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Russia Extends Detention Of US Man In Spy Case

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A Russian court on Tuesday extended until late March the pre-trial detention of a US man already held in jail for a year despite Western requests for his release.

Paul Whelan, who also has Irish, Canadian and British citizenship, was arrested on December 28 last year for allegedly receiving state secrets.

On Christmas eve the Moscow City Court extended his detention by another three months, to March 29, a court spokesman told AFP.

He risks up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Whelan, 49, has denounced the case against him and said he is being held “hostage” for a possible prisoner exchange.

On Monday, US charge d’affaires Bart Gorman and diplomats from Canada, Ireland, and Britain visited Whelan in Moscow’s high-security Lefortovo prison, bringing him food and Christmas greetings from family and supporters.

“It’s two days before Christmas. A holiday Paul Whelan will spend alone in Lefortovo,” the US embassy quoted Gorman as saying.

“In the past 12 months, Paul has not heard his parents’ voices. Bring Paul some Christmas cheer and let him call home.”

Whelan, a former US marine, maintains he has been framed and that he took a USB drive from an acquaintance thinking it contained holiday photos.

His lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov has said the acquaintance that handed over the drive is the only witness against Whelan while the rest of his longtime acquaintances in Russia gave witness statements in his defence.

During a previous court hearing in October, Whelan insisted that he was not a spy.

“Russia thought they caught James Bond on a spy mission, in reality they abducted Mr Bean on holiday,” he has said.

Whelan and his supporters claim that the American has been mistreated in jail.

Moscow has rubbished the claims, saying foreign diplomats have regular access to Whelan and calling the complaints a “provocative line of defence”.

“Whelan’s complaints concerning the conditions of detention and actions of investigators have never once been confirmed,” the Russian foreign ministry has said.

Pilgrims Gather In Bethlehem For Christmas Celebration

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Pilgrims from around the world gathered Tuesday in the biblical city of Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land.

Palestinians and foreigners began converging on the  “little town” in the Israeli-occupied West Bank from early morning, with Christmas Eve festivities taking place in and around the Church of the Nativity.

Tourists queued to visit the grotto inside the church, believed to be the exact site where Jesus was born, with Ola, a Nigerian visitor, saying it was a “special day.”

Outside in the winter sun, hundreds watched as Palestinian scouts paraded to the sound of drums.

“I feel really emotional to be here today, it’s wonderful,” said Germana, an Italian travelling with her husband and two children.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, an apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the most senior Roman Catholic official in the Middle East, was due to travel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Tuesday morning.

He will lead midnight mass in the Church of the Nativity, with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas expected to attend.

Bethlehem is close to Jerusalem but cut off from the holy city by Israel’s separation barrier.

The first church was built on the site in the fourth century, though it was replaced after a fire in the sixth century.

This year celebrations were bolstered by the return of a wooden fragment believed to be from the manger of Jesus.

Sent as a gift to Pope Theodore I in 640, the piece had been in Europe for more than 1,300 years before being returned last month, Francesco Patton, chief custodian for the Holy Land, said.

“We venerate the relic because (it) reminds us of the mystery of incarnation, to the fact that the son of God was born of Mary in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago,” Patton told AFP at the time.

‘Tough Christmas In Gaza’

In the square by the church, Palestinian tourism minister Rula Maaya told AFP it had been a good year, with 3.5 million tourists visiting the city.

But fewer Christians from the Gaza Strip were in attendance than in previous years, as Israel granted permits to just around 200 of some 900 people who applied, said Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to church leaders in the Holy Land.

The Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza are separated by Israeli territory and crossing between them requires hard-to-get permits.

Abunassar said Christmas remained a time for hope.

“The Holy Land is not only the site of the birth and crucifixion (of Jesus), it is also the place of resurrection,” he told AFP.

“Despite all challenges, difficulties, pain and problems we are facing, we keep the hope in God and people.”

‘Bumpy Year’

Around the world, people were getting ready to ring in the Christmas festivities.

In her traditional Christmas Day message, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II was to describe 2019 as “quite bumpy” after a year of crises in the royal family.

In France, travellers were meanwhile in for more woe in the bitter nearly-three week strike by train drivers fighting government pension reform plans.

