Afghan election fraud row intensifies

A power struggle at the top of Afghanistan’s election commission is threatening to sway the outcome of the country’s presidential ballot, as officials argue over how many votes to discard because of fraud.

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The Electoral Complaints Commission is probing more than 2,000 fraud claims.

The head of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), who was appointed by President Hamid Karzai, is pressuring his staff to include all the votes, despite widespread evidence of vote rigging. Most of the fraud is in support of Mr Karzai, The Indipendent reports.

If Azizullah Ludin, the chairman of the IEC, gets his way, most analysts predict Karzai will win the election in the first round.

“He wants to publish everything and let the Election Complaints Commission take responsibility for working out which votes werefraudulent,” said an official involved in the process.

The complaints commission has the authority to discard dodgy votes, but Afghan and international officials admit it would be politically very difficult for them to change the result.

Meanwhile, the leader of Kandahar’s Bareez tribe has told the BBC that nearly 30,000 votes were cast fraudulently for President Hamid Karzai instead of a challenger.

Mr Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who heads the Kandahar provincial council, called the claims “baseless”.

Full investigation

Speaking to Daud Qarizadah of the BBC’s Persian television service, the Bareez tribal leader, Haji Mohammed Bareez, said that ballot boxes from one district were “stuffed” with fraudulent votes in favour of Mr Karzai.

The tribe believes it has been deprived of its votes and wants a full investigation by the complaints commission, which has the power to throw them out if they are proved invalid.

‘No preference’ for second round in Afghan vote

Earlier US special envoy Richard Holbrooke said the international community has no preference as to whether a second round run-off should be held to decide the winner of the Afghan presidential poll.

“We have no candidates and no preference as to a first round victory or a run-off,” he told reporters at the French foreign ministry ahead of a meeting of the international community’s senior envoys to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Our advocacy is for a fair process overseen by the Independent Electoral Commission, taking into account the decisions of the electoral complaints commission,” Holbrooke added.

Diplomats had previously said Holbrooke would prefer Afghanistan to hold a second round run-off between President Hamid Karzai and his rival Abdullah Abdullah in order to improve the credibility of a race marred by fraud claims.

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Visa beats expectations with 3rd quarter profit

Visa Inc<v.

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n>, the world’s largest credit and debit card processing network, beat expectations with a quarterly profit of $716 million, as consumers resumed spending.

The San Francisco-based transaction processing company reported net income of 97 cents per share for the third quarter ended June 30.

That was down slightly from Visa’s year-earlier net income of $729 million, or 97 cents per share, which included proceeds from the sale of the company’s stake in VisaNet do Brasil. Excluding the impact of that sale, Visa earned 67 cents per share a year earlier.

Analysts on average had expected Visa to report earnings of 93 cents per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Visa saw “continued improvements” in the volume of payments it processed during the quarter, Chief Executive Joseph Saunders said in a news release.

Visa reported revenue of $2 billion for the quarter, a 23 percent increase from a year earlier, slightly above expectations. Analysts on average had expected the company to report $1.97 billion in revenue.

But the company is at increased risk of losing revenues from the sweeping regulatory reform bill U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law last week. The bill overshadowed Visa’s shares for most of the quarter, driving them down more than 14 percent since early May.

The new law will restrict the processing fees that banks and networks receive from merchants every time a consumer pays for a good with a debit card. Visa dominates the U.S. debit processing market and is more exposed than its rival MasterCard Inc to a cutback in debit interchange fees.

Saunders said in the news release that Visa expects the U.S. debit market to “undergo changes” after the law is implemented, but “it is too early to fully and accurately gauge the impact of the legislation.”

Visa shares closed down 1.87 percent on Wednesday, at $75.18.

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Explosives found on sunken S.Korean warship

Traces of explosive have been found on the wreckage of South Korean warship destroyed in a mystery blast in March and are similar to the type used in torpedos, a report said.

