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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Germany to elect new president; Steinmeier the favorite

February 11, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — A German parliamentary assembly will elect the country's new president on Sunday, with a respected former foreign minister who last year called Donald Trump one of the world's "hate preachers" the overwhelming favorite to win.

The German president has little executive power, but is considered an important moral authority. The new head of state will succeed Joachim Gauck, a 77-year-old former pastor and East German pro-democracy activist, who announced last year that he wouldn't seek a second five-year term because of his age.

The president is elected by a special 1,260-member assembly made up of the 630 lawmakers in parliament's lower house and an equal number of representatives from Germany's 16 states. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's foreign minister until last month, has the support of Chancellor Angela Merkel's "grand coalition" of center-right and center-left parties. Between them, Merkel's conservative Union bloc and the center-left Social Democrats — her junior coalition partners — hold 923 seats, which should assure Steinmeier's election.

Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, emerged as the government's candidate after Merkel was unable to find a conservative of presidential stature willing to run for the job. He has long been one of Germany's most popular politicians, although he failed in a long-shot bid to unseat Merkel as chancellor in 2009.

The presidential vote is likely to be one of the last moments of coalition unity ahead of a parliamentary election in September in which Merkel is seeking a fourth term. Both sides hope to end the "grand coalition."

The Social Democrats are currently enjoying a poll boost from their surprise nomination as her challenger of Martin Schulz, a former European Parliament president. Unlike Gauck, who has no party affiliation, Steinmeier has had a long career in German politics. As former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's chief of staff, he was one of the main architects of Schroeder's 2003 package of economic reforms and welfare cuts, which has been credited with making the German economy more robust.

Under Merkel, he served twice as foreign minister — from 2005 to 2009 and again from 2013 until this year, with a stint as opposition leader in between. He has won respect for his persistence in trying to resolve the long-running crisis in Ukraine.

Steinmeier, 61, is normally studiously diplomatic, but strongly criticized Trump during the U.S. election campaign. Asked in August about the rise of right-wing populism in Germany and elsewhere, Steinmeier criticized those who "make politics with fear." He cited the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, the promoters of Britain's exit from the European Union, and "the hate preachers, like Donald Trump at the moment in the United States."

When he was nominated for the presidency in mid-November, Steinmeier called for confidence in the face of international crises. A German president "must not be someone who simplifies things; he must encourage people," he said.

"The events of our times — Brexit and its consequences for Europe, the election in the U.S., the situation in Turkey — are truly political earthquakes," he said. "They shake us, but they can also shake us awake."

There are four other candidates in Sunday's election. The opposition Left Party nominated Christoph Butterwegge, a political science professor who opposed Schroeder's economic reforms. A deputy leader of Alternative for Germany, Albrecht Glaser, also is running, as is Alexander Hold, nominated by the small Free Voters party in Bavaria, and Engelbert Sonneborn, the father of a satirist.

German conservatives unite behind Merkel for September vote

February 06, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel's Bavarian conservative allies threw their weight Monday behind her quest for a fourth term, putting aside a long-running argument over her migrant policies as Germany prepares for a national election in September.

The show of conservative unity came as Merkel's rivals, the center-left Social Democrats, are enjoying a strong poll boost from their surprise nomination as her challenger of Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament and a relatively fresh face in national politics.

Bavaria's Christian Social Union has dominated its southeastern state for decades and is traditionally an important source of national election votes for the bloc led by Merkel's Christian Democratic Union.

Their sometimes-awkward alliance has been frayed since late 2015, with CSU leader and Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer one of the most prominent domestic critics of Merkel's welcoming approach to migrants.

A year ago, he threatened Merkel's federal government with a lawsuit if it didn't take measures to further secure the German border and reduce the influx of asylum-seekers, a threat never carried through. More recently, the CSU raised doubts about whether the parties would campaign together.

Merkel, Germany's leader since 2005, announced her candidacy in November. "We are going into this election campaign together," Seehofer said Monday after the parties' leaders met in Munich. Under Merkel, he said, "Germany is an island of stability."

Merkel acknowledged that the conservatives had taken their time to move past their dispute and focus on the Sept. 24 election. "We needed time to make sure about the question of whether what we have in common is viable, and I am convinced that it's better to take one day longer," she said. "I think we have enough time until Sept. 24 to set out this common ground to the population."

However, the parties still disagree on a CSU demand for an annual cap of 200,000 on the number of refugees allowed into Germany. Seehofer has insisted his party won't join the next government without one, a dispute that both leaders skirted.

Germany saw 890,000 asylum-seekers arrive in 2015 and 280,000 last year, many of those before the Balkan migrant route was effectively shut by border closures from other nations. Much has changed since the migrant influx peaked in 2015.

While Merkel insists that Germany will continue to take in people who genuinely need protection, her government has toughened asylum rules and declared several countries "safe," meaning people from there can't expect to get refuge.

Merkel was also a driving force behind an agreement between the European Union and Turkey to stem the flow of migrants and favors a similar deal with countries in North Africa. She has also called for a "national effort" to ensure that rejected asylum-seekers leave Germany.

The CDU and CSU currently govern Germany in a "grand coalition" of the country's biggest parties with the Social Democrats, who nominated Schulz as Merkel's challenger two weeks ago. Both sides want to end that alliance.

Several polls have shown the Social Democrats' previously moribund support picking up significantly, cutting what was a very large conservative lead. It's far from certain, however, whether their momentum will last.

"We have to set out our policies well, and we must run together, and then we've gained a great deal," Merkel said. The conservatives also face a challenge on the right from the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, which hopes to enter the national parliament for the first time after assailing Merkel's welcome for migrants.

Merkel to visit euroskeptic Poland in struggle to save EU

February 06, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits Warsaw on Tuesday for talks with Poland's top leaders, taking efforts to save the European Union to a country that is keen to keep as much national power as possible and fears being marginalized in a "two-speed Europe."

Her trip is "one of the most important visits in Polish-German relations since 2004," when Poland joined the EU, said Sebastian Plociennik, an expert at the Polish Institute of International Affairs. The 28-nation bloc is struggling for a way forward after Britain's vote to leave.

"This year, 2017, will be very important for European integration and the decisions made this year will set the path for the EU's future," Plociennik said. Poland's populist ruling party, Law and Justice, is often described as euroskeptic, but unlike right-wing populists in France and elsewhere, it does not advocate leaving the EU.

