Trump friend denies Russian interference

Roger Stone, an advisor to Donald Trump for many years before he entered the White House, on Tuesday told Congress that the mogul’s presidential campaign did not coordinate with Russia to influence the 2016 election.

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Appearing before the House Intelligence Committee in a closed-door session, Stone denied having any prior knowledge of the leak involving e-mails of John Podesta, the campaign director of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

“I understand the committee’s interest in me … I am provocative and partisan, but let’s be clear: I have no involvement in the alleged activities that are within the publicly stated scope of this committee’s investigation – collusion with the Russian state to affect the outcome of the 2016 election,” Stone said.

The House and Senate intelligence committees are investigating Russia’s involvement in the election and the Kremlin’s possible links with the Trump campaign.

Stone responded to lawmakers’ questions for more than three hours in a private session and told reporters later that he refused to answer when asked about who his “intermediary” was for communicating with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

After the hearing, Democratic congressman Adam Schiff threatened to subpoena Stone for not answering questions.

Democrats are interested in pressuring Stone about his communications with Assange and the Russian hacker known as Guccifer 2.0, citing a public tweet in which he suggested that he had prior knowledge about the leak of the Podesta e-mails.

After being asked if he felt Trump should have fired Robert Mueller, the man who is leading the investigation, Stone responded, “yes.”

Food aid and face masks dispatched to Bali as 75,000 flee volcano

Mount Agung, 75 kilometres from the resort hub of Kuta, has been rumbling since August and threatening to erupt for the first time since 1963 – a potential blow to the country’s lucrative tourism industry.

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Increasingly frequent tremors show the molten magma is still rising towards the surface, with the mountain entering a “critical phase”, said the national disaster mitigation agency.

It said the number fleeing their homes had increased as fears grow that the mountain could blow.

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0:00 Experts monitor Mount Agung activity Share Experts monitor Mount Agung activity

“The local mitigation agency reported that until 12 pm Tuesday, the number has reached 75,673 people, spread across 377 evacuation centres in nine districts,” said agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.

Around 62,000 people lived in the danger zone before the evacuations, according to the agency, but residents just outside the area have also left as a precaution.

“The number is expected to continue to rise,” Nugroho said.

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The Indonesian Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation said there has been an increase in volcanic tremors, with a total of 564 recorded Monday.

Evacuees have packed into temporary shelters or moved in with relatives. Some 2,000 cows have also been evacuated from the flanks of the volcano.

Speaking in Klungkung district, President Joko Widodo told evacuees the government would do its best to reduce economic losses incurred during the evacuation.

0:00 Tens of thousands flee rumbling Bali volcano Share Tens of thousands flee rumbling Bali volcano

“It is not easy to handle a volcanic eruption because there is no certainty when it’s going to happen, or if it’s going to happen at all,” he said.

“I ask everybody near Gunung Agung to listen to the officials, the governor, and the mayor’s instruction so we can all minimise the impact of this volcano.”

Balinese residents, international NGOs and the central government have begun organising aid.

Vehicles loaded with noodles, mineral water and blankets have been sent to the evacuation centres, while residents around the island have been collecting donations.

Mount Agung is seen from Datah village in Karangasem, Bali, Indonesia, 26 September 2017.AAP

Bali’s “sister village” programme and tradition of communal assistance means evacuees have been able to stay in villages outside the danger zone.

I Ketut Subandi, head of logistics at the village of Tana Ampo, said basic food items like rice, instant noodles, cooking oil and water were most needed.

“This morning we were worried because we had limited rice supply, but now we have received more rice stocks from donors,” Subandi said.

Indonesia’s national disaster agency has sent 640,000 face masks, 12,500 mattresses, 8,400 blankets and 50 tents. The central government has a relief fund totalling nearly $150 million to meet the cost of natural disasters, which could be tapped in case of an eruption.

The Indonesian Palace shows Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (white) visits Indonesian displaced people at a shelter in Karangasem on the island of Bali.AAP

Officials announced the highest possible alert level on Friday due to the increasing volcanic activity and warned people to stay at least nine kilometres away from the crater.

Operators have cancelled trekking tours on the mountain  but officials have otherwise been at pains to assure tourists the island is safe.

The airport in Bali’s capital Denpasar, through which millions of foreign tourists pass every year, has not been affected, but several countries including Australia and Singapore have issued a travel advisory.

Flights to and from the island have not been interrupted but airlines are watching the situation closely.