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Four metal fragments which have also been found are an alloy of aluminum and magnesium used in a torpedo’s casing, Yonhap news agency quoted an unidentified government official as saying.

The report, if confirmed, would further strengthen suspicions that a North Korean torpedo blew the corvette apart near the disputed border on March 26 with the loss of 46 lives.

The defence ministry denied the report, as it did a similar report on Thursday.

Investigation continues

A multinational investigation team has been analysing wreckage and fragments “but no conclusion has yet been made”, spokesman Won Tae-Jae said.

Investigators have said a powerful external blast tore the 1,200-tonne ship in two — apparently limiting the possible causes to a torpedo or a mine.

The explosive traces were found to be of a high explosive called RDX, which is used in torpedoes but not mines, Yonhap quoted the official as saying on condition of anonymity.

Experts from the United States, Sweden, Australia and Britain have joined the investigation to ensure it is transparent.

After it ends, probably this month, Won said South Korea could invite experts from China and Russia — countries close to North Korea — to inspect the ship’s wreckage.

North Korea Blamed

President Lee Myung-Bak hinted Tuesday that North Korea was involved in the sinking. He promised a “resolute” response when the cause is established following the probe.

The South has not publicly ruled out a military response if the North is proved to have sunk the Cheonan, but has said it would probably take the issue to the UN Security Council.

As a veto-wielding Council member, China’s support would be crucial in anmy attempt to punish its ally.

Lee said results of the probe would be discussed with China.

North Korea has denied responsibility for the sinking.

The area where the Cheonan went down was the scene of deadly naval clashes in 1999 and 2002 and of a firefight last November which left a North Korean patrol boat in flames.

South Korean and US officials have said efforts to restart six-party talks on the North’s nuclear disarmament should be put on hold till the warship investigation is complete.

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60 killed in India temple stampede

A stampede on a bridge outside a Hindu temple has killed at least 60 people in India and dozens more may have died after they leapt into the water below, police say.

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“Sixty people are confirmed killed and the figure could reach 100,” said local Deputy Police Inspector General D.K. Arya.

“More than 100 others have been injured” in the disaster in the Datia district of central Madhya Pradesh state, he added.

Arya said the stampede was triggered by rumours the bridge might collapse after being struck by a heavy vehicle around lunchtime.

“There were rumours that the bridge could collapse after the tractor hit it,” he said.

“Many people are feared to have fallen into the river and are unaccounted for.”

Other police sources said that some 20,000 people were on the bridge over the River Sindh when the stampede broke out.

Large crowds began converging on the site from early morning, according to witnesses.

Up to 400,000 devotees were already inside or around the temple in Datia district, which is around 350 kilometres north of the state capital Bhopal, when the stamped happened.

NDTV, an Indian television network, cited sources at the scene as saying the situation was exacerbated by police charging at the crowds with heavy wooden sticks known as lathis.

However Arya insisted “there was no baton-charge” by the police.

The Times of India reported that crowds could seen pelting police with stones as frustration grew over the rescue operation.

Efforts to reach the injured and ferry them to hospital were being hampered by the huge volume of traffic in the area.

A team of around 20 medics had however managed to reach the scene of the tragedy and the casualty wards of nearby hospitals were being emptied to cope with the influx of victims, the newspaper added on its website.

Hindus are celebrating the end of the Navaratri festival, dedicated to the worship of the Hindu goddess Durga, which draws millions of worshippers to temples especially in northern and central India.

India has a long history of deadly stampedes at religious festivals, with at 36 people trampled to death back in February as pilgrims headed home from the Kumbh Mela religious festival on the banks of the river Ganges.

Some 102 Hindu devotees were killed in a stampede in January 2011 in the state of Kerala while 224 pilgrims died in September 2008 as thousands of worshippers rushed to reach a 15th-century hill-top temple in Jodhpur.

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Ireland set to exit EU-IMF bailout

Ireland will become the first eurozone country to exit its bailout in December, Prime Minister Enda Kenny says.

