Rand Paul’s neighbor to plead guilty in assault case

WASHINGTON — The neighbor of Sen. Rand Paul who allegedly assaulted the Kentucky Republican while he was mowing his lawn has now signed a federal plea agreement.

The U.S. attorney in Indianapolis made the announcement Friday. His office was assigned the case following the recusal by the U.S. attorney in the western part of Kentucky.

“Assaulting a member of Congress is an offense we take very seriously,” U.S. Attorney Josh Minkler said. “Those who choose to commit such an act will be held accountable.”

Rene Boucher, the 58 year-old neighbor of Paul, apparently “had enough” of the senator placing yard waste near their property line. Boucher tackled Paul, resulting in the senator sustaining half a dozen broken ribs and related complications including pneumonia.

The U.S. attorney’s office said no date has been set for the federal court considering the plea.

—CQ-Roll Call

Prosecutors to seek death penalty for kidnapping, killing of Chinese scholar at University of Illinois

CHICAGO — Federal prosecutors announced Friday they will seek the death penalty for a former University of Illinois graduate student accused of kidnapping, torturing and killing a visiting scholar from China in June.

In making the announcement, prosecutors alleged for the first time that Brendt Christensen “choked and sexually assaulted” another victim in 2013 in the Champaign-Urbana area, that he has claimed additional victims and has expressed a “desire to be known as a killer.”

Christensen, 28, who is being held without bond, had tentatively been set to go to trial Feb. 27 in federal court in Urbana on a charge of kidnapping resulting in a death stemming from the disappearance of 26-year-old Yingying Zhang, whose body has not been found.

The four-page indictment alleged that Christensen committed the offense “in an especially heinous, cruel or depraved manner, in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse to the victim,” and that the crime occurred after “substantial planning and premeditation.”

The indictment also charged Christensen with two new counts of making false statements to FBI agents.

Friday’s decision to seek the death penalty — which required the approval of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions — means that the trial will likely be delayed for months.

In their five-page motion Friday, prosecutors said the death penalty was warranted because Christensen “is likely to commit criminal acts of violence in the future that would constitute a continuing and serious threat to the lives and safety of others.”

—Chicago Tribune

Terrorism expert will be allowed to testify at trial of Pulse shooter’s widow

ORLANDO, Fla. — A terrorism expert will be able to testify at Noor Salman’s trial in March, a federal judge ruled on Friday.

Salman, the widow of Pulse shooter Omar Mateen, faces charges of lying to investigators and aiding and abetting in providing material support to a foreign terror organization.

Salman’s defense attorneys had questioned the relevance of prosecutors calling on William Braniff, executive director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. Braniff has no direct connection to the case but has studied terror groups and the so-called Islamic State group in its various forms for about a decade.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Sweeney argued that Braniff could tell jurors more about the people and groups Mateen mentioned in his calls with police the morning of the June 12, 2016, attack, in which 49 people died and at least 68 more were injured.

Mateen talked about the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who along with his brother killed three people near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013, then shot and killed a police officer three days later; and Moner Mohammad Abusalha, who grew up in Fort Pierce and left Florida to join an al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, killing Syrian soldiers in a suicide bombing.

Braniff took the stand for an hour Friday morning to testify as he would during the trial, which is scheduled to begin March 1.

Salman’s attorney, Charles Swift, said at the end of his testimony that he had no objection to Braniff telling jurors more about other attacks as long as the information was relevant.

—Orlando Sentinel

Pakistan closes U.S.-funded radio station, citing ‘hostile’ agenda

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani authorities on Friday closed the offices of a U.S. government-funded radio station whose broadcasts it said were “against the interests of Pakistan,” dealing another blow to relations with the United States.

The Pakistani interior ministry said that Radio Mashaal portrayed the country as “a hub of terrorism” and “a failed state” that could not provide security for its people, particularly religious minorities and long-term refugees from Afghanistan.

The ministry said it shut the organization’s Islamabad office on the recommendations of Inter-Services Intelligence, the powerful spy agency of the Pakistani military, which has been the target of intense criticism from President Trump.

The Trump administration this month announced that the U.S. would withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance due to Pakistan’s inability to crack down on militant groups that range across the border to attack U.S.-led coalition troops in Afghanistan.

Trump has also called out Pakistan repeatedly on Twitter, accusing the long-difficult U.S. ally, which has accepted $33 billion in U.S. funding to fight terrorism since 2002, of “lies and deceit.”

Pakistani officials said that the decision to close Radio Mashaal was not a response to Trump but the result of longstanding concerns about its content. A letter from the interior ministry said the station’s broadcasts were “in line with (a) hostile intelligence agency’s agenda” — a likely reference to Afghanistan, whose leaders accuse Pakistan of sponsoring the Taliban and other insurgent groups battling the Kabul government.

Radio Mashaal, which broadcasts on the radio and online in the Pashto language, airs political and social coverage and is particularly popular in the marginalized northwestern tribal areas along the Afghan border. The region is home to a large population of mainly ethnic Pashtun refugees who have fled decades of conflict in Afghanistan but face severe restrictions from the Pakistani government.

The station is part of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a nonprofit broadcasting organization funded by Congress and based in Prague, Czech Republic. Started during the Cold War as an alternative to pro-Soviet propaganda, the organization airs programs in 23 countries that it says faces press restrictions, including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.

In a story on its website, Radio Free Europe’s president, Thomas Kent, said he was “extraordinarily concerned by the closure” and “urgently seeking more information about the Pakistani authorities’ intentions.”

Kent described Radio Mashaal as a “private news organization supported by the U.S. Congress with no connection to the intelligence agencies of any country,” and said he hoped “the situation will be resolved without delay.”

—Los Angeles Times


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