US congressman, wife charged with $600,000 bribe tied to Azerbaijan, Mexican bank – Newstrends
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US congressman, wife charged with $600,000 bribe tied to Azerbaijan, Mexican bank

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The Texas Democrat vowed to keep running for re-election

US congressman, wife charged with $600,000 bribe tied to Azerbaijan, Mexican bank

US congressman Henry Cuellar and his wife have been charged with accepting around $600,000 (£478,000) in bribes, the justice department says.

It is alleged the couple corruptly received money from an Azerbaijani government-owned oil company and a Mexican bank.

The Texas Democrat has denied the charges in a statement.

The couple were bailed after appearing in court in Houston. If found guilty, they could face decades in prison.

“I want to be clear that both my wife and I are innocent of these allegations,” Mr Cuellar, 68, said on Friday.

The couple are each charged with multiple counts of conspiracy, bribery, wire fraud, money laundering and violating a ban on acting as agents of a foreign organisation.

The justice department said bribes were laundered from 2014-21 via a series of “sham consulting contracts” through middlemen and front companies owned by Imelda Cuellar, 67.

In exchange for the money, the indictment alleges Mr Cuellar agreed to influence US foreign policy in favour of Azerbaijan and push measures beneficial to the bank headquartered in Mexico City, including changes to money-laundering laws and attempts to block regulation of the payday lending industry.

The Cuellars allegedly used the proceeds from the bribery schemes to pay off a number of debts and make purchases for their family.

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Among the outgoings were more than $58,000 (£46,000) on credit card payments, some $11,000 in car payments, $18,000 at wholesale stores and $12,000 for a custom gown, according to the indictment.

Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, faces similar charges. He and his wife are accused of taking bribes in exchange for the senator using his influence to benefit the governments of Egypt and Qatar.

In the statement released by his office, Mr Cuellar vowed to keep campaigning for re-election in November.

“Before I took any action, I proactively sought legal advice from the House Ethics Committee, who gave me more than one written opinion, along with an additional opinion from a national law firm,” he said.

“The actions I took in Congress were consistent with the actions of many of my colleagues and in the interest of the American people.”

Mr Cuellar was a lawyer and former customs broker before entering politics. He was first elected to Congress in 2004 and is a former co-chair of the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus.

Hakeem Jeffries, Democratic party leader in the House of Representatives, said Mr Cuellar would take a leave of absence from his post on a homeland security subcommittee while the case continues.

Mr Cuellar’s home and campaign office in Laredo were raided in January 2022.

Authorities said at the time the raid was part of a federal investigation into Azerbaijan and US businessmen who have links to the country.

Mr Cuellar is widely considered a centrist and has been described as the lone anti-abortion House Democrat.

In 2022, he narrowly survived a primary challenge from a progressive candidate, Jessica Cisneros, who once worked as an intern in his office.

US congressman, wife charged with $600,000 bribe tied to Azerbaijan, Mexican bank

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Cuba joins ICJ case against Israel over Gaza actions

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International Court of Justice (ICJ)

Cuba joins ICJ case against Israel over Gaza actions

Cuba announced its decision to participate in South Africa’s legal action at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) regarding Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip. The Cuban Foreign Ministry released a statement on Friday confirming their involvement in the case.

The move is aimed primarily at “stopping the atrocities against the Palestinian people as a result of Israel’s disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force,” said the statement.

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On December 29, 2023, South Africa initiated legal proceedings against Israel at the ICJ, citing violations of the 1948 Genocide Convention in relation to Palestinians in Gaza. Following South Africa’s lead, other countries such as Chile and Spain have also joined the lawsuit against Israel.

Cuba joins ICJ case against Israel over Gaza actions

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World cannot afford Lebanon becoming another Gaza, says UN chief

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United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres

World cannot afford Lebanon becoming another Gaza, says UN chief

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed increasing concern over the escalating war of words and deadly border clashes between Israel’s military and Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighters.

UN peacekeepers are working to calm the situation and prevent “miscalculation” after both sides heightened their rhetoric and raised the possibility of full-scale conflict, he said on Friday.

“One rash move – one miscalculation – could trigger a catastrophe that goes far beyond the border and, frankly, beyond imagination,” Guterres told reporters. “Let’s be clear: The people of the region and the people of the world cannot afford Lebanon to become another Gaza.”

A UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL, as well as unarmed technical observers known as UNTSO, have long been stationed in southern Lebanon to monitor hostilities along the demarcation line between Lebanon and Israel, known as the Blue Line.

“UN peacekeepers are on the ground working to de-escalate tensions and help prevent miscalculation,” Guterres said. “The world must say loudly and clearly: immediate de-escalation is not only possible – it is essential. There is no military solution.”

Hezbollah has fired rockets and drones into Israel since it launched the war on Gaza last October with the Israelis responding with deadly air strikes and heavy artillery fire. Hundreds have been killed and tens of thousands displaced along the border.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant have previously pledged to “turn Beirut into Gaza”. This week, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned of “no restraint and no rules” if Israel launches a major attack on Lebanon.

