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Criminal or Martyr? A Prisoner Poses a Political Dilemma For Spain

BARCELONA — Off a leafy boulevard in Barcelona sit the headquarters of Omnium Cultural, an organization known in Spain as much for its literary prizes as for its dreams of an independent republic in Catalonia.

But its president, Jordi Cuixart, is nowhere to be found: For the last three and a half years, he has lived in a prison cell.

To the Spanish authorities, Mr. Cuixart is a dangerous criminal, convicted of sedition for leading a rally at a time when he and other separatist leaders were seeking to set up a breakaway state in the northeastern region of Catalonia. Yet to his supporters, and in the eyes of many foreign countries, he is a political prisoner sitting in the heart of Europe.

“They want us to change our ideals,” Mr. Cuixart said, speaking through a thick pane of glass in the prison visitors’ section on a recent afternoon.

Mr. Cuixart and eight other men jailed for sedition are now martyrs who, according to human rights groups, are being held for nothing more than voicing and acting on their political views.

For the Spanish government — and for Europe as a whole — they have also become a diplomatic headache, raising accusations of hypocrisy against a region known for demanding greater democratic freedoms around the world.

Russia this year cited the Catalonian inmates to deflect calls from Europe for the release of Aleksei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition leader. The United States lists the prisoners in its human rights report on Spain and calls their jailing a form of political intimidation.

holding Hungary and Poland accountable to E.U. rule-of-law standards, some European parliamentarians noted a double standard: Spain, they said, held political prisoners.

a regional independence referendum in defiance of the Spanish courts. The national government in Madrid sent in riot squads, which seized ballot boxes and even beat some of the voters.

Separatists claimed victory anyway, despite the fact that more than half of voters did not cast ballots and polls showed that Catalonia was split on independence.

Defiant, the Parliament in Catalonia went ahead and declared independence anyway — only to suspend its own declaration before being dissolved by the Spanish government. By that time, Mr. Cuixart had already been arrested and other separatist leaders fled for Belgium.

In 2019, the courts sentenced Mr. Cuixart and eight others to between nine and 13 years in prison after convicting them of sedition.

“He is in jail simply for exercising his right to express himself,” Esteban Beltrán, who heads the Spanish office of Amnesty International, said of Mr. Cuixart.

the terrorist group ETA, which fought for decades for the independence of the northern Basque region.

“They aren’t political prisoners. These are politicians that have broken the law,” Ms. González Laya said in an interview.

“The question is, do you have in Spain the ability to express a different opinion? Answer: Yes. Do you have the right to unilaterally decide that you break up the country? No,” she added.

But David Bondia, an international law professor in Barcelona, said that the Spanish government was considering an overhaul that would weaken its sedition laws, something he sees as an admission that there had been a mistake in jailing the separatist leaders.

Mr. Cuixart’s case was even more problematic from a legal view. He was the head of a cultural group, yet his sedition trial was conducted under a legal framework reserved for politicians, Mr. Bondia said, raising due-process questions.

For Carles Puigdemont, the former president of Catalonia who led the referendum push, the situation recalls the days of the Franco dictatorship, when political opponents lived in fear of persecution.

“For us, this has hit hard and brought us to the past,” he said.

Mr. Puigdemont, who is also wanted on sedition charges, fled Spain in 2017 for Belgium, where he serves in the European Parliament. But his parliamentary immunity was removed in March, allowing for him to be extradited.

approved by voters and the regional Parliament. The move brought widespread anger and separatist flags became common in the countryside.

Soon, Parliament was discussing a move to declare an independent state, long considered a pipe dream of radicals.

Mr. Cuixart, who by 2015 had become the president of Omnium, was sometimes conflicted that his group had also joined the independence push — it was a cultural organization after all, not a political one. But in the end, he said that not joining would have been standing on the wrong side of history.

The crucial day came for Mr. Cuixart on Sept. 20, 2017, when the Spanish police, trying to stop the independence referendum from taking place, had stormed a Catalan regional ministry building on suspicions that plans for the vote were being organized there. But a giant crowd surrounded the location.

Mr. Cuixart and a pro-independence leader, Jordi Sánchez, tried to mediate between the protesters and the police. They set up pathways through the crowd for officers to enter the building and made announcements that anyone considering violence was a “traitor.”

As the night wore on, Mr. Cuixart said that he had feared violent clashes. In a recording, he is seen on top of a vehicle calling for the crowd to disperse. Despite jeers from the protesters, most left and Mr. Cuixart said that he then went to bed.

