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Women cold water swimming in Gower to help menopause

One of the swimmers said it "releases an inner child"

A group of cold water swimmers have said that plunging into sea temperatures as cold as 6C is helping with the effects of the menopause.

Some also reported improvements in their mental health.

"I didn't realise I was starting to go through the menopause when it happened a few years ago," said Alison Owen, 49.

"I'd read several stories about women who were hitting the menopause and had become anxious or were diagnosed with depression.

"I didn't want anything like that, and I thought I've got to do something to keep myself active and get out there."

Alison left her teaching job last summer to care full time for her daughter who has cerebral palsy, but says that soon afterwards she started to get involved in cold water swimming.

After initially trying sea swimming out for herself around the Gower Peninsula in Swansea, Alison was contacted by other women who were also keen to join in.

"The start of it is just a thrill and excitement. It releases an inner child I suppose, it reminds you what you used to be like before you had kids, before you had a job, before you had a mortgage," she said.

She added that it takes "around 91 seconds of absolute grit" to stay in the water, before the body begins to adjust.

Alison said that the response from women taking part in the swims has been so positive that they formed an impromptu group, The Gower Bluetits, an offshoot of a similar swimming club in Pembrokeshire.

The result is that up to 20 women can be seen charging down the beach screaming before crashing into the sea.

What is the menopause?

The menopause happens when a woman's period stops, and she becomes unable to conceive a child naturally, according to the NHS.

Symptoms can include night sweats, hot flushes, low mood or anxiety and memory problems.

A woman's sex life may also be affected, with decreased sex drive, vaginal dryness and discomfort during sex.

Menopause usually occurs between 45 and 55 years of age, when a woman's oestrogen levels lower.

"I'm going through the menopause," said swimmer Patricia Woodhouse, 53.

"I feel that it's been easier since starting this. The sweats and the night sweats haven't been so bad. I also suffer with anxiety and I've found my anxiety levels don't feel as bad either.

"I still get anxious but it's nothing like it was before."

Patricia puts some of the positive effects she feels down to the triggering of the body's fight or flight mechanism.

"I think it just allows you to let go for 10 minutes, to think about nothing else," she said.

Why does the cold water seem to help?

According to Prof Mike Tipton, an expert in cold water swimming at the University of Portsmouth, the effects the group are reporting are not unusual in the cold water swimming community.

"There is a significant amount of anecdotal evidence that suggests that it works for some things, but we don't know how," he said.

"There are plenty of theories surrounding the effects of cold water swimming but no definitive studies.

Patricia Woodhouse has said the swimming helps with her anxiety

"One of the main issues is that it can be very difficult to isolate the different factors involved. Most cold water swimming involves exercise and socialising - two things we know can have a positive impact on mental health."

Because of that, Prof Tipton said it can be extremely difficult to analyse what role, if any, the water's temperature can have.

"Everybody knows that when you go into a cold shower you get a gasping 'cold shock' response," he added.

"This releases the body's stress hormones, the fight or flight response - as a result people talk about feeling euphoric or high.

"But people need to remember they are engaging in a potentially dangerous activity, that same response can stop you being able to hold your breath in water."

Some members said part of the healing effects they feel are down to their voluntary vulnerability.

"It is a freedom," said Patricia.

"It's the same freedom that children have, they've got no inhibitions, nobody cares what they look like when they're that young, they just get in there.

"That's what we do too, we don't care what we look like, there's no competition, it's just about having fun."

ruby Posted on February 08, 2019 11:08

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Emiliano Sala: Body identified as Cardiff City footballer

The body recovered from the wreckage of a crashed plane is that of Cardiff City player Emiliano Sala, Dorset Police have said.

Sala, 28, was travelling to Cardiff in a plane piloted by David Ibbotson, which went missing over the English Channel on 21 January.

The Argentine's body was recovered late on Wednesday after the wreckage was found on Sunday morning.

Dorset Police confirmed the identification on Thursday night.

In a statement, the force said: "The body brought to Portland Port today, Thursday 7 February 2019, has been formally identified by HM Coroner for Dorset as that of professional footballer Emiliano Sala.

"The families of Mr Sala and the pilot David Ibbotson have been updated with this news and will continue to be supported by specially-trained family liaison officers."

The body was spotted in the wreckage of the plane on Monday and the authorities were able to recover it two days later, despite "challenging conditions".

The Air Accidents Investigations Branch (AAIB) said the operation had been carried out in "as dignified a way as possible" and the men's families were kept updated throughout.

Emiliano Sala (left) was on board a plane being flown by pilot David Ibbotson

The Geo Ocean III, which was involved in finding the wreckage, took the body back to the nearest port of Portland in Dorset, where the body was formally identified.

The Piper Malibu N264DB was en route from France to Cardiff, after the Argentine striker made a quick trip back to his former club Nantes two days after his £15m transfer to Cardiff was announced.

Cardiff City issued a statement shortly after identification was confirmed saying: "We offer our most heartfelt sympathies and condolences to the family of Emiliano. He and David will forever remain in our thoughts."

Some of the club's players reacted via Twitter. Full back Joe Bennett wrote "RIP Emiliano", while centre-half Sol Bamba posted a black-and-white image of the team-mate he never got to play alongside.

Stars from the wider footballing world also paid tribute.

Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger wrote: "Heartbreaking to hear the news about Emiliano Sala. Rest in peace! Thoughts go out to the family and friends of Emiliano and the pilot."

And Arsenal's Mesut Ozil tweeted: "No words to describe how sad this is. Thoughts and prayers go out to his family and also to the family of the pilot."

Mr Ibbotson, 59, from Crowle, North Lincolnshire, was at the controls when the flight lost contact with air traffic controllers on 21 January.

He is yet to be found.

An official search was called off on 24 January after Guernsey's harbour master said the chances of survival were "extremely remote".

But an online appeal started by Sala's agent raised £324,000 (371,000 euros) for a private search led by marine scientist and oceanographer David Mearns.

Working jointly with the AAIB, his ship and the Geo Ocean III, began combing a four square mile area of the English Channel, 24 nautical miles north of Guernsey, to make best use of the available sensors.Mr Mearns said the plane was identified by sonar, 67m (220ft) below the surface, before a submersible with cameras was sent underwater to confirm this.

"I was glad to provide some small comfort to Romina, Mercedes and the whole Sala family during the past two weeks but my heart goes out to the family and friends of David Ibbotson whose loss is the same," Mr Mearns said.

Cardiff fans left a sea of flowers outside the Cardiff City Stadium in tribute to Emiliano Sala

During the recovery operation, the AAIB used a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) to aid the search, with no divers involved.

The body was moved first, and separately from the wreckage, to maximise the chances of it being successfully brought to the surface.

It said efforts to recover the crashed plane as a whole proved unsuccessful, before being abandoned due to poor weather.

"The weather forecast is poor for the foreseeable future and so the difficult decision was taken to bring the overall operation to a close," the AAIB said in a statement.

The AAIB released this photograph of the wreckage of the Piper Malibu

However, the AAIB said video footage captured by the ROV would provide "valuable evidence" for its safety investigation.

Mr Mearns told BBC Radio Wales the AAIB could not have continued searching in the current conditions and admitted finding Mr Ibbotson's would be difficult.

He added: "I've been involved in operations when people were lost and the bodies were found days and weeks after, not far from where they were lost.

"But this is a pretty dynamic place. It's got fairly strong currents, it's not that deep water, you've got a lot of fishing activity, a lot of scallop dredgers moving in and out of the location.

"You cannot expect that the body is going to be in that location for an extended period of time."

Meanwhile, it has emerged that Sala's former club, French Ligue 1 side Nantes, has demanded Cardiff City pay his £15m transfer fee.

Sala was Cardiff's record signing but never played for the club.

The fee was due to be paid over three years but Cardiff have withheld the first scheduled payment until they are satisfied with the documentation.

ruby Posted on February 08, 2019 10:52

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Paris fatal fire suspect recently released from psychiatric care


The fire was brought under control in the early hours of Tuesday morning

The main suspect in the Paris fire which killed 1

  • The fire was brought under control in the early hours of Tuesday morning

The main suspect in the Paris fire which killed 10 people was released from psychiatric care just a week before, officials have revealed.

The eight-storey building was set ablaze - apparently deliberately - in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

The suspect had been placed in psychiatric care 13 times in the past decade, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutor Rémy Heitz told journalists she had been released on 30 January after assessment by a doctor.

The woman, who was in her 40s, lived in the building and was arrested outside, allegedly drunk and trying to set fire to a car.

She was briefly questioned before being sent to a police psychiatric facility. But on Thursday afternoon, officials said she had been returned to police custody following a psychiatric evaluation.

Police called minutes earlier

The arrested woman, named only as Essia B, was "confused", prosecutors said, but denied setting fire to the building.

She has no previous criminal convictions, though has been investigated for at least three offences - one of which involved allegedly setting fire to clothing in a store.

At a news conference, Mr Heitz also revealed that police had been called to the building not long before the outbreak of the fire.

Shortly after midnight local time, one of the building's other residents – who happens to be a firefighter – called police over a residential dispute with his neighbour. He had complained about noise, resulting in an argument.

Police left the scene at around 00:30, officials said.

The first call to firefighters came minutes later.

Rescue teams saved dozens of residents from the inner courtyard location under difficult conditions as the fire spread throughout the eight-storey building.

A survivor describes how she 'jumped across balconies' to escape from the flames

Firefighters with heavy breathing equipment scaled ladders on the exterior to rescue people from windows and balconies. Several firefighters were among the 96 injured.

The blaze was brought under control after five hours.

Days-long wait for relatives

Of the 10 dead, six have been officially identified, Mr Heitz said. One survivor remains in critical condition.

The relatives of two victims have identified them to French media.

Jonathan Jouclas, aged 26, lived on the seventh floor of the building and was found dead, his father Patrick announced on Facebook.

Patrick Jouclas had earlier appealed for help in finding news about his son, spending two days without hearing anything. Late on Wednesday evening, he confirmed that Jonathan had been found in his room.

He was certain that "his habit of playing online with a headset over his ears prevented him from hearing the alarms in time", he said.

Friends of 39-year-old Radia Benaziez told Le Parisien newspaper that she had died in the blaze, describing the architect as an "exceptional woman".

Ms Benaziez worked from her home in the building, the newspaper said.

"She was adorable. Her kindness was matched only by her beauty," one of her former co-workers said.

A baby is also known to be among the victims.

Relatives of some other residents have told French media that some people are missing while they wait for news from authorities.

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 18:25

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Russia's 'Dubak' challenge creates icy works of art

Temperatures of -40C (-40F) and -50C (-58F) in parts of eastern Russia haven't stopped people getting out and having some fun in the snow and ice.

According to the state news agency TASS, current temperatures in Russia are much colder than average for the time of year.

Unsurprisingly, the trick of throwing boiling water in the air and watching it turn into ice - which was popular in North America during the polar vortex - has become a trend. People across the country have been taking part in the "Dubak" challenge, which is Russian slang for bitingly cold weather.

 Yekaterinburg, east of the Ural Mountains, Olga Shklyarova took this image of a round cloud of ice

Jumping for joy or to keep warm in the wintry weather in Chelyabinsk a city close to the Ural Mountains?

Rinat Minkov's wheel of ice water

Alexander Borozdin from Nizhnevartovsk added a touch of colour and used two vessels of water to create this angel-like effect

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 18:16

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A protest Pakistan wants to hide from the world

Why do some protests get reported in Pakistan and others not? M Ilyas Khan examines a story of human rights abuses the media is reluctant to cover and the authorities do not want to be told.

Pakistan's vibrant, at times almost cacophonic media, is struggling to report a fundamental contradiction in state policy.

This was at its most visible this week outside Islamabad's National Press Club.

An open ground outside the club premises - which some call Pakistan's Hyde Park because it is used for gatherings and protests - was occupied by a few hundred students from religious seminaries linked to a banned militant group.

They were holding an event to mark Kashmir Day, an official holiday in Pakistan which is observed to highlight human rights violations by Indian security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir.

tThe Kashmir rally was given lots of prominence and went ahead

But on the periphery of the Kashmir rally, police were busy spotting and arresting young men they suspected had come to attend another rally due to be held at the same venue.

Far from being militants, they were members or supporters of a rights movement that has been highlighting abuses by Pakistan's own military, in the ethnic Pashtun regions along the border with Afghanistan.

By the end of Tuesday, more than 30 activists of the Pashtun Tahaffuz (Protection) Movement, or PTM, had been rounded up, thrown in a police truck and taken to a police station.

The drama unfolded against the backdrop of speeches from the Kashmir rally in which speakers listed rights violations in Kashmir by the Indian army, and right in front of the eyes of the waiting media.

Dozens of television and newspaper photographers raced from one end to another trying to capture each arrest on camera.

But it was just their journalistic instincts kicking in - not a race to be first to actually cover the drama.

Because, while their TV channels thoroughly covered Kashmir Day events all over the country, including Islamabad, none of the videos of the arrests of the activists made it to the TV screens. Nor did they make headlines in the morning newspapers.

The six tribal districts of Pakistan - collectively called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), and turned into a vast sanctuary for Taliban fighters fleeing the US invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks - have been likened to an information black hole.

Many say the Talibanisation of these districts was allowed by the Pakistani establishment under a policy which sought to control Afghanistan with a view to prevent it from emerging as a strong regional ally of India, Pakistan's arch-rival.

Subsequent factionalisation of the Taliban drew the Pakistani military into tribal rivalries, triggering large-scale rights violations both by the military and the Taliban.

Manzoor Pashteen has accused the military of covering up years of rights abuses

The number of civilians killed in the conflict runs into thousands, and about three million people have been displaced, many of them many times.

For years, the local population caught in the conflict were too afraid to speak about transgressions, until the PTM burst onto the scene last February and started to circulate well-documented cases of abuses by the military and the Taliban, as well as the nature of the relationship between the two.

The material, the PTM's peaceful tactics and its insistence that the authorities treat people in the tribal areas in accordance with the law, as elsewhere in the country, caught the imagination of the media, and progressive elements across all ethnic groups hailed it as a good omen for the country's quest for democracy.

But then in the second half of 2018 the media came under increasing pressure, reportedly from the military, to stop covering the PTM. One by one, columnists offering analysis of the movement's message and its activities were dropped - not only by the marginal press but some of the most respected newspapers of the country.

PTM supporters have been demonstrating but the story is not making headlines

And any mention of the PTM completely vanished from the television screens.

More recently, the authorities have gone a step further and have begun breaking up PTM gatherings, confident in their knowledge that it is not going to get play in the media.

Over the weekend, police in Balochistan province cracked down on one such PTM gathering in which a prominent activist, Ibrahim Arman Luni, was killed.

Tuesday's gatherings were called by PTM chief Manzoor Pashteen in protest at Mr Luni's killing.

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 17:56

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In pictures: Sony World Photography Awards shortlist

The shortlist for the Open and Youth competitions in this year's Sony World Photography Awards has been announced. The competition received 326,000 entries from 195 countries.

The awards' overall winners will be announced at a ceremony in London on 17 April.

Rebecca McClelland, who chairs the Open and Youth jury, said: "I was astonished with the diversity of work that was entered into the Open and Youth competitions.

"The award represents a very democratic appreciation of photography, from tradition to emergent trends across all genres from nature to fashion."

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 12:45

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Trump sees total rout of Islamic State group as imminent

US President Donald Trump has said territory held by the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq could be "100%" liberated as early as next week.

"It should be announced, probably some time next week, that we will have 100% of the caliphate," he told a gathering of coalition partners.

However, he also cautioned that he wanted to "wait for the official word".

US military and intelligence officials say IS could stage a comeback without sustained counter-terrorism pressure.

Mr Trump shocked coalition allies in December when he declared that the group had been defeated, amid reports he wanted to pull out US soldiers within 30 days.

But he later slowed the withdrawal after several resignations from key defence officials and strong criticism from Republicans and allies abroad.

The global coalition against IS, now numbering nearly 80 nations, was formed in 2014 after the group overran swathes of territory and went on to launch terror attacks outside the region.

How does Trump view the battle against IS now?

"Their land is gone," he told Wednesday's conference in Washington. "The Isis [IS] caliphate has been decimated."

But the group still had "tiny sections that can be so dangerous", he said, and "foreign fighters must not gain access" to the US.

Image copyrightAFP

Image captionUS ground troops first became involved in Syria in 2015

He also referred to the IS propaganda machine, which recruited fighters from Europe and other regions.

"For a period of time they used the internet better than we did," he said. "They used the internet brilliantly but now it's not so brilliant."

The US leader thanked coalition partners, saying, "We will be working together for many years to come."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged the US would continue to fight IS, despite withdrawing troops from Syria.

He called the troop pullout a "tactical change... not a change in the mission", and said the world was entering an "era of decentralised jihad".

Has IS really been defeated?

It has certainly lost control of most of the territory it overran, including its strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.

However, fighting continues in north-eastern Syria, where the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) say they captured dozens of foreign fighters in recent weeks.

A suspected IS member captured by US-backed forces near the Syrian border with Iraq last week

On Tuesday the head of the US military's Central Command, Gen Joseph Votel, told a Senate committee up to 1,500 IS militants remained in a 20 sq mile (52 sq km) pocket on Syria's border with Iraq.

The group, he said, still had "leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and the profane ideology that fuels their efforts".

Meanwhile, a report by a US defence department watchdog cited Central Command as saying that without sustained pressure IS "could likely resurge in Syria within six to 12 months".

Another challenge is what to do with the hundreds of foreign fighters captured by the SDF, as well as their families.

Governments in their home countries are reluctant to take back radicalised militants who swore allegiance to Islamic State.

How will an IS comeback be stopped?

President Trump's comments were more than a month late, as he did not consult his allies about his decision in December to withdraw US troops from Syria. The shock from the surprise announcement has settled, but coalition members want to know how this is going to play out. It's not clear that the administration has sorted that out.

Both Mr Trump and Mike Pompeo called on other nations to take on more commitments for the continued campaign against the IS group, but said they were still in the fight - America would continue to lead it, Mr Pompeo said.

Mr Trump had previously suggested that some of the troops in Syria could be moved to American bases in neighbouring Iraq, from where they could launch commando operations across the border as necessary.

But there are still no official details about how the US will continue the counter-terrorism pressure Mr Trump's generals and intelligence officials have said is necessary to stop IS militants from staging a comeback.

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 12:37

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Brussels Nemmouche trial: Suspect 'was my jailer and torturer'

Two French journalists who were held by Islamic State militants in Syria have given evidence against a man accused of murdering four people at the Brussels Jewish Museum in May 2014.

"I've absolutely no doubt that Mehdi Nemmouche, who is here now, was my jailer and torturer in Syria. I knew him as Abou Omar," said Nicolas Hénin.

Ex-captive Didier François agreed.

The defendant, 33, denies murdering an Israeli couple, a local worker and a French volunteer at the museum.

He travelled to Syria in January 2013 and faces a separate trial in France for his alleged role as an Islamic State jailer.

What the witnesses said

The trial began last month, but it heard for the first time on Thursday from Nicolas Hénin and Didier François, who were held by IS militants in a hospital in Aleppo in June 2013 and freed in April 2014, a month before the Jewish Museum attack.

Of the 23 foreign hostages held by IS, eight were in Aleppo, and Mr François told the court that their captors were all part of a structure, and were involved in organising the Paris and Brussels bombings in November 2015 and March 2016.

He said Paris bomb-maker and Brussels airport suicide bomber Najim Laachraoui was one of the guards.

Nemmouche refused to tell prosecutors if he had ever met the two journalists (file sketch)

Mr Hénin recalled that Mehdi Nemmouche was sadistic because he was full of hatred - "an anti-Semitic hatred". He said Nemmouche admired the Toulouse jihadist killer Mohamed Merah and loathed Shia Muslims.

"We were taken out of our cell for interrogation then put back in a cell next door to the torture room. He was wearing combat dress and we came up against him on several occasions," he said.

Mr François said he had no doubt that Mehdi Nemmouche had tortured Syrian prisoners. "We heard his voice, we recognised his voice," he said.

His fellow ex-captive described how the suspect would hit them during their blindfolded visits to the toilets.

Asked by the federal prosecutor if he had ever met the two journalists, the defendant refused to answer. However, he smiled during some of the accounts given by the two former captives, reporters in court said.

What happened in Brussels in May 2014?

On 24 May 2014, a lone gunman entered the lobby of the Jewish Museum in Brussels. He opened fire on those inside and fled within a couple of minutes. Four people died in the attack in the Sablon area of the city:

French-born jihadist Medhi Nemmouche was arrested carrying two guns six days later in Marseille in southern France.

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 12:26

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Yellow-vest protests: France warns Italy Deputy PM Di Maio

France has warned Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio not to interfere in the country's politics, after he met French "yellow-vest" protesters.

"This new provocation is unacceptable between neighbouring countries and partners at the heart of the EU," the French foreign ministry said.

Mr Di Maio, leader of the populist Five Star Movement, met two leaders of the anti-government protests on Tuesday.

"The wind of change has crossed the Alps," Mr Di Maio tweeted (in Italian).

He also posted a picture of himself with "yellow-vest" leader Christophe Chalençon and Ingrid Levavasseur, who is heading a "yellow-vest" (gilets jaunes) list for elections to the European Parliament in May.

The meeting took place near Paris.

Relations between France and Italy have been tense since the Five Star Movement (M5S) and right-wing League parties came to power in Italy in June 2018.

In January, France summoned Italy's ambassador after Mr Di Maio said Paris had "never stopped colonising tens of African states".

Italy's populist leadership has also recently clashed with France on issues such as migration protests and culture.

Who are the 'gilets jaunes'?

The "gilets jaunes" protests against fuel tax hikes began last November, saying the measure hurt those who live in remote areas of France and depend on cars.

France fuel protests: Who are the people in the yellow vests?

The "gilets jaunes" derive their name from the high-visibility vests they wear - and which French motorists are required by law to carry in their vehicles.

But since their first marches - and the government's subsequent U-turn on fuel taxes - their demands have expanded to boosting people's purchasing power and allowing popular referendums.

In December, French President Emmanuel Macron said he was "partly responsible" for the "insufficient response" to the protests that have rocked the country.


ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 12:23

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Istanbul rescuers pull girl, 5, from rubble after building collapse

Rescuers in the Turkish city of Istanbul have found a five-year-old girl alive among the rubble of a building 18 hours after it collapsed.

The girl, discovered under a mound of debris at what was once an eight-storey apartment block in the city's Kartal district, was taken to hospital.

At least three people died and a dozen more were injured in the disaster on Wednesday afternoon.

It is still not known what caused the building to collapse.

The property was officially home to 43 people living in 14 flats, Istanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya said.

According to Mr Yerlikaya, the top three storeys of the building had been added illegally.

Rescuers search through the rubble in the city's Kartal district

Speaking to reporters just moments before the girl was pulled from the rubble, the governor said that rescuers had "spoken to a girl named Havva".

"They are talking to her right now. Hopefully, with your prayers and their efforts we will reach this girl," he said.

Mr Yerlikaya said that 12 people were being treated at various hospitals, adding that three of them were in a critical condition.

Rescuers continued to search the rubble on Wednesday night

Rescuers worked through the night to search the rubble for survivors.

