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Is Russia trying to sway the European elections?

EU officials say Russia is using disinformation to influence the outcome of this week's European Parliament elections. How seriously should their warnings be taken?

"Winter isn't the only thing that's coming - so is the risk of interference in our elections," said Sir Julian King, the EU's commissioner for security, in a press conference late last year.

Their primary suspect is Russia. EU officials say the Kremlin has for years been using disinformation to sow discord and confusion across Europe, while undermining voters' trust in the European Union and its democracies.

Russia flatly denies such accusations, calling them "completely false" and "unsubstantiated". But some commentators believe voters' discontent with the EU - the very thing Moscow is accused of stoking - should not be pinned on foreign actors, but rather on domestic politics.

What evidence is there of Russian meddling?

For many people, phrases like "disinformation" and "fake news" only came on to the radar after the 2016 US Presidential elections where, according to US intelligence agencies, Russia covertly acted to influence the result. Moscow has called the allegation "absurd".

But officials in Brussels have been taking action against perceived Russian disinformation since at least 2015, when the East Stratcom Task Force was created. It's a unit of 15 people whose mission is to identify and expose any attempts by the Kremlin to mislead and confuse EU citizens.

Giles Portman, who heads the task force, told BBC Trending: "The evidence is being compiled for several years now that Russia has been seeking to influence European democratic processes.

"Attempts have been made to hack and leak, or to denigrate particular politicians, or to misrepresent certain policies. The best way [for Russia] to strengthen itself is to weaken its opponent."

As an example, he cites the 2017 elections for the German Parliament, where right-wing nationalists were allegedly endorsed by Russia.

And during French presidential elections in the same year, Kremlin-funded media outlets were accused of "spreading falsehoods" throughout the electoral campaign. There were also suggestions Russia was involved in a last-minute hack of emails from Emmanuel Macron's campaign.

But what about these European elections specifically?

Officials admit that there is currently little evidence of large-scale attempts to spread disinformation directly related to this week's vote.

"From what we've seen of the European election campaign so far, it looks at the moment less sensational than some of the attempts we've seen [in the past]," says Giles Portman. "What we can see at the moment is this continuation of a message that Europe is collapsing, that the elites aren't paying attention to ordinary people, and that Europe's values and identities are under threat."

But the elections have featured prominently in media outlets funded by the Kremlin, including broadcaster RT and the Sputnik news agency.

"They have been picking up the theme consistently over the past few months," says Olga Robinson, who tracks disinformation for BBC Monitoring. "They do seem to be pushing slightly anti-establishment messages."

Some of those messages dovetail with those being put out by anti-EU, populist, and anti-establishment parties that have been gaining ground across Europe in recent years. Polls suggest these parties are likely to increase their number of seats in the European Parliament.

That being the case, how can the EU guarantee that its efforts to tackle Russian disinformation don't instead interfere with legitimate democratic debate?

"We in no way suggest that we are trying to tell people what to believe, how to vote, or interfere in people's right to hold whatever opinion they may wish to hold," says Portman. "We're just questioning the manipulation of the debate and saying that people's opinions are best based on facts."

How seriously is the EU taking this?

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, says disinformation is part of Russia's military strategy and that Moscow spends up to €1.1bn (£960m) on pro-Kremlin media - a huge sum compared to the East Stratcom Task Force budget of €3m (£2.6m) to be spent by the end of 2020.

The task force runs a database open to the public, where it lists and debunks news articles published by the Russian media that, according to its analysis, contain falsehoods and pro-Kremlin disinformation messages. To date, it has compiled more than 4,500 cases. They also publish a weekly newsletter with some of its findings.

Although the task force now focuses solely on Russian media outlets with links to the Kremlin, it came under fire in 2018 for listing articles published by Dutch media outlets as examples of disinformation.

At the time, it was accused of trying to stifle media freedom and, faced the prospect of legal action. In response the task force backtracked and removed the three articles from its database.

However, the unit is just a small part of the EU's broader "action plan against disinformation", unveiled in December last year.

There are also digital awareness campaigns, additional funding for teams of experts in charge of detecting disinformation, and broader commitments that social media giants Google, Facebook, and Twitter have made. Those include making political advertising more transparent and removing fake accounts.

A "Rapid Alert System" has also been created to help European governments respond in real time to new disinformation threats. However, European Commission spokesperson Johannes Bahrke confirmed to the BBC no alert has yet been triggered.

Could other actors be engaging in disinformation?

In their search for signs of Russian disinformation campaigns, experts have spotted evidence of similar attempts to deceive - emerging not from Kremlin-linked outlets, but from partisan groups based inside the EU.

"These groups seem to be pushing highly polarised content," says BBC Monitoring's Olga Robinson. "Some of the messages I have seen over the past few weeks have been built on complete lies."

She says many of these messages echo pro-Kremlin disinformation.

"It doesn't mean that they are in any way connected. It might be that Russia is tapping into this kind of Eurosceptic agenda and they have been doing that for a very long time," she says.

What does Russia say about these accusations?

In a statement, the Russian Embassy in London described accusations of election interference as "completely false" and "unsubstantiated".

Trending also approached Russian news channel RT for comment. In a statement, deputy editor-in-chief, Anna Belkina, said disinformation claims against Russian media outlets "serve to silence and force out legitimate voices from public debate."

"It is beyond naive to think that if RT didn't exist, the issues we cover wouldn't exist," she said. "Overlooking dissenting voices is what has long undermined the media-political establishment, not RT."

Could the EU be overplaying the seriousness of the threat?

Despite all the media attention that has been given to the subject in recent years, some academic research has actually called into question the reach of disinformation and fake news throughout the continent.

There are also those who, though acknowledging that Russian-backed disinformation is real, argue that the EU's response is misguided.

"By focusing on [Russian disinformation], the European Commission is shifting the focus from the more pressing underlying political issues and that's dangerous," says Julia Rone, a researcher at Cambridge's Department of Politics and International Studies.

"There are people who are legitimately worried about economic inequality, about youth unemployment, and especially about immigration," she says. "There's a lot of mobilisation from the far-right all across Europe and it cannot be attributed simply to foreign agents."


ruby Posted on May 20, 2019 11:24

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Do international students get what they pay for?

Canada is competing against countries like the UK and US for the minds - and wallets - of international students. But what happens once they get there?

Jobandeep Sandhu is a hard worker.

The 22-year-old worked pretty much full time as a truck driver while studying to be a technical engineer, so he could help put himself and his brother through college in Ontario.

"My thinking was that working isn't a crime," he said.

But now the Indian citizen is facing deportation after he was arrested for working too many hours as an international student.

Sandhu's student visa stipulated that he can only work off-campus up to 20 hours a week during the school year. Yet some weeks he was working as much as 40.

Sandhu said he did this because his parents could not afford the high cost of international tuition for both himself and his brother, plus the living expenses. When an officer pulled him over during a routine traffic stop and asked to see his trucking log books, Sandhu readily turned them over.

"I was working legally, I was paying taxes," he said.

"I thought that I don't need to lie."

Since then, he has had to hire a lawyer to fight his deportation, which is scheduled for 21 May.

Sandhu is not alone in struggling to pay the bills.

There are currently more than 500,000 international students in Canada, and international tuition rates have risen 32% across the country, compared to 14% for domestic students.

Since his arrest, several advocates have spoken about the need to be more accommodating of international students who need to work.

"They absolutely need to be able to seek employment," says Adam Brown, chair of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations and a student at the University of Alberta.

The calls for change come at a time when Canada is trying to aggressively compete with other countries around the world to attract international students.

For years local and federal governments have been pulling out all the stops to draw in students from around the world.

Canada has relaxed rules around off-campus work and made it easier for international students to get a work visa after graduation or apply for permanent residency. The latest federal budget has earmarked $148m (£86m) over the next five years, in part "to promote Canadian education institutions as high-calibre places to study".

Economics 101

It is all about the bottom line, according to Dani Zaretsky, an international student recruiter.

"Globally - it's not just Canada - there's no mistaking it's all about money," says Zaretsky, who co-founded recruitment company Higher Edge and has worked with several Canadian universities and colleges to help boost international student enrolment.

"If there are other benefits [like diversity], they're welcome, but it's not the point."

On average, international students in Canada can expect to pay four times more tuition than domestic students.

Similar formulas apply in other countries. At the University of California in San Diego, where about 20% of students come from outside the US and pay $40,327 a year in tuition, which is about three times the American rate.

A similar number of students at the UK's University of Manchester also come from abroad, and pay £18,500 a year in tuition, twice the rate of domestic students.

At a time when many governments are cutting back on their education spending, international students are a crucial form of revenue for many institutions.

Canada is ranked sixth in the world as a destination for international students, according to research conducted by research group Project Atlas. That puts it behind the US, UK, China, Australia and France - and down two spots from the year before.

Why Canada?

So what makes an international student willing to shell out so much cash?

For Bangladeshi student Kazi Mridul, it was the promise of a high-quality technical education, coupled with Canada's reputation as a welcoming, multicultural country.

"There's more funding for research, especially in the STEM field [science, technology, engineering and maths]," said Mridul, who is studying engineering at Toronto's York University.

Canada also makes it easy for international students to apply for a post-graduate work permit, a policy the UK has discussed adopting, to increase its appeal abroad.

But Mridul says the visa process could still be easier.

"School accepted me in March, but until August I didn't know if I was coming or not," he says.

Do students get what they pay for?

The Ministry of Global Affairs estimated that in 2014 alone, international students spent $11.4 billion in the Canadian economy. Since then, the number of international students has grown from 330,170 to 572,415 - an almost 75% increase.

Meanwhile, average international tuition fees have been raised from $20,593 to $27,159, or by about 32%.

Yet it is not clear that international students are getting any more for their dollar than they were before.

Zaretsky says services have not kept up.

If Canada is really committed to attracting more international students, it should be clear about what it's offering them, he says, and that includes an opportunity to work once they arrive.

He also thinks schools need to be careful about how much they raise tuition, year-to-year.

"Sometimes they'll raise it 10-12% in a fell swoop, and for families that have budgeted carefully that's a rude shock," he says.

Ultimately, Mridul does think his Canadian education was worth it.

"It's not just the education, it's the whole experience," he says.

"It's all the other people that are here. In Bangladesh we have a very homogenous society... here it's the exposure to everything."


ruby Posted on May 20, 2019 10:02

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Letter from Africa: Ramadan keeps Sudan protesters hungry for change


In our series of letters from African journalists, Zeinab Mohammed Salih explains how Sudan's protesters are managing to keep going during the Muslim fasting month.

More than a month since Sudan's long-time leader Omar al-Bashir was arrested by the military, crowds are still camped out - day and night - in front of the army headquarters in the capital, Khartoum.

They feel the transitional military council is procrastinating about handing over power to civilian rule - and are determined that the energy of the sit-in is not diminished during Ramadan, when Muslims do not eat or drink between dawn and sunset.

A buzz can be felt around the vigil site directly after sunset when people gather for Iftar, the meal when the fast is broken.

Moments after the prayer to break their fast, the protesters start chanting: "A civilian government or a revolution forever."

Another chant that often follows is: "I'm not going back, I have demands."

Thousands start arriving - some bring their own food and drinks from home, others cook for themselves in huge pans at the sit-in.

Meals are also provided by women who put out calls on social media for volunteers to go to their homes to collect the food.

Many companies also take bottles of water or food in big trucks, so no-one at the sit-in goes hungry or thirsty at night.

Then the time for speeches begins. Activists and ordinary people, who never dreamed of talking publicly, get up to address the crowds.

They talk about the alleged atrocities committed by the army and militias close to the former regime - and how their families have been affected.

Microphone in hand, they tell of things many people have never heard about.

Many of the speakers come from war-torn areas such as Darfur or South Kordofan.

Some tell of how they have been victims of the dam building in the north and have been forced from their homes.

Families of protesters killed during the demonstrations also speak.

All through the night people talk, raise awareness - wanting to make the protest count for something in the future.

Many more people now spend the night at the sit-in, whether they are sitting at the open-air cafes or sleeping on the ground or grass by the nearby railway line.

Scorching heat

Fewer demonstrators sit out the day in the stifling heat of Khartoum. Some people have donated mobile air-conditioning units to the protesters, but these can do little to ease temperatures that often peak at more than 40 degrees.

But it has not stopped the artists, who continue painting the walls around the sit-in area during the day time, with one group working on rolls of canvas to form a 3km (nearly two-mile) work of art that they want to unroll around the site.

More on the protests:

In the rest of the city, queues at the ATMs, petrol stations and in front of the bakeries are back, with long traffic jams.

It was cuts to bread and fuel subsidies that sparked the initial demonstrations in December that escalated into demands for the removal of Mr Bashir and his government.

Some protesters feel that remnants of the former regime are behind the queues - to ferment discontent and frustration about the sit-in.

Less harassment for women

More aggressive attempts to disperse the protesters have been reported.

Former football star Haitham Mustafa accused men in military uniforms of beating up him at the vigil and journalist Rishan Oshi said her face was slapped on the street by men in civilian clothing who then escaped by motorbike. She believes she was targeted because of her vocal activism.

But despite these difficulties, there is a sense of happiness in the city - people are more optimistic now and smiling more.

Women feel less harassed. Instead of the usual verbal abuse, men tend to call all women "Kandaka", a reference to queens in the ancient Kush kingdom that ruled Sudan thousands of years ago.

Before Mr Bashir's removal, there was some antipathy towards the use of the word by female protesters.

But it was the nickname given to Alaa Salah, the 22-year-old student who became a protest icon after a video of her leading chants against Mr Bashir went viral.

It all goes to show how quickly things are evolving in Sudan - and the protesters want to ensure that any further changes go their way.

ruby Posted on May 14, 2019 11:24

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Crossbow German deaths: Two shot through heart, one in neck

Two German medieval combat enthusiasts killed with crossbows were shot through the heart with arrows and a third fatally through the neck, reports say.

The three were found in a hotel room in Bavaria on Saturday, along with three modern crossbows. Two were used to fire the arrows, prosecutors say.

A man and woman were in bed, hand in hand, impaled with arrows. A woman hit in the neck was lying on the floor.

The deaths, near Passau, were linked to two more deaths in north Germany.

