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Fears over Hong Kong-China extradition plans

The Hong Kong government has proposed changes to extradition laws that could allow transferring suspects to mainland China for trial. The move has further fuelled fears of erosion of the city's judicial independence amid Beijing's increasing influence.

The Hong Kong government will also consider extradition requests from Taiwan and Macau after the new changes.

Officials say the change is needed so that a murder suspect can be extradited to Taiwan for trial, and that mainland China and Macau must be included in the change to close a "systematic loophole".

Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam has pushed for the amendments to be passed before July.

What are the changes?

The changes will allow for extradition requests from authorities in mainland China, Taiwan and Macau for suspects accused of criminal wrongdoings, such as murder and rape.

The requests will then be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Several commercial offences such as tax evasion have been removed from the list of extraditable offences amid concerns from the business community.

Hong Kong officials have said Hong Kong courts will have the final say whether to grant such extradition requests, and suspects accused of political and religious crimes will not be extradited.

Why is this controversial?

There has been a lot of public opposition, and critics say people would be subject to arbitrary detention, unfair trial and torture under China's judicial system.

"These amendments would heighten the risk for human rights activists and others critical of China being extradited to the mainland for trial on fabricated charges," Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Lam Wing Kee, a Hong Kong bookseller said he was abducted and detained in China in 2015 for selling books critical of Chinese leaders and charged with "operating a bookstore illegally".

During a recent protest against the government proposal, Mr Lam said he would consider leaving the territory before the proposal was passed.

"If I don't go, I will be extradited," he said. "I don't trust the government to guarantee my safety, or the safety of any Hong Kong resident."

Though some pro-Beijing politicians eager to defend China, dispute the criticism of its judicial system.

The changes have also attracted opposition from the Hong Kong business community over concerns they may not receive adequate protection under Chinese law.

The proposal has already sparked a legal challenge from Hong Kong tycoon Joseph Lau, who was convicted in absentia in a corruption case in Macau in 2014.

Macau's government has not been able to have Mr Lau extradited because of a lack of extradition agreement between Hong Kong and Macau, but that will become possible if Hong Kong's legislature decides to amend the extradition laws.

His lawyers argue in a 44-page submission to Hong Kong's courts that the Macau trial was marred by "serious procedural irregularities that rendered the trial incompatible with internationally mandated standards of fairness".

Every citizen can request a judicial review like Mr Lau has done, but it's the High Court that decides whether this will be granted. Most observers say there is little chance Mr Lau's request will be successful.

Why the change now?

The latest proposal has come after a 19-year-old Hong Kong man allegedly murdered his 20-year-old pregnant girlfriend, while holidaying in Taiwan together in February last year. The man fled Taiwan and returned to Hong Kong last year.

Taiwanese officials have sought help from Hong Kong authorities to extradite the man, but Hong Kong officials say they cannot comply because of a lack of extradition agreement with Taiwan.

"Are we happy to see a suspect that has committed a serious offence staying in Hong Kong and we're unable to deliver justice over the case?" Mrs Lam said on 1 April while responding to media questions.

She added that mainland China and Macau were included in the proposed change to address a "loophole" in current laws.

Isn't Hong Kong part of China anyway?

A former British colony, Hong Kong is semi-autonomous under the principle of "one country, two systems" after it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

The city has its own laws and its residents enjoy civil liberties unavailable to their mainland counterparts.

Hong Kong has entered into extradition agreements with 20 countries, including the UK and the US, but no such agreements have been reached with mainland China despite ongoing negotiations in the past two decades.

Critics have attributed such failures to poor legal protection for defendants under Chinese law.

ruby Posted on April 09, 2019 13:02

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Zhao Lixin apologises for 'defending' Japanese invaders

Chinese-Swedish actor Zhao Lixin has apologised after appearing to "defend" the Japanese forces which invaded China.

In a social media post on Tuesday, Zhao questioned why the Japanese military did not pillage and destroy the Beijing Palace Museum during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

He has faced a backlash online from people who have accused him of "forgetting his roots", some drawing comparisons with other recent Chinese-Swedish grievances.

Zhao's original comment on social media site Sina Weibo has been deleted, but screenshots of it have been widely shared online in China.

"Why didn't the Japanese steal relics from the Palace Museum," Zhao's post read, "and burn it down during the eight years the Japanese occupied Beijing?

"Is it in line with the nature of the invader?"

His comments refer to the Japanese occupation of China during the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937 to 1945. The Japanese captured many major Chinese ports and cities during the war, beginning with Beijing.

Zhao was born in China and grew up in Sweden. He returned to the country and found success as an actor, first appearing in Breaking Out in 1999.

It is this time abroad that seemed to be the source of contention online.

"You have forgotten that your roots are Chinese," said one commenter. "You've forgotten that you were born in China. You've forgotten that your parents are Chinese... this is unforgettable."

"You are not Chinese and you cannot speak for China," said another. "How much damage did the Japanese invasion of China cause? You don't understand anything. Don't pretend to know more about the history of the country."

Some people have defended Zhao, with some people calling it normal to discuss historical events, and others saying that they "understand what he meant".

But the backlash can be best explained by one commenter, who wrote that "this kind of vibrant topic is still not good on the Internet".

copyright Sina Weibo caption Zhao issued an apology on social media for his comments

Zhao, who has seven million followers online, has now said he "sincerely apologises" for his "inappropriately expressed post".

"I deeply, deeply express my apologies," he said. "I was not and will never defend the invaders. I strongly condemn them."

He has subsequently posted links to China's Central & State Organs' Working Committee, quoting from them: "Any country's citizen should, with regards to his country's history, carry some knowledge. This should especially be accompanied with a warmth and respect for the history of their country."

Despite this apology, he has been told to "get out of China" and "go back to Sweden" on social media, evoking serious and less-serious tensions between China and Sweden in the past year.

In February 2019, Sweden recalled its China envoy over her involvement in a bizarre meeting involving the daughter of a detained Swedish-Chinese bookseller.

And in September 2018, there was outrage when a satirical Swedish television show joked about Chinese people eating dogs and defecating in public.


ruby Posted on April 09, 2019 12:42

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Hong Kong 'Umbrella' protesters found guilty of public nuisance

Nine pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong have been found guilty of public nuisance charges for their role in a civil disobedience movement that called for free elections in the city.

Among them are three prominent activists, seen as figureheads of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.

They could be jailed for up to seven years for their part in the "Umbrella Movement" protests of 2014.

Thousands marched demanding the right for Hong Kong to choose its own leader.

Those convicted include the so-called "Occupy trio" - sociology professor Chan Kin-man, 60, law professor Benny Tai, 54, and Baptist minister Chu Yiu-ming, 75.

They are seen as the founders of the movement that galvanised protesters in their campaign of civil disobedience.

"No matter what happens today... we will persist on and do not give up," Mr Tai told reporters ahead of the verdict.

Mr Tai, Mr Chan and five others were found guilty of two charges of public nuisance, and Mr Chu and one other of just one charge.

A large crowd gathered outside the court on Thursday to support them. It is not yet clear when they will be sentenced.

The nine defendants walked into the court building looking refreshed and in high spirits. All but one said a few words in what might have been their last hours of freedom before their predicted jail term.

Delivering his verdict, Justice Johnny Chan said the defendants had caused a nuisance - by occupying major roads - leading to injuries among civilians. The nine looked calm and not particularly emotional. By lunchtime they had gone, released on bail. Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man and Chu Yiu-ming smiled as they passed me, as if it was just another day.

They are yet to say if they will appeal. The court was adjourned for the day as the lawyers are yet to finish their mitigation submissions. The sentences have yet to be announced.

The broader pro-democracy camp already has bad relations with Beijing. Activists and politicians did express their anger but political analysts also warn that people might simply leave the movement out of frustration.

"Some people might feel dispirited and helpless. I hope they can see that other people haven't given up," Benny Tai told BBC News Chinese ahead of today's verdict.

Seventy nine days of sit-in protests have already changed Hong Kong a lot. But today's verdict might serve more as a reminder that this city remains divided.

What has the reaction been?

At the trial Judge Johnny Chan rejected the idea that this would have a substantial impact on society.

"It cannot be reasonably argued that a charge of conspiracy to cause public nuisance would generate a chilling effect in society," he wrote in his ruling.

But rights groups criticised the ruling, with Humans Rights Watch saying the court was "sending a terrible message".

"[This] will likely embolden the government to prosecute more peaceful activists, further chilling free expression in Hong Kong," said researcher Maya Wang in a statement to the BBC.

Lord Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, released a statement saying that it was "appallingly divisive to use anachronistic common law charges in a vengeful pursuit of political events which took place in 2014".

This verdict comes after a string of frustrations for pro-democracy activists. In the last few years the courts have removed six lawmakers for changing their swearing in oaths to include protest phrases. Others have also been disqualified from running for office.

What were the protests about?

The protests started in reaction to a decision made by China that it would allow direct elections in 2017, but only from a list of candidates pre-approved by Beijing.

Beijing is highly sensitive about Hong Kong's status and any calls for more autonomy from China.

The former British colony was handed back in 1997 on condition it would retain "a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs" for 50 years.

Many people in Hong Kong believe they should have the right to elect their own leader.

In 2014, the three activists' calls for non-violent civil disobedience joined with student-led protests and snowballed into the massive demonstrations.

Tens of thousands of people camped in the streets and demanded the right to fully free leadership elections.

The protests became known as the "Umbrella Movement" after people used umbrellas to shield themselves from pepper spray fired by police to disperse the crowd.

Protesters accused the Chinese government of breaking its promise to allow full democracy in Hong Kong, and of encroaching more and more on the region.

But the number of protesters dwindled to just a few hundred as the weeks dragged on and they ultimately failed to achieve their goal.

ruby Posted on April 09, 2019 12:38

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Indonesia 2019 elections: All you need to know

Some 192 million people in Indonesia will be eligible to cast their votes on 17 April, in what has been called one of the most complicated single-day elections in history.

The election will see two familiar faces square up: the incumbent Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, and his long-time rival Prabowo Subianto.

Here's what you need to know:

What's going to happen on 17 April?

Indonesia's presidential, parliamentary and regional elections will all be taking place simultaneously.

Some 245,000 candidates will be running for more than 20,000 national and local legislative seats across Indonesia.

India - with a population of five times as many people - votes in rolling elections that take place over two months.

Indonesian voters will have one day, making it "one of the most complicated single-day elections in global history," according to the Lowy Institute.

Who is running for the presidency?

It's a battle between current President Joko Widodo, and Prabowo Subianto, a former military general. They've come face-to-face before in the 2014 elections.

Mr Subianto is closely associated with the traditional elite. He was previously married to the daughter of former dictator General Suharto, who ruled Indonesia with an iron fist.

Mr Subianto has been dogged by allegations of human rights abuses committed under Gen Suharto, though he has maintained his innocence.

After spending many years overseas, Mr Subianto made his political comeback in 2009.

He campaigned on a pro-poor platform in the 2014 presidential election, saying he wanted to reduce unemployment and create new jobs on farms.

Mr Widodo comes from humble beginnings, and first came to international prominence as the governor of Jakarta, winning the position in 2012.

In the 2014 presidential election he campaigned on a platform of "mind-set revolution" - a strategy to build national character, stamping out corruption, nepotism and intolerance, all of which he says flourished under Gen Suharto's regime.

He went on to win, but five years on has disappointed some supporters by abandoning campaign promises to resolve human rights violations, according to one analyst.

Who are the key voters?

It's all about the millennials.

According to the General Elections Commission of Indonesia, around 40% of eligible voters will be aged 17 to 35 - that's around 80 million people.

And it's clear parties have been trying their best to attract the youth vote - sometimes in innovative ways.

Last year Jokowi's party, the PDIP, launched "fashionable" merchandise including T-shirts, hats and jackets.

Mr Prabowo has been building up relationships with vloggers, YouTubers and influencers, according to a report by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Supporters of both candidates have also created their own music videos, complete with catchy tunes.

What might sway the public?

Social media is king in Indonesia, and can make or break a candidate.

Research by the University of Melbourne found Indonesia has the fourth-highest number of Facebook users in the world, with WhatsApp and Instagram not too far behind.

Earlier this year, three Indonesian housewives were arrested over an online video that claimed President Widodo would ban prayer and make gay marriage legal if he was re-elected.

Mafindo, an Indonesian organisation fighting fake news, said political fake news and disinformation shot up by 61% between December 2018 and January 2019.

The group's co-founder told Reuters that a large proportion of the misinformation targets Mr Widodo, making him out to be a Christian, of Chinese ancestry, or a communist.

These may not sound like dramatic claims - but they're big accusations in Muslim-majority Indonesia, where race and ideology are especially sensitive issues.

ruby Posted on April 09, 2019 12:09

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Sudan protest: Demonstrators continue sit-in despite crackdown

Heavy gunfire has been heard outside the army headquarters in the Sudanese capital Khartoum where thousands of protesters have been holding a sit-in for the third night in a row.

They are calling for the resignation of President Omar al-Bashir.

Witnesses reported seeing people running for cover after the shooting began. Earlier, tear-gas was fired.

It appears to be the latest attempt by government security agents to break up the protests.

One of the protesters, Ahmed Mahmoud, told the BBC that "tear-gas and live bullets were used" by National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) agents against protesters.

He added that army soldiers had provided sanctuary for protesters within their compound.

"It is pointless for Omar Bashir to continue using his thugs to get us off the streets as we are not going anywhere."

At least two soldiers are reported to have died since the demonstrations outside the army HQ began on Saturday.

Previous attempts to break up the crowds have also led to reports of soldiers intervening to protect protesters from NISS agents.

There have been international calls urging the government to refrain from using force against civilians. President Bashir has called for talks to end the crisis.

The country's interior minister said on Monday that seven protesters had been killed and 15 injured, while 42 members of the security forces had been injured. He added that almost 2,500 people had been arrested.

Protests against Mr Bashir, who has governed Sudan since 1989, have been under way for several months.

The protests were originally sparked by a rise in the cost of living, but demonstrators are now calling for the president to resign.

Over the weekend, a large group gathered outside the Khartoum headquarters of the army, defence ministry and the president.

The protesters want the armed forces to withdraw their support for the government. Representatives of the protesters say they are seeking talks with the army regarding the formation of a transitional government.

Omar el-Digeir, a senior protest member, told AFP news agency the group were seeking a path "that represents the wish of the revolution".

Monday marked the third night of the sit-in, despite security force efforts to disperse the group.

The government has been criticised by rights groups for a heavy-handed response to the unrest.

What has the response been?

Dramatic video emerged on Monday showing soldiers firing at an unclear target as civilians took cover behind them. The protesters said the soldiers were responding to gunfire from NISS agents.

Other eyewitnesses have alleged the military fired warning shots while chasing the agents off.

Information Minister Hassan Ismail has contradicted the reports about the divide.

"The security apparatus are coherent together and working with positive energy and in harmony," he said on Monday.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has urged all parties to "exercise utmost restraint and avoid violence".

Government officials now admit 38 people have died since the unrest began in December, but the pressure group Human Rights Watch says the number is higher.

Why is the president controversial?

Mr Bashir's rule has been blighted by accusations of human rights abuses.

He is subject to an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant over accusations of of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The US imposed sanctions against the country more than 20 years ago, accusing Khartoum of sponsoring terror groups.

Last year the Sudanese pound fell rapidly in value and inflation rose. The government then announced the price of fuel and bread would rise, sparking protests.

In February, it looked as though the president might step down, but instead Mr Bashir declared a state of national emergency.

The latest protests mark the 34th anniversary of the coup that overthrew the regime of former President Jaafar Nimeiri.




ruby Posted on April 09, 2019 10:46

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'Our children are gasping' - Senegal's toxic air battle

Two-year-old Thayi loves the aerosol therapy room at Senegal's Albert Royer Children's Hospital, where she gets to fall asleep on her mother's lap, breathing deeply - something that is usually hard to do.

The mask over her face pumps out medicine that soothes her asthmatic lungs, a condition worsened by air pollution.

The hospital in the capital, Dakar, has a large unit dedicated to respiratory issues.

Dr Idrissa Ba, who has been working there for 15 years, says the number of patients keeps growing and growing - something he thinks is linked to worsening air quality in the city.

Dakar does have particularly bad levels of outdoor pollutants or tiny particles, known as particulate matter (PM), which is how pollution is measured.

ir pollution: What is particulate matter (PM)?

  • Microscopic particles that can be inhaled into the lungs and cause serious health problems
  • The particles come in many tiny sizes, often from traffic fumes, and can be made up of hundreds of different chemicals
  • PM10 - particles of 10 microns and smaller in diameter (one micron is one thousandth of a millimetre)
  • PM2.5 - particles of 2.5 microns and smaller in diameter, about 20 times smaller than a grain of sand and small enough to get into the blood stream
  • Evidence is growing that PM can limit the growth of children's lungs
  • Researchers are investigating the potential effects of these particles on conditions such as dementia
  • About seven million people are estimated to die each year from exposure to fine particles that penetrate deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system

These particles can reach deep into the body with the danger of causing lasting damage to people's health.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a safe level of PM10 should be 20 and the level of PM 2.5 should be 10.

In Dakar, the average levels are 146 for PM10 - seven times more than recommended - and 30 for PM2.5.

This is according to Senegal's centre for air quality control, whose director, Aminata Mbow Diokhané, says it is important to understand that most cities do not respect the recommendations.

She adds that Dakar is one of the only cities in Africa to measure air quality daily.

Others on the continent are likely to have far worse levels, she says.

Africa's 'dirty fuel'

There are two main reasons why air quality in Dakar can get particularly bad:

  • Natural pollution. Every year during the dry season, an unpleasant wind, known as the harmattan, blows in dust from the Sahara.
  • Pollution from industry and cars. With a growing population, the number of cars and buses on the roads keep increasing in Dakar.

And while there are more cars in London or Tokyo, those in Dakar cause more damage to the environment as many of them are old or second hand, meaning they pollute more.

More significantly, fuel imported to Africa contains much higher levels of sulphur than that used in Europe or the United States, as an investigation in 2016 by Swiss campaign group Public Eye revealed.

This means cars using "dirty fuel" emit more toxic gas considered a major pollutant.

"Today the diesel standards in Senegal are still at 5,000 parts per million as compared to Europe at 10 parts per million," Jane Akumu, a spokeswoman for the UN Environment's Air Quality and Mobility Unit told the BBC.

Anyone who walks around Dakar or drives with their windows open is more often than not submerged by clouds of thick black smoke coming from surrounding exhaust pipes.

"The good news is that in December 2018, technical experts from the region met in Abidjan [in Ivory Coast] and agreed to harmonise low sulphur fuel standards in a number of West African countries," Ms Akumu said.

This still needs to be approved by heads of state, but experts hope that by the end of the year all fuel imports to the region, including to Senegal, will have lower sulphur levels.

'Changing attitudes'

For Dr Ba this can only be good news.

"We've done studies on the impact of pollution on children's health and we concluded there is a very significant correlation between the level of small particles and the number of patients having asthma attacks," he says.

But he believes more rules needs to be brought in to regulate vehicles and says it is also about changing attitudes.

"Pollution is a problem that affects everyone so the response must be global, but people should also be more responsible, pollute less," he says.

"It's true that we have a problem with car pollution but here people also burn their rubbish outside in the open, for example."