The vote was held amid the crackdown the next month. But Mr. Cuixart recalled an earlier act of civil disobedience when there were no consequences after he dodged a military draft as a young man. He thought he had little to fear this time around.

But then the charges came: sedition, one of the highest crimes in Spain. Such draconian charges for activity at a protest surprised even legal experts who said that the sedition laws — which cover crimes less serious than full-out rebellion — had been rarely used in a country.

“I had to look up what ‘sedition’ even was,” Mr. Cuixart said.

Mr. Cuixart now spends his days at the Lledoners prison, a penitentiary built for about 1,000 inmates, and home to convicted drug peddlers and murderers. He said he spends his afternoons meditating and writing letters.

Jordi Cañas, a Spanish member of the European Parliament who is against Catalan independence, said he felt little pity for Mr. Cuixart’s situation because the separatists brought it on themselves.

“I don’t forgive them because they’ve broken our society,” Mr. Cañas said, adding that the independence push still divided Spanish homes. “I have friends I no longer speak to over this.”

Mr. Cuixart, for his part, said he was not asking for forgiveness. He would do it all over again, he said. It was Spain that needed to change, he said, not him.

“At some point, Spain is going to have to reflect and ask themselves, ‘What are they going to do with me?’” he said. “Eliminate me? They can’t.”

Leire Ariz Sarasketa contributed reporting from Madrid.

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South Korean Court Sides With Japan in Wartime Sexual Slavery Case

SEOUL — A judge in South Korea ruled on Wednesday that Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by Japan during World War II cannot seek compensation from the Japanese government in a South Korean court, a decision that angered survivors and contradicted an earlier ruling in January.

In the earlier verdict, the presiding judge ordered the Japanese government to pay 100 million won ($89,400) each to 12 former Korean sex slaves, known as “comfort women.”

The two different decisions by two different judges in the Seoul Central District Court complicated the survivors’ decades-long effort to hold the Japanese government legally accountable for wartime sexual slavery. The two rulings also showed that the South Korean judiciary was divided over Japan’s claim that international law shielded it from lawsuits in foreign courts.

In January, the South Korean judge ruled that the Japanese government should be subject to Korean jurisdiction because the experience of Korean sex slaves involved “anti-humanity acts systematically planned and perpetrated by the Japanese Empire.” For such acts, Japan cannot claim exemption from a lawsuit in South Korea based on state sovereignty, he said.

2015 agreement, which South Korea and Japan called “final and irreversible,” permanently settled the long-running dispute over comfort women. Previously, in a 1993 statement, Japan issued a formal apology for the practice.

On Wednesday, a different South Korean judge, Min Seong-cheol, sided with Japan and threw out the lawsuit filed by a separate group of former sex slaves. If courts start making exceptions to the principle of national sovereignty, “diplomatic clashes become inevitable,” the judge said in his ruling. Mr. Min also cited the 2015 agreement, under which Japan acknowledged responsibility for its actions, apologized anew to the women and set up an $8.3 million fund to help provide old-age care for survivors.

Some of the surviving women have accepted payments from the 2015 fund. Others rejected the agreement, saying that it failed to specify Japan’s “legal” responsibility or to provide official reparations. The lawsuit thrown out on Wednesday was filed in 2016 by 20 plaintiffs, including 11 former sex slaves. Only four of the 11 are still alive, and all of them are in their 80s or 90s.

Neither the ruling in January nor the one on Wednesday is the final say on the matter. The plaintiffs in the second lawsuit said they would seek the opinion of higher courts by appealing Wednesday’s decision.

“It will go down in history as a shameful case where the judge shirked his duty as a last bastion of human rights,” said an advocacy group in Seoul that speaks for the women who filed the lawsuit. Lee Yong-soo, a former sex slave who joined the lawsuit, accused the judge of denying the victims “the right to seek judgment on war crimes and anti-humanity crimes,” according to a statement from her spokeswoman. Ms. Lee also demanded that both governments ask the International Court of Justice to rule on the case.

“Comfort women” is the euphemism Japan adopted for the nearly 200,000 young women — many of them Korean — who were forced or lured into working in brothels run by the Japanese military before and during World War II. Over the last 30 years, survivors from South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, China and the Netherlands have filed a total of 10 lawsuits against the Japanese government in Japanese courts, according to Amnesty International.

The survivors lost in all of those cases before winning their case in the South Korean court in January.