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He warns, however, that there is still some way to go to full recovery.

Ireland was forced to turn to the European Union and the International Monetary Fund for an 85-billion-euro ($A121.96 billion) bailout in 2010 after its banks collapsed and its overheated property market went into meltdown.

Kenny told a conference of his Fine Gael party on Saturday there were “fragile times” ahead and a budget due on Tuesday would be tough, but that Ireland was ready to leave the bailout.

“Tonight I can confirm that Ireland is on track to exit the EU-IMF bailout on December 15. And we won’t go back,” he said.

“It won’t mean that our financial troubles are over. Yes, there are still fragile times ahead. There’s still a long way to go.

“But at last, the era of the bailout will be no more. The economic emergency will be over.”

Kenny admitted the budget would include another 2.5 billion euros in tax rises and spending cuts.

But he said it would leave Ireland running a 4.8 per cent deficit next year, and pledged that the government would publish a new economic plan for the medium term by the end of the year.

Ireland enjoyed double-digit economic growth for a decade from the mid-1990s, earning it the nickname of the Celtic Tiger, but it was hammered by the 2008 global financial crisis.

In return for the bailout, the government was forced to introduce stringent austerity measures.

But it has been described as a “poster boy” for bailed-out EU economies, exiting recession in the second quarter of this year with growth of 0.4 per cent thanks to solid expansion of its construction and export sectors.

If Ireland does leave the scheme in December, it will be the first of the four bailed-out eurozone countries to do so.

Financial packages have also been given to Cyprus, Greece and Portugal.

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Record crowds watch A-League openers

As the national team stumbled abroad, soccer in Australia took another giant leap with record crowds attending the A-League opening round.

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Adelaide United and Brisbane Roar banked season-opening victories on Sunday and helped the league create new attendance records.

Bolstered by massive crowds in Sydney, Melbourne and Gosford, some 100,998 people attended the opening round.

The figure surpasses the previous best for a regular-season round of 93,500, set in last season’s first round.

The record was set on Sunday as Adelaide beat Perth Glory 3-1 at Coopers Stadium in Adelaide, and Brisbane Roar notched a last-gasp 2-1 away win against Wellington Phoenix.

Adelaide and Brisbane joined Sydney FC as first-round winners.

The Sky Blues showed early signs of revival after a disappointing last season, notching an impressive 2-0 triumph against Newcastle Jets before a 20,103-strong Sydney crowd on Friday night.

Melbourne’s derby between the Victory and Heart was a scoreless draw watched by 45,202 spectators at Etihad Stadium on Saturday night.

The crowd was the second largest for a non-finals A-League match, the all-time record remains the 50,333 who watched Melbourne Victory play Sydney FC at the same venue in 2006/07.

In other results in the initial weekend of the new season, reigning champions Central Coast Mariners drew 1-1 with defending premiers Western Sydney Wanderers before 17,143 fans at Gosford on Saturday.

The first free-to-air coverage of an A-League match on Friday night also helped generate a new record for a TV audience for a game in the competition, with an average of 358,000 viewers watching Sydney FC’s clash with Newcastle on SBS and Fox Sports.

Head of the A-League Damien de Bohun said the first round lived up to the pre-season hype.

“Record crowds, record TV figures, a sell-out crowd, magnificent atmosphere and some fantastic football – the A-League is back with a bang,” de Bohun said in a statement.

“It was a fantastic start to the season and full credit to the players, coaches and fans, who all played their part in creating the first round of theatre. We had some big crowds, tight matches and tense derbies.”

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Strong winds expected amid NSW bushfires

Firefighters are bracing for a night of strong winds and thunderstorms, as a number of homes in NSW were destroyed by bushfires.

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The NSW Rural Fire Service has downgraded bushfires in Port Stephens in the state’s Hunter region to `watch and act’ levels, but warns a southerly change could spread the blaze.

“It can prove to be quite problematic because there’s going to be extremely strong wind gusts that come with it,” a spokesman told AAP on Sunday.

