Senior Victorian MP Theo Theophanous has lashed out at police who charged him with rape on Monday, accusing them of ignoring vital evidence that proves his innocence.
Mr Theophanous, 60, also claimed his alleged victim could have an ulterior motive for accusing him, adding the woman had maintained a friendship with himself and his family for years after the alleged offence.
The long-serving member of the Victorian Upper House resigned from the ministry on Christmas Eve after being charged by police with the rape of a woman who now lives in Greece.
But the married father-of-four has ruled out resigning from the Victorian parliament, where he has sat since 1988.
“I do not intend to resign as a member of parliament as I am completely innocent of any wrongdoing,” he told reporters in Melbourne on Wednesday.
Mr Theophanous stood aside from cabinet on October 13, after Victoria Police launched an investigation into an alleged rape of a woman at Parliament House in 1998.
He had held the portfolios of industry and trade, major projects and information and communications technology, which have been shared among other ministers pending the outcome of the investigation.
Mr Theophanous vehemently denied the charge that he raped the woman some 10 years ago.
“I categorically deny this allegation or that I acted in any way unlawfully,” Mr Theophanous said.
In a stinging attack on the police handling of the investigation, Mr Theophanous said officers had ignored evidence, hadn\’t allowed him to respond to the specific allegations and had failed to give him a “fair go”.
“We are particularly aggrieved that the police have charged me at a time when the investigation is, in our opinion, incomplete,” he said.
Mr Theophanous said he provided an initial statement to police when first interviewed.
He said police had agreed, with himself and his lawyers, to allow him to respond to the allegations before any charges were laid.
But he had received no such opportunity, despite his lawyers sending three letters to the police seeking a follow up interview, he said.
“It did not include any responses from me through a second interview as well as critical evidence from Greece,” he said.
Mr Theophanous said police so far had not sought a response from him to the specific allegations made by the woman.
“I and my family are devastated at being charged in such circumstances.
“It is easy for a desperate woman with nothing to lose and much to gain to make a false allegation from another country in such a vicious and public way.”
Supporting her husband, Rita Theophanous said the alleged victim\’s claim was motivated by money.
“She knows she is after money and so do the people who are putting her up to this,” she said.
Premier John Brumby accepted Theophanous\’ resignation from the ministry on Monday.
A special meeting of the parliamentary Labor Party is scheduled for next Monday to select a front bench replacement for Mr Theophanous.
Victorian Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu said the charge against Mr Theophanous was hugely damaging to the state government.
“What a bombshell announcement on Christmas Eve – a senior minister in the Victorian government charged with rape,” Mr Baillieu told reporters.
“These are grave and serious charges and this is hugely damaging to the Victorian government and (premier) John Brumby must now explain the details of this announcement to all Victorians.”
Pope Benedict XVI has urged an end to “hatred and violence” in the Middle East during his midnight mass Christmas homily ahead of a planned trip to the region.
“Let us pray that peace will be established there, that hatred and violence will cease,” he said in his homily, referring in particular to Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
Jerusalem\’s Latin patriarch said on Monday that the pope would visit the Holy Land in May on his first trip to the region as pontiff.
“With joy we would like to announce to you the desire of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to visit the Holy Land as a pilgrim next May,” Fuad Twal, the Catholic leader in the Holy Land, told reporters.
Pope\’s first trip to region
It was the first official confirmation of Benedict\’s widely mooted first trip to the region since being elected pope in 2005.
“The supreme pontiff wishes to pray with us and for us, and to acquire a first-hand knowledge of the hard conditions of our region,” Twal said in his Christmas message.
“We are confident in the Lord that this pontifical pilgrimage and pastoral visit will be a blessing for all of us as well as a substantial contribution to better understanding among the various nations of the region, lifting the barriers and helping solve the problems, removing distress and consolidating good relations among people, religions and denominations,” Twal said.
He did not give specific dates. “We are studying the program with the local authorities,” he said. Last week the Italian newspaper Il Foglio said the pope would travel to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories from May 8 to 15.
The head of the Catholic Church in his Christmas homily also spoke of the plight of children “who are denied the love of their parents.”
Praying for street children
“Let us think of those street children who do not have the blessing of a family home, of those children who are brutally exploited as soldiers and made instruments of violence, instead of messengers of reconciliation and peace,” he said.
“Let us think of those children who are victims of the industry of pornography and every other appalling form of abuse, and thus are traumatised in the depths of their soul.”
Late on Wednesday Benedict inaugurated this year\’s Christmas creche, appearing at his window in the Vatican apartments to light a candle and greet the crowd in St Peter\’s Square.
The nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus Christ erected in the famous piazza features figures dating from 1842.
Benedict\’s predecessor John Paul II paid homage to Italy\’s longstanding artistic tradition of manger scenes with the first of an annual series set up in St Peter\’s Square in 1982.
The inauguration of this year\’s creche was followed by a prayer vigil for peace led by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican\’s “foreign minister”.
At midday on Thursday the pope is to deliver his traditional address titled Urbi et Orbi (to the city and the world) to be translated in 64 languages.
When the deadly waters of the Asian tsunami smashed into this fishing village in Indonesia\’s Aceh province four years ago, not one house was left standing.
Now there are too many of them.
Recovery has been uneven in the dozen countries hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster, which killed more than 220,000 people. While some communities have rebounded and flourished on a multi-billion dollar outpouring of aid, others have languished.
In Lam Tutui, 54-year-old villager Keuchik Baharuddin recalled how he heard the monkeys in the trees screaming wildly before the tsunami hit, killing his wife and all five of his children.
“I saw our village had been levelled to the ground,” he said.
One of only 75 people from the village of 545 to survive, Baharuddin has rebuilt a semblance of his old life in a gleaming new village, marrying a tsunami widow who has just given birth to a baby son.
Aceh worst hit region
So many houses have been built with aid that survivors are now making money on the side by renting them to tenants while other houses sit empty, he said.
In Aceh, which along with nearby Nias island was the region worst hit by the disaster, with at least 168,000 killed, reconstruction has been a qualified success.
Authorities have spent around $US6.7 billion ($A9.84 billion) of the roughly $US7.2 billion ($A10.57 billion) in aid pledged by donors, building nearly 125,000 houses and infrastructure from schools to roads and bridges, according to Indonesia\’s Aceh-Nias reconstruction agency (BRR).
The BRR, which is set to wind up its mandate overseeing the local and international aid effort next April, has been praised for getting the job done with little of the corruption that routinely infects Indonesian government projects.
Fragile peace between rivals
The recovery has also been aided by peace forged between the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian government in the wake of the tsunami\’s devastation, ending a three-decade civil war that claimed 15,000 lives.
Concerns now are that as reconstruction ends – and the sugar-rush of foreign money dries up – Aceh will return to misery, and possible instability.
Unemployment, currently around 10 per cent, is expected to rise and the economy to slow as the BRR wraps up its work, said Aceh Governor Irwandi Yusuf, a former GAM fighter allowed into politics as part of the peace deal.
“I never dreamed that we would be able to remove all Acehnese from hell and bring them to heaven. I just wanted to try to remove them from hell,” he said.
There are also fears unemployment among ex-fighters, currently estimated at around 20 per cent, could lead to a rise in violent crime or clashes during elections in April.
Adding to potential woes is the fact that while aid has transformed the tsunami-hit coast, those living in inland areas devastated by the civil war have been left out, BRR head Kunturo Mangkusubroto said.
“The rural economy on the coastline that was hit by the tsunami is back, I can say that with full confidence. The rural economy in the hinterland that was affected by the conflict is not back,” he said.
Questions raised over funds
While the tsunami helped end a war in Aceh, the fog of Sri Lanka\’s dragging war with Tamil separatists has hampered efforts to rebuild devastated parts of the nation. Around 31,000 people died in the tsunami in Sri Lanka and around 10,000 still live in temporary camps.
The state auditor general in 2005 said only 13.5 per cent of the $US1.16 billion ($A1.7 billion) committed to assist victims had been spent. There have been no government audits released since then.
Waste and bureaucratic bungling was underscored in October when the government destroyed more than five tonnes of rice and lentils donated by the World Food Program for tsunami victims, as it rotted before distribution.
Mismanagement has also tainted the much smaller aid effort in Malaysia, which lost 68 people in the disaster and where government auditors have found mishandling of aid money that ended up in shoddy houses or fishing boats unsuitable for local waters.
In Thailand, where 5,400 people were killed – half of them foreign holidaymakers – tourism has bounced back, only to be buffeted by ongoing political turmoil.
The recent closure of airports in the southern province of Phuket and the capital Bangkok by anti-government protesters has led to a dip in arrivals, said Yiamsuriya Palusuk, the governor of Phangnga province, one of five Thai provinces hit by the tsunami.
US police say at least six people are dead after an armed man dressed as Santa Claus went on a gun rampage at a Christmas Eve party.
The gunman, Bruce Pardo, 45, arrived at the home of his ex-wife\’s parents, in Covina, California, just before midnight on Wednesday, local time.
Local media reports suggest he was let into the house by revellers who thought he had been hired as a children\’s entertainer.