‘Israelis will pay a huge price’

Analysts have said it remains unclear if both sides are upping their threats as deterrence, or if they are actually on the brink of all-out war. In terms of Israel’s war on Gaza, one expert said it is not accurate to compare Palestinian armed groups with Lebanese Hezbollah.

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“Hezbollah is more trained, more organised with even more lethal weapons compared to Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s armed wing. And for this reason, I think the Israelis will pay a huge price for something they can avoid,” Hassan Barari, a professor of international affairs at Qatar University, told Al Jazeera.

Orna Mizrahi, a former official in Israel’s National Security Council, said none of the options are good for the country.

“But the big question is, how much can Israel suffer under this attack? I think most of the government doesn’t really want to get into a war, but it’s possible that we are getting there,” she said.

In Lebanon, Nasrallah’s comments left many bracing for a wider war. But some diplomats and analysts said his threats are an attempt to match the escalating rhetoric from Israel.

“To me, now this is part of a deterrent strategy,” said Hubert Faustmann, professor of history and international relations at the University of Nicosia.

“There is a high danger of Israel escalating the confrontation with Hezbollah and an all-out, full-scale war, which I don’t think Hezbollah wants,” Faustmann added, saying Hezbollah is demonstrating what it “could do” if that were to happen.

Hezbollah has indicated it is not seeking a wider conflict, even as it has steadily drawn on more potent weaponry.

While Israel has the most powerful army in the Middle East, Hezbollah has thousands of fighters, many with experience in the Syrian civil war, and an arsenal of tens of thousands of missiles capable of hitting cities all over Israel.

It also has a large fleet of drones, one of which appears to have carried out an extended flight over the port city of Haifa this week, underlining the potential threat to key economic infrastructure including power systems.

‘Tall order for Israeli air defences’

There are fears a wider escalation could overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system, which has so far intercepted most of the hundreds of missiles fired by Hezbollah.

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“My sense is that Hezbollah feels it has some leverage over the Israelis, because an escalating war – as much damage as it might do in Lebanon and Syria – would create terror in Israel,” said Seth G Jones, an analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

“It would be a tall order for Israeli air defences to confront the widespread rocket arsenal coming from the north. It would be a huge problem.”

Israel has had bruising experiences in Lebanon in the past. After its forces invaded in 1982, they were stuck holding a buffer zone for nearly two decades after a war that saw the birth of Hezbollah. There was a second 34-day war in 2006 that bloodied both sides.

But the political pressure on Netanyahu has swelled with no indication of when life will return to normal more than eight months after the beginning of the conflict.

Dozens of Israeli towns are deserted with about 60,000 people evacuated to temporary accommodation, leaving empty streets with the occasional building scarred by rocket fire. Some 90,000 have also fled southern Lebanon.

Sarit Zehavi – a former Israeli military intelligence official who runs a think tank that specialises on Israel’s northern border – said after the trauma Israel suffered on October 7, few of those who left their homes would be ready to return while Hezbollah remained entrenched along the border.

“For 17 years, we did nothing against the threat and now dealing with it will cost a very high price,” Zehavi said.

World cannot afford Lebanon becoming another Gaza, says UN chief

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES

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Red Cross says 22 killed in strike near its Gaza office

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Red Cross says 22 killed in strike near its Gaza office

The International Committee of the Red Cross says its offices in Gaza have been damaged by shelling, which killed 22 people who had sought shelter around its compound.

“Heavy-calibre projectiles landed within metres of the office and residences of the International Committee of the Red Cross on Friday afternoon,” an ICRC statement said.

It added that all parties had an obligation to take precautions to avoid harm to civilians and humanitarian facilities.

An Israel Defense Forces spokesman told the BBC that initial inquiries suggested there was “no indication” that it had carried out a strike in the area, but added that the incident was “under review”.

“The strike damaged the structure of the ICRC office, which is surrounded by hundreds of displaced civilians living in tents, including many of our Palestinian colleagues,” the ICRC said.

“This incident caused a mass casualty influx at the nearby Red Cross Field Hospital, with the hospital receiving 22 killed and 45 injured, with reports of additional casualties.”

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The ICRC said the “grave security incident” was one of several in recent days.

“We decry these incidents that put the lives of humanitarians and civilians at risk,” the statement added.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza gave different figures, saying 25 people had been killed and 50 injured in the shelling, which it blamed on Israel.

The Israeli military launched a campaign to destroy the Palestinian armed group in response to an unprecedented attack on southern Israel on 7 October, during which about 1,200 people – mostly civilians – were killed and 251 others were taken hostage.

More than 37,390 people have been killed in Gaza since then, according to the territory’s Hamas-run health ministry. Its figures do not differentiate between civilians and combatants, but it had reportedly identified 14,680 children, women and elderly people among the dead by the end of April.

In another development, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has warned that spiralling hostilities between Israel and the Lebanese Islamist movement Hezbollah risk triggering a catastrophe for the region and beyond.

Mr Guterres accused both sides of increasingly warlike rhetoric and called for an immediate de-escalation, saying the world could not afford for Lebanon to become “another Gaza”.

The past months have seen a series of retaliatory cross-border strikes between Israel and Hezbollah. The Iran-backed group says it is fighting Israel to support its ally, Hamas, in Gaza.

Red Cross says 22 killed in strike near its Gaza office

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