday.
Thai election campaign starts; Political parties in Thailand have officially kicked off their election campaigns. On Wednesday, the country set March 24th as the date for its long-anticipated general election. The vote will be a crucial step toward democracy after nearly five years of military rule. Major parties held a press conference to outline their political positions. A pro-military party stressed that it is not an extension of the military. Palang Pracharath Party leader Uttama Savanayana said, “I can assure everyone that our party is as ready as it can be. Our personnel are ready. Some old faces are rich with experience. Some new faces with passion and ideas.” A rival party that supports former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra called for a free and fair election. Pheu Thai Party leader Viroj Pao-in said, “We encourage the Thai people and Pheu Thai members to exercise their right to vote, which will pave the way to complete democracy in this country.” The party criticized the fact that four current ministers have been allowed to establish and run the pro-military party and just months ahead of the vote are using sizeable government funds on projects to boost their popularity. The military has controlled the government since it staged a coup in 2014. It has pledged to hold an election to hand over power to a civilian administration, but it has repeatedly postponed that. The prime minster and former army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha has hinted that he may seek to be re-named the country’s leader after the polls. He could run with one of the pro-military parties or become a so-called “outsider prime minister.” Under new rules, the premier is not required to be a member of parliament.
Choice to be added for base referendum in Okinawa; Members of the prefectural assembly in Japan’s southwestern prefecture of Okinawa have agreed to add another choice for a planned referendum on relocation of a US base in the prefecture. They decided to add “neither” to the initially proposed two options of “yes” or “no” to the relocation plan. The assembly decided to hold the referendum in the wake of wide local objections to a plan to relocate the US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in Ginowan City to the less populated Henoko area within the prefecture. The date of the referendum was set for February 24th. But Ginowan and four other cities opted not to take part on the grounds that just the “yes” or “no” options are insufficient to ascertain the people’s will. That would have reduced the number of voting municipalities to 36. On Wednesday, the assembly’s ruling bloc, which supports Governor Denny Tamaki, decided to allow other choices in the upcoming referendum. The next day, all political groups in the assembly agreed to add “neither”. It is widely believed that the agreement will lead to implementation of the referendum at all municipalities in Okinawa.