Passau prosecutors are sure there was nobody else in the hotel room apart from the three who died. There was no sign of any struggle. The hotel is in an idyllic spot by the River Ilz, popular with hikers.

The three had checked in on Friday evening, for three nights without breakfast, and the bodies were found by a room maid.

Two wills were found in the room, the prosecutors' spokesman said. They were linked to Torsten W, aged 53, and Kerstin E, aged 33, who were lying in bed. They were both from the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

The third victim was named as Farina C, aged 30.

All three are listed on a website run by the International Jousting League, based in Belgium. But an IJL spokesman told the BBC that the listing merely meant they had registered as affiliates at some time in the past, and that he did not know them.

The IJL organises medieval-style tournaments and ranks its members according to their skill in the use of medieval weapons and horse-riding. But the spokesman said there was no competitive jousting in Germany at present.

What about the two deaths in north Germany?

The bodies of two women, each aged about 30, were found in a flat on Monday in Wittingen, a town 650km (400 miles) from the hotel.

German media report that one of them was the partner of Farina C, who was resident in the flat.

It is not clear how they died, but they were not shot with crossbows.

All five victims were resident in Germany.

Prosecutors said the bodies in Wittingen had been found "because one of the neighbours heard about the reports from Passau and told police that the letter box of the flat was overflowing and that a strange smell was coming from the flat".

What else is known about the victims?

The relationship between the three victims in the hotel remains unclear.

Torsten W had been shot twice in the head and three times in the chest, while Kerstin E, next to him in bed, had one arrow in the head and another in the chest.

Farina C was lying in front of the double bed and had one shot from a crossbow between the throat and the chin.

Crossbows can fire either bolts or short arrows. Hunting with bows or crossbows is banned in Germany, but anyone aged 18 and above can buy a crossbow.

Another hotel guest told local newspaper Passauer Neue Presse that it had been a "completely quiet night".

Police seized a white truck, parked outside, registered in Westerwald, Rhineland-Palatinate. It had a sticker with the letters FMJ - believed to be a reference to Full Metal Jacket crossbow arrows made by a US firm, Easton Hunting.

Torsten W had a long white beard and the women were dressed in black, another hotel guest said, describing them as "strange".

On arrival on Friday evening they simply wished other guests a "good evening" and went upstairs to their second-floor room with bottles of water and Coca-Cola, said the guest, quoted by the daily Merkur.

In Wittingen a neighbour quoted by Merkur described Farina C as "always a bit odd - always dressed in black, sort of gothic".

The German Shooting Union (DSB) has 3,000 enthusiasts who use crossbows, Spiegelonline news reports. In all, the DSB has about 1.35 million members.

ruby Posted on May 14, 2019 10:29

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Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla: 'I am trying to sing when I conduct'

In the booklet for Mirga Gražinyt?-Tyla's new CD, she is credited not just as the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's conductor (which she is) but as a soprano.

It's not a huge surprise - in fact, she started out as a singer - but when it's brought up, the musician becomes uncharacteristically bashful.

"This is funny," she says, her face flushing a subtle shade of crimson, "it is apparently written that way".

And is it written that way for a reason?

"I'll reply with... let's leave it in secret," she laughs.

The reticence is surprising, given how expressive Gražinyt?-Tyla is on stage.

The 32-year-old is a magnetic conductor, whose concerts buzz with passion, humanity and... yes, singing.

"In a way, I am trying to sing when I conduct," she concedes.

"To sing the music and to bring the orchestra to singing. Because, you know, this is the first way music came out of us, as humans."

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It's a theme she'll explore next month, when she oversees the CBSO Song Festival - a day-long event, in which amateur and professional singers will gather to perform choral classics such as Handel's Zadok the Priest and Parry's Jerusalem.

Gražinyt?-Tyla is importing the concept from her native Lithuania where, every four years, a Song and Dance Festival assembles as many as 40,000 singers and dancers for a communal celebration of the voice.

"It is a wonderful feeling, being part of a huge body which sings and feels in the same way," she says. "And on top of that, it's just very healthy. If you feel well singing together, your blood circulates better.

"I'm very curious [about] what will be the result of a mix of the British tradition of sing-alongs and the Baltic one."

The musician has been adapting to the British way of life since 2016, when she was appointed the CBSO's musical director.

She was a relative unknown - but had blown the orchestra's musicians away after just two stints behind the podium.

"The CBSO made a very fast decision," she says, recalling the day she received the news.

"I remember seeing my agent's call and not answering, thinking, 'This might be it,'" she says.

But the "shock of responsibility" was quickly outweighed by imagining "what great dreams we could share".

"With the CBSO, it doesn't matter which direction you look," she said at the time. "They are open to every impulse. It is a huge gift for a conductor".

Accepting the role made her, for a brief period, the UK's only female conductor (and just the third overall).

She's now been joined by Elim Chan at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Dalia Stasevska at the BBC Symphony Orchestra - and hopes the fuss over her gender will now begin to subside.

"What I wish is to be judged for my work - and I'm sure this is the case for all my colleagues, male or female," she says.

So far, it's working. Although one critic said she needed to locate her "inner man", most reviews have focused on Gražinyt?-Tyla's musicality, and an ability to uncover hidden depths in even the most familiar pieces.

The musician is careful to share praise with the CBSO players, who constantly impress her with their "warmth and the passion" for music, as well as the "unbelievable speed" at which they work.

But she's come to realise that their efficiency is also a harsh necessity.

Gražinyt?-Tyla spent much of her working life in Germany, where classical music is subsidised by the state, and LA, where the Los Angeles Philharmonic is funded by private donors. It's been a shock to discover that musicians in the UK don't have that luxury.

"The amount of work they have to bring if they want to survive, and survive well, is enormous."

British audiences are also poorly-versed in classical music compared to their European counterparts, she observes.

"In Salzburg, you can share a conversation about Mozart basically with every taxi driver. You will discover very different things in a conversation with a taxi driver in Birmingham!

"But sometimes when the life is not the easiest, the biggest wonders can happen. So this is how I feel and it's daily happening with the CBSO."

The Festival of Song is just one initiative for bringing music to the masses; and the programme for the CBSO's centenary year - announced last week - will focus on choral masterpieces associated with Birmingham, including Britten's War Requiem, Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius and Mendelssohn's Elijah.

The conductor will also continue her quest to restore Polish-Soviet composer Mieczys?aw Weinberg to the classical repertoire.

She will play his music at the Proms; while her first release on Deutsche Grammophon comprises his Symphony No 2 and Symphony No 21.

A native of Warsaw, Weinberg escaped to the Soviet Union on foot in 1939, but his parents and younger sister died in the Holocaust - a tragedy which coloured his musical output.

Only a handful of his works made it through the Iron Curtain, and he lapsed into obscurity - but musicologist David Fanning has argued he's the third most-important Soviet composer after Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

"There is really a lot of great stuff [left] to discover," says Gražinyt?-Tyla.

"It's a bit like going through a forest where there is not really a path, and making your own path."

But the journey wouldn't be worth it if the music didn't connect, and she notes that "something very, very personal speaks out of every score I worked on so far".

And that's the key to the conductor's phenomenal success. Her performances are consistently inclusive and emotional, embracing the connection between audience and musicians.

She'd rather be a musical catalyst than have her name in lights - hence the decision to attach the Lithuanian word for silence (Tyla) to her surname.

"I was thinking I could make my whole name simpler - although it probably didn't help," she laughs, "but another reason was of course my need for silence.

"For me, it's a big value. Something we do not have often in our modern world."

And maybe that explains the reluctance to confirm it's her voice you hear on the Weinberg CD. As her profile rises, and Gražinyt?-Tyla becomes known simply as Mirga, she wants to remind us that the work eclipses even the biggest stars.

"This is the magic of music," she says.

"When we make it together, we bring all our differences but we also try to make one thing. So we go together towards one goal - which is this unifying power."

ruby Posted on May 09, 2019 18:27

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Is Eritrea coming in from the cold?

For decades, the Eritrean economy has struggled because of a combination of war, authoritarian rule and the impact of United Nations sanctions.

But the East African country's recent rapprochement with its southern neighbour, Ethiopia, and the end of the embargoes, means that its economy now has a chance to grow substantially.

The hope is that the nation will export more to the world than people fleeing the country.

But as Eritrea continues to be an authoritarian one-party state, with a heavily militarised society, substantial hurdles remain. It is also one of the poorest countries in Africa, with a mostly agriculture-based economy.

Yemane, an Eritrean expat living in Europe, is part of the country's vast diaspora.

An estimated 1.5 million Eritreans now live overseas, more often after escaping poverty, or the country's indefinite military service. This is more than one in five of all Eritreans.

Yemane was recently back in Eritrea on holiday, in the city of Massawa on the country's Red Sea coast. He also used the visit to do some business research.

His company imports Ethiopian beer into Europe, and he hopes to start being able to export it via Massawa. "This would be much easier for my business," he says.

Presently the entrepreneurial ex-pat has to ship the bottles via the the small coastal country of Djibouti, to Eritrea's south east.

This had been the case for all of land-locked Ethiopia's ground and sea exports ever since its 1998 to 2000 border war with Eritrea meant the country could no longer access Eritrean ports. It led to a Cold War-style standoff between the two countries for the next 18 years.

But in July 2018, Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia's new Prime Minister, signed a historic peace deal with Eritrea's longstanding President Isaias Afwerki, and the border between the two country's re-opened.

It means that Ethiopian merchandise has once again started flowing into Eritrea, while Eritreans have been heading south to shop in northern Ethiopian towns.

Then, in November of last year, the UN lifted its sanctions against Eritrea that had been in place for nine years.

These included an arms embargo, an asset freeze, and a travel ban. They had been put in place after Eritrea was accused of supporting Islamist militants in Somalia - something it denied.

While the four border crossings between Eritrea and Ethiopia are currently officially closed again, this is said to be a short-term move only.

"It appears a temporary closure until they regulate tax, customs and visa issues," says Associated Press journalist Elias Meseret, who covers the two countries.

It comes as the Ethiopian Ministry of Transport says it is moving ahead with plans for bus services across the border. And another reporter, freelancer Elias Gebreselassie, says that "people and goods are still crossing informally" between the two countries.

Eritrea - which gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 - used to be famous for its entrepreneurialism and trade ties.

This owed much to outside influence - the country has seen influxes of Arabs, Turks and Yemenis throughout its history. Not to forget Italian and British rule.

The Italians were in charge from 1890 to 1941, and the British from 1941 to 1950. Eritrea then became part of Ethiopia.

"There is a popular saying in Eritrea - 'let the farmers farm, and the traders trade'," says Tekle Woldemikael, a sociology professor at Chapman University in California, who was born in Eritrea.

"It means that Eritreans value the possibility to do trade in open and unrestricted markets."

Sadly, in recent decades the Eritrean economy has been gutted, first by the country's 30-year fight for independence, then by the 1998-2000 border war.

And the economy is still being profoundly affected by the government's far left economics.

"Eritrea's economic stagnation is rooted in the communist government's profound antipathy to free trade and capitalism, not the war, and that's not going to end because of the truce," says Michela Wrong, who wrote a book on Eritrea's fight for independence.

Currently, the government limits each person to withdrawing 5,000 Nakfa (about $330; £250) a month from banks, ostensibly to tackle the currency black market, but this hinders private initiatives and entrepreneurialism.

This is compounded by continued mandatory national service, which leaves most young people "serving the nation" in the military or in government ministries for extremely limited salaries.

Nicole Hirt of the GIGA Institute of African Affairs, in Hamburg, is also pessimistic about the possibility of an economic renaissance in Eritrea.

"The problem is the infrastructure has been completely neglected," she says. "I would warn against being over optimistic, because the ruling elite has always tried to control the economy, and has left very little space for private investors."

Currently, the country's only significant export is gold mined in the western Bisha area and sent to China and South Korea. However, there is growing interest in doing business with Eritrea around the world.

At the end of 2018, a group of about 80 Italian investors representing sectors such as energy, construction and agriculture, visited Eritrea with the Italian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Emanuela Del Re.

"Of course, Eritrea has huge potential to export," says Ms Hirt. "After World War Two, it was one of the most industrialised areas in Africa.

"[Today] fish could be exported in large quantities, as well as marble, potash, gold, copper, zinc, textiles, processed food, hides, meat, wine and beer."

A spokesman for the Eritrean government said that the country's large diaspora could help boost the economy. Most already send back cash to their families, and, officially, ex-pats have to pay a 2% tax on income earned abroad.

In fact, some estimate that about 30% of Eritrea's gross domestic product is derived from money sent back to the country.

But while ex-pats like Yemane are looking at renewing their ties, other commentators warn against any expectation of rapid change in the country.

"Eritrea needs to develop its own basic food security before thinking about exports," says Victoria Bernal, an anthropology professor at the University of California, and an expert on the country.

"They also cannot do international business without strengthening their ICT [information and communications] infrastructure."

Ms Hirt adds that most potential international investors are also likely to hold back until they see real political reform in the country.

ruby Posted on May 09, 2019 18:21

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Trade war: China-US talks to resume amid threat of new tariffs

Chinese and US negotiators are set to resume trade talks in Washington amid the threat of fresh tariffs and warnings over the global economy.

President Trump says he will raise tariffs on $200bn (£152bn) of Chinese goods on Friday with his officials accusing China of reneging on promises.

China has said it will respond with "necessary countermeasures".

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said the row poses a "threat to the global economy".

"As we have said before, everybody loses in a protracted trade conflict," the body which aims to ensure global financial stability said in a statement, calling for a "speedy resolution".

The two sides had appeared to be making progress until recently but uncertainty now surrounds whether the talks will succeed.

Negotiations are scheduled for around 17:00 local time (22:00) GMT with the new US tariffs set to begin just seven hours later.

President Trump has also said he received a "beautiful letter" from Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and that they would probably speak soon.

How does the US see it?

China has been a frequent target of Donald Trump's anger, with the US president criticising trade imbalances between the two countries and Chinese intellectual property rules he says hobble US companies.

Ahead of the discussions due on Thursday, he told a rally China had "broke the deal". He has also threatened to raise tariffs on $200bn worth of Chinese goods this week and introduce new ones.

