Why did two mothers murder their adopted child? | Giles Tremlett
3 days ago
The long read: Asunta Fong Yang was adopted as a baby by a wealthy Spanish couple. Aged 12, she was found dead beside a country road. Not long after, her mother and father were arrested
One day in late June 2001, Rosario Porto, a petite, dark-haired lawyer from Santiago de Compostela, northern Spain, sat nervously on a flight to China beside her husband Alfonso Basterra, a quiet man from the Basque country, who worked as a freelance journalist. The couple, both in their mid-30s, were on their way to adopt a baby girl. Porto swallowed two tablets of Orfidal a common anti-anxiety medicine that she had used before then but remained too agitated and excited to sleep.
The couple had had no trouble persuading local Spanish authorities that they would make good parents and that their child would be surrounded by a loving extended family. Portos father was a lawyer who had been honorary consul for France in Santiago, and her mother was a university lecturer in history of art. They had given their daughter a flat that occupied a whole floor of a four-storey block in what some call Santiagos VIP zone, home to the citys upper middle class. The flat was decorated in the bold tones blues, greens and yellows that Porto liked, and full of art, curiosities and colourful rugs from around the world. The childs bedroom would have wallpaper covered in clouds and suns.
At that time, adopting from China was unusual. Nobody in Santiago, a solidly bourgeois city of 93,000 people, had done so before, and only a few Chinese children had been adopted in the wider region of Galicia, a mostly rural area of 2.7 million people. But Spanish parents wanting to adopt were beginning to cast a wide net. With a plummeting birth rate and strict adoption laws, there were relatively few Spanish children needing homes, while adopting abroad was relatively quick and easy at least for couples who could afford the costs of 10,000 or more. By 2004, Spain would rank second in the world for foreign adoptions behind only the United States. The following year, adoptions of Chinese children peaked at 2,750. Of these children, 95% were girls (the one-child policy placed an added premium on boys).
Adopting a baby girl from abroad brought the satisfaction and, for some, the moral cachet of rescuing a child in need. In the progressive, cultured environment in which the Basterra Porto family moved, they could expect nothing but praise. Porto, who inherited her fathers role as honorary consul, even appeared on local television to share her wisdom and experience about adopting.
Psychologists reports painted a positive picture of the couple. Porto was friendly, relaxed, emotionally expressive, cooperative, adaptable and solicitous, they said. I am a passionate woman, she told them, describing her husband as patient, easy-going, understanding and with a sense of humour, a strong character who makes his own decisions. The Porto family, one of their friends told me, were aristocracy.
In China, an underweight, undersized nine-month-old baby girl from Hunan province called Asunta Fong Yang awaited them. It was, Basterra would recall, an incredible trip. Two weeks later, after navigating the Chinese red tape and making the required payments, they brought the little girl home to Santiago. Her new Spanish identity documents showed that she was now Asunta Fong Yang Basterra Porto.
The child grew and began to gain weight, though she remained slight and suffered the routine ailments of childhood: fevers, gastroenteritis and other illnesses that scare parents but pass quickly. In the circles in which Porto Charo to friends and family moved, friendly doctors were always on hand. There was no need to go to the public health centre, where a paediatrician had been assigned to Asunta. They went, instead, to the citys major hospital, where a friendly consultant would oversee future care. Even prescription-only medicines could be obtained from friendly pharmacists. It was a privilege of class, but this was how things worked in Santiago a charming, tranquil city that functions as the capital of the increasingly self-governing region of Galicia. Like other provincial cities, Santiago can be very complacent, the Galician writer Miguel Anxo Murado told me. The couple were happy to use their contacts. They were simply doing their best for Asunta.
Over time it became apparent that Asunta was special. By the time she reached secondary school she was deemed so bright that she skipped an academic year. Her parents both pushed her and fretted about her abilities. Well-handled, they are a good thing, Porto told friends after reading up on gifted children. But they can be a problem. There were private classes in English, French and Chinese, plus German at school. Asunta already spoke Spanish and Galician, the Portuguese-tinged language of this green, damp corner of Atlantic Spain. There were also private classes in ballet, violin and piano often demanded by Asunta herself.
She once told us what her Saturdays were like, Asuntas ballet teacher, an English woman named Gail Brevitt, recalled. She got up at 7am, did Chinese from 8 until 10, came to ballet from 10.15 to 12.30, then did French until lunchtime. And then there was violin and piano. Asuntas proud parents followed her progress carefully. The girl was timid with strangers, but exuberant at home playing practical jokes, haranguing her parents with mock political speeches or flouncing around in her ballet costumes. There were concerts and theatre trips, while her mother became involved in the Ateneo, a liberal cultural club that arranged talks, debates and concerts.
By the time she turned 12 in September 2012, Asunta might have been expected to be getting fed up with being, to all appearances, a project child someone who was determinedly being shaped into a prodigy. Once, when her mother was going through a list of after-school activities in front of acquaintances, the girl snapped: Thats one that Im doing because you like it! But mostly Asunta seemed happy. She was talented, disciplined and enjoyed what she did. She was also reserved, sharing her few concerns with Carmen González, the familys cleaner and nanny, or with her elderly but active godmother, María Isabel Veliz. She was now five inches taller than Porto, and on the verge of womanhood. To me they seemed an idyllic family, said González.
* * *
But the family had started to show some cracks. In 2009, Porto spent two nights in a private psychiatric hospital, saying she felt suicidal, apathetic and guilty. Her mind was a high-speed whirl, she said, and she felt in competition with her own mother. She [Porto] gets very irritable with her daughter, who is a bother, a psychiatrist wrote in her notes. After two days, however, Porto discharged herself and only returned for one of the regular checkups that had been scheduled for her.
Two years later, in 2011, Porto had recovered her balance and began to think about sending her daughter away to school in England for a year. This would allow her to polish her English and help ensure that Asunta lived up to her natural brilliance. Porto had done something similar, spending a year at school in Oxford as a teenager and, as a 22-year-old student, travelling to France as an Erasmus exchange student. She had lasted only a few months in France. Nobody knew who I was. Here in Santiago, as my father was a faculty teacher, they treated me with greater consideration, she explained later. Her self-esteem was brittle, and it was during her time in France that a cycle of occasional tailspins into acute anxiety or depression had started. Porto began working in her fathers law practice after graduating and later posted a CV online in which she claimed to have completed her Erasmus year and studied at the London High School of Law, an institution that does not exist.