EU membership remains hugely popular in Poland, whose citizens have benefited enormously from development funds and the freedom to work elsewhere in the bloc. However, Law and Justice fears that Poland's national identity has been eroded by liberal Western values and it also has made it a mission to preserve as much power for Europe's national parliaments as possible. Many criticize what they see as the EU's distant and inefficient bureaucracy. Poland is also not eager to join the 19-nation eurozone anytime soon.

But Polish officials are also concerned that the EU could react to Britain's decision to leave by developing a more deeply integrated core made of up Germany, France and the Benelux nations, which could then dictate financial rules to other EU countries.

Those fears of becoming marginalized have flared as Merkel speaks of a "multi-speed" Europe. "We have a Europe of different speeds — every time that is said, it awakens the impression that this is something new, but my opinion is that it is nothing new," Merkel said Monday.

But Poland has also marginalized itself under its current government by taking an obstructionist position on climate change, refusing to accept Muslim refugees and refusing to give up its heavy reliance on coal. It is also in a standoff with Brussels for eroding the independence of Poland's constitutional court.

Merkel is to meet with Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, President Andrzej Duda and Law and Justice chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski, as well as opposition leaders and representatives of the ethnic German minority in Poland.

The deputy foreign minister of Poland, Konrad Szymanski, said the re-election of Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister, as head of the European Council, might come up in the talks. Tusk had Merkel's backing for his first term and hopes to serve another term when his ends in May.

Kaczynski, a rival of Tusk, has indicated he won't support Tusk for another EU term. But Plociennik says the matter is still open because there has been no conclusive decision from the Polish government.

Jedrzej Bielecki of the Rzeczpospolita daily said Kaczynski should work with Merkel "to protect the fundamental rights of our country." "If the European Union falls apart or becomes a hollow structure, hardly anyone will lose as much as Poland. Kaczynski must understand this," Bielecki wrote Monday.

Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

Wall goes up around America at miniature world in Germany

February 02, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — A wall has appeared around the United States — at a popular miniature world attraction in the German city of Hamburg. Operators of the Miniatur Wunderland erected the wall complete with barbed wire this week, separating the U.S. display from the rest of the world.

The site is one of Hamburg's most popular tourist attractions, featuring a vast indoor model railway stretching across two floors. Co-founder Gerrit Braun said Thursday the idea for the wall arose after staff discussed whether the U.S. display needed changing to reflect "current developments."

Braun said the wall wasn't meant to represent U.S. President Donald Trump's promised concrete barrier along the border with Mexico. Instead, it was intended to encourage visitors to think about what happens "when we build ideological walls around our countries."

German supreme court rejects bid to outlaw far-right party

January 17, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Germany's supreme court has rejected a lawmakers' bid to outlaw a far-right party accused of promoting a racist and anti-Semitic agenda. Andreas Vosskuhle, chief justice of the Federal Constitutional Court, said Tuesday that even though the party had unconstitutional goals, "there are currently no concrete indications ... that its actions will lead to success."

The German parliament's upper house applied for the ban at the end of 2013. It was the second attempt to ban the National Democratic Party, better known by its German acronym NPD. In 2003, the court rejected a previous application because paid government informants within the group were partially responsible for evidence against it.

French city holds its Carnival behind barricades

February 11, 2017

NICE, France (AP) — Behind barricades, the city of Nice was holding its Carnival, keeping up tradition but taking precautions seven months after the Bastille Day truck attack that killed 86. Floats in the Carnival's 133rd edition that kicked off on Saturday were led by the King of Energy, this year's theme, and followed notably by a huge Donald Trump with hair dryers trained on his crown of blond hair. France 24 TV quotes a tourism official saying the image was decided before Trump was elected U.S. president.

French political leaders need not feel shunned. Presidential candidates are featured. Deputy Mayor Rudy Salles, on BFM-TV, said security was "like in an airport" with 36 scanners, pat downs, police and soldiers.

A Tunisian plowed his truck through July 14 revelers in an Islamic State attack.

French farmer convicted for helping migrants

February 10, 2017

PARIS (AP) — A French activist farmer has been convicted of helping migrants enter, travel and stay in France and given a suspended, 3,000-euro fine. The case has called attention to those who have resisted Europe's anti-migrant sentiment and are offering food, lodging or other aid to people from impoverished or war-torn countries.

There has notably been an outpouring of support in the Roya valley in the Alps, where Cedric Herrou has taken in dozens of migrants over the past year. Herrou has called it an act of humanity and not a crime, and says it is his civic duty to keep helping the migrants.

On Friday, he still had teenagers from Sudan and Eritrea staying in caravans on his farm.

17 charged after violent protest rages in Paris suburb

February 08, 2017

AULNAY-SOUS-BOIS, France (AP) — Protesters burned cars and menaced security forces in an eruption of violence in a Paris suburb early Tuesday over a young black man allegedly being raped by a police baton, and authorities said 17 people were being charged.

Six adults would be tried in immediate hearings in a suburb court Wednesday under charges of "ambush" or "acts of violence and gathering with weapons," while 11 minors were to be presented to a juvenile court judge for alleged ambush, the prosecutor's office in Bobigny said Tuesday night.

Police initially detained 26 people during the pre-dawn outburst in which a police car and other vehicles were set afire in Aulnay-sous-Bois, a working class suburb northeast of Paris. At one point, police encircled by an angry crowd fired warning shots into the air using real bullets, according to French press reports. No injuries were reported.

Firefighters raced to restore order after several shops were reported damaged and garbage bins burned in Aulnay-sous-Bois, which has a large minority population. Authorities are wary of unrest in France's poor towns, remembering the fiery 2005 riots that spread through France — beginning in the Paris suburb of Clichy-Sous-Bois and hopscotching through social housing around the country.

The latest violence was a show of outrage in support of a young black man who authorities allege was sodomized with a police officer's baton last week during a spate of identity checks as part of a police operation targeting drug traffickers. One officer was charged Sunday with aggravated rape and three others were charged with aggravated assault.

President Francois Hollande visited the alleged victim, identified only by his first name, Theo, on Tuesday afternoon at the suburban hospital where he has been treated since the incident, the Elysee Palace said.

In a video posted on Twitter page of the newspaper Le Parisien, Hollande stood talking to Theo, who was lying on a hospital bed. The president told him that "the legal process is underway" and that "we must trust it to get to the bottom of this."