What sparked his actions, which apparently took China by surprise, is unclear.

US sources told Reuters news agency that last week China returned a draft agreement with changes that undermined its commitments to address key US demands.

Tariffs are taxes paid by importers on foreign goods, so the tariff imposed by the US on Chinese goods would be paid by American companies.

How has China responded?

China denies backtracking and has said it "keeps its promises".

If the US tariffs go ahead, the Chinese have said they will retaliate in kind.

"The escalation of trade friction is not in the interests of the people of the two countries and the people of the world," the Chinese Commerce Ministry said in a statement.

"The Chinese side deeply regrets that if the US tariff measures are implemented, China will have to take necessary countermeasures."

Each side has hinted that the other has more to lose. At the rally Mr Trump said if no deal was struck there was "nothing wrong with taking in more than $100bn a year" while China's state-run Global Times said China was "much better prepared" than the US.

The proposed US measures are due to come into force at 00:01 EDT (05:00 GMT) early on Friday, and will see rates on a vast array of Chinese-made electrics, machinery, car parts and furniture jump from 10% to 25%.

What's at stake?

China and the US are the world's biggest economies so deterioration in their relations will inevitably have an impact beyond their borders.

The two have already imposed tariffs on billions of dollars worth of one another's goods, creating uncertainty for businesses and weighing on the global economy.

Stock markets around the world have had a torrid week with investors seeking safer assets.

The IMF has said the escalation of US-China trade tension was one factor to have contributed to a "significantly weakened global expansion" late last year as it cut its 2019 global growth forecast.

ruby Posted on May 09, 2019 18:13

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When articles scream 'Spoiler alert!', I click

Fans of TV dramas - from Game of Thrones to Killing Eve - are desperate to be kept in the dark about plot twists. But what about those who not only don't mind spoilers, they actively seek them out? Here, three spoiler-lovers explain why they do it.

I love a spoiler. I actually feel more relaxed when I've been told one.

Perhaps it is my impatient side, but I feel nervous not knowing what is going to happen when I watch a TV show or movie. How can people sit through Avengers: Endgame without knowing the twists and turns?

I can understand why some people would want to see something like the Game of Throne's Battle of Winterfell play out in "real time". But with a spoiler comes a sense of relief. Killing Eve is another example. At the moment it pleases me to read about series two (it is airing in the US but not in the UK yet).

For me, a spoiler can make a show more enjoyable. I argue that the thing that grips is the way the drama unfolds, not the "shock!" moment. I can live with knowing who dies before I see it, and even knowing how they die. That way I can relax and enjoy the acting, dialogue and direction, without being on the edge of the sofa.

When articles scream "Spoiler alert!", I click on them. Before BBC police drama Line of Duty reached its feature-length grand finale in the UK at the weekend, people were blocking hashtags on Twitter and refusing to read news websites. However, rather than avoiding any of the coverage, I consumed it all with vigour, actively trying to find out who stayed alive.

And it's not just big-budget dramas, either. When it comes to my weekly soap operas, I read the magazines that give away storylines and find out who will be leaving or killed off.

When a character does die unexpectedly, it stays with me. It can feel a bit like the writer has let me down, too, by taking them away from me.

One of the reasons I find it amusing that spoilers hold such terror for people is that in other areas of entertainment, such as books, they don't mind. After all, would someone not watch an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice just because they know what happens between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy?

If you can know the story of a book, but appreciate the way it is interpreted, then why not with a TV drama?

I look for set leaks

I am a big Game of Thrones fan, and as I am based in the US, I watch it as soon as it streams on Sundays. But, beforehand, I read and listen to as much about the episode as possible. Most of my spoilers come via podcasts, such as Storm of Spoilers, where they dig into crack-pot theories, as well as what they can piece together from leaks.

I could dig into spoilers even further on Reddit and I do get that information, second-hand, sometimes. But I prefer to get my insight from people with industry knowledge, who can contextualise it. It makes the actual viewing seem deeper. And even when I know a big twist is coming, I still have that "wow, I can't believe they did that" feeling.

I just don't really believe in spoilers as a concept. Typically people think of spoilers as the outcome. They want to get to the finish line of their narratives, but, for me, I prefer the journey.

And this does not mean I try to ruin shows for others. I try to be respectful of other people's feelings. It is just that spoilers don't effect my personal enjoyment of the content and, in many cases, they enrich my experience, so I actively seek them out.

Besides, it is also a lot of work, in this day and age, just to try to avoid spoilers.

For me, knowing and seeing are totally different things. I can go to a theme park and can see a ride, but watching the rollercoaster go down the drop and experiencing it are "apples and oranges".

Suspense is over-rated

A while back I was sitting on the couch, watching Breaking Bad with someone I'm close to. The plotline was confusing, and after a moment he clicked off the show. "It was the wrong episode," he said. By then it was too late. We had already seen the outcome. I told him he didn't need to apologise, though. Now that I knew the ending, I could enjoy the show.

I had real affection for some of the show's characters, and I wanted them to be OK - but had a sinking feeling they wouldn't be. Now that I knew who lived and who died, I could prepare myself for the loss of one and focus my attention on the other. Granted, they were both fictional characters, and their fate was in the hands of the show's creators - not mine - and I still cared about both of the characters.

But knowing how things turned out for them helped - now that I knew the ending, I wouldn't invest as much energy in the story of the one who was doomed (that seemed like a sad, futile effort), and I would pay closer attention to the one who remained since I could root for him till the very end of the series.

When it came to Netflix's Russian Doll, I refused to watch until someone told me whether the character Nadia Vulvokov survives. It's not just shows: I skip to the last page of novels, checking to see whether a relationship turns out OK, and prefer to re-read books I love - like Graham Greene's The Quiet American - because I know what happens. Recently when a colleague was telling me about a new podcast, I interrupted to ask: does everyone survive? Once I know, I can pay attention to how the tale unfolds.

People say they hate spoilers, but I think suspense is over-rated. There is data that backs this up: one study shows most people would rather receive an electric shock than not know if one will be administered. In other words, people can endure just about anything - except uncertainty. That's how I feel - in shows, books and life too.

There's an old proverb: "Everything is going to be fine in the end. If it's not, it's not the end." Sometimes things do not turn out OK. But at least if you know beforehand, you don't have to watch the whole thing.



ruby Posted on May 07, 2019 13:30

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South Africa election: Can Ramaphosa call time on corruption?

South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa has pledged to clean out the corruption that has become endemic under his party, the African National Congress (ANC). Whether or not voters believe he can keep that promise will determine the level of ANC support in Wednesday's election. BBC Africa Editor Fergal Keane joined the president as he campaigned in the key province of KwaZulu-Natal.

The rain followed us along the coast and into the half-empty field where the ANC had called its supporters to welcome the president.

The crowd cheered - rather dutifully I thought - the singers belting out praise songs to the party and president.

I resisted the inner temptation to compare and contrast with the vast crowds and ecstasy of the first democratic election in 1994. That was another country, a different generation and too much history had happened in between.

No party atmosphere

But I was struck by the relative smallness of the crowd and an absence of energy.

This did not feel like a celebration in anticipation of an ANC victory. The polls show the party is likely to win but with a reduced share of the vote - one estimate has the party at an all-time low of 49.5%.

Public disillusionment around corruption, crime and the economy is eroding support.

The unemployment rate is 27.1%, one of the world's highest, with more than six million people out of work, from a population of 58 million.

Both the opposition parties - Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who advocate radical transformation of the economy to benefit the black majority, and the centrist Democratic Alliance - believe they will gain support amid public disillusionment at ANC misrule.

A look at the president's welcoming committee gave an insight into the crisis prompting this decline.

The local mayor, Zandile Gumede, who was dancing to a party anthem with some clerics when we arrived, has been forced to publicly deny allegations of corruption.

Newspapers are reporting that the Hawks - the police anti-corruption unit - are preparing her arrest. Local authority workers in the nearby city of Durban are in open revolt against Mrs Gumede's administration and rubbish is piling up in the streets.

Wretched streets

This was on the weekend that hundreds of foreign delegates had arrived for a major tourism conference in the city. Mr Ramaphosa addressed the conference and would have seen the wretched state of the city's streets.

Standing near the back of the stage at the ANC rally was another mayor, Mululeki Ndobe, who was accused of ordering the assassination of a party comrade. The politician was released without charge, he denies the accusation but investigations are said to be ongoing.

The pattern of graft allegations is repeated countrywide.

The first major example of corruption to become public surrounded the circumstances of a multi-billion dollar international arms deal in 1998. Former President Jacob Zuma is facing 16 charges relating to this deal.

There are also several ongoing public inquiries into corruption. They include the Zondo commission which has focused on the Guptas, a family of businessmen from India, accused of using their influence with Mr Zuma to facilitate the "capture" of key state enterprises including transport and energy. They all deny wrongdoing.

'Corrupt from top to bottom'

The commission is also investigating allegations surrounding the Bosasa company which provided services to government and is accused of paying nearly $3m (£2.3m) to the ruling party.

Millions that might have been spent on providing better housing, healthcare, essential services and education have been looted.

South Africans face a daily diet of revelations about outright theft of state resources and corrupt tendering by party and government officials. When President Ramaphosa arrived I was able to approach and ask him about corruption.

For "renewal" read clearing out of the powerful forces which thrived under Mr Zuma. They remain a threat and the president's triumph over them is by no means assured.

The party's list of candidates includes some of those under investigation for corruption.

And here is the paradox for voters. Received wisdom has it that the president needs a solid mandate in order to tackle corruption and defeat his internal enemies. But for some former ANC supporters, a vote for the ANC with Mr Ramaphosa at the helm is an endorsement of the party's corrupt legacy.

Mqapheli Bonono leads the local branch of campaign group Abahlali baseMjondolo - the shack dwellers' organisation - in the settlement of Foreman Road in Durban. Here several thousand people live in corrugated huts with no running water into their homes. It is estimated one in seven people nationwide live in these so-called "informal settlements".

Mr Bonono was 12 years old when Nelson Mandela was elected president and remembers taking his grandmother to vote in the Eastern Cape town of Flagstaff.

After moving to Durban to find work, he joined the ANC and helped to defeat the opposition DA in local elections.

"We were promised here in Foreman Road that if we made sure the ANC won the election, our houses would be built in this area. We realised it was only lies," he told me.

"We blame the government. They are supposed to be responsible. But they are more corrupt than the people who are bribing them. They are corrupt from top to bottom."

Walking down the narrow lanes between shacks we met Nomazawi Ketile who runs a small grocery store. Aged 36, with three young children, she has lived here for 20 years.

I asked if she felt she would ever exchange her shack for a proper house. Ms Ketile burst into laughter. Then her expression became serious.

"I have lost hope that I will be able to get a house," she said.

This the sixth national election in the 25 years that South Africa has been a democracy.

It is sometimes said that people's expectations of change were too high back in 1994 when Mr Mandela became president. As someone who lived in South Africa through that period, I disagree.

I spent most of my reporting time talking to people in townships and shack settlements. There was an awareness of the scale of challenges facing the new government.

What people did expect was honest leadership. Instead they watched the party of liberation become a facilitator of corruption.

I am still impressed that South Africans are going to the polls in a peaceful election, that there is a strong civil society and opposition holding government to account, and that the courts can still deliver independent judgements.

But anybody who has watched the damage wrought by corruption in countries like Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya - to name a few - can only worry about South Africa.

If President Ramaphosa's ANC wins the election as expected, he will turn to a far harder battle - to stop the rot that is eating at the moral core of his party and government.


ruby Posted on May 07, 2019 13:12

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For students at the Educational Centre 308 in the rundown Brasília neighbourhood of Recanto das Emas, the day begins with a pep talk from Lt Mario Vitor Barbosa Magalhães.

"This week has been very demanding - the vast majority of you have succeeded in doing what's needed of you, both in the classroom and with homework," he shouts. "Very good, but every day we need to improve, every day is a new challenge."

The children then belt out the national anthem, standing in front of the Brazilian flag with its motto "Order and Progress". The aim is to reinforce a sense of national pride that many feel has been lost in Brazil in recent years.

In a way it feels more like a police academy than a school. Here, police are in charge of the discipline, leaving the education to the teachers.

It has been a turnaround, says deputy head Debora Rodrigues Sales, who has been teaching in this school for 20 years.

Until a few months ago, you would more likely see drug traffickers than uniformed officers at the school gate. A sign of it is the bullet mark on the metal door, the result of a recent shoot-out.

"As time went on, people were asking for a police intervention," she says. "When this idea of a school shared with military police came up, we said 'yes' straight away."

Militarisation of schools

There are around 120 "militarised" schools in the country. But the election last year of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, a former army officer who has promised to crack down on violence and improve education, has propelled their growth more than ever.

Educational Centre 308 is part of a pilot project where management is shared between teachers and police in Brasília. The plan is for the number of these schools to grow from four to 40 by the end of the year and to 200 by the end of President Bolsonaro's four-year mandate.

Ms Sales, though, admits that some of her colleagues walked away, unhappy with the police presence in the school.

The assistant secretary of education for Brasilia, Mauro Oliviera, says the controversial move was necessary. "We're talking about vulnerable schools, we're talking about drugs inside, teachers being threatened, so we need to go back to basics."

"As a democracy we should understand and do what the majority wants. People wanted a school that could offer more discipline and more safety for the kids," he explains.

'Left-wing indoctrination'

But Jair Bolsonaro's focus on education is not just focussed on public security. He has also called for an end to what he has called "indoctrination" by left-wing teachers.

In the week he was inaugurated in January, he tweeted about his desire to "tackle the Marxist garbage in our schools head on". He added: "We shall succeed in forming citizens and not political militants."

He has taken aim at one of Brazil's most famous educationalists, Paulo Freire, an advocate of teaching critical thought in schools.

President Bolsonaro thinks Mr Freire, a socialist who was briefly imprisoned during the military dictatorship of 1964-1985 and who died in 1997, has played too influential a role in Brazilian education.

The president threatened to "enter the education ministry with a flamethrower" to remove Mr Freire's ideals.

Miguel Nagib thoroughly backs President Bolsonaro's aims. He founded Escola Sem Partido (Portuguese for School Without Party), an initiative to stamp out party politics from the classroom.

