Rio de Janeiro, Mar 22 (AP/UNB) — Former Brazilian President Michel Temer was arrested Thursday on corruption charges, a dramatic development in a sprawling graft probe that has roiled Latin America's largest nation and shows no sign of slowing.
Judge Marcelo Bretas issued an arrest order for the ex-president as well as former Cabinet minister and Temer ally Moreira Franco and eight others.
According to the prosecutors, construction company Engevix paid Temer bribes in exchange for a contract to build a nuclear power plant in the city of Angra dos Reis in the southern part of Rio de Janeiro state.
Prosecutors said in a statement that one Engevix executive said in plea bargain testimony that he paid more than $300,000 in 2014 to a company owned by a close Temer associate, Col. Joao Baptista Lima Filho. An arrest warrant was also issued for Lima Filho.
While the charges against Temer were narrow, prosecutors told reporters during a press conference that the former president and several associates had been engaging in pay-for-play deals involving kickbacks since the 1980s that resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes.
"This is a criminal organization that has been up until now led by Michel Temer," said Fabiana Schneider, one of the prosecutors.
In his arrest order, Bretas wrote that arresting Temer was necessary to make sure he didn't destroy evidence.
The case is one of 10 criminal investigations into Temer, a career politician known for his ability to wheel and deal behind the scenes in the capital of Brasilia. He has denied any wrongdoing.
"Justice was created for all and everyone must respond for his own actions," President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain who ran on promises to crack down on endemic corruption, told reporters while on a state visit to Chile.
Temer was taken into custody in Sao Paulo, where he lives, and taken by plane to Rio de Janeiro, where he would be processed.
"It is evident the total lack of foundations for the arrest, which serves only to display the former president as a trophy to those that, under the pretext of fighting corruption, mock the basic rules of the constitution," Temer lawyer Eduardo Pizarro Carnelos said in a statement.
Bretas, the judge, is overseeing the Rio portion of a massive corruption probe involving kickbacks to politicians and public officials. Since launching in March 2014, the so-called Car Wash investigation has led to the jailing of top businessmen and politicians, including ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who Brazilians universally call Lula.
Former Judge Sergio Moro, who oversaw many Car Wash cases and became an internationally known anti-corruption crusader, stepped down at the end of last year to become justice minister.
Many worried that Moro's absence could hurt the investigations. And the Car Wash probe has suffered a handful of recent defeats, including a decision by the Supreme Court to allow some corruption cases involving campaign finance, which figured heavily in the probe, to be tried by electoral courts.
This week, Moro himself suffered a setback when the speaker of the lower Chamber of Deputies in Congress slammed a tough-on-crime bill the former judge put forward and said it would only be considered after a major reform to the pension system.
Bretas' decision to arrest Temer will go a long way to answering questions about the future of the probe.
"If Lula and Temer can go to jail, who cannot?" said Carlos Melo, political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo. "There are several formerly high-ranking politicians not in office at the moment, which makes them more exposed to police investigations."
Temer, who was vice president, came to the presidency in 2016 after President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and ousted from office for mismanaging the federal budget.
Rousseff and allies in her Workers' Party accused Temer of orchestrating her ouster, which he denied.
From the get-go, Temer's administration was hit with several scandals, including some involving the president himself. Temer's approval ratings were routinely below 10 percent, and he was frequently booed.
In the course of less than two years, three times the attorney general charged Temer, twice with corruption and one with obstruction of justice. Because he was a sitting president, he could only be tried if two-thirds of the lower chamber in Congress agreed. Temer twice mustered enough support in Congress to avoid prosecution and his term ended before the third case proceeded far enough for Congress to vote.
Temer, 78, left office on Jan. 1 and no longer has the partial immunity that helped him avoid prosecution.
Asked about looming cases against him in December, Temer said he wasn't worried and did not believe he would be arrested.
"I'm calm. I am not the least bit worried," Temer said. "Those (charges) are such absurd things that a more objective and less passionate mind will see that and will say, 'those allegations are irrelevant.'"
Indonesia, Mar 22 (AP/UNB) — Indonesia's transportation safety board denied on Thursday that it leaked details from its probe into the crash of a Lion Air flight in October.