Then, speaking to the camera, Hollande said, "We are also thinking about Theo who has always been known for his exemplary behavior in a family ... with good relations with police." With Hollande standing beside him, Theo called for young people in Aulnay-sous-Bois to be calm.

"My town, you know that I love it very much. I would like to find it just as I left it. So guys, stop making war, be united, trust in the justice system and justice will be done," Theo said. "Pray for me so I can return as soon as possible among you and be together. Thank you, thank you, Mister President."

Earlier, Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve called for "the greatest firmness" should any of the four police officers implicated be proven guilty. Frederic Gabet, a lawyer for the officer charged with rape, has said that any injury inflicted was done accidentally.

After the early morning violence, Police Alliance spokesman Frederic Lagache said one officer narrowly escaped being burned when a protester set his vehicle on fire with a Molotov cocktail. "The objective is to kill cops and this is unacceptable," Lagache said in an interview with Europe-1.

Local youths claim police habitually target them without cause. "Frankly, it's pathetic. The kid (Theo), he plays football, he's serious. He never was in trouble with the police," said Sofiane Hajjobi, a 21-year-old resident. "It's not normal. We're all frustrated. Now we're at war with the police."

Theo, 22, told his story to the BFM television channel Monday. He said officers beat him and peppered him with racist insults. At one point, one of the officers took his truncheon and "he drove it into my buttocks," he said.

The Associated Press does not typically identify victims of sexual assault. But, in this case, the victim and his family gave interviews to the media, and the French president publicly used the young man's first name in his presence and in front of a camera.

Associated Press writers Elaine Ganley, Sylvie Corbet and Philippe Sotto in Paris contributed to this report.

French presidential hopeful Fillon refuses to drop out

February 06, 2017

PARIS (AP) — Francois Fillon on Monday defiantly refused to drop out of the race to be France's next president despite an investigation into whether well-paid political jobs he gave his wife, son and daughter were genuine, a scandal that has knocked him from his perch as favorite in the April-May voting.

The conservative politician who served as prime minister from 2007 to 2012, the chief workhorse under then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, has long had a reputation as low-key, reliable and standing for moral rectitude, making the corruption scandal particularly shocking to his party, supporters and the French as a whole. On Monday, two weeks after revelations first surfaced, he scrambled to save his candidacy.

"I have nothing to hide," Fillon told a news conference aimed at stanching the blood-letting and conspiring within his party about who might replace him as candidate. "All acts described (in the media) are legal and transparent."

Determined despite unending attacks, Fillon, stressing his 32 years in politics, vowed to stay in the race. "Nothing will turn me from my duty to be candidate in the presidential election," he said. Fillon apologized for employing his wife, while noting that it is not illegal and he is not the only politician to have done so.

"What was acceptable yesterday ... is not today," Fillon said. "It was a mistake. I deeply regret it and I present my excuses to the French." French politicians are allowed to hire family members as aides as long as they actually do the jobs for which they are paid.

Prosecutors are trying to determine whether Fillon's family members did the jobs of parliamentary aides. The preliminary probe involves suspicions of embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds.

As prime minister and in his presidential campaign, Fillon put the accent on cutting back on government spending. A key campaign promise this year is to slash half a million public-sector jobs. Fillon's popularity has dropped in the past two weeks following allegations by the Canard Enchaine newspaper that his Welsh-born wife Penelope was paid 830,000 euros ($900,000) over 15 years without doing anything to earn the salary. The Paris prosecutor's office on Thursday expanded its investigation to include Fillon's son and daughter.

Some conservative lawmakers have pressed for him to step down to improve the party's chances of winning the election. The first vote is on April 23, and the top two finishers compete in a runoff on May 7. If Fillon's bid to win confidence while wading through a legal investigation fails to work, the election could become an unusual face-off without a strong right, or no right at all.

Fillon reiterated he would withdraw if he were charged — but questioned whether the financial prosecutor's office handling the case was the proper jurisdiction. A statement by the prosecutor's office said it was competent.

Officials of the far-right National Front party, including leader Marine Le Pen, also are under investigation for their use of aides in the European parliament. Fillon laid out for reporters in some detail his own facts about the accusations.

"Yes, I employed my wife as an aide," Fillon said. He said she was paid an average 3,677 euros per month over 15 years. "They call this job fictitious," he said, laying out the ill-defined duties of parliamentary aides who work "in the shadows."

"Her salary was perfectly justified because her work was indispensable to my activities as an elected official," he said. Fillon and his family live in an elegant manor in the Sarthe region southwest of Paris. To bolster his reputation he detailed the worth of the building — 750,000 euros — and other holdings, and said he does not have to pay the tax on fortunes demanded of the wealthiest. Fillon said he was publishing his assets online Monday night.

Fillon said the scandal grew out of a political conspiracy to take him out of the race, and make it a face-off between far-right leader Marine Le Pen — whose family he blasted as "untouchable" — and Emmanuel Macron, an untested former banker and Socialist Party maverick whom Fillon called a "guru."

Fillon did not say who would be behind such a plot. "Nothing will change my mind" about running, Fillon said. To members of his own The Republicans party, he said twice, "I'm not the candidate of a party" but of the French people.

Conservative lawmaker Georges Fenech, among those who wanted Fillon to withdraw, changed his mind after the firm defense. "Today we know who will be candidate to the end," Fenech told BFM-TV. "We must back him. We have no other choice."

On Tuesday, lawmakers in Fillon's party hold their weekly meeting, a likely place to examine the fallout from the scandal. There is no procedure in place to put aside his candidacy, and no ready replacement for Fillon.

Besides far-right Le Pen and centrist Macron, Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon are running for president. Socialist President Francois Hollande is so unpopular that he decided not to run for a second term.

Philippe Sotto and Sylvie Corbet contributed from Paris.

France's 5 main contenders in the presidential race

January 29, 2017

PARIS (AP) — A look at the five main candidates competing in France's April-May presidential election, whose outcome remains highly uncertain.


Fillon won the conservative nomination in November. He's campaigning on promises of drastic free-market reforms, a hard line on immigration and Islam, support for traditional family values and friendlier ties with Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Allegations that his wife, Penelope, held a fake but handsomely paid job as a parliamentary aide disrupted Fillon's campaign during the last week. Polls suggest his biggest obstacle to advancing in the general election may be far-right leader Marine Le Pen.


