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French far-left candidate slams door on backing Socialist leader

Author: 
Reuters
Sat, 2017-03-18
ID: 
1489773997534284800

PARIS: Far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon on Friday categorically ruled out quitting the French presidential election race in favor of Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon.
Picked as the ruling Socialist party’s nominee in January, Hamon has struggled to make any poll impact ahead the April/May vote after pushing a hard-left program that has divided his party and split the left-wing vote with Communist-backed Melenchon.
Arnaud Montebourg, who lost out to Hamon in January and has gone on to back his former rival, called on Thursday for Melenchon to withdraw ahead of the April 23 first round to give more chance for the Socialists to make it to the May 7 runoff.
“Imagine that 40 days before the first round, out of the blue … I say it is finished, (and) that all that I have been saying over the last five years does not exist anymore,” Melenchon told BFM TV.
“That would be absurd, that would encourage thousands of people to abstain from the vote.”
An IFOP daily poll of voting intentions on Thursday showed Hamon trailing in fourth place getting 13.5 percent of the vote in the first round, while Melenchon would get 11 percent.
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and independent centrist Emmanuel Macron are at the moment seen comfortably reaching the runoff.

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2nd person held over school shooting in France

Author: 
AFP, AP
Sat, 2017-03-18
ID: 
1489772246654067000

MARSEILLE/PARIS: A second person was held on Friday over a shooting at a French school where a heavily armed teenager opened fire, wounding 14 people, most of them hurt in a stampede triggered by the shooting, a source said.
A brother of a friend of the 16-year-old attacker was in custody, the source said.
The shooter, who was described by investigators as unstable and obsessed with guns, surrendered to police after Thursday’s attack in the southeastern town of Grasse.
He was found in possession of a rifle, two handguns and a grenade. A source close to the investigation said on Friday that the weapons belonged to his parents and grandfather.
The attacker who had troubled relations with his peers had opened fire at the high school on Thursday. Police moved into the Alexis de Tocqueville school in the town of Grasse — the country’s picturesque perfume capital — and quickly arrested the still-armed suspect, identified by the Interior Ministry spokesman as Killian Barbey.
The government minister for victims’ affairs, Juliette Meadel, told BFM television there were 4 people shot — three students and the high school principal — and 10 other victims.
The Grasse prosecutor said some of the victims were suffering from “emotional shock.” None of the injuries was considered life threatening.
Prosecutor Fabienne Atzori said the young man — armed with a rifle, several pistols and a small grenade — entered a classroom then left, “not finding the person or people he was searching for.”
“The motivation of the student appears linked to bad relations with other students in this high school in which it appears he had some difficulty integrating,” Atzori said.
She said there was no reason to suspect the shootings were terrorism-related, “whatever the origin of the terrorist enterprise.” A national police official said earlier there did not appear to be any other suspects.
Investigators were now trying to find out where the suspect got the arms, she said. Officials variously gave 16 and 17 as the age of the suspect. His Facebook page indicates he is 16.
After the suspect started shooting, students alerted the principal, who was wounded while “courageously” intervening, the prosecutor said. Some students only discovered shrapnel in their bodies once home, she said.
Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who visited the school Thursday, called it “the crazy act of a fragile young man fascinated by firearms … We just missed the worst.”
The suspect’s Facebook page is filled with violent or gory images.
The attack came amid France’s state of emergency, a response to a string of deadly extremist attacks over the past two years.
While no terrorism link has been identified, “all this justifies the state of emergency,” President Francois Hollande said, adding that it would remain in place until July 15, as planned.