The WHO estimates that around seven million people die every year from exposure to fine particles that penetrate deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system, causing diseases including stroke, heart disease and lung cancer.

Children are particularly affected because they breathe more air than adults, in proportion to their size, and their organs are not fully developed.

The average age of patients at Albert Royer Hospital is five.

One of those who has been diagnosed with pneumonia, a lung infection, is a 20-month old baby boy.

His mother, who prefers to remain anonymous, watches over her fragile child, whispering: "My message to other parents is that they should be vigilant and keep an eye on their children's health."

Dr Ba agrees that early treatment is key.

"We know that many young children who have asthma, infections, allergies, if we don't treat them early, their pulmonary capacity can be reduced by 10%."


ruby Posted on April 09, 2019 10:22

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Revolutionary Guard Corps: US labels Iran force as terrorists

US President Donald Trump has designated Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organisation.

It is the first time the US has labelled another nation's military as a terrorist organisation.

Iran retaliated by declaring US forces in the Middle East as a terrorist organisation, Iran state news reported.

Washington-Tehran tensions have risen since Mr Trump withdrew the US from the international Iran nuclear pact.

Labelling the Guards as a terrorist organisation will allow the US to impose further sanctions - particularly affecting the business sector, given the IRGC's involvement in Iran's economy.

A number of IRGC and affiliated entities have already been targeted by US sanctions for alleged proliferation activities, support for terrorism and human rights abuses.

What did President Trump say?

Mr Trump's statement on Monday said: "This unprecedented step, led by the Department of State, recognises the reality that Iran is not only a State Sponsor of Terrorism, but that the IRGC actively participates in, finances, and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft."

The president added that the move was meant to "significantly expand the scope and scale" of pressure on Iran.

"If you are doing business with the IRGC, you will be bankrolling terrorism," Mr Trump said.

The measure will take effect in one week's time, according to the State Department.

Was there any dissent in the Trump administration?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, both Iran hawks, championed the decision, but not all US officials were so supportive.

Mr Pompeo told reporters on Monday the US will continue to sanction and pressure Iran to "behave like a normal nation" and urged America's allies to take similar action.

"The leaders of Iran are not revolutionaries and people deserve better," Mr Pompeo said. "They are opportunists."

In a later tweet, he added: "We must help the people of Iran get back their freedom."

Mr Bolton said labelling the IRGC as terrorists was "the rightful designation".

But some Pentagon officials, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen Joe Dunford, had expressed concerns about troop safety, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Military officials cautioned the designation could incite violence against US forces in the Middle East without severely impacting Iran's economy.

The Central Intelligence Agency had also reportedly opposed the move.

What was the response?

Iran's national security council declared US Central Command (Centcom) a terrorist organisation after Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wrote to President Hassan Rouhani urging such a response, state news channel IRINN said.

Centcom is the Pentagon wing that oversees Washington's security interests across the central area of the world map, most notably Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Syria.

The Islamic Republic had warned it would retaliate in kind last week, after reports of the Trump administration plan first surfaced.

"We will answer any action taken against this force with a reciprocal action," a statement issued by 255 out of the 290 Iranian MPs said, according to the state-run IRNA news agency.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is battling for political survival in Tuesday's elections, cheered the US move.

This move underscores the Trump administration's desire to isolate and stigmatise Iran, though it is unlikely to have a significant impact upon the Revolutionary Guard Corps' activities.

Few Western commentators would disagree that the IRGC is responsible for all sorts of disruptive activities in the region and beyond.

But many - including it seems some officials in the US Department of State and the Pentagon - fear that this step could simply backfire.

The fear is that it could encourage the IRGC or its proxies to take action against US personnel or other targets in places where they might be vulnerable, for example in Iraq.

What this move does do is signal the unremitting desire of the Trump Administration to ramp up its battle with Tehran which some fear may, one day, spill into open military conflict.

What is the IRGC?

Iran's most elite military unit, the IRGC was set up shortly after the 1979 Iranian revolution to defend the country's Islamic system, and to provide a counterweight to the regular armed forces.

It has since become a major military, political and economic force in Iran, with close ties to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and many other senior figures hailing from its ranks.

The IRGC is estimated to have more than 150,000 active personnel, boasts its own ground forces, navy and air force, and oversees Iran's strategic weapons, including its ballistic missiles.

The IRGC exerts influence elsewhere in the Middle East by providing money, weapons, technology, training and advice to allied governments and armed groups through its shadowy overseas operations arm, the Quds (Jerusalem) Force.

ruby Posted on April 09, 2019 10:07

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Nxivm: Actress Allison Mack pleads guilty in 'sex cult' case

US actress Allison Mack has pleaded guilty to charges linked to an alleged sex trafficking operation disguised as a mentoring group.

Appearing in Brooklyn federal court, Mack pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy charges related to the suspected sex cult Nxivm.

In a statement, Mack admitted to recruiting women by telling them they were joining a female mentorship group.

"I must take full responsibility for my conduct", she said.

Mack, known for the US television series Smallville, is one of six people facing criminal charges as part of an investigation into Nxivm.

What is Nxivm?

Nxivm, pronounced 'nexium', is a group that started in 1998 as a self-help programme and says it has worked with more than 16,000 people including the son of a former Mexican president and Hollywood actresses such as Mack.

On its website Nxivm describes itself as a "community guided by humanitarian principles that seek to empower people and answer important questions about what it means to be human".

Despite its tagline of "working to build a better world", its leader Keith Raniere stands accused of overseeing a "slave and master" system within the group.

According to the group's website, it has suspended enrolment and events because of the "extraordinary circumstances facing the company at this time".

Prosecutors allege the group mirrors a pyramid scheme, in which members paid thousands of dollars for courses to rise within its ranks.

How was Allison Mack involved?

Mr Raniere is alleged to be at the top of this structure as the only man, but Mack served as one of his top female deputies.

Female recruits were allegedly branded with Mr Raniere's initials and expected to have sex with him, as part of the system.

"Allison Mack recruited women to join what was purported to be a female mentorship group that was, in fact, created and led by Keith Raniere," Richard Donoghue, US attorney for the Eastern District in New York, said in a statement last year.

In court on Monday, Mack said she was instructed by Mr Raniere to collect compromising materials and images of two women within the group, threatening to make the photos public if they revealed information about the secret society.

"I believed Keith Raniere's intentions were to help people", Mack said in court on 8 April. "I was wrong."

Mr Raniere was arrested in Mexico last year. His defence team argued that the alleged sexual relationships were consensual.

Mack had previously pleaded not guilty in April 2018 to charges including sex trafficking, conspiracy to commit sex trafficking and forced labour.

She is now scheduled to be sentenced in September and will face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for each of the two charges.

Last month the co-founder of the group, Nancy Salzman, 65, also pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering. She is due to be sentenced in July.

ruby Posted on April 09, 2019 10:02

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US revokes visa of International Criminal Court prosecutor

The US has revoked the entry visa for the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Fatou Bensouda.

The decision is thought to be the US response to Ms Bensouda's investigation into possible war crimes by American forces and their allies in Afghanistan.

The US secretary of state had warned the US might refuse or revoke visas to any ICC staff involved in such probes.

Ms Bensouda's office said the ICC prosecutor would continue to her duties "without fear or favour".

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: "If you're responsible for the proposed ICC investigation of US personnel in connection with the situation in Afghanistan, you should not assume that you will still have or get a visa, or that you will be permitted to enter the United States.

"We're prepared to take additional steps, including economic sanctions if the ICC does not change its course," he added.

A 2016 report from the ICC said there was a reasonable basis to believe the US military had committed torture at secret detention sites in Afghanistan operated by the CIA, and that the Afghan government and the Taliban had committed war crimes.

The US, which has been critical of the ICC since it was established, is among dozens of nations not to have joined the court.

What is the ICC?

The court investigates and brings to justice people responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, intervening when national authorities cannot or will not prosecute.

The ICC was established by a UN treaty in 2002, and has been ratified by 123 countries, including the UK.

However several countries, including China, India, and Russia, have refused to join.

Some African countries have called for withdrawal from the court over perceived unfair treatment of Africans.

ruby Posted on April 05, 2019 16:22

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Algeria protesters demand end to regime after Bouteflika's fall

Thousands have taken to the streets of the Algerian capital demanding a complete overhaul of the country's political structure.

This is the seventh successive week of Friday protests and Tuesday's resignation of long-serving President Abdelaziz Bouteflika does not appear to have satisfied the demonstrators.

According to the constitution, parliament's speaker should take over.

But protesters want all those associated with Mr Bouteflika to go.

The president, who had been in power for 20 years, said this week that he was "proud" of his contributions but realised he had "failed in [his] duty".

He added that he was "leaving the political stage with neither sadness nor fear" for Algeria's future.

The youth are the main driving force behind these demonstrations, young men and women who have known no president other than Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

But they are not satisfied.

"We are tired of this regime, they have robbed us. We've had enough of that," an emotional young woman tells me.

Nearly half of the population is under 30, many of whom are unemployed and having to live in poor conditions.

But I have also seen Algerians from older generations taking part in the protests.

Everybody here wants a change. They are sending a clear message: "a new phase with new faces".

They tell me they don't trust anyone associated with the Bouteflika era.

The mood is full of enthusiasm and energy but the people here take pride in the peaceful nature of the protests.

They have been emboldened by their success in unseating the president and now believe the same can happen with his entourage.

Earlier on Friday, the head of intelligence and close ally of Mr Bouteflika, Athmane Tartag, was reportedly sacked.

The octogenarian leader suffered a stroke six years ago and has rarely been in public since.

Pressure had been building since February, when the first demonstrations were sparked by Mr Bouteflika's announcement that he would stand for a fifth term in national elections.

The president later withdrew his plans and reshuffled Algeria's cabinet to quell accusations of corruption and cronyism, but resigned this week as protests continued.

ruby Posted on April 05, 2019 15:54

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Brexit: Tom Watson urges public vote to 'solve national crisis'

A public vote on any Brexit deal could "solve the national crisis" in the UK, Labour's deputy leader has said.

Tom Watson said he was a "reluctant convert" to a confirmatory ballot but if MPs "failed" to do their job, the public could make the final call.

Talks between Labour and the Tories on finding a way forward on Brexit are entering their third day.

He suggested Labour MPs would find it "a bit difficult" to accept any outcome which excluded a referendum option.

He also revealed that Labour has opened nominations for European elections to make sure the party was prepared if the polls do go ahead on 23 May.

Theresa May announced earlier this week that she wanted to hold discussions with Jeremy Corbyn in order to find a proposal to put to MPs ahead of an emergency EU summit on 10 April.

If passed, and agreed by the EU, it would stop the UK leaving the bloc on the 12 April with no deal.

Mrs May has now written to European council President Donald Tusk to ask for an extension until 30 June - but said she still hopes to leave before 23 May so the UK does not have to take part in European elections taking place that month.

'Divide country further'

Labour agreed a policy at its last conference that if Parliament voted down the government's deal or talks end in no deal, there should be a general election.

But if they cannot force one - Labour's attempt to call a no confidence vote in January failed - then the party "must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote".

There is opposition to another referendum within Labour, with nine shadow cabinet members believed to remain sceptical and 25 Labour backbenchers writing to Mr Corbyn on Thursday, urging him to rule it out.

They wrote: "Delaying for many months in the hope of a second referendum will simply divide the country further and add uncertainty for business.

"A second referendum would be exploited by the far right, damage the trust of many core Labour voters and reduce our chances of winning a general election."

And it has emerged that party chairman Ian Lavery offered to quit the shadow cabinet, after twice defying orders to vote in favour of another referendum.

But Mr Watson said about 80% of Labour MPs backed a confirmatory referendum of some sort, evidence that the party was "holding it together" in difficult circumstances.

'Strong policy'

He BBC Radio 4's Today that his party was going into the talks "with an open mind," but warned that if a confirmatory ballot was not part of an agreed plan, "we would have a bit of difficulty in our parliamentary party".

"We have got a strong policy on it," he said. "People would say we don't like Theresa May's deal....That is why we are genuinely with open minds and good faith on both sides trying to see if we can work through a solution."

"[But] it is pretty clear the people need to be part of that process and that is really a recognition of parliamentary failure. The argument has not been resolved in the chamber of the House of Commons."

Media captionCorbyn on Brexit talks: May meeting "useful but inconclusive"

The public, he added, would be able to "work out for themselves if this deal will work for them and their families".

"People can take a look at the deal and they can make a call on it."

But Mr Watson did warn that the process of talks with the government would take time.

"From our point of view, we [just had] day two," he said. "But we have had over 1,000 days being locked out of any discussions.

"We've had all this long delay, unnecessary delay. We think these talks are happening in good faith, but it is going to take a bit of time."

He added: "A lot of us hope they can find a creative solution to this issue. The first part of the talks were to establish some clarity on everyone's position. Now we are looking at quite technical detail.

"We hope today [the government] can give some indication of where we can work more closely."

ruby Posted on April 05, 2019 11:20

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Breast implants: France bans designs linked to rare cancer

France has become the first country to ban a type of breast implant that has been linked to a rare form of cancer.

The ban covers several models of the implants with a textured surface, which are produced by six manufacturers.

Those implants have been linked to a type of cancer that attacks the immune system.

Some 70,000 women are believed to have received the implants, out of an estimated 400,000 women who have had breast implants in France.

The ban was a "precautionary measure" taken in light of the "rare but serious danger" posed by the implants, the National Agency for Medicines and Health Products (ANSM) said in a statement (in French).

It said it had recorded 59 cases of the cancer among French implant wearers, of whom three had died.

"The more the implant is textured and rough the greater the risk of BIA-ALCL [anaplastic large-cell lymphoma]," it said.

The ANSM said it had noted a "significant increase in cases of anaplastic large-cell lymphoma linked to the wearing of breast implants since 2011".

"We have no scientific explanation for the development of ALCL, all we have are observations," Thierry Thomas, the agency's deputy director for health devices, told a press conference.

The ANSM, however, did not recommend that the women who had received the implants undergo surgery to have them removed, because of the "rarity of the risk", it said.

Media captionJanet Trelawny: "I was devastated"

Implant founder dies

The founder of a French company that was found to have used sub-standard silicone gel in its implants died on Thursday.

Jean-Claude Mas, the founder of Poly Implant Prothese (PIP), was 79, his lawyer said.

PIP created a popular brand of implant that was filled with a cheap industrial-grade silicone gel - rather than medical-grade silicone - resulting in implants rupturing.

PIP exported 80% of its implants before the firm was shut down.

The scandal affected about 300,000 women in as many as 65 countries, including France, the UK, Germany, Venezuela and Brazil.

ruby Posted on April 05, 2019 11:17

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Brexit: Germany's CDU leader hopes for second referendum

"Have you heard about the British party guest? He's the one who announces he's leaving, then you find him hours later wandering around the house with no money for a taxi. When he finally goes, he takes two bottles of wine with him."

European stereotype depictions tend to portray Germans as lacking a sense of humour.

But in political cartoons and on satire shows like Extra 3, Germany is finding plenty to laugh about Brexit.

"Fisch und Tschüss" is a die Heute Show slogan. A play on words for the traditional UK dish, fish and chips. Except Tschüss in German means goodbye.

After initially mourning the UK's vote to leave, then following every twist and turn of negotiations for a while, many Germans now feel alienated from the process.

They can't keep up with what's going on in the House of Commons.

"I no longer care so much how Brexit ends," you often hear. "As long as it ends."

"Brexit has been a strain on all of us. In some ways it has paralysed us," Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told me in Berlin in a UK exclusive interview.

She's the leader of Germany's CDU party, very close to Angela Merkel and widely tipped to be the next German chancellor.

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer - also known as AKK- is far from detached when it comes to Brexit.

She and a number of other German politicians penned a letter to The Times newspaper back in January, appealing to the UK to change its mind.

Now the thing about the EU's determined attempt to show unity at all times over Brexit means it has been frustratingly difficult to get EU leaders to agree to in-depth on-the-record Brexit interviews .

But AKK is not the German chancellor. She had no qualms about laying bare her Brexit regret.

"Anything that keeps the UK close to the EU and best of all, in the EU, would make me personally very happy" she told me.

"Maybe that could result from the current talks between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn."

She hopes for a second referendum - but only, she said, if the majority of UK citizens felt it would heal the country rather than exacerbate divisions further.

With the deadline for a Brexit decision looming next week on 12 April, Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer believes the risk of the UK leaving without a deal have "risen dramatically". This is something German business find no laughing matter.

A recent poll suggested 100,000 German jobs could be affected by a no-deal Brexit.

The BDI Federation of German Industry warned Germany would lose at least 0.5% of its GDP - and this at a time when the German economy is already heading south.

That, I think, is why there is a sudden, noticeable softening in tone when EU leaders speak about Brexit.

At a press conference in Dublin on Thursday, Chancellor Merkel struck a determinedly encouraging note.

Instead of "no-deal is the most likely scenario" or "if Theresa May requests a longer extension, we'll attach really tough conditions", which we've got used to hearing by now, Mrs Merkel chose the words: "Where there's a will, there's a way."

Peering into the abyss of a no-deal Brexit over the last few days, EU leaders have had a short, sharp reality check.

What impact would that have on them and their countries, they wonder? And what are they be prepared to do to avoid it?

There is no common EU position on this yet. That's putting it politely.

Verbal fisticuffs are predicted at next week's emergency Brexit summit when the 27 EU leaders come face-to-face.

The man who represents all of them here in Brussels, president of the European Council Donald Tusk, thinks he may have found a solution. Though it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

He's proposing what he calls a "flextension" which could see the UK signing up to a one-year-long Brexit delay with the option to cut it short as soon as parliament ratified the Brexit deal.

Mr Tusk believes the arrangement would suit the EU and the UK - and as one EU official put it to me: it would avoid Brussels potentially being faced with "endless" UK requests for repeated short extensions every few weeks.

EU leaders will discuss Mr Tusk's proposal at their emergency Brexit summit next Wednesday. By law, their decision must be unanimous.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer suggested something else the EU could do: take another look at the controversial backstop guarantee to keep the border open after Brexit:

If the UK now came to us and said "let's spend five days negotiating non-stop on how to avoid the backstop", I can't imagine anyone in Europe saying 'No'. If the UK had new watertight proposals for the border, I don't think anyone in the EU would say 'We don't want to talk about it.'"

Far from official EU Brexit policy, but it gives us a taster of the kind of conversations going on behind closed EU political doors.

ruby Posted on April 05, 2019 10:57

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Boxing: Why hasn't Dillian Whyte fought for a world title yet?

Heavyweight boxer Dillian Whyte is nicknamed "the Body Snatcher" but so far he's not had the chance to snatch a world title.

The 30-year-old is highly ranked with three of the sport's governing bodies and has had 26 professional fights - 25 of which he's won.

But Dillian, from south London, has yet to fight for a world title and he believes the World Boxing Council (WBC) has a role to play in this.

"I think they're just trying to freeze me out for as long as they can, hoping I'll get older and get demotivated," Dillian tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.

The WBC denies it's holding him back, saying it's openly following the rules.

Newsbeat has followed the boxer for the last eight months to see if he could secure the fight that could make him champion of the world.

We filmed him at his training camp at Loughborough University, saw him preparing for a big fight and met his friends and family for the documentary Dillian Whyte: Fighting To Be Champ.