Virgin Australia said it would be making an extra fuel stop in Darwin for some of its flights between Australia and Bali in case it is forced to turn back.

Singapore Airlines said customers travelling between September 23 and October 2 could rebook flights or ask for a refund.

Mount Agung is one of more than 120 active volcanoes extending the length of Indonesia, which straddles the Pacific Ring of Fire.

It last erupted in 1963, killing nearly 1,600 people and sending ash as far as the capital Jakarta.

Dual citizenship: Roberts, Ludlam ineligible, Commonwealth will argue

But it believes the five other politicians referred to the High Court – including Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce – should not be found ineligible.

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The government believes only those who “voluntarily obtained, or retained” citizenship of another country should be affected by section 44 of the constitution which prohibits dual citizens running for parliament.

That does not include “a person who does not know that they are, or ever were, a foreign citizen”.

The government’s stance also gives hope to Nationals senators Fiona Nash and Matt Canavan and crossbench senator Nick Xenophon, who all claim they never thought they could be a citizen of another country by descent, and former Greens senator Larissa Waters, who is said to have not voluntarily acquired or retained her Canadian citizenship.

The government believes that the requirement to take “all reasonable steps” to renounce foreign citizenship doesn’t actually require the person to take any steps.

“Taking no steps is reasonable in these circumstances,” its submission reads.

In the submissions filed on behalf of Attorney-General George Brandis on Tuesday, the Commonwealth claims One Nation’s Senator Roberts and Mr Ludlam – a former Greens senator – were incapable of being chosen to sit in parliament.

The High Court last week ruled Senator Roberts, who was born in India to a Welsh father and Australian mother, was a dual British and Australian citizen when he nominated as a candidate.

Mr Ludlam resigned in July after learning he was still a citizen of New Zealand, where he was born.

The Commonwealth believes Mr Ludlam and Senator Roberts voluntarily retained their status as citizens of New Zealand and Britain respectively and failed to take all reasonable steps to renounce it and should be disqualified.

Their vacancies should be filled by a special count, it submitted.

“The other referred persons are not disqualified,” it said.

The matters will go before the full bench of the High Court on October 10.

0:00 Joyce says he’s ‘shell-shocked’ after citizenship news Share Joyce says he’s ‘shell-shocked’ after citizenship news

Inventor Dyson aims for electric car

James Dyson, the billionaire British inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner, said on Tuesday his company was working on developing an electric car to be launched by 2020.

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Dyson said he was spending $US2.7 billion to exploit his company’s expertise in solid-state battery technology and electric motors.

“Battery technology is very important to Dyson … I have been developing these technologies consistently because I could see that one day we could do a car,” Dyson said.

Dyson said a 400-strong team of engineers had already spent 2-1/2 years working on the hitherto secret car project.

However, the car itself still has to be designed and the choice of battery to be finalised.

The company was backing solid-state rather than the lithium ion technology used in existing electric vehicles because it was safer, the batteries would not overheat, were quicker to charge and potentially more powerful, he said.

Dyson said his ambition to go it alone was driven by the car industry’s dismissal of an idea he had of applying his cyclonic technology that revolutionised vacuum cleaners to handle diesel emissions in car exhaust systems in the 1990s.

“We are not a johnny-come-lately onto the scene of electric cars,” he said.

“It has been my ambition since 1998 when I was rejected by the industry, which has happily gone on making polluting diesel engines, and governments have gone on allowing it.”

But the car does not yet have a design nor a chassis, he said, and the company had not yet decided where it will be made, beyond ruling out working with the big car companies.

“Wherever we make the battery, we’ll make the car, that’s logical,” he said. “So we want to be near our suppliers, we want to be in a place that welcomes us and is friendly to us, and where it is logistically most sensible.

“And we see a very large market for this car in the Far East.”

Dyson gave no details of the concept for the vehicle, beyond saying it would not be like anything else already on the market.

“There’s no point in doing one that looks like everyone else’s,” he said, adding that it would not be a sports car and it would not be “a very cheap” car.

Australian Serb ‘Captain Dragan’ jailed for 15 years over war crimes

Dragan Vasiljkovic, known as “Captain Dragan”, was extradited by Australia to Croatia two years ago after a decade-long legal battle.

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The court in the coastal town of Split found Vasiljkovic guilty of torturing detainees in the ethnic Serb rebel stronghold of Knin and a deadly attack on the central town in Glina at the beginning of the 1991-1995 war in Croatia.