Comparatively inexperienced, Hamon was chosen as the Socialist nominee on Sunday, defeating former Prime Minister Manuel Valls in a primary runoff.

He is a former junior minister and briefly served as education minister under President Francois Hollande. Hamon then rebelled against Hollande's shift toward more business friendly policies and left the government in 2014. His signature proposal is to give a "universal income" of 750 euros ($800) gradually to all adults.

The Socialist candidate is now squeezed between far-left and centrist rivals.


Far-right leader Le Pen, who has strong anti-migrant views, wants to strengthen France's borders and reinstate its national currency, the franc.

Since inheriting the leadership of the National Front party from her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2011, she has ditched its long-standing anti-Semitism to focus on economic protectionism and fears of Islam. The makeover has boosted the party's fortunes among French voters before the spring presidential election.

Early polls show Le Pen may be among the two top contenders in the first round of the two-part election and advance to the runoff.


Centrist Emmanuel Macron, 39, is campaigning on pro-free market, pro-European views. He suggests loosening some of France' stringent labor rules, especially the 35-hour workweek, to boost hiring.

Macron is a former investment banker. He became Hollande's economic adviser at the Elysee Palace in 2012 and two years later, economy minister. He left the government last year after he launched his own political movement, "In Motion" (En Marche). He never has held elected office.


Outspoken Jean-Luc Melenchon, 65, is a former Socialist who left the party in 2008 to create his own far-left movement, the Left Party.

Presenting himself as the people's candidate, he is calling for reforms to make the European Union "more democratic" and advocates environment friendly measures. He promises a 1,300-euro ($1,393) minimum wage for employees, up from 1,149-euro ($1,231) now.

Melenchon was a candidate in the 2012 presidential race, coming in fourth with 11.1 percent of the votes in the first round.

Hard work starts now for France's Socialist candidate

January 29, 2017

PARIS (AP) — Beating a politically weakened ex-prime minister proved easy for Benoit Hamon, who will represent France's ruling Socialist Party in the country's presidential election. Far harder will be convincing voters that his hard-left platform isn't the recipe for ruin his critics claim.

Hamon's comfortable victory Sunday in a Socialist primary runoff against Manuel Valls owed much to his radical proposal to give all French adults a regular monthly income to protect them in an automated future where machines will take their jobs.

Hamon's winning margin — nearly 59 percent of the votes in the three-quarters of polling stations tallied — also appeared as a resounding rejection of unpopular outgoing President Francois Hollande and Valls, his prime minister for more than two years.

But the path forward for Hamon is littered with obstacles. First, he will have to unite the Socialists behind him, which could be heavy lifting. Divisions are deep between the party's hard-left wing, which consistently criticized Hollande and Valls policies, and the advocates of more center-left views.

Another major challenge for Hamon will be negotiating with fiery far-left leader and fellow presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is trying to attract votes from disappointed Socialists. Hamon is proposing a coalition with Melenchon that might have a better chance of winning the general election.

Hamon will also face tough competition from outspoken centrist Emmanuel Macron, who has found increasing popularity with his pro-business views. Such are the left's divisions that some Valls supporters may now shift to Macron's independent run for the presidency.

The outcome of the two-round vote in April and May looks increasingly uncertain. Leading conservative candidate Francois Fillon, who also is a former prime minister, was rocked in the past week by allegations that his wife, Penelope, held a fake but handsomely paid job as a parliamentary aide. Financial prosecutors are investigating.

At a campaign rally in Paris on Sunday — where a boisterous crowd gave Penelope Fillon a standing ovation and chanted her name, Fillon said, "We have nothing to hide." "Through Penelope they are trying to break me," he said. "I will never forgive those who chose to throw us to the wolves."

A priority for Hamon, a 49-year-old former junior minister and, briefly, education minister, will be to rally the Socialists, split ideologically and wounded by Hollande's five-year tenure as president.

"Our country needs the left, but a left that is modern and innovates," Hamon said. Early polling has suggested the Socialist candidate will struggle to advance to the presidential runoff in May, where far-right leader Marine Le Pen could be waiting, campaigning on anti-Europe, anti-immigration and anti-Islam themes.

In defeat, Valls didn't throw his support behind Hamon, but cautioned against the risk of the country shifting to the right. "We refuse that tomorrow Marine Le Pen becomes the face of France," he said.

In his speech Sunday, Hamon presented himself as an anti-populist candidate who can face the "unstable world" of U.S President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin and protect the French people from the terror threat posed by extremists.

The turnout on Sunday, estimated at around 2 million voters, was more robust than in the first round of voting but still suggested a lack of enthusiasm among the French electorate of 44 million. The conservative primary attracted more than 4 million voters in November.

Hamon wasn't as tainted as Valls by Hollande's unpopularity, because he rebelled and quit the government in 2014. Valls served as Hollande's prime minister for more than two years until last December, when it became clear the president couldn't win a second term. Having to defend the government's economic policies and labor reforms against Hamon proved an uphill fight for Valls.

Hamon's signature proposal for a 750 euros ($800) "universal income" that would be gradually granted to all adults also proved a campaign masterstroke, grabbing headlines and underpinning his surprise success in the primary's two rounds of voting, first against six opponents and then against Valls in the runoff.

Sharply criticized by Valls as unrealistic and ruinous, Hamon says the no-strings-attached payments would cushion the French in an increasingly automated future, as machines take their jobs. He proposes a tax on robots to help finance the measure's huge costs — by Hamon's reckoning, at least 300 billion euros ($320 billion) if applied to more than 50 million adults.

Hamon also proposes legalizing cannabis and allowing medically assisted deaths. First-time voter Maayane Pralus said Hamon "has a lot of the youth vote with him, which is sick of the old politics." "People call him utopian, but that's the politics we've been waiting for," the 18-year-old student said.

France, Germany unite in face of Trump refugee ban

January 28, 2017

PARIS (AP) — France and Germany formed a united front Saturday in the face of President Donald Trump's halt in the U.S. refugee program, with the German foreign minister noting that loving thy neighbor forms part of America's Christian traditions.

After meeting Saturday, the foreign ministers of both nations, Jean-Marc Ayrault and Germany's Sigmar Gabriel, said they want to meet with Rex Tillerson, Trump's nominee for secretary of state who is still awaiting confirmation.