Dillian is hard working and determined, but also very funny.

And while nothing will come between him and his training regime, he's always laughing and joking with those around him.

But one thing you realise is that he just wants the chance to compete for a heavyweight world title - something that's not happened yet.

Boxing is a mysterious business and it seems that being smart in the ring isn't enough.

"He's been royally stitched-up," says BBC Radio 5 Live boxing pundit Steve Bunce.

"If you wanna go back through history, you have to go back to about the late 50s or early 60s to find guys who were overlooked for as long as Dillian."

Steve believes the boxer is being ignored "because people know he can beat them".

Dillian Whyte is one of Britain's biggest names in boxing - behind the likes of Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury.

2018 was an amazing year for the heavyweight and after beating Lucas Browne, Joseph Parker and Derek Chisora, it seemed a world title shot was inevitable.

So why is he still waiting?

One of the biggest fights boxing fans would like to see is an Anthony Joshua v Dillian Whyte rematch - they last fought in 2015 and Joshua won in the seventh round.

Joshua currently holds three heavyweight world titles - the WBO, the WBA and the IBF - and during our filming it looked like a rematch could be on the cards.

Wembley Stadium was booked for 13 April and negotiations were going back and forth between the two camps.

Joshua's team came to Dillian's with a few offers but he turned them down.

So why did he reject the opportunity he'd been working towards for so long?

Dillian says it's because he was offered "rubbish" money and he knows his "value".

"You can't offer [Tyson] Fury £15m and offer me £4m," he says.

"Fury's not three times the draw that I am. I know what value I bring. Of course I believe I can become world champion, anything could happen.

"Of course I believe I can beat him."

If Dillian had accepted, it certainly would've made his promoter Eddie Hearn's life easier.

"I really wanted him to fight AJ because he puts me under so much pressure to fight for the world title, that would have been me finally saying 'Leave me alone, right go!'" he tells Newsbeat.

"But he's playing the long game, he's backing himself, whereas others would have gone - where do I sign?"

The other route Dillian can follow to try to become a heavyweight world champion is to fight Deontay Wilder - who holds the WBC title.

Currently Dillian is the WBC's most highly-ranked boxer and holds its silver title - so you'd expect he'd be in with a chance of fighting Wilder.

But boxing is anything but straightforward.

In February, the WBC ordered Dillian to fight a US boxer called Dominic Breazeale in order to determine who'd be next to challenge Wilder for his world title.

This was controversial, given Dillian was already above Breazeale in the rankings.

However, in March, the WBC scrapped this match and instead said Breazeale could fight Wilder for the title in May.

"The WBC is a joke," says Dillian. "Boxing is a funny sport, it makes no sense. These things only happen in boxing.

"It wouldn't happen in the business world, it wouldn't happen in normal life or in any other sport apart from boxing.

"It's just boxing and you get on with it."

So how can the WBC do this?

The WBC says Breazeale signed a contract which meant if he won a fight against Eric Molina in 2017 - which he did - he would become the "mandatory contender".

This means he gets the automatic right to challenge Wilder for the WBC title.

"These are not decisions that are made behind closed doors," WBC president Mauricio Sulaiman tells Newsbeat.

"These are not decisions that are made against the rules."

The WBC says it's given Dillian the platform to become a celebrity name but accepts some fans might think it's unfair that he's not yet had a world title fight.

"When you're following a fighter, you want him to get the opportunity and get the chance. We're working towards that," says Mr Sulaiman.

"I believe I'll be world champion one way or another," says Dillian.

Despite the setbacks, the boxer is as motivated as ever and looks set to fight in London on 13 July - although it won't be for a world title.

"They can't run forever and when I get my shot, whichever it is, I'm gonna take years of frustration and anger and stress out on them.

"So they might as well just give me the world title before the fight even happens."

ruby Posted on April 05, 2019 10:54

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The nations of the Amazon want the name back

Online retail giant Amazon and the governments of eight South American countries have been given a final deadline to reach an agreement over how to use the ".amazon" web address extension after a seven-year dispute. What will happen next?

It's a name that evokes epic proportions: the world's largest rainforest; a global tech company; and now a diplomatic saga nearing its end.

This is the battle of the Amazon and it starts back in 2012.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the body that polices the world wide web's address system, decided to expand its list of generic top-level domains (gTLD) - the bit that comes after the dot in a web address.

The new rules allowed companies to apply for brand new extensions, offering internet users and businesses more ways to personalise their website name and addresses.

But eight countries containing the Amazon rainforest objected to the retail giant's plans concerning the new .amazon domain name.

The governments of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela - all members of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO) - say that relinquishing the domain exclusively to Amazon could impact on matters of their sovereignty.

Diplomats have told the BBC that they are not seeking to deny Amazon use of the domain but are proposing a "shared governance" of it.

According to their proposals, Amazon would be immediately allowed to use the domains which are relevant to its commercial interests, such as "" or "".

But each country in turn would be entitled to use domains which relate to their cultural heritage - imagine Amazon nations coming together to promote the region under the "" domain, for example.

Crucially, the countries want to establish a committee in which both Amazon and the eight countries would have the opportunity to object to new top-level domains in the future.

But Amazon has rejected these proposals, instead suggesting that the .amazon extension be used in conjunction with two letters representing each country - for Brazil, for example.

The company has declined to comment ahead of the 7 April deadline, but pointed to previous remarks by its vice-president of public policy, Brian Huseman, who vowed that Amazon "will not use the TLDs in a confusing manner".

Amazon has promised to work with governments to identify and block the use of "names that touch national sensitivities" and has pledged to support a new top-level domain using local terms such as .amazonia and .amazonas.

And last year it tried to persuade the countries by promising them $5m (£3.8m) worth of free Kindle e-readers and hosting services.

They turned down the offer.

In a letter sent to ICANN in March, the Ecuadorian Ambassador to the US, Francisco Carrión, said: "We are not looking for financial compensation. Nor are we after ex-gratia concessions to use one or a few second-level domains.

"It is a matter of sovereignty for many of us, and the offer to share the TLDs with the company Amazon Inc. is already a compromise."

The current dispute follows similar cases already settled.

In 2013, for example, the US-based outdoor clothing brand Patagonia withdrew an application for the .patagonia extension after objection from Argentina and Chile.

A Mexico-based company had to reach a financial agreement with the town of Bar, Montenegro, in order to obtain consent to register the .bar extension.

And in 2016, ICANN granted the registry of the .africa gTLD to a charity based in Johannesburg, South Africa, after it received support from three quarters of African Union countries.

But the Amazon saga has been quite unlike any other.

Amazon's application was initially deferred, but Brazilian and Peruvian diplomats managed to overturn it by securing the support of the group that represents governments within ICANN - the GAC.

That in itself required diplomatic pressure to change the US position from supporting Amazon Inc. to remaining neutral in the dispute.

Then Amazon appealed and a review panel ordered ICANN to make a decision by reaching its own conclusions.

If the parties don't reach a consensus by 7 April, Amazon will have two weeks to argue its case again before ICANN makes up its mind.

The case is prompting questions about the independence of ICANN.

Amazon's Brian Huseman told ICANN that "globally, hundreds (if not thousands) of brands have names similar to regions, land formations, mountains, towns, cities, and other geographic places". These could be put off applying for new gTLDs because of "uncertainty" over ICANN policy over geographic names.

The US-based body is under pressure to resist the push of governments and some believe it might be more open to arguments coming from the business sector this time around.

But Daniel Sepulveda, who served as a US Ambassador, deputy assistant secretary of state, and co-ordinator for communications and information policy from 2013 to 2017, says: "The ICANN community would make a mistake if it diminishes Brazil's concerns or engages in aggressive libertarian rhetoric".

He believes ICANN needs to strike a fine balance between the interests and freedoms of businesses, organisations and individuals using the internet, without alienating anyone.

"This is a sensitive situation that requires diplomacy, the exercise of mutual respect, and creative mechanisms for ensuring all sides feel fairly treated," he says.

So if Amazon and the eight nations don't reach agreement before the deadline, ICANN has a very difficult decision to make - one that might end up pleasing no-one.


ruby Posted on April 05, 2019 10:44

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Libya crisis: General Haftar tells forces to take capital

The leader of forces in eastern Libya has ordered them to march on the capital Tripoli, the base of the internationally recognised government.

Khalifa Haftar's order to the self-styled Libyan National Army came as UN chief Antonio Guterres was in Tripoli.

Armed groups from the western city of Misrata, which back the government, have vowed to stop any advance.

Libya has been riven by violence and division since long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi was deposed and killed in 2011.

What reaction has there been?

Mr Guterres, the US and European nations have all called for calm.

Speaking to reporters in Tripoli, Mr Guterres said he was making a "strong appeal to stop... the escalation".

The UN Security Council will meet on Friday to discuss the situation following a request from the UK, reports said.

The US, UK, France, Italy and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) issued a joint statement appealing for calm.

"At this sensitive moment in Libya's transition, military posturing and threats of unilateral action only risk propelling Libya back toward chaos," the statement, issued by the US state department, said.

"We strongly believe that there is no military solution to the Libya conflict," the governments added.

The UN had been planning to hold a conference in Libya later this month for talks over ending the country's long-running crisis.

What is happening on the ground?

After Gen Haftar's announcement, his forces moved towards the capital from several directions, one of his spokesmen said.

There were conflicting reports that Gen Haftar's forces had entered the town of Gharyan, 100km (60 miles) south of Tripoli.

The Libyan National Army (LNA) says it has secured Gharyan and moved on. However it said two of its soldiers had been wounded in clashes in a nearby area.

A Gharyan official told AFP that there were "ongoing efforts to avoid a confrontation" between rival fighters in the town.

The UN-backed government in Tripoli said it had put its forces on high alert.

Meanwhile residents in Misrata said armed groups from the city had begun moving towards the Libyan capital, Reuters reported.

The offensive comes after Gen Haftar's forces seized parts of the south of the country earlier in the year.

Who is General Haftar?

A former army officer, he helped Colonel Gaddafi seize power in 1969 before falling out with him and going into exile in the US. He returned in 2011 after the uprising against Gaddafi began and became a rebel commander.

In December Gen Haftar met Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj from the UN-backed government at a conference but refused to attend official talks.

Gen Haftar has received backing from Egypt and the UAE, who see him as tough on Islamists.

He visited Saudi Arabia last week, where he met King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for talks.

ruby Posted on April 05, 2019 10:39

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Benny Gantz: The Israeli ex-military chief challenging Netanyahu

Benjamin "Benny" Gantz is a former Israeli military chief who believes he can unseat long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the general election on 9 April.

The 59-year-old retired lieutenant-general is a newcomer to politics who formed the centrist Blue and White alliance in February, promising to unite a country that had "lost its way".

Mr Gantz was born in 1959 in Kfar Ahim, a co-operative farmers' village in central Israel founded by immigrants. His father and mother, Nahum and Malka, were survivors of the Holocaust.

As a youth, Mr Gantz attended a boarding school in a youth village near Tel Aviv.

After finishing there in 1977, he enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and joined the Paratroopers Brigade. His first assignment was to help provide security for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Israel.

Last soldier in Lebanon

Two years later, he graduated from the IDF officer school and was made a company commander in the Paratrooper Brigade. From then on, he rose steadily through the ranks.

He has played key roles in significant military campaigns, including in May 1991 when he led the Israel Air Force's elite commando unit in the operation that saw thousands of Ethiopian Jews airlifted to Israel in only 36 hours.

As head of the IDF's Judea Brigade in 1994, he was tasked with restoring security in the divided city of Hebron, in the occupied West Bank, after a Jewish settler killed 29 Palestinians in an attack at the revered Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque site.

In between periods of active military service, he spent a year in the US in 1997 obtaining a master's degree in national resource management from the National Defense University.

By 1999, he had effectively become the top Israeli officer in occupied southern Lebanon - a position he took on after his predecessor was killed by a roadside bomb. Gen Gantz has said he was the last soldier to cross the border and personally shut the gate when Israeli forces withdrew from Lebanon in 2000.

Gaza operations

That same year, he was appointed commander of the Judea and Samaria Division. He started days before the outbreak of the second intifada, or uprising, by Palestinians against the Israeli occupation.

He was also commander of the IDF's Ground Forces during the 2006 war with Lebanon's militant Hezbollah movement - a conflict for which Israel's military and government leaders were widely criticised. Gen Gantz acknowledged years later that there had been "success and mistakes".

At the end of 2007 he left Israel to serve as the country's military attaché in Washington DC - a position he held for two years, before being called back to Israel to serve as the IDF's deputy chief of staff.

In 2011, he was unexpectedly became the IDF's 20th chief of staff after a dispute between then Defence Minister Ehud Barak and the outgoing IDF chief of staff, General Gabi Ashkenazi, over candidates and the disqualification of the frontrunner.

During his tenure, the IDF launched two major operations in 2012 and 2014 against Palestinian militants in Gaza, led by the Islamist movement Hamas, which Israeli leaders said were intended to halt attacks on Israeli civilians.

The first operation - Pillar of Defence - ended after eight days of Israeli air strikes and Palestinian rocket fire but without an Israeli ground incursion. The UN said 174 Palestinians were killed during the fighting, including 101 civilians. Six Israelis - two soldiers and four civilians - were also killed.

The second operation - Protective Edge - lasted 50 days and saw Israeli forces launch a ground offensive. The UN said 2,251 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians, were killed. Six civilians in Israel and 67 Israeli soldiers were also killed.

Palestinian officials and human rights groups accused the Israeli military of committing war crimes during the conflict. But Mr Gantz said his forces had worked hard to prevent civilian casualties and blamed Hamas for embedding military infrastructure in residential areas.

Israel's state comptroller later criticised Mr Gantz and other military and political leaders for failing to prepare adequately for the threat of the many cross-border tunnels dug by Hamas that it used to carry out attacks during the war.

Before Mr Gantz's military career came to an end in 2015, Benjamin Netanyahu praised his decades of "excellent service" and described him as "a high-quality, ethical, responsible, balanced and thoughtful chief of staff".

But four years later, Mr Netanyahu paid no such compliments to the man who had become his main rival for the premiership, dismissing him as a "weak leftist".

Military veterans join forces

Mr Gantz has declared that if his Israel Resilience party is victorious in April's general election, he would form a government that would "act responsibly, firmly and decisively".

He has talked tough on Iran and warned the leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yehiya Sinwar, "do not test me again". But he has also promised to "strive for peace" and "not miss an opportunity to bring about regional change".

He has also stressed that "the mere notion that in Israel a prime minister can remain in office while under indictment is ridiculous" - a reference to the attorney general's announcement in February that he intended to indict Mr Netanyahu on corruption charges, pending a final hearing.

For the election, Israel Resilience has formed an alliance called Blue and White - after the colours of the Israeli flag - with the centrist Yesh Atid party of former Finance Minister Yair Lapid.

Two other former IDF chiefs of staff - Moshe Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi - have joined Blue and White, along with Orna Barbivai, the first woman to reach the rank of major general in the IDF.

Mr Gantz and Mr Lapid have agreed to take turns as prime minister if Blue and White forms a government, with the former general holding the post for the first two-and-a-half years.

ruby Posted on April 05, 2019 10:36

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Sally Challen bailed after denying murdering husband

A woman whose sons campaigned against her conviction for murdering her husband has been bailed ahead of a fresh trial.

Sally Challen, 65, was found guilty of murdering 61-year-old Richard in a hammer attack in August 2010 and jailed for life in 2011.

But the conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal in February.

Appearing at the Old Bailey via video-link earlier, Challen, of Claygate in Surrey, denied murdering her husband.

Mr Justice Edis said Challen, who has been held at HMP Bronzefield, should be released from custody from midday on Saturday.

He set a further hearing for 7 June and a trial date for 1 July "if necessary".

The appeal followed a campaign by her sons David, 31, and James, 35.

As they left court, the men smiled and expressed relief that their mother would soon be freed.

During the two-day appeal hearing in February, the court heard evidence relating to Mrs Challen's state of mind at the time of the killing and the issue of "coercive control".

Coercive control describes a pattern of behaviour by an abuser to harm, punish or frighten their victim and became a criminal offence in England and Wales in December 2015.

The murder conviction was overturned by three judges who said the evidence of a psychiatrist, that Mrs Challen was suffering from two mental disorders at the time of the killing, was not available at the time of her trial and undermined the safety of her conviction.

ruby Posted on April 05, 2019 10:30

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Ian Paterson: 'Sheer volume' of victims delays breast surgeon report

Victims of disgraced breast surgeon Ian Paterson are still coming forward two years after he was jailed following hundreds of botched operations.

The "sheer volume" of patients giving evidence to an independent inquiry has pushed back a report into his malpractice, an official said.

Paterson is serving a 20-year sentence for 17 counts of wounding with intent.

About 150 patients gave evidence last year and dozens more are understood to have since come forward.

Inquiry secretary Rebecca Chaloner said many of those were cases that were not previously known about.

The report was due this summer but is now expected by the end of the year.

Appeal Court judges, who increased Paterson's 15-year sentence, said victims were left feeling "violated and vulnerable", with his treatment of patients described as "brutal and sustained".

The inquiry, which began in January 2018, is taking evidence from the NHS and private hospitals at which Paterson, from Altrincham in Greater Manchester, worked, the Royal College of Surgeons and the insurance and indemnity industry.

It is understood a number of previously unknown victims have come forward to the inquiry through support groups in the West Midlands.

Ms Chaloner said the process would give victims "a voice" despite the delay.

"It's due to the sheer number of people coming forward," she said.

"We spent the spring and summer of 2018 taking evidence from more than 150 patients, but people are still coming forward - quite a few that weren't a part of anything else (the criminal and civil cases).

"We are pleased as it has given them a voice."

The Department of Health said it wanted to learn lessons from the case and improve care.

It said the scope of the inquiry was likely to consider:

  • The responsibility for the quality of care in the independent sector
  • Information sharing, reporting of activity and raising concerns between the independent sector and the NHS
  • The role of insurers of independent sector healthcare providers, including how data it held about the scope and volume of work carried out by doctors was shared with the sector

ruby Posted on April 05, 2019 09:54

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Who lived in Harry and Meghan's house?

With the birth of their first child imminent, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have left Kensington Palace for their new home.

Nestled in a quiet corner in the grounds of the grand Frogmore House in Windsor, Frogmore Cottage has a rich history - and Meghan and Harry are far from its first notable residents.

If Meghan and Harry are seeking a home hidden from the public gaze, then Frogmore Cottage is an ideal spot.

From the very beginning it was intended as a secluded refuge from the pressures of royal life, with records of its occupants scarce.

Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, had it built in 1792 as a place for her and her daughters to escape the court.

At the time it was fashionable for the wealthy to build large homes disguised as idyllic rural cottages.

However, the queen also wanted somewhere for her daughters to "go off and escape George's madness", according to the writer and historian Helen Rappaport.

"It was like a large retreat on the Windsor estate where she could go off and hunker down," said Dr Rappaport.

"The king had bouts of madness. He was probably quite difficult to live with and she probably used Frogmore Cottage as a retreat."

Abdul Karim, an Indian Muslim, arrived in England in 1887 to serve at Queen Victoria's table during her golden jubilee celebrations.

The 24-year-old made such a big impact on the aging monarch that within the year he had become an established figure at court.