“What was a landmark victory for the survivors after an overly long wait is again now being called into question,” Arnold Fang, researcher for East Asia at Amnesty International, said in criticizing Wednesday’s court decision. “More than 70 years have passed since the end of World War II, and we cannot overstate the urgency for the Japanese government to stop depriving these survivors of their rights to full reparation and to provide an effective remedy within their lifetimes.”

In Tokyo, Katsunobu Kato, chief cabinet secretary to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, said the Japanese government planned to review the ruling in detail before commenting on it. He added that his government could not answer whether the new decision reflected a change in South Korea’s stance on the issue, but that “Japan’s attitude doesn’t change at all.”

Washington has urged Seoul and Tokyo to improve ties so that the allies can work more closely to address North Korea’s nuclear threat and China’s growing military influence in the region. For years, Japan and South Korea have locked horns over comfort women and other historical issues stemming from Japan’s colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945.

Tokyo insisted that all claims arising from its colonial rule, including those involving sexually enslaved women, had been settled by the 1965 treaty that established diplomatic relations between the two nations, as well as the 2015 comfort women agreement. Under the 1965 agreement, Japan provided South Korea with $500 million in aid and affordable loans.

The South Korean government did not immediately comment on Wednesday’s court ruling. But during a forum in Seoul on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said that, although his government had not abandoned the 2015 deal, the victims and their demands must be “at the center” of any effort to resolve the issue.

Hisako Ueno contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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France Lawmakers Pass Contentious Bill Extending Police Powers

PARIS — The French Parliament passed a contentious security bill on Thursday that extends police powers, despite criticism from political opponents and civil rights activists who have vowed to challenge the legislation before France’s Constitutional Council.

Among other measures, the bill broadens the powers of municipal police forces, expands the police’s ability to use drones to monitor citizens in public and toughens sentences for people found guilty of assaulting officers. One of the most arduously debated measures criminalizes the act of helping identify officers with intent to harm them.

President Emmanuel Macron’s government has argued that the bill provides a necessary boost to embattled police forces and protects them from increasingly violent protesters and malicious attempts to identify them or their families, off and online.

But critics — including the French journalist unions, civil liberties groups and the authorities’ own human rights ombudsman — say the legislation is too broad.

Constitutional Council, which reviews legislation to ensure it complies with the French Constitution and could strike down parts of the bill.

Opposition to the bill sparked large protests last fall and was fueled by several widely publicized instances of police brutality, especially the beating of a Black music producer in Paris that was caught on security camera in November.

While the protests put pressure on the government to rewrite a provision on sharing images of the police, it refused to heed calls from opponents to scrap the entire bill.

the Interior minister who championed the bill, told lawmakers on Thursday that it would be France’s “shame” if it failed to prevent people with malicious intent from publicly spreading identifying information or pictures of security forces.

“Police officers and gendarmes are children of the Republic, and they must be protected because they protect us every day,” Mr. Darmanin said.

an incident in Seine-Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris, where pictures of local officers were taken from their social media accounts, printed, and then posted on buildings that the minister described as spots for drug dealing, calling it an act of intimidation.

“While some moralizers strive to dismantle the security bill and most notably Article 24, time and time again, the police are bearing the consequences,” the Unité SGP Police union said in a statement after the pictures were discovered.

Police unions have long-complained that officers are overburdened and under appreciated, and after years of facing deadly terrorist attacks, suppressing violent Yellow Vest protests and enforcing strict Covid-19 lockdowns, the unions have welcomed steps to protect officers.

on police brutality and racism in France, after several years of controversies over deadly or brutal police interventions.

Over the past few months, six nongovernmental organizations took rare legal steps to force an overhaul of the country’s policing, and Mr. Macron’s government has started an online platform to consult citizens on discrimination issues.

Opponents of the security bill say it lacks adequate safeguards, for instance against police drones infringing on people’s privacy. They also argue that the provision aimed at preventing the malicious identification of police officers is still too open to interpretation, and that it could stifle attempts to record or document police brutality, including by journalists.

Alexis Corbière, a lawmaker for the far-left France Unbowed party who opposed the bill, told the National Assembly on Thursday that the bill did nothing to “reforge the essential trust between citizens and their police.”

“It casts suspicion on the role of the police,” Mr. Corbière said. “It gives the impression that this vital public service cannot be subjected to any citizen criticism.”