In September 2013, aged 12, Asunta started back at school after a long summer holiday that included several happy weeks with her nanny in her home village and with her godmother at a local beach resort, swimming in the sea and going to local fiestas. She had a wonderful time, said Veliz. Her parents were nearby in Santiago or at their own beach apartment, but spent only a week of that six-week period with Asunta. They were recovering from an emotionally draining 18 months. This black period had started with the deaths of Portos mother and, seven months later, her father. Both had died in their beds. Asunta had spent lots of time with her grandparents, strolling through the citys Alameda park with her grandfather, who would walk her home from ballet class. Her maternal grandmother had been the familys driving force. She had a personality like a lawnmower, said one acquaintance. Porto called her charmingly awful.
The losses exposed the faultlines in Portos marriage. Early in 2013, she and Basterra had suddenly divorced, much to the surprise of their friends. In fact, Portos enthusiasm for a man she saw as excessively puritan, antisocial, apathetic and unpredictable had run out long before. She admitted to a friend that she had tired of her underachieving house-husband. Porto had taken a lover a self-assured, energetic and successful businessman called Manuel García. When Basterra discovered the affair, after rummaging through his wifes emails, the marriage crumbled. He moved away, staying with relatives in the Basque country, but returned three weeks later, taking a tiny apartment around the corner. His only aim, he said, was to see Asunta grow up happy.
Porto had sat Asunta down and given her the divorced parents talk, full of reassurances that her parents adored her but that mummy and daddy no longer loved each other. So who will cook? Asunta wanted to know. It was a pertinent question. Her father, whose freelance work was erratic, had been chef and chief housekeeper. Basterra bombarded his ex-wife with emails reminding her of all the household tasks that would now fall on her, knowing that her inability to organise herself would make her anxious. I doubt if she has ever even boiled an egg, said one friend. Without Portos money, Basterra had come down in the world. His wifes choice of lover García, who was still married and who Basterra regarded as vulgar only added to his sense of resentment.
No one knows how Asunta, entering adolescence, reacted to all this. The perfect certainties of her world were being dismantled, and her trust in her parents must have been shaken.
In June 2013, Porto had a nervous breakdown that provoked acute physical symptoms, including dizziness and the seizing up of one side of her face. Basterra rushed to his ex-wifes hospital bed and, a week later, helped to set her up again at home. In some ways, it was a return to their old life. They had meals at his place and he even thought they might move back in together.
Meanwhile, Asunta carried on with her many extra activities. When she laid her study books out in a fan shape across the colourful rug on her bedroom floor on the afternoon of Saturday 21 September 2013 after she and her mother had eaten lunch at her fathers flat, followed by a game of cards and an episode of The Simpsons it seemed that the family had overcome its recent traumas and that Asuntas life was firmly back on course.
* * *
Alfredo Balsa is well-known to police in and around Santiago de Compostela. An assiduous visitor of clubes de alterne the legal, neon-lit bar-brothels that sit on the edges of every Spanish town he had the habit of driving around drunk in his home parish of Teo, a sprawl of villages outside Santiago. By September 2013 he had been caught so often that his driving licence had been taken away, but the nearest club de alterne the Satay was only a mile away, down well-maintained dirt tracks, and the chances of being caught driving there were almost non-existent.
In the early hours of 22 September, he and a friend rolled out of a bar in the village of Feros, got into Balsas white Volkswagen Golf, and drove down the broad track to the back of the Satay. It was a remarkably bright night, but the oak and pine trees cast deep, black shadows, and it was among these that Balsa glimpsed something strange. It looked like a scarecrow. He stopped the car, reversed, pointed the headlights towards the spot and, sure enough, a human shape lay stretched out on a gently-sloping bank just two metres from the track.
They got out of the car and stepped cautiously towards it. A girl lay on the bed of fallen pine needles, dressed in mud-stained grey sweatpants, with one arm half-inside a matching top and a white T-shirt pulled above her stomach. She was barefoot. The girls left arm was curled up to her shoulder, a large wet stain ran around her crotch, and there was a small amount of blood-tinged mucus under her nose. It was a shocking find, made stranger in this quiet country area because the girl was Asian. The men felt for a pulse, but there was none.
* * *
Police knew immediately who the victim was. Rosario Porto and Alfonso Basterra had appeared at the main Santiago police station, a honey-coloured stone building in a manicured barrio near the cathedral, at 10.17pm that night to report that Asunta had gone missing. The police record noted that Asunta had been left at her mothers apartment doing her homework at 7pm while Porto went to the familys country house a walled retreat built by her parents, with a swimming pool and tennis court. The house was also in Teo parish, 20 minutes from Santiago and some four kilometres from where the body was found. When Porto returned at 9.30pm the girl had disappeared.
Asunta was a disciplined, obedient child not the sort to wander off so her mother had rung Basterra and they had waited a few minutes to see if she was walking from one parents apartment to the other. They told the duty police inspector, Javier Vilacoba, that they had called a few of Asuntas friends, but nobody had heard from her since Porto had gone to the country house. Just before they left the police station, Basterra reminded Porto to tell Vilacoba about a strange incident from earlier in the summer. At 2am on a July night, she said, she had been woken by Asunta screaming. When she rushed to the girls room she found a man dressed in black with latex gloves, bending over the child. As the man ran out, he pushed past Porto and bruised her cheek. They had left the keys in the outside lock of the apartment by mistake, though Porto did not know how the man who she assumed knew about a safe box containing thousands of euros in cash had entered the building.
Porto had consulted police at the time but decided not to make a formal report of the incident. Break-ins were rarely solved, she reasoned, and nothing was missing. Asunta was a fearful girl. I did not want her to feel unsafe in her own home, Porto said. It was an odd explanation, made stranger by the fact that she did not inform her neighbours. But witnesses noticed Portos bruised face and the fact that something very frightening had obviously happened. Today someone tried to kill me! Asunta texted to a friend. Two months later, it seemed, someone had succeeded.
Inspector Vilacoba gave Asuntas parents the news at 4.45am. He and Basterra had smoked a cigarette together outside the apartment building in the warm night air a few hours earlier. Basterra had muttered that Asunta must be dead and that he hoped she had not been raped.