The queen made him her teacher - or munshi - instructing her in Urdu and Indian affairs. She lavished honours, titles and gifts on him, one of which was the use of Frogmore Cottage.

She visited him at the cottage "every second day" and "never missed a lesson" from Karim, according to the writer Shrabani Basu.

Ms Basu, who discovered diaries detailing their relationship., said Victoria developed a close, almost maternal relationship with Karim and would sign letters to him as "your loving mother" and "your closest friend".

Karim refurbished the house and lived there with his wives from 1893.

However, his close relationship with the Queen angered her family and courtiers and her death in 1901 brought his life at Frogmore - and in the UK - to an abrupt end.

Within hours of her funeral, the new king Edward VII, who "hated" Karim, had his residences raided and his papers destroyed. He ordered him to return to India, where he died a few years later, aged 46.

"She was his protector," Ms Basu said. "It was curtains for him. They just cast him off."

When Tsar Nicholas II and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918, his surviving relatives fled to the UK in a warship sent by their close relative, King George V.

Among them was the tsar's sister - and the king's cousin - Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna.

On arrival in the UK, the grand duchess and her children lived independently for a while but soon ran out of money.

In 1925, the king put them up in Frogmore Cottage, along with several of her sons and their families. When it became too crowded, the king made the nearby Home Park Cottage available as well.

Marlene Eilers Koenig, an expert on British and European royalty, said the grand duchess was "nearly destitute" by the point she moved in.

The royal refugees' poverty meant the cottage soon fell into disrepair. Residents of grace-and-favour homes were required to pay for all internal changes but the grand duchess's "dire" financial situation meant she could not afford to maintain the house.

A Ministry of Works official in 1929 found the cottage was in a "deplorable condition".

"Wallpaper was tearing off the walls, the ceilings were dirty and the plaster was breaking off from the walls," added Ms Koenig. "The house needed more than a mere lick of paint."

Dr Rappaport said the cottage had been "extremely neglected", was lit with "oil lamps and candles" and did not have a toilet that flushed.

The refurbishment was paid for by the king, who also provided his cousin with a £2,400 annual pension.

After the king's death in 1936, his son, King Edward VIII offered Xenia and her family Wilderness House, in the grounds of Hampton Court, and they left Frogmore.

Since World War Two, the cottage is believed to have been used as a home for members of royal household staff, although mystery surrounds it occupants.

Perhaps this helps explain why the Duke and Duchess Sussex see Windsor as their "very special place".

ruby Posted on April 05, 2019 09:50

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Mosul: A city still in ruins, two years after defeat of IS

It has been almost two years since the jihadist group Islamic State was defeated in Iraq's second city of Mosul following a battle that left thousands of civilians dead. Large parts of the city has yet to be rebuilt and residents are growing increasingly frustrated, as the BBC's Shaimaa Khalil reports.

The Old City on the western side of the River Tigris was the heart and soul of Mosul. Now, it lies in ruins.

The streets were largely deserted apart from a handful of people and bulldozers.

The crumbling buildings were riddled with bullet holes.

The Old City suffered the greatest destruction during the fighting between IS militants and Iraqi government forces.

It is where the historic Great Mosque of al-Nuri and its famous leaning al-Hadba minaret once stood.

Children were climbing on heaps of rubble; some extracting metal to sell for scrap.

People have said that, to this day, bodies and explosive devices are still buried under the debris across Mosul.

Posters were displayed on walls warning people, particularly children, not to touch any suspicious objects.

When Mosul was recaptured by the government in July 2017, it was hailed as a major victory against IS. But this has not led to better lives for people living there.

"We have nothing," a former resident of the Old City told me. "No food. The air here is not pure. The water is not pure. No schools. No hospitals."

"This is not good for the next generation," he added.

Mohamed Hashimie runs Radio Alghad, a station founded in 2015 to give the people of Mosul a voice while they lived under IS rule.

"People have been liberated for about two years now, but what happened on the ground really didn't meet their expectations," he said.

Radio Alghad hears from people frustrated about corruption, the lack of basic services, and the slow rebuilding process, according to Mr Hashimie.

"Right after the liberation people were so positive. This was a golden time. Unfortunately, now that positivity is decreasing. They realise there's no real plan."

A recent ferry accident in the Tigris, which killed more than 100 people, sparked fury among residents. They took to the streets blaming local officials of corruption and negligence. The governor has since been sacked and a warrant has been issued for his arrest on corruption charges.

Mr Hashimie said the accident was the last straw for some people.

The University of Mosul's campus lies on the eastern side of Tigris. The hustle and bustle of the area was a stark contrast to what we witnessed in the Old City.

It was also a testament to residents' determination to get on with their lives.

Young women in colourful headscarves braved the muddy, potholed streets. A group of men sat on the pavement with their building tools, looking for work.

Men and women made their way to cafes and restaurants on the road opposite the campus. That would have been unheard of less under IS rule.

Security and corruption may be the most pressing issues in Mosul, but unemployment is also a major problem.

The UN estimates more than half of Mosul's youths are without work.

Asma al-Rawi, a 22-year-old student, fled Mosul with her family in 2014, when IS seized control of the city. Since returning, she has had to face the harsh realities of life in her hometown.

"Something bad will happen. We might lose our home again. We might have to leave the city. We might lose our lives like many people," she said.

"It's very hard to be optimistic when you live in these circumstances."

Mosul has seen a number of attacks blamed on IS sleeper cells.

In October 2018, a car bomb killed five people in a busy market in the south of the city. The following month, three people were killed when a car bomb exploded near a restaurant in a busy area in the west.

Asma's teacher, Ali, said society was also fractured.

"Mosul has always been a melting pot. It's no longer like that," he told me.

"Most of the Christians are not back. It's heartbreaking when you go to western Mosul and the Christian neighbourhoods are still empty. Their churches still in ruins."

Ali also warned against keeping families who supported IS in camps in the desert, saying the authorities were not dealing with them properly.

"This is another way to radicalise and create a new generation of IS [militants]," he explained

The UN has said that IS has already evolved into a covert network in Iraq, regrouping and organising cells in remote desert areas in provinces like Anbar and Kirkuk. US officials believe there may be between 15,000 and 20,000 armed adherents active in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

"Very few people know what [the IS militants] will do next. I can't tell you what or when their next move will be," said Mahmoud Hammady, a member of an elite Iraqi commando unit based in Mosul.

"The people of Mosul are justified in that fear. [The militants] are waiting for orders for assassinations, bombings or suicide attacks."

"If a political solution is found, Mosul will be alright. This tension and bickering between the politicians destabilises the city," Mr Hammady added.

IS has lost its territory, but the group has not lost its influence.

Poverty, corruption, unemployment and an increasingly angry population with sectarian divisions bubbling underneath the surface all contributed to the IS takeover of Mosul five years ago.

And unless those root causes are tackled, IS will remain a threat.

ruby Posted on April 03, 2019 12:24

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Abdelaziz Bouteflika: Algerian leader resigns amid protests

Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has resigned after weeks of massive street protests.

Mr Bouteflika, who has been in power for 20 years, had already dropped plans to seek a fifth term as opposition to his rule grew.

The powerful Algerian army had called for the 82-year-old to be declared incapable of carrying out his duties.

Protesters have vowed to continue piling on pressure until the entire government is ousted.

The BBC's Mohamed Arezki Himeur in Algiers says there were huge celebrations in the city, with people shouting, waving the national flag and honking their car horns all night.

He says the protesters do not only want Mr Bouteflika to go, but the whole system, in particular the government which was only appointed last weekend.

"This is just a little victory - the biggest is still to come," one protester said.

Mr Bouteflika, who has been ill since he suffered a stroke six years ago, has avoided public events ever since.

However, he made a rare appearance on state TV to relinquish power hours after military chief Lt Gen Ahmed Gaed Salah called on him to leave office immediately.

One man, Selmaoui Seddik, told Reuters: "God willing, we will have a 100% democratic transition, this is very important. We need to remove the whole previous regime and that is the hardest thing."

However, one protest leader, Mustapha Bouchachi, said before the announcement that any decision by Mr Bouteflika to quit would still change nothing and that the protests would continue.

News of the resignation came in a statement carried on state news agency APS.

"The president of the republic, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has officially notified the president of the constitutional council of his decision to end his mandate as president of the republic," it said.

State TV then reported that this would be with immediate effect.

According to the constitution, the Senate speaker should take over as interim head of state until fresh elections are held.

How did it come about?

Pressure had been building since February, when the first demonstrations were sparked by Mr Bouteflika's announcement that he would be standing for a fifth term.

Tens of thousands protested across the country on 1 March. Mr Bouteflika's promise not to serve out a fifth term if re-elected, along with a change of prime minister, failed to quell the discontent.

Leaders of the protests also rejected Mr Bouteflika's offer this week that he would go by the end of his current term - 28 April - as not quick enough.

It seems the powerful military agreed. Its chief, Lt Gen Ahmed Gaed Salah, said earlier on Tuesday: "There is no more room to waste time."

What next?

The demonstrations have also called for the whole political system, in which the military plays a significant role, to be overhauled.

Many of the protesters are young and say they want a new system of government.

There were accusations that Mr Bouteflika was being used as a front by "le pouvoir" - a group of businessmen, politicians and military officials - to retain their power.

Elections originally scheduled for 18 April were postponed and the governing National Liberation Front (FLN) vowed to organise a national conference on reforms.

The FLN has ruled Algeria since the country won independence from France in 1962 after seven years of conflict.

Mr Bouteflika, who came to power in 1999, strengthened his grip after a bloody civil war against Islamist insurgents which left 150,000 dead.

The chairman of the upper house of parliament, Abdelkader Bensalah, is expected to become caretaker president for three months until elections.

Mr Bensalah has been in post since 2002 and has represented Mr Bouteflika at official visits and events.

He also shares a similar background with the president, growing up in neighbouring Morocco before returning to fight in the liberation war.

Who is Bouteflika?

He is a veteran of Algeria's war of independence who served as foreign minister for more than a decade before becoming president in 1999.

His primary task was to rebuild the country, and its economy - but first, he needed to end Algeria's brutal civil war sparked by the military's refusal to recognise the election victory of the Islamic Salvation Front in the early 1990s.

Despite guaranteeing stability in the oil-rich nation, his government has been accused of widespread corruption and state repression.

The man who once said he would not accept being "three-quarters a president" spent his last years in a wheelchair after a stroke in 2013, rarely appearing in public, and fuelling fierce debate over who was really in charge, the BBC's North Africa correspondent, Rana Jawad, says.

Revolutionaries praise him for welcoming Che Guevara to Algeria, and giving a young Nelson Mandela his first military training.

ruby Posted on April 03, 2019 12:11

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The mystery Samoan in my family tree

When Lennard Davis received an email from a stranger who said Lennard was his closest living relative, he thought it must be a scam. Lennard is a Jewish professor from New York, and the stranger claimed to be from a line of Polynesian chieftains. It took four years and the unravelling of two family secrets to solve the puzzle.

In 1979 Lennard Davis's Uncle Abie told him he had a secret - but he said he couldn't reveal it while Lennard's father, Morris, was alive.

Morris was then in hospital with cancer. When he died, two years later, Lennard reminded Abie about the secret, and asked if he could now be told.

Initially, Uncle Abie was reluctant - he told Lennard to forget all about it, he didn't want to tell him. But Lennard pressed him.

"So, he told me," Lennard says. "He said, 'I'm your father.'"

It was a disturbing revelation - Lennard had been brought up to dislike Uncle Abie and to believe that he was untrustworthy. And with both of his parents now gone - Lennard's mother had died almost a decade earlier - there was no-one left who could explain what had happened.

"My parents had never told me. It was a family secret and probably, on some level, a shameful one," Lennard says.

Years passed before he decided to investigate this secret that his parents had taken to their graves. But at the age of 55, in the year 2000, Lennard decided to take some tests that would verify his paternity.

Lennard searched for envelopes that Morris may have licked that might provide a remnant of his DNA, and asked his cousin to do the same to try to harvest some of Abie's, who had by now also died.

When the first results came back, Lennard nervously opened the letter.

He'd never particularly liked his father, a man he describes as difficult and intolerant, with an explosive temper. Yet when he read the letter which explained that Morris, the man who'd raised him, was not his biological father, he felt genuinely sad.

Subsequent testing revealed that Uncle Abie was most likely Lennard's real dad.

Years later, in 2014, Lennard was contacted out of the blue by a man from Pago Pago, in American Samoa.

He said his name was Lancelot Tauoa, and that after taking a DNA test he'd discovered a very close genetic link between himself and Lennard.

"My initial reaction was that I should be very, very suspicious," Lennard says.

But when he looked at the database where his DNA test results had been entered, Lennard could see that right next to his half-brother (the man he had once regarded as his cousin) was the name Lancelot Tauoa. The two men appeared to be second cousins.

"This was extremely confusing," Lennard says. "My family's Jewish, pretty much through and through, and suddenly there's a guy from American Samoa who turns out to be a close relative? It was a very strange, jaw-dropping concept."

Lennard remained sceptical but struggled to imagine how these two families might possibly have become linked. Was there a GI from his family who'd been posted to the South Pacific?

"I had no idea who it could have been or any of the details, but frankly, I imagined it was something related to prostitution - that was my assumption," Lennard says.

Lennard and Lance stayed in touch by email and, over time, Lennard's suspicions about Lance began to diminish.

"There was something very poignant about Lance's letters," Lennard says.

"Through his emails I could feel his need. He really, really wanted to know, and I identified with him, even though I had never met him."

Having already discovered that his uncle was in fact his biological father, Lennard imagined that a similar family secret must lie behind his connection to Lance.

He assumed it would be relatively straightforward to get to the bottom of the mystery, but it took more than four years, and a lot of wrong turns, false assumptions and dead ends before the truth was finally established.

More than 7,000 miles away on an island in the South Pacific Ocean, Lancelot Tauoa had never had any inkling that there were secrets in his family until the day of his grandmother's funeral in 2000.

Lance's grandmother was the daughter of the village chief in Pago Pago, a small Christian society where everybody knows everybody else's business. On the day of the burial, many people had come to the pay their respects, including Lance's great-aunt Eppe - his grandmother's sister - who was beside herself with grief.

By chance Lance overheard one of the mourners saying that the reason Eppe was so upset was that Lance's grandmother had raised Eppe's son, Sekele. But Sekele was Lance's father, who'd died a few years earlier - so this would make Eppe Lance's grandmother, rather than the woman being buried.

Sekele had looked a bit different to other people on the island and was known to many by the nickname, the Samoan Elvis.

"My father was very tall, about 6ft 2in, and very fair-skinned," Lance says. "He didn't like to go to church and he was really into Western movies. He was really fun."

A few weeks later, Lance decided to confront Eppe about what he had overheard at the funeral.

"She dismissed it," Lance says. "She said, 'Don't listen to that kind of gossip,' and then a few months later she passed away."

But while planning Eppe's funeral, Lance's suspicions were confirmed when the chief of their family said that either Lance or his sister would have to eulogise Eppe at the service. Their father had been Eppe's biological son, he explained.

"It was very shocking," Lance says. "I was mystified and I wanted some answers, so I went to my dad's sister, and she told me that she thought that we all knew."

Lance was told that Eppe, the high chief's daughter, had become estranged from her husband and had fallen pregnant as a result of a clandestine romance with a foreign man.

Lance's grandmother had then adopted and raised the child.

Lance felt angry, betrayed and confused. Had his father known too? Why hadn't anyone told him?

After Eppe's burial, Lance began approaching the family elders for answers, but was told that since neither his grandparents or father had talked to him about this he should now let it rest. But Lance really wanted to find out who his grandfather was.

"The only thing I knew from the rumours was that the man was a US marine in American Samoa - that was it," Lance says. "There was no name, nothing."

Lance began his research by reading books about the US presence in the South Pacific during WWII, but it seemed almost pointless - like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Then he decided to take a DNA test and had an immediate breakthrough. Lennard Davis, the academic from the Bronx, had to be the key to the puzzle.

Once Lennard had overcome his doubts, the two men began a combined search for the mysterious American soldier who connected them.

Lennard first searched for clues in his mother's side of the family, but turned up nothing useful. Eventually he focused on his paternal grandmother's line.

"But this was a side of my family I knew nothing about," he says. "We had absolutely no information about them."

Lennard's grandmother's maiden name was Movshovich. The family had arrived in the US from Lithuania, via the UK, but it took the discovery that they had changed their name to Morse to open up the family records.

With the help of a genealogist, Lennard and Lance traced the family as far back as 1700. Then they located a distant cousin of Lennard's who said she had an old family photo album that might be of interest to them. In it they found a picture of a man who looked very familiar to Lance.

"He had his uniform on, he was smiling, he was looking directly into the camera," Lance says. "He looked so much like my father - like my father's twin. He was extremely handsome."

Lance kept the photo of the man in military uniform on his phone as his screensaver, and couldn't stop looking at it.

"The eyes jumped out at me - I think I have those eyes," Lance says.

In other photographs he spotted other similarities.

"I recognised the hairline - I always wondered why I had this weird hairline," he says.

But who was the man in the photograph smiling back at Lance? Nobody knew anything about him, not even his name.

Another year passed before Lennard and Lance eventually established that he was the youngest son of Lennard's great-uncle, born in 1918. His name was Charles Morse and he'd enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1940 and served in Pago Pago in 1942. Lance's father had been born the following year.

But Lennard and Lance wanted incontrovertible evidence of Charles Morse's connection to Eppe, so Lance decided to ask Peter a very direct question: did he have any interesting stories about Charles Morse in the South Pacific?

"Yes!" Peter replied. "I have a very interesting story!"

Peter told Lennard and Lance that during Charles's time in Pago Pago he'd fallen in love with the chief's daughter, Eppe. Charles had proposed, asking the chief for Eppe's hand in marriage, but his proposal had been rejected and Charles had returned to the US alone.

It's not clear whether he knew about Eppe's husband, or whether he knew and hoped in vain that she would be allowed to divorce him.

After Charles's departure, Eppe had given birth to his son, Sekele, who was then adopted and brought up by Eppe's sister.

Back in the US, Charles never married or had a family, and presumably never knew that he had a child in American Samoa.

In late November 2018 Lennard and Lance met for the first time in San Francisco and visited Charles Morse's grave at the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery together.

"I was really excited," Lance says. "I was looking forward to finally seeing the headstone and touching it."

Lance had brought with him from Samoa some sand from the beach, some soil from the land, and some stones from the stream where the US marine encampment had been. He took them to the cemetery.

Lennard waited while Lance made his way to the grave.

"And I just let it out," Lance says. "All kinds of emotions, it was very, very heavy."

When Lennard walked over Lance put his head on Lennard's shoulder and sobbed.

"It really made me feel the power of this connection and the incredible circle that had been completed," Lennard says.

"Charles had been a marine in Samoa in the very place from where the stones were coming back, the soil was coming back, Lance was coming back, the DNA was coming back to this very spot where Charles was now buried and where his DNA was now under the soil.

"It was cosmic."

Millions of people are giving DNA testing kits as presents, and the craze is spreading .But what happens when you find out a lot more than you were expecting?

ruby Posted on April 03, 2019 12:07

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Will talks with the Taliban bring peace or chaos?

