The Telegraph 2024-05-16 10:00:47


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Pro-Russian Slovakia PM’s assassination attempt ‘politically motivated’, government claims

Slovakia’s pro-Russia prime minister Robert Fico was on Wednesday night fighting for life after he was shot in a “politically motivated” assassination attempt.

Doctors were operating on the populist leader several hours after a gunman fired at least four times at him as he met supporters in the western town of Handlova.

Robert Kalnia, the Slovakian defence minister, described Mr Fico’s condition as “extremely serious”, with at least one bullet hitting him in the abdomen.

“I would like to thank all the emergency services and doctors […] who at this moment are still fighting for the life of the prime minister,” he said. “His situation is bad.”

Slovakia’s deputy prime minister Tomas Taraba told the BBC he believed Mr Fico “will survive” and is no longer in a life-threatening situation. 

“I was very shocked … fortunately as far as I know the operation went well – and I guess in the end he will survive … he’s not in a life threatening situation at this moment,” he told BBC’s Newshour late on Wednesday.

The suspect, who witnesses said called for Mr Fico’s attention before opening fire at close range, was last night in police custody after being tackled by the prime minister’s security detail.

He was named as Juraj Cintula, a 71-year-old government critic and poet from the western town of Levice, who was reported to have owned the gun legally.

Matus Sutaj Estok, the interior minister, said an initial investigation showed there was a “clear political motivation” behind the attempted assassination.

He said the suspect conceived of the plot in the wake of Mr Fico’s re-election to a third term last year.

In a video shared on social media apparently after his detention, Mr Cintula said he “did not agree with government policy”.

The leader of the Left-wing nationalist Direction-Social Democracy party (Smer), Mr Fico campaigned for office on a nationalist platform of ending weapons deliveries to Ukraine and focusing on the needs of citizens impacted by the cost-of-living crisis.

In office, the 59-year-old has hit out at EU sanctions on Russia and halted all arms deliveries to Ukraine, earning praise from the Kremlin.

Describing the shooting as a “monstrous” crime, Vladimir Putin said in a telegram to Slovakia’s president: “I know Robert Fico as a courageous and strong-minded man. I very much hope that these qualities will help him to survive this difficult situation.”

World leaders were united in condemnation of the attack, with Joe Biden offering American help as it grappled with what he called an “horrific act of violence”.

Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, said he was “shocked to hear this awful news. All our thoughts are with Prime Minister Fico and his family”.

Smer politicians pointed the finger of blame at progressive journalists for stoking hatred against a prime minister known for his love of bodybuilding, fast cars, and football, and hatred of migrants and Covid regulations.

Lubos Blaha, the deputy parliament speaker and a close ally of Mr Fico, blamed what he called the “liberal media” and Slovakia’s political opposition for creating an atmosphere that led to the shooting.

Mr Sutaj Estok also claimed the media were to blame. He criticised reporters for “sowing this hatred” and abdicating their “social responsibility”. They must “stop this hate”, he added.

General Prosecutor Maroš Žilinka vowed that law enforcement would be uncompromising in pursuing justice and punishment for the attacker.

“It is the culmination of those sentiments that are nurtured in society. It is a manifestation of hatred, a manifestation of an attack not only on a person, but also as an attack on the prime minister, as well as an attack on the very essence of statehood,” he said on social media.

Mr Fico, 59, was greeting a crowd in Handlova after a government meeting when the attacker opened fire.

A voice was heard shouting “Robo come here” to the prime minister from the crowd of about 50 onlookers outside a cultural centre before several shots rang out at about 2.50pm local time.

“He shouted at him to come closer, he lured him to him and pulled out a gun,” said one witness.

“When the shots rang out, I almost became deaf,” a woman at the scene added.

Elected for fourth time

Footage of the shooting showed the prime minister doubling over as he was hit, slumping into a flower bed with his back to the metal railing separating him from the public.

As his security detail and police enter the crowd, Mr Fico is carried, bent double, to a car by two of his guards, while the others flank them on their guard for further attacks.

The camera pans round to show two policemen on top of what appears to be the suspect on the ground. Mr Fico’s car then races off at speed.

Mr Fico, who was elected for a fourth stint as prime minister in October after running a campaign promising to end support for Ukraine, was flown by helicopter to Banska Bystrica Hospital from Handlova, which is 93 miles from the capital Bratislava.

Footage showed the prime minister being rushed into the hospital on a stretcher. A message posted on Mr Fico’s Facebook account said his condition was “life-threatening”.

“The next few hours will decide,” it said, explaining he was taken to Banska Bystrica Hospital, 63 miles away from Handlova because it would take too long to get to Bratislava for emergency surgery.

Mobile phones confiscated

Before Mr Fico was taken into the operating room, medical staff at the hospital had their mobile phones confiscated to ensure a news blackout around the surgery.

This is the first assassination attempt on a senior politician in the modern history of Slovakia, which separated from the Czech Republic on Jan 1 1993.

However, government officials have faced intensifying death threats since the war in Ukraine.

Until the Left-wing populist’s election, Slovakia was one of Ukraine’s most vocal supporters. However, Mr Fico has railed against EU sanctions on the Kremlin and opposed sending weapons to Ukraine.