The chairman of the National Transportation Safety Committee, Soerjanto Tjahjono, disputed reports describing conversations as the pilots panicked just before their Boeing 737 Max 8 plunged into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff on Oct. 29.
Interest in the investigation into the crash, which killed all 189 people aboard, has intensified following the crash of another Max 8 in Ethiopia earlier this month that killed 157 people.
Tjahjono told reporters that data from the cockpit voice recorder did not match reports detailing how the pilot and co-pilot struggled to regain control of the plane as an automated system pushed its nose downward.
"The contents of the reports were just opinions that someone or some people made to look as if they came from the CVR," he said.
Only Indonesia's NTSC has the records from the flight, he said. "Everything is stored on our server, which is standalone, not connected to the internet or anything, and we can only access it when we are going to evaluate it," Tjahjono said.
Indonesian investigators say they are still analyzing conversations from the Oct. 29 flight recorded by the cockpit voice recorder, which was only recovered from the seabed in January.
Nucahyo Utomo, the official in charge of the investigation into the crash, said the agency was sharing information with U.S. aviation regulators but that there was a recognition on both sides that laws in each country differ and that Indonesia does not publish such information.
"So we want to say that our CVR data was not leaked, because the content reported was not the same as what is in the CVR," he said.
Utomo did confirm that that there was panic in the cockpit just before the aircraft crashed.
"I can't say what they shouted, what caused them to panic. I just said that at the end it looks like the pilots could no longer save the flight and they began to panic," he said.
The Lion Air plane had problems on several flights before it crashed, with terrifying episodes of loss of altitude possibly related to an automated anti-stall system.
Tjahjono did confirm that a third pilot was in the cockpit of the aircraft that crashed when it encountered similar difficulties a day before its final, fatal flight.
The third pilot, who has not been identified, was qualified to fly Max 8s. He was off duty and traveling aboard the Oct. 28 flight from Bali's Denpasar airport to Jakarta. Some reports, citing unnamed sources, said the extra pilot advised the two in charge of the flight on how to stop the plane from automatically pointing its nose downward, in line with Boeing's operating instructions.
It's unclear if the pilots fully shared their difficulties handling the plane with safety regulators, the airline or the pilots who perished in the Oct. 29 flight.
Tjahjono said the NTSC interviewed the pilot but legally cannot publish its findings.
An earlier report issued by Indonesian aviation regulators describes technical problems aboard the plane's penultimate flight but does not mention that a third person was in the cockpit along with the pilot and co-pilot.
A preliminary report from Tjahjono's agency issued in December stopped short of declaring a probable cause of the Oct. 29 crash.
Tjahjono said NTSC investigators have visited Boeing to carry out a reconstruction of the crashed flight and the next-to-last flight. The agency will publish results of its investigation in August or September, he said.
Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft have been grounded following the two crashes.
New Zealand, Mar 22 (AP/UNB) — In a day without precedent, people across New Zealand observed the Muslim call to prayer Friday as the nation reflected on the moment one week ago when 50 people were slaughtered at two mosques.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and thousands of others congregated in leafy Hagley Park opposite the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch to observe the call to prayer at 1:30 p.m.
"New Zealand mourns with you. We are one," Ardern said.
Thousands more listened on the radio or watched on live television. The prayer was followed by two minutes of silence.
On a light brown carpet, hundreds of Muslim men sat in socks or bare feet readying for the prayer. One man in the front row was in a Christchurch Hospital wheelchair.
The Al Noor mosque's imam, Gamal Fouda, thanked New Zealanders for their support.
"This terrorist sought to tear our nation apart with an evil ideology. ... But, instead, we have shown that New Zealand is unbreakable," the imam said.
"We are broken-hearted but we are not broken. We are alive. We are together. We are determined to not let anyone divide us," he added, as the crowd erupted with applause.
Fahim Imam, 33, returned to his hometown for the service. He left Christchurch three years ago and now lives in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city.
"It's just amazing to see how the country and the community have come together — blows my mind, actually," Imam said before the event.
When he got off the plane Friday morning, he saw someone holding a sign that said "jenaza," denoting Muslim funeral prayer. He said others were offering free rides to and from the prayer service.