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He was charged with setting up an “improvised prison” at the Knin fortress in mid-1991.

There, his subordinates tortured detained Croatian policemen and civilians by “beating them with hands, feet and ox tendons… pushing guns in their mouths”, the indictment said.

Dragan Vasiljkovi and the president of the ultra-national Serbian Radical Party Vojislav Seselj (2-L) at the battle field in Benkovac city in Croatia, in 1991.AAP

“All witnesses described in a similar way difficult conditions in which they were held … by members of a paramilitary unit commanded by Dragan Vasiljkovic,” judge Damir Romac said.

Velibor Bracic, a former Croatian soldier detained at Knin in 1991, testified how Vasiljkovic personally beat him while showing his subordinates how to do it properly.

“He told the guards ‘If you want to beat him this is how you will do it’ and kicked me with his leg in the head,” Bracic told the tribunal during the trial.

Vasiljkovic was also found guilty of orchestrating a 1991 attack on Glina and the surrounding region, in which a civilian and a German reporter were killed, while local people had to flee their homes.

Vasiljkovic was foundguilty of the killings and torture of civilians and Croatian troops while he was a rebel Serb commander between 1991-95 war in Croatia. AAP

He was acquitted on charges of ordering the 1993 torture and killing of two detained Croatian soldiers in a village in the country’s south.

Vasiljkovic, 62, pleaded not guilty and labelled the trial an “obsessive fascist persecution”.

“Neither I committed the crimes stated in the indictment nor they occurred,” he told the tribunal recently.

Vasiljkovic’s attorneys, who had insisted that as a Serbian national he was not treated fairly, said they would appeal the verdict, national radio reported.

In Australia, where he was first arrested in 2006, Vasiljkovic worked as a golf instructor under the name Daniel Snedden.

Croatia’s proclamation of independence from the former Yugoslavia sparked the 1991-1995 war with Belgrade-backed rebel Serbs. The conflict claimed around 20,000 lives.

 

Mickelson proud of longevity as he prepares for 12th Presidents Cup

Mickelson will play his 12th consecutive Presidents Cup when he tees up at Liberty National on Thursday against an International team from the rest of the world, excluding Europe.

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He has not missed a Ryder Cup either since his debut in 1995, which means he will make his 23rd team appearance for the red, white and blue, a remarkable record not just of sustained excellence, but also of having avoided serious injury.

He had to rely on a wild card pick by captain Steve Stricker this year, something few would begrudge him.

“It’s one of the things I’m most proud of, to continue to be a part of this,” the 47-year-old Californian said on Tuesday.

While some observers think the Presidents Cup needs the International team to win occasionally to boost the status of the event, Mickelson does not quite see it that way.

“I don’t think so, no,” he said when the question was posed. “If you look at the talent on the International team, it is strong and it is deep and if we open the door and give them an opportunity it will bite us.”

Mickelson has won five major championships, and probably would have captured considerably more if his career had not coincided with that of Tiger Woods.

“He’s Phil Mickelson for a reason but I think I lot of people don’t realise how good he is,” said Australian Jason Day, a member of the International team.

“I think Tiger kind of overshadows his career a little bit. If there was no Tiger, I wonder have many times Phil probably would have won.

Day described Mickelson as “one of the best players that ever lived” and expressed awe at his longevity as a player in the Presidents Cup since it started in 1994.

“That is probably one of the best accomplishments you could have, because it means you were consistent from 1994 all the way up to 2017. That’s hard to do.”

(Reporting by Andrew Both)

Larissa Waters could return to the Senate after citizenship debacle

Former Greens senator Larissa Waters could make an early return to parliament if the High Court agrees with arguments being put forward by the Commonwealth.

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The government has filed its official submission on the seven federal politicians who have been referred to the court over their citizenship status.

It argues only One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts and former Greens senator Scott Ludlam were wrongly elected, while the Nationals’ Barnaby Joyce, Fiona Nash and Matt Canavan, crossbencher Nick Xenophon and Ms Waters should not be disqualified.

The submission, on behalf of Attorney-General George Brandis, contends that Senator Roberts and Mr Ludlam did not take all reasonable steps to renounce their respective British and New Zealand citizenship before being nominated.

Under section 44 of the constitution, “a subject or a citizen … of a foreign power” cannot stand for parliament.