Mr Nagib blames the left-wing governments of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Roussef for what he says is the "indoctrination" of Brazilian students.

"When teachers are sympathetic to one party or another and promote that ideology, they're creating an imbalance in democracy," he argues.

He concedes that there are teachers on the right who use classrooms "for ideological means" but, he says, "they're snipers, they work alone".

"The party politics in Brazil came with the Workers' Party," he says of the party which governed Brazil from 2003 to 2011.

'An enemy that doesn't exist'

Many say that this attitude is a sign of the creeping conservatism in the Bolsonaro administration.

"It's important for the government to have an enemy to fight," explains Mauricio Fronzaglia of the Mackenzie Presbyterian University in São Paulo.

"They've created this caricatured vision that schools and universities are spaces to share Marxist ideas that need to be defeated. It's not true but it's a way of retaining the support of its voters."

The government has vowed to revise sex education in schools and there has also been talk of removing discussions about LGBT rights, gender violence and feminism.

Just a few weeks ago, the then-education minister, Ricardo Vélez, who has since been fired, suggested textbooks should be changed to deny the 1964 military takeover was a coup. Mr Bolsonaro has long defended the military's role, arguing it saved Brazil from communism.

"Once you start revising those political moments, valuing acts of violence and repression, you have to ask, what does this say about society?" says Cândido Granjeiro, president of the Brazilian Association of Textbooks.

"There are signs this government wants very specific content, to impose their way of doing things. That's something we've not seen before and it worries us."

At the Amorim Lima school in São Paulo, things could not be more different. The teachers greet the students with a kiss, sit on the floor for some of their lessons, and students have more freedom in how they learn.

Unsurprisingly, people disagree with Mr Bolsonaro's view of indoctrination. "We need these open spaces to talk," says Principal Ana Elisa Siquiera.

"What the government is trying to do is impose a doctrine, because they aren't letting people debate, discuss and believe in other things. Why should I only believe what the government is saying? They want to stop people from thinking. It's a total step back."

ruby Posted on May 07, 2019 13:03

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Royal baby: Meghan and Harry's 'break with tradition' praised by US media

News of the royal baby has delighted many people around the world - and been prominently covered by media outlets from the US, the birthplace of the Duchess of Sussex.

Americans have always been known to be obsessed with British Royals - but the fact that Meghan is, as Fox News described it, "one of their own-turned-British-Royal", might have particularly boosted their enthusiasm.

US media have been keen to explain all the possible facts about the baby - from the fact it is a dual UK-US citizen, to the likelihood that the baby will have red hair.

Broadcaster ABC published close to 20 online reports about the royal baby on Monday, with headlines including: "Prince Harry, Meghan Markle's son is a Taurus: Here's what that means" and "#ParentGoals: Looking back at Harry and Meghan's cutest moments with kids".

Meanwhile, Fox News featured a column from statistician who explained why, based on maths, she already "knew" weeks ago that the couple would have a boy.

On a more serious note, many US websites appeared to approve of how the Duke and Duchess of Sussex chose to "break with tradition" by demanding more privacy during the birth of their child.

They echoed TV host Oprah Winfrey, who recently said she was "so proud" of Meghan's decision to "say 'this is what I really want for my baby and my family.'"

US news outlets also reacted warmly to Prince Harry's words with the media following the birth.

The Washington Post wrote: "Harry endeared himself to mums everywhere when he gushed: 'It's been the most amazing experience I could ever have possibly imagined. How any woman does what they do is beyond comprehension.'

"Harry's wonder at the miracle of birth — and the great effort involved — stood in contrast to how Prince William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, have played it.

Kate is famous for appearing just hours after birth outside the maternity wing in London. She always looks great, by the way. But many have said her turn before the cameras presents a slightly skewed version of what happens behind the scenes."

Meanwhile, a Fox News columnist wrote that Prince Harry's words would lead to "millions of women around the world smiling from ear-to-ear".

"Giving this kind of praise to his wife on the world stage and recognising the kind of effort it takes to grow a human being and then deliver it into the world is a beautiful message... a message that more women need to hear."

The news has also prompted think pieces about the symbolism of the newest royal baby being from a multi-ethnic background.

The New York Times said that the baby "represents change for the oldest of houses... He is the first multiracial baby in the British monarchy's recent history, an instant star in a country where multiracial children make up the fastest-growing ethnic category."

A CNN opinion piece, meanwhile, cautioned against attaching too much symbolism to an interracial royal baby. "People are obsessed over the appearance and racial identity of the new royal baby... but the presence of these mixed-race symbols in positions of power doesn't automatically translate into more power for people of colour."

News website Vice suggested that the media was too focused on the royal birth.

In an article titled "Who's going to tell the royal baby that our planet is unequivocally dying?" it highlighted a new UN report saying that one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction and urged readers to consider that "Royal baby aside, the most important news of the day, the decade, our lives, is this: We have pushed the planet far past its limits."

The New York Times editorial board however argues that the reasons why people care about the story "range from the morality play of racism overcome in the birth of a boy descended from slaves and kings, or the undertones of racism in how the Harry-Meghan romance is depicted, and on to the simple need for escape from the tedious Brexit mess."

"Theirs is a real-life fable in which people of all backgrounds and colours can find echoes of their own lives, their childhood fantasies and dreams, all the while sharing Prince Harry's timeless wonder at witnessing a birth."

ruby Posted on May 07, 2019 12:51

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1MDB: US to return $200m in funds to Malaysia as part of probe

The US is to return close to $200m (£152.4m) to Malaysia in funds recovered from asset seizures tied to scandal-hit state fund 1MDB.

US authorities have so far transferred $57m tied to a Hollywood firm accused of using 1MDB funds to finance films.

It will send another $139m linked to the sale of a Manhattan property allegedly bought with 1MDB funds.

Billions of dollars from 1MDB - officially the 1Malaysia Development Berhad fund - have gone missing.

Set up in 2009, the sovereign wealth fund was designed to boost Malaysia's economy through strategic investments.

But US authorities say $4.5bn was diverted from 1MDB into private pockets, and they have been investigating the corruption scandal.

According to US and Malaysian prosecutors, the money was used to buy assets including luxury real estate, a private jet and expensive artworks.

On Tuesday, US ambassador to Malaysia, Kamala Shirin Lahkdhir, told Reuters: "We are extremely pleased that this first tranche of assets from this Justice Department investigation is being transferred back to Malaysia, demonstrating the US commitment to return these assets for the benefit of the people of Malaysia,"

The $57m remitted so far relates to a settlement reached with US film production company Red Granite Pictures, Malaysia's Attorney General Tommy Thomas said in a statement.

The film production company settled a civil lawsuit with the US government over rights to blockbuster The Wolf of Wall Street. According to Reuters, US authorities say the film was financed with 1MDB funds.

1MDB was set up by Malaysia's then-prime minister Najib Razak, but red flags were raised in 2015 after it missed payments owed to banks and bondholders.

Mr Najib faces more than 40 charges and has gone on trial for his role in a financial scandal. He has pleaded not guilty.

He is accused of pocketing $681m from 1MDB. Prosecutors said the money had been used to fund a lavish lifestyle for the former PM and his wife Rosmah Mansor, who is also facing charges of corruption.

ruby Posted on May 07, 2019 12:45

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Why is the white hot Chinese tech sector cooling down?

China's once scorching tech sector is cooling off.

"Winter is coming," laughs Lin Liu, a 29-year-old Shanghai tech worker.

Electric vehicles, industrial robots, and microchip production all slowed recently.

Big firms like Alibaba, Tencent, and search engine Baidu have slashed jobs.

Overall, one in five Chinese tech companies plans to cut recruitment, says jobs site

"And I think this slowing down will continue," says Ms Liu, who's run a tech start-up and the Slush start-up conferences in Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Nanjing.

The US-China trade war is partly why - both nations imposed tariffs on each other's goods in 2018.

But China's economy, which has enjoyed double-digit growth in six of the last 15 years, will slow to 6.3% growth in 2019, predicts the International Monetary Fund.

This is still double the world's average, but China's slowest growth since 1990.

And China's start-up scene, boasting a third of the world's "unicorns" - start-ups worth more than $1bn (£769m) - is plotting a "strategic restructuring" as the economy and tech sector cool, Ms Liu says.

"What drove things completely insane was too much money," argues William Bao Bean, managing director of Chinaccelerator, a Shanghai-based start-up accelerator.

There was a "real push for economic growth from the government" and big funding from state coffers, he says.

This has levelled off.

"Before, you could get $3m with two people knocking and a smile. Now you can get $3m with two people knocking and a smile and six weeks of meetings," he says.

Dockless bike sharing rivals Mobike and Ofo were pedalling off with investors' money last year in a bitter duel for market share.

That sector's now hit the brakes.

"You definitely have a lot more people walking around those bikes than riding those bikes," says Gregory Prudhommeaux, who has worked with Shanghai start-ups since moving from France in 2005.

Ofo owes one billion yuan ($148m; £114m) in unpaid debts.

In December, a Beijing court placed it and chief executive Dai Wei on a blacklist after Ofo defaulted on suppliers' payments.

And Mobike lost 4.6 billion yuan in 2018 and won't make a profit until 2021, says China Tonghai Securities, a Hong Kong broker.

It quietly doubled its Beijing fees last month, with one yuan now buying you a 15-minute ride instead of half an hour.

China's 6,200 online peer-to-peer lending platforms, like Weida and Yirendai, were a thriving bubble two years ago.

But 80% have closed or hit major difficulties since, says the Yingcan Group, a Shanghai consultancy.

Amid a government crackdown, this number might dip below 300 by the year's end.

Belt tightening has been one result, as companies shed "the coffee machine in the office and the subsidised taxi ride home after 9pm", says Michael Norris, a Shanghai-based Australian who researches China's tech scene.

"The bar and restaurant scene is slowing down, people are eating out less on expenses," agrees Mr Prudhommeaux.

Tech companies are also pushing employees harder, resulting in rising complaints about the common "996" working week - 9am to 9 pm, six days a week.

For companies, "the feeling at the top end of town is that the easy growth is gone," says Mr Norris.

One reason is that China's market is more saturated.

While only 56% of the population is on the internet, Tencent, Shenzhen's internet giant that last year became Asia's first $500bn-plus company, says this percentage includes most of the people who buy online.

"When you account for those who are too young or old to own a smartphone, and people who have a little bit of money, we're basically at saturation," Mr Norris says.

So it's pricier to get customers.

This means start-ups are having to link up with China's online giants.

"The cost of user acquisition is really high; start-ups cannot afford it any more," complains Ms Liu.

It could cost 300 yuan to acquire a new user, but that user may only ever spend 200 yuan, she says.

In the last year or so, "over half the unicorns" aligned with either Tencent or Alibaba, making "a bifurcation of the market into clans", says Mr Bean.

For start-ups wanting to train artificial intelligence models on big amounts of data, linking with Tencent, Alibaba, or Baidu creates huge advantages.

China has "a huge amount of data already", says Shenzhen resident Yang Yang, founder of Unimaker, a 3D printing start-up.

And big data helps Chinese start-ups localise and improve to beat overseas companies trying for a foothold.

This is how Meituan-Dianping, a Beijing group-buying site, beat off rivals Groupon, Didi Chuxing, Uber, and iQiyi, says Mr Yang.

Also, start-ups are selling more to businesses instead of consumers.

One or two years ago, "you'd see virtual reality start-ups targeting customers, like in the gaming industry", says Ms Liu.

"Now they're targeting businesses, like real estate and medical companies."

But there are advantages to China's tech bubble deflating.

For investors, things are "actually much better in a downturn than a hot period, so good companies have a chance to shine," says Mr Bean.

When everybody can get money, "it makes it difficult for the best to stand out", he says.

And increasing protests at the "996" working week give start-ups a chance to offer something different.

If you "don't want to be following 996 at big companies, maybe come work for my company," says Mr Prudhommeaux.

The slowdown may also force companies to focus more, believes Mr Norris. Chinese tech and internet firms are "rather infamous" for rambling across very different lines of business, he says.

Meituan, for example, is an online food platform that also acquired a bike share scheme, and then a low budget hotel chain.

But these non-core businesses drag down the companies' margins, argues Mr Norris.

"There's going to be a refocus on good, competent strategy - the art of choosing what not to do," he predicts.

So China's sunny gold rush days may be ending, but the coming winter may deliver a cold blast of efficiency that many tech firms need.

ruby Posted on May 07, 2019 12:42

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Turkey's Erdogan defends Istanbul election re-run amid protests

Istanbul's mayoral election was affected by "organised crime and serious corruption", Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says.

Mr Erdogan was defending the decision to re-run the 31 March vote, which returned a slim win for the opposition.

Opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, who has been stripped of his duties, described the move as "treacherous".

The European Parliament also said the decision would end the credibility of democratic elections in Turkey.

The decision to hold a new vote, which will be held on 23 June, sparked protests across the city on Monday. Hundreds of people gathered in several districts, banging pots and pans and shouting anti-government slogans.

The opposition sees the move by the electoral authorities as bowing to Mr Erdogan's pressure, says the BBC's correspondent Mark Lowen.

Istanbul's Governor Ali Yerlikaya has been assigned as the acting mayor of the city until the new vote.

What did the president say?

Speaking at a parliamentary meeting of his AK Party, Mr Erdogan said that re-doing the vote was the "best step" for the country.

"We see this decision as the best step that will strengthen our will to solve problems within the framework of democracy and law," he said.

He insisted there was "illegality" in the vote and said a re-run would represent "an important step to strengthen our democracy".

The president, who first came to power in 2003, also said "thieves" had stolen the "national will" at the ballot box, adding that if they were not held to account "our people will demand an explanation from us".

Why is the vote being re-held?

An AKP representative on the electoral board, Recep Ozel, said the re-run was called because some electoral officials were not civil servants and some result papers had not been signed.

But CHP deputy chair Onursal Adiguzel said the re-run showed it was "illegal to win against the AK Party".

Mr Adiguzel tweeted that the decision was "plain dictatorship".

"This system that overrules the will of the people and disregards the law is neither democratic, nor legitimate," he wrote.