The walkout has ruined Christmas travel plans for tens of thousands of French ticket holders unable to reach loved ones in time for Christmas Day.

A frantic scramble for gift promotions left a dozen people injured in an Australian mall.

And in the central Philippines, where Christmas is widely celebrated among the country’s Catholics, thousands of people were warned to leave their homes as a severe tropical storm approached.

Judge Withdraws From Sowore’s Fundamental Rights Enforcement Suit

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Justice Ahmed Mohammed of the Federal High Court in Abuja has withdrawn from the fundamental rights enforcement suit filed by the convener of ‘RevolutionNow’ protests, Omoyele Sowore.

Mr Sowore is seeking an order for his unconditional release from the custody of the State Security Services.

 On 6th December Mr Sowore was rearrested by the operatives of the DSS barely 24 hours of being released from the agency’s custody which prompted the filing of a suit against the DSS.

Justice Ahmed Mohammed, sitting as the vacation judge of the federal high court ruled that he could not hear Mr Sowore’s case in view of the various publications by Sahara reporters, a media outfit owned by the applicant, wherein he was accused taking a bribe in a case to influence the outcome.

The case in question is the trial of a former Governor of Benue State, Gabriel Suswam, who is now being prosecuted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission before another judge of the court, Justice Okon Abang.

Justice Mohammed said that the reports by Sahara Reporters in 2016 and 2019 forced him to withdraw from the ex-governor’s trial.

He said the situation put him in a position whereby if he ruled in favour of Mr Sowore, it could be perceived as having been blackmailed by Sowore to rule, and that in the event that he ruled against the activist, he could be perceived as being vengeful”

He then ordered that the case file be sent back to the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, Justice John Tsoho, for reassignment to another judge.

Omoyele Sowore along side Olawale Bakare, is facing charges of treasonable felony filed by the DSS against them.

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The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has asked banks and other financial institutions to adhere strictly to the Guide to Bank Charges directives or face a penalty of N2 million per infraction.

The apex bank had on Sunday, issued a 76-page circular to all banks, financial and non-bank financial institutions on the application of charges offered to customers.

According to the CBN, the revised guide to charges by banks will take effect on January 1, 2019.

To guard against excess, unapproved or arbitrary charges, the apex bank in a tweet, restated the penalty for banks who fail to comply with the directives.

“To guard against excess, unapproved or arbitrary charges by banks and other financial institutions, the Guide to Bank Charges stipulates a penalty of N2,000,000 per infraction or as may be determined by the CBN from time to time for financial institutions that breach any provision of the guide.”

It stated that another N2 million daily penalty will be charged on erring banks if they fail to comply with the earlier sanction.

“The guide also emphasizes that failure by any bank to comply with CBN’s directive in respect of any infraction shall attract a further penalty of N2,000,000 daily until the directive is complied with or as may be determined by the CBN from time to time.

“In order to ensure that banks actually attend to every customer’s complaints, CBN has directed banks to log every complaint received from their customers into the Consumer Complaints Management System (CCMS) in addition to generating a unique reference code for each complaint lodged, which must be given to the customer.

“CBN has also warned that failure to log and provide the code to the customer will amount to a breach and is sanctionable with a penalty of N1,000,000 per breach,” it added.

Buhari Is A Democrat, He Respects The Constitution, Says Presidency

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The Presidency has reiterated that President Muhammadu Buhari is not seeking a third term agenda as suggested by uninformed commentaries.

A statement by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, stressed that there are no circumstances under which a constitutional amendment with regard to extending the two-term limit will be carried out.

He stated that President Buhari will be serving his full term in office which ends in 2023.

“The Presidency wishes to correct internet-based gossip and uninformed media commentary regarding presidential term limits, given credence by so-called support groups, staging street demonstrations asking President Muhammadu Buhari to do a third term.

“There are no circumstances – nor set of circumstances – under which President Buhari may seek to amend the Constitution regarding the two-term term limit on holding office as President.

“President Buhari intends to serve his full second elected term in office, ending 2023 – and then there shall be a general election in which he will not be a candidate.”

Mr Shehu noted that despite the fact that there were attempts to change the constitution in the past, it does not make the move right and such an attempt will be rejected under President Buhari.