The next two days were a blur of police interrogations, pain and pills. Portos parents had both been cremated and on 24 September, for the third time in 18 months, she was back in the crematorium. Wakes are public affairs in Spain and the crematorium was packed. Porto and her ex-husband took mobile phone photographs of the closed white coffin which had been displayed behind a glass screen, surrounded by large wreaths of white roses and lilies before it went into the incinerator.
News reporters gathered outside. A veteran local television journalist, Tareixa Navaza, stepped forward as the familys spokeswoman and when someone suggested that the parents were under investigation, she reacted angrily. She knew the family, she said, and would walk through fire to prove her belief in Portos innocence. While Basterra wept, a man approached Porto. He whispered something into her ear and they walked off together. It took a while for anyone to notice her absence.
Soon news came through from Spains Civil Guard police, which investigates crimes committed in rural areas. Porto had been arrested at the funeral. To anyone who knew her, the idea that Rosario Porto might kill her own daughter was ridiculous. I just dont understand. I never saw Charo mistreat Asunta in any way, a neighbour, Olga Fachal, told me.
Not everyone agreed. An energetic and controversial investigating magistrate named José Antonio Vázquez Taín, who sometimes writes novels based on his cases, was detailed to oversee the investigation. It was the maverick Taín famous for bounding out of his office in jeans and T-shirts to greet visitors who had ordered the arrest.
* * *
Even though there was no physical evidence, such as fingerprints or fibres, to link Porto to the girls corpse, the police had sound reasons for arresting her. The most compelling evidence came from a CCTV camera at a petrol station near her apartment. The footage showed Porto driving the familys old, green Mercedes Benz on a route that led towards their country house. A long-haired girl sat beside her. The timecode revealed that the footage had been taken at a time when, according to Portos versions of events, Asunta was meant to be at home.
When shown the video, Porto admitted that the passenger was her daughter, blaming nerves, pills and shame at the girls death for blurring her memory. They had briefly gone to the country house in Teo, she explained, but Asunta felt ill and had insisted on being taken home. She had dropped her off near the apartment in Santiago. Porto claimed to have then spent most of the evening driving around on errands that, because of her scattiness, she failed to complete.
Portos behaviour had already seemed suspicious. When police had taken her to the country house hours after the body was found, she had rushed towards a room that contained a wastepaper basket with snippets of orange baler twine inside. The twine was similar to some found next to the body, which, investigators concluded, must have been used to tie Asuntas limbs together. A roll of the same kind of twine which is common in rural areas was discovered in a storeroom, but forensic scientists were unable to say if the bits found by the corpse came from that particular roll.
If Porto had murdered Asunta, it seemed likely that she must have had an accomplice. At barely 4ft 8in tall, Porto would have had trouble lifting Asuntas corpse and laying it neatly by the roadside without leaving drag marks. So, the day after Porto was arrested, Judge Taín ordered the arrest of Basterra.
The public was understandably shocked. Santiago is a small city, a place where anonymity is impossible and appearances count. Porto and her husband were a popular, considerate couple. She had made a point of hiding her problems behind a cheery disposition. She was intense and absent-minded, but not at all snobbish and given to sudden, unsolicited generosity. When Asunta grew out of her clothes, her mother rang around friends with smaller daughters. They wouldnt just offer the clothes, they would package them up and bring them round, said Demetrio Peláez, a journalist who worked with Basterra at El Correo, the local newspaper, in the late 1980s. Karen Duncan-Barlow, a university lecturer who gave English classes to Porto as a teenager, found herself spontaneously invited round for Christmas dinners after running into her decades later.
Basterra specialised in travel journalism, but made no mark on the citys media. He attempted to build a career in radio but his speaking voice was notoriously dull. He was like a dead mosquito, said another person who worked with him. When he was first courting Porto, Basterra irritated his fellow journalists at El Correo by abandoning half-written news items in order to make sure he was at the theatre or concert hall on time. There was also envy at his lifestyle. We couldnt afford to go to the Caribbean, said one.
Basterras family came from the Basque city of Bilbao and had been well-off before his father frittered away the money. He, nevertheless, clung onto the importance of class and gentlemanly conduct as part of what he called the honour of the Basterras. Those who knew the couple well were aware that Porto could be capricious and demanding and some saw Basterra as a mousy, dominated man. But he also had haughty, disdainful side, with what Duncan-Barlow called a condescending attitude to his little woman. On various occasions Basterra had lashed out and hit Porto, though investigators did not find this out until much later.
There was very little physical evidence to implicate Basterra, who claimed to have been alone in his apartment, cooking or reading a book with his phone turned off, when the murder happened. His wife, too, said that her phones battery had run out, meaning their movements could not be tracked from data picked up by cellphone towers.
Asunta had spent the final night of her life in a bunk bed at her fathers flat after Porto had called to say she would be late back from an exhibition that was being held out of town. Her absence was a sign that Basterras hopes of a return to normal family life were fantasy. He had demanded, when offering to care for Porto after her breakdown, that she ditch her lover García who had originally hired her to help with real estate deals in Morocco. She had agreed, but secretly took up with him again on the day before the murder, sailing off in his boat for an afternoon of lovemaking.
In addition to the CCTV footage, there was one more reason to suspect the couple. Forensic scientists had tested Asuntas blood and urine, revealing highly toxic levels of lorazepam the main active ingredient in the Orfidal pills that Porto had long used to calm anxiety attacks. Initial results suggested that Asunta had been drugged and then smothered.
Teachers at two music academies recalled that in the months before her death, Asunta had sometimes been dopey and stumbling, unable to read her sheet music or even walk straight. I took some white powders, she told Isabel Bello, who ran one of the academies. I dont know what they are giving me. No one tells me the truth, she complained to a violin teacher. Unusually, on the Wednesday before her death, Asunta had also missed school. Porto wrote a note explaining that she had reacted badly to some medicine.
Forensic scientists tested a strand of Asuntas hair and discovered the presence of lorazepam along the first three centimetres. Since hair grows at about a centimetre a month, they concluded that she had also been ingesting smaller doses of the drug for three months. This matched the stories told by her teachers.