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Explosion destroys home in Washington suburb

Author: 
The Associated Press
Sat, 2017-03-18
ID: 
1489772246684067300

ROCKVILLE: A house in a Maryland suburb of the nation’s capital was leveled early Friday by a thunderous explosion heard for miles around, the blast shattering windows and causing other damage to several neighboring homes, authorities said.
The explosion rocked the sleepy Washington, D.C., bedroom community of Rockville about 1 a.m. and scattered debris widely through a neighborhood just north of the capital, an official said.
Authorities said they had no reports of any injuries but neighbors said a man lived in the home and investigators did not know the man’s immediate status or if the house was occupied at the time.
“It’s just a pile of debris; it’s just a pile of bricks. There’s not anything left of the house,” said Pete Piringer, chief spokesman for Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service. “I’ve heard there were calls from miles away, people calling.”
He described the home damage as “catastrophic” and added at least a dozen other homes were damaged because of the “large debris field” from the blast. Investigators were just beginning to probe the rubble, he added, noting a cause of the blast had not yet been determined.
Piringer spoke by phone from the scene in a neighborhood of Rockville, where about 75 firefighters took about 20 minutes to put out the fire in the rubble.
“The status of the occupant is unknown,” he said, adding authorities had no further information. But he said investigators would be exhaustively checking the rubble in daylight hours and trying to determine what happened. Piringer also said there were no reports of any gas leaks before the blast but he said a gas explosion was one possibility that has not been ruled out initially.
He added that gas and power company workers have since gone to turn off utilities at the home and nearby as a safety precaution. As a safety precaution, fire and utility officials also went door to door asking neighbors to leave the area, displacing a number of local residents.
“There is collateral damage to several nearby homes,” he said.

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UN: Risky sea crossings fuel sharp rise in migrant deaths

Author: 
The Associated Press
Sat, 2017-03-18
ID: 
1489772246764067900

BERLIN: Migrant deaths rose sharply last year, particularly in the Mediterranean as smugglers made ever-riskier attempts to ferry asylum-seekers and refugees on increasingly unseaworthy vessels, according to UN statistics released Friday.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) documented 7,763 migrant deaths in 2016 worldwide, 27 percent more than the 6,107 recorded in 2015.
Two-thirds of the deaths took place in the Mediterranean Sea, where 5,098 people lost their lives trying to make the trip from North Africa, Turkey and the Middle East to Europe, according to information collected by the IOM’s Data Analysis Center in Berlin.
The number of Mediterranean casualties last year was 35 percent higher than in 2015, despite more organized rescue efforts and fewer people trying to make the perilous journey. Most of the 2016 deaths were in the Central Mediterranean, where 4,581 migrants died attempting the longer trip from North Africa to Italy.
The migration organization cautioned that better monitoring and reporting might account for part of the increase in deaths in the Mediterranean. The area has become a greater focus as more asylum seekers streamed into Europe in recent years.
But evidence shows that along with several large shipwrecks, there also were more small fatal incidents as smugglers pursued strategies such as launching multiple boats simultaneously — making rescue operations more difficult — and taking to rough seas during the winter, the IOM said.
“This is not something completely new, but there is a reckless behavior on the part of smugglers who only want to increase their profits,” Frank Laczko, director of the IOM’s analysis center, said.
“There are huge sums of money to be made for each of those boats that cross the Mediterranean, so the more people you can cram into a boat, the more money you make,” Laczko said.
He also said the situation in Libya, a key departure point, could have deteriorated to the point that people have become increasingly desperate to get out and thus willing to take “incredible risks,” although noted that it is difficult to assess what is happening inside the country.
The report noted that the death count for the Mediterranean is considered a minimum figure, since it is thought that many shipwrecks go unreported.
The number of migrants attempting to reach Europe via the Mediterranean declined more than 1 million in 2015 to 363,348 in 2016, largely due to the implementation of a deal between the EU and Turkey designed to discourage sea crossings.
In North Africa itself, the report tallied 1,279 migrant deaths in 2016, up from 672 the previous year. In western Africa, 169 migrant deaths were recorded, up from 84 in 2015. The Middle East saw 113 deaths, up from 32 the year before.
In other findings, the IOM said 400 migrants died along the US border with Mexico in 2016, up from 348 in 2015. Bodies decompose quickly there because of the climate, making those who died difficult to identify.
Of the 143 cases in which identities were determined, most of the dead were Mexican nationals. Thirteen percent were Hondurans, 5 percent were Salvadoran, 18 percent other Central America and 4 percent South America, the report said.