“There is not even the faintest possibility that this will change.

“It is important to note that there was a past attempt to change the Constitution to allow for the then incumbent president to stand for a third term. That attempt was wrong, unconstitutional – and rightly rebuffed. No such attempt will happen under this President.

“President Buhari is a democrat. He respects the Constitution. Any activity aimed at altering the two-term limit will not succeed and shall never have his time nor support.”

“The President will have nothing more to say on this matter – apart from to repeat this statement, ad infinitum – that he will not be seeking, accepting, nor standing for a third term,” he added.

Seyi Makinde Signs N213.78bn 2020 Budget

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Oyo State Governor, Seyi Makinde, has signed the state’s 2020 Appropriation Bill into Law.

He assented to the bill on Monday at a brief ceremony which held inside the State’s Executive Council Chambers of the Government House in Ibadan, the state capital.

The governor’s assent to the bill heralds the beginning of preparations for the 2020 fiscal year.

In his remarks, Governor Makinde was explained that the budget which was increased by over N4 billion by the state House of Assembly targeted a minimum of 70 per cent implementation.

He was confident that the budget would achieve landmark infrastructural development in the state.

The Governor commended members of the State House of Assembly for promptly scrutinising and passing the proposed budget in order to accelerate its implementation to start from the beginning of the next year.

He noted that the drafting of the budget was holistic in nature as everyone in all the nooks and crannies of the state was carried along.

The total amount passed by the state House of Assembly was N213.78 billion, an increase of N4.9 billion compared to the budget proposal submitted.

Governor Makinde revealed that the top four sectors with the highest budgetary allocations are infrastructure – 23.93 per cent, education 22.37 per cent, health – 5.18 per cent, and agriculture – is 4.1 per cent.

He hinted that all the civil servants would receive their 13th-month salary by December 28, 2019.

On his part, Speaker of the Assembly, Adebo Ogundoyin, explained that the increase of over N4 billion was targeted at the development of grassroots areas.

Nobody Should Pay N50 Charges On POS Transactions, Says CBN

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The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has clarified the issue of payments of N50 charges by merchants who use Point of Sale (POS) machines for cashless transactions, insisting that nobody should pay extra on goods and services.

The CBN explained that the N50 stamp duty is a fee regulated by an act that directs merchants to pay all necessary taxes as regulated by government agencies.

The CBN Director of Payment System Management, Musa Jimoh, said the apex bank issued a circular and merchants have misinterpreted the directive.

“Stamp duty has been misinterpreted, our circular that talks about merchants paying stamp duties according to the law do not say that the stamp duty should be paid by the consumer; that is a misrepresentation of CBN directive. What our directive says is that merchants should pay all necessary tax as regulated by government agencies including stamp duty.

“What we told the merchants is that we would like the banks to ensure that the merchants comply with this directive by ensuring that every single payment that customers make to them, the merchants pay the regulated stamp duty of N50.

“What has happened is that they have actually transferred this fee blatantly and openly to the consumers; this is very wrong. No single individual should pay N50 in addition to the cost of the goods.

He stated that “Stamp duty is not to be paid by individuals that are consuming the goods and services of the merchants, the merchants who are receiving the money are the ones who are supposed to pay.”

Mr. Jimoh explained that because the stamp duty is not regulated by the CBN, there are no plans to stop stamp duties.

“Stamp duty is not a CBN regulated fee, it is a fee regulated by an act, and so we can’t change or push anything in that direction.

To this, the stamp duty remains and cannot be changed by the CBN, what we are doing is to ensure that the institutions we regulate (the banks) become more responsible to ensure that these fees are collected and given to the government.

Boko Haram Is Not Holding Any Territory In Nigeria – DHQ

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The Defence Headquarters says no territory in Nigeria is under the control of Boko Haram terrorists or the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP).

Director of Defence Information, Brigadier-General Onyema Nwachukwu made this known on Monday during a press conference at the Defence Headquarters in Abuja, the nation’s capital.

Speaking on the various military operations in the country, Nwachukwu said the outlawed terrorists remain decimated, stressing that the military is not resting on its oars to ensure that they are not only chad to the fringes of lake chad but are completely wiped out.

