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Iran warns protesters against pursuing bold challenge to leadership

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LONDON (Reuters) – Iran warned of a tough crackdown on Sunday against demonstrators who pose one of the most audacious challenges to its clerical leaders since nationwide pro-reform unrest jolted the Islamist theocracy in 2009.

Police in Tehran fired water cannon to try to disperse demonstrators gathering in Ferdowsi Square in the center of the capital, according to video footage posted on social media, in an apparent fourth day of protests.

Video posted online also showed a clash between protesters and police in the city of Khoramdareh in Zanjan province in the country’s northwest. There were also reports of protests in the cities of Sanandaj and Kermanshah in western Iran.

Reuters was unable immediately to verify the authenticity of the footage.

Tens of thousands of people have protested across the country since Thursday against the Islamic Republic’s unelected clerical elite and Iranian foreign policy in the region. They have also chanted slogans in support of political prisoners.

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Demonstrators initially vented their anger over economic hardships and alleged corruption but they have also begun to call on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to step down.

The government said it would temporarily restrict access to the Telegram and Instagram messaging apps, state television quoted an informed source as saying.

President Hassan Rouhani will address the nation on television on Sunday night, the semi-official news agency ISNA said. It did not give details and there was no immediate official confirmation of the report.

An Iranian reached by telephone, who asked not to be named, said there was a heavy presence of police and security forces in central Tehran.

“I saw a few young men being arrested and put into police van. They don’t let anyone assemble,” he said.

Video from earlier days posted on social media showed people chanting: “Mullahs, have some shame, leave the country alone.”

BREAKING TABOO

The demonstrators also shouted: “Reza Shah, bless your soul”. Such calls are evidence of a deep level of anger and break a taboo. The king ruled Iran from 1925 to 1941 and his Pahlavi dynasty was overthrown in a revolution in 1979 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s first leader.

The protests are the biggest since unrest in 2009 that followed the disputed re-election of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Demonstrators denounce high prices, corruption and mismanagement. Unemployment stood at 12.4 percent in this fiscal year, up 1.4 points from the previous year. About 3.2 million Iranians are jobless, out of a total population of 80 million.

The demonstrations are particularly troublesome for Rouhani’s government because he was elected on a promise to guarantee rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

His main achievement is a deal in 2015 with world powers that curbed Iran’s nuclear program in return for a lifting of most international sanctions. But it is yet to bring the economic benefits the government promised.

“Those who damage public property, violate law and order and create unrest are responsible for their actions and should pay the price,” state media quoted Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli as saying.

Ali Asghar Naserbakht, deputy governor of Tehran province, was quoted as saying by ILNA news agency that 200 protesters had been arrested on Saturday.

Videos posted on social media showed families gathering in front of Evin Prison in Tehran, asking for information about relatives arrested in recent days.

“CARRIED AWAY BY EMOTIONS”

Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said some of the arrested protesters had confessed “they were carried away by emotions and set fire to mosques and public buildings” and said they would face heavy punishment.

“After giving thousands of martyrs for the Revolution, the nation will not return to dark era of Pahlavi rule,” he said.

Protesters defied the police and Revolutionary Guards who have used violence to crush previous unrest. These demonstrations could be more worrying for authorities because they seem spontaneous and lack a clear leader.

No political party had urged Iranians to take to the streets and opposition leaders who galvanized Iranians during 2009 are under house arrest. In addition, the range of slogans suggests discontent across social classes with government policies.

Iran has a dual system of clerical and republican rule, in which each faction vies for control. The supreme leader rules for life and is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He also appoints the head of the judiciary and, in all, has more power over foreign and economic policy than the elected president.

Analysts say Iran’s leaders believe they can count on the support of many from a generation that took part as youths in the 1979 revolution and the ensuing eight-year war with Iraq to continue to defend the Islamic system, despite their advancing age, because of their ideological commitment and the economic gains they have made under the government.

In apparent response to the protests, the government backed down on plans to raise fuel prices, promised to increase cash handouts to the poor and create more jobs in coming years.

“We predict that at least 830,000 jobs will be created in the new year,” government spokesman Mohammad Baqer Nobakht said on state television on Saturday night. He gave no details. Around 3.2 million Iranians are jobless.

Protesters also expressed anger over costly interventions in Syria and Iraq, where Iran is engaged in a proxy war for influence against regional rival Saudi Arabia.

Videos on social media showed protesters in the city of Shiraz tearing down a banner of Qassem Soleimani, the powerful head of the Quds Force, the branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ that overseas operations in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

TRUMP TWEETS

The United States condemned the scores of arrests of protesters reported by Iranian media.