For the first time in 18 years, the US government seems serious about withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan and winding up the longest war in its history.

Since October, US officials and representatives of the Taliban have held five rounds of direct talks and are about to embark on a sixth - aimed at ensuring a safe exit for the US in return for the insurgents guaranteeing that Afghan territory is not used by foreign militants and wouldn't pose a security threat to the rest of the world.

A US-led military coalition overthrew the Taliban in 2001 for sheltering al-Qaeda, the militant group that Washington blamed for the 9/11 attacks.

A rare consensus about resolving the conflict peacefully, both inside and outside Afghanistan, means peace has never been so close.

But the US-Taliban talks in Qatar's capital, Doha, are only the first phase of a complicated process with an uncertain outcome - and there are many hurdles to overcome.

Intense fighting is still going on all over the country, and while the Taliban negotiate they now control and influence more territory than at any point since 2001.

Given the continued stalemate with the insurgents, US President Donald Trump is keen to end the war, which, according to US officials, costs about $45bn (£34bn) annually.

His recent indication to withdraw most or all of his 14,000 forces in the near future caught everyone by surprise, including the Taliban.

There are also nearly 1,000 British troops in Afghanistan as part of Nato's mission to train and assist the Afghan security forces.

But even if the US and the Taliban resolve their major issues, the Afghans themselves will need to sort out a number of key internal issues - including a ceasefire, dialogue between the Taliban and the government, and most importantly, the formation of a new government and political system.

Ideally, a ceasefire would precede fresh elections later this year and the Taliban would take part - but the latter seems unlikely.

Without a full or even partial ceasefire, there are fears that poll irregularities and a possible protracted political turmoil over the results could undermine any peace process and may increase political instability.

Can power be shared, and if so how?

There are a number of options and scenarios.

First of all, a decision will need to be taken by all major players on whether presidential elections, already postponed to late September, take place as planned.

If they do, a new government in Kabul could negotiate terms with the Taliban, unless a peace deal had been reached before the vote. Whether that government served a full term or on an interim basis while intra-Afghan power-sharing options are discussed is unclear.

But elections could also be further delayed or suspended - and the current government's term extended - while a mutually agreed mechanism to establish a new government, acceptable to all sides including the Taliban, is sought.

Will the Taliban end up back in government?

Creating a temporary neutral government or a governing coalition, that could even include the Taliban, is another option being looked at in this scenario.

A loya jirga - or grand assembly - of Afghans could also be called to choose an interim government which would hold elections once US troops have left and the Taliban has been reintegrated.

An international conference similar to the one in Bonn, Germany, in 2001 is another suggestion to help chart a future course for the country.

It would include Afghan players, major powers and neighbouring states - but this time also with the participation of the Taliban.

Several Taliban leaders have told me they need time to enter mainstream Afghan society and prepare for elections.

Would former enemies be able to work together?

There will be very difficult issues to surmount after a conflict that has left hundreds of thousands of casualties on all sides, including government forces, insurgents and civilians.

For example, the Taliban do not accept the current constitution and see the Afghan government as "a US-imposed puppet regime".

So far the elected government of President Ashraf Ghani has not been involved in direct talks with the insurgents who refuse to talk to a government they don't recognise.

A number of Afghans fear that sharing power with the Taliban could see a return to the group's obscurantist interpretation of Islamic justice. They are concerned that various freedoms, notably certain women's rights, could be lost.

The Taliban banned women from public life when they were in power in the 1990s, and their punishments included public stoning and amputations.

What if talks don't lead to peace?

Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, there has been a long list of unfulfilled agreements and failed attempts aimed at ending the war in the country.

Several scenarios from the past could be repeated this time round.

A US pullout, with or without a peace deal, might not automatically result in the sudden collapse of the government in Kabul.

The war could continue and the government's survival would largely depend on financial and military assistance from foreign allies, especially the US, and the unity and commitment of the country's political elite.

When Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, the Moscow-backed government in Kabul lasted for three years.

But its collapse in 1992 ushered in a bloody civil war, involving various Afghan factions supported by different regional powers.

If issues are not handled with care now, there is a risk of a re-run of these two scenarios.

The Taliban, who emerged out of the chaos of the civil war, captured Kabul in 1996 and ruled most of Afghanistan until the US-led invasion removed them from power in 2001.

They could try to capture the state again if a deal is not reached this time round, or one fails.

What would chaos look like?

The current peace efforts could see the Taliban participating in a new set-up in Afghanistan.

This would mean the end of fighting and the formation of an inclusive Afghan government - a win-win for Afghans, the US and regional players.

But the alternative is dire - a probable intensification of conflict and instability in a country strategically located in a region with a cluster of major powers including China, Russia, India, Iran and Pakistan.

Another round of chaos could well result in the emergence of new violent extremist groups.

Afghans and the rest of the world would have to deal with a possible security vacuum in which militant groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State found fertile ground.

Increased production of drugs and the overflow of refugees would pose serious challenges not only to Afghanistan but also to the whole region and the rest of the world.

How could it be avoided?

History shows that starting negotiations and signing deals does not guarantee that conflicts will be peacefully resolved.

These steps are only the beginning of a complicated and challenging process - implementation of what's on paper is even more important.

The biggest challenge for Afghanistan would be the creation of verifiable enforcement mechanisms in any post-deal scenario.

Given the history of conflict in the country, the current opportunity could be easily squandered if the process is taken in the wrong direction by one or more of the local or foreign actors.

Therefore, a framework involving the region and the key international players is needed to co-ordinate efforts for peace and deter and prevent spoilers from sabotaging the process.

There's a rare opportunity to resolve four decades of war - handle it with care, or risk facing the consequences.

The Taliban delegation features the "Guantanamo Five" - former high-ranking officials captured after the fall of the regime and held for nearly 13 years in the controversial US detention camp.

They were sent to Qatar in a 2014 prisoner exchange involving Bowe Bergdahl, the US soldier captured by insurgents in 2009.

They are (clockwise from top left in photo above):

  • Mohammad Fazl - the Taliban's deputy defence minister during the US military campaign in 2001
  • Mohammad Nabi Omari - said to have close links to the Haqqani militant network
  • Mullah Norullah Noori - a senior Taliban military commander and a former provincial governor
  • Khairullah Khairkhwa - served as a Taliban interior minister and governor of Herat, Afghanistan's third largest city
  • Abdul Haq Wasiq - the Taliban's deputy head of intelligence

Leading the delegation will be Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, a senior Taliban figure who was until recently the head of the group's political office in Qatar.

In an interview with the BBC in February, he said a ceasefire would not be agreed until all foreign forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan.

Also present in Qatar will be Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban's deputy head and one of the groups' co-founders, who was released from prison in Pakistan last October after spending nearly nine years in captivity.

Meanwhile, US special representative for Afghanistan's reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, is touring the region for consultations ahead of the next session of peace talks in Qatar. In January, he said "significant progress" had been made.

ruby Posted on April 03, 2019 11:50

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Fraser Anning: Australian MP censured for 'appalling' Christchurch remarks

The Australian Senate has formally censured a lawmaker who sparked outrage by blaming the New Zealand mosque attacks on Muslim migration.

Senator Fraser Anning, a far-right independent, made his comments on the day of the shootings in Christchurch which killed 50 people last month.

On Wednesday, lawmakers from across the political spectrum condemned his "inflammatory and divisive" remarks.

Mr Anning said the censure was "an attack on free speech".

The reprimand, the fifth to be passed by the Senate in the past decade, stated that Mr Anning's remarks last month did not reflect the views of the parliament or the Australian people.

He had said: "The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program that allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place."

His comments were "shameful" and "appalling", other lawmakers told the Senate. The censure read that Mr Anning had sought to "attribute blame to victims of a horrific crime and to vilify people on the basis of religion".

Though it carries no practical punishment, the censure is seen as an official condemnation. Lawmakers cannot be expelled from the parliament unless they are dual citizens, bankrupt, hold other offices, or have been convicted of an offence, constitutional law experts say.

Only one senator, Cory Bernardi, voted against the motion on Wednesday. Three others including Mr Anning abstained.

Mr Anning entered parliament in 2017 as a replacement for a disqualified senator, despite receiving just 19 votes in the 2016 election.

Last year he also drew condemnation for using the words "final solution" - a term invoked during the Holocaust - while calling for race-based immigration restrictions.

More than 1.4 million people signed a petition demanding Mr Anning's resignation in the days following his comments on 15 March.

At the time, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called his remarks "a disgrace".

In one highly publicised incident, a teenage protester squashed an egg on the senator's head during a press briefing.

Mr Anning has repeatedly defended his comments. He left the Senate on Wednesday before the motion was passed.

Government Senate leader Mathias Cormann said Mr Anning's comments were "sadly made worse given [his] position in this parliament".

Labor Senator Penny Wong said there was "a difference between freedom of speech and hate speech", adding: "While those injured were being treated, this senator sought to further fan the flames of division."

ruby Posted on April 03, 2019 11:45

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Najib 1MDB trial: Malaysia ex-PM faces court in global financial scandal

Malaysia's former Prime Minister Najib Razak has gone on trial for his role in a financial scandal that has sent shockwaves around the world.

He faces seven charges in the first of several criminal cases accusing him of pocketing $681m (£522m) from the sovereign wealth fund 1MDB.

Mr Najib pleaded not guilty to all the charges on Wednesday.

The 1MDB fund was designed to boost Malaysia's economy through strategic investments.

But instead it allegedly funded lavish lifestyles, a Hollywood film and a super-yacht.

A group of supporters met Mr Najib as he arrived at the court in Kuala Lumpur. They stood and prayed with him before he entered the building to chants of "Long live Najib".

Mr Najib's lawyers made a last-minute bid to delay proceedings but the judge ruled against them.

In the prosecution's opening statement, Malaysia's Attorney-General Tommy Thomas said the "near absolute power" Mr Najib had wielded carried with it "enormous responsibility".

"The accused is not above the law," he added.

While the former prime minister faces several criminal cases, Wednesday's trial is the first major trial in the scandal.

Proceedings were originally set to begin on 12 February, but were delayed for related appeals to be heard.

Malaysia's government has also filed criminal charges against Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs, accusing the investment bank of defrauding investors by raising money for 1MDB.

The bank has denied all wrongdoing and said it would "vigorously defend the charges".

Mr Najib is facing 42 charges in total, mostly linked to 1MDB.

The first of several trials begins on Wednesday, centring on the allegations that 42m Malaysian ringgit ($10.3m; £7.9m) was transferred from SRC International, a unit of 1MDB, into Mr Najib's personal bank accounts.

The case involves three counts of money laundering, three of criminal breach of trust and one of abuse of power. Mr Najib has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The money involved in this particular trial is thought to be in addition to the $681m that allegedly ended up in his personal accounts.

Mr Najib set up the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fund in 2009, while he was prime minister, to aid the nation's economic development.

In 2015, questions were raised around its activities after it missed payments owed to banks and bondholders.

The US, one of the countries probing global money laundering, started an investigation saying $4.5bn had been diverted into private pockets.

US prosecutors had previously said a person described as "Malaysian Official 1" had allegedly received $681m from 1MDB. That person was later confirmed to be Mr Najib.

Prosecutors said the money had been used to fund a lavish lifestyle for the former PM and his wife Rosmah Mansor, who is also facing charges of corruption.

Mr Najib was cleared of all wrongdoing by Malaysian authorities while he was prime minister.

Nonetheless, the corruption allegations played a big part in his historic election defeat in 2018 - and the new government swiftly reopened investigations into 1MDB.

Police said they had recovered luxury goods and cash from Mr Najib's properties, and he was arrested by anti-corruption authorities before being freed on bail.

Another target of the investigation is Malaysian businessman Low Taek Jho - known as Jho Low - who played a key role behind the scenes in 1MDB's dealings.

He is accused of diverting money to himself and his associates, but has also consistently denied any wrongdoing. His location is unknown.

His infamous $250m luxury super-yacht Equanimity, allegedly purchased with money taken from the fund, was confiscated by authorities in 2018.

On Wednesday a court approved its sale for $126m to casino company Genting Malaysia, the Malaysian attorney general said, making it the largest amount of money the country has managed to recover from the 1MDB losses.

At least six countries including Singapore and the US have launched money laundering and corruption investigations into 1MDB.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs is one of the biggest players embroiled in the scandal.

Malaysia's government has filed criminal charges against the bank, accusing it of helping to misappropriate money intended for the fund.

Tim Leissner, who served as Goldman Sachs's South East Asia chairman, pleaded guilty to participating in bribery and money laundering schemes.

Goldman Chief Executive David Solomon apologised to the Malaysian people for Leissner's role in the scandal, but said the bank had been deceived about the details of the deal.

"We believe these charges are misdirected, will vigorously defend them and look forward to the opportunity to present our case," the bank said in response to the charges.


ruby Posted on April 03, 2019 11:42

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Brunei implements stoning to death under new anti-LGBT laws

Brunei is introducing strict new Islamic laws that make anal sex and adultery offences punishable by stoning to death.

The new measures, that come into force on Wednesday, also cover a range of other crimes including punishment for theft by amputation.

The move has sparked international condemnation.

Brunei's gay community has expressed shock and fear at the "medieval punishments".

"You wake up and realise that your neighbours, your family or even that nice old lady that sells prawn fritters by the side of the road doesn't think you're human, or is okay with stoning," one Bruneian gay man, who did not want to be identified, told the BBC.

The sultan of the small south-east Asian nation on Wednesday called for "stronger" Islamic teachings.

"I want to see Islamic teachings in this country grow stronger," Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah said at a public address, according to AFP news agency, without mentioning the new laws.

Homosexuality was already illegal in Brunei and punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Muslims make up about two-thirds of the country's population of 420,000. Brunei has retained the death penalty but has not carried out an execution since 1957.

What is punishable under the changes to the penal code?

The law mostly applies to Muslims, including children who have reached puberty, though some aspects will apply to non-Muslims.

Individuals who have not reached puberty but are convicted of certain offences may be instead subjected to whipping.

What has global reaction been?

Sultan Hassanal heads the Brunei Investment Agency, which owns some of the world's top hotels including the Dorchester in London and the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles.

Brunei's ruling royals possess a huge private fortune and its largely ethnic-Malay residents enjoy generous state handouts and pay no taxes.

But Hollywood actor George Clooney and other celebrities have now called for a boycott of the luxury hotels. TV host Ellen DeGeneres also called for people to "rise up", saying "we need to do something now".

A honorary degree awarded by the UK's University of Aberdeen to Sultan Hassanal is also under review now.

Is this the first time Islamic law is being introduced in Brunei?

The country first introduced Sharia law in 2014 despite widespread condemnation, giving it a dual legal system with both Sharia and Common Law. The sultan had said then that the new penal code would come into full force over several years.

The first phase, which covered crimes punishable by prison sentences and fines, was implemented in 2014. Brunei had then delayed introducing the final two phases, which cover crimes punishable by amputation and stoning.

But on Saturday, the government released a statement on its website saying the Sharia penal code would be fully implemented on Wednesday.

In the days since, there has been international outrage and calls for the country to reverse course.

"These abusive provisions received widespread condemnation when plans were first discussed five years ago," said Rachel Chhoa-Howard, a Brunei researcher at Amnesty International.

"Brunei's penal code is a deeply flawed piece of legislation containing a range of provisions that violate human rights."

The United Nations echoed the statement, calling the legislation "cruel, inhuman and degrading", saying it marked a "serious setback" for human rights protection.

There are several theories, but Matthew Woolfe, founder of human rights group The Brunei Project, said it could be linked to Brunei's weakening economy.

"One theory is that it is a way for the government to strengthen its hold on power in the face of a declining economy that could potentially lead to some unrest in future," Mr Woolfe told the BBC.

"Connected to this is [Brunei's] interest in attracting more investment from the Muslim world, along with more Islamic tourists… this could be seen as one way of appealing to this market."

Mr Woolfe also added that the government might have hoped to get away with the latest roll-out without anyone realising.

"I think that the government did want to ensure that the international uproar that followed implementation of the first phase in 2014 had well and truly died down before further [implementation], in the hope it would just quietly [do so] without anyone realising," he said.

"It wasn't until increasing international attention that it finally came out and confirmed [this]."

The penal code changes were posted on the attorney general's website in December but only came to public attention in late March. There was no public announcement.

One 40-year-old gay Bruneian currently seeking asylum in Canada, said the impact of the new penal code was already being felt in Brunei.

The ex-government employee, who left Brunei last year after being charged with sedition for a Facebook post that was critical of the government, said people were "afraid".

"The gay community in Brunei has never been open but when Grindr (a gay dating app) came that helped people meet in secret. But now, what I've heard is that hardly anyone is using Grindr anymore," Shahiran S Shahrani Md told the BBC.

"They're afraid that they might talk to a police officer pretending to be gay. It hasn't happened yet but because of the new laws, people are afraid," he said.

Another male Bruneian, who is not gay but has renounced Islam, said he felt "fearful and numb" in the face of the laws being implemented.

"We ordinary citizens are powerless to stop Sharia law from being implemented," said the 23-year-old who did not want to be identified.

"Under Sharia, I would face the death penalty for apostasy."

One gay man was hopeful that the laws may not actually be enforced widely.

"Honestly, I'm not too scared as the government here often bluffs with the harsh punishments. But it can and will still happen even with it being rare."

ruby Posted on April 03, 2019 11:34

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Michelle Williams Says Mark Wahlberg Pay Gap Row Left Her 'Paralysed With Feelings Of Futility'

Michelle Williams has spoken about the pay gap row she inadvertently became embroiled in last year.

Michelle and Mark Wahlberg were required to reshoot scenes in All The Money In The World, when Christopher Plummer was brought in to replace departing lead actor Kevin Spacey.

It was then discovered that Michelle’s co-star was earning far more than her for reshoots, taking home an extra $1.5 million, while Michelle was reportedly paid less than $1000.

Delivering a speech in Washington DC on Equal Pay Day, Michelle said that she’d been left feeling “paralysed in feelings of futility” by the debacle.

She said (via The Independent): “In late 2017, the news broke that I’d been paid less than $1,000 compared to the $1.5 million that my male counterpart had received for the exact same amount of work. And guess what? No-one cared.

“This came as no surprise to me, it simply reinforced my life-learned belief that equality is not an inalienable right and that women would always be working just as hard for less money while shouldering more responsibility at home.

“I’ve been a working actress since the age of 12. I’ve been accredited by my industry at the highest levels and that still didn’t translate to equal compensation.”

In the wake of the controversy, Mark donated his entire reshoots paycheck to the Time’s Up fund.

The Time’s Up fund was set up following the rise of the Me Too movement in 2017, with money raised going towards legal aid for those who have experienced sexual misconduct, particularly harassment in the workplace.

Michelle has been among the most vocal high-profile supporters of Time’s Up, and attended the Golden Globes with its founder, Tarana Burke, last year.


ruby Posted on April 03, 2019 11:30

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'Celebrity Bake Off': Greg Wise stuns with hidden baking talents while Caroline Flack has viewers crying with laughter


The Great Celebrity Bake Off has saved its best contestant until last, with a baker so good he could have taken part in the main series.

Actor Greg Wise was such an obvious winner from the moment he entered the tent and announced he’d made his own jam with fruit from his garden that the contest may as well have been called off then and there.