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A Wedding, an Airstrike, and Outrage at the French Military

DAKAR, Senegal — They had gathered for a wedding in a village in central Mali.

The ceremony took place the day before, but about 100 men and teenagers were still celebrating the next afternoon. They prayed together, then dispersed into different groups under some trees.

An hour later, 22 members of the wedding party were dead, killed by French warplanes. Nineteen of them were civilians, according to a report released Tuesday by the United Nations.

The Jan. 3 airstrike set off outrage in the West African country, and has intensified calls for France, which has more than 5,000 troops stationed in the region, to leave.

Soon after the airstrike on the village of Bounti reports began to emerge that a wedding had been hit. France immediately dismissed any suggestion that its planes had attacked a wedding party, or that there had been any collateral damage.

has dragged on for years with no end in sight. Just last week, French troops were accused of killing more civilians, this time in northern Mali. France said they were terrorists; a local mayor said they were teenagers hunting birds.

The report called for France and Mali to carry out their own investigations into what happened at the wedding and pay compensation to the victims.

Constant Méhuet contributed reporting from Paris.

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Eritrea Agrees to Withdraw Troops from Tigray, Ethiopia Says

NAIROBI, Kenya — After months of denial, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia admitted this week that Eritrean troops had been fighting in Tigray, the war-torn northern Ethiopian region where the brutal conflict between pro-government and local fighters has become a byword for atrocities against civilians.

On Friday, under mounting American and international pressure, Mr. Abiy went one step further and announced that the Eritrean soldiers had agreed to go home.

Mr. Abiy’s statement, issued after a meeting with President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, offered a faint glimmer of hope amid a stream of horrific reports about widespread looting, massacres and sexual violence in Tigray.

soldiers from Eritrea — even as Mr. Isaias, the dictatorial leader of the notoriously secretive country, denied that his troops were even present in Tigray.

Mr. Abiy flew to meet Mr. Isaias on Thursday, days after an envoy sent by President Biden pressed the Ethiopian leader to halt the carnage, and to reinforce American calls for an immediate withdrawal of Eritrean troops.The United States has publicly called for Eritrean soldiers to be withdrawn from Tigray.

On Friday Eritrea’s information minister, Yemane Ghebremeskel, appeared to confirm Mr. Abiy’s declaration that an Eritrean troop withdrawal had been agreed upon. Public statements from both governments “underline full agreement and consensus on all issues discussed,” he said in a text message after Mr. Abiy had left the Eritrean capital, Asmara.

Mr. Abiy launched a military campaign in Tigray on Nov. 4, accusing rebellious Tigrayan leaders of orchestrating an attack on a major military base and trying to topple the federal government.

As the fighting gathered pace, reports of gross abuses against civilians began to emerge from Tigray. Ethiopian soldiers, allied fighters from ethnic Ahmara militias, and fighters loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front all faced accusations.

But United Nations officials and human rights groups singled out Eritrean troops for many of the worst violations. Last weekend, Mr. Abiy spent five hours in talks with U.S. Senator Chris Coons, who had been sent to Ethiopia by President Biden to convey his alarm at the deteriorating situation.

In a briefing to reporters on Thursday, Mr. Coons said that the talks were “forthright” at times, and that Mr. Abiy had reiterated his promise to investigate human rights abuses in Tigray, including “credible reports of sexual violence as a tool of war.”

But Mr. Abiy has fallen short on such commitments before, Mr. Coons said, and the United States intends to keep up the pressure.

“It’s actions that are going to matter,” he said.

On Friday a State Department spokeswoman welcomed Ethiopia’s announcement, calling it “an important step” toward de-escalation.

In a mark of the impunity that has come to characterize the Tigrayan conflict, Ethiopian soldiers dragged civilians from a bus on a major road in Tigray and executed four of them in front of aid workers from Doctors Without Borders, the group said in a statement Thursday.

a landmark peace deal soon after Mr. Abiy came to power.

The pact earned Mr. Abiy the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 and helped Mr. Isaias, one of the world’s most repressive leaders, to emerge from international isolation. After the Tigray war erupted in November, though, critics said the two leaders were mostly united by their shared hostility toward the leaders of Tigray.

It was unclear on Friday whether Mr. Abiy’s announcement signaled a potential breakthrough in ending the fighting in Tigray or another feint by two leaders under international pressure.

In his statement, Mr. Abiy said Eritrea had agreed to withdraw its forces “out of the Ethiopian border,” where, effective immediately, Ethiopian soldiers were to assume border guarding duties.