And in a speech broadcast on social media, CHP's Ekrem Imamoglu, who was confirmed as Istanbul's mayor before being stripped of the title, condemned the electoral board and said they were influenced by the ruling party.

"We will never compromise on our principles," he told the crowd. "This country is filled with 82 million patriots who will fight... until the last moment for democracy."

A supporters' group for Mr Imamoglu urged restraint, saying: "Let's stand together, let's be calm... We will win, we will win again."

What has the international reaction been?

The European Union called for Turkey's election body to explain its reasons for the re-run "without delay".

"Ensuring a free, fair and transparent election process is essential to any democracy and is at the heart of the European Union's relations with Turkey," the EU's diplomatic chief, Federica Mogherini, said in a statement.

Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the decision was "not transparent, and incomprehensible to us".

The French government also said the Turkish authorities needed to show "respect for democratic principles, pluralism, fairness [and] transparency" in the new poll.

What is the background?

Municipal elections took place across Turkey on 31 March and were seen as a referendum on Mr Erdogan's leadership amid a sharp economic downturn.

Although an AKP Party-led alliance won 51% of the vote nationwide, the secularist CHP claimed victory in the capital Ankara, Izmir, and in Istanbul - where Mr Erdogan had once been mayor.

In Istanbul, more than 8 million votes were cast and Mr Imamoglu was eventually declared the winner by a margin of less than 14,000.

The ruling party has since challenged the results in Ankara and Istanbul, which has prompted opposition accusations that they are trying to steal the election

President Erdogan was in typically conspiratorial form, slamming what he called "the dark circles, economic saboteurs and so-called elitists" who were attacking Turkey and collaborating to "rob the nation of its will".

He was never going to take the loss of Istanbul lying down. "Whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey", he has often said. He is determined to win back the country's economic powerhouse.

But it's a strategy fraught with risk. The Turkish lira - which has lost more than 30% over the past year - has slumped again. An economy in recession can hardly cope with more uncertainty. After all, it was economic woes that lost Istanbul for Mr Erdogan in the first place.

What's more, Ekrem Imamoglu, who was formally appointed mayor last month, is gaining popularity, fast. He's reached out beyond his base and has settled into the role with ease. The re-run could widen his win - barring major irregularities against him, which many of his supporters fear.

And Mr Erdogan's own party is deeply split on the issue. His diehard loyalists believe victory was stolen. But other wings of the party accept they lost, and that rejecting the result is another nail in the coffin for what's left of Turkish democracy.

ruby Posted on May 07, 2019 12:22

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Why is a 2,500-year-old epic dominating polls in modern India?

With the Indian general election under way, the Ramayana, a 2,500-year-old Hindu mythological epic, is back in the spotlight. The BBC's religious affairs reporter Priyanka Pathak explains why.

This year, like in previous elections, the conversation among many hardline Hindus has returned to the epic Ramayana and its protagonist, Ram.

A longstanding demand to construct a temple in the northern city of Ayodhya - a key point of tension between Hindus and Muslims - which Hindus believe is Ram's birthplace, has become louder in recent months.

Hardline Hindus want the temple built on the same spot where a 16th Century mosque was demolished by Hindu mobs in 1992. They believe the Babri mosque was built after the destruction of a Hindu temple by a Muslim invader.

The governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has promised, once again, to reconstruct the Ram Mandir (temple) in its election manifesto.

Like in previous elections, they hope that this pledge will draw in more Hindu voters. They also organised Hindu religious festivals on a grand scale in the lead-up to the polls.

On 12 April, a large gathering of right-wing organisations was held at the iconic Ram Lila Maidan, a sprawling ground named after the god in the centre of the capital, Delhi, to celebrate "Ram's birthday".

People dressed in saffron robes wielded swords as they chanted "Jai Shree Ram", which translates from the Hindi to "Hail Lord Ram". They shouted slogans, reiterating their promise to Ram that they would reconstruct the temple.

What is the story of the Ramayana?

Experts believe that the movement to build the temple, spearheaded by a powerful Hindu nationalist organisation called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has helped craft some sort of a collective Hindu identity in India.

This idea is something that the RSS, the ideological fountainhead of the BJP, has cultivated since the early 20th Century.

However, the movement found its zeitgeist moment only a century later.

Several things happened almost concurrently during the late 1980s. First, a television show on the epic reminded 80 million viewers of the story and rekindled a love for its hero.

The serial broadcast a standardised story of the Ramayana, pulled together from many versions and variants. There is no official version of this sprawling epic although historical scholars consider the version by Valmiki, a sage and Sanskrit poet, to be the most authentic.

But really there are as many as 3,000 retellings of the story in around 22 languages, including some that eulogise Ravana while others say it was actually Ram's brother Lakshman who killed the demon king.

But what the television show did was give India a single narrative of the Ramayana. It also gave a single religion to a country "that was diverse and plural and included many different ways to be Indian", says Arshia Sattar, a doctorate in south Asian languages, who has translated Valmiki's Ramayana from Sanskrit into English.

The second big moment came in the late 1980s, when the Congress party led by Rajiv Gandhi - which has always styled itself as secular - decided to lay the foundation stone of the temple in Ayodhya with the help of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a right-wing outfit, to woo Hindu votes in a close election.

The plan didn't work - instead, it paved the way for the BJP, still a young party at the time, to seize what they saw as an opportunity to galvanise Hindu voters.

In September 1989, the party's then president LK Advani launched a nationwide march for the temple. Bricks began to move from around India for the construction of the temple. The campaign was successful in mobilising communal sentiments and set in motion a series of events that would result in the demolition of the mosque. This, in turn, triggered nationwide riots.

But in the next elections, the BJP swept the polls. From that moment forward, the party - which was 12 years old at the time - became a national heavyweight.

It took its place as either the party leading the ruling government alliance or as the leading opposition party. For the BJP, the Ayodhya issue became a way to consolidate Hindu votes - something that used to be fragmented along caste lines.

This now well-known version of the epic, championing Ram, also became a convenient point for other Hindu organisations to rally around. This meant that other versions of the epic began to be stamped out.

For instance, in 2011, a Hindu nationalist student union and other affiliated right-wing groups succeeded in forcing Delhi University to drop an essay by the late poet and Ramayana scholar AK Ramanujan, which questioned how many versions of the epic existed, from its history curriculum.

"This may have been part of the general climate of intolerance and the battle over who had the right to tell the country's history and its myths that was part of the Indian landscape between the 1980s and the 2000s," literary critic and author Nilanjana Roy wrote of the incident in her blog in 2011.

But for hardline Hindus, the cultural loss of other versions is simply collateral damage.

They believe that a sort of Hindu renaissance can be built around the epic, allowing Hindus to band together and revive their religion as a way of life that they believe was lost and can be re-established.

For instance, in September 2017, the Uttarakhand state minister for alternative medicine, proposed spending $3.6m (£2.8m) to find Sanjeevani - a mythical, glow-in-the-dark herb, described in the epic as having saved Ram and Lakshman from certain death.

The deputy chief minister of Uttar Pradesh has also suggested that science was so advanced during the time of the Ramayana that Sita was actually a test-tube baby. And the vice chancellor of an Indian university has claimed that Ravana, had a fleet of airplanes.

A series of such examples from Indian politicians and scholars can be seen as an attempt to bolster pride in the mythological epic. But they also evoke a nostalgia for a grand past, reawakening hope for a future that repeats the great feats of distance ancestors.

ruby Posted on April 24, 2019 15:59

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Migrant caravan: Mexico detains hundreds in raid

Mexico has detained nearly 400 Central American migrants who were travelling through the south of the country trying to reach the US border, officials say.

Monday's operation in Chiapas state targeted a group of some 3,000 migrants which included small children.

It is said to be the largest single raid on people travelling in so-called caravans. Officials say those detained had refused to apply for visas.

Mexico is under pressure from the US to stem the flow of people heading north.

There has been a huge increase in men, women and children fleeing El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the three countries where most of those seeking asylum on the US-Mexico border come from.

President Donald Trump again threatened to close the border if Mexico did not do more to stop the undocumented migrants.

What happened?

Mexican immigration authorities targeted people at the start and end of the group on a road near the town of Pijijiapan, forcing migrants into police vehicles as children cried.

The migrants who managed to escape hid in hills and took refuge at nearby shelters and churches.

"They waited until we were resting and fell upon us, grabbing children and women," Arturo Hernández, a 59-year-old farmer from Comayagua, Honduras, who fled with his grandson, told AP news agency.

"There are people still lost up in the woods. The woods are very dangerous."

Those detained were sent to an immigration station in the nearby city of Tapachula, but it was not clear whether they would be deported.

Also speaking to AP, Denis Aguilar, a factory union leader from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, said this was a "planned ambush" to break up the caravan.

"They grabbed the children... the strollers are abandoned there."

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said his government was not giving migrants "free passage" not just out of "legal concerns but for questions of safety".

The authorities, he added, were trying to break up the work of human traffickers who are allegedly charging migrants to take them to the US border.

Interior Secretary Olga Sánchez Cordero said the detained migrants, most of them from Honduras, had refused to register for a visa which would have allowed them to stay in southern Mexico.

What is the situation?

Many of the migrants say they are fleeing persecution, violence and poverty in their countries. Since last year, they have been travelling in large groups, often in their thousands, towards the US border.

They see it as a safer and cheaper alternative to paying large sums to people smugglers, known as "coyotes".

But many small Mexican towns in their route, once receptive, have become hostile to them as the caravans are seen as a burden to government resources and often a source of trouble.

Amid a surge in the numbers of migrants arriving in Mexico, Mr López Obrador's government has limited the number of people who are given humanitarian visas and tried to contain them in the south of country, sometimes in overcrowded immigration facilities.

Additionally, the number of deportations has also increased. Official data says more than 15,000 people were returned in the last 30 days.

Meanwhile, the US government has limited the number of people allowed to apply for asylum each day and many are being forced to wait on the Mexican side of the border.

Others are being returned to Mexico as they wait for their cases to be processed.

ruby Posted on April 24, 2019 13:38

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Cuba's government mocked by stampede of ostrich memes

An animal exotic to most Cubans has become an online obsession - but not for the reasons one of the island's revolutionary heroes was hoping.

It all started when Comandante Guillermo García Frías, 91, a former comrade-in-arms of the late leader Fidel Castro, recommended the ostrich as a nutritious supplement to the Cuban diet.

In fact, he said on state television, it could produce "more than a cow", raising more than a few eyebrows across the communist-ruled country and leading to ridicule on social media.

He made the suggestion as director of Cuba's National Flora and Fauna company, which raises ostriches and experiments with other farming ideas in an attempt to resolve one of the Cuban socialist economy's most enduring headaches: shortages of basic food, such as meat, milk and eggs.

The white-haired comandante, who appeared in his olive-green military uniform, also suggested that Cubans consider adding two local species to their menu - the crocodile and the jutía (hutia), an edible rodent also known as the "banana rat".

Memes reflect mirth - and anger

On both sides of the Florida Strait, social media networks - more and more accessible in Cuba as it increases its previously limited connection to the internet - exploded with mirthful memes against Mr García Frías' suggestions.

Songs, tunes and even poetry parodying the nonagenarian official's diet recommendations have spread like wildfire and are being gleefully exchanged, with family greetings, between Miami and Havana.

These were tinged nevertheless with satire and anger, directed against what many Cubans feel is the chronic inability of their rulers to run a viable economy and put food on the table in a fertile tropical island whose soil and climate once made it the world's top sugar producer.

Memes replacing Mr García Frías' visage with that of an ostrich, or including the ostrich, and the crocodile and the jutía, in some of Cuba's best known revolutionary propaganda slogans and images, have flourished across social media.

For example, the well-known government slogan "In every neighbourhood, revolution" - taken from a popular pro-government song - has been converted into "In every neighbourhood, an ostrich".

Last week, Cuban dissident website CubaNet, citing a search carried out on Google Trends, reported that the word "ostrich" was the country's most popular search term during April.

'Weapon against power'

Another dissident website, 14yMedio, run by anti-government blogger Yoani Sánchez, described the stampede of ostrich memes and parodies as a "political weapon against the [government] power in Cuba".

Ms Sánchez wrote that the increased availability of internet in Cuba, recently extended to mobile phones, exposed the political vulnerability of a single-party government which had in the past largely maintained a monopoly over information.

She ended her article by saying: "To mock power is to start to demolish it."

Such has been the resonance of the social media ostrich fever, that another Cuban dissident website, CiberCuba, reported that "the ostrich [had] become the most popular animal" in Havana's Zoo.

The site, which published video images to back up its story, said its reporter in Havana, Iliana Hernandez, witnessed how visiting "children and adults are not losing any opportunity to have their pictures taken with the bird".

Official media: head in the sand?

But there is one group not joining in the fun. Since Mr García Frías's prime time appearance on state TV's current affairs Mesa Redonda programme earlier this month, official Cuban outlets have maintained a stony silence on his recommendation.

However, as fears rise of another "Special Period" - the severe economic crisis of the 1990s in Cuba which followed the collapse of the Soviet bloc - Cuban leaders have been discussing the problems of food production.

Reporting on a discussion involving Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, government website Cubadebate referred to the current "instability in the market of high-demand products like chicken, flour, [cooking] oil, eggs and pork meat".

Mr Díaz-Canel told the website the causes of this "complex" situation included "the tightening of the economic, commercial and and financial blockade imposed by the United States".

This triggered a barrage of online comments, of which more than 200 were published by Cubadebate.

"For God's sake, how long are we going to go on with this excuse of the blockade?" wrote reader Fito.

Reader olegario said: "in what part of the world which has perennial food needs does the state allow [food] products to rot in the field without selling them: IN CUBA".

Readers suggested paying better salaries and incentives to Cuban farmers, and called for the state to allow more private enterprise and investment by ordinary Cubans.

ruby Posted on April 24, 2019 12:07

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Sri Lanka: The worshipper who blocked a bomber

The family of one victim who died in Sunday's bomb blasts in Sri Lanka say his actions helped save lives. Ramesh Raju stopped a man with a backpack from entering the Zion church full of worshippers. If the attacker had entered there would have been many more casualties.

A large white poster hangs outside Chrishanthini Ramesh's house in the town of Batticaloa on Sri Lanka's east coast.