"The moment I landed in Christchurch, I could feel the love here. I've never felt more proud to be a Muslim, or a Kiwi for that matter. It makes me really happy to be able to say that I'm a New Zealander," Imam said.
He called it surreal to see the mosque where he used to pray surrounded by flowers.
The observance comes the day after the government announced a ban on "military-style" semi-automatic firearms and high-capacity magazines like the weapons that were used in last Friday's attacks.
Forty-two people died at the Al Noor mosque and seven at the nearby Linwood mosque. One person shot at one of the mosques died later at a hospital.
An immediate sales ban went into effect Thursday to prevent stockpiling, and new laws would be rushed through Parliament that would impose a complete ban on the weapons, Ardern said.
"Every semi-automatic weapon used in the terrorist attack on Friday will be banned," Ardern said.
The gun legislation is supported not only by Ardern's liberal Labour Party but also the conservative opposition National Party, so it's expected to pass into law. New Zealand does not have a constitutional right to bear arms.
Among those planning to attend Friday's observance was Samier Dandan, the president of the Lebanese Muslim Association in Sydney and part of a 15-strong delegation of Muslim leaders that had flown to Christchurch.
"It was an ugly act of terrorism that occurred in a beautiful, peaceful city," Dandan said.
He said his pain couldn't compare with that of the families he'd been visiting who had lost loves ones. He was inspired by their resilience, he said.
"And I've got to give all my respect to the New Zealand prime minister, with her position and her actions, and it speaks loud," he said.
Ismat Fatimah, 46, said it was sad to look at the Al Noor mosque, which was still surrounded by construction barricades, armed police officers and a huge mound of flowers and messages.
"We're feeling stronger than before, and we are one," she said.
She said she prayed for the people who died.
"I'm just imagining what would be happening last Friday," she said. "People were running around so scared and helpless. It's just not right."
Erum Hafeez, 18 said she felt comforted by the overwhelming response from New Zealanders: "We are embraced by the community of New Zealand, we are not left behind and alone."
The Al Noor mosque's imam said workers have been toiling feverishly to repair the destruction, some of whom offered their services for free. Fouda expects the mosque to reopen by next week.
Beijing, Mar 22 (AP/UNB) — The death toll in an explosion at a chemical plant in eastern China has risen to 44, with another 90 people seriously injured, the local government reported Friday.
Thursday's blast at the Tianjiayi Chemical plant in the city of Yancheng is China's worst industrial accident in years. Nearly 1,000 area residents have been moved to safety as of Friday as a precaution against leaks and additional explosions, the city government said in a statement posted to its official microblog.
Windows in buildings as far as about 6 kilometers (3 miles) were blown out by the force of the blast.
The city government statement said 3,500 medical workers at 16 hospitals had been mobilized to treat the injured, dozens of whom remain in critical condition.
The cause of the blast remained under investigation.
China experiences frequent industrial accidents despite orders from the central government to improve safety at factories, power plants and mines.
Among the worst accidents was a massive 2015 explosion at a chemical warehouse in the port city of Tianjin that killed 173 people, most of them firefighters and police officers.
In November, at least 22 people were killed and scores of vehicles destroyed in an explosion outside a chemical plant in the northeastern city of Zhangjiakou, which will host competitions in the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Christchurch, Mar 21 (AP/UNB) — The government of New Zealand announced a ban on "military-style" semi-automatic firearms and high-capacity magazines Thursday, just a week after such weapons were used in attacks on two mosques in the city of Christchurch that killed 50 people.
An immediate sales ban went into effect to prevent stockpiling and new laws would be rushed through Parliament that would impose a complete ban on the weapons, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.
"Every semi-automatic weapon used in the terrorist attack on Friday will be banned," Ardern said.
The prohibition includes semi-automatic guns or shotguns that can be used with a detachable magazine that holds more than five rounds. It also applies to accessories used to convert guns into what the government called "military-style" weapons.
The ban does not apply to guns commonly used by farmers and hunters, including semi-automatic .22 caliber or smaller guns that hold up to 10 rounds, or semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns with non-detachable magazines that hold up to five rounds.