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India beefs up security at Taj Mahal after Daesh threat

Author: 
AFP
Sat, 2017-03-18
ID: 
1489773456144225400

AGRA: India has boosted security at the Taj Mahal after a pro-Daesh group reportedly warned of attacks in the country and threatened the 17th-century monument to love, police said Friday.
Images published in local media showed a fighter in combat fatigues and black headgear at the Taj Mahal, India’s biggest tourist attraction, and the words “new target” as the backdrop.
The US-based Site Intelligence Group, which tracks terror activity, said the pro-Daesh Ahwaal Ummat Media Center had originally published the graphic on Telegram on Tuesday.
“There have been no specific intelligence inputs or any official alerts, but going by media reports we have stepped up security at the Taj,” senior police superintendent Preetender Singh told AFP on Friday. “Security drills are being carried out on a six-hourly basis instead of the usual daily drill.”
Members of the bomb disposal squad and Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team have been deployed with additional personnel patrolling the Yamuna river which flows next to the Taj, he said.
India’s leaders say Daesh does not have influence in the country of over 1.2 billion people, which has a large but traditionally moderate Muslim population.

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Pyongyang problem: US ponders a change of approach

Author: 
AP, reuters
Sat, 2017-03-18
ID: 
1489772233614063800

TOKYO: Back in 1976, all it took to bring the Korean Peninsula back to the brink of a war was a brawl over an attempt to trim a poplar tree. That escalated quickly into the death of two American soldiers by ax-wielding North Korean soldiers. Three days later, with an aircraft carrier battle group and nuclear-capable B-52 bombers at the ready, the tree was chopped down.
For sure, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the Koreas is one of most volatile strips of Cold War-style weirdness left on the planet. And on Friday it was weirder than usual — with US President Donald Trump’s new top diplomat, Rex Tillerson, standing on one side of the North-South demarcation line with his coterie and North Korean soldiers standing just a meter away.
Fittingly enough, Tillerson arrived by helicopter at Camp Bonifas, a US base on the edge of the DMZ named after one of the ax murder victims, Capt. Arthur Bonifas.
There were no axes this time. The North Korean soldiers on the other side of the line wielded cameras.
Tillerson made no public comments and quickly flew off to Seoul, but his DMZ detour comes just a day after he called years of US policy toward North Korea a failure and vowed a comprehensive policy review under Trump.
“Diplomatic and other efforts of the past 20 years to bring North Korea to a point of denuclearization have failed,” he said on Thursday in Tokyo, reflecting a widely held but rarely publicly spoken view of many experts both in and outside of the US government.
“It is clear that a different approach is required.”
Bleak though that 20-years-of-failure assessment may ring, Tillerson might just as well have tacked on a few decades more.
Well before going nuclear, North Korea has dogged every US president since Harry Truman.
The 1950-53 Korean War, fought under Truman, is technically still going, since it ended with a truce that has yet to be negotiated into an actual peace treaty.
It was Gerald Ford who ordered Operation Paul Bunyan, the massive show of force that followed the ax-murder incident in 1976. Bill Clinton considered pre-emptive strikes in 1994, then tried increased engagement, which failed and was buried for good in 2002 when George Bush included North Korea on his “axis of evil” in a State of the Union speech.
What path Trump will ultimately choose is a mystery.
On the campaign trail, he said he was open to the idea of meeting directly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — flippantly adding that they might best talk over hamburgers.
But he has also hinted at a hawkish approach or shifting the onus almost completely on to Beijing, which is North Korea’s biggest trading partner and economic lifeline.
In Tokyo, which hosts tens of thousands of US troops and is within North Korean missile range, Tillerson stressed that the policy review is underway.
It would presumably analyze and weigh the benefits and risks of the full gamut of foreign policy tools at Washington’s disposal. That could range from pre-emptive attacks on its nuclear facilities and precision strikes aimed at killing its leaders to negotiation-based diplomatic engagement.
For the moment, relations are following the trajectory set by Barack Obama, which focused on exerting pressure on the North through strengthening regional alliances, tougher economic sanctions in response to nuclear tests or missile launches and a flat refusal to talk without Pyongyang first taking concrete moves toward denuclearization.
But attention-demanding problems are increasing. They include:
— The US and South Korea are currently holding their biggest-ever annual joint military exercises, which are seen by the North as a dress rehearsal for invasion. Washington and Seoul claim the maneuvers are purely defensive, but they bring a rise in tensions that increases the possibility of a clash, either intentional or in response to an accident or misjudgment in the field.
— North Korea just last week fired four ballistic missiles into the Japan Sea, reportedly coming to within just 200 km of Japan’s shoreline.
— The US and South Korea are planning to set up the state-of-the-art missile defense system known as THAAD, which along with the predictable opposition from Pyongyang has antagonized Beijing because it can monitor activity in China as well.
— North Korea says it is in the final stages of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the US mainland, and fit it with a nuclear warhead. More tests of both nuclear devices and long-range missiles are almost a certainty in the near future, though no one can predict when.
For Tillerson and Trump, acknowledging past failures will without doubt be a lot easier than finding future successes.
In a related development, sirens blared and loudspeakers broadcast warnings in Japan’s first civilian missile evacuation drill on Friday.
The drill played out a scenario in which North Korea had fired a ballistic missile on the Japanese islands. Officials said the exercise was prompted by growing concern about the regional security situation.