But once inside, he produced a handgun from beneath his costume, opening fire and spraying the 30 or so partygoers inside with bullets.
After terrified bystanders fled the scene, Pardo apparently torched the house with a home-made incendiary device before removing the Santa suit and making his getaway.
Gunman found dead
He was found dead at his home in Sylmar, Los Angeles, a few hours later. Police say he died as a result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Six bodies have been pulled from the wreckage of the burnt-out house in Covina.
Two girls, aged 16 and eight, are being treated in hospital for gunshot wounds, and a 13-year-old was also injured.
Local media reports suggest Mr Pardo\’s estranged wife is among those still missing.
Detectives believe the pair\’s relationship may have been the catalyst for the deadly attack.
“He was going through some type of marital problems, and we believe that this residence is a relative\’s residence,” Lieutenant Pat Buchanan said.
Police \’shocked\’ by attack
“He knocked on the door, went in and opened fire on about 30 guests.”
Buchanan told CBS2 television the shooting was “extremely unusual and very shocking”.
“It\’s just not something we see here at any time of the year — especially during Christmas,” he said.
Police were searching Pardo\’s home Thursday for clues to his bloody rampage.
“Maybe there\’s some (sign of) planning, maybe letters or anything that will give us more clues about the state of his mind,” Detective Antonio Zavala told the New York Times.
Washington urged the two sides to avoid escalating tensions and said it was touch with both countries.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh summoned his military chiefs to review New Delhi\’s “defence preparedness” while his foreign ministry advised Indians not to travel to Pakistan, saying it was unsafe for them to be in the country.
The developments sent ties plummeting to their lowest point since late 2001, when Kashmiri militants staged a brazen attack on the Indian parliament – an attack New Delhi blamed on the Pakistan-based extremist group Lashkar-e-Toiba.
India has blamed the same group for the Mumbai attacks and has repeatedly said Islamabad is not doing enough to rein in militant groups, a claim that Pakistan rejects.
‘Minimum security measures’
The nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours – which have fought three wars since independence from Britain in 1947, two of them over Kashmir – have said they do not want war this time but warn they would act if provoked.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani reiterated on Friday that Pakistan was a “peace-loving” nation, telling reporters in the eastern city of Lahore that while Islamabad had no “aggressive designs”, it would respond if provoked, the Associated Press of Pakistan news agency reported.
In Islamabad, senior defence and security officials said troops were being moved from the north-west tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, hotbeds of Taliban and al-Qaeda activity, to the eastern border near India.
“We do not want to create any war hysteria but we have to take minimum security measures to ward off any threat,” a defence ministry official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
He added that leave for “operational” armed forces personnel had been cancelled “as a defensive measure”.
A top security official, who also asked not to be named, explained that a “limited number of troops have been pulled out from snowbound areas on the western border where they were not engaged in any operation”.
Pakistan\’s army and air force have recently scaled back their operations against Taliban-linked militants in both the Swat valley and the Bajaur tribal area bordering Afghanistan. Both operations were launched in mid-2008.
Any major shift of Pakistani troops out of the tribal areas would likely spark concern in Washington and other Western capitals, as it could open the door to more cross-border militant attacks on foreign forces in Afghanistan.
“We continue to urge both sides to cooperate on the Mumbai investigation as well as counterterrorism in general,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told AFP.
“We also do not want either side to take any unnecessary steps that raise tensions in an already tense situation.”
Another senior Pakistani security official told AFP the new deployments on the Indian border were not in “significant numbers but only in areas opposite the points where India is believed to have brought forward its troops”.
The defence ministry official said authorities had noticed the movement of Indian troops toward the border near Lahore, and that they believed India had also cancelled military leave.
Impact of Mumbai attacks
Pakistan\’s chief military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas declined to comment.
New Delhi has said its slow-moving peace process with Pakistan is now on hold in the wake of the Mumbai attacks last month, in which 172 people including nine of the gunmen were killed.
Islamabad has said it is willing to cooperate with India in investigating the carnage, but says New Delhi has offered no proof that Pakistani nationals were involved – a claim dismissed by
Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee.
“We have ample evidence… to prove that elements based in Pakistan carried out the Mumbai attacks,” Mukherjee said.
“Pakistan should not divert attention from the real issue of taking action against terrorists by raising war hysteria,” he told reporters in New Delhi.
Singh was meanwhile meeting the chiefs of India\’s army, air force and navy to discuss the current security situation, an official in his office said.
The Indian foreign ministry meanwhile advised its nationals to stay away from Pakistan. Spokesman Vishnu Prakash said such travel would be “unsafe”.