Ayrault said Trump's order on Friday that bars all refugees from entering the United States for four months — and those from war-ravaged Syria indefinitely — "can only worry us." "We have signed international obligations, so welcoming refugees fleeing war and oppression forms part of our duties," the French minister said.

"There are many other issues that worry us," he added. "That is why Sigmar and I also discussed what we are going to do. When our colleague, Tillerson, is officially appointed, we will both contact him."

Gabriel — on his first trip abroad since his appointment Friday — said offering refuge to the persecuted and those fleeing death are western values that Europe and the United States share. "Love thy neighbor is part of this tradition, the act of helping others," he said. "This unites us, we Westerners. And I think that this remains a common foundation that we share with the United States, one we aim to promote."

Trump declared the ban necessary to prevent "radical Islamic terrorists" from entering the United States. The order immediately suspended a program that last year resettled to the U.S. roughly 85,000 people displaced by war, political oppression, hunger and religious prejudice.

France's hard left faces off against center left in primary

January 28, 2017

PARIS (AP) — Hard-left Socialist rebel Benoit Hamon heads into France's left-wing presidential primary runoff as a surprising favorite to beat pro-business pragmatist Manuel Valls, in a vote that will realign France's unpredictable presidential campaign.

Hamon is the favorite in Sunday's vote after arriving in pole position in the first round with 36 percent of the votes. He proposes a "determined and optimistic leftist alternative." His most talked-about proposal is a 750 euros ($800) "universal income" that would be gradually granted to all adults.

He is now backed by another left-wing candidate, Arnaud Montebourg, eliminated from the race with 17.5 percent of the votes. Valls, who arrived second with 31.4 percent, criticized Hamon's "unrealistic" promises.

A former junior minister and briefly education minister, Hamon left the government in 2014. He then led a group of rebel Socialist lawmakers who opposed the government's economic policies. "Yesterday's failed solutions have no reason to become successes tomorrow," he said at a rally near Paris Thursday.

Nassera Mohammad, living in Trappes, the suburban city west of Paris where Hamon was elected, said he believes the hard-left candidate proposes "real innovation" in French politics. "That's where we have to go, toward a renewal ... and not to be pleased with the old programs or with very small reforms," Mohammad said.

Ten French economists, including Thomas Piketty —author of the best-seller "Capital in the Twenty-First Century"— this week published an article to argue that the universal income can be "relevant and innovative".

"Properly conceived and detailed, the universal living income can be a key element for reshaping our social model," they wrote. Valls has tried to make an asset from his experience as prime minister from 2014 to 2016 —despite his association with unpopular President Francois Hollande.

Valls promotes "authority and security" values as the country is still under threat from potential terror attacks. He says he represents a "credible left" seeking a balance between France's social model and reforms adapting the country to globalization.

"I don't want to be the candidate of the taxes; I leave it to my adversary," Valls said in a rally near Paris Thursday. "I want to be the candidate of work value, of jobs, with a clear and serious roadmap offering a future to the French people."

Vivien Chauffaille, a Parisian attending Valls' rally, said "he is the only one able to be a statesman and implement his proposals." The French Socialist party has been torn for years between advocates of a radical left, including Hamon and Montebourg, and others sharing center-left views, like Valls and Hollande.

Divisions are so deep that if Hamon wins Sunday, some supporters of Valls are expected to back centrist figure Emmanuel Macron, who is campaigning for president as an independent. Early polls showed the Socialist nominee, whichever is chosen, is currently ranking at the fifth position in the race for president. Not only far-right leader marine Le Pen and conservative leader Francois Fillon appear to be far ahead, followed by Macron and far-left figure Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Another sign of the Socialist party's uphill struggle for survival is that the first round was marred by irregularities in the vote count. Results were not in dispute, but the number of voters was. Observers suspected organizers of trying to increase it artificially in order to give their future nominee more legitimacy.

In the end, the party announced 1.6 million voters last week. More than 4 million people cast ballots at the conservative primary in November. The primary is open to all voters who pay 1 euro ($1.04) and sign a document saying they share the left's values.

Nadine Achoui-Lesage and Oleg Cetinic contributed to the story

UK's House of Commons passes bill authorizing Brexit

February 08, 2017

LONDON (AP) — Britain's House of Commons gave its final approval Wednesday to a bill authorizing the government to start exit talks with the European Union, despite fears by opposition lawmakers that the U.K. is setting out on the rocky path to Brexit with a sketchy roadmap.

As the votes were being tallied, a few pro-EU legislators whistled Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," the bloc's anthem. But the decisive 494-122 result was another big step on Britain's road to the EU exit door.

The bill now goes to the House of Lords, which has the power to delay — but not to derail — the legislation; it should become law within weeks. Lawmakers had backed the bill by a 498-114 margin during an earlier vote last week, so Wednesday's result by a similar margin was not a surprise.

It came after three days of debate in which opposition lawmakers tried to pass amendments guaranteeing Parliament a bigger role in the divorce process and setting rules for the government's negotiations with the 27 other EU nations.

Pro-Brexit Conservative Iain Duncan Smith said that "tonight we have started the process of delivering on ... what the people wanted." But Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, who opposed the bill, vowed to fight on.

"In a democracy, you respect the result but you do not wave the white flag and give up," he said. Pro-EU lawmakers had hoped to prevent an economy-shocking "hard Brexit," in which Britain loses full access to the EU's single market and faces restrictions or tariffs on trade. One amendment would have committed the government to continuing tariff-free trade with the EU; another sought to guarantee the residency rights of EU citizens already living in Britain; another called for a new referendum on the eventual divorce terms.

All were defeated, as pro-EU lawmakers from Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative Party backed the government despite their reservations. But the government appeared to bow to opposition pressure by promising lawmakers they will get to vote on an exit deal before it is finalized by the bloc.

"We do expect and intend that that will happen before the European Parliament debates and votes on the final agreement," May said Wednesday. Some pro-EU lawmakers say the promise does not go far enough. They say the vote would be meaningless unless Parliament is given the power to send the government back to the EU negotiating table. Otherwise, rejecting the deal could mean chaotically forcing Britain out of the bloc without any new arrangements in place.