The Commonwealth believes that should apply only to those who have “voluntarily obtained or retained” their status.

That would preclude five of the politicians – minus Senator Roberts and Mr Ludlam – all of whom were not aware they were or ever had been a foreign citizen, the submission says.

0:00 Greens Senator Larissa Waters says surprise dual citizenship rules her out of parliament Share Greens Senator Larissa Waters says surprise dual citizenship rules her out of parliament

Ms Waters resigned in July upon discovering she still had Canadian citizenship but could return if the High Court agrees with the Commonwealth and she is nominated to replace herself by the Queensland Greens.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale is keen for her to return.

“She’s a wonderful MP, a wonderful human being and she’s made a great contribution to the parliament,” he told Sky News on Wednesday.

Senator Di Natale was not surprised by the government’s arguments for why its MPs and senators should not be disqualified.

“The government has basically decided it doesn’t want to play by the rules,” he said.

“The government’s view is there will be rules for everybody else and a separate set of rules for themselves.”

The matters will go before the full bench of the High Court on October 10.

Uber goes to UK tribunal on worker rights

Uber is expected to tell a British employment appeal tribunal on Wednesday that its drivers are self-employed and not workers entitled to a range of extra benefits.

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It comes as London officials threaten to take the app’s licence to operate away because of what it says is Uber’s slack approach to reporting serious criminal offences and background checks on drivers.

It can operate during its appeal, which could last months.

Last year, two drivers successfully argued at a tribunal that Uber exerted significant control over them to provide an on-demand taxi service and had responsibilities in terms of workers’ rights.

At the two-day appeal hearing starting on Wednesday Uber will argue its drivers are self-employed and work the same way as those at long-established local taxi firms.

The self-employed are entitled to only basic protections such as health and safety, but workers receive benefits such as the minimum wage, paid holidays and rest breaks.

Those in a third category, called employees, receive all those entitlements as well as other benefits such as statutory sick pay and maternity or paternity leave.

“Almost all taxi and private-hire drivers have been self-employed for decades before our app existed,” an Uber spokesman said.

“Uber drivers have more control and are totally free to choose if, when and where they drive with no shifts or minimum hours,” he said.

Trade union-led protestors are expected to march through central London on Wednesday against what they deem “precarious labour” in the ‘gig economy’, where people work for various employers at the same time without fixed contracts.

Uber faces a further challenge as law firm Leigh Day said it would represent a female driver who says Uber is putting her and other women at risk as the driver does not know the passenger’s destination until they are already in the car and that could mean travelling to a remote or unsafe area.

An Uber spokesman said drivers could cancel trips without penalty and did not have to go to a particular area if they did not want to.

Spain targets polling stations as Catalan referendum nears

With five days to go until the October 1 vote, the clash between Catalonia’s pro-separatist government and Madrid was increasingly being played out in the arena of logistics and international opinion.

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During a joint news conference with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in Washington, Trump said it would be “foolish” for Catalonia not to stay in Spain.

“You’re talking about staying with a truly great, beautiful and very historic country,” he added as Rajoy stood at his side.

Rajoy urged Catalan officials to return to “common sense” even as Madrid stepped up its effort to stop the vote from going ahead.

0:00 Catalan parliament president accuses Spanish government of generating fear Share Catalan parliament president accuses Spanish government of generating fear

The chief prosecutor in Catalonia ordered police to seal off buildings that will house polling stations before the day of the referendum and deploy officers on the day of the vote to prevent ballots from being cast.

The move comes a day after he ordered regional police to identify those in charge of polling stations on Sunday, when the referendum is to be held.

“The order has been conveyed and it will be executed with all normality,” a spokesman for Catalonia’s regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, told AFP.

To ensure they will cooperate, Spain’s interior minister this weekend put Catalonia’s regional police force under its supervision.

‘Losing the battle’

By focusing on polling stations, prosecutors appear to have put in place a plan that targets all the logistics needed to stage the referendum, which has been deemed illegal by Madrid.

Prosecutors have also threatened Catalan mayors who provide locations for the vote with criminal charges, as well as directors of schools and universities.

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The election commission set up by Catalan separatists to oversee the vote has resigned after Spain’s Constitutional Court threatened to impose daily fines of 12,000 euros ($14,100).

Police have seized nearly 10 million ballots for the vote and have closed down 59 websites that provide information about the referendum. 

