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Update December 2018

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Ukraine urges NATO to deploy ships amid standoff with Russia

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko speaks to soldiers during a visit to a military base in Chernihiv region, Ukraine, Wednesday, Nov, 28. (Mykola Lazarenko, Presidential Press Service via AP)

Yuras Karmanau

Kiev, Ukraine (AP) — The Ukrainian president has urged NATO to deploy naval ships to the Sea of Azov amid a standoff with Russia.

President Petro Poroshenko made the call in an interview with the German daily Bild published Thursday, saying that "Germany is one of our closest allies and we hope that states within NATO are now ready to relocate naval ships to the Sea of Azov in order to assist Ukraine and provide security."

In Sunday's confrontation, the Russian coast guard fired on and seized three Ukrainian vessels and their crews that sought to pass from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait, between Russia's mainland and the Crimean Peninsula it annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

There was no immediate reaction from German or NATO officials to Poroshenko's request. While NATO condemned the Russian action, the allies will be unlikely to heed Poroshenko's request, which could trigger a confrontation with Russia. A 2003 treaty between Russia and Ukraine stipulates that agreement from each of the two littoral countries is required for warships from any other country to enter the internal sea.

Ukraine insisted that its vessels were operating in line with international maritime rules, while Russia said they had failed to get permission to pass.

Ukraine has released what it said was the exact location where its ships were fired on by Russia, saying they were in international waters west of the Kerch Strait. Russia, meanwhile, insisted the Ukrainian vessels were in its territorial waters and refused to communicate with the Russian coast guard, or accept a Russian pilot to guide them through the narrow strait.

"What were the border guards supposed to do?" Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday. "They fulfilled their duty to protect the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. If they had done something differently, they should have been put on trial for that."

Poroshenko responded by ordering martial law in much of the country, a move that went into effect with parliamentary approval. Putin accused his Ukrainian counterpart of provoking the naval incident as a pretext to introduce martial law in a bid to shore up his sagging popularity and sideline competitors ahead of the March election.

The incident marked the first overt collision between Russian and Ukrainian militaries since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. It has fueled fears of a wider conflict and has drawn strong criticism of Russia from the U.S. and its allies.

In the interview with Bild, Poroshenko lobbied the West for direct military support.

"Russian President Putin wants nothing less but to occupy the sea," he said. "The only language he understands is the unity of the Western world."

Putin, for his part, criticized the West for what he described as connivance with Ukraine's "provocation."

"The authorities in Kiev are successfully selling anti-Russian sentiments as they have nothing else left to sell," he said. "They can get away with whatever they do. If they want to eat babies for breakfast today, they will likely serve them too."

Police search Deutsche Bank offices in money laundering case

Police vans stand in the backyard of Deutsche Bank headquarters during a raid in Frankfurt, Germany, Thursday, Nov. 29. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

David Rising and Frank Jordans

Berlin (AP) — Some 170 police officers, investigators and prosecutors raided the German offices of Deutsche Bank on Thursday on the suspicion bank employees helped clients set up offshore companies in tax havens to launder hundreds of millions of euros.

The investigation emerged from an analysis of documents leaked from tax havens in recent years, including the 2016 "Panama Papers," said Frankfurt prosecutors' spokeswoman Nadja Niesen.

It is focused on two Deutsche Bank employees, aged 50 and 46, and possibly other not-yet identified suspects, she said. Starting at 10 a.m. locally, officers swooped on six buildings in Frankfurt, where Deutsche Bank has its headquarters, as well as premises — including at least one suspect's home — in nearby Eschborn and Gross-Umstadt.

Niesen said the analysis of the Panama Papers and other documents "gave rise to suspicion that Deutsche Bank was helping clients set up so-called offshore companies in tax havens and the proceeds of crimes were transferred there from Deutsche Bank accounts" without the bank reporting it.

In 2016 alone, more than 900 customers are alleged to have transferred some 311 million euros to one such company set up in the British Virgin Islands, she said.

The suspects, both German citizens, are accused of failing to report the suspicious transactions even though there was "sufficient evidence" to have been aware of it.

Deutsche Bank confirmed the search and said "the investigation has to do with the Panama Papers case."

"More details will be communicated as soon as these become known. We are cooperating fully with the authorities," the bank said.

Money laundering has become a growing problem in Europe, where a series of scandals has exposed lax regulation.

And it's not the first time Deutsche Bank has run into trouble over the flow of dirty money.

It was fined more than $600 million by U.S. and U.K. authorities in January 2017 for allowing customers to transfer $10 billion out of Russia in what regulators said was "highly suggestive of financial crime."

The Panama Papers are a trove of documents from a law firm that handled shell companies for thousands of the rich and powerful around the world. While owning a shell company is not illegal, it is used to hide the beneficial owner of a company or transfer, making it important for the handling and laundering of dirty money.

Several other institutions besides Deutsche Bank have been fined by authorities in the U.S. and Europe for not properly checking up on the beneficial owners of shell companies that send money through their accounts.

