Italy's Berlusconi found guilty of tax fraud, sentenced to prison

Berlusconi

LONDON -- Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was found guilty of tax fraud Friday and sentenced to four years in prison, a stunning setback for the media mogul-turned-politician who has dominated Italy's political landscape for the last 20 years.

But Berlusconi, 76, will almost certainly appeal the verdict and is not expected to go to prison anytime soon -- and possibly not at all because of Italian restrictions against putting someone his age behind bars, analysts say.

Still, the conviction is a blow for a man who only a few months ago floated the idea of a comeback as Italy’s leader after having been forced to step down last November. Earlier this week, Berlusconi ended speculation by announcing that he would not run for reelection after all but would focus on grooming younger leaders.

Whether the decision to retire from elected office was made in anticipation of a guilty verdict in the tax fraud trial is unclear. Besides the prison term, the sentence handed down Friday in Milan bars Berlusconi from holding public office for three years, the Italian news agency Ansa reported.

The case centered on purchases by Berlusconi’s company, Mediaset, of television rights for American movies. Prosecutors argued that Mediaset bought the rights through offshore entities and then falsely declared those payments in order to avoid paying taxes.

The trial began six years ago but made only spasmodic progress, partly because of delaying tactics by Berlusconi’s defense team and because of an on-again, off-again immunity law for certain elected officials. He has two levels of appeal open to him, meaning that the case could drag on for some years.

Many Italians believed that Berlusconi would never be convicted for his alleged offenses because of the way his government tried to manipulate the judicial system and because of his vast fortune and political connections.

Aside from the case decided Friday, Berlusconi is also on trial on charges of paying for sex with an underage girl whom he later allegedly tried to spring from police custody by using his political influence. That influence is likely to diminish significantly now, analysts say.

When the flamboyant and controversial former leader announced Wednesday that he would not stand for reelection, Berlusconi told Italian media that his decision to step back was motivated by the same patriotism that induced him to go into politics nearly 20 years ago.

“For love of Italy one can do crazy things and wise things,” he said. “Now I want to take a step back with the same love that moved me to act then.”

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Photo: Then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in July 2011, four months before he resigned under fire. Credit:  Reuters


Rogue French trader loses appeal, faces prison, colossal damages

France Trader

This post has been updated. See the notes below.

PARIS -- A French appeals court Wednesday upheld the conviction of former bank trader Jerome Kerviel for committing one of the biggest financial frauds in history.

Kerviel, 35, was ordered to spend three years in prison and to pay back his former employer, French bank Societe Generale, a whopping $6.4 billion in damages to cover its costs from his trades.

During a four-week hearing in June, Kerviel, described by the public prosecutor as a "perverse manipulator," had asked the Paris appeal court to overturn his conviction in October 2010 for breach of trust, forgery and entering false data. On Wednesday, the court rejected his appeal.

The former trader did not profit personally from making unauthorized bets on the futures markets to the tune of nearly $65 billion, and he is not believed to have the means to pay the damages. He has always maintained that his bosses knew what he was doing and that they turned a blind eye to his trading as long as he was making money.

However, the appeals court threw out his defense and decided Kerviel was "the sole creator, inventor and user of a fraudulent system that caused these damages to Societe Generale."

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Italian seismologists ordered to prison for not warning of quake risk

Italy quake verdict
ROME -- A court found six scientists and an official guilty of manslaughter Monday for failing to properly warn residents in the central Italy city of L’Aquila about the risk of an impending earthquake that killed more than 300 people in 2009.

The three-judge court handed down a prison sentence of six years for each of the defendants, more than the four years requested by the prosecution in a case that many thought should never have gone to court because of the virtual impossibility of predicting an earthquake.

The verdict, which was watched with interest by seismologists and public administrators in other parts of the world marked by frequent seismic activity, including Los Angeles, immediately drew criticism from scientists who said that it would have a chilling effect on experts called on to assess emergencies.

Tremors of varying magnitude had plagued the area around L’Aquila for months before an 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck April 6, 2009, and devastated the city and surrounding villages across a wide area.