“When we get a shift from the wind and it turns south which we’re seeing tonight, the sides of the fires can then turn into the fronts of the fires.”

Five properties have reportedly been damaged or destroyed between Salt Ash and Tanilba Bay in Port Stephens.

“We don’t have solid confirmation of that yet,” the NSW RFS spokesman said.

“But obviously there’s been footage on the news tonight which clearly shows there have been properties destroyed.”

The fires across the state come as the Bureau of Meteorology issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the mid-north coast, the Hunter region and other parts of NSW.

The bureau is urging people in those areas to move their cars away from trees and stay indoors.

Conditions are easing on the Tangory Mountain fire ground, 15km east of Singleton but authorities warn the southerly change could make the situation worse.

Once the southerly change passes tonight, firefighters expect conditions to ease considerably. They’ll use the calmer conditions in the next two days to contain the remaining fires.

More than 100 firefighters are also working on controlling a large bushfire in the Webbs Creek area, near Wisemans Ferry, in the Hawkesbury region.

Meanwhile, 43 cars were destroyed near Sydney Olympic Park in Sydney’s west when a grass fire spread into a carpark near an aquatic centre, Fire and Rescue NSW Superintendent Ian Krimmer told AAP.

Around 1500 people were evacuated and three people were treated for smoke inhalation.

Authorities have declared the area safe but will continue to monitor it overnight.

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Labor to decide on deputy leader, frontbench

Mr Shorten defeated former deputy leader Anthony Albanese after a month-long campaign for the Labor leadership.

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The Labor caucus will today begin putting together a team to take on the Coalition government for the next three years, with Mr Shorten expected to allocate portfolios on Friday.

Bill Shorten says he has “things to learn” after winning federal Labor’s historic leadership ballot despite being backed by just 40 per cent of the party’s grassroots members.

While the new leader won the backing of his parliamentary colleagues, the party’s rank and file overwhelmingly backed his rival Anthony Albanese.

The membership tally was 60-40 per cent in favour of Mr Albanese, but Mr Shorten took the top job after caucus backed him by 55 votes to 31.

“This ballot shows that there are still things for me to learn,” Mr Shorten told reporters in Canberra.

“The party has spoken and what I undertake to do is to learn, is to listen but also to help the process of rebuilding Labor with good policies.”

The ballot marked the start of “the renewal of Labor” as an alternative government.

Despite the ballot numbers, the Right faction powerbroker said he knew of moderate members who voted both for and against him.

Mr Shorten played down his perceived lack of parliamentary experience, citing his battle as trade union leader against the Howard government’s WorkChoices industrial relations laws before he entered parliament in 2007.

“I do believe that Australians in the Labor movement contribute through a variety of ways, not just through parliament,” he said.

When quizzed about his role in the downfall of two Labor prime ministers in three years, Mr Shorten said people would see him as someone who would always work in the best interests of the nation before he considered his party.

He vowed not to be as “relentlessly negative” as Prime Minister Tony Abbott was in opposition.

Labor will meet on Monday to decide its shadow ministry and name a deputy opposition leader, likely to be Mr Shorten’s pick Tanya Plibersek.

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Hockey’s comments put new scrutiny of foreign investment in land in question

By Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Treasurer Joe Hockey has refused to confirm the Coalition will insist on a new $15 million threshold for scrutiny of foreign investment bids for land in its negotiations with the Chinese for a free trade agreement.

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The lowering of the threshold for bids from non-state owned enterprises from $248 million was proposed in a Coalition paper before the election. It is strongly supported by the Nationals, making any walking away from it very tricky. Under the present policy all land bids by state owned enterprises automatically trigger Foreign Investment Review Board scrutiny.

Hockey, speaking from Washington, dodged questions on whether the government would be flexible in its discussions with China.

“The $15 million threshold applies to those countries that have not signed the free trade agreement with Australia, and therefore we deal with them on a case by case basis. We will see where the negotiations take us,” Hockey told Sky.