His victory was seen as a blow to pro-Western forces and a boon to leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who has also criticised sanctions for harming the economy.

Mr Fico has refused to join a Czech-led coalition of EU states buying ammunition for Kyiv. He campaigned on a promise not to send “one more round” to Ukraine from Slovakia, where there is deep distrust of Nato.

‘Ukraine should be blamed’

Margarita Simonyan, the editor of Kremlin propaganda channel RT, said that Ukraine should be blamed for the assassination attempt.

That would suit Moscow, but there is no serious suggestion that Kyiv is responsible for an attack on the leader of a Nato and EU member state, which are two organisations Ukraine wants to join.

Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, condemned the attack as “appalling”.

“We sincerely hope Robert Fico recovers soon and express our solidarity with the people of Slovakia,” he said.

Peter Pellegrini, Slovakia’s president-elect and a close ally of Mr Fico, called the assassination attempt “a threat to everything that has adorned Slovak democracy so far”.

Mr Fico led the ruling Smer party in 1999 and has led it ever since. He holds the record for the longest serving prime minister in Slovak history.

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Cyclists who kill face life in prison

Cyclists who kill people face life in prison, the Transport Secretary has announced.

Mark Harper has promised to change the law so that dangerous cyclists face the same punishments as dangerous drivers.

The maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving is life in prison.

Mr Harper said: “Dangerous cyclists who kill or seriously injure others should face the same penalties as other road users. Today I have agreed a way forward to ensure the Criminal Justice Bill contains powers to hold irresponsible cyclists to account, paving the way for even safer streets.

“Most cyclists, like most drivers, are responsible and considerate. But it’s only right that the tiny minority who recklessly disregard others face the full weight of the law for doing so.

“Just like car drivers who flout the law, we are backing this legislation introducing new offences around dangerous cycling. These new measures will help protect law-abiding cyclists, pedestrians and other road users, whilst ensuring justice is done.”

It comes after The Telegraph revealed how a speeding cyclist doing timed laps in Regent’s Park was involved in a fatal collision with an 81-year-old woman but he was not charged with any criminal offence.

At present, dangerous cyclists can only be jailed for up to two years, under Victorian laws designed to deal with horses.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, had tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill in an attempt to change the law so cyclists faced tougher sentences and Laura Farris, the safeguarding and victims minister, announced in the Commons on Wednesday that the Government would back the amendment.

In the next few weeks it will be redrafted and re-introduced in the House of Lords.

Sir Iain’s amendment had called for a maximum sentence for dangerous cycling of 14 years, but a source at the Department for Transport said this would be increased to a life sentence “to reflect changes made by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022”, which increased penalties for motorists.

“For instance, the maximum life sentence introduced for the most serious offences that result in a death should also apply to cycling offences, and the offence of causing serious injury by careless, or inconsiderate, driving should have an equivalent cycling offence,” the source said.

Ms Farris confirmed that the Government would back Sir Iain’s planned changes as she hailed his “excellent speech”.

“It isn’t in dispute that whether it is a car or an electric scooter or whether it’s a bicycle, if it’s operated in a certain way it is effectively a dangerous weapon on the road,” she said.

“We are supportive of his amendment, we will be changing it in the Lords as he knows but we are accepting it.”

Speaking in the Commons to launch his amendment, Sir Iain said it would ensure that cyclists are held accountable for their actions, enhance road safety and provide justice for victims and their families.

“It is very simply an amendment to try and bring what has for some reason been completely left out of the normal criminal codes and the Highway Code,” he said.

“Let me just make absolutely clear I’m completely pro and very keen for more cycling to take place: it’s very good for individuals and it’s very good for the environment.

“This is not anti-cycling. Quite the opposite: it’s about making sure this takes place in a safe and reasonable manner.”

He was watched over from the public gallery by Matthew Briggs, whose wife was killed by a cyclist in 2016. 

Earlier this month The Telegraph revealed that Brian Fitzgerald, a director at Credit Suisse, was in a “fast group” of cyclists doing timed laps of Regent’s Park in London when Hilda Griffiths, 81, crossed the road they were on to try to reach a pedestrian island.

Despite a 20mph speed limit, Mr Fitzgerald, a member of the Muswell Hill Peloton cycling club, told a coroner they were travelling at up to 29mph in aerodynamic “pace line” formation to maximise momentum when he struck the retired nursery teacher walking her dog.

He said he had “zero reaction time”, adding that cyclists were not required to obey 20mph signs because “the legal speed limit doesn’t apply to cyclists [the same] as motorists”.

Police concluded there was “insufficient evidence for a real prospect of conviction” and the case closed with “no further action”.

In the Commons, the former Tory leader read a series of statistics showing that between 2018 and 2022, almost 2,000 pedestrians collided with a pedal cycle.

In nine of these collisions someone died, 657 suffered very serious injuries, and 1,292 people suffered minor injuries. But he said most people did not report crashes with cyclists as they did not believe anything would be done.

He said that of the 331 admitted to hospital in 2022-23 following collisions with a cyclist, six were over 90 and 11 were under the age of four.

