Former Pope adviser gets jail term, fine for financial crimes

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Sunday, 17th December 2023

A Vatican court on Saturday sentenced a once powerful Italian cardinal to five-and-a-half years in jail and fined him €8,000 for financial crimes at the end of a historic trial. Cardinal Angelo Becciu, 75, a former adviser to Pope Francis who was once considered a papal contender himself, was the most senior clergyman in the Catholic Church to face a Vatican criminal court. He and nine other defendants, including financiers, lawyers and former Vatican employees, were on trial for accusations of financial crimes focused on an opaque London property deal. Becciu was accused of embezzlement, abuse of office and witness tampering. His lawyer, Fabio Viglione, said they respected the sentence but would “certainly” appeal. Becciu had always strongly protested his innocence, denouncing the accusations against him as “totally unfounded” and insisting he never took a cent.

At the heart of the trial is the €350-million- purchase of a luxury property in London, as part of an investment that began in 2014 and ended up costing the Vatican tens of millions of euros. Just weeks before the trial, Francis gave the Vatican’s civilian courts the power to try cardinals and bishops, where previously they were judged by a court presided over by cardinals. For its part, the Holy See viewed itself as “an offended party” and has asked, through Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, for the court to “punish all crimes”. Four Vatican entities are civil parties. They had requested compensation from the defendants, including €177 million for moral and reputational damage. Becciu is also accused over payments made to a Sardinian woman, Cecilia Marogna, who is also on trial, which he claims were to help negotiate the release of a Colombian nun kidnapped in Mali.

Pope’s surgeon investigated for alleged fraud

A top Italian surgeon who has operated on Pope Francis twice is under investigation by prosecutors, the Gemelli hospital in Rome confirmed following media reports of alleged fraud. Sergio Alfieri is accused of having falsely declared to have been the operating surgeon “in many cases”, while being somewhere else entirely, according to Italy’s La Stampa, which alleged it was a scam to pocket extra private sector fees. Alfieri’s lawyer Carlo Bonzano was quoted by Italian news agency Adnkronos as saying the surgeon “is certain he has always respected the rules”, while Alfieri himself told La Repubblica he was “not at all worried”. In a statement, the Gemelli said that while it continued to ensure the widest collaboration with the investigators, it expressed the utmost trust in Professor Sergio Alfieri’s work and in his indisputable professional and human qualities”. The Gemelli hospital is the favoured choice of pontiffs, where Alfieri performed a hernia operation on Francis in June, as well as colon surgery in 2021.

Trump shock against migrants: ‘they poison US blood’

Former US President Donald Trump violently addressed the migrant crisis during a rally in New Hampshire, accusing people crossing the border of “poisoning the blood of the United States”. Observers note that Trump’s anti-migrant rhetoric is nothing new but in Durham, a few weeks before the Republican primaries in Iowa, it reached new heights of aggression. “They are poisoning the blood of our country. They are coming to our country, from Africa, from Asia, from all over the world”, attacked the tycoon, reiterating that if he returns to the White House he will tighten his country’s immigration laws during his first term.

Capitol Hill rocked by sex tape scandal

A congressional staffer has reportedly been fired after footage featuring him and another man seemingly having sex in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill was leaked online. The eight-second clip was published by the Daily Caller alongside an article penned by Henry Rodgers, who reported that the video was initially shared in a group chat for gay men in politics. The video appears to show a pair of men in the same room where the 9/11 commission hearings were held and former FBI Director James Comey delivered testimony about Donald Trump in 2017, according to Politico. While the Daily Caller did not identify those involved, conservative outlets named Aidan Maese-Czropski, an aide to Maryland Democrat Sen. Ben Cardin, as one of the participants. In a somewhat cryptic post shared on LinkedIn, Maese-Czropski acknowledged that while “some of my actions in the past have shown poor judgement”, he would “never disrespect [his] workplace”. He did not specifically refer to the video. Fox News reports after the graphic video was published, Democratic Senator Ben Cardin’s office announced “a legislative aide was no longer employed by the Senate” but did not address reports linking the aide to the video.

Santos wins Portugal’s Socialist primaries

Former Infrastructure Minister Pedro Nuno Santos, 46, is the winner of the Portugal’s Socialist Party primaries. He succeeds Antonio Costa as general secretary of the party, whose resignation from the position of prime minister led to early legislative elections scheduled for March 10. “What we want now on is a united party” that will work “to give stability” to the country, declared Santos after obtaining 62 per cent of the votes.

13 killed in Argentina as sports facility roof collapses

Thirteen people were killed as the roof of a sports clubcollapsed during a storm in the port city of Bahia Blanca in Argentina. Heavy rain and winds of over 140 km/h caused the roof of a facility where a skating competition was taking place to collapse, sources from the mayor’s office reported. “Unfortunately the emergency service confirms the death of 13 people in the Bahiense del Norte club,” the municipality announced, adding that the firefighters intervened on the scene.

World mourns Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Nawaf

The UN General Asembly and the European Union were the tow main organisation mourning the death of Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah together with the countries in the Middle East and other parts of the world. Sheikh Nawaf, who died at 86 earlier on Saturday, kept a low profile, with his three-year reign focused on trying to resolve the tiny, oil-rich nation’s internal political disputes. He will be laid to rest on today. Public offices in Kuwait will remain shut for three days and a state mourning of 40 days has been announced. Following Sheikh Nawaf’s death, his half-brother, Crown Prince Sheikh Meshaal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, 83, was swiftly named the new emir. The US and the UK were among the nations, mainly Gulf countries, which sent condolences to the Kingdom and set aside a period of mourning for the Emir’s death.