Ardern's party controls a majority in Parliament, so passage of the legislation is expected. New Zealand does not have a constitutional right to bear arms.
The announcement brought immediate comparisons to the United States, where contentious debate over gun control remains unresolved after frequent mass killings.
Firearms experts said the ban in New Zealand has wide support.
Polly Collins of Christchurch was thrilled to hear of Ardern's announcement as she visited a memorial to the victims.
"The prime minister is amazing," she said. "It's not like in America, where they have all these things and then they go 'Oh yeah, we'll deal with the gun laws,' and nothing's done."
One of New Zealand's largest gun retailers, Hunting & Fishing New Zealand, said it supports "any government measure to permanently ban such weapons."
"While we have sold them in the past to a small number of customers, last week's events have forced a reconsideration that has led us to believe such weapons of war have no place in our business — or our country," chief executive Darren Jacobs said in a statement.
He said the company will no longer stock any assault-style firearms and will also stop selling firearms online.
"What (Ardern's) done is a very brave move, and it's the kind of move that can only be done in a common-law country where guns are not a right," said Alexander Gillespie, a professor of international law at Waikato University. "Guns are a real privilege. If there was a legal right like there is in the United States, this would be much more difficult."
There are nearly 250,000 licensed gun owners in New Zealand, which has a population of 5 million. Officials estimate there are 1.5 million guns in the country.
Ardern said people could hand over their prohibited guns under an amnesty while officials develop a formal buyback scheme, which could cost up to 200 million New Zealand dollars ($140 million). She said there will be "tightly regulated" exemptions for some owners such as hunters and farmers.
The government said the police and military would be exempt. Access for international shooting competitions would also be considered.
The man charged in the mosque attacks had purchased his weapons legally using a standard firearms license and enhanced their capacity by using 30-round magazines "done easily through a simple online purchase," Ardern said.
Although the exact weapons used in the mosque attacks have not been announced, images posted by the gunman show at least one of them to be a semi-automatic rifle similar to an AR-15 that is widely available in New Zealand. Semi-automatic refers to a firearm's ability to self-load, not only firing a bullet with each trigger pull, but also reloading and making the firearm capable of firing again.
The military versions most resembling the AR-15 rifle are the M16 and M4 carbines, which can fire in semi-automatic mode, three-round burst mode or fully automatic mode.
Many different types of firearms, from pistols to rifles and shotguns, can be semi-automatic. Semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 can often be modified with aftermarket parts to fire in fully automatic mode and instructions can often be found on the internet.
Ardern's announcement came as authorities said all 50 bodies from the attacks were formally identified.
At least nine funerals took place Thursday. Solemn farewells were made for high school student Sayyad Ahmad Milne, 14. Tariq Rashid Omar, 24, graduated from the same school, played soccer in the summer and was a beloved coach of several youth teams and also was buried.
In a post on Facebook, Christchurch United Football Club Academy Director Colin Williamson described Omar as "a beautiful human being with a tremendous heart and love for coaching."
Linda Armstrong, 64, a third-generation New Zealander who converted to Islam in her 50s, was also buried, as were Hussein Mohamed Khalil Moustafa, 70, Matiullah Safi, 55, and Haji Mohammed Daoud Nabi.
Police Commissioner Mike Bush said investigators were trying to conclude their work at the two mosques.
"We are working to restore them in a way that is absolutely respectful," he said.
An Australian white supremacist, Brenton Harrison Tarrant, was arrested by police who ran him off the road while he was believed to be on his way to a third target. He had livestreamed the attack on Facebook and said in his manifesto he planned to attack three mosques.
Tarrant, 28, is next scheduled to appear in court on April 5, and Bush said investigations were continuing. Police have said they are certain Tarrant was the only gunman but are still investigating whether he had support.
Meanwhile, preparations were underway for a Friday prayer service to be led by the imam of one of the mosques where worshippers were killed. Imam Gamal Fouda said he is expecting 3,000 to 4,000 people, including many from abroad.
Workers at the Al Noor mosque have been working feverishly to repair the destruction, Fouda said.
"They will bury the carpet," he said, "because it is full of blood, and it's contaminated."
Fouda said he expects the mosque to be open again by next week and that some skilled workers had offered their services for free.