Investigators began to develop their theory. Asuntas adopted parents, they decided, had grown tired of the girl they had bought a decade earlier. The killing had been a carefully planned attempt to rid themselves of an increasingly bothersome pre-adolescent child. The plot had included experimental dosing of the girl with Orfidal, careful disabling of their mobile phones, and an arrogant belief that they would be able to convince people that Asunta had been abducted and murdered. Porto was the driving force behind the crime, they suspected, and had been unhinged by the recent deaths of her parents. A psychologist who had treated her in the weeks before the murder said that she had felt overwhelmed by Asunta.
Immediately after his arrest, Basterra was put in a police cell next to his wife, separated by a flimsy partition through which they could speak and be secretly recorded on video. The police amassed hours of tape but at no point in the recorded conversations was there any admission of guilt or any other evidence to use against Basterra and Porto (a court would also later declare the recordings inadmissible). Look what trouble your overheated imagination has got us into, was one of several enigmatic phrases used by Porto.
But the tape did reveal something unexpected. When left alone, Basterra was no longer submissive. Silence! he commanded Porto when it seemed she was talking too much.
That was a surprise, Taín told me. It seems they took it in turns to be dominant. Basterra, investigators decided, was just as likely to be the main instigator. They are two of the most selfish people I have met, one of the interrogators told me. She is a spoilt child. He thinks he is superior to the rest of the world.
* * *
For the next two years, as the police investigation proceeded sluggishly, Spains popular tabloid television shows speculated wildly about guilt, motive and evidence, while spreading unsubstantiated rumours that Basterra was a paedophile or that Porto had murdered her parents. Details of the police investigation were leaked and rumours circulated freely. Everybody seemed to have an opinion about the guilt or innocence of Porto and Basterra, yet nobody could explain such an apparently motiveless crime.
Cases in which children are murdered by adoptive parents are exceedingly rare. In the few instances where parents kill children, the crime is typically the result of a moment of rage or overpowering feelings of inadequacy.Obedient and gifted, Asunta did not fit the profile of a victim of this kind of crime. Nor did her parents fit the profile of child-murderers. Porto may have suffered depression and anxiety attacks, but those do not turn mothers into killers.
It was not until 1 October 2015 that the prosecution finally laid out its case before a jury, in the anodyne surroundings of Santiagos smartest courtroom. Two years of prison had taken their toll on Porto and Basterra, who had suffered the taunts and insults that prisoners reserve for child abusers. Porto had spent much of her jail time in a weepy, pharmaceutical daze. Basterra, now almost fully bald and white-bearded, had developed a fierce hatred of Taín and the police investigators. In court, he was openly confrontational, maintaining an indignant and occasionally sneering attitude during questioning and mouthing silent expletives his dark eyebrows bouncing up over thick-rimmed glasses when upset. Porto was confused and tearful, with sudden moments of coherence and a determination to persuade the jury that her memory lapses were part of wider nervous troubles. Both wore black.
Over the next month, through long sessions that started at 10am and sometimes lasted until evening, a jury of nine men and women listened to the evidence, although like most Spaniards they had probably already heard or read vast amounts about the case. Other than the music and ballet teachers who had seen Asunta dazed or upset, all the witnesses described Porto and Basterra as model parents. To me they were always a perfect family, said González, the nanny.
Prosecutors continued to insist that the pair had spent months devising a cold-blooded conspiracy to eliminate their own daughter though they eventually downgraded the charges against Basterra, depicting him as an accomplice to his ex-wifes murder plot. Porto was still unable to explain her initial lies about her movements on the day of Asuntas death. The weak spot in Basterras defence, apart from the violence towards his wife, (described in a perfunctory manner during the trial by his ex-wife, who insisted he had been a marvellous father) was the Orfidal. During the trial it was revealed that he had obtained at least 175 pills over 10 weeks some legally with his wifes prescription, others without a prescription, and still more with a prescription he obtained after lying to his own doctor. Porto, however, insisted that she had only used them occasionally. Asunta, the jury was told, had somehow been made to swallow at least 27 ground-up pills nine times as powerful as a strong adult dose on the day she died. Neither parent could explain how or why, and both claimed that they had only given her pills to treat hayfever on the days she appeared dizzy.
After three and a half days of deliberation, the jury produced a verdict that was even harsher than that sought by the prosecutor. They accepted the evidence of a 15-year-old acquaintance of Asunta who claimed to have seen her in the street with Basterra on the day of the crime when he was meant to be alone at home. Basterra, their spokesman said, may have hidden in the back seat of the car when Asunta was driven to the country house. She had been smothered there, then dumped at the country track. The judge handed Basterra and Porto 18-year sentences, as the crime was committed before a new law introduced life sentences for child-murderers. Both have appealed to have their convictions overturned.
The guilty verdict threw up a fresh set of unanswerable questions. Investigators can only guess at why the couple decided to adopt. Basterra had never wanted children, according to Porto. Pressure from her parents was part of it. I think they wanted to project the stereotype of a happy family, said one investigator, who saw both as arrogant and selfish. If she wants something, she thinks she can just buy it. And if she doesnt want it, she gets rid of it. He helps her to satisfy her whims. But when she is dependent, he becomes violent. It is impossible to say whether, if true, any of this might have been spotted earlier. Court-appointed psychologists who interviewed Porto after the crime (Basterra refused to be profiled by them) deemed her narcissistic and depressive, but capable of distinguishing between right and wrong.
It is understandable that those who assessed their suitability as adoptive parents never imagined Porto and Basterra turning into child-murderers. But the guilty verdict ought to have provoked some soul-searching. It is now clear that Portos psychiatric problems began well before the adoption, but they were either kept secret by Porto or discounted by the psychologists who assessed her adoption application. Officials from the regional government of Galicia repeatedly refused to say whether they had carried out an internal enquiry or revised procedures in light of Asuntas death.
According to adoptive parents of other Chinese children in the region, the selection process for parents in Galicia wanting to adopt is now exhaustive. China has since tightened its adoption rules and far fewer girls like Asunta are leaving the country. In fact, across the world, international adoptions have fallen to below half their 2004 peak of 45,288, reflecting concerns about both trafficking and the new levels of protection offered by host countries. Events as shocking as the murder of Asunta Fong Yang remain, thankfully, few and far between.