According to CNN Turk, the building collapsed at about 16:00 local time (13:00 GMT).

As they searched, rescuers occasionally appealed for quiet to listen for any sounds coming from underneath that might indicate people trapped.

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 12:18

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Gilets Jaunes face big decision as Macron fights back

After almost three months of protests, France's yellow-vest movement, which rejected any formal leadership or political affiliation, has split over the question of whether to enter electoral politics.

This citizens' movement has already forced President Emmanuel Macron's first policy climb-down. So far, five separate groups have emerged with plans to contest upcoming elections - either the European parliamentary elections in May, or the French local elections next year.

One recent poll suggested a single list could garner 13% of French votes for the European elections - mainly drawing voters away from the far-right and far-left parties of Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Why fight elections?

"We know we can't stay on the roundabouts forever," said Come Dunis, a candidate with one of the newly formed parties, the Citizens Initiative Rally.

"We can't demonstrate every Saturday. We have to enter the electoral system."

During the latest protests on Saturday scuffles broke out at Place de la République in Paris

Mr Dunis is second on the party's list for the European elections. The transformation from protest movement to political party, he says, is about "turning the page on a political elite that has despised us for 40 years."

"We'll show that unemployed people and forklift truck operators can sit alongside technocrats and bureaucrats in Brussels," he told me.

The gilets jaunes have so far drawn strength from their diversity and breadth of appeal.

Without recognised national leaders, a cohesive set of demands, or even an agreed political outlook, it was a difficult movement for France's government to negotiate with – and Mr Macron ended up offering more concessions than many had initially expected.

So why change the formula?

The yellow vests were forced to organise or die, according to Olivier Costa, research director with France's National Centre for Scientific Research.

"They were cornered," he told me.

"Participation [in the protests] was declining, and the government will not agree to their main requests for new elections or more referenda, so they found themselves continuing to protest – without knowing what for, or where they're heading."

The protests started out on roundabouts but have gradually expanded

But Mr Costa believes the same constraints on their influence on the streets will hamper them in electoral politics.

"No gilets jaunes leaders have the knowledge, qualities or resources to become a strong [political] leader," he said. "They're not good at talking or writing, they're not rich like Trump, they don't have the network or the connections."They are discovering that outside the system it is difficult to have much political impact in France, he believes.

Will Macron be the ultimate winner?

The diversity of the movement has caused problems in organising themselves into a single political bloc. And few of the groups have a coherent list of policies.

But even if yellow-vest candidates won just 7-8% of the vote in the European elections, Olivier Costa argues the real loser would be the far right, for whom it would be a "disaster".

"The main winner would obviously be President Macron," he says.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen's National Rally is seen as the biggest opposition to Mr Macron's party

"His big task is to be ahead of the far right in those elections – and with the gilets jaunes running, he will be."

The risk of inadvertently helping President Macron is one reason why some gilets jaunes are boycotting plans to enter traditional politics. Others believe it would also weaken the movement itself.

"These lists will only serve the executive's power," said Benjamin Cauchy, one of the founders of the movement who is based in Toulouse.

"Whereas on the roundabouts, there are people from the left, extreme left, right, extreme right - all united together in a common desire to have more fiscal and social justice - they won't be able to agree on issues like migration.

"If they want to make a list they must choose a political side, and this will lead to a division of the gilets jaunes."

President Macron has travelled the country taking part in lengthy debates to assess people's grievances

Another of the gilets jaunes who has come to national prominence, Jason Herbert, says he has refused two requests to join the new party lists.

He believes the protesters do not want to commit to politics and their goal is instead to persuade France's existing representatives to take certain political decisions.

How Macron has responded

President Macron has tried to stem the sense of disgruntlement in the country with what he's calling a "grand debate" - a series of local meetings across France to discuss political, economic and social reforms.

His poll ratings are up and he has ruled out the one reform that unites many gilets jaunes: making it easier for citizens to trigger referendums on key issues.

But he has suggested that he may "ask our citizens if they agree" to a few constitutional changes selected by the government, such as reducing the number of MPs in the French parliament, or limiting the number of terms they can serve.

"There's a risk the debate will create frustrations," said Said Ahamada, an MP for Mr Macron's party, LREM, in Marseille.

Said Ahamada says the electorate is losing confidence in MPs

"We weren't able to answer the expectations of the French people," he admits. "And 18 months after the elections, they are impatient. French society believes less and less in its political leaders."

So does that mean that French leaders should be fearful of movements like the gilets jaunes, who seek to change the country from outside its established political system?

Olivier Costa says not.

"France is an old democracy and people are critical of its institutions," he told me. "But this is not the Arab Spring and this is not a dictatorship."

"There were polls at the beginning of this movement saying that 80% of French people thought it was positive and interesting. That doesn't mean 80% of French people are ready for a gilet jaune to be the next president."

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 12:15

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Rolf Harris primary school incident to be investigated

The Ministry of Justice has launched an investigation after convicted paedophile Rolf Harris entered the grounds of a Berkshire primary school.

The school's head teacher confronted the former TV star, who was in conversation with a local sculptor, and asked him to leave the site.

The MoJ said it was "looking into these reports and will take appropriate action".

Harris was jailed for five years in 2014 but released on licence in 2017.

A spokeswoman for the MoJ added: "When sex offenders are released they are subject to strict licence conditions and are liable to be returned to custody for breaching them."

Head teacher Richard Jarrett said: "In line with our standard procedures, an uninvited individual was asked to leave the outer perimeter of the school site yesterday, which he did without delay.

"At no time did any of our pupils come into contact with the individual nor was the individual invited by us onto the school grounds."

'Strange moment'

Harris was seen waving to children as they were waiting in the school hall for their lunch on Tuesday.

He was talking to sculptor Nick Garnett, who was working in the school's "Kiss and Drop" area.

Harris was seen waving to children as they were waiting for their lunch

Mr Garnett told the BBC: "I turned round and there was Rolf Harris, which was a strange moment.

"He asked for a piece of timber. Apparently he's interested in making some carvings, so I gave him a couple of pieces."

He said: "At no point was he near any children. The headmaster dealt with it incredibly calmly."

Speaking to the Press Association, the parent of a pupil at the school said: "What was he doing there?

"I feel like it was a really bad judgement call and I don't think his excuse is effective enough."

Thames Valley Police said: "A report was made that a man was on the site of the school.

"An officer attended the scene but no offence was committed. No arrests were made and advice has been given to the man involved."

Australian-born TV presenter Harris was jailed in 2014 for 12 indecent assaults, relating to four girls between 1968 and 1986.

In May 2017 he was cleared of four unconnected historical sex offences, which he had denied.

In November 2017 one of the 12 indecent assault convictions was overturned by the Court of Appeal.

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 12:11

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R Kelly: backlash as singer announces Australia tour

Singer R Kelly has announced a new tour of Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, sparking widespread criticism in light of abuse allegations against him.

The R&B star posted his plans on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, but later deleted the posts.

The proposed concerts would come on the heels of a documentary detailing decades of alleged sexual abuse by the artist.

Local politicians have called for him to be barred from entering Australia.

On Tuesday, the 52-year old Grammy-winner tweeted "NEW TOUR ALERT", but without giving concrete dates of when he would play, and where.

'Physical and emotional abuse'

R Kelly has not been convicted of any crimes in connection with the abuse claims.

The allegations against him were aired in a January documentary, Surviving R Kelly, which featured detailed accounts of his alleged physical and emotional abuse of women.

It claimed the R&B star ran an "abusive cult" in which he is accused of keeping women captive against their wills.

Following the allegations, numerous former music industry colleagues spoke out against R Kelly, and protesters called for a ban on his music and concerts.

Demonstrators hold a protest near to R Kelly's studio

This is not the first report of a planned R Kelly tour to Australia.

In December, confusion arose when the singer disputed a similar announcement by a tour company, calling it fake news.

At the time, New Zealand victims' advocate Ruth Money and the non-profit group Women's Refuge called for the singer to be banned from performing.

"Popular culture has an immense amount to do with shaping the way people think and the way people behave, and the sort of role models that we hold up, particularly to our young people," she said.

Australia could deny visa

Australia's opposition Labor party released a statement saying the singer should not be permitted to enter the country.

"Labor strongly supports the refusal or cancellation of visas of non-citizens on character or criminal grounds," the document said.

Australia's department of home affairs told the BBC it "does not comment on individual cases", but Australia has previously barred entry to people in similar situations.

Boxer Floyd Mayweather was denied a visa over family violence convictions. Rapper Chris Brown also had his visa denied based on his history of domestic violence.

And in 2014, the country cancelled a visa for US "pick-up artist" Julien Blanc, citing his derogatory views on women.

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 12:07

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Black Saturday: The bushfire disaster that shook Australia

Ten years ago, Australia experienced its worst-ever bushfire disaster when 173 people died across the state of Victoria. Immediately branded "one of the darkest days in Australia's peacetime history", Black Saturday has left a profound legacy. Sharon Verghis reports.

"It was like the gates of hell. There is no other way to describe it."

For Tony Thomas, 7 February 2009 began as another ordinary day. It had been a summer of record-breaking temperatures, prompting days of safety warnings.

But Mr Thomas wasn't overly concerned; they had had scorching days like this before.

In the lush, peaceful hills on the outskirts of tiny Marysville, about 90km (55 miles) north-east of Melbourne, he and wife Penni had carved out a fruitful life running a bed and breakfast on a 60-acre property.

His in-laws had arrived for a birthday lunch. It was a pleasant gathering, despite the suffocating heat. But in the late afternoon, they spotted smoke in the west. Going for a closer look, they saw fire.

The remnants of Australia’s worst day of fires

"It came out of the forest behind us on the other side - at 100k [kilometres] it just roared towards us," Mr Thomas tells the BBC.

At 18.45, the fire hit - "and pretty hard". Mr Thomas's family and the B&B guests ran for shelter in the house as he, his brother-in-law and an employee battled the fire. It was effectively three men with buckets and garden hoses against a roaring, wind-whipped blaze.

At 21.30, another wind change swung the fire towards the hay shed: "That threw flaming hay bombs at us for the next hour or so, massive embers and hay landing on us."

"When you've got 20 to 30 metre-trees burning and the flames are well above that, like a huge ball..." his voice trails off.

"Why people say gates of hell is because everything turned from light to dark very quickly - the sun got blocked out by the smoke.

"The only thing you could see is the glow of the fire through the smoke. We were choking. We only had large tea towels which we were wetting down constantly and wrapping around our faces so we could breathe."

Nearby, David Baetge was also fighting for survival on his property near the town of Buxton, directly adjacent to a large state park.

The town of Kinglake and surrounding regions were devastated

Armed with a comprehensive fire plan and previous firefighting experience, he had seen the smoke but chosen to stay. Like Mr Thomas, the decision would almost cost him his life.

At about 1830, Mr Baetge spotted fire on top of peaks about 3km (2 miles) away - with what he estimated to be 100m-high fireballs.

Even for a bushfire veteran, he was shocked at the speed of the fire as it raced towards him. "The sky was iridescent red with a deafening roar like standing next to a 747 jet," he would later recall in his blog.

"It was like being inside a cocoon of smoke with a maximum visibility range of about 30m and the whole of this hemisphere in every direction was glowing cherry red." He said it was "like being sandblasted - but with burning embers".

All through this once-bucolic landscape, others faced similar struggles.

Karen Curnow was among them. As her house caught fire, she fled in her car with her old dog, hurtling over and around burning trees, guilt-struck at having to leaving her panicked horses behind.

'I escaped the inferno - then found my horse'

Nearby in Kinglake West, local artist Michelle Bolmat was also making a mad dash to safety.

"The ash started to fall, and the darkness came… it became completely black everywhere," she tells the BBC. A tree came down in front of her; but as the heat started to build, she revved her engine and drove over it. "I looked back and saw the fire coming."

All four got through that nightmare night.

But when the sun rose the next morning, it was eerily quiet. The lush landscape was gone.

"Our world turned from beautiful colours to black and grey," Mr Thomas recalls. "There wasn't a spot on the property that wasn't burnt and it was the same across the whole area."

Kinglake suffered the heaviest toll, with 120 perishing. In Marysville, 39 people died - 34 of them locals - and the town was effectively obliterated.

"Probably 22 of those 34 were friends of ours," Mr Thomas says.

Like Marysville, Kinglake had rows of buildings destroyed

After the final embers were doused (the Black Saturday fires continued to 14 March), the true scale of the fires was revealed.

About 400 blazes had burned, most sparked by faulty power lines and lightning, but there were also cases of arson.

A total of 173 people died - Australia's deadliest ever bushfire event. It left several hundreds more injured, more than 2,000 homes destroyed, and more than 7,500 people displaced. The RSPCA estimated that up to one million animals died.

It was unprecedented - even for a country long used to bushfires.

Over the years, Australia has been hit with several deadly blazes. But the Black Saturday fires of 2009 were singular in their ferocity - equal to 1,500 atomic bombs.

The fires scorched houses and vehicles

So what made this event so severe?

Kevin Parkyn, a Bureau of Meteorology senior forecaster, says it was a combination of record temperatures, unusually strong, howling north-westerly winds in excess of 100km/h (60 mph), and a tinder-dry landscape courtesy of a long-running drought. In Melbourne, the temperature reached 46.4C.

"That's a record for Melbourne in 100 years," Mr Parkyn says. "When you went outside, there was just this blast of hot air - it was like having a hairdryer to the face."

No firefighting force stood a chance, especially when the blazes hit Australia's highly flammable eucalypt forests, he says. Spot fires sprang up kilometres downwind of the main front.

"And all these fires joined together to become this massive fire area - which we call pyrocumulonimbus - that started generating its own lightning," Mr Parkyn says. "And of course, lightning started more fires."

The result was intense temperatures capable of melting metal: "It was almost like a living, breathing beast."

Firefighters continued to battle blazes in the weeks after Black Saturday

Did climate change play a role? Mr Parkyn refers to his scientific training: he says it would be hard to say there's no link given the record temperatures now being experienced in Australia in particular, and the frequency of extreme weather disasters internationally. He points to last year's California fires, the US state's deadliest, as one example.

The damage from Black Saturday was also exacerbated by urbanisation, he says. Risk Frontiers, a research centre, has estimated that nearly a million addresses in Australia are located less than 100m from bushland.

In the aftermath, a royal commission inquiry was announced, resulting in widespread changes in bushfire preparation and protocols. The inquiry put the financial cost of the disaster at A$4.4bn (£2.4bn; $3.14bn).

Survivors also secured a A$500m payout - the biggest class action settlement in Australian legal history. But this didn't account for the invisible toll.

A farmer struggles with the conditions on his property

The Beyond Bushfires report, which surveyed more than 1,000 people affected by the fires, found evidence of significant mental health issues including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and severe psychological distress. The rates were significantly higher than what would be expected in the general population, it found.

Lead researcher Prof Lisa Gibbs, from the University of Melbourne, likens the disaster to a fractured window: the cracks spread far and wide, magnified by the small rural populations. She has seen a measurable increase in domestic violence along with mental health issues.

Out of the embers, however, some good has also come. Australia is now significantly better prepared for fires, with new measures including redesigned building codes and improved warning messages.

Internationally, Australian researchers are now leading the way in many firefighting technologies - from tanker perseveration strategies to a world-leading electrical-fault study. The Beyond Bushfires report is now used internationally.

A bushfire-ravaged region, pictured two years after Black Saturday

Regeneration and growth has taken place on a more personal level as well. Mr Thomas is amazed by the resilience of the locals. Communities have rebuilt, the bush has regenerated.

For Karen Curnow says it gave her a chance to start anew: "I don't see myself as a victim or a survivor. I just consider myself a very lucky person."

This week, solemn events have marked the anniversary of the tragedy.

But for many scarred directly by Black Saturday, there will be relief when Thursday is over and people can move on, Mr Thomas says. Marysville is slowly recovering but "it will never be the same town".

"But as a community we stick together," he says. "We're still here. We're still standing."

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 12:03

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Tinnitus: 'Hearing condition makes me feel trapped'

A music fan is urging people to wear ear plugs at gigs because she believes loud concerts caused her to develop the hearing condition tinnitus.

Jessica Berg, 31, from Newport, said she feels "trapped" by the constant ringing sound in her ears.

Her GP diagnosed her with tinnitus and said it was most likely as a result of exposure to loud music.

Action on Hearing Loss said the condition can make people feel "isolated" and "helpless".

About one in 10 people in the UK suffers from tinnitus, which can cause stress, sleep difficulties, anxiety and hearing loss.

The condition is often linked with Meniere's disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and depression, but it is not known how it develops and there is no cure.

Now Ms Berg was diagnosed three years ago and says she concentrates on trying to control the depression and anxiety it can cause.

Ear plugs have been suggested for young people going to gigs to reduce the chances of developing tinnitus

"They can't really tell [what causes it] because it's not a physical thing they can see in the ear, it's something they have to guess," she said.

"My very obvious answer for myself is live music. I used to go out a lot and see live bands. I never thought I should be wearing ear protection, I'd go and stand next to a speaker and never have a care in the world about it.

"I'm very careful now and would never go and stand next to a speaker, but there are products out there that would help protect further damage.

"I've tried them in a couple of gigs and I don't get a spike in my tinnitus I don't get a pain I don't get pain the following days that I would get without protection."

Although many people who develop tinnitus only experience the effects for a short time, often when dealing with a cold or a virus, it can cause serious issues for those who have it permanently.

"The first couple of years were horrendous. It really built up into affecting every single part of my life," Ms Berg said.

"It makes you feel quite trapped at times because you just want to turn it off."


ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 11:49

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My disabled son - ‘the nobleman, the philanderer, the detective’

Robert and Trude mourned what they thought had been a lonely and isolated life for their disabled son. But when Mats died, they discovered that people all over Europe lit candles in his memory.

"We were really very traditional. We didn't want him turning his daily rhythm upside down."

Sitting in a cafe by his office at Oslo City Hall, Robert Steen describes how he used to worry about his son staying up late into the night.

"In retrospect, I think we should have been more interested in the game world, where he spent so much time," says 56-year-old Robert. "By not doing so, we robbed ourselves of an opportunity that we didn't know we had."

Robert delivered his funeral eulogy for Mats in late 2014, in a chapel at the Norwegian capital's Western Cemetery.

Among those who sat listening to his words - in-between relatives and a few people from the health service who knew Mats well - was a group of people the family didn't know.

Only Robert had met them. And only once, the evening before.

Mats had barely left the basement flat underneath his family's home in the last years of his life, so it was strange that people unknown to the family were present at the funeral.

Even stranger - Mats himself had also never met these people.

Father and son - Robert and Mats in Oslo, July 2012

Before his death, these grieving visitors would not have thought of Mats as Mats - but instead as Ibelin, a nobleman by birth, a philanderer and a detective. Some of those paying their respects lived close by, but others had come from afar. They wept for their good friend.

Later in the funeral service one of them would speak, and tell the gathering that just now, all across Europe, people were lighting candles for Mats.

It was written in the stars, it was coded in his DNA.

The Mats that sauntered around with a crown on his head on his fourth birthday in July 1993 would, within a few years, not be able to wa

Mats's fourth birthday

Robert and Trude had received the news in May 1993, in a small office in the large brick building that houses Ulleval Hospital.

Mats's parents learned why their boy kept falling off the swings and hurting himself, why he didn't climb up the ladder on the slide at the nursery, even though he loved to slide down, why he supported himself on his knees like an old man when he rose from a sitting position and why he didn't race the other children.

The doctors told Robert and Trude that Mats had Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a rare disorder that causes muscle degeneration - mostly in boys. Mats's genes contained a coding error that would prevent his muscles from developing normally. And which would finally destroy them.

"After we put Mats to bed that evening we called the doctor. We had been given permission to do that. We could call any time, if we needed more information," says Robert.

With Trude sat by his side, Robert spoke on the phone for more than half an hour.

"I said to the doctor: 'But at least he won't die from this!' The doctor on the other end of the line was silent for a moment, 'no, but our experience is that these patients rarely live to be older than 20'."

Robert pauses.

"He managed to make it to 25."

At the family home in Ostensjo in south-east Oslo, Robert and Trude tried to take it all in.

Mats would not live what they considered a "normal life". He would die young and be taken away from them - without having set his mark on the world.

They were so completely mistaken.

If our DNA maps out our lives even before we are born, how can we choose who we want to be?

Mats found a way and created himself anew.

By the turn of the millennium, the Steen family had moved to a wheelchair-adapted home in Langhus, to the south of Oslo.While Mats was allowed to play his handheld Game Boy during breaks at school, not even Super Mario could chase away the feeling of being different. Mats sat in his wheelchair and an assistant went with him everywhere.

His parents wondered what activity Mats might like to do in his spare time - when his classmates were playing football and running around outside.

Online gaming perhaps? Robert gave him the password to the family PC, and a new world opened up for the 11-year-old.

"In the course of the last 10 years of his life, Mats played between 15,000 and 20,000 hours," Robert said in his eulogy. "That's equivalent to more than 10 years' full-time employment."

But the gaming also caused family friction.

"When the night nurse arrived at 22:00, Mats had to be in bed," says Robert. "Their job was to monitor Mats in bed, not to put him to bed. Mats protested but reluctantly agreed."

Mats had become a gamer. Gamers don't go to bed early.

?Mats gaming as a child

?So who was Mats during all of those hours he spent playing?

He became Lord Ibelin Redmoore and sometimes Jerome Walker. "Jerome and Ibelin are extensions of myself, they represent different sides of me," he wrote.

He immersed himself on the planet Azeroth, in the hugely popular ganme World of Warcraft. Azeroth is a mythical fantasy world. There are continents, seas and forests, cliffs and plains, villages and cities. Mats spent most of his time in a region called the Eastern Kingdoms.

As an online player you get to know this world bit by bit, just as you know your physical world.

There will be places you plan to travel to, and landscapes and cities you will master - some better than others. In some areas you will be on your guard, while in others you will love to hang out. You will find your local inn and meet new, interesting people.

That's the way the world is. That's the way Azeroth is.

Mats made the journey and found a wide circle of good friends.


"When I went past Mats's basement flat during the day and the curtains were closed. That is a sorrow I remember well," says Robert, who works as Oslo's vice-mayor of finance.

"'Oh, no,' I thought, 'he hasn't even started his day yet'. I was sad because his world was so limited."

But non-gamers don't see the whole picture. They don't realise it's more than just shooting and point-scoring.

"We thought it was all about the game. And just that. We thought it was a competition that you were supposed to win."

And there was the matter of Mats's circadian rhythm - his 24-hour daily cycle.

"We didn't understand why it was important for Mats to be online late in the evening and at night," says Robert.

"But of course, it isn't in the morning or in the middle of the day that people are playing. That is when most of them are at school or work.

"We first understood it after he passed away. Until the very end we wanted him to be asleep by 11 at night, like other 'normal' people."

Lisette Roovers, from Breda in the Netherlands, was one of Mats's close gamer friends. She was also one of those present at the funeral in 2014.

She is in Norway again - visiting friend Kai Simon Fredriksen, who also played online with Mats.

"I knew Mats for many years. It was a shock when he died, and it has shaped me," says Lisette, sitting on Kai Simon's sofa in Hoybraten, in north-east Oslo.