But at the other end of the scale, TV presenter Caroline Flack had such a kitchen nightmare that her biscuit self-portrait left viewers crying with laughter.

Usually, all four celebrity bakers make a series of disastrous creations before one stumbles towards a win with something slightly more edible than their rivals’ offerings, but in the final episode of the series we saw a genuine baking talent emerge.


Judge Paul Hollywood told Wise in the Showstopper: “You don’t bake much? You should, because you’ve got a real talent for food obviously, and that is exceptional.”

Wise impressed with a nut cake embellished with homemade jam in the Signature, a winning Technical where the bakers were tasked with making choux pastry swans, and a stacked biscuit model of himself in the Showstopper that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the normal series of Bake Off.

However, Wise’s talents were emphasised by him going up against novices Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Caroline Flack and Nicola Adams.

Guru-Murthy and Adams managed some delicious but messy-looking treats, although Guru-Murthy’s efforts weren’t helped by presenter Sandi Toksvig, who tried to help him turn his Signature Bake and ended up breaking the cake into crumbs.

Flack struggled with everything from remembering to put ingredients in her cake to keeping the mixing bowl from flying across the room.

Her biscuit self-portrait was a sight to behold and will possibly be even more memorable than Wise’s, but for all the wrong reasons.

Despite her lack of baking talent, Flack has to be the only baker ever to have found time to do her hair and make-up in the tent.

The episode also included an emotional plea from Davina McCall to remember the cause that it was in aid of – Stand Up To Cancer – with a sobering reminder of the serious side behind the popular show.

Wise joins the ranks of Russell Brand, Michelle Keegan, Jess Phillips and Joe Wilkinson as the champions of the 2019 contest.

ruby Posted on April 03, 2019 11:06

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Doctor Who star Pearl Mackie returns in BBC podcast sci-fi thriller Forest 404

The BBC is to launch an innovative sci-fi podcast series, featuring Doctor Who star Pearl Mackie, which imagines a world in which the world’s forests have been erased from history.

Created by Radio 4 as a 27-episode narrative, Forest 404 is the BBC’s most ambitious podcast to date.

It is accompanied by a national experiment looking at how listening to natural sounds could boost well-being and a factual guide to story’s environmental themes will be available alongside each episode.

Podcasts seeking under-35s

The BBC is targeting funds at podcasts, delivered through the BBC Sounds app, as a way of reaching listeners under 35 who have not caught the radio listening bug.

Some Radio 4 staff have complained that the move is leaving traditional programmes under-resourced.

The BBC said Forest 404 would deliver “a new listening experience to draw the audience deeper into the world of the podcast.”

Available as a BBC Sounds box set from Thursday, the project centres on a sci-fi thriller story, set in the 24th Century.

Eerie soundscape

Mackie, who starred as Bill Potts in Doctor Who, voices Pan, a sound archivist who uncovers recordings from the early 21st century that haunt her.

Forest explorer Mackie. who played Bill Potts in Doctor Who (BBC)

They are recordings of rainforests, places which no longer exist, and Pan feels compelled to hunt down the truth about how the forests of the old world died.

Written by Timothy X Atack, a Bruntwood Prize for playwriting winner, Forest 404 features an all-female cast including Bodyguard actress Pippa Haywood and Tanya Moodie (Sherlock).

'Why listen to trees?'

An “experimental immersive 3D soundscape” provides the backdrop to each episode, whilst real-life musicians, biofuturists, bioethicists and anthropologists explore questions such as “Why should I listen to trees?” and “Would you vote for an AI government?”.

Rhian Roberts, Radio 4 Digital Commissioner for Radio 4, said: “Podcasting gives us the chance to play with sound and form away from the classic radio schedule, it allows the whole shape and format of Forest 404 to be genuinely experimental.”

She added: “Podcasts also have that ability to pull us into a very close relationship with a story, we wanted the layered approach to draw listeners even more deeply into this twisted futuristic world.”


ruby Posted on April 03, 2019 10:58

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What's the new weapon against money laundering gangsters?

Money laundering accounts for up to 5% of global GDP - or $2tn (£1.5tn) - every year, says the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. So banks and law enforcement agencies are turning to artificial intelligence (AI) to help combat the growing problem. But will it work?

Money laundering, so-called after gangster Al Capone's practice of hiding criminal proceeds in cash-only laundromats in the 1920s, is a huge and growing problem.

"Dirty" money is "cleaned" by passing it through layers of seemingly legitimate banks and businesses and using it to buy properties, businesses, expensive cars, works of art - anything that can be sold on for new cash.

And one of the ways criminals do this is called "smurfing".

Specialist software is used to arrange lots of tiny bank deposits that slip below the radar, explains Mark Gazit, chief executive of ThetaRay, a financial crime AI provider headquartered in Israel.

"A $0.25 transaction will never be spotted by a human, but transactions of that kind can launder $30m if they are done hundreds of millions of times," he says.

And stolen money is often laundered to fund further criminal activity. One recent ATM (cash machine) scam cost banks €1bn (£854m) in total across 40 countries, for example.

"The gang hacked into thousands of ATMs and programmed them to release up to five notes at a certain time - say 3am - at which point a local criminal or 'money mule' would pick it up," says Mr Gazit.

"The money was then converted into Bitcoin and used to fund human trafficking."

"Money mules" are often recruited to launder this gang cash through their legitimate bank accounts in return for a fee.

"Estimates suggest that not even 1% of criminal funds flowing through the international financial system is confiscated," says Colin Bell, group head of financial crime risk at HSBC.

And the problem seems to be getting worse, despite tightening regulations.

In the UK alone, financial crime Suspicious Activity Reports increased by 10% in 2018, according to the National Crime Agency.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) told the BBC it was working on "applied technical enhancements" to its armoury of crime-fighting tools to help it keep up with advances in financial tech, but remains understandably tight-lipped on the details.

However, other organisations are openly talking about their use of AI to fight the money launderers.

"AI that applies 'machine learning' can sift through vast quantities of transactions quickly and effectively," explains HSBC's Mr Bell.

"This could be a vital tool for pinpointing suspicious activity."

For this reason, AI is good at spotting smurfing attempts and accounts that are set up remotely by bots rather than humans, for example.

And it can also spot suspicious behaviour by corrupt insiders - a key element in many money laundering operations.

"Using AI removes much of the risk of people deliberately overlooking suspicious activity," says Adam Williamson, head of professional standards at the UK's Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) - a professional body tasked with helping accountants avoid money laundering.

Many of the world's biggest banks have been embroiled in money laundering scandals in recent years.

Earlier this year, Swiss banking giant UBS was hit with a €3.7bn (£3.2bn) fine after being found guilty of helping wealthy clients in France hide billions of euros from tax authorities and launder the proceeds. It is appealing against the decision.

Last year, Dutch bank ING paid out €775 million for failing to stop criminals laundering money through its accounts.

And Danske Bank's boss was forced to quit over a €200bn money laundering scandal involving its Estonian branch.

In Latvia, too, the country's third largest bank ABLV Bank AS, was wound up after US authorities accused it of large-scale money laundering that had enabled its clients to violate nuclear weapons sanctions against North Korea.

AI can crunch mountains of data in real time - emails, phone calls, expense reports - and spot patterns of behaviour humans might not notice across a global banking group.

Once the system has learned legitimate behaviour patterns it can then more easily spot dodgy activity and learn from that.

Regulators around the world are encouraging the new technology, perhaps in acknowledgement that they are losing the battle.

US Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) director Kenneth A. Blanco says: "Financial institutions have been improving their ability to identify customers and monitor transactions by experimenting with artificial intelligence and machine learning.

"FinCEN encourages these and other financial services-related innovations."

AI tech firms, such as ThetaRay, LexisNexis Risk Solutions and Refinitiv, are offering businesses tools to tackle money laundering, but there are concerns that this presents its own problems.

"If organisations are buying AI off the shelf, how can they convince regulators they are in control of it?" asks the AAT's Adam Williamson.

And as good as AI might be at spotting anomalies when sifting through huge swathes of data, it is only as effective as the data it is fed.

So there is a growing recognition of the need for banks, financial institutions, governments, and law enforcement agencies to share more information.

"Europol is designed to operate in partnership with law enforcement agencies, governmental departments and other stakeholders," says the agency's deputy executive director Wil van Gemert.

"We embrace the idea of collective intelligence."

Mark Hayward, a member of the UK's new Economic Crime Strategic Board, set up in January, says: "Data sharing is one of our main priorities".

And legislation has to keep up with the latest trends in financial services that criminals can exploit.

The terrorists behind the 2016 Nice truck attack, for example, paid for the vehicles by pre-paid card to take advantage of the anonymity these cards afford the user.

This is why the European Union's fifth Anti-Money Laundering Directive introduced last year includes digital currencies and prepaid cards for the first time.

Given that the criminals appear to be winning, any tools that can help tackle the problem must surely be welcome.

ruby Posted on April 02, 2019 13:12

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French link duck salad to deaths at care home

A contaminated salad containing duck meat is suspected of having killed five residents of a care home for the elderly in southern France.

Four women and a man, aged from 76 to 95, died after eating the salad on Sunday night. In all, 20 people at the home near Toulouse suffered vomiting and other symptoms of food poisoning.

Twelve of those taken ill are in hospital, but not in grave danger.

The salad ingredients, including duck foie gras (pâté), are being examined.

Prosecutors have put the suspicious ingredients under lock and key, as they prepare possible manslaughter charges against the management.

French media report that the privately-run home - La Chêneraie, in rural Lherm - passed a hygiene inspection in February.

A granddaughter of one victim told the local daily La Dépêche du Midi: "I've still got the menu in my bag and I know that last night they ate Périgord salad. So what does that mean? Maybe it was the foie gras?"

The cause of death is not yet official, as the results of post mortems are awaited.

One of the victims, 93-year-old Antoinette, had Alzheimer's.

The home has 82 residents and was opened in 2006. Korian group, which manages it, says meals are prepared in the home's kitchen - not delivered from outside.

But Alain Lepeyre, whose mother was among the five who died, said the meals had been brought in. He said a doctor at the home had told him that.

A woman called Chantal, whose parents are at the home but did not fall ill, said special meals were prepared for certain residents - and that was apparently the case in Sunday's fatal incident.

The tragedy in Lherm has fuelled a French debate about the state of retirement homes - there have been many complaints of understaffing and poor quality of care.

The government is reviewing provision for the elderly, including care home jobs, and aims to create 80,000 extra posts in care homes - that is, 25% more - by 2024.

ruby Posted on April 02, 2019 13:06

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North Macedonia deal: Greek PM Tsipras in 'historic' visit

For the first time since Greece's northern neighbour became independent in 1991, a Greek leader has visited the newly renamed North Macedonia.

PM Alexis Tsipras completed a deal in January to end their three-decade name row, and the two countries are now seeking to boost their relations.

Counterpart Zoran Zaev greeted him with a selfie outside government buildings.

"The first prime minister of Greece to visit North Macedonia. Truly historic day," he wrote on Twitter.

The Greek prime minister was accompanied by 10 ministers and more than 100 business leaders.

Tweeting the selfie, Mr Zaev referred to "happy moments for an even happier future for the peoples of our friendly countries".

The two men signed a series of agreements before holding a joint news conference, in which Mr Zaev spoke of his opposite number as a "close, personal friend".

Greece had always objected to its neighbour's use of "Macedonia", because of the northern Greek province of the same name.

Under last summer's Prespa accord, the two countries agreed that the Balkan state would become the Republic of North Macedonia, in return for Greece backing its long-stalled bids to join Nato and the European Union.

The deal came into force in February, after ratification by both parliaments, and North Macedonia hopes to join the Western military alliance soon.

Arriving in Skopje, Mr Tsipras said the "historic visit" began by crossing the Friendship motorway, whose name was changed from Alexander of Macedonia motorway in February 2018 as part of efforts to improve relations.

Greeks long accused their neighbours of trying to appropriate the ancient heritage of Alexander and of having territorial ambitions.

Mr Zaev said there would be big economic benefits from the deal with Greece.

The two leaders convened the first co-operation council between the neighbours and they agreed to open a second border crossing. Under the deal, a joint committee of experts has been formed to assess possible bias in school textbooks, and Mr Tsipras said their consultations had ended in a positive manner.

Ahead of his arrival, Mr Tsipras gave an interview with North Macedonian media in which he acknowledged that "a significant portion of the Greek people was and still is seriously concerned about this issue".

An opinion poll late last month suggested 73% of Greeks "probably disagreed" with the Prespa agreement.

He said he and Mr Zaev had a responsibility to show how both countries could build mutual trust and benefit from the new deal.

Both leaders have endured difficult political opposition at home.

Mr Tsipras faces elections later this year, with conservative leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis backing Greeks in the Macedonia region who he said felt humiliated by the agreement.

Mr Zaev has himself been bitterly criticised by President Gjorge Ivanov.

ruby Posted on April 02, 2019 13:04

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UK ski instructor pleads guilty to rape in Australia

A British ski instructor has pleaded guilty to raping a woman and punching and kicking her friend in what police called a "horrendous" attack in Australia.

The assaults happened last July in the resort town of Jindabyne, about 180km (110 miles) south of Canberra.

CCTV footage showed Matthew James Williams, now 29, following the woman and man after they left a pub at night.

Mr Williams then knocked the man unconscious before attacking the woman.

Both victims suffered injuries which were so severe that police initially suspected there had been multiple attackers.

However, Mr Williams - a ski resort employee - was arrested five days later and named the sole suspect.

According to court documents cited by local media, Mr Williams repeatedly punched and kicked the 25-year-old man after confronting his victims on a street.

He then punched the 22-year-old woman in the face, causing her to black out. When she regained consciousness, Mr Williams raped her, and hit her several times to prevent her from escaping, police said.

Mr Williams fled the scene after the male victim regained consciousness and ran to get help from a passing car.

The ski instructor was arrested after his DNA and watch were found at the scene, police said.

Mr Williams pleaded guilty on Tuesday to charges of aggravated sexual assault, inflicting actual bodily harm with intent to have sexual intercourse with another, and possessing a prohibited drug.

He will be sentenced in May.

ruby Posted on April 02, 2019 12:55

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Daphne Dunne: Australian Prince Harry superfan dies at 99

A woman who possibly was Australia's biggest fan of the British royals has died at the age of 99, just days after receiving a birthday card from Prince Harry and his wife Meghan.

Daphne Dunne passed away peacefully on Monday, her family said.

She featured heavily in Harry's Australia trips and has pictures on Instagram of several encounters with the prince in recent years.

The widow said she'd had "a very special friendship" with the prince.

Just days ago, she received a birthday card from the couple.

"Dear Daphne, my wife and I send our warmest wishes to you on the occasion of your 99th birthday on Friday," the Duke and Duchess of Sussex wrote, according to Australian media, signing the card simply "Harry and Meghan".

Australia is a federal parliamentary constitutional monarchy, with the Queen as head of state.

Her Instagram account is full of pictures showing her with Prince Harry, with the caption to a 2015 photo saying "the very first time our eyes met, I knew this was the start of something very special".

During the 2018 Australia visit by the prince and his wife, Ms Dunne was among the cheering crowds and again was picked out and greeted warmly by the two celebrity visitors.

The old lady was enthusiastic about the newly-weds, saying Meghan was "just what the prince needs".

The duchess told her at the time she was "so glad I got to meet you. Harry has told me all about you and your special bond, it's so lovely you came to see us, thank you".

Speaking afterwards, Ms Dunne said: "It was lovely to meet the duchess, Meghan. Harry is a wonderful man and I'm so happy he had found happiness, they both deserve the absolute world together."

Her first husband, Lieutenant Albert Chowne, died in 1945 during fighting in Papua New Guinea and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, which Mrs Dunne was wearing when she first met Harry in 2015.

Her family wrote on Ms Dunne's Instagram account that "she was a truly special lady who will be greatly missed by so many".

ruby Posted on April 02, 2019 12:53

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Max Clifford: Convictions upheld against late publicist

A conviction for sex offences against celebrity publicist Max Clifford has been upheld by the Court of Appeal.

Clifford died in 2017 while serving an eight-year jail term for indecent assaults on four young women and girls.

He had always maintained his innocence - and his daughter had continued to try to clear his name after his death.

But, ruling on Tuesday, Lady Justice Rafferty said nothing the judges heard "came anywhere near imperilling the safety of this conviction".

Clifford, from Hersham in Surrey, was jailed in May 2014 after being convicted of a string of indecent assaults carried out between 1977 and 1984.

He branded his accusers "fantasists", but was convicted at London's Southwark Crown Court.

Before he died after suffering heart failure at the age of 74, Clifford won the right for his fight to overturn his conviction to be heard at the Court of Appeal.

His daughter Louise continued the challenge after his death but, after scrutinising the case against him in March, the Court of Appeal comprehensively rejected it on all grounds.

When sentencing Clifford after his 2014 trial, Judge Anthony Leonard said his personality and position in the public eye were the reasons his crimes were not revealed earlier.

ruby Posted on April 02, 2019 12:49

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James Corden says 'chubby' actors are shut out of romantic roles

James Corden has criticised the exclusion of "chubby" people in films and on TV, saying they "never really fall in love... never have sex".

Speaking on David Tennant's podcast, the TV host added that "certainly no-one ever finds you attractive" on screen if you are a larger size.

He added that those actors are, at best, cast as the "good" and funny friend of someone who is attractive.

Corden said being excluded from roles spurred him on to write Gavin & Stacey.

He said: "I had no idea if I'd be able to write. It came about because I had done a film with Shane Meadows, I'd done a Mike Leigh film and done Fat Friends on ITV.

"And now I was in this play, which was the play to see [The History Boys]. And I was in this play with seven other boys who were at a similar age and a similar place in our careers.

"And pretty much every day, three or four of these boys would come in with this massive film script under their arm."

He was offered "the hottest script" along with two other History Boys actors, he explained.

"They both got sent the script [for the lead roles] and I got sent just two pages to play a newsagent at the start of this film.

"I really felt like people were going, 'We think you're quite good. It's just because of what you look like.'

"If you only watch television or films, if an alien came back and they had to take a reading on planet Earth by just watching films or TV, they would imagine that if you are chubby or fat or big, you never really fall in love, you never have sex.

"Certainly no-one really ever finds you attractive. You will be good friends with people who are attractive and often will be a great sense of comfort to them and perhaps chip in with the odd joke every now and again."

He added: "It felt like if the world of entertainment was a big banquet table, people are like, 'There isn't a seat for you here.'

"I was like, 'If that's not going to happen then I'm going to try to make something happen for myself'."

Corden went on to write and star in the hit BBC sitcom Gavin & Stacey with Ruth Jones and now hosts The Late Late Show on CBS.

He has previously touched on his frustrations on the way Hollywood represents larger people.

In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 2016, he said: "I could never understand when I watched romantic comedies. The notion that for some reason unattractive or heavy people don't fall in love.

"If they do, it's in some odd, kooky, roundabout way - and it's not. It's exactly the same."

ruby Posted on April 02, 2019 12:46

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Rolling Stones tour 'to resume in July'

The Rolling Stones' US tour is likely to take place in July, following news that Mick Jagger had to postpone 17 dates due to ill health.

The band are working with promoters to reschedule the shows, amid reports that Jagger will have heart surgery later this week.

"I really hate letting you down like this," tweeted the star after the tour was postponed at the weekend.