A 12-year-old child has had few opportunities to leave a lasting mark on the world. On death, almost everything disappears. Asunta Fong Yang is no exception. Only a few things now remain. One is a blog she used to practise her written English, where she showed a taste for murder mysteries. Once upon a time there was a happy family; a man, a woman and a son, starts one. One day the woman was assesinated (sic).
The site where Asuntas corpse was found has become a small shrine, populated by slowly disintegrating cuddly toys, candles, plastic flowers and the occasional fresh bunch of chrysanthemums. You showed no compassion, no feelings, no heart, reads a rough, hand-painted sign, chastising her parents. Her ashes also remain. After the arrests, the crematoriums manager had to ask Taín what he should do with them. They were eventually given to a friend of Rosario Porto. It will be up to her adoptive parents also now her convicted murderers to decide what happens to them.
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What Trump did this week: Jerusalem triggers ire as Mueller follows the money
17 days ago
Trump announced US recognition of Jerusalem as Israels capital, as it emerged Deutsche Bank has provided Mueller with bank the recording of Trump affiliates
As the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration approaches, the president seems keen to get points on the members of the security council in ways that don’t involve the interminable compromises and reversals of Congress- last week’s tax vote in the Senate notwithstanding. This week, he outraged liberals on a number of fronts where he has unilateral power, with moves on national monuments and the status of Jerusalem and full-throated backing for controversial Senate candidate Roy Moore.
But it was his tweets about Flynn that landed him in difficulty. A claim that” I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI” opened the president to accusations that Trump knew Flynn lied to the FBI( international crimes) where reference is asked former FBI director James Comey to go easy on him, something that would strengthen any case of blockage of justice. The next day, Trump renewed his denial that he ever stimulated that request of Comey and his lawyer John Dowd claimed– to some scepticism– that he had been the one who wrote the offending tweet.
Whether or not that was true, on Sunday Trump suffered a blow in his recent reported tries to cast doubt on the authenticity of the notorious 2005 Access Hollywood” grab them by the pussy” tape that nearly derailed his campaign. Writing in the New York Times, Billy Bush, the other voice on the tape, stated bluntly:” Of course he said it .”
Poland is ‘on road to autocracy’, tells constitutional court chairman
17 days ago
Law and Justice party is trying to destroy system of checks on government power, says head of highest constitutional court
The outgoing chairperson of Polands highest constitutional tribunal has accused the ruling rightwing Law and Justice party( PiS) of a systematic attempt to destroy oversight of government activity, describing the country as on the road to autocracy.
The departure of Prof Andrzej Rzepliski, whose term expires on Monday, ought to be able to pave the way for PiS appointees to assume control of Polands most important institutional check on executive power.
The expiration of Rzepliskis term goes amid signs of the most serious political crisis in Poland since PiS won presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015.
Protesters on Friday night attempted to barricade MPs in the parliament build after the government sought to restrict media access to parliamentary proceedings. Opposition MPs accuse PiS deputies of holding illegal elections outside the parliamentary chamber after an opponent MP was expelled for protesting against the media restrictions and opposition leaders occupied the parliamentary pulpit in protest. Protests continued in Warsaw and other cities over the weekend.
Speaking to the Guardian, Rzepliski defended his attempts to uphold the freedom of the tribunal, which rules on the constitutionality of legislation and decisions taken by state authorities.
He said the governments refusal to recognise the legitimacy of a number of the courts rulings threatened to create a double legal system, with some courts upholding our rulings, and others not. Judges truly dont know what is the law, and without that, in a continental system, courts cannot operate.
PiS has been engaged in a stand-off with the constitutional tribunal ever since Andrzej Duda, the countrys PiS-aligned president, refused last year to swear in a number of magistrates appointed by the previous government and appointed five new magistrates of his own. Three were ruled unconstitutional.
The PiS-controlled parliament has also passed eight separate pieces of legislation regarding the role and functioning of the constitutional tribunal, the majority of which, critics argue, seem designed to minimise the ability of the court to hold the government to account, and to maximise the influence of the governments own appointees.
The aim of the legislation is to destroy the court, to disintegrate it, to create a kind of private council for our beloved leader, said Rzepliski, a reference to Jarosaw Kaczyski, the leader of PiS.
At a meet of supporters earlier this year Kaczyski, who portrays the constitutional tribunal as in hoc with the liberal opposition, and has described the court as the bastion of everything in Poland that is bad, was contended that the will of the nation, as exemplified by the ruling party, trumped the rule of law.
In a democracy, the sovereign is the people, their representative parliament and, in the Polish occurrence, the elected president, told Kaczyski. If we are to have a democratic state of statute , no state authority, including the constitutional tribunal, can disregard legislation.
The stand-off has prompted the European commission to consider sanctions for what it has described as a systemic threat to the rule of law in Poland. Over the weekend Donald Tusk, European council chairwoman and a former premier of Poland, called on the Polish authorities to respect the constitution.
Citizens, law and morality place limits on government , not vice versa. As we know from our own experience, a democracy without respect for morals, culture and conventions speedily degenerates into the opposite, Tusk told a news conference in Polands western city of Wrocaw.
Kaczyskis attitude towards the constitutional tribunal is a possibility rooted in his experience as prime minister in the mid-2 000 s, when the court inflicted a series of defeats on a short-lived PiS-led alliance government.
It is important to remember that it is the constitutional tribunal that humbled Kaczyski last period Law and Justice were in power, between 2006 and 2007, told Jacek Kucharczyk, chairperson of Polands Institute of Public Affair. It stands to reason that this time around, he would attempt to take it on right from the beginning.
In Poland, the constitutional courts rulings are not considered to have legal effect until they are printed in an official journal, which is produced by a printing press controlled by the government.
In March, the tribunal ruled unconstitutional a reform to the court that would have given more power to PiS appointees and forced the court to consider suits in chronological order, hampering its ability to scrutinise government activity. But the prime minister, Beata Szydo, had now been rejects to publish the ruling, arguing that the decision had not been made in accordance with the new legislation.
When a judgment is not published, you disintegrate the legal system, said Rzepliski. The government has since refused to publish numerous rulings issued by the court.