“I’m not going to preempt the outcome of any of the negotiations, but I do want to emphasise that Australia is open for investment and we need foreign investment. We need foreign investment because Australia cannot fund its own needs.”

He also dodged when pressed on the long standing Chinese request to be given the same concession granted to the Americans of a $1 billion threshold for investments before there was a FIRB inquiry.

“I’m not going to preempt the outcome of negotiations,” he said, “It’s a balancing act and I’m very confident we will get it right if we are to conclude a free trade negotiation with China.”

He said that in his discussion with the finance minister of China “we were both very frank with each other about the fact that it is important that [an agreement] had a two-way negotiation and a two-way investment flow.”

The Nationals are expected to reaffirm their support in their party room for the $15 million threshold for land bids.

Victorian Liberal Dan Tehan last week said thresholds should be part of the FTA negotiation.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said that he wants an FTA with China concluded within a year.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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AM Finance Update – what you need to know

WORLD FINANCE UPDATE:

The Australian dollar is lower after talks to extend the US debt ceiling collapsed.

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At 0630 AEDT on Monday, the local unit was trading at 94.23 US cents, down from 94.76 cents on Friday.

And the Australian market looks set to open higher after Wall Street closed higher for a second straight session on rising optimism about a Washington deal to avert a debt default.

At 0645 AEDT on Monday, the December share price index futures contract was up 33 points at 5,262.

ELSEWHERE:

WASHINGTON – As debate rages over the US budget and borrowing limit, International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde has warned US spending cuts must not be too drastic or they could threaten global economic recovery.

WASHINGTON – With House Republicans blaming President Barack Obama for the collapse of talks on extending US borrowing authority, the Senate is scrambling to piece together a bipartisan exit strategy.

DUBLIN – Ireland will become the first eurozone country to exit its bailout in December, Prime Minister Enda Kenny says.

SEOUL – The world’s leading energy officials will meet this week in South Korea to discuss the sector’s major challenges, ranging from climate change to the rise of fracking and nuclear power’s uncertain future.

BUCHAREST – Thousands of people are blocking a major road in downtown Bucharest to protest plans to build what would be Europe’s biggest gold mine.

BEIJING – Chinese construction giant Beijing Construction Engineering Group (BCEG) has signed a deal with British firms to develop a business district around Manchester airport, the companies involved in the project say.

BERLIN – Airbus chief Fabrice Bregier says the European planemaker will overtake its US rival Boeing to become the world’s biggest producer within four or five years, in an interview with a German Sunday newspaper.

WASHINGTON – Yahoo says it has acquired tech company Bread, a URL shortener that allows users to design then target advertisements to readers who click on their links.

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Coach Markarian ends Peru tenure behind closed doors

The stands at Lima’s Estadio Nacional will be empty after Peru were punished by FIFA for crowd trouble at their previous home qualifier last month when fans threw objects at Argentine referee Patricio Loustau after a 2-1 defeat by Uruguay.

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“This is the last (qualifying) match and we’re going to play as if it were the most important,” Markarian told a news conference. “It’s surely my last match with the national team, I feel great sadness at leaving this job.”

The highlight of the 68-year-old Uruguayan’s three years in charge was third place at the 2011 Copa America in Argentina but during his time in the job he failed to end Peru’s World Cup qualification drought dating back to 1982.

“I leave with more players consolidated (in the Peru team) than I found,” Markarian said.

“We have definitely built a squad for the future … the directors backed me all the time. I tried to do my best but it wasn’t enough.”

Markarian, whose team have won four and lost nine of their 15 qualifiers, gave a qualifying debut to teenager Cristian Benavente on Friday when Peru lost 3-1 to South American group winners Argentina in Buenos Aires and is excepted to give him his first start on Tuesday.

“We’re looking to change Peruvian football’s image. We must find solutions to face the next qualifiers (for the 2018 World Cup) successfully,” midfielder Benavente, who is on Real Madrid’s books, told reporters.