Labor Party Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said opponents of Brexit "haven't got everything we wanted" but are "chipping away" at the government's position. The government didn't want to let Parliament debate the bill that passed Wednesday at all. It was forced to introduce the legislation after a Supreme Court ruling torpedoed May's effort to start the process of leaving the 28-nation bloc without a parliamentary vote.

Most British lawmakers backed the losing "remain" side in last year's EU membership referendum, but voted to trigger Brexit out of respect for voters' wishes. The debate has caused ructions in the largely pro-Europe Labour Party, the largest opposition group in Parliament. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn ordered Labour lawmakers to back the bill, but more than 50 rebelled, including business spokesman Clive Lewis. Lewis resigned from Labor's senior Commons team after denying his leader, whose job many party members believe he covets.

The bill is likely to face further challenges in the House of Lords. Pro-EU peers there — who are appointed for life and don't have to worry about re-election — are likely to seek new amendments. But any changes they pass would have to be approved by the Commons.

The government wants to pass the bill through Parliament by early March and trigger Article 50 of the EU's key treaty — starting a two-year divorce process — by March 31.

Estonians join paramilitary forces to face Russia fears

By Anne Kauranen
Narva, Estonia (AFP)
Jan 18, 2017

A machine guns rattles as pale and exhausted teams of Estonian weekend warriors struggle to climb a final obstacle: the wall of Narva Castle facing their country's powerful neighbor Russia.

The bullets fired on the snowy banks of the Narva river separating Estonia from Russia are blanks, but the steely determination of volunteers participating in Utria Assault, the NATO member's biggest annual military competition, is palpable.

Ruth Maadla, a waitress who spends her weekends as a paramilitary volunteer, told AFP she would give her all to help defend the small Baltic nation of 1.3 million people "if anything ever happened".

Sporting white winter camouflage gear, a headlamp and a huge backpack, the 29-year-old who has just finished a brutal 90-kilometer (56-mile) marching race in bone-chilling subzero temperatures is in high-spirits, despite being caked in mud and nursing painful blisters on her heels.

Like other east Europeans, Estonians were deeply disturbed by Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and its subsequent support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

US President-elect Donald Trump then raised more concerns with his campaign threat to think twice about defending NATO's eastern allies.

These factors coupled with Kremlin sabre rattling in the Baltic region -- especially in its heavily militarized Kaliningrad exclave -- have triggered a paramilitary revival in eastern European states that were under Moscow's thumb during the Soviet era.

Part of the USSR until 1991, Estonia has seen its Kaitseliit volunteer paramilitary force expand by 10 percent over the last two years.

- 'Citizens with strong will' -

With 16,000 members -- up to 25,600 including units for women and children -- the organisation is seen as a crucial extension of the EU member's modest military force comprising 6,500 peacetime personnel, half of them conscripts.

While some paramilitary volunteers play war games to hone skills like shooting or orienteering, others prefer more peaceful duty like wielding knitting needles to make socks for war victims in eastern Ukraine.

The Kaitseliit force has even attracted some volunteers who are ethnic Russian, part of Estonia's largest minority accounting for about a quarter of its population.

Kaitseliit commander, Brigadier General Meelis Kiili, describes the force he leads as "a very important element in deterrence" when facing Russia.

The role of "ordinary citizens with a strong will to defend" must not be underestimated, Kiili told AFP, as he congratulated a troupe of volunteers exhausted after the two sleepless nights they spent marching through snowy forests in the race.

Many are former military conscripts, but more and more ordinary Estonians and women, like Maadla or Sille Laks, are joining.

A 30-year-old cyber security expert from Tallinn, Laks told AFP that she has spent around 400 hours in Kaitseliit basic training over three months.

"It's about doing something for my country," said the athletic public servant as she braved the freezing cold before dawn to supervise one of the checkpoints in the competition.

While NATO's collective defense clause is the bottom-line guarantee of Estonia's security, analysts acknowledge that paramilitaries do have a role to play.

"In the worst case scenario, Russia could advance very swiftly to take all of Estonia, but with its own resistance, Estonia could buy more time" for help to arrive, said Kristi Raik, a senior Baltic security researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, stressing that any such attack was unlikely at the moment.

- Under NATO's wing -

Moscow upped the ante in the Baltic region late last year by deploying nuclear-capable Iskander missiles into its Kaliningrad outpost bordering NATO member Lithuania and Poland and sending two ships capable of launching warheads to the Baltic Sea.

The move came on the heels of NATO's decision to deploy four multinational battalions to eastern Europe, including a 1,100-strong rotational unit that will be stationed as of April at the Tapa military base, an hour's drive from the Estonian capital Tallinn.

Over the next few months, the United States will also deploy part of a 3,500-troop armored brigade to Estonia and Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania.

They have all eyed Trump's pro-Moscow rhetoric with mounting unease.

Ordered by the outgoing Obama administration to reinforce NATO's vulnerable eastern flank, the US brigade arrived in Poland last week as part of one of the largest deployment of US forces in Europe since the Cold War, an operation that Moscow angrily branded a security threat.

While the advent of a Trump presidency adds an element of uncertainty to future US commitment to defend vulnerable eastern European allies, Estonia's paramilitary chief remains confident about NATO's resolve.

"It's not only Trump we are talking about, NATO has 28 members," Kiili told AFP.

Source: Space War.
Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Estonians_join_paramilitary_forces_to_face_Russia_fears_999.html.

World's biggest refugee camp in Kenya to stay open

09 February 2017 Thursday

Kenya's High Court on Thursday blocked the government's decision to close the Dadaab refugee camp -- the world's largest -- and force Somali refugees to return home.

Judge John Mativo ruled that the plan to shut down the camp was unconstitutional, violated Kenya's international obligations and amounted to the persecution of refugees.

Dadaab is home to some 256,000 people, the vast majority of them Somalis who fled across the border following the outbreak of civil war in 1991. Many have lived there ever since.

The government unilaterally decided to close the camp in May last year, saying it was a terrorist training ground for Shabaab Islamist militants based in Somalia.

But Mativo ruled that a "decision specifically targeting Somali refugees is an act of group persecution, illegal, discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional".

The shutdown was ordered without proper consultation of people affected by the decision, in violation of the constitutional right to fair legal proceedings, he said in his ruling.

"Hence the said decision is null and void," he said.

He also blocked a government decision to disband Kenya's Department for Refugee Affairs.

But the government later cautioned that it aimed to "strongly" appeal the ruling.