When earlier this month the courts judges gathered to vote on Rzepliskis replacement, three judges appointed by the present government called in sick on the same day, denying the gathering of a quorum. The government responded by passing legislation permitting the president and prime minister to appoint the courts new president on a temporary basis.
Julia Przybska, one of the judges who called in sick, is tip-off by some commentators to be appointed as Rzepliskis successor.
Brexit ruling: senior Tories advise May to scrap article 50 appeal
1 month, 1 day ago
Letwin, Grieve and Garnier call for appeal against Brexit ruling to be dropped to avoid legal dangers and save hour and money
Senior Tories have exhorted Theresa May to scrap the governments appeal against a high court ruling which states that parliament must vote on leaving the EU.
Oliver Letwin, the former head of the governments Brexit preparations, has called on the prime minister to abandon its supreme court appeal over government decisions on article 50, existing mechanisms that triggers exit negotiations.
The former us attorney general Dominic Grieve and former solicitor-general Sir Edward Garnier also said May should avoid taking the lawsuit to the UKs highest court.
The three Conservatives, who all supported the remain campaign, said they wanted the process to start as soon as possible with a bill in parliament.
Garnier told BBC Radio 4s Today programme on Saturday: That route you avoid an unnecessary legal row, you avoid a lot of unnecessary expenditure, but you also avoid an opportunity for ill-motivated people to assault the judiciary, to misunderstand the motives of both parties to the lawsuit, and you provide certainty.
Hello Berlin, goodbye optimism: why is Germany’s glass half empty? | Philip Oltermann
1 month, 7 days ago
Just 18 months after a survey determined more than half of Germans felt extremely satisfied with life, confidence has evaporated
German angst is back, or at the very least consulting its lawyers about a reunion tour. I have just moved back to Berlin, after a total of 18 years away from the country in which I grew up, and cant assistance being struck by the relentless reliability of my birth nations craving for pessimism.
Self-doubt is writ large across the counter at my local newsagent: Countdown for the chancellor: How long does she have left?; Can she still save herself?; Have we Germans run insane?( Die Zeit ).
This is even more surprising, given that what the German novelist Jean Paul christened Weltschmerz has seemingly been in steady decline for the last 10 years. Only one and a half years ago, a survey announced that Germans had remodelled themselves into the worlds optimists, with over half of its citizens saying they were extremely satisfied with their lives. Only 2% described their contentment as low.
Weltschmerz looked like a relic of the past, kept alive only out of ironic affection, as the success of Nein Quarterly, a Twitter account by the US academic Eric Jarosinski that has spawned its own column and books, seemed to prove.( Sample tweet: Go ahead: try defeatism. Wont run .)
Even the archetypical painting of German melancholy, Caspar David Friedrichs moody The Monk by the Sea, has recently been restored to its more uplifting original glory. The thunder clouds have gone, remarked one astounded art critic.
But ever since Angela Merkel spelled out this newfound optimism, extol Wir schaffen das( We can do it) in regards to the refugee crisis, the real pessimists have been out in force again. In the current edition of the political monthly Cicero, the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk warns that Germans need to relearn not just to appreciate closed perimeters, but to reacclimatise to what he calls phobocracy. For too long, he says, Germans have lived sheltered from the terrors of the modern world; now the time has come to submerge oneself into the subconsciousness of the phobocratic mechanism. Which sounds fun.
Return to Faxland
On a more cheerful note, my childhood football club, Hamburger SV, is being ridiculed for failing to tie down a bargain for a new player during the transfer window. An email send from Switzerland was too big for the clubs server, and didnt arrive until four minutes after the transfer deadline. Hamburg is a repeat offender: in 2011 another transfer broke down, because the manager couldnt run the fax machine.
I sympathise. Moving back to Germany has come with a reminder that even though this country results the way in so many fields of engineering its position to information technology is stuck somewhere in the late 90 s. To order up documents from the Stasi archive, you must fax a form. To get accredited to the Bundestag, you have to fax a kind that has been rubber-stamped by your office manager. No emails are accepted. Flat-hunting in the old west of Berlin once the calling card of western hypercapitalism , now a vision of a quaint protectionist past I spotted a vast shopping emporium selling rubber stamps, and two stores offering photocopying and fax services, all on the same street corner. I now understand why.
Wine for Hamburgers
Talking of football, the sports pages of German newspapers are always the best place to pick up new phrases and colloquialisms. Hamburg, who have been in the top tier of German football for longer than any other club, are a bit strapped for cash this season, but their administrator confided to one of the papers that he was hoping to soon get a good gulp of English wine. Which in modern footballing parlance means selling mediocre German players for big bucks to clubs in the English Premier League. No German angst there.
Spain sacks ambassador to Belgium for ‘absenteeism and abuse of power’
1 month, 23 days ago
Report says Ignacio Jess Matellanes Martnez made no contact with Belgian government during his tenure
Spain has dismissed its ambassador to Belgium over allegations he failed to adequately represent the country abroad, making no contact with the Belgian government during his tenure.
Ignacio Jess Matellanes Martnez has been relieved of his duties on the grounds of absenteeism and abuse of power following repeated complaints from embassy staff.
The worst of it is that he didnt represent the country at all, an embassy source said. No one comes here. Matellanes doesnt have meetings with anyone, he does nothing and prevents staff from taking even the smallest initiative.
The Spanish foreign ministry said he had burnt all his bridges with the Belgian government, adding that he had showed similar failings during a previous posting to Nicaragua.
In a report to the foreign ministry, an inspector said the day-to-day management of the embassy was paralysed by absenteeism and the head of missions negative attitude, the denial of any role for diplomatic personnel and a total absence of internal coordination.
Another source said: He hardly ever came to work and when he did hed go to mass from 11am till 12 on a working day. He wanted to be ambassador to the Vatican. When [Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI] was pope he said he was in Opus Dei, but since Francis took over he goes to mass with the Jesuits.
The report said there was a climate of mistrust and tension because of the ambassador allegedly exercising his authority through fear, threats and confrontations. This was reflected, according to the report, in the unusually high number of staff signed off sick with depression.
Of the embassys 20 staff, a chauffeur, a secretary and two diplomats took time off with depression. The atmosphere is stifling, an embassy employee said. Matellanes treats people badly, he makes hurtful remarks, changes peoples holiday dates, lacks respect and forces them do work that makes no sense. And he treats women as inferior to men. In his eyes they are weaker and less effective.