Prosecutors said that the men, six members of the Major Risks Commission and an official with the Civil Protection Agency, gave the already-frightened residents “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” after meeting to evaluate the situation six days before the temblor hit.

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Egypt freezes assets of ex-presidential candidate and Mubarak ally

Ahmed-shafikCAIRO — The Egyptian government on Sunday froze the financial assets of former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik and his three daughters as authorities move to try the retired general over his alleged business dealings with the sons of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak.

Shafik, who was Mubarak's last prime minister, is wanted for graft and is expected to face trial on Dec. 2. Immediately after losing the presidential race to Mohamed Morsi in June, Shafik left Egypt for the United Arab Emirates. He has not returned home and authorities have announced he may be tried in absentia. 

Last month, Egyptian authorities called for Shafik’s arrest in a case involving Mubarak's sons, Gamal and Alaa, and four retired generals. The charges center on Shafik's role as chairman in the state’s housing association in the 1990s, when he allegedly sold publicly owned lands below market value to Mubarak's sons. Judge Osama Alsaeedy referred Shafik to criminal court on charges of squandering public funds.

Shafik, a staunch Mubarak ally who failed to calm the uprising that brought down the regime last year, has also been ordered to face trial on charges along with 10 other former officials who were accused of corruption in Egypt's Ministry of Civil Aviation. The government did not disclose the amount of Shafik’s assets that have been frozen.

The former pilot and aviation minister spoke from Dubai in September on a television interview to deny the accusations. He said the charges were "politically motivated" and that he would not return to Egypt until investigations were completed and his innocence was proven.

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— Reem Abdellatif

Photo: Then-presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik speaks to the media during a news conference at his office in Cairo on May 26. Credit: Khalil Hamra, file / Associated Press.


Guantanamo terrorism convictions proving vulnerable on appeal

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed
Salim Hamdan has been home in his native Yemen for nearly four years since completing his sentence at Guantanamo Bay for providing "material support to terrorism" -- six years of domestic service to Osama bin Laden as gardener, bodyguard and driver.

GlobalFocusOne of only seven Guantanamo captives to be sentenced for alleged war crimes by the Pentagon's military commissions, Hamdan had his conviction vacated this week by a unanimous federal appeals court panel on grounds that the assistance he provided the late Al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan wasn't defined as a war crime until five years after his 2001 capture.

Hamdan is already at liberty and moving on with his life, his pro bono attorney reported Thursday after informing his client by telephone that his appeal was successful. The 40-year-old taxi driver with a fourth-grade education was pleased to be cleansed of the "war criminal" label but doesn't plan to pursue an uphill battle for compensation, said the attorney, Harry Schneider of Seattle.

Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, said the government was still reviewing the ruling and would have no comment.

The ruling will serve as binding precedent in the appeals of other Guantanamo detainees convicted for war crimes ex post facto, Schneider predicted. The next likely beneficiary of the tribunal's overreaching prosecutions, defense attorneys say, could be defiant Al Qaeda propagandist Ali Hamza Bahlul, who is serving a life sentence at the U.S. military prison in southern Cuba.

Within hours of the decision by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Australian convict David Hicks' lawyer announced that he would seek to have his client's guilty plea revoked and conditions of his release to Australia stricken. Attorney Stephen Kenny also said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Co. that he would pursue compensation for Hicks and an investigation of whether the Canberra government aided and abetted his wrongful imprisonment.

A kangaroo skinner who trained at an Al Qaeda base in Afghanistan before fleeing the October 2001 U.S.-led invasion, Hicks was arrested trying to cross into Pakistan and held at Guantanamo for six years. He was released to his homeland as part of his plea deal, which prohibits him from appealing his case or disclosing details of his experience for monetary gain.

Bahlul, a Yemeni like Hamdan, also was convicted at his uncontested 2008 trial of solicitation of murder in a recruiting video he produced for Al Qaeda. David Glazier, an international law professor at Loyola Law School, said legal scholars began speculating that the solicitation charge might be ruled beyond the commissions' jurisdiction after the same Washington appeals court that threw out material support as a legal charge canceled oral arguments in the Bahlul appeal just before it issued the Hamdan decision.