But it was unclear if that included Eritrean troops stationed deep inside Tigray, where many of the worst atrocities have occurred.

Amnesty International has blamed Eritrean forces for the massacre of hundreds of civilians in Axum, a city in northern Tigray. Sexual violence survivors from Tigray have blamed horrific assaults on Eritrean troops.

over 500 rape cases have been reported at five clinics in Tigray, although the actual number is likely far higher.

“Women say they have been raped by armed actors, they also told stories of gang rape, rape in front of family members, and men being forced to rape their own family members under the threat of violence,” the official, Wafaa Said, said.

Exactly how many Eritrean troops are stationed inside Tigray and where is unclear. Much of the region remains out of bounds for aid workers and reporters, and sporadic fighting continues in rural and mountainous areas.

Still, the departure of all Eritrean troops would likely pose a serious military challenge to Mr. Abiy.

The Ethiopian army fractured in the early days of the war, when hundreds and possibly more Ethiopian soldiers defected to the rebel side, according to Western officials. Since then, Mr. Abiy has regained control of a swath of Tigray with help from his allies — ethnic Amhara fighters and soldiers from Eritrea.

Were the Eritreans to leave en masse, some analysts say, government forces might struggle to maintain their grip on the parts of Tigray that they now control.

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Fear and Hostility Simmer as Ethiopia’s Military Keeps Hold on Tigray

The calm is deceptive.

A stubbled crater attests to a recent artillery barrage, but with its bustling streets and shops, the highland Ethiopian city of Mekelle has an air of relative peace.

Then the stories start spilling out.

Of the hospital that begins its days with an influx of bodies bearing gunshot or knife wounds — people killed, relatives and Red Cross workers say, for breaching the nightly curfew.

Of the young man who made the mistake of getting into a heated argument with a government soldier in a bar. Hours later, friends said, four soldiers followed him home and beat him to death with beer bottles.

Of a nightlong battle between government forces and local militia fighters in a nearby town and its aftermath, when soldiers returning to collect their dead stormed into nearby homes, firing indiscriminately.

obtained by The New York Times.

A spokesman for the Ahmara regional government told Bloomberg this week that it was pressing to officially incorporate western Tigray into Amhara.

an investigation was approved by the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

In testimony to Congress last week, the United States secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, called the situation in Tigray unacceptable and reiterated calls for Eritrean troops to withdraw immediately.

“They need to come out,” Mr. Blinken said.

Mr. Mulu, the interim leader of Tigray, cuts a lonely figure in Mekelle. An ethnic Tigrayan installed by Mr. Abiy nine days into the war, he lives and works from a suite at the Axum Hotel where he is trying to trying to restart Tigray’s war-battered bureaucracy.

Unlike Mr. Abiy, Mr. Mulu does not deny the Eritrean presence in Tigray. And in an interview he said he had initiated his own investigation into reported atrocities.

“It’s not acceptable that people should die like this,” he said. “But we need evidence. We have requested our security forces to investigate it.”

Tigray’s health services, once among the best in Ethiopia, have been ravaged. On Monday, Doctors Without Borders said that dozens of clinics across the region had been destroyed and plundered by soldiers, often deliberately.

quit his job over the reports of atrocities in Tigray, accusing Mr. Abiy of leading Ethiopia “down a dark path toward destruction and disintegration.”

Inside Tigray, soldiers detained Ethiopian translators and reporters working for four international outlets, including The Times, last month. The men were released without charge days later, but by then most foreign reporters had been forced to leave Tigray.

In such a fraught environment, even massacres are contested.

Mr. Abiy’s officials frequently cite a massacre in Mai Kadra, a town in western Tigray, on Nov. 9, as an example of T.P.L.F. war crimes. Witnesses cited in an Amnesty International report blamed the deaths on Tigrayan fighters.

with a reputation for brutality, and insisted that the majority of victims were Tigrayans.

Solomon Haileselassie, 28, said he watched the slaughter from his hiding place in a garbage dump. “I saw them cut off people’s legs and arms with axes,” he said.

Fisseha Tekle, Amnesty International’s Horn of Africa researcher, said the group had received credible new evidence of Tigrayan deaths, but stood by the finding that the majority of victims were Amharas.

Restricted access and the “high politicization of violence” make it hard to establish the truth about much of anything in Tigray, Mr. Fisseha added.

An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Mekelle, Ethiopia.

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