"We as a government have the cardinal responsibility of providing security for all Kenyans," a statement said. "The camp had lost its humanitarian nature, and had become a haven for terrorism and other illegal activities.".

Mativo also said the forced repatriation violated the 1951 United Nations Convention on refugees.

He was ruling on a challenge to the shutdown filed by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights and rights group Kituo Cha Sheria.

Amnesty International's East Africa chief Muthoni Wanyeki hailed Thursday's outcome as "historic".

"Today is a historic day for more than a quarter of a million refugees who were at risk of being forcefully returned to Somalia, where they would have been at serious risk of human rights abuses," Wanyeki said.

"This ruling reaffirms Kenya's constitutional and international legal obligation to protect people who seek safety from harm and persecution."

Security threat?

The government caught refugees, aid groups, the United Nations and Kenya's Western partners offguard last May when it announced plans to shut down the huge camp near the border, citing security concerns.

Since sending troops into neighboring Somalia in 2011, Kenya has come under repeated attack from Al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab militants.

The government has presented Dadaab as a security risk, saying Somali rebels inside the camp planned the Shabaab attacks at Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall in 2013 and the Garissa university attack in 2015, though it has not provided evidence.

Authorities initially planned to close Dadaab at the end of November, but delayed the shutdown until May 2017 at the request of the UN refugee agency and against a backdrop of growing accusations of forced refugee returns to Somalia.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says the numbers have dwindled thanks to voluntary repatriations as well as resettlement in the Kakuma camp in northwest Kenya.

In September, Human Rights Watch warned in a report that the repatriation of Somalis violated international standards and that refugees were returning home involuntarily to face persecution and hunger.

Medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) on Thursday welcomed the ruling as "a very positive step".

It urged the government to consider "alternative solutions to long-term encampment on such a large scale," including resettlement to third countries or to smaller camps in Kenya, or integration in Kenya.

Source: World Bulletin.
Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/?aType=haber&ArticleID=184517.

Kenya court quashes government order to close refugee camp

February 09, 2017

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — A Kenyan court ruled Thursday that the government must not close the world's largest refugee camp and send more than 200,000 people back to war-torn Somalia. Kenya's internal security minister had abused his power by ordering the closure by May of Dadaab refugee camp, in eastern Kenya, Judge John Mativo said.

The minister and other officials had "acted in excess and in abuse of their power, in violation of the rule of law and in contravention of their oaths of office," Mativo said. The judge said the decision to close the refugee camp is discriminatory and goes against the Kenyan constitution as well as international treaties that protect refugees against being returned to a conflict zone.

"The government's decision specifically targeting Somali refugees is act of group persecution, illegal discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional," he said. President Uhuru Kenyatta's government has also not proved Somalia is safe for the refugees to return, Mativo said.

Kenya has said the closure of Dadaab is necessary because the sprawling camp is a recruitment ground for al-Shabab, Somalia's Islamic extremist rebels, and a base for the group to launch attacks on Kenya.

Al-Shabab has carried out several attacks on Kenya, which sent troops to Somalia in 2011 to fight the militants who are waging an insurgency against Somalia's weak western-backed government. Al-Shabab's attacks on Kenyan targets include the September 21, 2013 attack on Westgate mall that killed 67 people and last year's attack on Garissa University that killed 148 people, mostly students.

But Kenyan officials have not provided conclusive proof that Dadaab camp is a staging ground for extremist attacks. Some Kenyan officials have said the Westgate attackers came from Dadaab but investigators later said they came from a different refugee camp, Kakuma, which is mostly populated by South Sudanese refugees in northern Kenya.

Israel says it will bar entry to fugitive Peruvian president

February 12, 2017

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel said Sunday it would not permit Peru's fugitive former president to enter the country after reports he had boarded a flight from the United States. The Foreign Ministry said Alejandro Toledo, who governed Peru from 2001 to 2006, would only be allowed into Israel "once his affairs in Peru are settled."

Toledo, whose wife has dual Belgian-Israeli citizenship, may seek refuge in Israel, which does not have an extradition treaty with the South American nation. He was believed to be in San Francisco over the weekend and possibly on a flight set to land in Israel later Sunday. Israeli officials said they did not know whether he was on the plane

An international manhunt is underway after a judge issued an arrest order for Toledo, finding that there was a high probability he had received bribes from a Brazilian construction firm that has admitted to paying off officials throughout Latin America.

Toledo is accused of accepting some $20 million in bribes from Odebrecht to help the company win a contract to build a highway from Brazil to Peru's Pacific Coastline. Odebrecht last year admitted in a plea agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to paying some $800 million in bribes to politicians throughout Latin America, including $29 million during the 2001-2006 governments of Toledo and his two successors.

Toledo, who was last believed to be in Paris a week ago, has denied any wrongdoing.

Voters reject 2026 Olympic bid for St. Moritz, Davos

February 12, 2017

ST. MORITZ, Switzerland (AP) — Voters in the Swiss Alps have rejected a second Olympic hosting bid planned for upscale mountain resorts St. Moritz and Davos. The canton (state) of Graubuenden says a referendum on financing a candidacy for the 2026 Winter Games was rejected by 60.1 percent of voters.

In a tighter vote in 2013, the region refused to support a 2022 Winter Games bid. That Swiss project was the likely favorite in a contest won by Beijing. Switzerland now has a second option centered on the town of Sion, which could involve the IOC's home city, Lausanne.

The Swiss Olympic board meets next month to decide on formally bidding in the 2026 contest. The IOC chooses a host in 2019. Sunday's ballot was conducted as St. Moritz hosts the two-week ski world championships.

Putin hails Slovenia's offer to host his meeting with Trump

February 10, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin thanked Slovenia on Friday for offering to host his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, but added that the prospect hinges on Washington. The Russian leader hailed Slovenia, where Trump's wife Melania was born and grew up, as an "excellent" venue for possible talks with Trump.

"It depends not only on us, but we are naturally ready for it," he said. Speaking after holding talks at the Kremlin with his Slovenian counterpart Borut Pahor, Putin said Russia welcomes Trump's statements about his intentions to restore the strained Russia-U.S. ties.