Sir Iain said the problem could get worse because there has been an explosion of electric bikes.

“The amendment will achieve equal accountability just as drivers are held accountable for dangerous driving which results in death, cyclists should face similar consequences for reckless behaviour that leads to fatalities,” he said.

“Stricter penalties for dangerous cyclists can act as a deterrent. Families of victims deserve justice and closure. Outdated laws do not adequately address cycling-related fatalities which leave victims and families bereft.

“Updating traffic laws can contribute to safer road environments for all users.”

Sir Iain said he recommended the amendment to the Government, adding: “I recognise that this amendment isn’t perfect. It should be adopted by the government and then it can be modified where necessary in a further debate in the other place.

“Action is better than inaction in so many cases.”

His amendment would create an offence of causing death or serious injury by “dangerous, careless or inconsiderate cycling”.

A serious injury would have to amount to “grievous bodily harm” under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, and would lead to five years in jail.

Cyclists would have to show that their bike is properly maintained. The law would cover pedal cycles, electrically assisted pedal cycles, and mechanically propelled personal transporters including electric scooters and self-balancing personal transporters.

You can recap the day below and join the conversation in the comments section here.

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Labour chief claimed £40,000 expenses to rent house next door

Sir Keir Starmer’s election chief claimed more than £40,000 on expenses for rent on a constituency home despite owning the house next door.

Pat McFadden, who as national campaign co-ordinator is one of Labour’s most powerful figures, used the unusual living arrangement for five years.

He moved out of his own property in July 2012, a month before expenses rules were changed to bar MPs from claiming for mortgage interest.

The revelations sparked accusations he had abused the “spirit of the rules” and prompted calls for change to stop taxpayers subsidising MPs’ property portfolios.

A spokesman for Mr McFadden said he had “complied with the IPSA rules at all times” and pointed out that he eventually sold his house for a loss.

The New Labour veteran, who was first elected in 2005, bought a newbuild home in his Wolverhampton constituency for £159,950 in 2006.

He lived there for six years, claiming expenses for mortgage interest of £547 a month, until he moved out in July 2012 because of the rule change.

That month he let out his house and moved next door, where he started claiming the £625 a month rent on expenses as his constituency home.

His own property was advertised for £700 a month by a letting agent in August 2015.

The living arrangement was first reported by The Sunday Times in September 2015, by which point Mr McFadden had claimed £21,000 in rent.

At the time he said he was forced into the move by the change to expenses rules and that he could not sell the house he owned because it was in negative equity.

‘Not making any profit’

He told the newspaper that his living situation was “a direct result of the change in rules for MPs’ accommodation costs” introduced in 2012.

“I did not want to move out of my constituency home and did not want to rent it out. I have not sought at any stage to get round the IPSA rules but instead to comply with them,” he said.

Mr McFadden also insisted he was not making any profit from the situation.

It can now be revealed that despite the criticism, he kept the arrangement for a further two years, almost doubling the total amount he claimed in rent to £40,250.

He eventually sold the house he owned in November 2017, with title deeds showing that he made a £12,950 loss on the original price he had paid.

The Labour veteran separately owns a house in north London, which he bought in 2009 for £799,950, and which is now valued at an estimated £1.74 million.

‘Against spirit of expenses rule’

Sir Alistair Graham, a former chairman of the committee on standards in public life, said Mr McFadden’s living arrangements went against the spirit of expenses rules.

“All MPs have a strong personal responsibility to ensure that they keep to the minimum the amount that they need to claim from public funds,” he said.

He added that IPSA should review the rules around constituency home allowances to “see what was in the best public interest”.

Parliament’s spending watchdog said that it does not take into account MPs’ personal wealth or property ownership when setting the rules.

“The IPSA Accommodation budget is there to ensure that MPs are not out of pocket from having to work in two locations,” it said.

Meanwhile, the Tories accused Mr McFadden of “rank hypocrisy” given that Labour has repeatedly accused them of wasting public money.

‘Hypocrisy from Labour’

The party launched a campaign last February attacking the Conservatives over “lavish spending” on hotels and restaurants using Government credit cards.

Gary Sambrook, the Tory MP for Birmingham Northfield, said: “Labour’s election campaign is being run by a man who used taxpayers’ money to subsidise a tidy property portfolio, owning two houses whilst living in a third – in total contravention of the spirit of the rules.

“Once again it’s more rank hypocrisy from the Labour Party who are all too happy to point the finger at everyone and anyone, without a shred of integrity of their own.”

Mr McFadden and his wife Marianna are two of the most influential figures in Sir Keir’s top team and would play a crucial role in a future Labour government.

He is responsible for planning the party’s election strategy and is regularly sent out on the airwaves to sell its policies.

He was brought back into the fold having served as a minister under Sir Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and as a shadow minister under Jeremy Corbyn.

Mrs McFadden, meanwhile, is the deputy to Morgan McSweeney, who is considered to be Sir Keir’s most senior and powerful adviser.

A Labour spokesman said: “Mr McFadden has complied with the IPSA rules at all times. In 2017 he sold his property in Wolverhampton at a loss, which he paid for personally.”

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