Lisette, now 28, was only 15 years old when she met 16-year-old Mats. Or, to be precise, when Lisette's game character Rumour met Mats's game character Ibelin.

"We met in Goldshire," says Lisette.

"It's not a nice place any more, but back then Goldshire was a pleasant little village, where you could meet new, interesting characters. I was looking for someone to role play with, and among others sitting around a campfire was the one I would later learn to know as Ibelin.

"I - or Rumour, rather - acted somewhat impulsively. I jumped out of the bushes and snatched Ibelin's hat. We stood for a moment, staring back and forth, then I ran away with his hat, with no thought of direction."

She smiles a little.

Mats also wrote about this first meeting with Lisette, in a blog post he called Love.

"In this other world a girl wouldn't see a wheelchair or anything different. They would get my soul, heart and mind, conveniently placed in a handsome, strong body. Luckily, pretty much every character in this virtual world looks great."

Lisette says: "Mats was a good friend, sometimes a very close friend.

"We wrote [to] each other about everything, but he didn't write about his condition. I thought his life was like mine. For example, we were both agreed that we hated school."

But there were things on which they could not agree.

"He wrote that he hated snow. I wrote that I loved it. I didn't understand then that he hated it because of his wheelchair. I didn't know about it."

Teenage Lisette's love of gaming concerned her parents. They were worried about her school studies and her apparent lack of a social life. Their solution was to restrict her access to online play.

"Being separated from my game friends was hard for me," Lisette recalls.

But Mats did not fail their friendship. Even if he could not find her in the game, he kept in touch with her through other channels.

"He even wrote a serious letter to my parents, in which he tried to help them understand how important playing was for me," she says. "I have saved that letter."

Robert and Trude knew their son wrote to someone named Lisette.

"Mats spoke quite a bit about these game characters - these avatars - but we didn't think much of it. He told us about Rumour, among others," says Robert.

"She, or Lisette rather, sent him presents, including on his birthday. We thought that was touching, and we also teased him a bit about it. Then he blushed, really blushed.

"So we thought of Lisette as a friend, because of these presents. They were tangible proof of real friendship, you could say.

"We didn't call the others he was in touch with, friends. We called them avatars. Our perception of friendship was very traditional."

In World of Warcraft, you can either play alone or join forces with other players and form a group - or guild. Mats was part of such a group, Starlight, with about 30 members.

"Nobody just becomes a member of Starlight," says Robert, now educated in the ways of the World of Warcraft. "To become a member you have to be recommended by someone who is already on the inside, then complete a trial period of one to two months."

Starlight has existed for more than 12 years and is still an active group.

"Starlight is a special group, because it has remained united for so long. That is probably why friendships in Starlight go so deep," concludes Robert.

Forty-year-old Kai Simon or Nomine, as he is called in the game, is the leader of Starlight.

Every year since Mats's death in 2014, Starlight has held a memorial to share memories of their comrade.

Last year, Kai Simon told other group members that when remembering Lord Ibelin Redmoore, they should focus on running and swimming.

"Ibelin was a runner," Kai Simon explains. "It was important for him to be able to run, and it was important for him to be able to share the experience of running with others."

Is Kai Simon now talking about Mats, or about Mats's game character? Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe this is how it was. The person and the character became one.

In the summer of 2013, Mats was 24 years old. The Steen family were on holiday in Majorca, while Mats - unable to travel - stayed at home in his basement flat with his assistant.

Mats had to have someone with him at all times. Through the years he had a number of different personal assistants - including his uncle. Luckily for Mats, some of the assistants were also interested in gaming.

While his parents were away in Spain, Mats started his blog "Musings of life". In a post titled "My escape", he wrote about life in Azeroth.

"There my handicap doesn't matter, my chains are broken and I can be whoever I want to be. In there I feel normal."

Mats shared his blog with the members of the Starlight guild - one by one. This was how they got to know about their fellow player's offline situation.

Lisette recalls the first time she read the blog.

Lisette next to Mats's character Ibelin

"I was floored. And I got a bad conscience because I had occasionally teased him in the game and had not always been totally considerate.

"Then I thought, 'Do I have to start behaving differently towards him from now on?'. But I decided to treat him just the way I had before. He also wrote in his blog that this is what he wanted."

In online play, she is Chit - a rough and ready character. Offline, she is Anne Hamill, a 65-year-old retired psychologist from Salisbury in the UK.

Anne says she finds it fascinating how the Starlight group functions for those who often fall by the wayside in the offline world.

"Because we meet each other without preconceptions, Starlight feels safe. Even for those who see themselves as outsiders.

"Online play is a fantastic arena for meeting people and building friendships. We discover each other without stereotypes in the way. It provides the chance to find out if we like someone - and only then reveal our age, gender, disability or skin colour if we feel like it.

"I think Mats was lucky to belong to our time, technologically," she adds. "In Starlight he was a key member. If he had been born 15 years earlier, he wouldn't have found a community like that."

About six months before he died, Mats was absent from the World of Warcraft for 10 days. His fellow players wondered where he was.

"Ten days was a very long time to be logged off, because Mats was always there, when you needed someone to play or chat with," says Anne.

When he returned to the game, the others learned that he had been admitted to hospital. Anne says she finally decided to say, in game chat, what she had been thinking.

She wrote: "Mats, you must give someone a possibility to come into contact with us, if something should happen to you. So that we can know, even if you can't give us a message yourself."

She hoped he would either give his password to someone, or come up with his own solution of how to let Starlight know if something had happened to him.

"You are important to us," she wrote.

"You are just saying that because you have learned that I am sitting in a wheelchair," replied Mats.

"I told him that wasn't true," says Anne. "I said, 'you are important to the guild. You are a fantastic listener. You are one of the people who lifts others up in Starlight'."

It was a while before Mats posted again.

"I really understood then, that he had taken what I had said to heart."

On 18 November 2014, Mats died.

Critically ill, he had been admitted to hospital. Doctors managed to stabilise him and said he could soon be allowed home - but then the family were told to come as quickly as they could.

"He was on the fourth floor at the end of a corridor. Every second was precious, the corridor was so long," says Robert.

They came too late.

The photograph Robert took of his son on his deathbed shows a pale young man, with dark wavy hair. He has finely drawn eyes, a noble nose and a mouth marked by the breathing mask he had used for so long. He looks like he is asleep.

Many years before, Lisette had made Mats a drawing. Ibelin is holding Rumour, a scarf conceals his nose and mouth.

"Mats got it through the regular mail," Robert says.

"Now it is hanging on the wall at home."

The day after Mats died the whole family was at home.

"The doorbell was ringing, flowers arrived, neighbours visited. We cried," Robert recalls.

Robert tried to think who he had to tell about Mats's death. He remembered the gamers and wondered how in the world he could reach them.

"Before Mats died, I never thought that I would have to have his password."

But now he needed it.

"That was when I thought of his blog," says Robert.

In fact, Mats had given his father the password to his blog, so that Robert could continuously check its statistics and monitor how many had visited and read each post.

"You don't know who plays a role in your child's life if you don't know their digital friends," says Anne, or Chit - as she offers some advice to parents.

"Make an agreement with your children about how to reach their digital friends in case anything should happen to them. Otherwise, they may have friends who will go around wondering forever what happened."

At the end of the blog post about Mats's death, Robert posted an email address for anyone wanting to get in touch.

"I wrote and cried. Then I hit publish. I didn't know if any replies would come… and then the first email arrived - a heartfelt condolence from one of the players from Starlight.

"I read the email aloud: 'It is with heavy heart I write this post for a man I never met, but knew so well.' It made such an impression."

Then came more messages of condolence - more stories of Mats's gaming life.

"He transcended his physical boundaries and enriched the lives of people all over the world," read one. "Mats's passing has hit me very hard. I can't put into words how much I'll miss him," said the next. "I don't believe that one single person is the heart of Starlight. But if one was, it would have been him."

Robert says: "An entire society, a tiny nation of people began to take shape.

"And it was on a scale that we had no idea existed. More and more emails arrived that testified about the kind of significance Mats had."

When Mats's group, Starlight, learned of his death, the members pooled money so that those who could not afford it had the opportunity to travel to Norway for the funeral.

Robert says the family was very touched.

"We cried and cried from an intense emotional joy that came from seeing what kind of a life Mats had in fact lived. With real friends, sweethearts, people who cared so much that they would fly from another country to the funeral service of someone they had never met. That was powerful."

Lisette from the Netherlands went to the funeral. So did Anne from the UK, Janina from Finland and Rikke from Denmark.

Kai Simon Fredriksen

On behalf of the Starlight members, Oslo native Kai Simon addressed the congregation.

"While we are gathered here today, a candle is being lit for Mats in a classroom in the Netherlands, a candle burns in a call centre in Ireland, in a library in Sweden there is a candle lit, he is remembered in a little beauty parlour in Finland, a municipal office in Denmark, many places in England. All over Europe, Mats is remembered by many more than those who had the opportunity to come here today.

"I met Mats in a world where it doesn't matter a bit who you are, what kind of body you have, or how you look in reality, behind the keyboard.

"There, what does matter is who you choose to be and how you conduct yourself towards others. What does matter is what is found here," - Kai Simon laid his hand on his temple, "and here." Kai Simon laid his hand on his heart.

In his blog, Mats had written about the computer screen which he had sat in front of for over half his life: "It's not a screen, it's a gateway to wherever your heart desires."

Mats 'Ibelin' Steen memorial.

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 10:57

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India man to sue parents for giving birth to him

A 27-year-old Indian man plans to sue his parents for giving birth to him without his consent.

Mumbai businessman Raphael Samuel told the BBC that it's wrong to bring children into the world because they then have to put up with lifelong suffering.

Mr Samuel, of course, understands that our consent can't be sought before we are born, but insists that "it was not our decision to be born".

So as we didn't ask to be born, we should be paid for the rest of our lives to live, he argues.

Mr Samuel's belief is rooted in what's called anti-natalism - a philosophy that argues that life is so full of misery that people should stop procreating immediately.

This, he says, would gradually phase out humanity from the Earth and that would also be so much better for the planet.

"There's no point to humanity. So many people are suffering. If humanity is extinct, Earth and animals would be happier. They'll certainly be better off. Also no human will then suffer. Human existence is totally pointless."

A year ago, he created a Facebook page, Nihilanand, which features posters that show his images with a huge fake beard, an eye-mask and anti-natalist messages like "Isn't forcing a child into this world and forcing it to have a career, kidnapping, and slavery?" Or, "Your parents had you instead of a toy or a dog, you owe them nothing, you are their entertainment."

Mr Samuel says he remembers first having anti-natalist thoughts when he was five.

"I was a normal kid. One day I was very frustrated and I didn't want to go to school but my parents kept asking me to go. So I asked them: 'Why did you have me?' And my dad had no answer. I think if he'd been able to answer, maybe I wouldn't have thought this way."

As the idea grew and took shape in his mind, he decided to tell his parents about it.

Mr Samuel says he has "very loving relations" with his parents (both of whom are lawyers) and that his mum reacted "very well" and dad too.

"Mum said she wished she had met me before I was born and that if she did, she definitely wouldn't have had me," he says laughing and adds that she does see reason in his argument.

"She told me that she was quite young when she had me and that she didn't know she had another option. But that's what I'm trying to say - everyone has the option."

In a statement, his mother Kavita Karnad Samuel said it was unfair to focus on a "sliver of what he believes in".

"His belief in anti-natalism, his concern for the burden on Earth's resources due to needless life, his sensitivity toward the pain experienced unwittingly by children while growing up and so much more has been ruefully forgotten.

"I'm very happy that my son has grown up into a fearless, independent-thinking young man. He is sure to find his path to happiness."

Mr Samuel says his decision to take his parents to court is only based on his belief that the world would be a much better place without human beings in it.

So six months ago, one day at breakfast, he told his mother that he was planning to sue her. "She said that's fine, but don't expect me to go easy on you. I will destroy you in court." Mr Samuel is now looking for a lawyer to take up his case, but so far he's not had much success.

"I know it's going to be thrown out because no judge would hear it. But I do want to file a case because I want to make a point."

His Facebook posts have also attracted a lot of responses, "some positive, but mostly negative" with some even advising him to "go kill yourself". He has also had worried mums asking him what would happen if their children see his posts.

"Some argue logically, some are offended and some are offensive. To those abusing me, let them abuse me. But I also hear from many who say they support me but can't say this publicly for whatever reasons. I ask them to come out and speak up," he says.

His critics also say that he's doing this to get some publicity.

"I'm not really doing this for publicity," he says, "but I do want the idea to go public. This simple idea that it's okay to not have a child."

I ask him if he is unhappy being born.

"I wish I was not born. But it's not that I'm unhappy in my life. My life is good, but I'd rather not be here. You know it's like there's a nice room, but I don't want to be in that room," he explains.

ruby Posted on February 07, 2019 10:08

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Crash driver 'swerved to avoid octopus'

A driver who swerved "to avoid an octopus" before crashing has been arrested on suspicion of drug-driving.

Police were called to the A381 between Malborough and South Milton in Devon, where they found a vehicle upside-down in a ditch on Tuesday evening.

The 49-year-old driver was checked over by paramedics before being arrested.

Officers, who tweeted about the incident, said they found no evidence of an octopus on the road.

Octopuses are not unheard of in the seas off the south coast of England, but this particular cephalopod would have had to crawl more than 5km over hills and fields to find itself in the path of a car on the A381.

Police said they found no evidence of an octopus on the A381 between Malborough and South Milton

A spokeswoman for Devon and Cornwall Police said: "He did a bit of a slow roll into a ditch.

"An ambulance went out and the driver was checked over by paramedics but there weren't injuries enough to go to hospital.

The man, from Salcombe, was arrested on suspicion of driving while unfit through drugs or drink and has been released under investigation pending further inquiries.

Twitter users were quick to respond with puns.

However, police pointed out that driving under the influence of drugs - illegal or prescription - was a serious matter, and could be "just as dangerous as drink-driving".

ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 14:55

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Kelly Franklin murder: Lovers jailed for ex-partner's death

An "evil monster" who stabbed his ex-partner to death in the street has been jailed for life with a minimum of 29 years.

Torbjorn Kettlewell, 30, stabbed Kelly Franklin, 29, more than 30 times in Hartlepool after she ended their abusive 12-year relationship.

His lover Julie Wass, 48, was jailed for eight years for manslaughter.

Both were found guilty of the 3 August killing by jurors at Teesside Crown Court.

Ms Franklin's family said Kettlewell was an "evil, vicious monster" who had "plagued" her life in a "controlling and abusive relationship".

In a statement read to the court, Ms Franklin's sister Stacy said she had got rid of Kettlewell "like a nasty virus".

She told him: "You were meant to have loved her, we will never forgive you."

Kelly Franklin was stabbed in the street in August

Ms Franklin's sister added that the family were "disgusted" Kettlewell initially admitted the murder but then changed his plea, putting them through the pain of a trial.

She also said the children "are flourishing" without their father, adding: "They hate you for what you have done."

Jailing the pair, Judge Mr Justice Jacobs said Ms Franklin had been "worn down" by her abusive relationship with Kettlewell.

"It is never easy for an abused woman to break free, but certainly in the last few months of her life, she did it and did it successfully," he added.

"The tragedy of this case is that it was her success and determination in breaking free, and staying free, that led to her brutal murder on the streets of Hartlepool."

Julie Wass led police to Torbjorn Kettlewell's home

Prosecutors labelled Kettlewell an "utterly self-centred narcissist" who was "coercive and psychologically abusive" towards Ms Franklin and the couple's three children during their relationship, which ended in January 2018.

Wass lived next door to the victim and would report her movements to Kettlewell.

On the day of the killing, Kettlewell, who had bombarded his ex with messages telling her to get back with him, was driven by Wass to find Ms Franklin.

Wass spotted her walking on Oxford Street, where Kettlewell confronted and attacked her.

Wass then drove him to woods near Trimdon before returning to the scene and speaking to police in an attempt to cover up her role.

Stacy Franklin also said Wass, a mother and grandmother, had been "disgusting and heartless".

ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 14:53

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Donald Trump to visit UK in December for Nato summit

US President Donald Trump is expected to visit the UK in December for a Nato summit, the alliance's secretary general has said.

Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement that "the Allies have agreed" to meet to discuss security challenges and how Nato can adapt to keep people safe.

Theresa May said it would be an "important opportunity" to modernise.

Mr Trump's controversial first official trip to the UK took place in July 2018, amid a backdrop of angry protests.

The US president met the Queen at Windsor Castle and held talks with the prime minister at Chequers, while thousands of people marched through central London in protest at his visit.

The police operation for the visit cost an estimated £18m, according to the National Police Chiefs' Council.

The announcement of Mr Trump's December trip led the Liberal Democrats to say they would be "front and centre to protest his visit", while the Green Party tweeted "we'll be there to greet him".

The US president, who has repeatedly criticised the military alliance, will meet heads of state in London - the home of Nato's first headquarters.


Theresa May said: "The UK is one of the founding members of Nato and I am very pleased that the secretary general has asked us to host a meeting of Nato leaders this year to mark its 70th anniversary".

Mr Stoltenberg said the UK continues to play a key role in the alliance, making "essential contributions to our shared security".

'Treated unfairly'

Mr Trump has previously urged Nato to commit 4% of its annual output (GDP) to military spending - double the current target.

On Tuesday, he said in his State of the Union address that the US had been "treated very unfairly by friends of ours, members of Nato" over a period of years.

The announcement came as Nato states signed an agreement with Macedonia, clearing the way for the Balkan nation to become its 30th member.

Meanwhile, Mr Trump announced in his State of the Union speech that he will hold a second nuclear summit with North Korea's leader this month.

Plans for a second summit have been in the works since the two leaders' historic talks last year.

Mr Trump and Mr Kim's meeting last June in Singapore was the first ever between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader.?

ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 14:41

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The defected diplomat turned Barnsley budgie vlogger

In a shed in a back garden in Barnsley, Khaled al-Ayoubi tends to his budgies. He is a long way from his former life.

In 2012, he was Syria's most senior UK diplomat, but quit over the regime's "violent and oppressive acts". He then began a new existence in the South Yorkshire town.

"I (had) one budgie who used to mimic lots of words and dance. That was in Syria," the 47-year-old says.

Disco, Tommy and Farah are among some 20 birds hand-reared and hand-fed by Khaled. He spends hours with them every day.

They are also the stars of his Youtube channel Happy Parrots, where thousands of viewers get tips on feeding, breeding and bathing the colourful birds.

"They are like my children now. I can't live without them," he says. "It's as if you're dealing with a human - they have character."

The birds, which are popular in Syria, have been part of helping him adjust to his new life.

"I was very stressed. I have good neighbours but you can't stay with your neighbours all the time," he says.

"I sit alone, I have no one to speak with. So they are my friends, I feel relaxed with them. They are fabulous animals."In 2012, Khaled led Syria's embassy in London as the charge d'affaires.

A year earlier, pro-democracy demonstrations - inspired by the "Arab Spring" - had taken place in Syria. But they were met by deadly force from the government, which led to more protests demanding President Bashar al-Assad's resignation.

The violence intensified and soon the country had descended into civil war. And so after seven years as a diplomat, Khaled resigned.

"I wasn't happy with the way they were treating the Syrian people," he said. "When I realised the country was going to be destroyed, I said I can't ever be part of that."

Then Prime Minister David Cameron hailed his resignation as "one in the eye" for the Assad regime, which he hoped would "crumble as fast as possible".

Khaled al-Ayoubi (far right) pictured with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (second left) during a presidential trip to Greece

More than six years on, having claimed more than 350,000 lives and created millions of refugees, Syria's civil war continues.

As one of the first diplomats to defect, Khaled says now he was very scared.

"There was a huge danger on me. So they decided for security reasons to transfer me out of London and then I ended up here in Barnsley."

Why Barnsley?

There are currently 40,481 people housed on the UK's asylum dispersal scheme, but they are not dispersed equally around the country.

Barnsley houses 415 asylum seekers, while in other places - like Prime Minister Theresa May's Maidenhead constituency - there are none.

Councils participate in the asylum dispersal scheme voluntary but some, like Barnsley, are now threatening to withdraw.

"We don't want to (withdraw) but we can't carry on in the vein we've been," Barnsley council leader Stephen Houghton told Newsnight.

Government guidance says no more than one in every 200 of the local population should be an asylum seeker.

But asylum seekers often end up clustered in small areas, where private companies contracted by the Home Office can find the cheapest property.

The Local Government Association has suggested the one in 200 cap be applied at ward level.

BBC Newsnight has been shown a list of the 10 wards in Yorkshire with the highest concentration of asylum seekers. In all 10 of them, asylum seekers make up more than one in 200 of the population.

In Park ward in Calderdale, asylum seekers constitute one in 68 of the population. In Barnsley, Kingstone ward has a ratio of one in 86, while in Central ward the ratio is one in 98.

"Very often these are communities with their own social and economic challenges to begin with," Cllr Houghton says.

The cost of housing asylum seekers is footed by the Home Office rather than local authorities.

In a statement, the Home Office said: "Where a local authority agrees to take part, accommodation providers must consult with them on all properties they intend to use as asylum accommodation. Through this process local authorities can raise any concerns they have."

"I have good neighbours, they welcome refugees," he says. "They're really supportive."

But one of the biggest problems Khaled faced once his asylum status became refugee status was finding work.

His wife works in a factory, while Khaled volunteers with the Refugee Council as an advisor and interpreter helping new arrivals.

He recalls meeting refugees who had been attacked or abused since arriving in England. One "lost his knee", while another had eggs thrown at their window.

'We lost our home'

"Migrants - we live uncertainly because we don't know the future. I have no place to go," Khaled says.

He plans to apply for citizenship in order to get a British passport and to "have a country to protect me".

"I am not here for benefits. I came here to be safe," he says. "I abandoned all my fortune. I lost all my properties in Syria... I still live in uncertainty."

Khaled accepts he may not ever see his home country again.

"I would like to die there, but now it's not an option. I know politics, I know this regime has been rehabilitated, so (there's) no way I can go there. If this president went, his son would be the ruler and after 30 years there would be another revolution.

"We lost the country. We lost our home."

ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 14:37

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Should Liam Neeson be cancelled? Here's what columnists say on race row

Fierce debate is raging over actor Liam Neeson's controversial admission that he once wanted to kill a random black man, with some suggesting his unguarded comments amounted to "career suicide".

"The only question anyone in Hollywood will be asking for some time to come is 'Liam who?'" said one newspaper pundit.

Another called his remarks "terrifying, sickening and really saddening".

Yet he has received support elsewhere, with one columnist suggesting he was "brave" to admit "a terrible thought".

In an interview published by The Independent on Monday, Neeson revealed that discovering someone close to him had been raped many years ago had made him want to take out his anger on a random black person.

The 66-year-old said he did not go through with any violence and expressed regret that he had reacted in such a "horrible" way.

Media captionListen to Liam Neeson's comments that sparked the outrage

Speaking on ABC's Good Morning America on Tuesday, Neeson denied he was racist and said he hoped his remarks would start a wider conversation about racism.

That conversation shows no signs of abating and commentators had their say in the press on Wednesday.

Eva Simpson, Daily Mirror

Liam Neeson gave one of the most explosive, career-ending interviews I have ever heard when he told a journalist he wanted to murder a black person, after someone close to him was raped.