“Boko Haram is not holding any territory, any itch of our territory in this country. I want to make it very clear that Boko Haram and ISWAP have been decimated. They have been depleted and been pushed into what we call the tumbles,” he stated.

Speaking further, the Defence Spokesman said the tumbles comprise “the islands between Nigeria and the neighbouring countries of Chad, Niger and Cameroon.”

According to him, the terrorists usually hibernate in the nation’s neighbouring countries before carrying out their dastardly acts on soft targets.

While reiterating his earlier claim that Boko Haram isn’t holding any territory, Nwachukwu explained that the terrorists usually keep surveillance on some soft targets before striking.

Reacting to Sunday’s attacks in Yobe, the defence spokesman insisted that the terrorists were “severely dealt with.”

Nwachukwu’s claim comes six days after Borno State Governor, Babagana Zulum, begged the Nigerian Army to reclaim three Local Government Areas (LGAs) of the state still under the control of the insurgents.

While receiving the Minister of Defence, Major General Bashir Magashi (rtd) at the Government House in Maiduguri, the governor listed the affected local governments as Marte, Kukawa, and Abadam LGAs.

NAF Destroys ISWAP’s Logistics Camp In Borno

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The Nigerian Air Force (NAF) has destroyed some logistics facilities belonging to the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) in the northern part of Borno State.

In a statement issued by the NAF Public Relations Officer, Air Commodore Ibikunle Daramola, the operation was made possible following strikes embarked by the Air Task Force.

According to him, the strikes were carried out on December 16 at Bakare, an island settlement within the green fringes of the Lake Chad.

He explained that the target locations went up in flames due to the impact of the strikes, stressing that the military had set up operation rattlesnake, to neutralize pre-designated insurgent camps and logistics facilities and provide air support for ground troops.

Pogba Is Going Nowhere, Says Solskjaer

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Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said Friday that French World Cup-winning midfielder Paul Pogba will not leave the club in the January transfer window.

The 26-year-old — persistently linked with Real Madrid — has only played two matches for United since the end of August due to an ankle injury and speculation has been growing that he would not play for the club again.

Pogba, whose return was delayed by a mystery illness despite him being seen dancing at his brother Florentin’s wedding last weekend, admitted in the summer he was looking for a new challenge, but that will not be in January according to Solskjaer.

“Paul is not getting sold in January, no,” he told reporters at a press conference ahead of Sunday’s Premier League match at Watford.

“I understand the interest. Paul is a fantastic player and a charismatic personality and we’re happy that he is here.”

Pogba has missed 26 of a possible 28 matches for club and country this autumn and United have missed his midfield dynamism.

Solskajer has always maintained Pogba — who has 18 months remaining on his contract — would make it back before the end of the year and he has now returned to first-team training.

But for the Norwegian, the most important thing is to reincorporate a fully fit and firing Pogba into his youthful team.

“When he comes back, we want him to play well, play with a smile on his face and do what he did a year ago when I came in,” said Solskjaer.

“His form was fantastic and it has been fantastic. We know we have one of the best players in the world when he’s fit and playing well.

“Of course he needs time to get fit, but he will make a difference for us.

“I still hope he can play by the end of the year, but let’s see how he feels. We are not going to push him. We need him to be 100% fit. I can’t risk any setbacks.”

Solskjaer also denied suggestions that Norway striker Erling Braut Haaland was on his way to United for talks over a possible January move to Old Trafford.

There were reports in his homeland that the Red Bull Salzburg player had boarded a flight from the Norwegian city of Stavanger to Manchester on Friday morning.

Haaland is one of the most-sought after players in Europe after a sensational six months in Austria.

The Norwegian, son of former Leeds and Manchester City player Alf-Inge Haaland, himself a former international team-mate of Solskjaer, has scored 28 goals in 22 matches, with five hat-tricks, including eight in six in the Champions League.

He met with Solskjaer in Salzburg last week, but the United manager was adamant Haaland’s travel plans did not involve a return meeting in Manchester.

“I don’t think he’s en route here, to be fair,” he said.

“Not through me anyway!

“He is not coming to Manchester. I know the boy and I know his friends and he’s on a Christmas holiday.

“You can’t fly anywhere from Stavanger without going via somewhere else.”

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