Netanyahu vows Israel will dismantle Hamas

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a TV news conference that the accidental killings of the three Israeli hostages by Israeli troops last Friday “broke my heart, broke the entire nation’s heart”, adding “Every day that passes brings new pain to the relatives of the kidnapped: today the death of another Israeli hostage in captivity in Gaza was announced: 27-year-old Inbar Haiman.” He called the war between Israel and Hamas “an existential war that must be fought until victory, despite pressure and costs”, adding Gaza would be demilitarised and under Israeli security control. “We are as committed as ever to continue until the end, until we dismantle Hamas, until we return all our hostages,” he said. Netanyahu said the offensive in Gaza had helped secure a partial hostage-release deal in November. “The instruction I am giving the negotiating team is predicated on this pressure, without which we have nothing,” he said.

Several hundred families, friends and supporters of Israeli hostages held by Hamas militants in Gaza rallied Saturday in Tel Aviv at the “Hostages Plaza”, calling on the Israeli government to negotiate the remaining hostages’ release. “We ask the government to speak to us today and explain what proposals they have on the table,” said the father of a 19-year-old soldier, still in Hamas’ hands

To give an internal signal, Mossad chief David Barnea flew to Oslo where he met with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. At stake is the restart of indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas – with the contribution of Egypt and the USA – for an exchange of the approximately 130 hostages remaining in the Strip with Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons. An exchange that would be technically impossible without, as analysts point out, a concomitant truce of arms. Based on the outcome of the meeting, the War Cabinet will decide how and whether to continue the talks. Barnea has already seen Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, Shin Bet Director (Internal Security) Ronen Bar and Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi in a meeting.

A senior Hamas official, Osama Hamdan, said there would be no further hostage releases until the war ends and Israel accepted the militant group’s conditions for an exchange. Netanyahu said Israel would never agree to such demands.

Israel Defence Forces spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said Israeli troops erroneously identified the hostages as a threat and fired on them Friday as they were coming out of a building waving a white flag to show that they were posing no threat. He said it was not clear whether the hostages had escaped their captors or had been abandoned. Observers note the account of how the hostages died raises questions about the conduct of Israeli ground troops. On several occasions Palestinians have reported that Israeli soldiers opened fire as civilians tried to flee to safety. Israel this morning announced the death of two more of its soldiers, bringing the toll since the start of the ground operations to 121.

Fighting continues on all fronts

Intense fighting continued Saturday in Gaza between Israeli forces and Hamas despite urgings from US officials for Israel to use more precise targeting of Hamas leaders in Gaza, rather than widespread bombing and ground operations. Residents in northern Gaza reported heavy bombing and the sounds of gunbattles overnight in devastated Gaza City and the nearby urban refugee camp of Jabaliya. Airstrikes and tank shelling overnight also were reported in the cities of Khan Younis and Rafah. Palestinian media said dozens of Palestinians were killed in the airstrikes. The Israeli army said Saturday it had raided two schools in Gaza City, saying they were a hiding place for Hamas. On Friday, the military said its troops had destroyed a Hamas command-and-control hub in Sheijaia and conducted a “targeted raid” on militant infrastructure in Khan Younis. Haaretz quotes the Palestinian Health Ministry announcing that three Palestinians were killed in the raids in the Deir Ammar refugee camp: a 16-year-old in the central West Bank, and two – an 20- and a 25-year old – were killed in the southern West Bank.

90 Hamas operatives arrested in hospital in northern Gaza

In recent days, the Israeli army and the Shin Bet (Internal Security) arrested around 90 Hamas “terrorist operatives” in the Kamal Adwan hospital in the north of the Strip and “seized numerous weapons”. The military spokesperson made this known, adding that “some of those detained in the hospital”, believed to be “a Hamas base”, had “taken part in the October 7 massacre” in southern Israel. Among the weapons seized in the hospital – they added – “assault rifles, grenade launchers, explosive devices and military equipment from Hamas operatives”.

G7 ‘moving closer’ to seizing $300 billion in Russian assets

G7 member states have intensified efforts to agree on funnelling some of the $300 billion in “immobilised” Russian central bank and other sovereign assets to Ukraine just as massive US and EU support proposals have run into resistance, the Financial Times reports. Such assets could fund Ukraine’s defence and eventual reconstruction and encourage an end to the 21-month-old full-scale Russian invasion, some officials suggest. “G7 members and other specially-affected states could seize Russian sovereign assets as a countermeasure to induce Russia to end its aggression,” the Financial Times quoted a US discussion paper circulated in G7 committees as saying.

Breakthrough study offers hope for cure of pregnancy sickness

Scientists have uncovered why women experience intense nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. The study, published in the journal Nature, found that a single hormone is responsible for pregnancy sickness. The hormone, GDF15, is produced by the fetus and triggers nausea and vomiting in the mother by activating neurons in the mother’s brainstem. The study also found that the severity of pregnancy sickness is linked to the amount of the hormone in the mother’s blood before and during pregnancy. Researchers hope the discovery will lead to better treatment of the debilitating condition, as well as of more severe forms of pregnancy sickness like hyperemesis gravidarum, which can be life-threatening. Between 70 and 80 per cent of all pregnant women suffer from some form of pregnancy sickness, but symptoms are on a spectrum and range from mild to severe.

Main photo: The Associated Press

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