He's now furiously back-pedalling and telling anyone who will listen that he is not racist - no doubt with one eye on the effect his comments will have at the box office.

Neeson has admitted he walked around with a cosh for a whole week trying to find someone to attack. I find this utterly terrifying, sickening and really saddening.

There is absolutely no reason to hate someone because of the colour of their skin, but sadly people do.

Natasha Richardson, pictured with Neeson in 2008, died after a skiing accident in 2009

Gary Younge, The Guardian

We should, at the very least, admire [Neeson] for his candour. For all the talk of a post-racial society and Enlightenment values, here's a white man who admits he literally went out for a week or more looking for a black man to murder.

The man who performed a tender love scene with Viola Davis [in Widows] is the same man who fantasised about killing her husband or stepson or anyone else who looked like them.

We should, of course, not ignore Neeson's shame in this. We all do things we regret. We are all fragile. It takes courage to admit the things that we are most ashamed of.

[But] since when did people get credit for confessing that they once thought about killing innocent people on the basis of their race and have since thought better of it?

John Barnes: Liam Neeson 'deserves a medal'

Jan Moir, Daily Mail

I don't think Liam Neeson is a racist. However, you could certainly make a case against him, were you so inclined.

You could damn him to hell forever, because he has certainly committed a terrible sin by Hollywood standards.

The ultimate sin, perhaps. The definitive transgression. When asked a question, he tried to tell the truth.

But if we spool back, what do we find? A crucial point, which is that the young Neeson contemporaneously realised his thinking was wrong and irresponsible. He was ashamed and horrified of how he felt, both then and now.

Neeson played Viola Davis's husband in 2018 crime thriller Widows

Brendan O'Neill, The Spectator

Neeson, in his rage over a rape, was engaging in the horrible art of collective guilt, seeing all black men as legitimate targets for the crime of one particular black man.

That is racist and wrong. But here's the thing: Neeson knows this. He admits the wickedness of his thinking.

He did not make this confession to promote the collective judgement of black people or race-based vengeance, but to do the opposite: to highlight how awful and corrupting such feelings are.

Yet none of this matters to the Twittermob or to those sections of the media that love nothing more than hanging out to dry individuals who have thought or said or done bad things.

The Independent journalist Clemence Michallon: "The gravity of his thoughts hit me"

Celia Walden, Daily Telegraph

My very first thought [on hearing the interview] was: this man has had too much therapy.

We all know that Neeson lost his wife, Natasha Richardson, in a tragic skiing accident 10 years ago. And just last month the actor lost his 35-year-old nephew, Ronan Sexton, who died of head injuries caused by an equally random accident.

So it would not be surprising if Neeson hadn't had help from mental health experts, who probably encouraged him to let it all out.

Only, in doing that, he may have committed career suicide.

ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 14:26

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From Brexit with love: Lithuania sees its chance

They are the hot new trend in finance, and Marius Jurgilas's mission is to lure them to Lithuania. Yet even he has been shocked by the "overwhelming" number of enquiries from UK "fintech" companies in recent months.

The reason is Brexit.

Financial technology companies are making last-minute plans in case of a no-deal Brexit on 29 March. Many are looking to secure financial licences in other EU states to protect their operations, and this Baltic nation has an eye on helping to fill the gap.

Mr Jurgilas, a Bank of Lithuania board member, has had some notable successes.

Customers of new-age bank Revolut might not know it has acquired its banking licence in Lithuania. Google's parent company Alphabet has one too.

  • Mr Jurgilas insists his country's new direction is not all about Brexit.

"It was a coincidence," he says. "Mostly we just want innovation to happen here, not 10 years down the road after things are implemented in Sweden."

The start-ups with EU credentials

Marius Jurgilas is not alone. On the seventh floor of a shiny new office block, the Blockchain Centre is on the hunt for hot new fintech markets in Lithuania's name.

Inside, it is silent and the mood intense. Workers in headphones stare at black screens awash with code.

Motivational posters on the walls carry messages such as: "The future will be decentralised."

This one-year-old centre - which offers co-working space and consultancy services to start-ups using blockchain technology - plays to its EU credentials. Its website has an EU rather than a Lithuanian domain.

Egle Nemeikstyte runs the Blockchain Centre in Vilnius

But chief executive Egle Nemeikstyte says the centre is casting its net far beyond Europe. Australia, Singapore and Israel all want EU partners.

There is still plenty of scepticism about how blockchain should be used, and Ms Nemeikstyte sometimes has to dissuade people from jumping on the bandwagon.

"Lots of people come to us with ideas and we say that's great, but you don't need blockchain for it. Go ahead without it," she advises.

What is blockchain?

Bitcoin and blockchain explained

  • Records data in a verifiable and permanent way across many computers at once
  • Every computer has its own copy of the records - and verifies every new piece of information
  • Faking one copy of the blockchain will not work - because it will not match every other copy
  • Best known for underpinning digital "crypto" currencies, such as Bitcoin

How tight will the rules be?

Lithuania's expansion has been compared to Iceland, where the three biggest banks grew too fast and collapsed during the financial crisis of 2008.

Marius Jurgilas insists such comparisons are unfair and Lithuania is far from gung-ho in the field.

"We don't have the framework yet to know how to manage the risks. We don't want to go too fast in that area," he says of blockchain and crypto-currencies.

And yet the Bank of Lithuania offers "no regulatory sanctions for the first year of operations", which some have suggested could be a sign of laxity. Officials will also be keen to avoid the money-laundering cases that befell its neighbours, Latvia and Estonia.

Crypto-related graffiti on a wall in Vilnius

What Lithuania does offer is a regulatory "sandbox", which allows financial technology companies to test products in a limited environment and under supervision.

Such sandboxes are not common, but they are cropping up in places as disparate as Arizona and Kuwait. Critics worry that they mark a race to the bottom, but supporters insist they boost innovation and can be well-managed.

'Using Lithuania as a springboard'

One of Lithuania's biggest coups, or perhaps risks, has been in backing financial technology company Revolut.

Valued at $1.7bn (£1.3bn), it is one of the world's fast-growing app-based banks.

Brexit is a primary reason for its move to Vilnius, but it will still retain its London HQ and the electric money licence it has from UK regulators.

Last year it advertised for its third head of compliance in less than 18 months, and some have argued that it may be expanding too fast.

However, the company insists it is just looking for the right fit.

The River Neris snakes through the capital Vilnius

And there was "no cutting corners" when the company secured its specialised banking licence from Lithuania, insists head of business development Andrius Biceika.

That will allow Revolut to offer full current accounts, pay interest on deposits and issue loans. By choosing Lithuania, it can operate across the EU.

"We are going to pilot all this in Lithuania and then passport to other countries," says Mr Biceika. "We are seeing lots of companies using Lithuania as a springboard."

Gearing up for no-deal Brexit

In the UK, all the talk about Lithuania has travelled the corridors of Level 39 - a three-floor tech hub in London's Canary Wharf, where a number of its residents have been making insurance plans for Brexit.

TransferGo - a money transferring company for migrant workers - received its electronic money licence from the Lithuanian central bank in July 2018.

BABB - a yet-to-launch money transfer company that has no connections to Lithuania - is also midway through the process.

While both made the decision because of Brexit uncertainty, both also cited Lithuania's local talent and helpful regulators as other motivations.

The 'G-spot of Europe'?

Go to an event for fintech start-ups in Vilnius and the room teems with enthusiastic young entrepreneurs.

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, various international companies came here to save money. Among them was Western Union, where many Lithuanians learnt the ropes of finance.

"We used to compete over low costs," says Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Simasius. "But now it is more about talent."

Vilnius has certainly been putting itself out there. In mid-2018, it launched a bizarre tourist campaign called "G-spot of Europe" complete with tagline: "Nobody knows where it is but when you find it, it's amazing."

The city's tourism office has launched a racy campaign to entice visitors to Lithuania

Co-working hub Rise Vilnius is where you will find dozens of the new companies. Backed by British bank Barclays, it is one of seven such hubs in Mumbai, Tel Aviv, London, Manchester, Cape Town and New York.

"There was scepticism that we would find enough fintech start-ups here, but we proved them wrong," says Mariano Andrade Gonzalez, executive director of Barclays' operations centre in Lithuania.

The mayor of Vilnius says companies have discovered that the city's workforce is particularly suited to the new start-ups, because Lithuanians have good mathematical skills.

"Maybe that goes down to the dark times of the Soviet Union. People studied these things instead of social studies.

"It was natural for us to move into fintech, even before Brexit. We are willing to adapt to the future, not fight it."

ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 14:18

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Why so many young women don't call themselves feminist

In recent years, feminist movements have attracted significant attention in Europe and North America. So why do so many young women still say they do not identify with the term?

Fewer than one in five young women would call themselves a feminist, polling in the UK and US suggests.

That might come as a surprise as feminism - the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of equality of the sexes - has been in the spotlight lately.

A day after the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, millions around the world joined the 2017 Women's March. A key aim was to highlight women's rights, which many believed to be under threat.

Another defining moment came when sexual harassment claims were made against film producer Harvey Weinstein by more than 80 women - allegations he denies.

Online movements have also gained momentum. Actress Alyssa Milano suggested that anyone who had been "sexually harassed or assaulted" should reply to her Tweet with "#MeToo", resurrrecting a movement started by activist Tarana Burke in 2006.

Half a million responded in the first 24 hours and the hashtag has been used in more than 80 countries.

Jameela Jamil has been an advocate for body positivity

Many other celebrities have publicly embraced feminism, including actresses Emma Watson, who launched an equality campaign with the United Nations and "body positivity warrior" Jameela Jamil.

Movements like #everydaysexism and discussion points such as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Ted talk, We should all be feminists, have also struck a chord with millions.

Rejection of feminism

These events have all helped to bring feminism to mainstream attention.

So it is perhaps unexpected that the identity "feminist" has not gained more popularity among young women in the Western world.

In the UK there has been a small increase in the number of women who identify as such.

A 2018 YouGov poll found that 34% of women in the UK said "yes" when asked whether they were a feminist, up from 27% in 2013.

It's a similar picture in Europe, with fewer than half of men and women polled in five countries agreeing they were a feminist. This ranged from 8% of respondents in Germany, to 40% in Sweden.

However, people do not appear to reject the term feminism because they are against gender equality or believe it has been achieved.

The same study found that eight out of 10 people said men and women should be treated equally in every way, with many agreeing sexism is still an issue.

This appears to represent a shift in attitudes over time.

A study of 27,000 people in the US found that two-thirds believed in gender equality in 2016, up from a quarter in 1977.

And in a 2017 UK poll, 8% said they agreed with traditional gender roles - that a man should earn money and a woman should stay at home - down from 43% in 1984.

If many believe gender equality is important, and still lacking, then why do relatively few people - including young women - identify as feminist?

It could be that they do not feel the term speaks to them.

The term feminist is less likely to appeal to working-class women, polls suggest.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk "We should all be feminists" has been viewed more than 6 million times

Almost one in three people from the top social grade ABC1 - those in managerial, administrative and professional occupations - called themselves a feminist in a 2018 poll. This compared with one in five from grades C2DE, which include manual workers, state pensioners, casual workers, and the unemployed.

But those from lower income backgrounds are just as likely to support equal rights. Eight out of 10 people from both groups agreed men and women should be equal in every way, when asked for a 2015 poll.

This may suggest lower income groups support the principle behind feminism, but aren't keen on the word itself.

Race can also shape views of feminism.

Research into the views of US millennials found 12% of Hispanic women, 21% of African American women, 23% of Asian women and 26% of white women identify as a feminist.

Three-quarters of all the women polled said the feminist movement has done either "a lot" or "some" to improve the lives of white women.

However, just 60% said it had achieved much for women of other ethnicities - a sentiment shared by 46% of African American women.

Another hurdle may be some of the stereotypes and misconceptions associated with feminism.

In her introduction to the recently published anthology Feminists Don't Wear Pink and Other Lies, curator Scarlett Curtis refers to the stereotype of feminists as not wearing make-up, or shaving their legs or liking boys.

These stereotypes have persisted through the ages. In the 1920s, feminists were often called spinsters and speculation about their sexual preferences was rife. Almost a century later, these views still hold some sway.

Having interviewed a diverse group of young German and British women for my research, I found associations of the term "feminism" with man-hating, lesbianism or lack of femininity was a key factor in rejections of the label "feminist".

The majority said they did not want to call themselves feminist because they feared they would be associated with these traits. This was despite many stressing they were not homophobic and some identifying as lesbian or bisexual.

So, how could the image of feminism be improved?

Arguably, as a society we should do more to challenge narrowly defined expectations of how women should look and act.

Working harder to make this movement more inclusive could mean that feminism speaks to the experiences and concerns of diverse groups of women.

Nevertheless, whichever label women choose to adopt, the indication that the vast majority of people now support equality - and acknowledge it has not yet been achieved - is heartening.


ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 12:51

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Why celebrities are being sued over images of themselves

Celebrities and the paparazzi have a notoriously tense relationship. From accusations of invasion of privacy to criticism of unflattering photos, stars have regularly hit out at those who are paid to pursue them.

But in the last couple of years, a new wave of complaints has started flowing from the other side.

A number of well-known celebrities, including Jennifer Lopez and model Gigi Hadid, have had lawsuits filed against them for posting paparazzi images on their social media accounts.

So what exactly is going on with these copyright disputes?

You might think that being the subject of an image means you can use it freely.

But according to copyright law, it's the photographer who usually owns an image's rights unless it's been licensed to a third party like their agency or employer.

So whether you're a celebrity who has been papped leaving the latest Hollywood hotspot or someone who posed for a friend, the ownership of the photograph typically falls to the person who pressed the button.

Neel Chatterjee, a US lawyer who specialises in high-profile intellectual property disputes, says social media has created an "enormous amount of complexity" in the field.

He says in part the problem is caused because functions like online re-tweets allow images to proliferate quickly far beyond the control of the copyright holder.

Selfies (like those popularised by heiress Paris Hilton) are safe from such disputes

In recent lawsuits, photograph agencies have claimed that it's not fair for celebrities to reproduce and distribute their images to their millions of fans without license. Some have even appealed for compensation for loss of earnings.

The stakes are made even higher because of the monetary value of some of the social media feeds in question, with some earning up to $1m per sponsored post on platforms like Instagram.

Khloe Kardashian was among the first people to be publicly pursued in one of these copyright cases.

She was sued for infringement in 2017 after posting a paparazzi photograph of herself visiting a Miami restaurant on her Instagram feed.

Xposure Photos, a UK based agency, sought damages of more than $175,000 for the post.

They said the image, which had been exclusively licensed to the Daily Mail, was used by Khloe without their permission and their accreditation had been erased.

Khloe and Kim Kardashian are among those who have spoken out again the crackdown

They argued her post, shared to almost 67m followers, constituted "wilful, intentional, and malicious" infringement of their copyright.

Kardashian eventually deleted the image and both sides agreed to dismiss the suit last year.

But the star has acknowledged the row is an ongoing problem for her and her sisters.

She told Twitter fans that it might take longer for her to share images from events because she had to obtain proper permission first.

"I have to license my own image which blows my mind," she said in reply to one fan.

"They can legally stalk me and harass me and then on top of it all I can't even use the pictures of myself they take LOL," she tweeted to another.

Last week, model Gigi Hadid became the latest star to be slapped with a lawsuit over an image she posted of herself.

A complaint against the model alleges that her Instagram account "includes at least 50 examples of uncredited photographs of Hadid in public, at press events, or on the runway".

Gigi Hadid revealed in October she was being "legally pursued" over a photograph

It was reported last month that Jennifer Lopez is being sued in a similar case involving an image posted on her Instagram story - a temporary post that disappears after 24 hours.

They are several more examples of a similar nature and the problem looks unlikely to go away.

The rise of 'copyright trolling'

Mr Chatterjee says these cases are becoming known within the industry as "copyright trolling".

He believes photo agencies are exploring it as a "new and incremental way" of increasing their revenue streams.

"They're going to take a picture outside a nightclub or restaurant whether or no they have a relationship with this famous person or not," he says, when asked if paparazzi should be worried about offending stars.

And it's not just celebrities themselves being targeted.

A number of so-called "fan accounts" have also reported being aggressively pursued on copyright grounds, with some apparently being shutdown altogether in the process.

When some Kardashian fans complained about the problem last year, Kim said her family was even considering hiring their own photographers to try and bypass the problem.

"It's just one of those things that offends common sense," Mr Chatterjee says of the copyright law.

"If someone's harassing me and takes a photograph of me and I happen to like the picture and want to make use of it, after they harassed me and made money from me - now they can sue me for that?"

He also cast doubt on accusations of loss of earnings.

"If you look at Kylie Jenner for example," he says. "You know when she promotes something, her distribution is so much broader that anything these agencies would be able to achieve.

"In some ways they amp up the iconic nature of some of these images."

Do the celebrities have a defence?

US National Football League (NFL) star Odell Beckham Jnr is another person embroiled in a legal battle involving paparazzi.

The player, who has more than 12 million Instagram followers, accused one agency of extortion last year after allegedly receiving a demand for a $40,000 payment over an image he had shared.

Reports regarding the lawsuit said he wanted to defend himself over his "rights to publicity" - conditions within some states' laws which protect a person's right to control how their name or likeness is used commercially.

The defence has been used before.

In 2014 actress Katherine Heigl sued a US drugstore chain after they used a paparazzi image of her carrying the pharmacy's shopping bags for promotion on social media. That case was eventually dropped, apparently in return for the post's deletion and a confidential donation to a charity.

But, as Mr Chatterjee points out, this defence in regards to paparazzi copyright complaints remains complex and largely untested in case law.

Of the lawsuits filed against celebrities so far, many have been dismissed or settled before being litigated to resolution.

"You'll see people offering to settle for say $10-20,000," he says, "Which seems like a lot of money but in context of litigation costs it's really not that much - especially for these high profile figures."

"It's going to take someone like a Kardashian who has tons of money who sees other commercial benefits by litigating these questions. It very well may take someone like that to actually fight this stuff."

ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 11:48

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State of the Union: Trump announces second North Korea summit


What happened at Trump's State of the Union address?

US President Donald Trump has announced in his State of the Union speech that he will hold a second nuclear summit with North Korea's leader this month.

In an address to the nation with the theme "Choosing Greatness", he vowed once again to build a border wall.

While appealing for political unity, the Republican president also said "ridiculous partisan investigations" could damage US prosperity.

In a rebuttal, Democrats accused Mr Trump of abandoning US values.

His primetime address came less than a fortnight after he backed down to end the longest ever US government shutdown when Democrats refused to fund a US-Mexico border wall.

Federal agencies could close again if no spending plan is agreed by the end of next week.

What did he say about North Korea?

The president said in his 82-minute speech on Tuesday night that he would meet Kim Jong-un in Vietnam from 27-28 February.

"Much work remains to be done," Mr Trump said, "but my relationship with Kim Jong-un is a good one."'

Plans for a second summit have been in the works since the two leaders' historic talks last year.

Mr Trump and Mr Kim's meeting last June in Singapore was the first ever between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader.

While Pyongyang has not conducted any atomic or ballistic missile tests since last summer, it has yet to agree to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme.

The US envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, is in Pyongyang for talks, paving the way for the second leadership summit.

The nuclear word Trump and Kim can't agree on

What might a second summit achieve?

Mr Trump's goal will be to extract pledges from Kim Jong-un without giving too much ground. The Trump administration has said it is not willing to lift sanctions, but it has mentioned helping out the North's economy.

However, handing over such aid to a secretive state which has yet to declare a list of its weapons facilities or allow in independent inspectors is bound to raise more than eyebrows.

So Mr Trump has to extract a written pledge from Mr Kim. Otherwise these summits will be seen as all show, and very little substance.

As for Mr Kim's bargaining chips, we have been told he could be prepared to give up his nuclear production site known as Yongbyon.

I've also been told by some sources close to Pyongyang that Mr Kim does want to achieve something his father and grandfather never did. A peace treaty.

The prospect of becoming the US president who ended the 68-year long Korean War is bound to be a tantalising one for Mr Trump.

What did he say about unity?

After two years of rancorous partisanship, Mr Trump on Tuesday night repeated calls for political unity that he has made in his last two annual speeches to Congress.

"Together, we can break decades of political stalemate," he said. "We can bridge old divisions, heal old wounds, build new coalitions."

Mr Trump raised potential areas of agreement, such as infrastructure improvements, lowering prescription drug costs and fighting childhood cancer.

But he added: "An economic miracle is taking place in the United States and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations."

Democrats have launched a flurry of inquiries into the Trump administration since they took over the US House of Representatives last month.

"You weren't supposed to do that!" - Trump and Democratic women share an unexpected moment of unity

A special prosecutor is still investigating alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, which the president and Moscow deny.

As Mr Trump delivered his nationally televised speech, his chief congressional antagonist was sitting at the rostrum over his shoulder.

The Democratic leader of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, tweeted afterwards: "It will take days to fact-check all the misrepresentations that the president made tonight."

A photo of Nancy Pelosi clapping after Mr Trump's address has gone viral

A message to his base

It was a speech that was billed as bipartisan, but beneath the flowery language were the same sharp divides and disagreements.

Mr Trump has never really acknowledged his party's ballot-box defeat in the mid-term elections last November.

By instigating the recently concluded government shutdown, he acted like he still had the political upper hand - even when it was clear to almost everyone that this was not the case.

So this State of the Union address presented a quandary. How can a president reconcile himself to divided government while still asserting that everything is going great for him?

For this president, the answer was to effectively shrug at the setbacks. To focus his message, where it counted, towards his political base.

And to stick with the message that won him the presidency in 2016 and, he appears to believe, will keep him in the White House for another term next year.

How did Democrats respond?

Stacey Abrams delivered the Democratic response to President Trump

Stacey Abrams, who lost her race last year to be governor of Georgia, delivered the Democrats' response to Mr Trump.

She was the first African-American woman to give the party's rebuttal.

Ms Abrams said: "The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people - but our values."

She also said that while she is "disappointed" with Mr Trump, "I still don't want him to fail."

Democratic female lawmakers who attended Mr Trump's speech wore white to celebrate the 100th anniversary of American women gaining the right to vote.

They sat stony-faced as their Republican counterparts rose for the applause lines.

But Democrats surprised Mr Trump with a standing ovation when he said there were more women in the workforce and in Congress than ever before.

"That's great!" said the president, delighted by their reaction. "Really great."

US First Lady Melania Trump (R) waves as Ivanka Trump (L) looks on

What did he say about foreign wars?

Mr Trump said his administration was holding "constructive talks" with the Taliban to find a solution to the conflict in Afghanistan.

"The hour has come to at least try for peace," he added.

The president also said "virtually all" of the territory once occupied in Syria and Iraq by the Islamic State group had been liberated from "these bloodthirsty monsters".

"It is time to give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home," he told the chamber.

He said 7,000 US troops had died and more than $7tn (£5.4tn) had been spent by America on nearly two decades of war in the Middle East.

"Great nations do not fight endless wars," said the president, who campaigned on an 'America First' platform.

What did Trump say on border security?

The president devoted much of his speech to border security, vowing once again to build a US-Mexico barrier and calling illegal immigration "an urgent national crisis".

But he refrained from declaring a national emergency that might allow him to bypass Congress for wall funding.