On the left is a photo of a man smiling into the camera. He's wearing a grey shirt and has a moustache.

His name is Ramesh Raju. He was a father, a husband, a building contractor, and he was just 40 years old.

As we approach the sandy driveway to his home, groups of people are seated on plastic chairs.

Just as life is a shared experience among family and friends in these communities, so is death.

Relatives from far and wide have gathered here to pay their respects - some play nervously with their phones, others are crying.

One woman in a green sari is wailing uncontrollably.

As we make our way through the gathered throng, we are introduced to Chrishanthini and her two children Rukshika and Niruban, who are 14 and 12 respectively.

Chrishanthini is a Sunday school teacher at the Zion church, and last Sunday - like any other - she went to teach her class.

Her and Ramesh took their children to worship every week, and he came to join them for prayers.

After classes finished, Chrishantini and some of the children went outside to have snacks before the Easter service was to begin.

Ramesh was also in the courtyard when he spotted a man he didn't recognise carrying a large backpack.

The man told him it contained a video camera as he had come to film worshippers inside.

"My husband sensed something was wrong, and informed him he'd need to get permission first.

"He then forced him to leave," Chrishanthini told me.

As she headed into the church, which was packed with as many as 450 people on one of the most sacred days of the year, she heard a loud bang.

As panic ensued, some of the congregation scaled the walls by the church to survey the ground below for their loved ones.

Crowds ran in any direction they could, as some of the buildings caught fire.

Chrishanthini and her family escaped and rushed to the nearby hospitals to find Ramesh.

Hours later, they found his body.

He had died instantly, at the spot she'd last seen him.

The family were reunited once again, but for the very last time.

Ramesh was buried on Monday. Members of the local police were among those who turned out to pay their respects.

While his actions didn't save him, they did save the lives of many others.

As I chatted to Chrishanthini she barely shed a tear, but then as she shared fond memories of her life partner whose life had been taken away, she broke down.

"I love my Jesus, I love my Jesus," she cried, as tears streamed down her face.

For Chrishantini the pain of loss is all too familiar.

At 40, she has lived most of her live as an orphan, after both her parents were murdered in Sri Lanka's bloody civil war.

"My mother was killed when I was very young, she had her throat cut," she told me. "A few years later my father was also killed in suspicious circumstances," she adds.

If that wasn't enough pain, Chrishantini also tells me her aunt died in the boxing day Tsunami in 2004, which claimed more than two thousand lives in Batticaloa.

This scenic stretch of the country's east coast has witnessed large scale tragedy on so many occasions, and it's people like Chrishantini who live through the daily anguish.

Nothing can bring back her dear Ramesh, but his heroic actions - which spared other families pain - at least help comfort her own.


ruby Posted on April 24, 2019 11:30

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Donald Trump meets Twitter's Jack Dorsey at White House

US President Donald Trump has met Twitter's co-founder Jack Dorsey at the White House to discuss social media.

In a statement, Twitter said the pair spoke about "protecting the health of the public conversation" ahead of the US 2020 general election.

Earlier Mr Trump had accused the platform of being "very discriminatory" towards him.

Mr Trump tweeted a picture of Mr Dorsey and him in the Oval Office and called it a "great meeting".

"Lots of subjects discussed regarding their platform, and the world of social media in general," he wrote.

The company has consistently denied accusations of bias, and said fluctuations in Mr Trump's follower numbers result from purges of suspected bots.

Mr Trump - a famously prolific Twitter user - has about 60 million followers.

He has used the platform in the past to launch scathing attacks on journalists, politicians and foreign nations, drawing intense criticism.

Mr Trump tweeted a video of Democratic congresswoman Omar in April which she said led to a rise in threats against her life.

ruby Posted on April 24, 2019 11:17

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Who are the US militia at the Mexico border?

With tensions mounting at the US-Mexico border, US militias - groups of armed civilians - have been making headlines for their efforts to patrol the border and seize asylum-seekers. But who are these militia men, what do they believe and is what they're doing legal?

What are US militia groups?

The term has a complex history.

The Militia Act of 1903 created the National Guard as a reserve for the Army, managed by each state with federal funding, and defined the "unorganised militia" as men between 17 and 45 years of age who were not part of the military or guard.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) defines current US militia groups as the armed subset of the anti-government movement.

These groups engage in military exercises and gun training, and generally believe in conspiracies regarding the federal government.

They focus on protecting second amendment rights - or the right to bear arms granted by the US constitution.

Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC's Intelligence Project, describes the militia movement as "American, born and bred".

Many of these militia groups hold a "romanticised" view of the US revolutionary era, she told the BBC, with notions that they, like the colonists who fought British rule, are "the ultimate protectors of the nation".

The III% Security Force militia group describes themselves in such a way - a coalition "intended for the defence of the populace from enemies foreign and domestic".

"At such a point as the government intends to use the physical power granted it by those who implemented it against them, it then becomes the responsibility of the people themselves to defend their country from its government," the militia's website states.

While there are militia-type formations in other countries, Ms Beirich says the revolutionary past of the groups in the US has made them more unique when it comes to movements with "conspiratorial ideas of an evil federal government".

What exactly do they believe?

"Their number one issue, no matter what, is about protecting the second amendment," says Ms Beirich.

"These are organisations that believe there are conspiracies afoot to take away their weapons."

Militia are not the same as the white supremacy movement or the alt-right movement, she emphasises.

They are not advocating white rule, for example, though they do share some beliefs with these movements.

Two of the biggest militia incidents in recent years were the Bunkerville standoff - when militia ran federal officials off a rancher's land, believing the government was there to seize cattle - and a similar standoff in Oregon, where militia took over a wildlife refuge in protest of government "interference" in ranchers' lives.

But what's novel about the militia movement recently, Ms Beirich says, is a shift towards more explicitly anti-immigration and anti-Muslim views.

"They view immigrants as invaders, destroying the country, undermining the Trump administration."

She notes that those ideas predated Donald Trump's presidency, but his election win emboldened the movement.

"Although these groups have always hated the federal government, they're pretty big fans of Donald Trump, so they're in an awkward position where they support Trump but believe there's a deep state conspiracy against him."

In addition, militias have begun to work openly with white supremacists, which was rare in the past, Ms Beirich says.

Members of the III% militia, for example, turned up at the far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2016.

"That's a toxic brew we have to be concerned about."

How many militia groups are there?

Whenever there is talk of gun control on Capitol Hill, membership rises in militias nationwide.

In 2018, the SPLC found 216 militia groups with at least 15 confirmed members were active in the US, though given how secretive these organisations can be, that figure is likely an undercount.

"The number of these groups skyrocketed in the Obama era," Ms Beirich says. "Obama never moved on gun control, barely spoke on it, but they viewed him as an existential threat."

A similar situation happened under Democratic President Bill Clinton, she notes. The militia movement views Republicans as a party that is protective of gun rights, unlike Democrats.

In 2008, the last year of Republican President George W Bush's term, the SPLC reported 149 anti-government groups.

The next year, under Democratic President Obama, that number jumped to 512, reaching a peak of 1,360 in 2012.

Is this legal?

Yes, depending on the state in which a militia is located. All states have laws barring private military activity, but it varies when it comes to paramilitary or militia organising.

"There are very few rules in the US about what people with guns," Ms Beirich says. "Many of them frame holding military training exercises as their right with the second amendment, exercising their right to bear arms."

According to a 2018 report by Georgetown University, 25 states criminalise kinds of paramilitary activity, making it illegal to teach firearm or explosive use or assemble to train with such devices with the intent to use such knowledge "in furtherance of a civil disorder".

Twenty-eight states have statutes prohibiting private militias without the prior authorisation of the state government.

"Not all militias are involved in the same kinds of activities," Ms Beirich notes.

"If people are engaged in exercising their constitutional rights under the second amendment in states that don't ban the kinds of activities they undertake, they have every right to engage."

What about the groups at the border?

Militias have been present at the southern border before. In the 2000s, a group called the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, was rounding up migrants for years before eventually dissolving.

But the way groups like the United Constitutional Patriots, whose leader was arrested by the FBI on Monday, have been publicising their efforts is new, Ms Beirich says.

The "explicitly anti-immigrant framing" she says is novel, compared to the Minutemen, who would have argued they were merely protecting the border.

"The United Constitutional Patriots leader - he's been on record saying pretty terrible things about immigrants. That seems like a bit of a shift."




ruby Posted on April 24, 2019 11:05

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Japan sterilisation law victims get compensation and apology

Tens of thousands of victims of forced sterilisation in Japan are now entitled to compensation.

Under a eugenics law which was in effect from 1948 to 1996, people were made to undergo operations to prevent them having children deemed "inferior".

Many of the victims had physical or cognitive disabilities, mental illness, or behavioural problems.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has issued an apology for the "great suffering" they experienced.

Under a new law that was passed on Wednesday, surviving victims will each receive 3.2 million yen ($28,600; £22,100). Many were children or teenagers when they were operated on.

They now have five years to apply for compensation, which will need to be approved by a board of experts.

"During the period the law was in effect, many people were subjected to operations that made them unable to have children based on their having a disability or another chronic illness, causing them great suffering," Mr Abe said in a statement.

"As the government that carried out this law, after deep reflection, I would like to apologise from the bottom of my heart."

About 20 victims of the law are currently suing the government over it. The first judgement in one of these cases is due at the end of May.

One unnamed woman, who is suing for 11m yen ($98,300; £76,000), was sterilised in 1972 at the age of 15 after being diagnosed with "hereditary feeble-mindedness".

"We've had agonising days," her sister told a press conference last January. "We stood up to make this society brighter."

What was the sterilisation law?

The Eugenics Protection Law came into force in 1948, as Japan struggled to rebuild itself after World War Two.

It sought to prevent people with physical and cognitive disabilities from being able to have children, as well as those with mental illnesses. People with certain diseases were also sterilised - such as those with leprosy, a now-curable condition known as Hansen's disease.

It's believed that at least 25,000 people were sterilised in the 48 years the law was in place and, while few records remain of the time, it's thought that at least 16,500 of those did not give consent.

Sterilisations peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, and continued until the final operation in 1993. The law was finally revoked in 1996.


ruby Posted on April 24, 2019 10:52

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Kim Jong-un in Russia for Vladimir Putin summit

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has arrived in the far east of Russia for a summit with President Vladimir Putin.

Mr Kim arrived in the Pacific Coast city of Vladivostok for his first talks with the Russian president by train.

He was welcomed by officials with a traditional offering of bread and salt.

The Kremlin says they will discuss the Korean peninsula's "nuclear problem", but analysts say Mr Kim is also seeking support after talks with US President Donald Trump collapsed.

Mr Trump and Mr Kim met in Hanoi earlier this year to discuss North Korea's nuclear weapons programme, but the summit - their second - ended without agreement.

The North Korean leader greeted Russian officials warmly on his arrival in Vladivostok on Wednesday.

After tasting traditional korovai bread and salt, Mr Kim was entertained by a brass band before he got inside a car flanked by bodyguards who - in now familiar scenes - jogged alongside the vehicle as it departed.

"I arrived in Russia bearing the warm feelings of our people, and as I already said, I hope this visit will be successful and useful," Mr Kim told Russian channel Rossiya 24.

"I hope that during the talks with respected President Putin, I will be able to discuss in a concrete manner issues relating to the settlement of the situation on the Korean peninsula, and to the development of our bilateral relations."

What do we know about the summit?

North Korean state media has yet to confirm a time or location for the meeting.

But Russian and North Korean national flags are already in place on Vladivostok's Russky island, where the summit is expected to take place.

The North Korean leader reportedly crossed into Russia on Wednesday and stepped out of his private train at the border city of Khasan.

He was greeted by Russian women in traditional dress as part of a symbolic welcome ceremony.

What do both sides want?

This visit is being widely viewed as an opportunity for North Korea to show it has powerful allies following the breakdown of nuclear talks with the US earlier this year, the BBC's Laura Bicker says.

The country has blamed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for the collapse of the Hanoi summit in February.

Earlier this month North Korea demanded that Mr Pompeo be removed from nuclear talks, accusing him of "talking nonsense" and asking for someone "more careful" to replace him.

The summit is also an opportunity for Pyongyang to show that its economic future does not depend solely on the US, our correspondent adds.

Mr Kim may also try to put pressure on Moscow to ease sanctions.

Analysts believe this summit is a chance for Russia to show that it is an important player on the Korean peninsula.

President Putin has been eager to meet the North Korean leader for quite some time. Yet amid the two Trump-Kim summits, the Kremlin has been somewhat sidelined.

Russia, like the US and China, is uncomfortable with North Korea being a nuclear state.

Senior officials say the Kremlin is hoping to see a reduction in tensions on the peninsula.

Mr Putin's foreign policy aide, Yuri Ushakov, said the situation there had "stabilised somewhat" in recent months.

"Russia intends to help in any way possible to cement that positive trend," he told reporters on Tuesday.

Russia has previously been involved in talks to end North Korea's nuclear programme.

Former North Korean leader and Mr Kim's father, Kim Jong-il, met then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in 2011.

A South Korean foreign ministry spokesman said Russia "shares our viewpoints" on denuclearisation and peace on the peninsula.

Nuclear activity seems to be continuing in North Korea, and the country said it had tested a new "tactical guided weapon" - thought to be a short-range missile - earlier in April.



ruby Posted on April 24, 2019 10:46

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Innovative child malaria vaccine test starts in Malawi

A large-scale pilot of what has been called the world's first malaria vaccine to give partial protection to children has begun in Malawi.

The RTS,S vaccine trains the immune system to attack the malaria parasite, which is spread by mosquito bites.

Earlier, smaller trials showed that nearly 40% of the 5-to-17-month-olds who received it were protected.

Malaria cases appear to be on the rise again after a decade of success in combating the deadly disease.

"This is a landmark moment for immunisations, malaria control, and public health," Dr Kate O'Brien, Director of Immunisation and Vaccines at the World Health Organization, told the BBC.

According to the most recent annual figures, global malaria cases are no longer falling, sparking concerns about its resurgence.

Malawi is the first of three countries chosen for the pilot to roll out the vaccine. It aims to immunise 120,000 children aged two years and below. The other two countries, Ghana and Kenya, will introduce the vaccine in the coming weeks.

