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03 Jan

News and Analyses, A Foreign Perspective

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Office of Congressional Ethics was created in 2008 to investigate allegations of misconduct by lawmakers

Under the changes pushed by Republican Bob Goodlatte, the independent body would fall under the control of the House Ethics Committee, which is run by lawmakers.

Under the changes pushed by Republican Bob Goodlatte, the independent body would fall under the control of the House Ethics Committee, which is run by lawmakers. Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

House Republicans have gutted an independent ethics watchdog, putting it under their own control, in a secret ballot hours before the new Congress convened for the first time.

The unheralded vote severely weakens the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), which was set up after a lobbying scandal in 2008 to investigate corruption allegations against members of Congress. The move, led by the head of the House judiciary committee, defied the Republican congressional leadership and was reportedly supported by several legislators currently under OCE scrutiny.

The amendment was voted through by the House Republican conference over the New Year’s holiday with no prior notice or debate and inserted in a broad rules package the House will vote for on Tuesday. It turns the formerly independent OCE into the Office of Congressional Complaint Review, a subordinate body to the House Ethics Committee, which is currently run by the Republican majority and has a long history of overlooking charges of malfeasance by lawmakers.

The new body will not be able to receive anonymous tips from members of Congress or make its findings public.

The vote comes at a time when the Republicans control all three branches of government and are seeking to remove some of the residual constraints on their powers. The rules package to be voted through on Tuesday, for example, will limit the ability of the Democratic minority to block legislation like the repeal of Obama’s Affordable Care Act by staging a filibuster.

It also comes at a time when president-elect Trump is attempting to fend off scrutiny over multiple conflicts of interests questions arising from his bid to keep his business empire in his family’s hands even after he takes office on 20 January.

The House Republican vote triggered a wave of outrage from Democrats and government ethics specialists.

“Undermining the independence of the House’s Office of Congressional Ethics would create a serious risk to members of Congress, who rely on OCE for fair, nonpartisan investigations, and to the American people, who expect their representatives to meet their legal and ethical obligations,” Norman Eisen and Richard Painter, ethics counsels to Barack Obama and George W Bush respectively, argued in a joint statement.

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Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was interviewed by detectives investigating whether he broke the law by receiving gifts from wealthy businessmen.

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The McGlynn:

Allegations against Benjamin Netanyahu

  • Nov 2016: Investigation opens into the purchase of new submarines from Germany, after it was claimed that Mr Netanyahu’s lawyer represented the company during negotiations

  • June 2016: Attorney General orders probe after French fraudster Arnaud Mimran claims he donated hundreds of thousands of euros to Mr Netanyahu’s 2009 campaign – something the prime minister denies

  • July 2015: Mr Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, are accused of charging the government for the services of a contractor who did private work for them; charges are later dropped

  • May 2013: Mr Netanyahu is accused of wasting public money after it emerges $127,000 (£102,000) was spent on a customised private bedroom for a single flight to the UK

  • After Mr Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister two decades ago, police recommended that he and Sara face criminal charges for keeping official gifts that should have been handed over to the state; charges are later dropped

  • The McGlynn

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The questioning under caution took place at Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem. The police team did not speak to journalists as they arrived. Reports said the questioning lasted around three hours.

A police statement after the questioning ended said “investigators questioned PM Benjamin Netanyahu under caution on suspicion of receiving benefits.” No additional details were initially given.

Netanyahu has strenuously denied any wrongdoing in relation to a months-long investigation into gifts received by himself and members of his close family. Israeli media said police were investigating whether gifts worth hundreds of thousands of shekels were given with the expectation of any benefit.

During a meeting of his rightwing Likud party earlier on Monday, Netanyahu said: “We notice reports in the media. We hear the celebrations and sense the way the wind blows in TV studios and in the halls of the opposition. Hold off on the partying, don’t jump the gun. I told you and I repeat: nothing will happen, because there is nothing. You will continue making wild allegations and we will continue leading the state of Israel.”

The investigation comes at a difficult time for Netanyahu, whose poll rating has been slipping amid a series of allegations concerning his inner circle.

Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, have weathered several scandals over the years, including investigations into the alleged misuse of state funds and an audit of the family’s spending, even including sums spent on laundry and ice-cream. They have denied any wrongdoing.

Netanyahu’s biggest rival, Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party was ahead of Likud in the most recent polls, called for the latest inquiry to be concluded quickly for “the good of the country”.

Referring to drawn-out proceedings against Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who was eventually jailed for corruption, Lapid said: “If two prime ministers in a row fall from office because of corruption, it will be very hard to rehabilitate the public’s trust in its leadership. I want to remind the members of the opposition and the media that the presumption of innocent applies to every Israeli, including the prime minister. We need to let the police do their work.”

Naftali Bennett, another of Netanyahu’s rivals and an ally in his coalition government, said: “The prime minister should not resign because an investigation was launched. An investigation can end with nothing coming out of it.”

Police have been carrying out the current inquiry in secret for eight months and were recently reported to have made a breakthrough.

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State minister says women harassed during New Year’s Eve celebrations because young people dressed and acted like westerners

Police in Bangalore during nye

Bangalore police said they were outnumbered by the crowds out on the streets to celebrate the new year. Photograph: Jagadeesh Nv/EPA

An alleged “mass molestation” on the streets of one of India’s biggest cities on New Year’s Eve was the result of young people trying to “copy” western mindsets and clothing, an Indian state minister has claimed.

Thousands of people gathered on two central streets in Bangalore on Saturday night to celebrate the new year. Local newspaper reports and witnesses said the crowd became unruly and began to subject women to sexual assault and harassment.

