Verdicts in Vatican ‘trial of the century’ expected today

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Saturday, 16th December 2023

Verdicts are expected today, Saturday, for a cardinal and nine other defendants in the most complicated financial trial in the Vatican’s modern history: a case featuring a cast of characters, unseemly revelations about the Holy See, and questions about Pope Francis’ own role in the deals. ABC News says the trial had initially been seen as a showcase for the Pope’s reforms and his willingness to crack down on alleged financial misdeeds in the Vatican, which long had a reputation as an offshore tax haven. But after 30 months of hearings, no real smoking gun emerged to support the prosecution’s hypothesis of a grand conspiracy to defraud the Pope of millions of euros in charitable donations.

Even if some convictions are handed down, the overall impression is that the “trial of the century” turned into something of a Pandora’s box of unintended revelations about Vatican vendettas, incompetence, and even ransom payments that ultimately cost the Holy See reputational harm. After a two-year investigation that featured unprecedented police raids in the Apostolic Palace, Vatican prosecutors in 2021 issued a 487-page indictment accusing 10 people of numerous financial crimes, including fraud, embezzlement, extortion, corruption, money laundering, and abuse of office. The main focus involved the Holy See’s €350 million investment in a luxury London property. Prosecutors allege brokers and Vatican monsignors fleeced the Holy See of tens of millions of euros in fees and commissions, and then extorted the Holy See for €15 million to cede control of the property. The original London investigation spawned two tangents that involved the star defendant, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, once one of Francis’ top advisers and a onetime papal contender.

EU agreement on the Media Freedom Act

There has been green light from EU institutions to the Media Freedom Act – the EU law on media freedom and transparency. The agreement between the EU Parliament and the Member states was concluded on Friday after 10 hours of negotiations. The text provides for the obligation for EU countries to guarantee media plurality and protect its independence from governmental, political, economic, or private interference.

Photo: European Union

No clear Gaza message from EU, despite ceasefire calls

Two months into the war in Gaza, with the combined reported death toll of Israelis and Palestinians nearing 20,000, European Union leaders spent hours discussing the conflict in Brussels on Friday but did not issue the customary collective closing statement.  DW quotes European Council President Charles Michel summing up in a post-Summit press conference: “There are differences in feelings and sentiments about the idea of a humanitarian pause, supported by some, and a humanitarian ceasefire, supported by others.”  The senior EU official emphasised that all European leaders had strongly condemned Hamas’ 7th October attacks, underlined Israel’s right to defend itself, and called for the release of the more than 100 hostages Hamas still holds captive. Michel also said EU leaders stressed the need for Israel to respect international law as it tries to root the militant Islamist terror group out of the Gaza Strip – the Palestinian territory that Hamas has controlled since 2007.

“Humanitarian support and aid must be guaranteed,” said Michel, while also reiterating the EU’s long-standing supporting for the two-state solution, in which the Palestinian people would eventually have their own fully-fledged state to ensure long-term peace. The bloc has struggled to speak with one voice since Hamas’ onslaught in southern Israel killed 1,200 people and triggered a retaliatory Israeli bombing campaign that has now killed at least 18,800 in the Gaza Strip, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. While the 27 EU countries share a basic position, they are divided into those who sympathise more with Palestinians; and those who closely back Israel. The EU, along with the US, designates Hamas as a terrorist organisation and has roundly condemned the 7th October attacks.

Photo: AP/Omar Havana

The most intensive day of fighting

Israeli forces have reported the most intense day of fighting in Gaza since the ground attack began nearly six weeks ago. The Israel Defense Forces said on Tuesday they had mounted an attack into the “heart” of the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, and that paratroopers and navy commandos had raided the Hamas general security headquarters there. Heavy fighting was also reported in Shujai’iya, another Hamas stronghold in the north. Israel’s bombing of Gaza’s second city, Khan Younis, in the south of the coastal strip, intensified before an expected ground incursion. Israel’s top military commander, Lt Gen Herzi Halevi, said his forces are encircling the city of Khan Younis in southern Gaza as he announced the “third phase” of Israel’s ground offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian media reported “Intensive bombing” by Israel was underway throughout the Gaza Strip, including the southern city of Khan Younis and areas in the north of the enclave.