The three countries were picked because they already run large programmes to tackle malaria, including the use of bed nets, yet still have high numbers of cases.

How big a problem is malaria?

Malaria kills some 435,000 people around the world each year, the majority of them children. Most of these deaths are in Africa, where more than 250,000 children die every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Dr O'Brien said that malaria is "a really difficult disease to develop a vaccine against".

An early trial of the vaccine began in 2009.

"There were seven countries participating in a large trial where over 15,000 children participated," Dr David Schellenberg, who has been working on the development of the vaccine with the WHO, told the BBC's Newsday programme.

"[The trial] showed pretty clearly that this vaccine is safe and it is efficacious in terms of its ability to prevent clinical malaria episodes and also severe malaria episodes," he said.

What difference will the vaccine make?

RTS,S has been more than three decades in the making, with scientists from drugs company GSK creating it in 1987.

Years of testing supported by a host of organisations, including the Path Malaria Vaccine Initiative, and costing an estimated $1bn (£770m), have led to this point.

The nearly 40% efficacy is not high in comparison with vaccines for other diseases, but Dr Schellenberg says RTS,S will add to the preventative measures, such as bed nets and insecticides, already being used.

"Nobody is suggesting that this is a magic bullet," Dr Schellenberg said.

"It may not sound like much but we're talking about 40% reduction in severe malaria which unfortunately still has high mortality even when you have good access to good treatment," he added.

Dr O'Brien said the vaccine lasted for at least for seven years and would target infants because they are most at risk.

The vaccine needs to be given four times - once a month for three months and then a fourth dose 18 months later.

Dr Schellenberg accepted that it might be a challenge for mothers in some areas to take their children to clinics for all four doses.

This stage of the trial is expected to be completed by 2023, according to Path.

ruby Posted on April 23, 2019 18:57

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Notre-Dame fire: Rain threatens France's damaged cathedral

Architects working on preserving Notre-Dame are rushing to cover the cathedral before rain can cause further damage.

Showers and even possible thunderstorms are forecast for the French capital on Tuesday evening.

The cathedral's vault, which partly collapsed in the fire, is already partly waterlogged after fire-fighting efforts.

Architects fear that heavy rainfall could result in further collapse.

The chief architect of Notre-Dame , Philippe Villeneuve, told French broadcaster BFMTV that erecting an emergency tarpaulin was "the highest priority".

"The beams are there, the tarpaulin is arriving. The climbers, since it will be climbers who will do that, and the scaffolders, are ready," he said.

There are already plans to erect a large, purpose-built "umbrella" on the roof of the landmark, which will have its own peak and protect the structure while reconstruction takes place.

But the umbrella is not ready - and the threat of impending rain is too serious to wait, with even heavier rain forecast for Thursday.

There were fears the 800-year-old cathedral could be completely destroyed during the fierce blaze on 15 April. Firefighters managed to save the structure and much of its interior - but emergency work has been taking place since to stabilise the building.

Three large holes in the cathedral's vault - its arched ceiling - are the most obvious signs of damage. One was made by the collapse of the cathedral's spire.

But its famous rosette stained-glass windows have been covered with protective material and reinforced with timber posts.

What next for Notre-Dame?

French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to rebuild the symbol of Paris within five years - in time for the Olympics in the city scheduled for 2024.

The cost is likely to be enormous, with hundreds of millions already pledged by individuals and businesses both in France and from around the world.

Prime Minister Édouard Philippe has suggested an international competition for designs for the new spire, to replace the 19th-century design by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc which collapsed.

In the meantime, however, plans are in motion to build a temporary wooden cathedral in the square outside to continue Catholic services on the grounds. The idea which has already earned the approval of Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo.

Notre Dame was already undergoing extensive restoration work when the fire broke out. It is not yet clear if that contributed to the blaze, or what the cause was.

Alongside protecting the cathedral from the rain, the removal of the damaged scaffolding is one of the first steps towards the cathedral's full restoration - a process that could take weeks.

ruby Posted on April 23, 2019 18:36

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Pedro Sánchez: Spain's accidental PM on a roll

Less than a year ago, Pedro Sánchez was lagging in the polls as the leader of Spain's opposition, bruised by two resounding electoral defeats.

Yet he goes into this Sunday's general election as prime minister – and is widely tipped to secure the first victory for his Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) since 2008.

"He has used his time in government to project an image of gravity and of being someone who is suited to the post of prime minister," says Josep Lobera, a sociologist at Madrid's Autonomous University (UAM) – who adds that being in government has boosted Mr Sánchez's standing among leftist voters.

"Regardless of whether or not he's actually managed the country effectively, he's projected that image."

Surprisingly popular

Mr Sánchez's turnaround began in May of last year, when he launched a surprise no-confidence motion against prime minister Mariano Rajoy, whose Popular Party (PP) was besieged by corruption scandals.

Gathering support from the leftist Podemos and Catalan and Basque nationalists, the Socialist leader secured just enough votes to ensure the first successful no-confidence motion of the democratic era – making him prime minister in the process.

After lagging behind the PP in polls when in opposition, the PSOE shot ahead in the wake of Mr Sánchez's arrival in office. Throughout his brief tenure, the PSOE has remained well ahead of the PP, the right-of-centre Ciudadanos, the leftist Podemos and the far-right Vox.

Mr Sánchez, 47, has taken a series of eye-catching measures which have appealed to his base, such as raising the minimum wage, appointing a female-dominated cabinet, and taking in the Aquarius migrant vessel after Italy had shunned it.

He has also begun the legal process to exhume the remains of the dictator Francisco Franco from his mausoleum and rebury them somewhere less divisive.

A battle for every change

By Mr Sánchez's own admission, it has been difficult for him to take on more ambitious, structural reforms, with his party holding fewer than a quarter of seats in parliament. He told supporters at a campaign event that "it is true that in 10 months and with 84 seats [in Congress] we have not managed to change Spain, but we have managed to change its course".

Plans to overhaul the education system, legalise euthanasia, change labour regulations and shake up national broadcaster RTVE have all been put on hold.

Yet Spain's fragmented politics have worked to his advantage.

Ciudadanos, which once competed with the PSOE for the centre ground, has moved to the right. Podemos, the Socialists' main rival on the left, has been riven by infighting, causing party leader Pablo Iglesias to admit recently that it "has disappointed a lot of people".

Many former Podemos voters have subsequently turned to the PSOE.

Mr Sánchez's recent resurrection adds to his reputation as a survivor. In 2016, in a previous stint as Socialist leader, he was ousted from the post following a bitter conflict within the party, triggered by two poor general election results and his refusal to end a national stalemate by facilitating the creation of a new, conservative government.

Defying the party's old guard, he successfully ran in the 2017 primary, becoming Socialist leader for a second time – and paving the way for last year's bid to become prime minister.

Catalonia and criticism

But while Mr Sánchez's governing style has boosted his popularity on the left, it has drawn fierce criticism from the right. In particular, his approach to the Catalan territorial crisis, in which he has sought to lower tensions with the north-eastern region, has riled the opposition.

His administration has engaged with the pro-independence government, restored a bilateral working group, and allowed jailed Catalan politicians to be moved from Madrid to prisons in their home region.

Mr Sánchez has also held meetings with Catalan president Quim Torra.

Such moves prompted PP leader Pablo Casado to call the prime minister "the biggest villain in Spain's democratic history", casting him as an opportunist who was willing to negotiate the independence of Catalonia in exchange for the parliamentary support of nationalist parties.

Yet Mr Sánchez's refusal to negotiate a binding independence referendum caused Catalan nationalist parties to withdraw their support for his 2019 budget, leading him to call this election.

Polls suggest that the PSOE will need the backing of Podemos and possibly other parties, in order form a new government. But this Sunday Mr Sánchez will not be the underdog – for a change.

ruby Posted on April 23, 2019 18:34

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Philippines earthquake: Eight deaths reported on Luzon

A powerful earthquake has struck the main Philippines island of Luzon, killing at least 11 people.

The magnitude 6.1 tremor hit at 17:11 local time (09:11 GMT) on Monday, the Philippines Institute of Volcanology and Seismology reports.

An airport was seriously damaged and at least two buildings were destroyed.

Less than 24 hours later, a second powerful earthquake measuring 6.4 struck further south, in the central Visayas region.

A BBC correspondent in Manila said the worst hit areas include Tacloban City, Leyte, and Catbalogan City in Samar. Social media posts on Tuesday showed buildings swaying and large cracks forming in roads, but it was not clear if there were any casualties.

Tacloban City and the surrounding region were devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

Following the first earthquake, authorities said dozens of people could still be trapped underneath a collapsed building in the province of Pampanga, north-west of the capital Manila.

The province is believed to be the worst-hit area. Its governor, Lilia Pineda, told Reuters news agency that 20 people had been injured there.

"They can be heard crying in pain," she said of those trapped under the rubble. "It won't be easy to rescue them."

Ms Pineda told ABS-CBN television that three bodies had been pulled out of a shop following the earthquake, while a woman and her grandchild were found dead in the town of Lubao.

Twenty people have so far been rescued and taken to hospital, she added.

The earthquake was felt in Manila, where skyscrapers were seen swaying for several minutes in the business district.

Clark International Airport, located about an hour's drive north of the capital, suffered major damage, with at least seven people injured.

Martial arts instructor Dani Justo recalled the moment she felt the earthquake at her Manila home.

"The clothes hanging on our line were really swaying. My shih tzu (dog) dropped flat on the ground," she told AFP.

Social media users on the northern island posted photos of the damage caused by the quake, including cracked walls and swinging light fixtures.

One video posted to Twitter showed water cascading down the side of a skyscraper from its rooftop pool.

Classes at Manila's De La Salle University are being suspended on Tuesday while building inspections are conducted.

The Philippines is part of the Pacific "Ring of Fire" - a zone of major seismic activity which has one of the world's most active fault lines.

ruby Posted on April 23, 2019 18:30

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Sri Lanka attacks: IS 'may be linked', government says

The Islamic State (IS) group may be linked to bomb blasts which killed 321 people and wounded 500 in Sri Lanka, the country's prime minister has said.

Ranil Wickremesinghe said the government believed Sunday's attacks could not have been carried out without links to terror groups abroad.

The first mass funeral was held on Tuesday as Sri Lanka marked an official day of mourning for the victims.

A state of emergency remains in effect to prevent further attacks.

Police have now detained 40 suspects in connection with the attack, all of whom were Sri Lankan nationals.

"This could not have been done just locally," Mr Wickremesinghe said. "There had been training given and a coordination which we are not seeing earlier."

The Islamic State (IS) group claimed the attack on Tuesday via its Amaq news outlet. Sri Lanka's government had previously blamed the blasts on local Islamist group National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ).

Eight blasts were reported, including at three churches during Easter services.

Three hotels in the capital, Colombo - the Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand - were also targeted.

An attack on a fourth hotel on Sunday was foiled, Mr Wickremesinghe said. He did not name the hotel. He also warned that further militants and explosives could still be "out there" following the attack.

Who could be behind the attacks?

IS said it had "targeted nationals of the crusader alliance [anti-IS US-led coalition] and Christians in Sri Lanka".

It provided no evidence for the claim but shared an image on social media of eight men purported to be behind the attack.

The group's last stronghold was declared "freed" by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on 23 March.

Although the declaration marked the last territorial victory over the group's caliphate, experts warn it does not mean the end of IS or its ideology.

Mr Wickremesinghe said that only Sri Lankan nationals had been arrested in connection with the attack so far, but that some of the attackers may have travelled abroad before the bombings.

''We, certainly the security apparatus, are of the view there are foreign links and some of the evidence points to that. So if the IS (Islamic State) claimed it, we will be following up on this claim," he added.

Earlier, the country's defence minister Ruwan Wijewardene told parliament that NTJ was linked to another radical Islamist group he named as JMI,.

He gave no further details.

He also said "preliminary investigations" indicated that the bombings were in retaliation for deadly attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March, but again gave no further information.

NTJ has no history of large-scale attacks but came to prominence last year when it was blamed for damaging Buddhist statues. The group has not said it carried out Sunday's bombings.

Sunday's attacks have highlighted rifts in Sri Lanka's leadership, after it emerged that authorities were warned about an imminent threat from the NTJ jihadist group.

But Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the cabinet were not informed, ministers said

The Sri Lankan government has said locals from two known groups carried out the attack. But from the start - because of the scale and sophistication of it - they have also said they thought there was an external role.

In the past, IS has sometimes claimed attacks that it was not involved in or which it simply inspired. But the details from so-called Islamic State would seem to back up the government's assessment.

The choice of targets is much more in line with IS ideology than with the traditional types of communal violence seen in Sri Lanka.

There are still questions - did the local men affiliate themselves to IS or receive direct support? Did they travel to Syria or to other countries? The Sri Lankan government has said it believes some of them had spent time abroad, but how significant was that to the plot?

Answering questions like these will be important not just for Sri Lanka but other countries as they try and understand whether other relatively small, locally focused groups could be capable of transforming a threat into violence on such a massive scale.

Who were the victims?

Most of those who died were Sri Lankan nationals, including scores of Christians attending Easter Sunday church services.

One of the first victims to be publicly identified was Sri Lankan celebrity chef Shantha Mayadunne and her daughter Nisanga Mayadunne, who had posted a picture of the family having breakfast in the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo shortly before the deadly blast.

Sri Lankan officials said 38 foreign nationals were among the dead, with another 14 unaccounted for. The death toll includes at least eight British citizens and at least 10 Indian nationals.

Three of Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen's children were killed in the attack, a family spokesman confirmed to the BBC. Mr Povlsen owns the Bestseller clothing chain and holds a majority stake in clothing giant Asos.

The mass funeral for about 30 victims took place at St Sebastian's church in Negombo, north of Colombo, which was one of the places targeted in Sunday's blasts. Another funeral service was scheduled for later on Tuesday.

A moment of silence was also observed at 08:30 on Tuesday, reflecting the time the first of six bombs detonated. Flags were lowered to half-mast and people, many of them in tears, bowed their heads in respect.

ruby Posted on April 23, 2019 17:30

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Carlos Ghosn: Former Nissan boss hit with fresh charge

Former Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn has been indicted by prosecutors in Japan on a fresh charge of aggravated breach of trust.