"There's been some discussion in the blogosphere about whether or not this means the end of conspiracy as well," said Glazier, who was a career Navy surface warfare officer before earning his law degree.

Only one of the seven Guantanamo convictions has involved crimes recognized as a violation of the international law of war: the murder, attempted murder and spying charges against Canadian Omar Ahmed Khadr, who was recently transferred to Canadian custody to serve out the six years left on his term.

Prosecutors at the military commissions have relied on material support and conspiracy to get convictions or plea bargains in the few completed cases, but Glazier argues that those "inchoate offenses" aren't considered war crimes under international law. Only after Congress passed the 2006 Military Commissions Act did the Guantanamo tribunal have jurisdiction to try suspects for those crimes, said the appeals court panel, which is made up entirely of Republican appointees.

J. Wells Dixon, senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has provided legal representation to hundreds of the nearly 800 men detained at Guantanamo since 2002, predicted that "conspiracy is the next military commissions charge on the chopping block."

"The Hamdan decision is significant because it is an illustration of the inherent problems in creating a second-rate system of justice that we make up as we go along," he said of the commissions, the original version of which was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2006, prompting a hurried redo, the Military Commissions Act, three months later.

Five "high-value detainees" facing death penalty trials for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have been in the Guantanamo courtroom this week, bringing pretrial motions and theatrics to the forum.

In the first prosecution on charges widely accepted as war crimes, Army Col. James Pohl, the presiding judge, has been inundated with peripheral considerations, such as whether self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed should be allowed to wear a camouflage hunter's vest in the courtroom to project a warrior image.

Pohl has also had to rule on whether mold and rodent infestation at the defense attorneys work space on the remote base compromises their ability to prepare for trial, and whether any mention of mistreatment during CIA interrogations risks revealing national security secrets.

"Regardless of the underlying conduct and the quality of evidence the government presents at trial, there is no certainty that those convictions will stand" federal civilian court review, Dixon said. "For the Obama administration to continue to pursue military commissions charges is a real gamble."

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Follow Carol J. Williams at www.twitter.com/cjwilliamslat

Photo: Artist's sketch shows alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, right, speaking with a member of his legal team during a hearing at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Credit: Janet Hamlin

 


Egyptian court acquits 26 in bloody camel attack on Tahrir Square

Egypt-camels
CAIRO -- An Egyptian criminal court Wednesday acquitted 26 loyalists of deposed President Hosni Mubarak of charges of plotting the notorious attack in which camels and horses charged hundreds of protesters in Tahrir Square during last year's uprising.

Twenty four of the accused were members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, including businessmen, government officials and the speaker of the former parliament. The attack, which played out on television and stunned the world with medieval-like spectacle, marked one of the bloodiest days of the revolt.

The defendants were found not guilty of manslaughter, according to Egypt's state-run news agency. The attack, which became known as the Camel Battle, was regarded by many as Mubarak's last desperate attempt to cling to power before the 18-day uprising forced him to resign in February 2011.

Human rights advocates and protesters who participated in the uprising were outraged by the verdict. Many said it was an expected yet disappointing blow to justice.

"The trial failed to find those responsible or reveal the truth on what is a defining episode of the uprising," said Mohamed Lotfy,  a researcher with Amnesty International.

The decision comes amid public discontent as many Egyptians feel that justice has not yet been served for those who died in anti-government protests before and after the uprising. That sentiment is putting increasing pressure on new President Mohamed Morsi.   

"They weren't even found guilty of plotting the attack. Many of these government officials and party members were responsible for decision-making during the attack, they should be held responsible,” said Heba Mahfouz, an activist. “If they can't find legal evidence against these people, then they should be responsible to find who committed these crimes resulting in the deaths of hundreds of protesters."