"I will be working very hard to be back on stage as soon as I can."

US gossip website Drudge Report was the first to report that Jagger would need surgery to replace a heart valve. The story was subsequently confirmed by US music magazine Rolling Stone.

The 75-year-old is expected to make a full recovery and return to touring this summer.

"We're beginning to look at the rescheduling options and we're going to try and do this as quickly as we can," said John Meglen, of the Stones' promoters Concerts West.

"Everyone's health and happiness comes first," he told Billboard, adding that new dates could be announced "in the next couple of weeks."

The US leg of the band's No Filter tour was expected to kick off in Miami's Hard Rock Stadium on 20 April; wrapping up two months later in Ontario, Canada.

Fellow Stone Keith Richards tweeted following the postponement, "A big disappointment for everyone but things need to be taken care of and we will see you soon. Mick, we are always there for you!"

Band-mate Ronnie Wood added, "We'll miss you over the next few weeks, but we're looking forward to seeing you all again very soon. Here's to Mick - thanks for your supportive messages. It means so much to us."

Although the main shows will all be rescheduled, the band's headline performance at the New Orleans Jazz Festival has been cancelled, with organisers currently seeking a replacement.

ruby Posted on April 02, 2019 12:38

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US Supreme Court rules inmate has 'no right to painless death'

The US Supreme Court has ruled that a convicted murderer on death row in Missouri has no right to a "painless death".

The ruling clears the way for the execution of Russell Bucklew, who asked for gas rather than lethal injection, citing an unusual medical condition.

Bucklew, 50, argued the state's preferred method amounts to legally banned "cruel and unusual punishment".

The 5-4 ruling split along the court's ideological lines.

Bucklew was sentenced to death in 1996 for rape, murder and kidnapping in an attack against his ex-girlfriend and her new partner and six-year-old son.

In recent court filings, Bucklew argued that his congenital condition, cavernous hemangioma, might cause him excessive pain if he is put to death by lethal injection.

The condition causes blood-filled tumours in his throat, neck and face, which he said could rupture during his execution causing him extreme pain and suffocation.

According to Bucklew, he would feel excessive pain if the state executioner is allowed to use the state's preferred method of a single drug, pentobarbital, applied by needle.

But the Supreme Court's conservative justices said on Monday they considered the legal effort to be a stalling tactic.

They said it was up to the prisoner to prove that another method of execution would "reduce a substantial risk of severe pain", but he had not done so.

Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch noted that Bucklew had been on death row for more than 20 years.

"The eighth amendment [to the US constitution] forbids 'cruel and unusual' methods of capital punishment but does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death," wrote Justice Gorsuch, who was appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017.

He continued: "As originally understood, the eighth amendment tolerated methods of execution, like hanging, that involved a significant risk of pain, while forbidding as cruel only those methods that intensified the death sentence by 'superadding' terror, pain or disgrace."

Liberals on the court, including Justice Stephen Breyer, argued that Bucklew's condition should have allowed for him to be put to death by nitrogen gas, a method allowed in three states.

"There are higher values than ensuring that executions run on time," wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a separate opinion, adding that secrecy in the death penalty process has recently yielded different results in two similar cases.

In one case in Alabama, a Muslim man was forbidden from having an imam with him during his execution, but the court halted a similar sentence after an appeal by a Buddhist who wanted his spiritual adviser present when he was put to death.

In Justice Gorsuch's majority opinion in the Bucklew case, he referred to those two cases, saying the inmate in Alabama had been given ample time to voice his complaint, but chose to do so only 15 days before he was scheduled to die.


ruby Posted on April 02, 2019 12:34

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Joe Biden: Second woman accuses ex-VP of unwanted touching

A second woman has accused former US Vice-President Joe Biden of inappropriate touching, as the leading Democrat mulls a White House bid.

Amy Lappos said Mr Biden had touched her face with both hands and rubbed noses with her a decade ago.

The allegation comes after another women, Lucy Flores, said Mr Biden kissed her on the back of her head at a campaign event.

Mr Biden has said he did not believe he has ever acted inappropriately.

The former Delaware senator, who served as Barack Obama's vice-president in 2009-17, is seen as a possible frontrunner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Mr Biden and the former president were famed for their strong friendship. They were often seen playing golf and attending sports games together. Mr Biden even said that Mr Obama offered him financial help when his son was ill.

For his vice president's birthday in 2017, Mr Obama posted a photo of the two of them on twitter and said Mr Biden was his "brother and the best vice president anybody could have".

Ms Lappos, a 43-year-old former aide to a Democratic congressman, said Mr Biden touched her inappropriately at a fundraiser in a private home in Hartford, Connecticut, in 2009.

She told the Hartford Courant the then vice-president entered the kitchen to thank a group of aides, before wrapping both hands around Ms Lappos' face and pulling her in to rub noses with her.

Ms Lappos called on Mr Biden not to run for the White House, saying: "Uninvited affection is not okay. Objectifying women is not okay."

Ms Flores' allegations first appeared on Friday in an article she wrote for The Cut magazine.

Ms Flores was running as the Democratic candidate for Nevada's lieutenant governor in 2014 when Mr Biden flew in to support her bid.

As she prepared to go on stage, Ms Flores say Mr Biden placed two hands on her shoulders from behind, smelled her hair then planted "a big slow kiss on the back of my head".

Asked about the new allegation, a spokesman for Mr Biden referred reporters to a statement he issued on Sunday.

"In my many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort. And not once - never - did I believe I acted inappropriately," it read.

"But we have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention. And I will," he added.

On Monday a spokesman also accused "right wing trolls" of presenting harmless images of Mr Biden interacting with women as evidence of inappropriate touching.

A number of candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination have backed Ms Flores.

Senator Elizabeth Warren said Mr Biden "needs to give an answer", and Senator Amy Klobuchar said that in politics "people raise issues and they have to address them".

Some supporters though have defended him. Cynthia Hogan, a former aide to the vice-president, told the New York Times that Mr Biden "treated us with respect and insisted that others do the same".

An ally of Mr Biden told CNN he was not reconsidering a run for the White House following the allegations but stressed he was yet to make a decision.

ruby Posted on April 02, 2019 12:14

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Uncovering Nazi massacre of Jews on Belarus building site

Slowly, gently even, young soldiers scrape away the dirt of decades from human bones. Tangled with the remains are shreds of cloth and the soles of shoes.

They're uncovering a little-known chapter of the Holocaust on a construction site in western Belarus.

The mass grave was discovered as building work began on an elite apartment block.

Since then, specially trained soldiers have unearthed the remains of more than 1,000 Jews, killed when the city of Brest was occupied by Nazi Germany.

"There are clear bullet holes in the skulls," says Dmitry Kaminsky.

His military team usually searches for the bones of Soviet soldiers. Here they have removed the small skulls of teenagers instead, and a female skeleton with the remains of a baby, as if she'd been cradling it.

Before World War Two, almost half the 50,000-strong population of Brest were Jews.

Up to 5,000 men were executed shortly after the German invasion in June 1941.

Those left were later crammed into a ghetto: several blocks of the city centre surrounded by barbed wire.

In October 1942, the order came to wipe them out.

They were herded on to freight trains and driven over 100km (62 miles) to a forest.

At Bronnaya Gora, thousands were led to the edge of a vast pit and shot.

It's thought the grave discovered within the old ghetto includes those who managed to hide at first, only to be rooted out.

"When my parents returned, the city was half empty," Mikhail Kaplan says, flicking through black and white snapshots at his kitchen table.

His mother and father only escaped the massacre because they were away when the Germans overran Brest. Mikhail's photographs are of aunts, uncles and cousins who were all killed.

"My father never spoke about what happened, it was too painful. But my grandmother cried all the time remembering Lizochka, Lizochka," he recalls, reaching for a photograph picture of his Aunt Liza dressed up for a night out with friends.

After the war, though, Mikhail says the Jewish massacre was not commemorated.

"Everyone knew what had happened, but no-one spoke of it officially," he says. "The Germans destroyed us, deliberately. The Soviets just stayed silent."

Even now, the only Holocaust museum in Brest is a room in a basement, curated and run by the small Jewish community that settled in the city after its liberation.

The displays include the miracle stories of the handful of ghetto survivors who hid beneath false floors or behind walls in their houses for months.

There's also a city register kept by the Germans. On 15 October 1942 it records 17,893 Jews in Brest. The next day, that figure is scratched out.

"That's how we know when the ghetto was liquidated," community leader Efim Basin explains.

He had suspected that workers would find some bodies at the construction site, but never so many.

"This only underlines how little we know about our history," he adds.

Efim has been exploring the archives over the years, working to correct that. But witness testimonies are limited. And the fate of the Jews in Belarus has always been merged with the catastrophic losses suffered overall under occupation.

"Officials would repeat the mantra 'Never forget!' about the dead, but the Jewish part was hushed up," Efim recalls. "War memorials were all dedicated to 'Soviet citizens'," he says, calling that part anti-Semitism, part the Soviet stress on "one nation".

"But that was very offensive. The Jews were not killed for resisting the Nazis. They were killed because they were Jews."

Touring the city on foot, Efim points out the many traces of Jewish life at its heart.

They include the main synagogue, with a cylindrical cinema built on top of it in the Soviet years. The original marble walls are still intact inside, too solid to destroy.

The Jewish cemetery, partly demolished by the Nazis, was then finished off by the USSR. The graves were heaped with soil and a sports stadium was installed on top.

The only Holocaust memorial in the city centre was put up by the Jewish community itself and the diaspora.

So they're pushing for a new, official monument now at the execution site. The proposals so far, though, include planting some trees in what will eventually become the garden of the luxury flats.

"Some people say they're building on bones, but that isn't true," Alla Kondak, of the city's culture department insists. "We will only stop [excavation] work once all the remains have been recovered."

Those bones will be reinterred at the city cemetery, along with soil from the site, and Ms Kondak sees no need for more.

"There are graves everywhere here! The Germans shot and buried people on the spot," she argues.

But it seems few locals are aware of the specific fate of the Jews.

"We didn't learn anything at school about the Brest ghetto," two women in their twenties admit sheepishly. "I don't think anyone our age really knows."

"I know nothing about the ghetto or the grave," an older lady says, close to the excavation site, and hurries on.

But as another day's digging there draws to a close, the soldiers emerge from the pit balancing more muddy crates full of bones.

It's a history that becomes harder to ignore, with every fragment recovered from the ground.



ruby Posted on April 01, 2019 10:55

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Dubstep artist Skrillex could protect against mosquito bites

The sun is shining on your skin, there's a breeze in your hair and someone has just handed you a coconut with a straw sticking out of it. This is living.

But just as you start to relax you find yourself clawing at your own skin, scratching at the mosquito bites that have developed on your body over the past few days.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

According to a recent scientific study, the way to avoid mosquito bites is to listen to electronic music - specifically dubstep, specifically by US artist Skrillex.

Sound is "crucial for reproduction, survival, and population maintenance of many animals," says a team of international scientists specialising in mosquitoes and the diseases they carry.

They subjected adults of the species Aedes aegypti, known as the yellow fever mosquito, to electronic music to see whether it could work as a repellent.

Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites, a track by Skrillex which features on his Grammy-award winning album of the same name, was chosen because of its mix of very high and very low frequencies.

"In insects, low-frequency vibrations facilitate sexual interactions, whereas noise disrupts the perception of signals from conspecifics [members of the same species] and hosts," the scientists said.

And the results, which were published in the journal Acta Tropica, were good news for us and for Skrillex.

Female adult mosquitoes were "entertained" by the track and attacked hosts later and less often than those in a dubstep-free environment.

Scientists said "the occurrence of blood feeding activity was lower when music was being played".

The scientists also found that mosquitoes exposed to the song had sex "far less often" than mosquitoes without music.

"The observation that such music can delay host attack, reduce blood feeding, and disrupt mating provides new avenues for the development of music-based personal protective and control measures against Aedes-borne diseases."

So, the next time you're at your wit's end on holiday, scratching up your arms and legs, you know what to hook up to the wireless speaker.

ruby Posted on April 01, 2019 10:34

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Tania Mallet: Goldfinger actress dies aged 77

Actress Tania Mallet, who played Bond girl Tilly Masterson in Goldfinger, has died aged 77.

Mallet, a cousin of Dame Helen Mirren, starred alongside Sean Connery in the 1964 spy film.

The Blackpool-born actress had been working as a model when she was cast by producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli. But it proved to be her only Hollywood role.

Her death was announced via the official 007 Twitter account.

The role ultimately saw her slain on screen by the steel-rimmed hat of Goldfinger's henchman Oddjob, despite Bond's best efforts to save her.

Her appearance reportedly followed a failed audition to land the role of lead Bond girl Tatiana Romanova in 1963's From Russia with Love.

Mallet was related to Dame Helen through her mother, whose younger brother was Dame Helen's father.

Dame Helen's 2007 memoir In the Frame: My Life in Words and Pictures described Mallet as a "loyal and generous person" who helped pay for for her brothers' education with her income as a model.

ruby Posted on April 01, 2019 10:26

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Nipsey Hussle: Tributes to rapper shot dead in Los Angeles

Artists including Drake, Rihanna and J Cole have paid tribute to Los Angeles rapper Nipsey Hussle, who has been shot dead in Los Angeles.

The 33-year-old was gunned down outside his clothing shop.

Drake described him as "a man of respect and a don", while Rihanna wrote on Twitter: "This doesn't make any sense! My spirit is shaken by this!"

Two other people were wounded in the shooting outside Marathon Clothing in south Los Angeles.

Lt Chris Ramierez of the Los Angeles Police Department told media at the scene of the shooting that they were looking for a black male suspect.

Nipsey Hussle's debut album Victory Lap received a nomination for best rap album at this year's Grammy Awards, where he was nominated against Cardi B, Mac Miller, Pusha T and Travis Scott.

Writing on Instagram, Pusha called him a "rare breed" adding: "Sad to see you go Nip, I'm only finding peace in knowing you are blessed... I was honoured to share in such an amazing year with you musically.

"I would gauge everyone's music credibility based on if they mentioned you."

Drake, who won a Grammy on the same night and recorded the 2009 track Killer Nipsey Hussle, also took to Instagram to pay tribute.

"My whole energy is just at a low right now hearing this," he wrote. "We just linked for the first time in years and said we were gonna do a new song this summer cause it had been too long.

"You were having the best run and I was so happy watching from distance fam nobody ever talks down on your name you were a real one to your people and to the rest of us."

Other to pay tribute included rapper J. Cole and producer and artist Pharrell Williams.

Los Angeles Clippers basketball player Montrezl Harrell wrote his own tribute on his trainers to the rapper.

Nipsey Hussle, whose real name was Ermias Davidson Asghedom, grew up in south Los Angeles and was a member of the Rollin' 60s street gang when he was a teenager.

He later became a community organiser, and was involved with the Destination Crenshaw arts project.

"I grew up in gang culture," he told the Los Angeles Times in a 2018 interview. "We dealt with death, with murder. It was like living in a war zone, where people die on these blocks and everybody is a little bit immune to it."

Earlier on Sunday, he had tweeted: "Having strong enemies is a blessing."

ruby Posted on April 01, 2019 10:03

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Dismay after Trump moves to cut aid to Central America

US opposition politicians and aid agencies have questioned a decision by President Donald Trump to cut off aid to three Central American states.

Mr Trump ordered the suspension of aid payments to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to push their governments to stop migration into the US.

Critics say the decision will hurt programmes that already aim to persuade people to stay at home.

Congress may seek to stop the aid being redirected elsewhere.

US officials say the immigration system at the border with Mexico is already at breaking point yet the administration wants to increase the number of asylum seekers sent back over the border fivefold - from 60 a day to 300.

There has been a huge increase in asylum seekers fleeing violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The three nations are where most of the migrants on the US southern border come from.

President Trump has also said he is likely to close the border if Mexico does not do more to stop migrants crossing.

"We are carrying out the President's direction and ending FY [fiscal year] 2017 and FY 2018 foreign assistance programs for the Northern Triangle," a state department spokesperson was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency, declining to give further details.

According to the Washington Post, at stake is nearly $500m (£383m) in 2018 funds plus millions more left over from the previous fiscal year. A Reuters source put the overall figure at about $700m.

In 2017, Guatemala received over $248m while Honduras received $175m and El Salvador $115m.

"I've ended payments to Guatemala, to Honduras and El Salvador," Mr Trump told reporters on Friday.

"No money goes there anymore... We were paying them tremendous amounts of money and we're not paying them any more because they haven't done a thing for us."

Aid advocates argue that the best way to stem migration from the region is to stimulate economic development and reduce violence there, and that it is too early to judge the impact of the aid, which was boosted in 2016 under President Barack Obama.

Cutting off aid is "shooting yourself in the foot", Adriana Beltrán, director of citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America human rights research group, was quoted as saying by the New York Times.

"There are long-term challenges that are going to need a long-term sustainable solution," she added.

"You can have a discussion as to how we can ensure that the aid is effective, that assistance is not going to supporting corrupt governments."

A group of House Democrats visiting El Salvador condemned Mr Trump's move in a joint statement, saying that Mr Trump's approach was "entirely counterproductive".

Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, condemned the "reckless announcement".

The state department said it would "engage Congress in the process", suggesting that lawmakers would need to approve the cuts.

However, according to congressional staffers quoted by the Washington Post, the US president has "some wiggle room to reprogram funds".

Adam Isaacson, a senior official at the Washington Office on Latin America, said presidents had previously shied away from reprogramming money because it irritated lawmakers who could retaliate by declining to fund key administration projects.




ruby Posted on April 01, 2019 09:51

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Is our growing obsession with true crime a problem?

I put my hands up and admit it - I'm an addict.

For reasons even I don't understand, crime documentaries have become my default way to unwind.

If I have friends over, I might make an embarrassed joke about my streaming suggestions - but the evidence suggests I'm not alone.

The genre's growth is inescapable. Almost every week there seems to be a new documentary released and not without controversy.

Some warn we risk glamorising notorious killers and erasing their victims with the coverage. Others have accused programme makers of being selective with evidence.

So is our fascination with true crime problematic? I spoke to victims and the communities directly affected to try and find out.

Kathy Kleiner was only 20 years old when she was attacked by Ted Bundy.

He beat her in bed with a piece of wood in the Chi Omega house at Florida State University in 1978.

Before entering her room, Bundy had murdered two of her sorority sisters as they slept.

Kathy was left with a shattered jaw and severe facial injuries. Her mouth had to be wired shut, forcing her to leave college.

Now 61, Kathy says she hadn't spoken about the experience much until US media recently tracked her down.

This year marks 30 years since Ted Bundy's execution. You can probably tell because the serial killer seems to be everywhere in 2019.

In February it was reported that Netflix had paid millions to secure US rights to a new movie starring heartthrob actor Zac Efron as Bundy.

The announcement came as the trailer caused uproar online, with some accusing it of sexualising the killer.

Netflix, who had also just released a series focusing on interviews with Bundy, even weighed in on social media.

I ask Kathy, as one of a handful of survivors, what it was like to be continually reminded of Bundy in popular culture.

"I did not ask to be put on the journey with him in his life - with his killing and his abuse," she says in a phone interview from New Orleans, where she now lives.

But for her, knowledge has meant power.

