- - Monday, July 30, 2012

TEHRAN — An Iranian court has sentenced four people to death and given two more life sentences on charges linked to a $2.6 billion bank fraud described as the biggest financial scam in the country’s history, an official said Monday.

The trial, which began in February, involved some of the country’s largest financial institutions and raised uncomfortable questions about corruption at senior levels in Iran’s tightly controlled economy.

Few details have been released, possibly to avoid exposing too much internal scandal while Iran’s leaders seek to assure the country it can ride out sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear program.

Prosecutors have referred to the linchpin defendant by a nickname and have provided just general information about his purported business empire. The main charges included using forged documents to get credit at one of Iran’s top banks to purchase assets including major state-owned companies.


Islamists stone unmarried couple

BAMAKO — Islamists in northern Mali have stoned an unmarried couple to death, the first reported Sharia killing since they occupied the area, increasing pressure on an embattled interim government.

The execution came as interim President Dioncounda Traore finalized a unity government that foreign partners have demanded be formed by Tuesday to take decisive action against the jihadists who have cleaved the nation in two.

As politicians grappled for solutions in Bamako and West African capitals, the al Qaeda-linked Islamists grew bolder, dragging a rural couple to the center of the town of Aguelhok on Sunday for a public stoning.

An official confirmed the information, saying the couple had two children, the younger of whom was 6 months old.

The small town in the region of Kidal near the Algerian border was one of the first to be captured by Tuareg separatist rebels on Jan. 24. Eighty-two civilians and soldiers were executed during the attack.


Chavez: Joining trade bloc a boon for Venezuela

CARACAS — Joining the South American trade bloc Mercosur will be a boon for Venezuela and should help the country’s businesses boost international sales, President Hugo Chavez said Monday as he left for a meeting in Brazil.

Mr. Chavez urged Venezuelan business leaders, some of whom are concerned about reducing tariffs, to support the initiative as he departed for the meeting in Brasilia.

He said joining Mercosur will allow Venezuela “to have a much wider market to climb the scale” in its exports and diversify its largely oil-driven economy.

At the same time, Mr. Chavez said the bloc’s other members, including Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, will have expanded access to Venezuela’s vast oil reserves.

Some business leaders and farmers say they’re worried that the four-year period during which Venezuela should eliminate tariffs on products from Mercosur members will be too short and that cheaper imports from countries such as Brazil and Argentina could hurt Venezuelan businesses.


Women with HIV sterilized improperly

JOHANNESBURG — Namibia’s government sterilized three women infected with HIV without getting proper consent, forcing them to sign forms they did not understand as they suffered through the pains of labor, a judge ruled Monday.

Activists applauded the decision by Judge Elton Hoff, though the ruling rejected lawyers’ accusations that doctors sterilized the women specifically because they had HIV in a country where the virus remains endemic. The activists say they worry that more women in the southern African nation are coerced into the procedure, as other cases pending before courts allege women suffered similar treatment at the hands of doctors.

The three women, in their 20s to 40s, all sought care at government hospitals in Namibia. All signed release forms that allowed doctors to sterilize them, though at the time they did not realize what they had agreed to, said Nyasha Chingore, an HIV project lawyer with the Southern Africa Litigation Centre. In one case, a woman signed a form that used only acronyms to describe the procedure, while another signed after being told she did not have a choice.


Putin signs dealon U.S.-Russian visas

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin has signed the ratification of an agreement with the U.S. that substantially eases the visa regime for both countries’ citizens.

The agreement allows Russians and Americans to get three-year multientry visas under which they can stay for up to six consecutive months.

It also eliminates Russia’s requirement that visitors get a letter of invitation, although tourists still will need to show advance accommodation bookings.

Easing the laborious visa system is expected to boost business contacts between the countries and improve tourism, particularly of Americans coming to Russia.

Although Mr. Putin’s signing was announced Monday, the new measures will not go into effect until both countries exchange notes certifying that preparations for the changes have been completed.


Heavy rain cuts off power, floods fields

ANJU — More heavy rain pounded North Korea on Monday, submerging buildings, cutting off power, flooding rice paddies and forcing people and their livestock to climb onto rooftops for safety.

The rain follows downpours earlier this month that killed nearly 90 people and left more than 60,000 homeless, officials said. The floods came on the heels of a severe drought, fueling renewed food worries about a country that already struggles to feed its people.

Two-thirds of North Korea’s 24 million people face chronic food shortages, a U.N. report said last month while asking donors for $198 million in humanitarian aid for the country.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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