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Photo: In this file photo from Feb. 2, 2011, Egyptian government supporters, some riding camels and horses and armed with sticks, clash with demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Credit: Ben Curtis / Associated Press


Russian court frees one member of punk band on appeal

MOSCOW — A Russian court on Wednesday unexpectedly freed one of three female punk rockers imprisoned for their protest against President Vladimir Putin’s rule, but left her companions behind bars.

The women had been sentenced in August to two years in prison for an act defined as hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for performing an anti-Putin “punk prayer” at Christ the Savior Cathedral in February. The verdict has drawn criticism from human rights groups and others in Russia and abroad.

Hearing their appeal on Wednesday, the Moscow City Court suspended the sentence of Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, the oldest of the group, who had changed her legal team and line of defense and argued that she should be treated differently than her fellow defendants.

During the protest, Samutsevich had been stopped by a guard before she could join the other women near the altar and did not take part in the song and dance there. While expressing solidarity with the other defendants, she told the court: “I think that if I am to be held responsible, it should be only for the actions I committed.” 

Her colleagues, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, continued to defy the authorities and refused to repent, a demand of Orthodox Christian leaders who said they were otherwise willing to forgive the performance.

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Supporters of WikiLeaks' Julian Assange ordered to pay his bail

Nine supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange were ordered by a British judge to pay his bail now that he has fled inside the Ecuadorean embassy to avoid extraditionLONDON -- The cost of helping WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange fight allegations of sexual assault became painfully real Monday for a group of supporters who were ordered by a British judge to pay money they had pledged for his bail now that he has fled inside the Ecuadorean Embassy.

Nine of the anti-secrecy campaigner's backers are on the hook for about $150,000 among them because he jumped bail in June by putting himself out of the reach of British police. Assange, 41, sought asylum inside the embassy in central London to evade extradition to Sweden, which wants to question him in connection with allegations that he sexually abused two women last year.

Chief Magistrate Howard Riddle said Monday that the nine supporters had "failed in their basic duty" to ensure that Assange did not abscond.

The group had acknowledged making no attempt to persuade him to give himself up, out of sympathy with his fears that the Swedish investigation was merely a pretext to spirit him to the United States to face possible charges of espionage in connection with WikiLeaks' release of thousands of classified government files.

Vaughan Smith, at whose country mansion Assange stayed for months under a form of house arrest, told the court that for him and the eight others to urge the now-fugitive to quit the embassy would have been "a very public betrayal."

Riddle wrote in his judgment that he felt "real respect" for the nine backers' convictions.

"In declining to publicly (or as far as I know privately) urge Mr. Assange to surrender himself, they have acted against self-interest. They have acted on their beliefs and principles throughout," Riddle wrote in his judgment. "In what is sometimes considered to be a selfish age, that is admirable."

But he said the integrity of the bail system needed to be upheld. Moreover, it should have been clear to the nine supporters that Assange, who had vowed to fight extradition tooth and nail, posed a substantial flight risk, Riddle said.

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Radical cleric, 4 others extradited to U.S. for terrorism trials

Supporters of radical Muslim cleric protest ahead of his extradition
LONDON -- A radical Muslim cleric who applauded the Sept. 11 attacks and four other terrorism suspects were bundled onto U.S. government planes at a British military base early Saturday and extradited to the United States to face terrorism charges, a British official confirmed.

Abu Hamza Masri and four other terrorism suspects left RAF Mildenhall air base on two planes that had flown in from Washington and New York, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported.

The extradition brought to a close a years-long legal battle waged by Masri to evade U.S. justice for allegedly trying to set up a training camp in Oregon for anti-U.S. insurgents to be sent to the fight in Afghanistan. Masri, who had called  during incendiary sermons at a London-area mosque for nonbelievers to be put to death, on Friday lost his final legal bid to avoid being shipped to the United States to face charges. He is also accused of taking part in kidnappings of Western tourists in Yemen.

"I am pleased the decision of the court today meant that these men, who used every available opportunity to frustrate and delay the extradition process over many years, could finally be removed," Home Secretary Theresa May said in a statement.

Abu Hamza MasriShe said Britain and the U.S. had "put plans in place so that tonight these men could be handed over within hours of the court's decision. It is right that these men, who are all accused of very serious offenses, will finally face justice."