"I read every book and saw everything I could read and see about him," she says, while acknowledging others may have coped differently.

Efron has adopted Bundy's curls and signature smile for the role - and bears an uncanny resemblance to the killer.

"When Hollywood makes a movie they want it to sell, they want people to see it," Kathy says about his slick portrayal.

"Bundy showed them what he wanted them to see - he was always in control… Zac Efron - he's playing a part - he's an actor. He's doing this the way he was, the way they perceived Bundy."

Kathy says she attempted to contact the studio when she heard about the production, but assumes the email was lost among general enquiries.

She admits that she can't imagine watching as a relative of one of the 30 women and girls he is known to have killed.

"To me they're the heroes during this, having to endure this publicity," she says.

She hopes the movie reflects the victims more than the trailer alludes.

"I don't know how far they dive into the victims," Kathy says. "So without seeing it and if they don't do the victims right - then maybe I'll be pissed."

Wisconsin has the unenviable reputation of being home to some of America's most notorious ever crimes.

Manitowoc County sits on the state's eastern shore. It houses 80,000 residents but is famous around the world for just one - Steven Avery.

A Netflix series charting Avery's wrongful conviction on sexual assault charges and re-incarceration for murder became a sensation on its December 2015 debut.

Hundreds of thousands of people have since signed petitions demanding his and his nephew's acquittal. A second series has already been released and legal appeals are ongoing.

I travel to Manitowoc at the start of March, when a hangover from an unusually cold winter means snow is still deep on the ground.

Before travelling I try to reach out to local officials - but there seems to be an understandable reluctance to speak to yet another journalist coming to town.

The international spotlight has brought uncomfortable attention to the county and its city namesake.

Now, tourists drive over to the Avery family's Salvage Yard to take selfies. A firefighter tells me the local police have been forced to moderate Facebook comments because of abuse. I'm told threats have forced other officials off social media altogether.

One Manitowoc resident determined not to stay silent is Jason Prigge.

As a businessman working around the country, he says the final straw came when a client introduced himself and asked: "Well, did he do it?" in reference to Avery.

Since then, he and his wife Tina have made it their mission to change the outside world's perspective of Manitowoc. They set up an online web series, The Coolest Coast, to showcase positive aspects of the community like local businesses.

Tina describes the Avery case as a "freak anomaly" and like others I spoke to, points out the Avery property is actually miles outside the city of Manitowoc.

"Reporters come in or somebody from Hollywood comes in to make a show and they get to leave without delving in and really learning who this community is or what it has to offer," Tina says. "To them it's just a name, it's just a story."

"Imagine if you have a bunch of TV crews park outside of your house and they look at your house and they judge you because of one cracked window," Jason says about the negative attention.

"They never talk to people that live in the house, but they just look at the house from the outside."

The couple show me around the area, keen to show it off.

In the cold weather, much of the river is still frozen and has a sparkly glaze. The city's skyline is dominated by industry and a historic courthouse I recognise from the show, but is otherwise full of quaint local businesses like coffee shops and boutiques. It's a postcard image I didn't expect.

They urge people like me not to judge the county and all of its residents from the documentary.

"The cameras and reporters leave but what they've left here is a stain which we're trying to scrub," Jason says of the lasting damage.

Eighty miles south of Manitowoc is Milwaukee - a city known best for its beer and baseball.

But it is also a destination high on the list for America's biggest true crime fanatics.

The Cream City Cannibal tour takes visitors around Walker's Point - the area where serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer lured some of his victims from gay bars.

Its website boasts the tour is "so gruesome that it was banned from Groupon twice".

When it launched, local media covered a protest by victim's families. Critics said it was too soon because the crimes were still in living memory for many.

The tour leaves from Shakers - a bar in the centre of the old gay district. Once owned by the Capone family as a speakeasy and brothel, the location has a dark history of its own.

Current boss Robert Weiss bought it in the 1980s and runs a number of ghost tours from the venue. He says he got the idea for a Dahmer tour when people he met travelling made reference to the killer after he introduced himself as a Milwaukee-native.

Bob also knew the crime well because local police frequented the bar and Dahmer even visited himself.

"I served him drinks for five or six months as he periodically came in," Bob tells me.

About 12 people take the tour on the Saturday night I attend. The weather is freezing cold and it rains and snows throughout.

Those attending are mostly true crime super-fans, but also include a family and a couple celebrating their anniversary.

Our guide talks us through the serial killer's upbringing, alcoholism and journey towards violence.

Dahmer, who admitted killing 17 boys and men, is considered one of the most heinous criminals in US history.

His murders and cannibalism are described in grisly detail by our guide, who points out infamous locations along our walk.

The information is disturbing, but not worse than what you may hear on any Dahmer documentary.

Bob insists the tour has historical and educational value, but I notice his bar also sells T-shirts, which feels at odds with that.

"Of the thousands of shirts that we have sold with that likeness on, have we had anyone complain? We have not," Bob says.

He rejects the assertion they are incendiary, and insists they only started making them because of unprecedented customer demand.

"I think if you are talking about things that are in poor taste, there's any number of other things that would go above and behind what the shirt is," he says, pointing to people who buy morbid artefacts like Charles Manson's artwork.

He also says that he rejected other bad-taste merchandise options, like cannibal-themed food.

Those attending the tour reject the assertion that it's in bad taste or comes too soon.

"I've always grown up knowing about it," says one tour-goer named Alex who is in his 20s. "I think it's just part of our history and rather than hide it and keep it in the background, I think it's important for people to know about it so they can try and avoid it in the future."

Another, Melissa from Illinois, had already been on the tour before.

"I don't think it's disrespectful to the families," she says. "I think it's more of a way of remembering the victims instead of them being forgotten."

She, like me, admits watching a lot of true crime. She believes the addictive nature of streaming services is behind the boom in their popularity.

Deborah Allen has seen a "huge jump" in audience interest over the last few years.

She is vice-president of programming at Jupiter Entertainment - one of the biggest producers of true crime television in the US.

The company started making murder shows back in 1998, despite initial hesitancy from TV channels.

"It used to be that the networks saw true crime shows as their dirty little secret," she says.

In the last decade a number of dedicated 24-hour crime channels have sprung up in the UK and US.

High-budget series may have gone mainstream but there is still a mass of other content made to fill these network schedules too.

The demand means Jupiter now makes about 200 hours of crime shows a year - fuelled by researchers who comb through news stories from around the country.

Deborah says they only cover cases that have been resolved in court, and thinks many viewers take comfort in seeing justice served.

She also says their company listens to victims' families if they object to a case being covered.

But the recent public distress from the mother of James Bulger about a film made about her son's murder shows the family's view does not always prevail.

It's a similar story behind other popular shows too.

The McCann family did not contribute to a new series about their daughter's disappearance and Theresa Halbach's family have never taken part in Making a Murderer.

The loved ones of 1999 murder victim Hae Min Lee said the attention from Serial "reopened old wounds" for their family. Despite this, HBO have adapted that case into a new documentary series - The Case Against Adnan Syed - which follows on from where the record-breaking podcast took off.

Serial, like many other popular true crime series, focuses on casting doubt on a conviction.

This format has an obvious draw for any audience - allowing them to play detective for themselves.

Some programme makers, including from HBO's The Jinx, have even uncovered new evidence that prosecutors say have helped with cases.

True crime's growing popularity means big business in other areas too. There's now young YouTube influencers covering stories and in the UK, a new glossy monthly crime magazine was recently announced.

In the US, thousands attend CrimeCon every year - an event where fans pay hundreds to see experts and presenters from their favourite series.

A reporter from the New York Post pointed out most of last year's attendees were female - and Bob in Milwaukee has found the same with his Dahmer tour. He describes his average customer as college-educated women aged 25-37.

So why is it that we are so intrigued - is it pure morbid curiosity?

British psychologist Emma Kenny, who regularly features in crime documentaries, agrees that we have a natural tendency to be voyeurs and be attracted to darker things.

This, of course, is nothing new and can be seen throughout human history.

She points to crime's prevalence in other forms of entertainment too - including the dramas we watch and the books we read.

Emma says that watching crime shows can trigger chemical reactions in our bodies while we watch, while also affirming our moral views about right and wrong.

She says an interest in the genre is nothing bad but warns people, including myself, about watching too much.

"I think that for anybody who's watching this kind of stuff you really need to know why you're watching it, I think. Because you don't want to desensitize yourself too much," she tells me.

"Life is best spent around good people doing good things, exposing yourself to the best things in the world that you can expose yourself to… we should never be desensitized to the horror."

ruby Posted on April 01, 2019 09:43

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EasyJet warns of 'weak' summer sales amid Brexit uncertainty

EasyJet has warned that customer demand for ticket sales for the next six months - which includes the peak summer season - is unexpectedly weak.

The airline blamed uncertainty over the global economy and Brexit for the slowdown in forward bookings.

As a result, EasyJet said it was now more cautious over its outlook for the second half of its financial year.

The airline has already said it expects to make a loss of around £275m for the first half of the year.

EasyJet's shares fell almost 8% in early trading following the release of its trading update, which had originally been due for release on Friday.

"We are seeing softness in both the UK and Europe, which we believe comes from macroeconomic uncertainty and many unanswered questions surrounding Brexit which are together driving weaker customer demand," said chief executive Johan Lundgren.

Despite its caution, EasyJet said revenue per seat - a key measure for airlines - would be slightly higher in the second half of the year, while cost per seat would remain flat.

Mr Lundgren said the airline was "operationally well prepared for Brexit", adding that "whatever happens, we'll be flying as usual".

It has established EasyJet Europe, with headquarters in Vienna, which will enable EasyJet to continue to operate flights both across the EU and domestically within EU countries regardless of the Brexit outcome.

Hargreaves Lansdown analyst George Salmon said the airline was being affected by issues out of its control.

"Higher fuel costs are hitting profits and with Brexit potentially impacting travel regulations and currency markets, customers are understandably waiting for more certainty before booking trips away.

"The group reckons demand will pick up later in the year, but a more pragmatic observer would say it's difficult to put a timeframe on when Westminster and the EU 27 will solve the Brexit puzzle."

EasyJet's warning comes amid a tough time for the airline industry, with a combination of factors such as higher fuel bills and excess capacity in the sector contributing to its problems.

Last week, Iceland's Wow Air collapsed.

Earlier this year, Germany's Germania filed for bankruptcy, and UK regional airline Flybmi stopped flying in February.

The UK's struggling Flybe was taken over earlier this month for just one penny a share.

Even giant budget airline Ryanair reported its first quarterly loss since March 2014 last month.


ruby Posted on April 01, 2019 09:31

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Ethiopian Airlines crash: 'Pitch up, pitch up!'

Details have begun to emerge of the final moments of an Ethiopian Airlines flight which crashed three weeks ago.

An anti-stalling system on the plane, a Boeing 737 Max, has been blamed for the disaster which killed all 157 people on board.

Soon after take-off - and just 450ft (137m) above the ground - the aircraft's nose began to pitch down.

One pilot, according to the Wall Street Journal, said to the other "pitch up, pitch up!" before their radio died.

The plane crashed only six minutes into its flight.The Wall Street Journal - which says it's spoken to people close to the ongoing investigation - says the information it has "paints a picture of a catastrophic failure that quickly overwhelmed the flight crew".

Leaks this week from the crash investigation in Ethiopia and in the US suggest an automatic anti-stall system was activated at the time of the disaster.

The Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) flight-control feature was also implicated in a fatal crash involving a Lion Air flight in Indonesia last October.

The Boeing 737 Max went down shortly after take-off from Jakarta, killing all 189 people on board.

An investigation of the Lion Air flight suggested the anti-stall system malfunctioned, and forced the plane's nose down more than 20 times before it crashed into the sea.

The Ethiopian authorities have already said there are "clear similarities" between the Lion Air incident and the Ethiopian Airlines crash.

The airline and authorities have refused to comment on leaks from the investigation.

Concerns about the Boeing 737 Max have led to a worldwide grounding of the plane.

Boeing has redesigned the software so that it will disable MCAS if it receives conflicting data from its sensors.

As part of the upgrade, Boeing will install an extra warning system on all 737 Max aircraft, which was previously an optional safety feature.

Neither of the two planes that were involved in the fatal crashes carried the alert systems, which are designed to warn pilots when sensors produce contradictory readings.

The aircraft update is designed to ensure the MCAS will no longer repeatedly make corrections when a pilot tries to regain control.

Boeing is also revising pilot training to provide "enhanced understanding of the 737 MAX" flight system and crew procedures.

Earlier this week, Boeing said that the upgrades were not an admission that the system had caused the crashes.

Investigators have not yet determined the cause of the accidents, but a preliminary report from Ethiopian authorities is expected within days.

Boeing has tried to restore its battered reputation, while continuing to insist the 737 Max is safe.

ruby Posted on April 01, 2019 09:28

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Letter from Africa: 'We're not cleaners' - sexism amid Sudan protests

In our series of letters from African journalists, Zeinab Mohammed Salih considers why female protesters are angry with their male counterparts.

The anti-government protests in Sudan are unwavering despite a state of emergency imposed in February.

This is largely thanks to the efforts of the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), which has been organising the demonstrations against President Omar al-Bashir's nearly 30-year rule.

The body represents health workers, lawyers and teachers, amongst others - though some would argue, not women - even though it is estimated that more than 70% of the protesters who have been out on the streets since December are female.

The SPA got itself into hot water when it suggested that instead of a day of scheduled protests on Saturday 9 March, people come out instead to clean the streets.

The streets of the capital, Khartoum, are particularly mucky - and it was felt that a good tidy up would restore a sense of pride in the city.

Since the protests began, the SPA has been particularly praised for the beautiful language used in its statements calling for action.

However, in this instance it struck the wrong tone - urging women in particular to come out for the task because they "cared more about cleaning".

The message was met with outrage by many female protesters - and sparked a debate on social media about the sexism of the uprising.

A day later, the SPA, which has female spokesperson, issued a contrite apology.

These protests began in reaction to a hike in bread prices - and then mushroomed into the most serious challenge to Mr Bashir's hold on power since an Islamist-backed coup in 1989.

Likewise, the street-cleaning faux pas began as anger about the sexist attitudes of male protesters and has mushroomed into anger about how women are treated in Sudanese society.

On social media, comments such as "even women have protested" have been a particular point of contention.

Protesting women are not a new phenomenon in Sudan. In 1946, 10 years before independence, the country's first female doctor, Khalida Zahir, took to the streets against British rule and was arrested and flogged.

Another sore point is the recent use of the word "Kandaka" to describe a female protester.

Kandaka was the word used to refers to queens in the ancient Kush kingdom that ruled Sudan thousands of years ago.

The literal translation from Arabic of the controversial SPA statement read: "When is the cleaning day? On Saturday Kandaka - yes we mean you, because you care more about it."

The dislike for the term hinges on the fact that female protesters don't see themselves as above others - they are the people, taking the same risks as everyone else.

The irony of the word also angers others as they say there is no gender equality in the mainly Muslim country where female genital mutilation is still practised - almost 90% of Sudanese women have been cut.

Women from all backgrounds and ages have been protesting - some on the frontline, others standing in front of their houses sheltering those who flee live ammunition or tear gas.

They have also been serving protesters with food and drinks.

have also been circulating on social media of prominent men who support the government and have criticised the demonstrations, mocking them by feminising their faces on Photoshop. The implication is that they are cowards.

This has led a group of feminists to launch a campaign called "Waqto wa naso", meaning "The time has come", calling for such sexist attitudes to be denounced.

According to the No To Women Oppression group, between 40,000 and 50,000 women are arrested and flogged each year by the police for flouting the country's Public Order Act introduced by Mr Bashir's government.

The law regulates what women can wear - they can, for example, be flogged for wearing clothes such as trousers that are considered indecent or simply for being out with men who are not their relatives.

Interestingly, earlier this month a court overturned flogging sentences for nine women accused of taking part in protests.

And the clean-up day in Khartoum did take place - with both men and women taking part.

These could perhaps be seen as signs of changing times for women in Sudan.

ruby Posted on April 01, 2019 09:21

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Turkey local elections: Setback for Erdogan as his party loses capital

The party of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has lost control of the capital, Ankara, in local elections in a setback to his 16 years in power.

The opposition is also ahead in the contest for mayor of the largest city, Istanbul, the election commission says.

Nationally, the president's AKP-led alliance has won more than 51% of the vote in the municipal elections.

The vote, see as a verdict on Mr Erdogan's rule, has been taking place during an economic downturn.

The currency, the lira, has been losing value recently and the economy went into recession in the last three months of 2018.

The president had previously said the poll was about the "survival" of the country and his party.

Commenting on the results in a speech on Sunday, he said: "If there are any shortcomings, it is our duty to correct them."

More than 57 million people in the country were registered to vote for mayors and councillors. State-run Anadolu news agency said turnout was high at just under 85%.

The secularist Republican People's Party (CHP) candidate Mansur Yavas won in Ankara.

Istanbul has been in the hands of parties linked to Mr Erdogan since 1994 when he was elected the city's mayor.

The election commission said the CHP's Ekrem Imamoglu was leading there by only 28,000 votes, but added that the results of more than 80 ballot boxes were being challenged.

Both CHP and Mr Erdogan's AKP - or Justice and Development Party - had been claiming victory in the city.

The AKP had been saying its candidate, former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, was ahead by 4,000 votes. Ruling party officials said they would challenge thousands of ballots in Istanbul and Ankara.

The CHP also said it had held Izmir, Turkey's third largest city.

"The people have voted in favour of democracy. They have chosen democracy," CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said.

In his speech on Sunday, Mr Erdogan vowed to focus his leadership on the Turkish economy ahead of national elections scheduled to take place in 2023.

Prominent journalist Rusen Cakir said the vote was "as historic as that of 1994", referring to the year Mr Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul.

"It is a declaration that a page that was opened 25 years ago is being turned," he said.

President Erdogan had painted this election as a matter of survival. He's now been dealt an agonising blow.

For the first time in a quarter of a century, his party has lost Turkey's capital Ankara.

And in the economic powerhouse of Istanbul, there's a hair's breadth between the governing AK Party and the opposition.

As the official tally showed fewer than 3,000 votes between them in this city of 18 million, both said they'd won.

But then the count stopped, with more than 1% of ballot boxes still unopened: a tactic, says the opposition, to steal victory.

This could be a watershed moment for Turkey's powerful, polarising president: when an opposition long seen as moribund finally feels he's beatable.

This was the first municipal vote since Mr Erdogan assumed sweeping executive powers through last year's presidential election.

The AKP, with its roots in political Islam, has won every election since coming to power in 2002.

With most media either pro-government or controlled by Mr Erdogan's supporters, critics believe opposition parties campaigned at a disadvantage.

The opposition pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) said the elections were unfair and refused to put forward candidates in several cities.

Some of its leaders have been jailed on terrorism charges, accusations they reject.

Mr Erdogan's rallies dominated TV coverage. At one on Saturday, the president sought to reassure voters and the party's usually conservative supporters that everything was under control.

"I am the boss of the economy right now as president of this country," he said, also blaming the West and particularly the US for its financial turbulence.

The president was criticised for repeatedly showing footage from the recent terrorism attack in New Zealand, in which a self-declared white supremacist live-streamed himself killing 50 people at two Christchurch mosques.

ruby Posted on April 01, 2019 09:13

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