President Donald Trump tweeted: “The people are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism. Looks like they will not take it any longer. The USA is watching very closely for human rights violations!”

Trump refused in October to certify that Tehran is complying with its 2015 nuclear deal and said he might terminate the agreement. He also detailed a more aggressive approach to Iran over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its support for militant groups in the Middle East.

Canada said it was encouraged by the protests. The country suspended diplomatic relations with Iran in 2012 and called Tehran the biggest threat to global security.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying by state media that “Canada’s intervention in Iranian affairs is a violation of international conventions”.

British foreign minister Boris Johnson tweeted that it was “vital that citizens should have the right to demonstrate peacefully”.

Protesters have attacked banks and government buildings and burned police vehicles. Two demonstrators were shot dead in the western town of Dorud on Saturday night. The deputy governor of Lorestan province blamed foreign agents for the deaths.

“No shots were fired by the police and security forces. We have found evidence of enemies of the revolution, Takfiri groups and foreign agents in this clash,” Habibollah Khojastehpour said on state television. Takfiri is a term for extreme Sunni militants such as Islamic State.

Ahmad Khatami, a hardline cleric who leads Friday prayers in the capital Tehran, called for capital punishment for those chanting slogans against the values of the Islamic Republic.

Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and William Maclean

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Leading German Far-Right Figure Ditches Party, Converts To Islam

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A leading member of Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany party, known for lamenting “Islamization” of the country, has stepped down following his conversion to Islam, according to multiple reports.

Arthur Wagner resigned from his position in the German state of Brandenburg on Jan. 11 for “personal reasons,” party spokesman Daniel Friese said Wednesday. Friese added that the party has no issue with Wagner’s decision.

It’s unclear what prompted Wagner’s religious conversion. Alternative for Germany, or AfD, rose to prominence beginning in 2015 with the influx of refugees and migrants into Europe. The party worked to appeal to mainstream Germans by stoking fear of a cultural overhaul and a threat to the German lifestyle.

“What they’ve done is create this extraordinary newspeak where all of their positions are justified in terms of liberal arguments about right to an identity, right to a separate culture ― arguments about how far a Western culture can absorb a non-Western culture,” Roger Griffin, an expert on fascism and modern history at Oxford Brookes University, told HuffPost last year.

The party was voted into Germany’s Bundestag, or parliament, for the first time in last year’s elections. It’s promoted policies like the repatriation of 500,000 Syrian refugeesliving in Germany, claiming the Syrian civil war is almost over.

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Brazilian Court Upholds Lula’s Corruption Conviction

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PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil, Jan 24 (Reuters) – A Brazilian appeals court upheld the corruption conviction of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Wednesday, a major blow to the plans of the country’s most influential politician to run for the presidency again this year.

The first two of three judges voted to uphold Lula’s convictions on taking bribes and money laundering and agreed with the prosecutors’ request to lengthen the prison sentence of Brazil’s first working-class leader, who remains free pending future appeals.

Lula, 72, could now be ineligible to stand for election under Brazil’s “Ficha Limpa” or “Clean Record” law, which bans political candidates whose convictions are upheld by an appelate court. However, an electoral court must make the final ruling on a candidacy, and would only do so once a candidate had registered.

Lula can appeal Wednesday’s decision to higher courts to delay a final decision, possibly avoiding jail and stringing the process out long enough to register his candidacy by the Aug. 15 deadline.

Lula is one of scores of powerful politicians and businessmen caught up in sweeping corruption probes that have wracked the Brazilian establishment since 2014.

His exclusion from the election would radically alter the political landscape ahead of a campaign in which Lula is the early favorite, with 36 percent of voter preferences according to pollster Datafolha. That is double the percentage of his nearest rival, the far-right congressman and former army captain Jair Bolsonaro, who has been energized by anti-Lula sentiment.

Brazil’s benchmark Bovespa stock index has risen 8 percent so far this year, propped up by expectations Lula will be barred from the election, clearing the way for a more market-friendly candidate who would stick to Brazil’s austerity agenda.

The Bovespa hit an all-time high on Wednesday as the first of three judges on the court began reading his decision, dismissing a series of arguments presented by Lula’s lawyers.

Brazil’s currency, the real, firmed 1.6 percent against the U.S. dollar, leading gains in Latin America.