Analysts say that because these transactions can be lucrative, banks have few incentives to do more than the minimum required by law to check on the identity of a bank.

Most recently, Denmark's biggest bank, Danske Bank, admitted that some 200 billion euros in suspicious money had flown through its Estonian branch from 2007 to 2015. Whistleblower and former employee Howard Wilkinson has indicated that Danske Bank's management was aware of what was going on at the branch, which was among the bank's most profitable units. He has also alleged that family members of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia's spy agency were using the bank for money laundering. The bank's CEO has since stepped down over the scandal.

Another Baltic state, Latvia, has also emerged as a major hub of money laundering, with a 2014 leak showing that tens of billions of dollars were funneled from Russia in 2010-14. Some of the money reportedly went through Deutsche Bank and ended up in major capitals like London, according to The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

There was no indication that Thursday's raid was linked to that scandal, though Deutsche Bank says that it has since stopped providing dollar transactions in some countries, including Latvia.

3 Filipino policemen convicted of murder in brutal drug war


In this Aug. 24, 2017, file photo, from left; police officers Jeremias Pereda, Jerwin Cruz and Arnel Oares talk during a senate hearing on the killing of Kian Loyd Delos Santos, a 17-year-old Grade 11 student, allegedly during a drug crackdown in Manila, Philippines. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Jim Gomez

Manila, Philippines (AP) — A Philippine court found three police officers guilty on Thursday of killing a student they alleged was a drug dealer, in the first known such conviction under the president's deadly crackdown on drugs.

Regional Trial Court Presiding Judge Rodolfo Azucena Jr. ruled the officers murdered Kian Loyd delos Santos during raid in a slum in the Manila metropolis last year. It rejected the policemen's claim that the 17-year-old fired back while resisting arrest.

The court sentenced the officers to up to 40 years in prison without parole, although they can appeal. Aside from the prison term, the policemen, who appeared in court in handcuffs and in yellow detainee shirts, were ordered to pay damages to Santos's impoverished family.

Duterte's crackdown, which has left thousands of suspects dead reportedly in clashes with the police, has alarmed Western governments and U.N. rights experts and horrified human rights watchdogs. The volatile president has stressed he does not condone extrajudicial killings, although he has repeatedly threatened drug suspects with death and has assured police he would back them up in ways that human rights watchdogs say have encouraged law enforcers to act with impunity.

"A shoot first, think later attitude can never be countenanced in a civilized society. Never has homicide or murder been a function of law enforcement," Azucena said in his ruling. "The public peace is never predicated on the cost of human life."

Duterte's government called the ruling "a triumph of justice," which disproved critics' assertion that the judiciary was a rubberstamp.

"As we have always stressed, the conduct of the government's anti-illegal drug campaign is based on accountability. Therefore, we do not — and we will never — tolerate unjustified police violence, brutality or killing," presidential spokesman and chief legal counsel Salvador Panelo told a news conference.

Opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros, who has railed against the drug killings, said the court decision proved that extrajudicial killings under Duterte's crackdown were really being committed by rogue members of the national police force.

"This is a light in the darkness," Hontiveros said in a statement. "Despite the gruesome climate of killing and impunity in the country, this verdict sends the message that there is hope and justice. And we will fight for more light and truth until the darkeness cannot overcome them."

Hontiveros said the numbers of drug killings, which started to rise when Duterte took office in mid-2016 and launched his trademark war against drugs, could not have reached "catastrophic levels if these killings did not have a sinister principle and policy behind them."

Duterte and police officials have repeatedly stated there was no state policy to kill drug suspects illegally.

Sri Lankan lawmakers bar disputed PM from using state funds


Sri Lanka's disputed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, gestures as he arrives for a meeting with his supporting law makers at the parliamentary complex in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Thursday, Nov. 29. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

Bharatha Mallawarachi

Colombo, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankan lawmakers on Thursday approved a motion barring disputed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa from using state funds after he lost two no-confidence votes, in an escalation of the country's political crisis.

The motion was passed with 123 votes in the 225-member Parliament as Rajapaksa supporters boycotted the proceedings for a third day, accusing Speaker Karu Jayasuriya of bias and breaching parliamentary rules.

The passage of the motion was a setback for Rajapaksa because it demonstrated that a majority of lawmakers oppose the former strongman, who ruled Sri Lanka as president from 2005 to 2015.

Sri Lanka has been in a political crisis since Oct. 26, when President Maithripala Sirisena abruptly fired Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed Rajapaksa. Both claim to be the legitimate officeholder, with Wickremesinghe saying he has majority support in Parliament and his firing was invalid. Rajapaksa has moved into the prime minister's office, while Wickremesinghe has refused to leave the premier's official residence.

Parliament has passed two no-confidence motions against Rajapaksa and the speaker has declared that Rajapaksa is no longer prime minister and his government has been dissolved. But Rajapaksa continues to function as prime minister with the backing of Sirisena, who has dismissed the no-confidence votes, saying proper procedures were not followed.