Peru have produced many skilled players over the years, from Teofilo Cubillas, who inspired them to the World Cup quarter-finals in 1970, to Paolo Guerrero, top scorer at the 2011 Copa America.

They have been let down by poor organisation, indiscipline and the failure of players to become more tactically aware.

Markarian earned his appointment in 2010 after several years in Peru coaching club sides Universitario and Sporting Cristal and winning the league title with both in the 1990s. He has also coached in Paraguay, Greece, Mexico and Chile.

(Reporting by Rex Gowar in Buenos Aires; Editing by Sonia Oxley)

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Malta urges clear EU strategy on migrants

Malta has called on the European Union to develop a “clear strategy” to deal with migrants fleeing conflicts to their shores after two shipwrecks claimed hundreds of lives.

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“We are no superpower,” Prime Minister Joseph Muscat told AFP. “But we do not only control our border but also Europe’s borders, and Italy is doing the same.”

Also on Sunday, Syrian refugees who survived a boat capsize off Malta said they were fired on by “militiamen” as they set out on their perilous journey from Libya.

At least 36 people perished after the boat sank on Friday, a week after another shipwreck off Italy left at least 359 dead.

“Those people had a life and a stable job in their country but could not live there any longer,” Muscat said. “The group that arrived (in Malta) yesterday included 10 medical doctors and a neurosurgeon.”

The prime minister complained of the “very little response” Malta had received in appeals for EU solidarity over the humanitarian crisis.

“This situation cannot be solved with money but with political commitment and a clear strategy,” he said.

Earlier on Sunday, Muscat held a surprise meeting in Libya with his counterpart Ali Zeidan, saying afterwards that the north African country was “part of the solution”.

A boat carrying up to 400 migrants, mostly Syrians, left the western Libyan port of Zwara on Thursday.

Some of the more than 200 survivors said Libyan militiamen shot wildly at them, leaving several people dead and causing the vessel to take on water and sink.

Italian and Maltese forces on Sunday rescued a total of 386 people aboard two boats and escorted them to Sicily. Around 100 were taken to Malta.

Italian customs police meanwhile rescued around 200 migrants who were expected to head to southern Italy.

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta has announced an “Italian sea and air humanitarian mission” in the Mediterranean on Monday that would triple available vessels and add aviation to ward off further tragedies.

Foreign Minister Emma Bonino stressed that patrols should serve to rescue migrants rather than “telling them to stay where they are”.

Italy has also appealed to fellow EU states for help in managing the crisis and wants migration to be put on the agenda of summit talks in Brussels later this month.

According to UNHCR estimates, some 32,000 migrants have arrived in Malta and Italy this year.

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Amnesty brands AU’s ICC call ‘deplorable’

The African Union’s call for the International Criminal Court to defer the crimes against humanity trials of Kenya’s leadership is “deplorable”, Amnesty International says.

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The London-based human rights organisation said on Sunday the AU, which is also calling for sitting heads of state to be exempt from appearing before the court in The Hague, sent out the wrong message.

“This declaration sends the wrong message, that politicians on the African continent will place their political interests above those of victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide,” said Tawanda Hondora, Amnesty’s deputy director of law and policy.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto have been charged with crimes against humanity for allegedly masterminding a vicious campaign of ethnic violence that left at least 1100 dead and more than 600,000 homeless after disputed 2007 elections.

Following last month’s Islamist militant attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall, Kenyatta has already demanded he be allowed to appear by video link so he can deal with national security issues.

On Saturday he attacked the ICC as the “toy of declining imperial powers”.

However, Hondora said the trials should still go ahead.

“Requesting the deferral of the trials of Kenyatta and Ruto would send a strong message that the victims of the post-election violence in Kenya don’t matter.

“Victims of the post-election violence have waited over five years to see the cogs of justice turn after Kenya failed to deliver justice and the ICC stepped in.

“These trials should and must go ahead.”

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