THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The International Criminal Court on Friday convicted a rebel leader of charges including murder and pillage over a deadly attack on a village in eastern Congo, but acquitted him of rape, sexual slavery and using child soldiers.
Germain Katanga showed no emotion as judges convicted him as an accessory in the attack on the strategic village of Bogoro on Feb. 24, 2003, in which some 200 civilians were hacked or shot to death and many women were raped and turned into sex slaves.
Katanga, nicknamed Simba, is only the second person convicted since the court was established in 2002. Another alleged rebel leader originally charged with him, Mathieu Ngudjolo, was acquitted of all charges in December 2012.
In a 2-1 majority verdict, the court said Katanga played an important role in the attack on Bogoro by arming rebel fighters, "reinforcing the strike capability of the militia," Presiding Judge Bruno Cotte said.
One of the three judges slammed the verdict, however, saying that the court changed the nature of the charges against Katanga, depriving him of the ability to defend himself.
Katanga originally was charged as an "indirect co-perpetrator" in the crimes, but judges said Friday they had changed the nature of his involvement to cast him as an "accessory," effectively watering down his involvement in the attack.
Defense lawyers were told of the possible switch months ago, but Belgian Judge Christine Van den Wyngaert said in a written dissenting opinion that changing the charges "has rendered this trial unfair by infringing a series of Germain Katanga's rights."
Katanga will be sentenced after a separate hearing. He is likely to appeal the convictions.
His lawyer, David Hooper, said Katanga was disappointed, but the Belgian judge's comments gave him grounds to hope "that in the future the appeal chamber will put this decision right."
MOSCOW (AP) — Crimea would be welcome as an equal part of Russia if the region votes to leave Ukraine in an upcoming referendum, the speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament said Friday.
Valentina Matvienko met with the head of the Crimean parliament to discuss the region's possible accession to Russia. On Thursday, the parliament of Crimea voted to move the referendum date up to March 16, and to include a question on joining Russia.
President Vladimir Putin told reporters during a Tuesday news conference that Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, while insisting that residents had the right to determine the region's status — and thus possible independence — by popular vote. But the March 16 referendum will give Crimea residents only two options: to join Russia or to stay with Ukraine.
"If the decision is made (by referendum), then (Crimea) will become an absolutely equal subject of the Russian Federation," said Matvienko. She emphasized the grievances of Russian-speaking residents in eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, which have been the Russian government's primary justification for possible intervention in its neighbor.
Tensions have risen since Ukraine's president, Viktor Yanukovich, fled to Russia following violent clashes in Kiev. Russia refuses to recognize the new Ukrainian government, and has moved to reinforce its control of its major Black Sea naval base in Crimea.
The referendum will be conducted with what Crimean authorities have said are over 11,000 pro-Russian forces in the region. The troops control all access to the peninsula in the Black Sea and have blockaded all Ukrainian military bases that have not yet surrendered.
Hoping to pressure Russia to roll back its military presence, the United States imposed financial sanctions and travel bans on Russians and other opponents of Ukraine's new central government on Thursday. The European Union announced that it was suspending talks with President Vladimir Putin's government on a wide-ranging economic agreement and on granting Russian citizens visa-free travel within the 28-nation bloc — a long-standing Russian objective.
Russia has denied that its forces are active in Crimea, describing the troops who wear green uniforms without insignia as local "self-defense forces." But many of the troops, who are armed with advanced heavy weaponry, are being transported around the peninsula by vehicles with Russian license plates.
Matvienko said Russia welcomed the expedited referendum date in Crimea, which was originally slated to coincide with nationwide elections on May 25. She dismissed that vote, saying there are "no conditions for honest, equal, transparent and open elections" in Ukraine.
The Russian parliament has scrambled to introduce legislation that would make it easier for Crimea to join Russia. According to current constitutional law, Russia can only annex territory by an agreement "initiated... by the given foreign government." Because Crimea is still legally Ukrainian territory, that would entail signing an agreement with new authorities in Kiev.
New legislation would sidestep that requirement, according to members of parliament, who said a new bill could be passed as soon as next week.
Crimea would be the first territory to officially join Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which broke away from Georgia after a brief 2008 war with Russia, have been recognized as independent by Moscow, but there have been few serious moves to enable them to join Russia.
For Putin, Crimea would be a dazzling acquisition, and help cement his authority with a Russian citizenry that has in recent years shown signs of restiveness and still resents the loss of the sprawling empire Moscow ruled in Soviet times.
About 60 percent of Crimea's population identifies itself as Russian, and many in this strategic Black Sea region have ties to Russia's black Sea Fleet which is stationed there.
In Simferopol, Crimea's capital, 75 people turned out Friday morning for a rally at the local monument to 19th century Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. They spoke both Ukrainian and Russian, but waved Ukrainian flags and released white doves into the rainy sky.
One of those at the protest was native Russian speaker Anton Romanov, who said he was opposed to the occupation of Crimea by Russian troops.
"I'm against being forced to live in a different country," he said.
Ukrainian Orthodox Bishop Kliment, whose family was deported from Crimea by Soviet authorities 1944, said the current situation was an echo of the region's past.
"This referendum is completely illegal.... What is going on now will end in slaughter," he said at the demonstration, urging the international community to step in and stop the March 16 vote.
So far Russia has not balked at threats of further sanctions, seeing little bite in the bark of its Western partners.
Vladimir Chizhov ,the Russian ambassador to the EU, criticized the sanctions but played down their significance.
"If someone thinks that they can scare us with such horror stories, then they are deeply mistaken," he told Russian news agencies late Thursday night.
Tim Sullivan in Simferopol and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.
ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia State University officials say ambassadors from four eastern European nations are scheduled to discuss their common economic interests during a luncheon hosted by the school's World Affairs Council.
Officials say ambassadors from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — also known as the Visegrad Group — will discuss several topics including security, regional energy needs and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Tuesday at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Atlanta.
Organizers say the ambassadors will also discuss the group's agenda within the European Union and will take questions on the situation in Ukraine.
School officials say former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe will introduce the panelists and President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta Dennis Lockhart will serve as moderator.
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina ports officials expect a seamless transition from federal studies of deepening the Charleston Harbor shipping channel to dredging on the project which could begin next year.
The president's new budget includes almost $700,000 for studies of the project. A final report is expected next year on how deep to dredge the channel. Maritime interests want it deepened to at least 50 feet to handle new, larger container ships.
South Carolina officials say they're confident a federal Water Resources law will be passed by next year allowing Charleston to use state money already set aside for the deepening project.
In nearby Savannah, Ga., there was no construction money in the president's budget for a $650 million channel deepening there. That prompted the state's congressional delegation protest to the president.
ATLANTA (AP) — Officials at the world's busiest airport say the facility is on track to complete one of the biggest concessions roll-outs in North America.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport officials said in a statement that it's been nearly three years since the airport began boosting its number of dining and shopping offerings to passengers. Once the overhaul is finished, airport officials say the facility will have one of the highest numbers of concessions offerings of any airport in the world.
The airport's Interim General Manager, Miguel Southwell, says Hartsfield-Jackson is on track to have most of its 152 new dining and retail stores in place by the end of 2014.
Airport officials say the facility serves more than 94.4 million passengers annually, with nonstop service to 160 U.S. and 70 international destinations.