In his report, the inspector said the ambassadors treatment of staff amounted to harassment. He subjected staff to intense, repeated, methodical and prolonged psychological violence, using his position of power to create a hostile and humiliating environment that upset the victims personal and working life.
Spains foreign ministry has faced criticism for failing to take action against the ambassador earlier, allegedly because of Matellaness close friendship with the MEP Francisco Milln, the prime ministers brother-in-law.
‘A useful punching bag’: why Hungary’s Viktor Orban has turned on George Soros
2 months, 7 days ago
There are fears that the far right could be emboldened by a campaign against the Hungarian-born American billionaire. Shaun Walker reports from Budapest
In 1989 the American-Hungarian financier George Soros pay money Viktor Orbn to study in Britain. Two decades later, he donated$ 1m to Orbns government to help the cleanup after the red sludge environmental disaster .
Over the years, the billionaire has spent hundreds of millions of dollars financing education and civil society projects in Hungary, the country of his birth, through his Open Society Foundations( OSF ).
But now Soros has become the Hungarian prime ministers No 1 political target.
On billboards across Budapest Soros stands accused of being a political marionette master. Last week, in a move seen as directly targeting Soros, Hungarys parliament passed legislation necessitating NGOs to declare themselves as foreign agents on their websites and documentation if they receive funding from political sources abroad.
How did it get to this?
Soross reputation in Hungary took a specific made during the course of its 2015 migrant crisis, when his advocacy for the humane therapy for refugees ran up against Hungarys ultra-conservative government, led by Orbn, a rightwing nationalist.
In recent months, the dispute has intensified. The “ministers ” has described the billionaire as someone who had ruined the lives of tens of millions of people with currency speculation.
Soros hit back with a speech in Brussels this month in which he referred to the Hungarian government as a mafia nation and said: He[ Orbn] sought to frame his policies as a personal conflict between the two of us and has constructed me the target of his unrelenting propaganda campaign.
Orbns spokesman, Zoltn Kovcs, told the Guardian that the Brussels speech was a declaration of political war on Hungary. Soros-funded organisations, Kovcs said, were engaged in political activism camouflaged as NGO work.
Goran Buldioski, director of the OSFs Budapest-based Europe office, told Soross funding for Hungary had been dramatically scaled back since the country joined the EU in 2004. Much of the previous funding was for growth and education, with Orbn the recipient of a Soros-funded scholarship to study at the University of Oxford in 1989. Soros also set up the Central European University, based in Budapest, which has been targeted by Orbns government of late.
But Soross foundations spent only $3.6 m in Hungary in 2016, told Buldioski, a tiny fraction of what the government spent on promoting a referendum last October aimed at barring refugees from the country.
On his desk at the OSF offices in Budapest, Buldioski keeps a copy of a recent edition of a popular local newspaper, which featured a full-page photo of Soros on page two, accompanied by the caption Outrageous.
A video recently produced by Orbns ruling Fidesz alliance also uses the Outrageous slogan and complains that the EU wants to change Hungarys tough migration policy, and then tells: An organisation shall be financed by George Soros is launching lawsuits against our homeland in support of Brussels.
The video refers to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, partially funded by OSF, which provided free legal assistance to about 3,000 people last year, including many asylum seekers, taking 70 examples to the European tribunal of human rights.
The organisation said it would not comply with the new demands to brand itself a foreign agent, calling the law unconstitutional.
Some government critics said the attacks on Soros were merely an exploitative method of harnessing popular support in the run-up to elections next spring.
Hes a very useful punch bag, because hes both the insider and the outsider, the meddling foreigner and the Hungarian Jew, said Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute, which is the EU policy arm of the OSF. She added that there were clear antisemitic overtones to the campaign against Soros by Fidesz.
Soros was born Gyrgy Schwartz to a family of Hungarian Jews in 1930, but his father changed their surname to make it more Hungarian. As a young son in the 1930 s, Soros lived in an apartment on Budapests Kossuth tr, the square overlooking the parliament build, until his family was forced to split up and are living in assumed identities to escape the Holocaust. He left Hungary in 1947 to study in London, and later emigrated to the US, constructing billions as an investor and hedge fund manager.
Hungarys Jewish community is split over the question of whether antisemitism plays a role in Orbns grievance with Soros. Adam Schonberger, director of a Jewish organisation that runs the Aurora community centre in Budapest, said he believed the governmental forces campaign was not antisemitic, but had the potential to empower others who were.
The Aurora centre was set up in 2014 and acts as a kind of coalition of the vulnerable, housing the offices of NGOs that work on Jewish issues, Roma issues, LGBT rights, migrants, drug use and homelessness. The proceeds from an on-site bar and regular concerts go to support the running of the space, and the centres initial funding arrived partially from Soros.
Last month, a group of far-right activists defaced the outside of the building, spray-painting Stop Operation Soros on the pavement and plastering photographs of his face with a red cross struck through it on the doorway. Time permitting, we will say hello again, said an article about the two attacks posted on a far-right website. The centre appealed to police, but authorities claimed there was nothing they could do about it.
One of the reasons theyre behaving more brazenly now is that they have a sense that their hour has come. Their mission to save Hungary has become mainstream political ideology, said Schonberger, sitting in Auroras courtyard, which turns into a bar in the evenings.
Buldioski said: In the past, Soros was criticised by the political fringe, rightwing nationalists and some radical leftists. But now, the criticism is moving more mainstream.
Not simply in Hungary. In Romania, the chairman of the ruling Social Democratic party, Liviu Dragnea, told Soros and his organisations have fed evil in the country; while a Polish MP from the ruling conservative government has referred to Soros as the most hazardous human in the world. The US right has also joined in: in a semi-coherent rant, radio host and Donald Trump supporter Alex Jones claimed Soros heads a Jewish mafia.
But while Jones is on the edge of the debate, in Hungary, the anti-Soros discourse has become mainstream, feeding into the populist anti-migrant discourse. Andrs Bencsik, editor of the rightwing monthly publication Demokrata, described Soros as a dangerous man who was destabilising Hungary, first and foremost through his attitude to migration. We said: Thank you very much but we want to close our doors, and Soros told: No, I want you to open the gates.