The Bangalore Mirror said its photojournalists were “first-hand witnesses to the brazen, mass molestation of women” on the city’s streets, publishing pictures of one woman pressed in by a crowd of men and another appearing to cower on the shoulder of a female police officer.

One witness told the Guardian: “I saw women being molested in the crowd and people trying to find places where they could hide themselves and not be attacked.”

“There were inhuman acts,” said Sammy, who asked for his surname to be withheld. “People were acting like they were helping the women, but actually they were molesting them, insulting them, just provoking them.

“Any girl who was passing through those streets was at least being monitored with [the men’s] eyes. That was the minimum,” he said.

“The maximum was that even if she was suffocated and someone was trying to pick her up, there would be lots of people trying to grab her. I couldn’t stand it; I felt helpless.”

Chaitali Wasnick, a photographer, wrote on Facebook that a man had tried to grope her on Saturday night as she was coming back from work. “With so much ease he did [it], as if he thought I’ll not utter a word,” she said.

No police officers intervened, even as she fought the man off, she said.

Police in the city said they were badly outnumbered by the crowd in the area but received no official complaints of sexual assault, considered a massively underreported crime in India.

“We had deployed 1,600 police personnel in the area for new year’s celebrations and around 60,000 people had come there that night,” said Nagaraj, the inspector at the Cubbon Park police station, who like many Indians uses only one name.

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Beijing skyline swallowed by smog cloud in timelapse footage – video

Source: Chas Pope

Timelapse video shot from a Beijing bank on Monday shows a thick cloud of yellow smog swallowing buildings as it rolls into the city. The footage was taken by Chas Pope, a British engineering consultant, and was shot over just 20 minutes. Many cities in China have been placed on ‘red alert’ due to soaring air pollution levels in the first days of 2017. Clouds of smog have forced flights to be cancelled and roads to be closed and have effectively left some people trapped in their homes. Pope told the Guardian that smog was one of the main drawbacks of life in Beijing. “It gets you down especially in recent winters when it seems to have been getting worse,” he said.

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Opinion

If, as Theresa May wants, the UK leaves the European convention on human rights, it will be a green light for despots and a disaster for ordinary people

Theresa May

There is one almighty fight coming, and it’ll be about human rights in the UK. Those who want to protect our national and international commitment to human rights need to mobilise in defence of those rights now.

An unwillingness on the part of the UK government to withdraw from the European convention on human rights has, up until now, been the major protection of the human rights settlement in the UK – we cannot sign up to a human rights regime internationally and yet deliver a lesser level of domestic protection. That would put the UK in breach of its international obligations.

Crucially, that unwillingness to withdraw has now gone. In consequence the UK settlement is seriously at risk, and the adherence of the world to human rights is in danger of being reduced by the UK signalling a massive reduction in its international commitment to human rights.

The UK was instrumental in drafting the convention, driven by Winston Churchill’s government. The European nations agreed to it, quite separately from the EU, as their commitment to human rights after the wholesale abandonment of them in two world wars. The UK has a proud record of promoting, protecting and speaking up for human rights for generations. It’s one of the UK’s unique selling points and strengths that we stand for the rules, and the rules include human rights. And now, with the world watching, we are going to turn our back on the principles we have championed. Doing so will weaken our voice dramatically on the world stage, and with other European nations, and will inevitably weaken the protection of our own citizens abroad – quite apart from weakening human rights’ protection throughout the world.

Those who think leaving the convention would be disastrous should not be lulled into a false sense of security because the government has signalled it will not pursue leaving the convention until after Brexit is sorted.

That’s about the when, not the if. Brexit has changed the political landscape and suddenly made leaving the convention doable. If the consequence of leaving the convention is the UK’s withdrawal from the Council of Europe, that will feel a very minor step by comparison with leaving the EU.

Theresa May has been absolutely clear she does want to leave the convention: “The [convention] can bind the hands of parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals, and does nothing to change the attitudes of governments like Russia’s when it comes to human rights.”

The prime minister is wrong on every point – the ECHR doesn’t bind parliament, the Human Rights Act explicitly preserves parliamentary sovereignty as demonstrated by the prisoner voting issue; membership of the convention adds to UK prosperity by contributing significantly to the UK’s and the world’s commitment to the rule of law – a commitment which is a critical factor in making the UK a preferred place for people to do business, and promoting world trade; preventing the deportation of foreign terrorists because of what they may face on their return has not reduced our security, failing to stop homegrown Isis supporters going abroad and then returning to the UK is the much bigger threat to our security; and Russia cared sufficiently about its international reputation to sign up to the convention; if the UK leaves the convention that would be a green light for Russia to ignore any Strasbourg ruling it chose.

But being wrong on every statement does not appear to diminish May’s enthusiasm for leaving the convention.

In an age of populism the rule of law, and a commitment to basic human rights, becomes all the more important. For a country such as the UK to explicitly abandon its commitment to its regional human rights convention would signal that individual rights must give way more and more to majoritarianism. The prime minister has already shown her indifference to the rule of law in allowing judges to twist in the wind when the high court ruled against her interpretation of the steps required to effect Brexit.

If a country is not committed to an international set of human rights, then there is no fetter on the government of that country in declaring what its view of human rights at any time is – and, in consequence, reducing individual protection. While the rulings of the European court of human rights do not bind either our courts or our parliament, they provide an independent and authoritative standard against which the conduct of a government can be measured.

If the UK leaves the convention, the government will be free to pick and choose the human rights it grants its citizens. As Russia does. No doubt it would be more generous in the rights given, but the key interest human rights are designed to protect the citizen from is the interest and activity of the executive. And if the executive is unfettered in determining what those rights are, because in the UK the executive largely controls the Commons, then there can never be effective protection.

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