With another government shutdown deadline impending on 15 February, the president has few options to deliver his signature campaign promise.

Mr Trump told his audience that working-class Americans pay the price for illegal immigration.

Despite the president's call for unity, the reception from Democrats was frosty for most of the evening.

Meanwhile, Republicans shouted their approval - especially when Mr Trump talked about the wall along the southern border.

When the president said: "The state of our union is strong", members of his party stood and chanted: "USA!"

The Democrats stayed seated. But then the mood changed.

As the president noted the record number of women in Congress, Democrats gave a standing ovation - and they began shouting: "USA!"

Republicans joined in - they all chanted together.

Bitter adversaries experienced a rare, happy moment of togetherness. And the president was right in the middle of it.

ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 11:42

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Behind the legacy of America's blackface

Democratic Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam has refused to resign from office following the emergence of a photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook featuring a white man in blackface alongside another man wearing a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) robe.

On Friday, Mr Northam apologised and claimed that he was one of the two men in the photo, and in a news conference on Saturday denied being either man in the picture, refusing calls to resign.

At the disastrous news conference, the governor also admitted to wearing blackface at another occasion in 1984 when he dressed up as Michael Jackson for a dance contest, strangely boasting about winning the competition because he could moonwalk.

He then lost the support of Virginia's senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, as well as Virginia's first and only African-American governor, L Douglas Wilder.

All three men plus a growing number of politicians on both sides of the aisle have called for his resignation, yet Mr Northam appears intent to try to weather this storm.

Mr Northam's blackface controversy is America's third major blackface scandal in a matter of months.

Ralph Northam's page in the 1984 yearbook of Eastern Virginia Medical School

In January, journalist Megyn Kelly formally left NBC after defending blackface on her show in October.

And also in January, Florida's secretary of state Michael Ertel resigned after photos emerged of him wearing blackface when he dressed up as a Hurricane Katrina victim for a costume party.

Blackface has a long and troubling history in the United States, so one must wonder why so many prominent Americans are unaware of or indifferent to the harm it causes.

Tensions surrounding blackface stem from the fact that America remains unwilling to educate people about the history of blackface, according to Howard University professor Greg Carr.

"It is not taught at all in school. Even in the most basic sense," says Prof Carr. "If it were taught, it would become problematic in America because the vestiges of blackface minstrelsy are a deep part of American culture."

The practice of blackface grew in popularity in the 1830s as white actors would darken their faces with a mixture of charcoal, grease, and soot and perform as caricatures of African-Americans.

The purpose of these performances was to demean and dehumanise African-Americans, and it should come as no surprise that this minstrel theatre of anti-black propaganda grew in popularity as the call for the abolition of slavery increased.

Sheet music cover image of the song 'Jim Crow'

"The purpose of blackface was mocking… and erasing black culture, turning it into a figment of the white imagination for entertainment," says Prof Carr.

"Minstrels began caricaturing black characters they claimed to have seen on plantations dancing and singing. They would dress up in ill-fitting clothes, rags or approximations of tuxedos."

New Yorker Thomas Dartmouth Rice, considered the "father of American minstrelsy", performed under the blackface persona of Jim Crow, and his rendition of Jump Jim Crow was one of the most popular songs in America.

Mr Rice travelled across the US performing as Jim Crow, and his mocking caricature of black manhood and culture would become the new American narrative of black existence.

It became common for Americans to refer to black men as Jim Crow, and the widespread popularity of Mr Rice's song Jump Jim Crow made many foreigners believe it was the national anthem.

Though Mr Rice died in 1860, blackface and Mr Rice's legacy of Jim Crow continued unabated.

Sheet music depicting white singer and comedian Al Jolson in blackface

When Southerners instituted a series of segregationist laws, poll taxes, and literacy exams with the explicit purpose of returning African-Americans to a life akin to pre-civil war chattel slavery, they named these laws Jim Crow.

And in 1915, when America's first blockbuster movie, DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation, hit theatres, it featured white actors in blackface behaving as savages as they attempted to rape white women.

A group of Klansmen surrounding freed man Gus (played by white actor Walter Long in blackface) in a scene from Birth of Nation

This film not only brought blackface to the big screen, but its heroic depiction of the KKK normalised the white supremacist terrorist organisation.

The KKK became an active part of American politics during the early 20th century.

President Woodrow Wilson screened Birth of a Nation at the White House, and he reportedly lauded the film as "like writing history with lightning."

From the White House and across the nation, anti-black caricatures orchestrated by racist white Americans were considered historical truths, and blackface and minstrelsy remained an oppressive American norm.

In 1929, as cartoons and animation boomed, Walt Disney debuted Mickey Mouse, who was based on vaudevillian minstrel shows, and the first depictions of the famous mouse featured him in blackface.

And while Mickey Mouse soon lost his blackface, the minstrelsy remained.

People from Padstow in Cornwall have been blacking up for an annual parade for 100 years but is that ever OK?

Jim Crow remained the law of the land in South until the civil rights era of the 1960s ended segregation and returned voting rights to African-Americans.

America has only had 50 years since the racist propaganda popularised by blackface has not been the law of the land.

Despite the progress of the 60s, many Americans resisted the change: dehumanising narratives of African-Americans being animalistic and sexualised have remained relatively common in America.

America does not teach this history of blackface in any curriculum known to Prof Carr, and Americans can only learn about this history if they do their own research or take courses in college about African American history.

 captionA Burial Burning of Jim Crow on June 11, 1967

Since the civil rights era and the end of Jim Crow, America has become more diverse and less racist, but some white Americans began wearing blackface to impersonate some of their black heroes.

Mr Northam dressed as Michael Jackson while Kelly referenced blackface as a Halloween costume on her show in October.

Yet as Mr Northam shows, allowing white Americans to wear blackface opens up a Pandora's box of racist propaganda.

In one instance he's "celebrating" Michael Jackson, and in the next he's associated with an image of a white man in blackface smiling next to someone dressed in KKK robes.

It can be nearly impossible to differentiate between white naiveté and malice regarding blackface, but regardless of a non-black person's intent, the impact is detrimental to black Americans.

Blackface, minstrelsy and white Americans mocking black culture have remained a part of US culture that some refuse to address.

Blackface obviously should not have a place in an equitable, non-racist society, but sadly, it has always played a significant role in American life.

ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 11:35

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Venezuela crisis: The 'colectivo' groups supporting Maduro

In this dingy building in a suburb of Caracas, Hugo Chávez is very much alive. A statue of Venezuela's late president, dressed in military uniform, stands prominently at a corner of the main room as if welcoming everyone who enters.

Glued to the decaying wall, a picture of him smiling, printed on the yellow, blue and red colours of the national flag, looks over the table where Subero and his men spend hours in meetings.

Subero's decades-old links to Chávez go far beyond ideology. The 47-year-old retired sergeant fought in the attempt Chávez led on 4 February 1992 to overthrow then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez. The movement failed, and Subero, Chávez and others spent some of the following years in jail.

Subero's loyalty to his leader, however, was left unshaken.

He now leads one of the dozens of groups called colectivos, or collectives, which see themselves as the defenders of Chávez's Bolivarian revolution and vow to defend his successor, President Nicolás Maduro, as he faces his biggest challenge yet.

The embattled leader has resisted mounting pressure to step down and call early elections while Juan Guaidó, head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, gathers international recognition after declaring himself interim president.

But Subero and many others in his colectivo, by no coincidence called 4 de Febrero, seem ready to stand up for Mr Maduro, who has been in power since 2013.

"I'm willing to fight until my death," says Subero.

'Foreign interference'

The colectivos emerged during Chávez's years and, with government backing, spread across communities as social organisations supporting the implementation of official aid programmes. They are believed to have a few thousand members all around the country.

But some have been accused by the opposition and human rights groups of acting as paramilitary groups, often using force to impose their control over neighbourhoods and attack government critics, protestors and journalists.


  "I'm ready and willing to go to war"

As discontent with Mr Maduro grows, fuelled by an economy in freefall and widespread shortages of food and medicine, some fear things could turn even more violent with the armed colectivos, working alongside security forces loyal to the president, playing a key role in the streets.

At least 40 people were killed across the country in a week alone last month, according to the United Nations, with pro-government forces blamed for most of the deaths.

For Subero, a father of three who did not want to give his real name, the crisis here is "being induced by foreign powers", a claim often made by Mr Maduro and his allies, and an invasion is being planned, a fear consistently fanned by the government though it has never happened.

"I'm ready and willing to go to war," he said, surrounded also by religious sculptures and placards with the face of another local hero, 19th Century independence leader Simón Bolívar, who Chávez claimed to be his "revolutionary" inspiration.

"Who said Venezuela cannot be the new Vietnam?" wondered Jorge Navas

In a dimly lit room next door, the old television, as usual, was tuned to Venezuela's state broadcaster, which devotes much of its time to the latest about Mr Maduro and his government.

As Jorge Navas watched it, Diosdado Cabello, a key Chavista, was passionately warning thousands of supporters of a possible international operation in the country.

"We're a militia and when the moment arrives, we'll take up arms," Mr Navas said, despite most colectivo members usually denying having any involvement in armed violence.

??Why Venezuela matters to the US... and vice versa

Earlier this week, Mr Maduro said he could not rule out the possibility of civil war as a result of the impasse, and warned US President Donald Trump, whose government is backing Mr Guaidó, that he risked a repeat of the Vietnam War if he intervened.

From 1965 to 1973, hundreds of thousands of US soldiers were sent to help fight communist forces in a costly and unsuccessful war which brought domestic civil unrest and international embarrassment.

"Who said Venezuela cannot be the new Vietnam?" wondered Mr Navas.

Mr Guaidó has rubbished the threat of a civil war in Venezuela as an "invention".?

Opposing a 'coup'

Sombra, also not his real name and Spanish for "shadow", is a member of a different colectivo, Guerra a Muerte, its name taken from the Decree of War to the Death issued by Bolívar in 1813 during Venezuela's war for independence.

For him, the problems his "beautiful nation" has faced are a result of its people not recognising "the huge legacy left by the eternal commander", meaning Chávez.

I'd give my life to the revolution, of course"

Sombra, who also works as a security guard, said Mr Maduro was the legitimate president - despite his re-election last year being disputed by many inside and outside the country - and that the efforts by the opposition to oust him constituted a coup.

"We want things to be resolved through dialogue," he said. "[But] I'd give my life to the revolution, of course."

ruby Posted on February 06, 2019 10:15

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Karim Hossam: The rise and fall of a match-fixing tennis prodigy

Karim Hossam was one of the best young tennis players in the world. He looked set to play at the biggest tournaments, with the top players of the game. Instead he was sucked into one of the biggest match-fixing rings yet discovered in a sport riddled with corruption. The BBC's Simon Cox and Paul Grant use confidential documents to tell the story of his downfall.

It was inside a modest hotel room in Tunisia in June 2017 that Karim Hossam's tennis career started to unravel. Across from the 24-year-old sat two former British police detectives. They were investigators for the Tennis Integrity Unit, which probes corruption within the game, and they suspected Karim had been fixing matches. In a series of interviews over six months he revealed how four years earlier he had become a part of one of the biggest match-fixing rings in tennis.

The International Tennis Federation Futures tournament at Sharm el-Sheikh is a distant cousin to the glamour, money and crowds of Wimbledon or the French Open. Played at a small tennis club next to a shopping mall, there is a smattering of spectators and the prize money for the whole tournament is $15,000 (£11,500) - about a quarter of the sum made by a first-round loser at Wimbledon.

Karim Hossam had already won the tournament four times when he arrived to compete there again in 2013. Still only 20, the young Egyptian player was the great hope for North African tennis.

As one of the best junior players in the world, hovering on the edge of the top 10, he had started to play in the big ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) tournaments with the stars of the sport. He'd played at the Australian Open and the French Open, but the ITF (International Tennis Federation) tournament at Sharm was one of the many around the world where thousands of lower-ranked players try to scrape a living.

Karim Hossam was preparing for a match when a player he didn't know well approached him. "Do you want to lose the match and get $1,000 (£770)?" he asked. The same player had contacted Hossam months earlier, at the Qatar Open, asking if he wanted to lose the first set for $1,000. On that occasion he was facing one of the world's best players, Richard Gasquet - then ranked ninth in the world, some 300 places above Hossam - and he replied: "I'm playing Gasquet, I'm not here to sell a match."

captionRichard Gasquet playing Hossam at the Qatar Open

But in Sharm el-Sheikh it was different. It didn't really matter if he won or lost and after thinking it over Hossam decided to go ahead with it. He told the investigators, "I just wanted to try it because I never tried it… I thought this guy was actually like lying to me… I didn't know that betting existed." The player wasn't lying, though, and after losing the match Hossam went with him to a local branch of Western Union to get his money.

The gamblers behind this would have made much more than $1,000, and would have bet on other matches too, often making multiple bets on one match. "Having that insider knowledge of people involved in match-fixing in a specific sport particularly tennis… you can really make some fairly decent money," says Fred Lord, Director for Ant-Ccorruption at the International Centre of Sport Security in Qatar. "We're talking figures around about half a million euros."

What Karim Hossam didn't realise was that he had sold his career for $1,000. Being found guilty of a single offence by the tennis authorities is punishable by a lifetime ban from the game.

Hossam couldn't keep it to himself so he told his father, who had helped to finance his career. He told investigators his father "was really pissed and he was like, 'You're ruining your life'".

After this first offence, Hossam said, he tried for a while to avoid doing it again. But he also thought that if he had more money it would be easier to advance his career. "I wanted to go play big tournaments, you know, like I was going to the US for camp or whatever and I needed money," he said.

 captionKarim Hossam playing at the Air Berlin International Junior Championships in July 2010.

So he continued taking money to lose, and before long he was also acting as a fixer, the middleman between gamblers and players. Sometimes it involved losing a match, or on other occasions a single set. It depended what the gamblers wanted and what got them the best odds.

He spent the next four years helping to fix dozens of matches in Egypt, Tunisia and Nigeria, typically earning $200 for a $1,000 fix. A cache of confidential documents seen by the BBC shows how the young player arranged the fixes through Facebook messages with dozens of North African players. In May 2016 he contacts a player with an offer: "Bro. You lose first set then win the match. You get 2,500." The figures were always in dollars.

When the other player agrees to this, Hossam makes sure he understands his instructions: "So you will lose the first set then win the match. Do you surely understand?" The player responds, "Score is not important. I just need to lose first set?"

He is reassured by Hossam: "Most important thing is you drop the set then win." The player tells Hossam, "Hopefully it's OK because I need the money." They carry on messaging throughout the afternoon but there's a hitch and the fix doesn't go through.

On other occasions it runs more smoothly. In August 2016 he messages another player in the early hours of the morning: "One set for 3,000." Intrigued by the offer, the player replies, "How much to lose?" and he is told, "Lose for 3,000 my friend." In the event the player did lose.

The documents the BBC has seen implicate more than 20 players, most of them from North Africa, in either directly fixing matches or failing to tell the authorities when they were approached. Any player who is approached and asked to fix a match has to report it and failure to do so is an offence that can lead to a lengthy ban.

In June 2017 the tennis anti-corruption authorities finally caught up with him.

In his first interview with investigators he told them how he was drawn into fixing.

"I just couldn't afford playing any more and like my dad was paying for me, and then my dad has to pay for my brother as well, and then I wasn't getting any income," he says, the transcript shows.

After the interview ends he messages his younger brother, Youssef, who is also a professional tennis player.

"They caught me in my room bro," he writes. "And I was stupid I didn't delete some things."

 captionWhen this photograph was taken in September 2017, 19-year-old Youssef Hossam - ranked 334 in the world - was looking for a sponsor to support his career and help him realise his talent.

Hossam tells his brother he is hopeful of escaping any tough sanctions by co-operating with the authorities. "I am telling them I want to work with them. Would be [expletive] great if that is possible. I travel and get money to catch all the fixers."

That wasn't how it turned out. Days after he was interviewed by the Tennis Integrity Unit, Karim Hossam was provisionally banned from playing tennis. That same day he messaged a fellow player telling him about the ban but vowing, "I am gonna bet even more now."

By the time of his final interview, in January 2018, Karim Hossam says he has been reduced to coaching children. The investigators ask if he will give evidence against the player who first corrupted him.

"We feel very strongly that if he's done that to you he's probably done it to other people and he's probably still doing it," one of the investigators tells him. "So he's somebody, I'm sure you would agree, you would want to get out of tennis, because he is a danger because he grooms young players… If it wasn't for him you may never be where you are today."

Karim had hoped there would be some benefit for him in co-operating with the Tennis Integrity Unit, and seems disappointed that he has got nothing out of it.

"I gave a lot of information. I didn't really lie about anything, I was open," he tells them.

"But receiving a lifetime ban in tennis, I mean I've been playing tennis for 17 years, I was only forced to do this under circumstances… So pretty much like I don't see any like benefits from my side… I honestly don't have any more evidence… I don't have any more chats."

In July 2018 Karim Hossam was banned for life. But the confidential files the BBC has seen show he continued to try to corrupt the sport.

In August 2018 he has a long conversation with a player to whom he offers $3,500 to lose a set by a specific score. In the end, word gets out the match is fixed and the gambler backs off. Karim Hossam suspects one of the players has talked. "My friend we need men not babies," he tells him.

The BBC contacted Karim Hossam to ask him about these messages and his contact with other players but he didn't respond.

The documents reveal one of the largest match-fixing rings in tennis ever discovered, implicating more than 20 mostly North African players. Last month police in Spain arrested 15 people in a match-fixing ring said to involve 28 Spanish players linked to an Armenian gambling ring. Armenian gamblers were also involved in a match-fixing ring uncovered by Belgian police in June 2018. The files the BBC has seen show that one of Karim's contacts was an Armenian.

Most of the players in this match-fixing ring have not been sanctioned. And the player who first corrupted Karim Hossam - the one investigators wanted him to testify against - is still playing professional tennis.

 captionKarim Hossam's highest world ranking was 337th in September 2013

The documents seen by the BBC have been sent to the Tennis Integrity Unit, and the whistleblower who contacted the BBC is critical of the unit's response.

"The TIU are ineffective because their processes are inefficient and slow. They receive evidence about someone and their investigation is ended two years later," he says.

"I had a player tell me he is definitely going to get a lifetime ban soon and is going to go out with a bang in the last couple of tournaments he is going to play. Why allow players this chance?"

The Tennis Integrity Unit said it was at the forefront of the fight against sporting corruption, and had successfully prosecuted 44 people in the last two years - 16 of whom were given lifetime bans. It added that it couldn't comment on ongoing investigations as "public disclosure would inevitably alert suspects and allow credible evidence to be discarded or destroyed".

In 2018 an independent review panel looked into the integrity of tennis after a BBC News and BuzzFeed investigation revealed suspected illegal betting. It said the Tennis Integrity Unit had a backlog of cases and that there was a "tsunami" of corruption within the sport.

The sport's governing body, the International Tennis Federation, told the BBC: "We are committed to protecting the integrity of tennis and putting in place the necessary measures to do that". But it conceded, "there is a significant amount of work to do."

ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 14:46

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Daniel Williams: Body found in missing student search

A body has been found in a lake in the search for a missing 19-year-old student, police said.

Daniel Williams, from Sutton in London, has been missing since Thursday after failing to return home after a night out at the University of Reading.

Police searching for him discovered the body in Whiteknights Lake near the university's campus.

Thames Valley Police said the death was being treated as unexplained and was not believed to be suspicious.

No formal identification has taken place, the force said, but Mr Williams' family has been informed.

In response to the "very sad" news, the university said activities on campus would continue as normal and support would available to students and staff.

A major search, aided by search and rescue volunteers and the National Police Air Service, was launched over the weekend for second-year computer science student Mr Williams.

Police said they had checked a lake and surrounding countryside on Monday.

Search crews were seen searching Whiteknights Lake in a small boat until about 13:00 GMT on Monday.

Lead investigator, Supt Jim Weems, said recent snow had "not hampered" the search, but the night Mr Williams disappeared was "one of the coldest" of the year.

A vigil was hosted on Monday in the Whiteknights campus bar, 3sixty, where Mr Williams was last seen.

 captionPolice water search teams have spent two days in the lake

At the scene

The forensic team arrived just before 11:00 GMT and there were lots of police on the scene.

A small group - including plain clothes officers and forensic specialists - gathered on the bank of the lake and were deep in conversation.

The water search team has packed their equipment away, their job is done.

Police have closed the nearby footpath, but the university campus remains open.

Speaking before the body was found, the university's Anglican Chaplain Mark Laynesmith told the BBC students were in "shock".

Acting vice-chancellor Prof Robert Van de Noort said support was being offered to Mr Williams' housemates and friends.

Mr Williams' family described him as "a happy, normal 19-year-old enjoying university life" and said they had "no concern at all" about him before he went missing.

Supt Weems said the disappearance was "completely out of character".

ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 14:42

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Four children die in Stafford house fire

Four children have died in a house fire in Stafford.

The blaze in the Highfields area of the town in the early hours also left another sibling and the parents injured.

The children have been named locally as Riley, Keegan, Tilly and Olly who are aged between three and eight.

The siblings' two-year-old brother Jack survived the blaze, along with his mother, Natalie Unitt, 24, and her partner Chris, 28.

Rob Barber, deputy chief fire officer for Staffordshire fire and rescue service, said a man, woman and baby jumped from the first floor window of the house.

Tearful neighbours said they heard "screaming" and saw flames "lashing" out the windows. A senior police officer described the blaze as "absolutely heartbreaking".

 captionA handwritten note attached to flowers was left at the scene from the children's grandparents

Part of the roof has collapsed, windows were shattered and the rooms were left blackened by the blaze, which happened at about 02:40 GMT at the house on Sycamore Lane.

Staffordshire Police said Tilly was aged four and the three boys were aged three, six and eight.

Neighbour Wendy Pickering was in tears as she remembered the children, who she often saw while taking her granddaughter to school.

"It is a real shock," she said.

"We heard screaming, but we weren't sure if the children were in the garden."

Her husband Bryan said he was alerted to the fire by his dog barking during the night.

"The flames were lashing out of the upstairs window," he said.

A hand-written note attached to a cuddly toy in an area nearby where people had laid down tributes read: "RIP Babes xx life is so so cruel. All our thoughts are with the family at this very sad time."

Another note read: "Will be dearly missed, love Uncle Dave and Auntie Lou Lou", while another added: "To my lovely grandkids I will always miss you. Love you always xxx."

captionThe family are being supported by specialist police officers

 captionTarpaulin covers the house as crews carry out investigations

Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service are examining the house as part of their investigation, but Mr Barber said he could not comment on a possible cause.

He added: "Our firefighters were faced with very difficult conditions inside the property due to the severity of the fire."

Ch Insp John Owen, of Staffordshire Police, expressed his sadness at the "tragic incident" on Twitter.

Absolutely heart breaking. Thoughts are with the family and friends of the precious lives that have been lost. Thoughts also with my colleagues in the police and fire who have been working at this tragic incident.

A West Midlands Ambulance Service spokeswoman said: "When crews arrived they found an ongoing serious house fire.

"Three occupants, two adults and a child, had managed to get out of the property. Tragically, four children from the property were confirmed dead on scene.

"Our thoughts are with the family at this exceptionally difficult time."