Benscik, a Fidesz member whose office is decorated with swords, daggers and portraits of Hungarian statesmen, indicated darkly that Soros may have some secret plan to destroy the country, but struggled to explain what this secret conspiracy might be.
Behind his mask there is another person with a objective, we just dont know what it is. He has a special programme in his intellect, but nobody knows what it is, he said.
Yes, Cambridge Analytica, the data-analysis firm that helped U.S. President Donald Trump win the 2016 election, infringed rules when it obtained information from some 50 million Facebook profiles, the social-media company recognise late Friday. But the data received from someone who didn’t hacker the organizations of the system: a professor who originally told Facebook he wanted it for academic purposes.
He set up a personality quiz use tools that let people log in with their Facebook accounts, then asked them to sign over access to their friend lists and likes before using the app. The 270,000 users of that app and their friend networks opened up private data on 50 million people, according to the New York Times. All of that was allowed under Facebook’s rules, until the professor handed the information off to a third party.
Facebook said it found out about Cambridge Analytica’s access in 2015, after which it had the firm certify that it deleted the data. On Friday, Facebook said it now knows Cambridge actually maintained it — an infraction that got Cambridge suspended from the social network. Once that was announced, executives promptly moved on to defending Facebook’s security.
” This was unequivocally not a data breach ,” longtime Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth said on Twitter.” People chose to share their data with third-party apps and if those third-party apps did not follow the agreements with us/ users it is a violation .” Alex Stamos, Facebook’s head of security, echoed the same arguments. Cambridge denied doing anything illegal or employing the information contained in the 2016 presidential election; Facebook tells it has no way of knowing how or whether the data was used for targeting in the Trump campaign.
Facebook’s advertising business depends on users sharing their most personal data via its social network. But the company’s” not a violate” argument isn’t likely to make users feel any safer or more comfy doing so — especially given that it’s already under fire for missing that Russian actors were purchasing U.S. election ads on the site to sway voter sentiments, as well as operating fake accounts disguised as real Americans. The company has also been fending off accusations that it’s too slow to notice or react to harmful content.
The latest incident has raised new the issue of what technological guardrails Facebook has in place to prevent approved users from sharing sensitive datum, and how much visibility the company has into how outsiders use the data.
Facebook wouldn’t comment on those questions, saying only that it has made significant improvements in its they are able to” see and avoid violations” by app developers, such as random audits of applications use its tools to make sure they’re following the rules. And it’s no longer let developers who use Facebook’s login tools see information on their users’ friends.
The disclosure of Facebook’s actions also underscores it’s continuing struggle to anticipate negative consequences of its lack of oversight- in some cases taking action only after things go wrong. The company in the past two years has worked to understand and counteract the spread of misinformation on its site, the use of its automated ad system for racist targeting, the spread of fake user accounts, the spread of violent video, and more.
But when the company tries to explain what it’s doing, it grapples with the perception that it’s shirking responsibility for its problems, treating them as public-relations snafus instead of serious product flaws.
Stamos, the Facebook security executive, deleted his original tweets on Cambridge Analytica, saying he wasn’t so good at” talking about these things in the reality of 2018 .” Specifically, he said he didn’t know how to balance his personal notions with its own responsibility to Facebook and his co-workers, amid all the criticism.
” We have collectively been too optimistic about what we build and our impact on the world ,” Stamos wrote Saturday on Twitter.” Believe it or not, a lot of the people at these companies, from the interns to the CEOs, agree .”
Lawmakers in the U.S. and U.K. aren’t persuaded Facebook has its users’ own best interest in mind. Over the weekend the company faced criticisms from members of the Senate intelligence committee, and in London, the head of a parliamentary committee called on CEO Mark Zuckerberg to have a senior executive answer those questions.
” We have repeatedly asked Facebook about how companies acquire and hold on to user data from their site, and including with regard to whether data had been taken from people without their permission ,” Damian Collins, chair of the U.K. Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee, said in a statement.” Their answers have consistently understated the health risks, and have also been misleading to the committee .”
Trump in Moscow: what happened at Miss Universe in 2013
2 months, 20 days ago
The pageant and the presidents attempts to get close to Putin have become a focus of the investigation into Trumps links to Russian interference in the US election
Sitting in a makeshift studio overlooking the Moscow river on a crisp day in November 2013, Donald Trump pouted, stared down the lens of a television camera and said something he would come to regret.
Asked by an interviewer whether he had a relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin, the brash New York businessman could not resist boasting.” I do have a relationship with him ,” Trump said.
Russia’s strongman had” done a rather brilliant task “, Trump told MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts, before declaring that Putin had bested Barack Obama.” He’s done an amazing undertaking- he’s put himself actually at the forefront of the world as a leader in a short period of time .”
Trump, a teetotaler, seemed intoxicated by the buzz surrounding the glitzy event that had brought him back to Moscow: that year’s instalment of the Miss Universe contest that he then owned.
Four years later, he is struggling to shake off the hangover.
The 2013 pageant has become a focal point for the simultaneous investigations, led by special counsel Robert Mueller and congressional committees, into whether associates of Trump colluded with Russian officials to help them win the 2016 US presidential election.
Investigators are examining closely endeavours apparently made by the Russian government to pass Trump’s team damaging information on Hillary Clinton, using Trump’s politically connected Miss Universe business partners as couriers.
They are also looking into the $20 m fee that Trump collected for putting on the pageantry from those same business partners- along with extraordinary allegations about Trump’s private conduct behind closed doors at the Ritz-Carlton hotel during his 2013 stay in Moscow.
The Guardian has learned of additional, previously unreported, the linkages between Trump’s business partners on the pageantry and Russia’s government. The ties are likely to attract further scrutiny by researchers who are already biting at the heels of Trump associates.
A full accounting of Trump’s actions in the Russian capital as that autumn turned to winter may be critical to resolving a controversy that has already devoured the first eight months of his presidency.
” Our committee’s investigation will not be complete unless we fully understand who President Trump met with when he was over in Russia for Miss Universe, and what follow-up contacts resulted ,” Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said in an interview.
Trump’s attorney, John Dowd, declined to answer when asked whether the president’s team accepts that the Miss Universe contest is a legitimate area of inquiry for investigators.” Fake news ,” Dowd said in an email.