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Tillerson: Use of pre-emptive force an option with North Korea

Author: 
AP
Fri, 2017-03-17
ID: 
1489761104962861000

SEOUL: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday it may be necessary to take pre-emptive military action against North Korea if the threat from their weapons program reaches a level “that we believe requires action.”
Tillerson outlined a tougher strategy to confront North Korea’s nuclear threat after visiting the world’s most heavily armed border near the tense buffer zone between the rivals Koreas. He also closed the door on talks with Pyongyang unless it denuclearizes and gives up its weapons of mass destruction.
Asked about the possibility of using military force, Tillerson told a news conference in the South Korean capital, “all of the options are on the table.”
Trump weighed in on the matter Friday on Twitter: “North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been ‘playing’ the United States for years. China has done little to help!“
Tillerson said the US does not want a military conflict, “but obviously if North Korea takes actions that threaten South Korean forces or our own forces that would be met with (an) appropriate response. If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action that option is on the table.”
But he said that by taking other steps, including sanctions, the US is hopeful that North Korea could be persuaded to take a different course before it reaches that point.
Past US administrations have considered military force because of North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to deliver them, but rarely has that option been expressed so explicitly.
North Korea has accelerated its weapons development, violating multiple UN Security Council resolutions and appearing undeterred by tough international sanctions. The North conducted two nuclear test explosions and 24 ballistic missile tests last year. Experts say it could have a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the US within a few years.
Tillerson met Friday with his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se and its acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn on the second leg of a three-nation trip which began in Japan and will end in China. State Department officials have described it as a “listening tour” as the administration seeks a coherent North Korea policy, well-coordinated with its Asian partners.
Earlier Friday, Tillerson touched down by helicopter Friday at Camp Bonifas, US-led UN base about 400 meters (438 yards) from the Demilitarized Zone, a Cold War vestige created after the Korean War ended in 1953. He then moved to the truce village of Panmunjom inside the DMZ, a cluster of blue huts where the Korean War armistice was signed.
Tillerson is the latest in a parade of senior US officials to have their photos taken at the border. But it’s the first trip by the new Trump administration’s senior diplomat.
The DMZ, which is both a tourist trap and a potential flashpoint, is guarded on both sides with land mines, razor wire fence, tank traps and hundreds of thousands of combat-ready troops. More than a million mines are believed to be buried inside the DMZ. Land mine explosions in 2015 that Seoul blamed on Pyongyang maimed two South Korean soldiers and led the rivals to threaten each other with attacks.”
Hordes of tourists visit both sides, despite the lingering animosity. The Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, which means the Korean Peninsula remains in a technical state of war.
President Donald Trump is seen as seeking to examine all options — including military ones — for halting the North’s weapons programs before Pyongyang becomes capable of threatening the US mainland.
Tillerson declared an end to the policy “strategic patience” of the Obama administration, which held off negotiating with Pyongyang while tightening of sanctions but failed to prevent North Korea’s weapons development. Tillerson said USwas exploring “a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures.”
Central to the US review is China and its role in any bid to persuade Pyongyang to change course. China remains the North’s most powerful ally. Tillerson will meet with top Chinese officials including President Xi Jinping in Beijing this weekend.
While the US and its allies in Seoul and Tokyo implore Beijing to press its economic leverage over North Korea, the Chinese have emphasized their desire to relaunch diplomatic talks.
Tillerson, however, said that “20 years of talks with North Korea have brought us to where we are today.”
“It’s important that the leadership of North Korea realize that their current pathway of nuclear weapons and escalating threats will not lead to their objective of security and economic development. That pathway can only be achieved by denuclearizing, giving up their weapons of mass destruction, and only then will we be prepared to engage with them in talks,” he said.
Six-nation aid-for-disarmament talks with North Korea, which were hosted by China, have in fact been stalled since 2009. The Obama administration refused to resume them unless the North re-committed to the goal of denuclearization, something that North Korea has shown little interest in doing.
Tillerson urged China and other countries to fully implement UN sanctions on North Korea.
He also accused China of economic retaliation against South Korea over the US deployment of a missile defense system. He called that reaction “inappropriate and troubling” and said China should focus on the North Korean threat that makes the deployment necessary. China sees the system as a threat to its own security.
Last week, North Korea launched four missiles into seas off Japan, in an apparent reaction to major annual military drills the US is currently conducting with South Korea. Pyongyang claims the drills are a rehearsal for invasion.