Photo: AP/Fatima Shbair

Israeli army says it mistakenly killed three hostages held in Gaza

The Israeli army has killed three hostages held by Palestinian armed groups in Gaza after “mistakenly” identifying them as a threat, according to Israeli military officials. The military said on Friday that the captives were killed during combat with Palestinian groups in Gaza and expressed its condolences to the families while saying there would be “full transparency” in the investigation into the incident during combat in Shujayea, which is “under review”. The hostages were identified as three young men who had been abducted from Israeli communities during the Hamas attack on 7th October. The army’s chief spokesman, Daniel Hagari, said Israeli troops found the hostages and erroneously identified them as a threat. He said it was believed that the three had either fled their captors or been abandoned. Israeli troops have engaged in fierce battles with Palestinian fighters in the area in recent days. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it an “unbearable tragedy” but vowed to continue the effort to return all hostages. The White House called the hostage deaths “heartbreaking” while several dozen people protested outside the Israeli military headquarters in Tel Aviv on Friday night, demanding action to secure the release of the remaining hostages in Gaza.

(L-R) Yotam Haim, Samer Talalka, Alon Shamriz

About 250 captives were taken into Gaza by Palestinian groups during the 7th October attack on southern Israel, which killed around 1,200 people, according to Israeli authorities. The Israeli government has repeatedly stated that bringing home all of the hostages is one of its principal aims in the war. To date, 110 of the captives have been freed, mostly during a seven-day truce last month in exchange for Palestinians held in Israeli jails. Israel has also repatriated eight bodies, including on Friday those of dual Israeli-French national Elia Toledano, 28, abducted from an electronic music festival, and two 19-year-old soldiers.

Humanitarian crisis in Gaza worsens

The deaths were announced as US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the US and Israel were discussing a timetable for scaling back the offensive against Hamas, even though they agree the overall fight will take months.  Sullivan also met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss efforts to increase the flow of humanitarian aid for civilians in Gaza and the besieged enclave’s postwar future. For the first time since 7th October, humanitarian aid will be allowed to cross directly into Gaza from Israel, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office said. A convoy of 106 trucks carrying humanitarian aid crossed into Gaza through the Rafah crossing on Friday, an Egyptian official confirmed to CNN. This included five trucks carrying fuel.

Also, Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, travelled to the West Bank on Friday following visits to Gaza and Israel earlier in the month. Almost 1.9 million people, or more than 85 per cent of the enclave’s total population, have been displaced since Israel launched its war on Hamas, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). Many live in makeshift shelters as temperatures drop and rain conditions are expected for the next few months. Others struggle to find drinking water and adequate food, while others are also battling the spread of disease. The biggest concern of the World Health Organisation in Gaza is the “major degradation” of the local health system “at a time when the health needs are soaring”, regional emergency director Richard Brennan told CNN.

Photo: Said Khatib/AFP

Giuliani ordered to pay $150 million to two Georgia election workers

A Washington DC jury has ordered Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and onetime attorney to former President Donald Trump, to pay nearly $150 million to two Georgia election workers for the harm caused by defamatory statements he made about them following the 2020 election. Ruby Freeman was awarded $16,171,000 for defamation and $20 million for emotional distress. Shaye Moss, Freeman’s daughter, was awarded $16,998,000 for defamation and $20 million for emotional distress. The jury also awarded $75 million in punitive damages to both plaintiffs. After leaving the courtroom, Giuliani said he would appeal. After the proceedings ended, Freeman and Moss hugged each other tightly and then every member of their legal team.

Photo: AP/Jose Luis Magana

Warren Beatty’s sexual harassment charge dismissed

A California court has dismissed, due to procedural flaws, a complaint accusing American actor Warren Beatty of sexually assaulting a teenage girl during the filming of a film in 1973. Kristina Charlotte Hirsch filed a complaint in 2022, alleging that she met the actor when she was 14 or 15 and that Beatty, then 35, had “exploited his position and status as a Hollywood star to force sexual contact on several occasions”, including sexual intercourse.

Photo: Getty Images for TCM via AFP / Jerod Harris

Euro 2024: Final receives 2.3 million ticket requests

Interest in Euro 2024 tickets is huge in the host nation of Germany and all over the world, German Football Federation (DFB) president Bernd Neuendorf said on Friday. Neuendorf told journalists that so far there have been 2.3 million ticket requests for the 14th July final in Berlin, and 1.4 million for the 14th June tournament opener between Germany and Scotland. The DFB president said applications have come from 206 countries. Neuendorf said the most requests are from Croatia, Albania, and Turkey, whose teams have already qualified. A second ticket sales stage with a million tickets for fans of the qualified teams has ended. A first phase saw 1.2 million tickets sold from around 20 million requests. “We are very satisfied with the start of ticket sales,” the organising committee said after the first stage. “Interest from Germany, but also the whole world, is huge. Just three hours after the start, 3.1 million tickets were applied for from 142 countries.” Neuendorf said huge enthusiasm was also visible in 45,000 applications for 16,000 volunteer positions.

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