Ravi Karunanayake, a lawmaker from Wickremesinghe's party who presented the motion, said Parliament has full control over public finance and the secretary to the prime minster has no authority to approve any expenditures from state funds.

Dinesh Gunawardena, a member of Rajapaksa's purported Cabinet, said his camp refuses to accept Thursday's vote. He said since a budget has already been approved for this year with allocations for the prime minister's office, any amendment to it needs to be brought in the form of a law by a government minister. He said it is also unlawful to debate a matter that is before a court.

The Court of Appeal has agreed to hear a petition challenging the right of Rajapaksa and his ministers to hold office after the no-confidence votes.

"Parliament has full and exclusive control over public funds. The government cannot spend a cent of public revenue without the authorization of Parliament," said Asanga Welikala, a constitutional expert at the Center for Policy Alternatives think tank.

However, the vote may only be symbolic because Gunawardena's contention that an approved budget needs to be changed by law is technically valid, he said.

"In a context of contested legitimacy and authority, even symbolic acts by Parliament to demonstrate its lack of confidence in the purported government are very powerful," Welikala said.

During the no-confidence motions two weeks ago, rival lawmakers exchanged blows, and those supporting Rajapaksa threw books, chairs and chili powder mixed with water to try to block the proceedings. Amid the disturbance, Jayasuriya resorted to voice votes.

Both Sirisena and Rajapaksa rejected the results of the votes, saying important issues should not be decided by voice. Sirisena has said he will only accept a vote taken by name or through the electronic voting system.

Sirisena served as health minster when Rajapaksa was president. In 2014, he joined hands with opposition parties and defeated Rajapaksa in the 2015 presidential election. His decision to appoint Rajapaksa as prime minister astonished many.

Rajapaksa is considered a hero by some in the ethnic Sinhalese majority for ending a long civil war by crushing ethnic Tamil Tiger rebels. However, his time in power was marred by allegations of wartime atrocities, corruption and nepotism.

Tensions had been building between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe for some time, as the president did not approve of economic reforms introduced by the prime minister. Sirisena has also accused Wickremesinghe and another Cabinet member of plotting to assassinate him, a charge Wickremesinghe has repeatedly denied.

On Sunday, Sirisena said he will not appoint Wickremesinghe as prime minister even if he controls a majority in Parliament.

Wickremesinghe's party has criticized Sirisena's stance, saying he should act within the constitution and that it does not provide for personal vendettas.

Scientists: World still isn't ready for gene-edited babies

David Baltimore, Nobel laureate and chair of the organizing committee delivers the statement by the organizing committee during the Human Genome Editing Conference in Hong Kong, Thursday, Nov. 29. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu).

Marilynn Marchione

Hong Kong (AP) — A group of leading scientists has declared that it's still too soon to try making permanent changes to DNA that can be inherited by future generations, as a Chinese researcher claims to have done.

The scientists gathered in Hong Kong this week for an international conference on gene editing, the ability to rewrite the code of life to try to correct or prevent diseases.

Although the science holds promise for helping people already born and studies testing that are underway, a statement issued Thursday by the 14-member conference leaders says it's irresponsible to try it on eggs, sperm or embryos except in lab research because not enough is known yet about its risks or safety.

The conference was rocked by the Chinese researcher's claim to have helped make the world's first gene-edited babies, twin girls he said were born earlier this month. Conference leaders called for an independent investigation of the claim by He Jiankui of Shenzhen, who spoke to the group Wednesday as international criticism of his claim mounted.

There is no independent confirmation of what He says he did. He was scheduled to speak again at the conference on Thursday, but he left Hong Kong and through a spokesman sent a statement saying "I will remain in China, my home country, and cooperate fully with all inquiries about my work. My raw data will be made available for third party review."

Several prominent scientists said the case showed a failure of the field to police itself and the need for stricter principles or regulations.

"It's not unreasonable to expect the scientific community" to follow guidelines, said David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate from California Institute of Technology who led the panel.

There already are some rules that should have prevented what He says he did, said Alta Charo, a University of Wisconsin lawyer and bioethicist and a conference organizer.

"I think the failure was his, not the scientific community," Charo said.

Gene editing for reproductive purposes might be considered in the future "but only when there is compelling medical need," with clear understanding of risks and benefits, and certain other conditions, said Dr. Victor Dzau, president of the U.S. National Academy of Medicine, one of the conference sponsors.

"Not following these guidelines would be an irresponsible act," he added.

Other sponsors of the three-day conference are the Academy of Sciences of Hong Kong, the Royal Society of the United Kingdom and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and U.S. National Academy Sciences.


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Ukraine urges NATO to deploy ships amid standoff with Russia

Police search Deutsche Bank offices in money laundering case

3 Filipino policemen convicted of murder in brutal drug war

Sri Lankan lawmakers bar disputed PM from using state funds

Scientists: World still isn't ready for gene-edited babies