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’I am lucky’: Refugee family celebrates arrival to US

Author: 
(AP)
Fri, 2017-03-17
ID: 
1489750655211819700

SAN DIEGO: Inside a small apartment in a San Diego suburb, Nadia Hanan Madalo sat before tins of kebab, roasted chicken, and tomato and cucumber salad. Her refugee flight credential still hung around her neck, as her children played with cousins they had only seen on Internet phone chats before this night.
The midnight feast marked the end of the refugee family’s long journey to leave war-torn Iraq and be reunited with Madalo’s 21-year-old son, her mother and siblings in the United States.
Madalo, her husband and four other children believed when they boarded their plane Wednesday morning in northern Iraq that they would be among the last refugees allowed in before the latest Trump administration travel ban was to take effect.
By the time they landed, a federal judge in Hawaii put a hold on President Trump’s newest ban — the latest development in a fight between the administration and the courts that has injected more uncertainty into the lives of refugees.
For Madalo, it all seemed surreal. She smiled. Tears streamed down her face as she gave long embraces to each member of her large extended family amid flowers and “welcome home” balloons.
“I am lucky. I am lucky,” she said as she sat squashed on a couch with her large extended family at her brother’s apartment in El Cajon. They held the feast for the momentous reunion as quietly as possible. They didn’t want to bother their neighbors.
Madalo was looking forward to seeing the ocean for the first time. But other than that, she could not think yet of what her new life would hold for her. But she was sure it would be good.
“The first thing is being safe,” she told her brother who translated her words in her native Chaldean language to English.
The Madalo family waited for four years to get into the United States. Her sister in Lebanon is among those still waiting for final approval. The family fled their Christian village before Daesh fighters invaded several years ago.
Madalo and her husband returned to see the town one last time before leaving Iraq. Only devastation remains. Roads are filled with land mines. The town has been destroyed. And their family home was burned to the ground.
“Thank God we ran from there and come here,” she said at the San Diego airport.
Resettlement agencies say more than 67,000 refugees were in the stages of being approved and allowed into the USwhen Trump’s January order halted travel for 90 days from seven majority-Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The order also suspended the refugee program for 120 days.
After a federal court in California blocked the order in February thousands rushed to get in before the anticipated new order was issued.
US District Judge Derrick Watson blocked that order Wednesday, citing “questionable evidence supporting the government’s national security motivation.” Trump, who has said the order is necessary to prevent terrorists from entering the US, criticized the ruling, saying: “The danger is clear. The law is clear.”
The 16-page executive order calls for a 55 percent reduction in refugee visas overall. Instead of the planned 110,000 slated for this year, there would be just 50,000. By this week, nearly 38,000 will have already been admitted.
Madalo is just happy her family could stop fleeing. Their children had been struggling since they had left their village in 2014 and fled to Iraq’s semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region where they attended an overcrowded school for the displaced.
Her brother expected the family to adjust quickly to El Cajon, home to the nation’s second largest population of Chaldeans.
But for every family celebrating a joyous reunion, thousands of other people remain in limbo.
Madalo and her siblings understand the pain of waiting.
Their parents spent three years going through the vetting process before they got approved for a flight. Then it was canceled. There were more delays as her father’s health worsened. In 2015, as her parents traveled to the US, her father died. He was buried in San Diego.
His photo is displayed high on the wall in the living room where they feasted at the apartment, as if he was watching over them. Below it, the family tethered the bundle of “Welcome Home” balloons.