Matthew Ellis, Staffordshire Commissioner for Police Fire and Crime, paid tribute to emergency services for working in "tragic and difficult circumstances in the middle of the night".

"For something like this to happen it's just heart-breaking," he said.

"It's very difficult to imagine just how professional and how dedicated these people are, but they are all human beings.

"Whilst they will all stay professional, this will affect all of those individuals who are involved in that for a long time to come."

Jeremy Lefroy, the Conservative MP for Stafford, described the fire as "unbelievably tragic".

The deaths of four children at a house fire in Highfields this morning is unbelieveably tragic. My deepest sympathies and prayers go to their families also sends her thoughts and sympathies. Thanks to all of the emergency services dealing with this tragedy.

ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 14:37

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Ceon Broughton 'filmed dying girlfriend' at Bestival

A man filmed his girlfriend as she died over a period of hours after he had given her Class A drugs, a court has heard.

Louella Fletcher-Michie, 24, the daughter of Holby City actor John Michie, was found dead in woods on the Bestival site in Dorset in 2017.

Ceon Broughton, 29, denies her manslaughter and supplying drugs.

His trial at Winchester Crown Court heard he told her concerned family she was being a "drama queen".

Jurors heard Mr Broughton filmed Ms Fletcher-Michie while she was "disturbed, agitated and seriously ill".

William Mousley QC, prosecuting, told the court the defendant had given his girlfriend the Class A drug 2CP while they attended the Bestival event in the grounds of Lulworth Castle in September 2017.

"He did not intend to cause her harm and Louella willingly took that which she was given, but it had a terrible effect," he said.

captionCeon Broughton, 29, denies manslaughter and supplying Class A drugs

Mr Mousley said Ms Fletcher-Michie died after a "significant period of suffering".

He told the court Mr Broughton had continued filming over several hours, adding: "He even did so, the prosecution suggest, after she was apparently dead."

In video clips shown to the court, Ms Fletcher-Michie repeatedly shouts at Mr Broughton to telephone her mother but he tells her to "put your phone away".

Carol Fletcher-Michie eventually spoke to her daughter at 18:48 and grew concerned after she "could hear her screeching".

Her parents were so worried they set off for the festival, repeatedly messaging and calling Mr Broughton, the prosecutor told the jury.

Her brother, Sam, also contacted Mr Broughton and urged him to seek medical help. However, Mr Broughton replied saying "call back in an hour" and referred to Louella as a "drama queen", jurors heard.

The court was told by the prosecution that a month before Ms Fletcher-Michie's death, Mr Broughton was handed a 24-week prison sentence suspended for one year.

"His failure to get her treatment which may well have saved her life was borne of selfishness and in self-preservation," Mr Mousley said.

"Because to have done otherwise, to have acted positively, he knew would have exposed him to the possibility of arrest and prosecution for a criminal offence punishable with imprisonment."

"Failure to act was a substantial cause of her death," he added.

Ceon Broughton, 29, of Island Centre Way, Enfield, London, denies manslaughter and supplying Class A drugs.

ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 14:25

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Bruce McArthur: Door knock saved serial killer's victim

Canadian serial killer Bruce McArthur was in the middle of another possible murder when he was arrested by police last January, a court has heard.

Gruesome details of the 67-year-old's killings have been revealed in court on the first day of his sentencing.

McArthur pleaded guilty to eight counts of first-degree murder last week.

Monday's evidence was so disturbing that a prosecutor took the unusual step of warning the packed court that it could affect their mental health.

"Ask yourself if you need to be here," Michael Cantlon said.

Pictures from McArthur's computer revealed that he posed many of his dead victims naked apart from a fur coat or hats, the court heard.

At least one had his eyes taped open and others had unlit cigars hanging from their lips.

McArthur shaved some of his victims' heads and beards after strangling them, and kept bags of hair in Ziploc bags at a shed near a Toronto cemetery.

The big break on the case came when McArthur killed Andrew Kinsman last summer.

Kinsman had an entry in his diary marked "Bruce" on 26 June 2017, the day he disappeared.

Video surveillance footage showed him getting into a car that was traced back to McArthur in autumn of that year.

Over the next several months, police kept McArthur under surveillance and covertly searched his apartment with a warrant.

In court, friends and family of Kinsman expressed rage and sorrow while reading their victim impact statements.

"We searched for Andrew for six months. I knew he was gone, but still we looked." his sister Patricia Kinsman told the court, fighting back tears of anger.

"His life was snuffed out by this man. We don't say his name."

Kinsman's friend Adrian Betts said he was angry with himself, for not seeing McArthur for what he was. McArthur had known Kinsman and Skandaraj Navaratnam for years before he killed them.

"I thought I was a good judge of character but I didn't see the wolf in the fold," Betts said through tears in court.

 captionBruce McArthur was arrested on 18 January

Final victim

McArthur's arrest was precipitated by concern that he had taken another potential victim back to his apartment.

That individual - a married man identified only as "John" in court - fit the profile of many previous McArthur victims.

He had arrived in Canada five years ago from the Middle East, and his family did not know he was gay, Mr Cantlon told the court.

Texts between John and McArthur reveal the two had met on a gay dating app and had discussed keeping their affair secret.

Last January, John went back to McArthur's apartment.

McArthur told him "he wanted to try something different" and pulled out a pair of handcuffs.

He chained John to his four-poster steel bed frame, and put a black bag over his head.

There were no holes in the bag to see or breathe.

When John tried to remove the bag, McArthur tried to tape his mouth shut.

At that moment police knocked on the door.

 captionBruce McArthur's bedroom, where police believe he killed many of his victims

During their investigation, police uncovered a USB device containing nine folders, with several of the eight victims' names.

The final folder was named "John".

It contained photos of John that were downloaded the same day McArthur murdered Kinsman.

History with the police

The Crown concluded its evidence on Monday afternoon.

It was revealed that McArthur had three encounters with the police before becoming a suspect in Kinsman's murder.

In 2003, McArthur was convicted of assault after hitting a former sexual partner over the head with a metal pipe. In 2014, after he had already committed three murders, he was granted a record suspension, which means his criminal past would no longer be shown on background checks.

In 2013, McArthur was interviewed as part of the police investigation into the disappearances of Navaratnam, Faizi and Kayhan.

As a long-time friend of Navaratnam, police considered McArthur a witness, not a suspect.

Two weeks after he was interviewed, he bought a new van.

Then in 2016, in the midst of his killing spree, he was interviewed by police for a third time, when he tried to strangle a friend in his van.

McArthur had invited the friend into his van, presumably for casual sex, and asked him to lie in the back on top of a fur coat. The victim noted the van was lined in plastic.

McArthur grabbed his wrist and the victim remembered he had an "angry" look on his face. He then started to strangle him with his hands.

"What do you want from me? Why?" the victim asked before finally escaping.

He called the police, and McArthur was brought in for an interview, but not charged.

Police found his version of events "credible" and McArthur's 2003 arrest did not come up on background searches.

More to come

The next two days will be focused on victim impact statements, before his sentencing on Wednesday.

First-degree murder carries a mandatory life sentence, with no parole for 25 years.

The judge said the only thing he must decide is whether to sentence him to consecutive life sentences, or whether McArthur can serve eight life sentences concurrently.

Either way he will not leave prison before he is 91.

ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 14:21

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Virginia governor's deputy Justin Fairfax denies assault claims

As Virginia Governor Ralph Northam faces calls to resign over a racist photo, a woman has claimed his possible replacement sexually assaulted her.

Lt Governor Justin Fairfax, 39, has denied the assault, allegedly in 2004 at a Democratic political convention.

Mr Fairfax said the "uncorroborated smear" was meant to derail his career.

Mr Northam, meanwhile, still denies he is either of two people - one in blackface, the other in Ku Klux Klan robes - pictured on his yearbook page.

The governor and lieutenant governor are both Democrats.

A statement from Mr Fairfax's office said on Monday: "Only now, at a time of intense media attention surrounding Virginia politics, has this false claim been raised again.

"He has never assaulted anyone - ever - in any way, shape or form."

The statement added that Mr Fairfax will "take appropriate legal action" regarding "this defamatory and false allegation".

The lieutenant governor told reporters it was a "totally fabricated story, out of the blue, that's meant to attack me because of where I am in politics".

Mr Fairfax would make history as one of the few African Americans ever to become a US governor if Mr Northam were to resign over his racist photo controversy.

Big League Politics, the conservative outlet which published the claims against Mr Northam and Mr Fairfax, noted it had not spoken to the woman accusing Mr Fairfax.

The website shared what it said was a screenshot of the woman's private Facebook post about the alleged assault.

Mr Fairfax is not named in the post, which refers to a Democratic holder of statewide office who is in line for a "very big promotion".

The BBC is not identifying the woman, but has contacted her and is awaiting a response.

What is Lt Gov Fairfax accused of?

In the rotunda of the state capitol in Richmond on Monday, Mr Fairfax described the encounter as "100% consensual".

He said the woman had been "very interested" in him and "was very much into the consensual encounter".

He told reporters the woman maintained contact with him in the months that followed their interaction.

The BBC contacted Mr Fairfax for comment, but did not receive an immediate reply.

The Washington Post said it had investigated the woman's claims in 2017, but did not publish a story because statements by the woman and Mr Fairfax could not be corroborated.

On Monday, the Post detailed the allegations and also noted that there had been no red flags or inconsistencies in the story, as Mr Fairfax's statement asserted.

The woman reportedly told the Post she had met Mr Fairfax in 2004 at the Democratic national convention.

After they realised they had a mutual friend, they began talking and Mr Fairfax asked her to walk back to his hotel room to retrieve some papers, according to the Post.

The woman reportedly told the paper that their encounter in the hotel room began consensually, but claimed that Mr Fairfax then held her down and assaulted her.

What's the latest with Ralph Northam?

Virginia's governor is fighting for his political life in a racism row.

Mr Northam denies he was in a photo of a man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes that appeared in his 1984 medical school yearbook page.

He first apologised on Friday and said he was one of the two people, before changing his story a day later.

Media captionVirginia governor says sorry for racist photo

He has admitted separately blackening his face to impersonate singer Michael Jackson at an event the same year, while he was at Eastern Virginia Medical School.

On Monday, the beleaguered governor met his cabinet members and reportedly implored them to give him a chance to prove he was not the person in the photo.

According to CNN, Mr Northam told the meeting he is afraid of being labelled "racist for life".

Meanwhile, a few dozen protesters gathered at the state capitol to demand the governor step down.

Former Vice-President Joe Biden has led Democratic calls for Mr Northam to resign, saying he has lost all moral authority.

African-American politicians in Virginia called the photo "disgusting", and Republicans have also urged him to resign.

Mr Fairfax has not explicitly echoed those calls, instead saying the governor should make a decision that is in Virginia's best interests.

ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 14:10

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Quadriga: Cryptocurrency exchange founder's death locks $140m

Canada's largest cryptocurrency exchange is unable to access millions in digital currency following the sudden death of its founder.

Quadriga has filed for creditor protection and estimates that about C$180m ($137m; £105m) in cryptocurrency coins is missing.

It has not been able to locate or secure its cryptocurrency reserves since Gerald Cotten died in December.

Cotten, 30, had sole responsibility for handling the funds and coins.

In court documents filed with the Nova Scotia Supreme Court on 31 January, his widow Jennifer Robertson, says the laptop on which Cotten "carried out the companies' business is encrypted and I do not know the password or recovery key".

"Despite repeated and diligent searches, I have not been able to find them written down anywhere," the affidavit states.

The company hired an investigator to see if any information could be retrieved but ongoing efforts have had only "limited success in recovering a few coins" and some information from Cotten's computer and phone.

The company is also investigating whether some of the cryptocurrency could be secured on other exchanges, according to court files.

They say about 115,000 Quadriga users hold balances in their personal accounts in the form of cash obligations and cryptocurrency.

The company estimates it owes about C$250m ($190m; £145m) - including C$70m in hard currency.

The affidavit says the majority of the cryptocurrency was kept by Quadriga in a "cold wallet" or "cold storage", which is located offline and used to secure cryptocurrency from hacking or theft.

Liquidity problems for the British Columbia-based company began in January 2018 when Canadian bank CIBC froze C$25.7m linked to its payment processor after the bank had difficulty determining who were the owners of the money.

Those problems have been compounded by Cotten's passing.

The founder died unexpectedly due to complications with Crohn's disease while travelling in India, according to court documents.

In a statement posted online last Thursday, Quadriga said it is working to address its "liquidity issues, which include attempting to locate and secure our very significant cryptocurrency reserves held in cold wallet".

The company is due in court in Nova Scotia on Tuesday for a preliminary hearing on appointing firm Ernst and Young as an independent monitor to oversee the proceedings.


ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 14:04

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Paris fire: Ten dead and many injured at apartment block

Media captionThe fire was brought under control in the early hours of Tuesday morning

Ten people including a baby have died in a fire at an eight-storey building in south-western Paris, fire service officials say.

More than 30 people - including six firefighters - were injured. One person is in a serious condition.

Fifty people were evacuated by ladders from the blaze in the upmarket 16th arrondissement.

The Paris prosecutor says it may have been deliberately started. Police have detained a female suspect.

French President Emmanuel Macron said that the country "had woken up to tragedy", and praised the fire services for their courage.

Rue Erlanger is a residential street close to the Parc des Princes soccer stadium.

How did people escape?

The fire started on the second floor and spread across the 1970s building on Erlanger street shortly after 01:00 (00:00 GMT), forcing some residents to scramble on to nearby rooftops to escape the flames and smoke.

An eyewitness at the scene told France Télévision:

"The fire alarm went off at 00:30, a little after midnight, and smoke was everywhere already. I live on the eighth floor, the top floor, so I tried to pass from balcony to balcony to get away, And then we huddled up in a corner. Other people climbed up to where I was to escape the flames."

About 250 firefighters were deployed to the scene, not far from the Bois de Boulogne park, helping to rescue those trapped on the roofs. Pictures showed flames coming from the top floor windows and firefighters in breathing apparatus scaling ladders to reach residents.

"When we arrived, we were faced with an apocalyptic situation. Lots of people were calling for help from the windows", the spokesman said.

Six firefighters are among the injured, reports French broadcaster BFMTV.

The fire was brought under control after a five-hour operation, but the death toll could still increase, a fire service spokesman told the AFP news agency.

Nothing of the fire is visible from the end of the street, which has been sealed off, the BBC's Hugh Schofield reports from Paris.

Firefighters says the closure complicated their task because they could not use their vehicles. The courtyard also acted as a funnel, helping the flames to spread from the lower to the upper floors. Neighbours are being quizzed by journalists.

Surrounding buildings in the area have been evacuated as a precaution. Town hall officials have been tasked with finding alternative accommodation.

What do we know of the suspect?

An investigation has been opened into the criminal charge of causing death by arson, AFP reports.

French media say the woman is suspected of trying to set fire to a car parked near the building after a row with a neighbour.

Paris Prosecutor Rémy Heitz said the suspect was known to psychiatric services.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has sent her condolences to the victims, and is on her way to the site, along with Interior Minister Christophe Castaner.

Just a few weeks earlier, four people were killed after a huge blast at a bakeryin the centre of the city.

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ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 13:55

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José Mourinho Spain tax fraud settled in multi-million deal

Ex-Manchester United boss José Mourinho has agreed a prison term in Spain for tax fraud but will not go to jail.

A one-year prison sentence will instead be exchanged for a fine of €182,500 (£160,160). That will be added to a separate fine of €2m.

Spain rarely enforces sentences of less than two years for non-violent or first-time offenders.

He was accused of owing €3.3m to Spanish tax authorities from his time managing Real Madrid in 2011-2012.

Prosecutors said he had created offshore companies to manage his image rights and hide the earnings from tax officials.

Image rights cover the use of a person's likeness, voice, signature and mannerisms - and can be very lucrative for footballers and managers.

Mr Mourinho's move to Manchester United in 2016 was even delayed after it emerged his previous team Chelsea owned the trademark to his name.

Spanish prosecutors said that Mr Mourinho, a Portuguese national, had set up multiple business entities in the British Virgin Islands and elsewhere to manage his image rights.

They argued that was designed to obscure his financial gain from such deals - and he left it undeclared in his tax statements after he moved to Spain.

He is the latest high-profile football personality to strike a deal with Spanish authorities, which are pursuing a crackdown on tax evasion or fraud by the country's many resident star players.

In January, Cristiano Ronaldo accepted a fine of €18.8m and a suspended 23-month jail sentence, in a case which was also centred around tax owed on image rights.

He was playing for Real Madrid at the time of the offence between 2010 and 2014 - the same team Mr Mourinho was managing at the time of his own tax violation.

Unlike the Ronaldo case, Spanish media were not told about Tuesday's hearing, so there was no crowd to meet the former Manchester United manager, who lost his job in December.

Another former Real Madrid star, Xabi Alonso, is also facing charges over alleged tax fraud amounting to about €2m, though he denies any wrongdoing.

Marcelo Vieira, who still plays for the club, accepted a four-month suspended jail sentence last September over his use of foreign firms to handle almost half a million euros in earnings.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Neymar have also found themselves embroiled in legal battles with the Spanish tax authorities.

As in many of the cases, Mr Mourinho's deal which spared him from prison had been agreed in advance with tax officials.

ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 13:48

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Brexit: EU digs heels in over deal

So. how open does the EU seem almost a week on from parliament narrowly voting in favour of an amendment to find alternatives to the backstop guarantee to keep the Irish border open after Brexit?

After all, with every passing day as we've heard , again and again and again, the clock is ticking us all towards an increased chance of a no-deal Brexit with all the costs and chaos that could involve.

Well, if I were to speak in weather forecast terms, I might describe current EU attitudes as frosty with a chance of ice.

If Theresa May comes to Brussels later this week, she will be received politely and listened to attentively.

But if her EU ask remains centred around getting a time limit to, or allowing the UK a unilateral get-out mechanism from, the Irish border backstop or if she pushes again for pure technology as a means of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.

This is not because the EU has suddenly become cavalier about the prospect of a no-deal Brexit - far from it. The club may be over the moon about just sealing the world's largest ever bilateral deal with Japan but that's no replacement for trade and cooperation with neighbouring UK.

It's just that the EU sees so many reasons not to budge over the backstop: solidarity with EU club member Ireland over "caving in" to departing member UK; defending the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland peace process; and above all (in the eyes, hearts and pockets of many EU politicians and businesses) defending the integrity of the EU's single market.

So when Sajid Javid, the UK's home secretary, announced at the weekend that sorting out the backstop would just involve "a bit of good will" on behalf of the EU, I could almost hear the groans of European exasperation from my Brussels living room.

This is something that those in the UK who knowingly repeat that "the EU will give in, in the end" perhaps don't fully appreciate.

Choice of two evils?

The EU certainly does budge at times, even when it has repeatedly ruled out such a move but it performs U-turns out of self-interest, to safeguard the bloc in some way.

Take the oft-cited Greek debt crisis - the EU acted in the interest of the eurozone currency. That is ultimately why it changed its line on member country Greece.

  • The Brussels calculation is that a no-deal Brexit would be damaging for the EU but exposing the entire EU single market to clear vulnerabilities would be the worst of two evils.

The backstop guarantee for the Irish border ensures a means of sealing the long, meandering, porous border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in a way that technology alone (as many Brexiteers are suggesting) cannot.

The EU worries about tariff-dodging and about non-EU standard products being smuggled into the EU's single market "through the back door" - via Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.if technology alone could seal a border in terms of customs and regulatory checks then you would no longer see the existing infrastructure in place between close allies and neighbours non-EU Norway and EU member Sweden or between Switzerland, which has very tight relations with the European Union, and its EU neighbours.

So, instead of dramatically changing or weakening the backstop, the EU is more than happy - as officials indicated today to visiting members of the UK's parliamentary Brexit Select Committee - to repeat or re-package its previous reassurances about the backstop.

For example:

  • That the backstop is a fall-back mechanism, not intended to be used
  • That all sides would prefer to complete a "deep and ambitious" trade deal that would obviate the need for the backstop
  • That if such a trade deal were not completed in time, the backstop would not need to be triggered if the transition period (in which the UK legally leaves the EU but remains a member in practical terms while new trade relations are being negotiated) were extended.

An important aside on the transition period: there's a new proposal the EU understands is now being championed by Downing Street - The Malthouse Compromise. Brussels would likely reject this, not only because it seeks to rewrite the backstop but because it suggests paying the EU to extend the transition period even in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

The EU argues (and this is included in the text of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement) that if the Brexit deal is not passed by the House of Commons, there will be no transition period. Full stop.


Now, the EU is not at all convinced that re-hashing assurances about the backstop will be enough to satisfy MPs who voted to change it. They believe the bar set by the DUP and hard-line Brexiteers is too high for any tweaks the EU might be willing to make. Which leaves EU leaders sceptical that Theresa May actually has the majority of MPs behind her.

Just this weekend for example, the EU's deputy chief Brexit negotiator, Sabine Weyand, retweeted a UK commentator pointing out signs of splintering in the brief truce inside the Conservative Party.

Which is why the EU will continue to show ice-cold resolve - at least for now. Hoping, by not giving an inch over the backstop, that the Prime Minister will be forced to look across the political divide, to the Labour Party, for another means to find parliamentary support for the Brexit Deal - such as opting for a permanent customs union with the EU.

This is the EU's hope. But European diplomats see in Theresa May a politician who likes sticking to her Plan A's.

 captionIs the UK Prime Minister simply playing for time?

From the beginning we've discussed the big possibility that with such a divided country, parliament, party and cabinet, the prime minister will simply keep playing for time, inching forward small step by small step until so close to the cliff-edge of having no Brexit deal at all that most MPs will end up backing her and her deal at the very last moment.

This is high-risk brinkmanship.

Dublin is deeply concerned about the consequences of a no deal Brexit - for peace above all but also about the impact on the Irish economy. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar heads to Brussels this Wednesday for high-level meetings. That same day his deputy flies to Washington to lobby for US support to safeguard the Good Friday Agreement and to ensure the Irish border stays open.

Could US disapproval over UK pressure on the backstop makes things more complicated for a future UK-US trade deal?

It won't make things any simpler.

ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 13:44

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Australia floods: Two found dead as waters grip Townsville

Two men have died in floodwaters that have forced large-scale evacuations in the Australian city of Townsville.

The pair's bodies were found near a park on Tuesday, following what has been described as a "once in a century" flood in the northern Queensland city.

Police did not confirm whether the victims were two men, aged 21 and 23, whose disappearances on Monday had led to the discovery of the bodies.

Thousands of houses may have been flooded, officials said on Tuesday.

Townsville has received more than a metre (3.3ft) of rain in the past 10 days - the equivalent of the region's total annual rainfall.

Police did not give further details about the two deaths, other than to say their relatives had been notified.

At least 19 people found trapped in floodwaters have been rescued since Sunday, according to state officials.

Media captionThe council released a dam which had swollen to double its capacity

In one instance, two police officers were pulled to safety after being forced to cling to trees when floods swept away their vehicle.

Volunteer rescuers and the army have used small boats, tanks and trucks to evacuate residents in low-lying areas. More than 1,100 people have been moved to higher ground.

On Sunday, authorities were forced to open the gates of the city's main dam after it swelled to double its capacity - releasing up to 1,900 cubic metres of water a second.