"We always welcomed that and we hope that relations will be restored in full in all areas," Putin said. "It relates to trade and economic ties, security issues and various regions of the world, which are suffering from numerous conflicts. By pooling our efforts, we naturally would be able to significantly contribute to solving those issues, including the fight against international terrorism."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he's looking forward to an opportunity to talk to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Germany, where they both will attend a security conference and a meeting of the G-20 foreign ministers next week. Lavrov told NTV television that Putin and Trump agreed about the need to meet soon during their phone call on Jan. 28 and told diplomats to negotiate the time and venue.

In recent years, Russia-U.S. relations have plunged to post-Cold war lows over the Ukrainian crisis, the war in Syria and the allegations of Russia hacking of the Democrats in the U.S. presidential election.

In 2001, Slovenia hosted Putin's first meeting with former U.S. President George W. Bush that led to a short-lived thaw in relations between Moscow and Washington. A similarly short warm spell early during Barack Obama's presidency gave way to new tensions.

As part of Obama's early effort to "reset" ties with Moscow, the two nations in 2010 signed a pivotal arms control pact that set new lower caps on the number of warheads each country can deploy. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the prospects of extending the New START Treaty that is set to expire in 2021 will "depend on the position of our American partners" and require negotiations.

He wouldn't say whether the Kremlin favors extending the pact that limited Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads each. Speaking in a conference call with reporters, Peskov pointed to a "certain break in dialogue on strategic security issues" during the Obama administration, and said Moscow and Washington now need "an update of information and positions."

Peskov on Friday denied a report by the Washington Post claiming that Michael Flynn, the retired general who is now Trump's national security adviser, had discussed a possible review of anti-Russian sanctions with the Russian ambassador to Washington in December. Peskov said Ambassador Sergei Kislyak did talk to Flynn, but the rest of the report was wrong.

While suggesting possible cooperation with Moscow to fight the Islamic State group in Syria, as a candidate Trump was critical of the New START and talked about a need to strengthen U.S. nuclear arsenals.

In December, Trump declared on Twitter that the U.S. should "greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability" until the rest of the world "comes to its senses" regarding nuclear weapons. Putin also has said strengthening Russia's nuclear capabilities should be among the nation's priorities.

The platform of Trump's Republican Party had promised to "abandon arms control treaties that benefit our adversaries without improving our national security" and called for the development of "a multi-layered missile defense system."

Kislyak told Russian media in Washington that he sees little chance for a compromise on missile defense, as Moscow believes the U.S. wants to develop the shield against Russia despite assurances that it's directed against other threats.

"I don't exclude that at a certain stage we may have a mutual interest to talk about those issues, but as of now I'm not seeing any basis for reaching agreement," he said, according to the Interfax news agency.

He voiced hope, however, that joint efforts to fight the IS could help break the ice in Russia-U.S. ties. "If we have serious cooperation, it could help to start rebuilding trust," Kislyak said in televised remarks.

Lavrov said Friday that Putin and Trump had a "good, detailed talk" about nuclear non-proliferation, including issues related to Iran and North Korea during their phone call.

Court bars Russian opposition leader from presidential race

February 08, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was convicted Wednesday in a retrial of a 2013 fraud case and given a suspended sentence, a ruling that bars him from running for president next year and appears to reflect the Kremlin's reluctance to let President Vladimir Putin's most charismatic foe into the field.

Navalny vowed to keep campaigning while he appeals. "What we have just seen is a telegram of sorts from the Kremlin, saying that they consider me, my team and people whose views I represent too dangerous to be allowed into the election campaign," he said. "We do not recognize this verdict, it will be overturned, and ... I have the right to run in the election."

Navalny was the driving force behind massive protests of Putin's rule in 2011-2012 in Moscow, electrifying crowds with chants of "We are the power!" and saying at one point that the protesters were numerous enough to take the Kremlin.

Even after the protests fizzled amid the Kremlin crackdown, Navalny came in a strong second in Moscow's mayoral election in 2013, with 27 percent of the vote. Shortly before that vote, Navalny was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison, but was freed the next morning and allowed to run pending appeal. The abrupt about-face was widely seen as the result of lobbying by those in the government who believed that Navalny's participation would help legitimize the incumbent's victory.

The 2013 guilty verdict in the fraud case was overturned by the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that Russia violated Navalny's right to a fair trial, prompting the Russian Supreme Court to order of a retrial. It sparked speculation that the Kremlin was considering the same tactic in the 2018 presidential race, letting Navalny compete to help revive public interest in the vote and boost turnout without any real threat to Putin.

The president hasn't said yet whether he will seek another six-year term, but he's widely expected to run. The 70-year old ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the 64-year old liberal Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky, who ran unsuccessfully in the past elections, both have voiced their intention to run, but their involvement would hardly encourage interest in the campaign.

If Navalny is allowed to run, he would be unlikely to unseat Putin, who has remained widely popular with approval ratings topping 80 percent. The Kremlin, however, might have thought that letting Navalny enter the race would be too risky, given his charisma and the plummeting economy.

Maria Lipman, an independent political analyst, said the verdict has proven the government's intention to keep Navalny from running. "The Kremlin is demonstrating that he does not have a political future," she said.

Navalny, who rose to prominence by blasting official corruption in his blog, has continued to badger senior officials relentlessly by exposing their lavish mansions and other assets. His critics have charged that he has effectively become a weapon for rival government clans feeding material to him, but Navalny rejected that, arguing he's serving the public interest and doesn't care about Kremlin infighting.

During a hearing in Kirov, a city nearly 800 kilometers (500 miles) east of Moscow, Judge Alexei Vtyurin found Navalny guilty of embezzling 16 million rubles ($270,000 at the current exchange rate) from a timber company and gave him a five-year suspended sentence. Including the suspended sentence he has served since 2013, it leaves a year and a half left to serve.

Navalny dismissed the new verdict as a mere "copy and paste" of the previous one, a "cynical trampling" of the European Court's ruling. The German Foreign Ministry voiced concern about the verdict, pointing at the European court's ruling that the previous verdict was politically motivated, and to doubts about whether the right to a fair trial had been upheld in the new proceedings. It added that Navalny must "have the opportunity to take part in political life in Russia."

The verdict keeps Navalny from competing in the presidential election because of a legal provision barring anyone convicted of grave crimes from seeking public office. He countered by citing the Russian constitution, which says that anyone not serving a prison sentence can run for office.

"I will continue to represent the interests of those who want to see Russia as a normal, honest and corruption-free country," Navalny said.

Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.