Britain’s High Court rejected Masri’s last-minute petition to block his extradition on medical grounds. The judges said there was an “overwhelming public interest” in seeing the extradition carried out and that there was no reason the controversial imam could not find adequate treatment in the U.S. for his ailments, including depression and diabetes.

In addition to Masri, the judges cleared the way for four other terrorism suspects to be extradited, including two men accused of involvement in the deadly 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Masri, who has only one eye and uses metal hooks for hands, is notorious for his militant sermons. He exasperated the British and U.S. government for years with his continued appeals to British and European courts against being sent to the U.S.

In April, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, upheld previous rulings in favor of Masri’s extradition, a decision seen as an important victory for transatlantic relations and cooperation in counter-terrorism matters. Last month, the same court rejected Masri’s appeal to revisit the case.

After their defeat in the Strasbourg court, Masri’s lawyers filed a last-ditch appeal to Britain's High Court, pleading for extradition to be suspended because of their client’s deteriorating health. Masri was  in a British prison serving a seven-year sentence for inciting racial hatred when he was taken to the RAF base late Friday.

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Photo: Demonstrators protest Friday outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London against the extradition of five terrorism suspects to the United States. Radical cleric Abu Hamza Masri and the other four were flown from Britain early Saturday to the U.S. Credit: Matthew Lloyd / Getty Images

Insert: Abu Hamza Masri in 2003. Credit: Adrian Dennis / European Pressphoto Agency


Radical Muslim cleric loses appeal against extradition to the U.S.

Abu hamza
This story has been updated.

LONDON – A Muslim cleric who applauded the Sept. 11 attacks and called for nonbelievers to be put to death lost what appeared to be his final legal bid Friday in a long-running battle to avoid being shipped to the United States to face terrorism charges.

[Updated 4:20 pm Oct. 5: Abu Hamza Masri and four others sought for trial in the United States were put on two planes at the RAF Mildenhall base and departed for an unspecified U.S. destination, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported early Saturday.]

Britain’s High Court rejected Masri’s last-minute petition to block his extradition on medical grounds. The judges said there was an “overwhelming public interest” in seeing the extradition carried out and that there was no reason the controversial imam could not find adequate treatment in the U.S. for his ailments, including depression and diabetes.

The ruling appears to remove the final impediment to putting Masri on a plane to the U.S., which both British and American officials are eager to see happen as quickly as possible. U.S. authorities want Masri to stand trial on allegations that he tried to establish a camp in Oregon to train recruits for the Afghan insurgency and that he participated in the kidnapping of Western tourists in Yemen.

In addition to Masri, the judges cleared the way for four other terrorism suspects to be extradited, including two men accused of involvement in the deadly 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

But the Egyptian-born Masri’s case has attracted the most attention. The hard-line cleric, who is notorious for his militant sermons and his distinctive look -– he has only one eye and uses metal hooks for hands -– has exasperated the government here for years with his continued appeals to British and European courts against being sent to the U.S.

In April, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, upheld previous rulings in favor of Masri’s extradition, a decision seen as an important victory for trans-Atlantic relations and cooperation in counterterrorism matters. Last month, the same court rejected Masri’s appeal to revisit the case, which seemed to be the end of the protracted legal saga.

But before relieved British officials could get him out of their country, Masri’s lawyers filed a last-ditch appeal to the High Court, pleading for extradition to be suspended because of their client’s deteriorating health. Masri is currently in a British prison serving a seven-year sentence for inciting racial hatred.

Friday’s ruling came as little surprise. During three days of hearings this week, the two judges on the case expressed thinly veiled skepticism over Masri’s claims of illness, questioning why he had not raised the issue in previous court hearings.

Britain’s Home Office welcomed the judges’ decision. “We are now working to extradite these men as quickly as possible,” it said in a statement.

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-- Henry Chu

Photo: Radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza Masri, right, preaches to followers at a London mosque in 2004 as a masked bodyguard looks on. Credit: Carl de Souza / AFP/Getty Images


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