Another 85 sites are in the process of being closed, judicial sources said.

Faced with these actions, the separatist leaders of this wealthy northeastern region of Spain, home to around 7.5 million people, have accused Madrid of “repression”.

Catalan president Carles Puigdemont during a rally in Hospitalet de Llobregat, near Barcelona, northeastern Spain, 26 September 2017.AAP

The website of the foundation of former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco “remains operational” but not the referendum websites, said Catalangovernment spokesman Jordi Turull.

The central government argues that it is simply applying the constitution, which does not allow this type of referendum, just as in neighbouring France and Italy.

Spain’s democratic constitution of 1978, which was approved by more than 90 percent of Catalan voters, gave wide autonomy to the regions but affirmed “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”.

‘Vote en masse’

Rajoy has pulled out of an informal summit of European Union leaders in Estonia on Friday so as to be able to attend the last meeting of his cabinet before the referendum.

He also announced that the crisis would delay the national budget but ruled out fresh elections.

“I’m not thinking about calling early elections as a result of what we were seeing,” he said in Washington.

A member of a castelle holds a placard reading in Catalan “We want to vote”, as she crowned the human tower in Sant Jaume square in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday.AAP

As the date of the referendum nears, tensions are rising.

In Huelva in the southwestern Spain, Guardia Civil officers dispatched to Catalonia for the referendum were cheered on by hundreds of locals with cries of “Go for them!” and draped them with Spanish flags.

In Barcelona, residents have been giving out red carnations to regional police.

Spain has deployed two-thirds of its riot police to Catalonia, some 2,000 officers, for the referendum, according to daily newspaper El Pais.

Despite the crackdown, Catalonia will vote on Sunday in an independence referendum, regional foreign minister Raul Romeva told AFP.

“People will go out and vote en masse, peacefully on Sunday,” he said. “I don’t have any doubt.”

0:00 It should remain united: Trump on Catalan referendum Share It should remain united: Trump on Catalan referendum

Ireland will vote on legalising abortion in 2018 referendum

The Irish government is also planning votes to remove the country’s anti-blasphemy law and to reduce the time couples must spend apart before divorcing.

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Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has previously said the eighth amendment of the constitution, which makes abortion illegal unless there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother, was “too restrictive”.

His government decided on Tuesday a referendum – which must be agreed by parliament – should take place in May or June 2018 just before the pope visits in August to attend the World Meeting of Families.

Abortion has always been illegal in Ireland but was inserted into the constitution in 1983 following a referendum, in which 67 per cent of voters were in favour and 33 per cent against.

The eighth amendment recognises the equal right to life of the unborn child and the mother, and a woman convicted of having an illegal termination faces 14 years in prison.

However women are free to travel abroad for abortions and thousands do so every year, mainly to England.

Opinion polls in recent years have consistently indicated strong support for reform in Ireland, which remains largely Catholic but where scandals have dented the church’s authority.

Thousands of people are expected in Dublin on Saturday for the annual “March for Choice”, declaring: “We are ready for change.”

“We need access to free, safe and legal abortion for all who need or want it. And we need it now,” organisers said.

The Abortion Rights Campaign said it “cautiously” welcomed the announcement.

“It depends on the wording of the referendum,” spokeswoman Linda Kavanagh told AFP, fearing that it could be watered down from broad access to abortion. 

Meanwhile Cora Sherlock, spokeswoman of the Pro-Life Campaign, told AFP: “If the eighth amendment were to be amended or repealed, we would inevitably end up with a situation similar to every other country which introduced abortion on ‘restrictive’ grounds but subsequently ended up with abortion on wide-ranging grounds.”

Consideration by the people

The Irish constitution can only be amended by referendum, and in 2015 it became the first country to legalise gay marriage that way.

The government set out a timetable on Tuesday for several votes over the next two years, including on reducing the time couples must wait before a divorce from four to two years.

In October 2018, it proposes a referendum on the constitutional amendment which makes illegal the “publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter”.

At the same time, it proposes a vote to repeal or change a section relating to a woman’s duties in the home, perhaps to make it gender neutral and to include other caring responsibilities. 

“Any amendment to our constitution requires careful consideration by the people,” Varadkar said in a statement. 

“They should be given ample time to consider the issues and to take part in well-informed public debate,” he said.

“Setting a timetable for the referendums to be held over the next two years will allow all involved in campaigning on the issues to plan ahead and to facilitate that public debate.”