PM praises 'strong' community

Floodwaters had begun to recede in some areas on Tuesday, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison toured the city and praised the efforts of local officials.

"I know that we had two deaths confirmed this afternoon but the scale of the evacuations that took place, it was an extraordinary achievement," Mr Morrison told radio 2GB.

However, local officials warned that forecasts of more heavy rain could pose fresh dangers in coming days.

Mr Morrison said Townsville would receive airlifts of food, water and other supplies, and that residents could apply for relief payments of up to A$1,000 (£550; $725).

"It is a big clean-up. It will be a big job, but the community is really strong," he told reporters.

People have also been warned after crocodiles, snakes and other wildlife were reportedly spotted in flooded suburban streets.Northern Queensland has a tropical climate and experiences monsoon rain from December to April.

But the recent downpour has been described as "unprecedented" by Australia's Bureau of Meteorology.

Image captionOne crocodile was spotted lurking on a suburban driveway in Townsville

The level of rainfall has eclipsed records set in 1998 during a disaster known as Night of Noah.

"We've never seen weather like this," said Townsville mayor Jenny Hill on Monday.

January was the hottest month on record for Australia as a whole, with the southern city of Adelaide reaching a record 47.7C.

The heat has sparked bushfires, including more than 40 blazes on the island state of Tasmania which have been burning for over two weeks.

Extreme temperatures have also caused a rise in hospital admissions, widespread power outages, and reports of mass wildlife deaths.

ruby Posted on February 05, 2019 13:37

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The plight of japan's morden hermits

In today’s connected world it can feel difficult to disengage. An endless stream of emails, posts, tweets, likes, comments and pictures keeps us constantly plugged into modern life.

But in Japan half a million people live as modern-day hermits. They are known as hikikomori – recluses who withdraw from all social contact and often don’t leave their houses for years at a time. A government survey found roughly 541,000 (1.57% of the population) but many experts believe the total is much higher as it can take years before they seek help.

The condition was initially thought to be unique to Japan, but in recent years cases have appeared across the world. In neighbouring South Korea, a 2005 analysis estimated there were 33,000 socially withdrawn adolescents (0.3% of the population) and in Hong Kong a 2014 survey pegged the figure at 1.9%. It’s not just in Asia, cases are appearing in the US, Spain, Italy, France and elsewhere.

Whether due to increased awareness or a growing problem remains unclear, but concern around social isolation is on the rise globally. Last January the UK appointed its first minister for loneliness and recent Office of National Statistics data found nearly 10% of 16 to 24-year-olds reported feeling "always or often" lonely.

A controversial but common theme in hikikomori research is the isolating influence of modern technology. Any potential links are far from settled, but there’s concern Japan’s lost generation could be a canary in the coal mine for our increasingly disconnected societies. At the same time there’s hope technology could help bring people back from the brink.

Hikikomori often feel isolated due to the great expectations placed on them in education and the workplace.

 The term hikikomori, often used interchangeably for the condition and its sufferers, was coined by Japanese psychologist Tamaki Sait? in his 1998 book Social Withdrawal – Adolescence Without End. Today the most common criteria is a combination of physical isolation, social avoidance and psychological distress that lasts six months or longer.

The condition was originally considered “culture-bound” and there are reasons to think Japanese society is particularly vulnerable, says Takahiro Kato, an associate professor of psychiatry at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, who both studies and treats hikikomori.

“In Japanese there’s a very famous saying, ‘A protruding nail will be hammered down’,” says Kato. Only half-jokingly, the 6ft 2in doctor adds that’s why he walks around with a slight hunch so he’s not seen as arrogant. Rigid social norms, high expectations from parents and a culture of shame make Japanese society a fertile breeding ground for feelings of inadequacy and a desire to keep one’s head below the parapet, Kato says.

After quitting his job in 2015, Tomoki, 29, tells me he was determined to get back into work and regularly visited the job centre. He also attended a religious group almost daily, but the group’s leader started publicly criticising his attitude and inability to get back into workWhen he stopped attending the leader called him several times a week and the pressure, combined with that from his family, eventually caused him to withdraw completely. (The names of all hikikomori have been changed to protect their identity.)

“I blamed myself,” he said. “I didn't want to see anyone, I didn't want to go outside.”

School is a monoculture, everyone has to have the same opinion. If someone says something they're out of the group - Ichika

At Fukuoka city’s hikikomori support centre the Yokayoka Room – “take it easy” room in the local dialect – one by one the group describes the pressure they felt to conform. “School is a monoculture, everyone has to have the same opinion,” says one of the visitors, Haru, 34. “If someone says something they're out of the group.”

Living up to the expectations of Japanese society has also got harder. Economic stagnation and globalisation is bringing Japan’s collectivist and hierarchical traditions into conflict with a more individualistic and competitive Western worldview, says Kato. And while British parents might give short shrift to a child refusing to leave their room, Japanese parents feel a strong obligation to support children no matter what and shame often prevents them from seeking help, says Kato.

But the increasing number of cases outside Japan is leading people to question the culture-bound nature of the condition. In a 2015 study, Kato and collaborators in the US, South Korea and India found cases matching the clinical criteria in all four countries.

In this portrait by Maika Elan, we see Ikuo Nakamura, 34, a hikikomori who had locked himself in his room for seven years .

 Lead author Alan Teo, an associate professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University in the US, says he is regularly contacted by Americans self-identifying with the condition.

“People have this underlying assumption it must be most common in Japan,” he says. “If you formally measured how common it is we might come up with some surprising information.”

Spanish psychiatrist Angeles Malagon-Amor stumbled across the problem during a home treatment program in Barcelona. Malagon-Amor and colleagues frequently found patients with extended periods of social withdrawal, which led her to the literature on Japan’s hikikomori. Between 2008 and 2014 they came across 190 cases – the most recent data they hold – but that was before the program was expanded and she’s sure it’s the tip of the iceberg.

“At the time, we were two psychiatrists and two nurses for a population of more than one million,” she says. “I think there must be a lot more cases.”

Establishing a broader explanation is fraught with difficulties though. Multiple studies have found that hikikomori typically have co-occurring psychiatric or developmental disorders, which can vary in type and severity.  Triggers can also be diverse from work stress to dysfunctional family dynamics.

“One of the reasons hikikomori is fascinating is that there's not one explanation,” says Teo. “It's a lot of factors coming together.”

One factor regularly discussed is the role of technology like the Internet, social media and videogames – already the source of contentious debate in mental health research. Many hikikomoriI spoke to were prolific internet and videogame users and multiple studies have noted high levels of technology use, but it’s far from universal and the nature of the relationship is still unclear.

In South Korea, anyone who remains isolated for at least three months is termed “oiettolie”, the link is more established. A 2013 study of 43 oiettolie found that nearly one in ten were already considered to be addicted to the internet, and more than 50% were thought to be at high-risk of internet addiction.

TaeYoung Choi, a psychiatrist and researcher at the Catholic University of Daegu who worked on the study, doesn’t think technology necessarily causes withdrawal, but he thinks it can support and deepen it. “Some people can get more isolated by using technology, which makes that isolation more rigid and more severe,” he says.

Internet addiction is sometimes blamed for the hikikomori's isolation, but some experts hope that it could help their rehabilitation too.

In a 2018 study of hikikomori cases In Barcelona, Malagon-Amor said they found only 30% exhibited internet addiction. But they found that group tended to be younger – the average age across all 190 cases was 39 but it was just 24 for those addicted to the internet.

“For what we've seen now, it’s not that big an issue,” she says. “But I think this is going to be much bigger in the next few years in those cases of social isolation in young people with Internet addiction.”

The effect of technology could also be more subtle, says Kato. Computer games have rewritten the nature of play, he says, with children spending ever more time in controlled virtual environments rather than the unpredictable real world. At the same time the internet, smartphones and social media have made indirect rather than face-to-face contact much more common.

Japan: Untold Stories

Welcome to BBC Future Now's Japan season, in which we explore the country's most exciting medical, technological, environmental and social trends.

“Now society has no risk, no direct communication,” says Kato. “It’s easy to hit the reset button and reverse and there's low experience of failure.” He thinks that’s detrimental to children’s development, making them less resilient and less adept at interpersonal relationships. Just like you need to be exposed to dirt to develop immunity to diseases you need to be exposed to risk and failure to develop resilience and independence, he adds.

At the Yokayoka Room patients said they say they feel more able to speak freely on the Internet. When I ask why they say it’s the anonymity it provides. Ichika, 27, adds that he likes the ability to always interact on his own terms.

There is some recognition of the limitations of this kind of communication. Hinata, 32, worries about the superficial nature of online dialogue and the ease with which you can avoid conflict. “We always try to make friends with the people who have the same opinion where we can feel more comfortable to comment,” he says.

 “Technology itself can’t be 100% behind the aggravation of hikikomori as a world phenomenon,” says Choi. But he thinks our increasing ability to shop, play and socialise without real-world interactions could be exacerbating social isolation.

Face-to-face contact, either in person or on video-chat, corresponds to lower risk of depression, compared with contact by phone, email and social media

There’s simply not enough research to draw any conclusive links yet, says Teo. But he says it does chime with his gut feeling, which is based partly on research outside the hikikomori field. In multiple studies his lab has found face-to-face contact either in person or on video-chat corresponds to lower risk of depression, compared with contact by phone, email and social media.

“If interactions online become a substitute for face-to-face interactions, I think the research that I've done and other folks have done indicate that that's problematic,” he says.

Lines of communication

It’s important not to demonise technology though, says Teo. Social media or email are not the underlying causes of mental health problems, they are vehicles for communication that can be used both positively and negatively.

In particular, the internet provides a window into the isolated lives of hikikomori. Last year Teo and researchers in China used social media apps like WeChat and Weibo to survey socially withdrawn teenagers. It cost just $7.27 (£5.53) per participant to reach 137 people, one-fifth of whom were experiencing some level of social withdrawal, suggesting it could be a cost-effective method for reaching hidden cases.

The growing interconnectedness of online and offline worlds could also offer ways to ease hikikomori back into everyday life. In 2016 Kato published a case report on a patient who suddenly started going out daily after downloading Nintendo’s hit smartphone game Pokemon Go.

The game uses augmented reality to overlay digital creatures onto the real-world that players have to roam about collecting. Kato thinks this kind of bridge between real and virtual worlds could help encourage hikikomori out of their homes and even make it easier for health workers to make first contact, particularly if it can be tailored to their needs. For example, says Kato, this kind of game could be tweaked so valuable items appear at hikikomori support centres.

He’s also started working with a Japanese company to create a robot that could reintroduce hikikomori to social contact in a controllable way. Researchers in Hong Kong have successfully used dogs for a similar purpose, which he thinks could serve as a template. "But Japanese like robots!" he adds.

In this portrait we see Riki Cook, who is American-Japanese and lives alone in Chiba, Japan.

There may also be less hi-tech ways to exploit hikikomori’s relationship with technology. Shinichiro Matsuguma, a PhD student at Keio University School of Medicine in Tokyo who specializes in positive psychology, has set up a non-profit to rehabilitate hikikomori called the Strength Association. He’s provided coaching to 32 patients using principles from positive psychology, which focuses on strengths rather than flaws. The majority of his clients play videogames so this typically involves discussing playing styles and motivations to identify strengths like teamwork, strategy or leadership.

"Many people, even their parents, see hikikomori as not doing anything,” he says. "But from my perspective, they're developing their strengths through the video games. And I always tell them while you're playing video games you are developing strengths that can be applicable to different life domains."

Establishing these strengths improves self-esteem, he says, but can also guide patients on the best path to re-entering society. The approach has yet to be scientifically evaluated, but he says almost 80% have taken a first step towards reintegration like going back to school, university or vocational training.

Remote counselling

Experts agree though that there's no substitute for direct social contact and intensive therapy. Yoko Honda, a clinical psychiatrist who manages the Fukuoka City Mental Health and Welfare Centre, says the national government has been pushing them to use social media to provide remote counselling to hikikomori, but they’ve resisted.

“Just one tweet is not enough for expressing our anxiety or emotions,” she says, though she agrees it might be useful for reaching new patients.

Asides from psychotherapy and medication to treat any underlying psychiatric disorders, a central plank of their strategy is family training to fix dysfunctional home environments. The Yokayoka Room also provides a safe haven for those on the path to recovery to meet others like them and relearn atrophied social skills. But she says the varied nature of cases makes treating them tough.

“We hope to give tailormade support to all these hikikomori,” she says.  “But we always need a lot of labour, a lot of time.”

That’s something Malagon-Amor found in her 12-month study of Barcelona’s hikikomori. Those who received more intensive therapy either at home or in hospital reacted best. Less intensive outpatient services were linked to higher abandonment of treatment and often worsening isolation. “They're very fragile patients,” she says.

Whether or not the West should be gearing up for a tsunami of such patients is still unclear. But social isolation can be a feature of other conditions, from depression to PTSD, so Malagon-Amor thinks the West can learn a lot from the Japanese experience.

And regardless of the scale of the phenomenon, Teo hopes hikikomori research will broaden our understanding of the importance of social connections to our mental and physical health.

“When I talk to parents of someone with hikikomori it's very clear to me that the social isolation is causing huge negative impacts – it ripples through the individual, to their family, to others,” he says.

“So that social impairment, problems with social connections, we haven't paid enough attention to that in medicine. And I think now with hikikomori, with more attention to loneliness we are finally starting to look at these issues as health issues. And that's good.”

ruby Posted on February 04, 2019 14:46

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Which countries eat the most meat?

You may have heard an increasing number of people vow to reduce their meat eating lately - or cut it out altogether.

This often forms part of a bid to become healthier, reduce their environmental impact, or consider animal welfare.

third of Britons claim to have either stopped eating meat or reduced it, while two thirds of those in the US say they are eating less of at least one meat.

This trend is partly thanks to initiatives such as Meat-free Mondays and Veganuary. At the same time, a number of documentaries and high-profile advocates of veganism have highlighted the potential benefits of eating less meat.

But have these sentiments had any effect on the ground?

Rising incomes

What we do know is that global meat consumption has increased rapidly over the past 50 years.

Meat production today is nearly five times higher than in the early 1960s - from 70 million tonnes to more than 330 million tonnes in 2017.

A big reason for this is that there are many more people to feed.

Over that period the world population more than doubled. In the early 1960s there were around three billion of us, and today there are more than 7.6 billion.

While population is part of the story, it doesn't entirely account for why meat production increased five-fold.

Another key factor is rising incomes.

Around the world, people have become richer, with the global average income more than tripling in half a century.

When we compare consumption across different countries we see that, typically, the richer we are the more meat we eat.

There are not just more people in the world - there are more people who can afford to eat meat.

Who eats the most meat?

We see a clear link with wealth when looking at patterns of meat consumption across the world.

In 2013, the most recent year available, the US and Australia topped the tables for annual meat consumption. Alongside New Zealand and Argentina, both countries topped more than 100kg per person, the equivalent to about 50 chickens or half a cow each.

In fact, high levels of meat consumption can be seen across the West, with most countries in Western Europe consuming between 80 and 90 kilograms of meat per person.

At the other end of the spectrum, many of the world's poorest countries eat very little meat.

The average Ethiopian consumes just 7kg, Rwandans 8kg and Nigerians 9kg. This is 10 times less than the average European.

For those in low-income countries, meat is still very much a luxury.

These figures represent the amount of meat per head available for consumption, but do not account for any food wasted at home or on the shop floor. In reality, people eat slightly less meat than this, but it's still a close estimate.

Middle-income countries driving the demand for meat

It is clear that the richest countries eat a lot of meat, and those on low incomes eat little.

This has been the case for 50 years or more. So why are we collectively eating so much more meat?

This trend has been largely driven from a growing band of middle-income countries.

Rapidly growing nations like China and Brazil have seen significant economic growth in recent decades, and a large rise in meat consumption.

In Kenya, meat consumption has changed little since 1960.

By contrast, the average person in 1960s China consumed less than 5kg a year. By the late 1980s this had risen to 20kg, and in the last few decades this has more than tripled to over 60kg.

The same thing happened in Brazil, where meat consumption has almost doubled since 1990 - overtaking almost all Western countries in the process.

India is one notable exception.

While average incomes have tripled since 1990, meat consumption hasn't followed suit.

It is a misconception that the majority of India is vegetarian - two thirds of Indians do eat at least some meat, according to a nationwide survey.

Nonetheless, the amount of meat consumed in India has remained small. At less than 4kg per person, it is the lowest in the world. This is likely to be partly down to cultural factors for some in India, including not eating certain types of meat for religious reasons.

Is meat consumption falling in the West?

Many in Europe and North America say they are trying to cut down on meat, but is it working?

Not really, according to statistics.

Recent data from the United States Department for Agriculture (USDA) suggests meat consumption per head has actually increased over the last few years.

While we may think that meat is becoming less popular, US consumption in 2018 was close to its highest in decades.

It's a similar picture with meat consumption in the EU.

While Western consumption of meat is steady, or slightly increasing, the types of meat eaten are changing.

This means less red meat - beef and pork - and more poultry.

In the US, poultry now accounts for half of meat consumption, up from a quarter in the 1970s.

These types of substitution could be good news for health and the environment.

The impact of meat

In some circumstances, eating meat can be beneficial.

Moderate quantities of meat and dairy can improve people's health, particularly in lower-income countries where diets may lack variety.

But in many countries, meat consumption goes far beyond basic nutritional benefits.

In fact, it could be a health risk. Studies have linked excess red and processed meat consumption with increased risk of heart disease, stroke and certain types of cancer.

Substituting chicken for beef or bacon could be a positive step.

This swap is also better for the environment as cows, in particular, are inefficient converters of feed to meat.

Compared to chicken, beef has anywhere in the range of three to 10 times as much impact on land use, water and greenhouse gas emissions. Pork is somewhere in between the two.

A future where meat consumption is sustainable and balanced across countries would require major changes.

This would mean not only a shift in the types of meat we eat, but also how much.

Essentially, meat would have to become more of a luxury again.

This analysis piece was commissioned by the BBC from an expert working for an outside organisation.

Hannah Ritchie is an Oxford Martin fellow, and is currently working as a researcher at This is a joint project between Oxford Martin and non-profit organisation Global Change Data Lab, which aims to present research on how the world is changing through interactive visualisations. You can follow her on Twitter here.

ruby Posted on February 04, 2019 14:23

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Kumbh Mela: Millions of Indians bathe on most auspicious day

The main day of bathing has been held at India's Kumbh Mela, with tens of millions of pilgrims taking a dip at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers.

This is the most auspicious of six bathing days at the event, billed as the world's biggest human gathering.

Hindus believe bathing at the rivers will cleanse them of their sins and help them attain "moksha", setting them free from the cycle of birth and death.

The mela (meaning "fair" in Hindi) has been held in Allahabad city (recently renamed Prayagraj) in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh for centuries now. But it has grown into a mega event in the past two decades.

The BBC's Vikas Pandey, who is at the festival, said people had arrived from all parts of the country and had walked miles to take a dip. "Every street in the city leading to the mela grounds is flooded with people," he said.

The bathing began at midnight with people chanting "hail mother Ganges".

At dawn, visitors jostled to get a glimpse of the Akharas - different congregations of Hindu saints - who had started their procession.

These processions are highly coveted as people line up to see holy men and women perched on top of heavily decorated floats.

"It is so crowded but everyone seemed excited, despite having walked long distances in the cold," our reporter said.

Officials say more than 10 million people have already taken a dip and the number is likely to rise during the day.

Avnish Tripathi, who had arrived from Madhya Pradesh state, walked for five hours from the outskirts of Allahabad city to reach the festival. "Once I got there, I had to wait for two hours to take a dip because of the crowds. But it was a magical experience and I didn't feel tired at all," he told the BBC.

Many other devoted pilgrims had walked more than 50km (31 miles) in the hope of taking a dip.

"It has been nearly 12 hours since bathing began but the crowds haven't thinned," our reporter added.

The Naga sadhus are the biggest draw of the festival. Thousands of the Sadhus, naked and wearing garlands around their necks, charged into the river with swords and tridents in their hands.

They were escorted by the police as people watched from behind barricades.

This year's festival is an "ardh Kumbh" - a "half-size" version that falls mid-way between two Kumbhs - but there's nothing diminutive about it. In fact, it's much bigger than the last full Kumbh held in 2013.

ruby Posted on February 04, 2019 14:17

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Why 'India's FBI' agents are clashing with police

Imagine state policemen in the US detaining FBI agents investigating a case on state territory.

Then imagine the governor of the state starting a public protest against the FBI and the president for carrying out what she calls an act of vendetta against her government.

Now imagine federal forces being deployed to protect their offices in the state, fearing attacks by supporters of the governor.

This possibly sounds like a plot from a dystopian political novel. But it is what is happening in India.

A group of detectives belonging to India's federal investigation agency, the CBI, arrived at the well-secured home of the commissioner of police of Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta) in West Bengal state on Sunday evening. They said they wanted to question Rajeev Kumar in connection with a ponzi scandal. (The multi-million dollar scam, involving businessmen, politicians, journalists and film producers, defrauded a large number of small investors.)

But Mr Kumar refused to meet the detectives. Instead his forces detained the agents - who are recruited from the police forces themselves - and took them away to a police station. They were freed after a few hours, and returned without being able to question Mr Kumar.

Mr Kumar had led the early local investigation into the scandal, before the case was taken over by the CBI under the supervision of the Supreme Court. The federal agency, say reports, unsuccessfully tried to question Mr Kumar half-a-dozen times in the past in connection with some evidence he had purportedly collected in the case. The agency believes that he is "hiding" something.

The ponzi scandal, involving at least two small investment companies, came to light in 2013 under the watch of the leader of West Bengal state. In India's male-dominated politics, Mamata Banerjee is a rare firebrand woman leader who commands mass support. She took power in 2011, ending 34 years of communist rule in the state. (The following year, she was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world.) The feisty Ms Banerjee has ruled West Bengal ever since.

Image captionThe Central Bureau of Investigation is India's top investigation agency

Ms Banerjee has a testy relationship with the federal government, run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This is, in part, because Mr Modi's party is trying to make inroads into Bengal, using its usual mix of development promises and sectarian rhetoric.

After a series of setbacks in state polls Mr Modi no longer looks invincible in general elections due this summer. And Ms Banerjee, an astute rival, is trying to position herself as a prime ministerial contender, in the event of an opposition win. Recently, she organised a well-attended meeting of 23 opposition parties who vowed to defeat Mr Modi.

Ms Banerjee, who is now holding an "indefinite" public protest in Kolkata, accuses Mr Modi's party of targeting her government.

The highest levels of the BJP leadership are doing the worst kind of political vendetta. Not only are political parties their targets, they are misusing power
to take control of the police and destroy all institutions. We condemn this 1/2

The BJP picked up 17% of vote share - but just two seats - in Bengal in the 2014 general elections. The party is desperately hoping for an improved performance this summer. It accuses Ms Banerjee of triggering a "constitutional crisis" by setting her police on federal agents. Historian Ramachandra Guha says the latest battle is a "war between two ruthless and amoral politicians with absolute and equal disregard for institutional propriety".

In the end, this unprecedented - and ugly - incident is actually symptomatic of a worrying erosion of India's institutions and the regrettable breakdown of political bipartisanship.