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Swiss won’t help Turks prosecute Erdogan critic

Author: 
Reuters
Fri, 2017-03-17
ID: 
1489748211821618200

SWITZERLAND: has rejected a Turkish request for legal assistance in prosecuting a suspect accused of insulting President Tayyip Erdogan, ruling that the comments in question were protected by Swiss free speech provisions.
Switzerland helps foreign prosecutors only if the crime they are investigating is a criminal offense in Switzerland as well, and that was not the case here, a spokesman for the Federal Office of Justice said on Friday.
“If similar criticism of a member of the government were expressed in Switzerland within the framework of a political discussion, this would be tolerated as a free expression of opinion,” he said.
He did not identify the suspect in the case, which arose in part from postings on social media. Three similar requests from Turkey are still pending and would be judged individually on their merits, he added.
Ties have become increasingly fraught between Turkey and many European countries over Turkish campaigning for a referendum next month that would give Erdogan more power.
The Swiss government said last week, however, there was no reason to ban Turkey’s foreign minister from addressing a rally in Zurich despite local authorities’ opposition. The speech was eventually canceled for lack of a venue.
Swiss government statistics show around 68,000 Turkish citizens live in Switzerland, a nation of 8.3 million whose population is a quarter foreign. The Turkish embassy’s website refers to around 130,000 Turkish citizens.

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Three arrested for helping rape charge Indian priest

Author: 
AFP
Fri, 2017-03-17
ID: 
1489744436881326300

NEW DELHI: Two nuns and a priest accused of covering up the birth of a baby born to a teenage girl who was allegedly raped by another priest have been arrested in India, police said Friday.
All three handed themselves in to police in the southern state of Kerala where they were being questioned over allegations they deliberately hid the birth at a hospital run by the Catholic church and took the baby to an orphanage.
Under Indian law, hospitals and orphanages must report all teenage pregnancies and births to authorities.
They surrendered two weeks after Robin Vadakkumchery was arrested on charges of raping the 16-year-old, who gave birth in February.
Six more people believed to have helped the victim give birth are still on the run.
The girl told investigators that the priest raped her at a church-run school last year.
She and her family said they were unaware of the pregnancy until she complained of stomach pain and was taken to hospital, where she gave birth.
A child rights organization tipped off police about the secret delivery, triggering an investigation that revealed the alleged involvement of the priest, nuns and other officials.
It is not the first time the Catholic church in Kerala has faced accusations of sexual abuse.
Two autobiographies by former Catholic nuns have in recent years revealed the scale of sexual exploitation by priests and the prevalence of same-sex relations in convents.
Last year, a priest was sentenced to 40 years in prison by a Kerala court for raping a 12-year-old girl in 2014.
Nearly one-fifth of the coastal state’s 34 million people follow Christianity.

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