MORE CASES

Lula faces six other indictments in corruption cases ranging from receiving bribes from engineering firm Odebrecht to obstructing justice and trafficking his influence to obtain government decisions favoring the auto industry. He is among over 100 people convicted in the “Car Wash” investigation, the most sprawling of Brazil’s numerous probes, focused on graft involving oil firm Petroleo Brasileiro and other state-run companies.

Speaking at a union rally on the outskirts of Sao Paulo on Wednesday, Lula told the crowd, “I committed no crime.”

“The only fair decision today would be a 3-0 ruling that I was wrongly convicted and sentenced,” Lula said

BEACHSIDE APARTMENT

Lula was convicted of corruption and money laundering last year for accepting a beachside apartment from an engineering firm vying for contracts with the state oil company known as Petrobras.

Prosecutors said the apartment and its refurbishing was a bribe worth 3.7 million reais ($1.1 million). Lula maintains he never owned the penthouse apartment, criticizing prosecutors for relying on the plea bargain testimony of one witness, businessman Leo Pinheiro.

“His word is not enough to incriminate Lula,” Lula’s lawyer Cristiano Zanin told the appeals court.

(Writing and additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Additional reporting by Bruno Federowski in Brasilia and Pablo Garcia in Sao Bernardo do Campo; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Andrew Hay)

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Trump Threatens To Pull Aid To Palestinians If They Don’t Pursue Peace

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DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump threatened on Thursday to withhold aid to the Palestinians if they did not pursue peace with Israel, saying they had snubbed the United States by not meeting Vice President Mike Pence during a recent visit.

Trump, speaking after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the World Economic Forum, said he wanted peace. However, his remarks could further frustrate the aim of reviving long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Palestinians shunned Pence’s visit to the region this month after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and vowed to begin moving the U.S. embassy to the city, whose status is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Trump’s endorsement in December of Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its capital drew universal condemnation from Arab leaders and criticism around the world. It also broke with decades of U.S. policy that the city’s status must be decided in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

“When they disrespected us a week ago by not allowing our great vice president to see them, and we give them hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and support, tremendous numbers, numbers that nobody understands ― that money is on the table and that money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace,” Trump said.

The United States said this month it would withhold $65 million of $125 million it had planned to send to the U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees. The UNRWA agency is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from U.N. states and the United states is the largest contributor.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the United States had taken itself “off the table” as a peace mediator since it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“Palestinian rights are not up to any bargain and Jerusalem is not for sale. The United States can’t have any role unless it retreats its decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah told Reuters by phone from Jordan.

Abbas has called Trump’s Jerusalem declaration a “slap in the face” and has rejected Washington as an honest broker in any future talks with Israel. Abbas left for an overseas visit before Pence arrived.

Abbas has said he would only accept a broad, internationally backed panel to broker any peace talks with Israel. The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley also criticized Abbas.

Israel’s government regards Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the country, although that is not recognized internationally. Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Speaking in Davos, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said only the United States could broker a peace deal.

“I think there’s no substitute for the United States. As the honest broker, as a facilitator, there’s no other international body that would do it,” Netanyahu said.

Trump said Palestinians had to come to the negotiating table.

“Because I can tell you that Israel does want to make peace and they’re going to have to want to make peace too or we’re going to have nothing to do with them any longer,” Trump said.

Trump said his administration had a peace proposal in the works that was a “great proposal forPalestinians” which covers “a lot of the things that were over the years discussed or agreed on”, without providing specifics.

Trump said his declaration on Jerusalem took it off the negotiating table “and Israel will pay for that”, adding “they’ll do something that will be a very good thing” without elaborating.

Earlier at the World Economic Forum, Jordanian King Abdullah said Jerusalem had to be part of a comprehensive solution.

He said Trump’s decision had created a backlash, frustrating Palestinians who felt there was no honest broker.

But he added: “I’d like to reserve judgment because we’re still waiting for the Americans to come out with their plan.”

King Abdullah’s Hashemite dynasty is the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, making Jordan particularly sensitive to any changes of status there.

The last talks collapsed in 2014, partly due to Israel’s opposition to an attempted unity pact between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, and because of Israeli settlement building on occupied land that Palestinians seek for a state, among other factors.

Palestinians want the West Bank for a future state, along with East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Most countries consider as illegal the Israeli settlements built in the territory which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Israel denies its settlements are illegal and says their future should be determined in peace talks.

The United States has said it would support a two-state solution if the Israelis and Palestiniansagreed to it.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in RAMALLAH, Ari Rabinovitch in JERUSALEM, Michelle Nichols at the UNITED NATIONS and Noah Barkin and Dmitry Zhdannikov in DAVOS; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Mark Bendeich)

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