The CBI, which reports to the ruling federal government, was once described as a "caged parrot" and has been used by successive governments to hobble political opponents. It has, many believe, lost credibility. In October, the government had to remove the two men at the top of the agency after each accused the other of corruption.

The standoff is the latest manifestation of a crisis that has often bedevilled the Indian state: the inability of an extremely powerful federal government - Mr Modi rules with an outright majority - to handle equally powerful and assertive regional leaders. It is a crisis which is at the heart of India's federalism.

ruby Posted on February 04, 2019 14:12

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Punjab's drug menace: 'I wanted my son to die'

The northern Indian state of Punjab has witnessed a sharp increase in the number of drug-related deaths this year. BBC Punjabi's Arvind Chhabra investigates why the drug menace has become worse in the state.

"He was my only son, but I had started wishing that he would die… And now, I cry the whole night with his photograph in my hand," says 55-year-old Lakshmi Devi.

Her son, Ricky Lahoria, recently died of a drug overdose. He was 25.

His was one of 60 deaths linked to drug abuse in Punjab between January and June 2018, according to official estimates. In comparison, 30 people died in drug-related incidents in all of 2017.

Police officials say that the number is likely to increase when they release data for the second half of 2018.

Drugs have been a scourge in Punjab for years now - once a transit point on the drug route, the state has now become a major consumer base.

Punjab's health minister Brahm Mohindra told the BBC his government had reduced the inflow of drugs into the state. But he could not explain why drugs had claimed more lives in 2018 than in previous years.

"It's not clear what concoction is causing [the] deaths. But so many deaths have happened. It is a serious and unfortunate thing," he said.

The All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi conducted the first comprehensive study in 2015 to estimate the magnitude of drug addiction in Punjab - and the report concluded that there were more than 200,000 addicts in the state.

Image captionDrug deaths in Punjab have soared in 2018

Ms Devi says Ricky started using drugs when he was still in school and, eventually, he dropped out.

In the early days, he was addicted to cough syrups and injections but he gradually turned to heroin, locally known as chitta.

At one point, his mother recalls, Ricky wanted to quit and even asked her for help. But she did not know that a rehab centre was an option.

"I just took him to a regular hospital, where he died after three days," she says.

'Champagne of intoxicants'

Data from various government departments shows that the problem seems to have got worse in recent years.

According to police records, 303kg of heroin was seized from the beginning of 2018 until 15 October. Only 191kg of heroin was seized from January to December 2017.

The BBC spoke to police officers, border security forces and intelligence officials to understand how drugs are distributed and consumed in the state.

Media captionThe cost of Punjab's heroin epidemic

They say the most commonly abused drugs in Punjab are the three opium derivatives - raw opium, poppy husk and heroin - followed by medications sold over the counter.

But addicts often see heroin as the "champagne of intoxicants". Like champagne, heroin is costly. One gram costs between 4000 ($56; £43) to 6000 rupees - an addict usually consumes half a gram to two grams in a single day.

While "misuse of pharmaceuticals" is more common in cities, heroin is "more prevalent in rural areas", says Sukhchain Singh, the police commissioner of Ludhiana city.

Despite its hefty price tag, heroin remains popular among addicts regardless of social class and income. Police told the BBC that this was because many of them also turned to peddling as a source of income.

Others simply steal to support their habit.

"Our jewellery and household goods started vanishing as he would take away and sell whatever items he could lay his hands on," one woman, whose son died due to addiction, told the BBC.

The porous border

The border fence that separates India and Pakistan is clearly visible from the rooftops of houses in Dhanoa Kalan village. Border security forces and police officers can be seen patrolling the streets and some of them are dressed as civilians.

Image captionSukhdev Singh says famers often find white packets containing drugs in their fields

The village is home to about 1,400 adults and about 150 of them cultivate farm land beyond the border fence, which puts their fields in no man's land.

So these farmers cross the border almost every day and they are searched by the security forces when they return. Sometimes, they find packets of drugs in their fields.

"Last year, a farmer spotted some packets containing a white powder and he informed border security officers," says Sukhdev Singh, a former village chief.

Mr Singh says this has happened a few times. "We don't know who does it and how," he adds.

Security officers say smugglers often hurl packets of drugs across the border - and some farmers help them. Farmers also make cavities in their tools to hide the drugs, making it hard to detect them.

"All that the farmers have to do is carry these packets to their homes. Once it's inside Indian territory, couriers pick up these packets from the farmers," says an Indian intelligence officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Image captionSecurity forces routinely seize drugs at the India-Pakistan border

The couriers, he adds, then transport the packets to distributors in different cities. Police say they have discovered tunnels along the border that are used by smugglers.

The entire process relies on secrecy - most of those who are involved don't know who the kingpin is or even the names of couriers or distributors. All of this makes it hard to trace the smugglers who are running the operation, say security officials.

International network

About 20 battalions of India's Border Security Force (BSF) guard the border. But officers say smugglers sneak in through gaps in the fence or during dense fog in the winter.

In May 2017, police in Ludhiana city revealed that some farmers had Sim cards from Pakistan so that they could talk to smugglers across the border.

In July the following year, customs officers in Amritsar city seized packets of heroin concealed in the empty wagons attached to a goods train that had arrived from Pakistan.

Image captionGangs often place pipes along the border fence to smuggle drugs

"Most of the heroin comes from Afghanistan to India via Pakistan," says Rajesh Kumar Jaiswal, inspector general of the Punjab police force that investigates drug smuggling.

Punjab has become a major part of the so-called opium drug route that is now used for transporting heroin as well. Officials say smugglers use different routes to enter India, choosing between Punjab, Rajasthan or Indian-administered Kashmir.

"If there's pressure on the Punjab border then they shift to Rajasthan and if there's pressure there, they move elsewhere," Mr Jaiswal adds. "While [the] India-Pakistan border has been the usual route, we have seized narcotic consignments even from Delhi. And they could be arriving in Delhi from any border."

Nexus with security forces

The local police and security agencies have also been accused of helping smugglers.

In June 2016, the federal government's junior home minister, Kiren Rijiju, said in parliament that 68 employees of the Punjab police and other security forces were arrested due to their involvement in the drug trade.

Image captionMiddlemen are also frequently arrested in different cities of Punjab

Two deputy superintendents of police have also been arrested in recent months on similar charges.

Senior officers acknowledge the problem, adding that they are taking strict action against such officers.

So, what is the solution?

Health officials say the state needs to open more rehab centres for addicts as there are too few existing ones. While there are 90 private rehab centres, there are only 50 that are run by the government.

The government has been running awareness campaigns in schools and colleges. But most families in rural areas do not know about rehab centres or how they can turn lives around. And the stigma associated with drugs often stops people from seeking help.

There are also attempts to understand what drives the youth of Punjab to drugs.

One survey of drug addiction, conducted by the Society for Promotion of youth and masses in the state said the biggest reason for people to start trying drugs was "fun", followed by "peer pressure". A second study, conducted by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences also pointed to peer pressure."Punjab needs a three-pronged strategy to reduce supply, demand and consumption," says Dr D Basu, a psychiatrist who has studied drug addiction in the state.

Until then, he adds, stories like Ms Devi's will remain all too familiar.

"[Ricky] would sell whatever he could lay his hands on to buy drugs," Ms Devi says. "I wanted him to lead a normal life, have a family and earn enough for them. I felt so helpless, so broken whenever he became unconscious after taking drugs. He would forget where he was and what he was doing.

"In those moments, I would just wish and pray that he would die. But now I regret my words."

ruby Posted on February 04, 2019 14:06

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No traffic in Addis Ababa as Ethiopia marks Car Free Day

With none of the usual traffic clogging the capital, Sunday football devotees took to the streets.

The monthly event is designed to promote a healthy lifestyle and fight air pollution.

The measure was implemented by the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who was came to office last April after his predecessor resigned.

The event also allowed skateboarders to show off their skills.

Image copyrightAFP

ruby Posted on February 04, 2019 13:57

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Maltese port manager shot dead in Somalia

A Maltese port manager has been shot dead in Somalia's northern semi-autonomous Puntland state, officials say.

Paul Anthony Formosa, who was the construction project manager for DP World, was killed inside Bossasso port.

Islamist militant group al-Shabab has said it carried out the attack.

Puntland, an arid region of north-east Somalia, declared itself an autonomous state in 1998, in part to avoid the clan warfare in southern Somalia.

The state is a destination for many Somalis displaced by violence in the south.

Pastor's supporters turn up at his fraud court appearance

Followers of controversial Malawian self-styled prophet Shepherd Bushiri turned up outside court in South Africa's capital, Pretoria, to show their support for him, after he was arrested on Friday for alleged fraud.

A journalist with the local Times Live news site has tweeted a video of the supporters banging drums and cheering outside the court.

Shepherd Bushiri and his wife Mary were arrested following an investigation which began in 2015.

In court on Monday they were formally charged with fraud and money laundering but were not asked to plead.

Police say the couple's luxury cars, houses and private jet could also be seized pending the finalisation of the criminal case against them.

They have not commented on the allegations.

They've been remanded in custody and are expected to apply for bail on Wednesday.

The church leader is known as much for his lavish lifestyle as for his successful ministry, which stretches across Africa.

He claims to have cured people of HIV, appeared to walk on water on social media and owns four private jets.

ruby Posted on February 04, 2019 11:57

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A prison where the inmates have to go and find jobs

At Sanganer prison, in the Indian city of Jaipur, inmates get a roof over their head, but no money and no food. This means they must go to work and earn their living beyond the prison gates, writes Masuma Ahuja - as labourers, factory workers, drivers, even yoga teachers.

Ramchand drives a school bus. His wife, Sugna, works at a garment factory. On a recent hot afternoon, I drink a cup of tea with them in their one-room house, which has yellow walls and a corrugated metal roof, a fridge and a TV, a lunchbox hanging in the corner next to photos of gods and a stack of newspapers. From their door, you can see cars zooming by on a nearby highway and beyond that, a skyline of modern high-rises.

This is how they tell their story: he was lonely, her family had left her. Their neighbours wanted to set them up and arrange their marriage, so she wouldn't be a woman living alone, so he would have someone to take care of him, cook for him and make him rotis. "I can make my own rotis," he says. He married her because he fell for her.

There's seemingly little out of the ordinary about their house, or their story. Except that Ramchand and Sugna are both convicted murderers and they live in prison.

Their house is in Sanganer Open Prison, in Jaipur, the capital city of India's western state of Rajasthan. This prison has no bars or walls, no security guards at the gate, and prisoners are allowed - even encouraged - to go out into the city and work every day. This prison, which has been open since the 1950s, is home to 450 prisoners and is one of about 30 such institutions in the state of Rajasthan.

SI go to Sanganer with Smita Chakraburtty, the woman behind a campaign to make open prisons the norm across India. She has made the case to India's Supreme Court, which in turn has asked states to look into setting up more places like this. She now serves as an honorary commissioner of prisons in Rajasthan, and recently won the country's Agami Prize for her work on the penal system.

Image captionSmita Chakraburtty with Sugna (right) and another prisoner.

"The criminal justice system addresses an incident… and doesn't know what to do with an individual," Chakraburtty argues. Her cause is gaining momentum: four other states in India established new open prisons last year. When I visit Sanganer with Smita, she gives prisoners the latest updates on her work, and then they swarm to me, eager to chat. While there are no guards and anyone can enter the prison, visitors like me are rare.

I sit on the floor in a children's nursery at the front of the prison grounds and talk with a group of men and women who are inmates. When I ask them why they're in prison, many simply say, "302," referring to Section 302 in India's Penal Code which dictates the punishment for murder. They call the open prison "the farm," and gush about how easy it is to live here, how happy they are.

Image captionPrison dwellings, and beyond them a residential area

To get to Sanganer, they all have to have served at least two-thirds of their sentences in closed prisons, and they say that compared to those places, this is freedom. In fact, the government in Rajasthan has had to evict prisoners who didn't want to leave. They had set up lives - stable jobs, schools for their children - in this neighbourhood, that they didn't want to give up at the end of their sentences.

Still, many prisoners tell me they struggle with outsiders' perception of prison. Some women inmates say it's easier to marry a man on the inside, because men outside prison don't understand their experiences. Even getting a job can be hard for some inmates, they say people are hesitant to hire them once they present their prison IDs.

  • At the end of 2015, out of a total of 419,623 prisoners in India, 3,789 (0.9%) were held in open prisons
  • Two states, Rajasthan and Maharashtra had 42 open prisons - more than half of the total
  • Twenty-one open prisons were distributed among 15 other states

But they still live a version of a normal life here: they buy motorcycles, smartphones, and televisions; they wear no prison uniform and live in small numbered houses. Each prisoner is allotted a government-provided house along one of Sanganer's narrow lanes. The rest is up to them. The prison doesn't provide them with any food, water or income.

Image captionAll prisoners must attend an evening roll call

So every day, most of them leave the prison grounds to earn a living: men convicted of murder work as security guards, factory workers and daily labourers. I even meet one inmate who's a yoga instructor and another who's a supervisor in a nearby school.

The only real rule, I'm told, is that prisoners must make roll call every evening. Sanganer hardly seems like a prison, except at this moment. At sundown, representatives of the prison's elected governing body stand at the prison entrance. An inmate with a microphone begins taking attendance, calling out numbers from 1 to 450. Sometimes, he stops at a number and scolds a prisoner for leaving rubbish outside his or her house.

Everyone must be accounted for… or risk return to a closed prison.

Japan is in the grip of an elderly crime wave - the proportion of crimes committed by people over the age of 65 has been steadily increasing for 20 years. The BBC's Ed Butler asks why.

ruby Posted on February 04, 2019 11:48

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Maroon 5's Super Bowl show fails to catch fire

Comets, drones, marching bands and Spongebob Squarepants: Maroon 5's Super Bowl half-time show had everything... except an emotional connection.

The LA band delivered an enthusiastic, breathless history of their biggest hits - from This Love to Girls Like You - but unlike the copious pyrotechnics, their set failed to catch fire.

They came closest with a low-key rendition of the ballad She Will Be Loved, performed in the middle of the crowd, as Chinese lanterns rose into the Atlanta skyline.

As the song reached its climax, the lanterns revealed themselves to be drones - flying in formation to spell out the phrase "one love".

Behind singer Adam Levine, one couple wrapped their arms around each other and swayed, apparently oblivious to the fact they were being watched by millions.

Levine threw himself into the show, dropping to his knees, bashing out guitar solos and running up and down the M-shaped stage - but the band tried to cram in too much material (nine songs in 13 minutes) to create a coherent, enjoyable show.

Media captionSuper Bowl 53: Spongebob Squarepants steals Maroon 5's half-time show spotlight

It didn't help that they had to make room for rapper Travis Scott, who arrived on stage by "crash-landing" in a comet, and local star Big Boi, formerly of Outkast, who drove on to the field to perform Kryptonite and I Like The Way You Move.

The guests helped propel the show - Scott, in particular, doubled the energy on stage - but it's notable that the most successful Super Bowl performers of the last decade, Lady Gaga and Prince, both rejected collaborators.

Maroon 5 closed their set with their biggest hit, Moves Like Jagger, as Levine stripped off his vest top and fireworks shot from the roof of Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz stadium.

They didn't leave the stage defeated - casual fans will have been reminded why they're still around and producing hits after 17 years - but neither will the show be talked about as an all-time classic.

Image captionTravis Scott performed his shape-shifting rap hit Sicko Mode

Image captionA gospel choir helped out on Girls Like You - but guest rapper Cardi B declined to join the show.

Why was Spongebob Squarepants there?

During the show, a short clip of cult cartoon character Spongebob Squarepants was beamed across the stadium's video screens - after fans pleaded for the character's song Sweet Victory to feature at this year's half-time show.

For those who don't know, Sweet Victory is a hair rock anthem that SpongeBob and the Bikini Bottom Super Band played for a stunned sports audience in the classic episode Band Geeks.

petition asking Maroon 5 to play it was launched after Spongebob's creator Stephen Hillenburg died of ALS - also known as motor neurone disease - last November.

However the 1.2 million signatories were left disappointed, as the cartoon introduction simply cut to Travis Scott's performance.

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Why was the show controversial?

Like most previous performers, Maroon 5 kept their set upbeat and free from politics.

The group, which has built a career on inoffensive pop songs and an uncanny ability to adopt new musical trends, was never going to ruffle any feathers - but they arrived at the Super Bowl in a year when the conversation around the half-time show had become particularly heated.

There were rumours that some artists - including Rihanna - had refused to perform for the NFL, which has been criticised for its botched handling of player protests and the alleged blacklisting of Colin Kaepernick, who began the practice of kneeling during the US national anthem to raise awareness of racial inequality and police brutality.

It meant Maroon 5 had to play the Cardi B duet Girls Like You without their star collaborator, after she declined to appear, citing solidarity with Kaepernick.

"There's a man who sacrificed his job for us, so we got to stand behind him," she explained earlier this week.

Wary of a backlash, Maroon 5 cancelled the traditional pre-game press conference in order to "let their show do the talking".

On Thursday night, however, Levine gave a pre-taped interview to Entertainment Tonight, in which he addressed the situation.

Image captionLevine said he wanted the music to do the talking

"I'm not in the right profession if I can't handle a little bit of controversy," he said. "It is what it is. We expected it. We'd like to move on from it and speak through the music."

To counter criticism, the band teamed up with the NFL and their record label Interscope to donate $500,000 (£382,000) to educational charity Big Brother Big Sister.

Their gesture echoed that of Travis Scott, who only agreed to perform on the condition that the NFL agreed to join him in a joint donation of $500,000 to the social justice organisation Dream Corps.

None of the performers were paid for playing the Super Bowl; but they receive one of the largest TV audiences on US television.

Last year, Justin Timberlake's mid-game performance was watched by 106.6 million people in the US.

The most-watched Super Bowl show of all time was Katy Perry's shark-infested spectacular in 2015, which drew 120.7 million viewers.

Image captionGladys Knight sang the national anthem at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta

Before the clash between The New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams began, Gladys Knight gave a powerful and soulful rendition of the National Anthem, flanked by a military band and accompanied by artist and deaf activist Aarron Loggins, who signed the anthem.

Knight had earlier issued a defiant statement explaining her decision to appear.

"I understand that Mr Kaepernick is protesting two things, and they are police violence and injustice," Knight told Variety magazine.

"It is unfortunate that our National Anthem has been dragged into this debate when the distinctive senses of the National Anthem and fighting for justice should each stand alone."

"I am here today... to give the anthem back its voice, to stand for that historic choice of words, the way it unites us when we hear it and to free it from the same prejudices and struggles I have fought long and hard for all my life," she added.

"From walking back hallways, from marching with our social leaders, from using my voice for good - I have been in the forefront of this battle longer than most of those voicing their opinions to win the right to sing our country's anthem on a stage as large as the Super Bowl LIII."

ruby Posted on February 04, 2019 11:38

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Parents DNA-tested in ‘Thai bride’ cold case

DNA samples have been taken from a Thai couple who believe their daughter may be the woman whose body was found on a hillside in England 14 years ago.

The body was discovered in a stream near Pen-y-ghent, in the Yorkshire Dales, in 2004.

Police said she may have been a "Thai bride". On Thursday a Thai couple came forward to say they believed she may be their daughter, Lamduan Seekanya.

Analysis of the samples taken by Thai officials is due to take several days.

The results of the tests will then be sent to the UK for comparison, said Setthinaree Veness, the president of the Thai Women Network in the UK, who is working with the family.

The couple, Joomsri Seekanya, 72, and her husband Buasa, told a news conference last week their daughter married a British man in 1991 and moved to north-west England shortly after.

Image captionDNA samples were taken from husband and wife Buasa and Joomsri Seekanya (centre)

Image captionBuasa (left) and Joomsri Seekanya have not heard from their daughter since 2004

The family, from Udon Thani, in north-east Thailand, said they had not heard from her since 2004.

Mrs Seekanya said: "A part of me hopes that it's not my daughter - I want her to come back alive. But if it's really her, I can finally sleep at night."

Image captionA police artist created an impression of how the woman may have looked

Cold-case investigators say they believe the woman found in the UK was murdered and dumped on the hillside.

Forensic tests suggest she was aged between 25 and 35, originally from south-east Asia and may have lived in north Lancashire or south Cumbria.

She was found more than a mile (2km) from the nearest road and was wearing only green jeans, socks and a gold wedding band.

Image captionThe woman's body was discovered by walkers when they stopped to take photos by a hillside stream

Speaking in October, Adam Harland, manager of the North Yorkshire and Cleveland Police cold case review team, said they believed the woman may have been a "Thai bride".

He said: "[It is possible] she is a lady who has taken up a relationship with a white gentleman, and come back to the UK."

On Friday, North Yorkshire Police confirmed it had received a possible name for the unknown woman and said inquiries were ongoing.

ruby Posted on February 01, 2019 17:34

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Bristol Airport: Flights cancelled after snow shuts airfield

Thousands of passengers were left "frustrated" and "disappointed" after heavy snow caused Bristol Airport to shut.

Disruption continued into the afternoon as teams worked to clear the airfield. The runway reopened at 16:30 GMT.

Almost all of Friday's 130 flights to and from Bristol have been cancelled.

A spokesman thanked passengers for their patience and advised they should check flight information with their tour operators.

Wales rugby fans heading to Paris for Friday's Six Nations fixture were among those caught up in the disruption.

A BBC reporter at the airport said dozens of people were waiting for information in the departure lounge.

Media captionThe airport has cancelled flights in order to clear snow from the runway

An airport spokesman said: "We anticipate operating as normal on Saturday but please contact your airline for updates on the status of your flight."

Louise Weston, from Westbury-on-Trym, was forced to cancel her holiday to Barcelona due to the disruption.

She described it as "incredibly frustrating", adding: "It's something we'd been looking forward to but you can't control the weather and I wouldn't want to be on a flight that wasn't safe.

"We are lucky that we'd booked a package so we'll get a refund at least and can make other plans."

Disruption to flights is expected to continue into the afternoon as a result of ongoing snow fall at Bristol Airport. Our teams continue to work hard to clear snow from the airfield. Please refer to your airlines' app/website for specific flight info. Thank you for your patience.

Sarah Trevelyan, 43, from Henleaze said she was "very disappointed" to have to abandon her "much-anticipated holiday".

Jenni Need, from Bristol, and her husband were stranded in Venice, where they had spent their honeymoon.

They were due to fly home on Thursday night but their EasyJet flight was cancelled as was their rescheduled flight this morning.

"My partner got on the phone to EasyJet because we were adamant we weren't going and queuing in the airport again," she said.

"He managed to reschedule it a second time until hopefully Sunday.

"We're stuck here in a hotel room, no euros now we've spent all our money, twiddling our thumbs waiting for Sunday. We're trying to make the best of a really bad situation."

Information about the cancelled flights can be found on the airport's website.

British Airways also cancelled dozens of flights from Heathrow Airport on Friday morning due to the weather conditions.

Image captionAbout 106 flights scheduled to take off or land at Bristol Airport have been cancelled

The Met Office said 14cm of snow fell in Dunkeswell, Devon, while 3 to 5cm fell across Somerset.

Hundreds of schools across the west country were also closed due to the snow.

ruby Posted on February 01, 2019 17:30

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