It is the fourth charge brought against Mr Ghosn and relates to the alleged misuse of company funds.

The 65-year-old is in detention in Tokyo and his lawyers have applied for bail.

Mr Ghosn, who denies any wrongdoing, has said the allegations are a result of a plot against him.

He was first arrested in November and spent 108 days in custody. While out on bail pending a trial, the former auto boss was re-arrested in Tokyo on 4 April.

Prosecutors allege that Mr Ghosn made a multi-million-dollar payment to a Nissan distributor in Oman, and that as much as $5m (£3.8m) was funnelled to an account controlled by Mr Ghosn.

The company he once ran, Nissan, has filed its own criminal complaint against Mr Ghosn, accusing him of directing money from the company for his own personal enrichment.

Mr Ghosn was first charged with under-reporting his pay package for the five years to 2015.

In January, a new charge claimed he understated his compensation for another three years. He was also indicted on a fresh, more serious charge of breach of trust.

The fall from grace for the industry titan has attracted global attention. The case has also put a spotlight on fighting within the carmaker alliance and on Japan's legal system.

Mr Ghosn was the architect of the alliance formed between Japan's Nissan and French carmaker Renault, and brought Mitsubishi on board in 2016.

He is credited with turning around the fortunes of Nissan and Renault over several years.

Earlier this month Mr Ghosn said the allegations were a plot and conspiracy against him, accusing Nissan executives of "backstabbing".


ruby Posted on April 22, 2019 16:13

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Why the US-China rivalry will not end with a trade deal

A US-China trade deal - if it happens - is unlikely to end the rivalry between the two economic giants.

Both sides have fought a trade war over the past year with damaging consequences for the global economy.

But many say their dispute goes well beyond trade - it represents a power-struggle between two very different world views.

Deal or no deal, that rivalry is only expected to broaden and become more difficult to resolve.

"We have entered into a new normal in which US-China geopolitical competition has intensified and become more explicit," says Michael Hirson, Asia director at consultancy firm Eurasia Group.

"The trade deal will moderate one phase of the US-China power struggle, but only temporarily and with limited effect."

The US-China rivalry is likely to play out next in the crucial technology sector, analysts say, as both sides try to establish themselves as the world's technology leader.

Issues around technology transfer have been key during trade talks between the world's two largest economies in recent months.

"Every country now correctly recognises that their prosperity, their wealth, their economic security, their military security is going to be linked to keeping a technological edge," says Stephen Olson, research fellow at global trade advisory body Hinrich Foundation.

The technology battle

Many say the US-China technology battle is already under way - and China's tech giant Huawei is at its very centre.

Huawei has been the focus of intense international scrutiny lately, with the US and other countries raising security concerns about its products.

The US has restricted federal agencies from using Huawei products and has encouraged allies to shun them.

Australia and New Zealand have both blocked the use of Huawei gear in next-generation 5G mobile networks.

But Huawei has said it is independent from the Chinese government. Its founder Ren Zhengfei told the BBC in February that his company would never undertake any spying activities.

The dispute reached fever pitch with the arrest of the founder's daughter in December, and more recently Huawei's lawsuit against the US government.

Huawei has also gone on a public relations offensive, placing a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal telling Americans not to "believe everything you hear".

"The term 'cold war' is overused in the context of overall US-China tensions, but is increasingly accurate in describing their technology competition," says Mr Hirson.

The dispute over Huawei is "symptomatic of this intensified geopolitical competition," he adds.

"This rivalry is far more difficult to resolve than pure trade issues."

How did we get here?

US concerns about China have grown in recent years, along with China's influence around the world.

Its massive Belt and Road Initiative, the Made in China 2025 plans, and the growing importance of companies like Huawei and Alibaba have all contributed to those fears.

US Vice President Mike Pence summed up the mood in a speech in October, saying China had chosen "economic aggression", rather than "greater partnership" as it opened its economy.

Hopes China would embrace a more Western model has given way to a recognition that China's economy has boomed alongside a state-run system, not in spite of it.

"China has become much more explicit in its ambitions in the last few years," says Andrew Gilholm, director of analysis for China, at consultancy Control Risks.

"Therefore nobody is imagining that China is going to follow a Western liberal democratic model, or converge towards a market economy in the way that people hoped a few years ago."

Some analysts think a stand-off between the two sides was inevitable.

Their different systems have always made them awkward bedfellows in the global economy, while clashes between existing and rising powers are common in history.

"What we are dealing with here is friction between traditional free market economics, free trade economics, Washington consensus principles versus - for the first time - a huge, technologically sophisticated, centrally-managed economy that is playing the game by a different set of rules," says Mr Olson.

What happens now?

As the technology race gathers pace, analysts expect the US to continue to use non-tariff measures to push back against China.

Restrictions on Chinese investment into the US, limits on the ability of US firms to export technology to China, and further pressure on Chinese companies are all tools that could be used, they say.

"Non-tariff measures don't get the attention from markets that tariffs do, partly because their impact is harder to quantify, but they can have far-reaching impact," says Mr Hirson.

A new US law passed last year could facilitate this push-back.

It strengthened the government's power to review - and potentially block - business deals involving foreign firms by expanding the type of deals that can be reviewed by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS).

The committee vets foreign investments to see if they pose a risk to national security.

Last year, even before the new law passed, a high-profile deal involving the sale of US-based money transfer firm MoneyGram to Alibaba's digital payments arm Ant Financial collapsed when the companies did not get the required approval from CFIUS.

New US-China norm?

How US-China relations develop from here will partly depend on the kind of trade deal they strike.

Burdened by tit-for-tat tariffs, both sides have shown a willingness to talk since agreeing on a truce in December.

But analysts say the relationship between the two giants could look different going forward irrespective of any trade deal.

They could have "an entirely cooperative, flourishing, mutually beneficial relationship" in certain areas but put up barriers in others in what Mr Olson described as a "selective decoupling".

An increasing number of areas could be fenced off, particularly those related to technology, he says.

"Is Huawei ever going to, in a significant way, be able to participate in the construction of the 5G network in the United States? It seems unlikely."

ruby Posted on April 22, 2019 16:09

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The breast cancer surgeon who got breast cancer

"Like many women, I did not check my breasts. I thought, 'it's not going to happen to me - I'm a breast cancer surgeon'."

Liz O'Riordan ended up having to give up the job she had trained 20 years for, after she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer.

In 2015, at the age of 40, she had a mastectomy and last May suffered a recurrence of the disease.

Dr O'Riordan thought she would practise as a breast cancer surgeon for at least 20 years, but as it turned out she only worked as one for two years.

Radiotherapy for the second bout of cancer left her with reduced movement in her shoulder, causing her to make the "emotionally very hard" decision to give up operating.

Before she was diagnosed, Dr O'Riordan had found lumps that turned out only to be cysts, while a mammogram six months earlier had showed a healthy breast.

But another lump developed and her mother urged her to get it scanned. The surgeon, who lives near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, knew what her prognosis was immediately.

"Most patients are drip-fed information. I saw that scan and I knew I'd need a mastectomy, knew I'd probably need chemo because I was young, and I had a good guess of what my chance of being alive in 10 years was, all in that split-second."

Dr O'Riordan, 43, said not many doctors develop the illnesses in which they specialise; certainly, no-one in her department at Ipswich Hospital had.

At first she was "terrified", and several questions ran through her mind.

"How much can I share with my husband and my parents? How much can I stop being a cancer surgeon and just be a patient?"

Although she knew what was happening physically, she had no idea what it would be like to experience actually having the disease.

"I know what it's like to tell someone they have breast cancer.

"I didn't know what it was like to have to have a stiff upper lip, dry your tears, leave the clinic, go through the waiting room, through the hospital corridor to get to the car park and to start howling."

After treatment for her first bout of cancer, Dr O'Riordan returned to work as a surgeon at Ipswich Hospital. But she said she didn't realise how "emotionally challenging" it would be.

She said having had cancer herself, she thought she could help people in a different way.

"But it was one of the hardest things I have ever done.

"When you're breaking bad news and telling a woman they've got cancer, it's really tough at the best of times, but I was reliving it, and I could see myself and my husband and what we would have looked like when we crumpled and heard the news.

"You're so desperate to connect with someone who has a shared experience, but I couldn't - they were my patients."

She added: "I was left with pain after my mastectomy and was suddenly operating - I was very much aware that I might give them the pain that I have, and I didn't want to do that, and it was really, really hard."

She said she also struggled to sit in weekly meetings discussing patients' prognoses.

"In my first meeting back, my first patient basically had my cancer. She was the same age, she had my cancer give or take a millimetre - she was me on paper.

"I heard all my colleagues say 'that's really bad'."

In 2018, Dr O'Riordan's cancer returned to the same armpit. It was found while she was having a scan before the removal of her reconstructed breast, which had been causing her a lot of pain.

It led to a second dose of radiotherapy to the same area, "something rarely done".

She was warned that she might not be able to move her arm properly afterwards but, if she did not undergo surgery, the outlook was bleak.

The result was more scarring, fibrosis and tethering of the soft tissues, which indeed did reduce movement in her shoulder and meant she had less strength in her arm.

She said her employers did their best to help her to resume her career for a second time.

"I had intensive physiotherapy, I saw an orthopaedic surgeon - because it's a huge thing to say, 'the thing I've spent 20 years of my life, and degrees, and PhDs, exams and courses to become an expert in the thing I love, I can't do again'.

"I can go about my daily life, but to be able to operate safely, that's never going to happen," she said.

By now Dr O'Riordan also felt the psychological need to have "cancer-free time", especially given that returning to work before the recurrence had been traumatic.

In addition, the risk of the cancer returning yet again was now higher than before, and there was a danger it could come back elsewhere.

After about four months she made the decision her career as a surgeon was over.

"It was bittersweet, and really, really hard saying goodbye."

Ironically, she now advises people on their rights to return to the workplace after cancer.

Dr O'Riordan, whose husband is a consultant surgeon, said she was "lucky" to be able to afford not to have to do paid work.

She recently began volunteering as an ambassador for the social enterprise, Working with Cancer, which had advised her on her employment rights after she decided to return to work in 2017, following treatment for her first bout of cancer.

A temporary director at the hospital had told her at this point that she was expected back on a phased return over four weeks.

"I was still suffering from fatigue and trying to get my brain to work again," Dr O'Riordan said.

"I didn't realise that if you've had cancer, you are classified as legally disabled under the Equality Act and your employers have to make reasonable adjustments to allow you get back to work.

"So many people are just desperate to get their lives back when they have cancer, but it can be incredibly hard to find your way and a lot of employers don't know how to help cancer patients - or whether they should."

Dr O'Riordan said most of the coaches at Working with Cancer have had the illness themselves and "they get it".

As well information about their rights, they prepare staff and employers for the emotional pitfalls.

As a result of her chemotherapy, Dr O'Riordan had short, curly hair.

Her coach asked her: "What will you do when people don't recognise you?"

She had dismissed the notion, until one day she realised a colleague she was talking to did not realise who she was.

The preparation she did with Working with Cancer mostly helped her to avoid any awkwardness.

Just before returning she emailed her line manager and explained she was happy to talk about her illness with colleagues, but not during work hours.

"You have a right to ask for things to be made easier for you. They can't sack you because that would be discrimination."

The former surgeon said her work as an ambassador had helped her reconnect with her sense of purpose.

"As a consultant surgeon I was helping 70, maybe 100 women a year with breast cancer.

"But through my book, the blogging, the talking and being an ambassador for Working with Cancer, I can help hundreds, thousands of women."



ruby Posted on April 22, 2019 16:00

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Breaking News: Ghana Police on manhunt for Nigerians who kidnapped Estonian Consular General

Police are on a manhunt for three Nigerian men who kidnapped a Consular General and Head of Mission of Estonia in Accra on Thursday.

According to the Public Relations Officer of the Accra Police command, DSP Efia Tenge, 61-year-old Nabil Makram Bashbous was on his usual morning walk in his neighbourhood when he was abducted.

Narrating what happened Nabil Makram Basbous said on Thursday morning that about 10 minutes into the walk, a white Hyundai Elantra private car pulled up in front of him.

One of the occupants came out, pulled a pistol on him and ordered him to enter the car or risk being shot if he resists.

Mr Makram Basbous obliged, entered and was driven away with the kidnappers pointing a pistol and an axe at him.

According to Makram Basbous, he could not make out the location he was driven to but was detained in a room and held hostage for payment of ransom.

Meanwhile, the SWAT Unit of the Accra Regional Police Command picked up intelligence that some Nigerians residing at NTHC Estates, Vivian Farms in Lashibi in Accra, were engaging in suspicious activities.

They stayed home all day and only go out only at night, police intelligence revealed.


paxex Posted on April 22, 2019 08:14

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Notre-Dame fire: How will the cathedral be restored?

The dramatic sight of Notre-Dame being ravaged by flames on Monday captivated people around the world.

The French cathedral, which dates back more than 850 years, has been partially destroyed despite the best efforts of firefighters who worked throughout the night.

Now, as investigators work to establish the cause of the blaze, attention has turned to how the building can be repaired.

A number of companies and business tycoons have pledged hundreds of millions of euros between them towards the restoration effort.

So can the famous landmark be returned to its former glory?

John David is better positioned than most to judge whether the famous cathedral can be saved.

The master stonemason was part of a team of craftsmen who worked to rebuild England's York Minster cathedral when it was badly damaged by fire in 1984. It was set alight after it was hit by lightning, causing £2.25m ($3m) in damage.

"We went in and there were piles of charred timbers on the floor," he recalls. "There was black ash and soot and the whole building smelt of smoke. There was a sort of gloom in the place."

But he says the team was confident it could be repaired and he feels equally optimistic about Notre-Dame. "There was no fear about putting it back and I imagine that's the same in this case" he says.

"It's quite achievable to see it [restored] and it's an opportunity to show that this work can still be done," he says.

Mr David says the restoration team must first remove the Notre-Dame's burnt scaffolding. There were extensive renovation works taking place at the time of the fire and a huge scaffold was covering much of its exterior.

"The scaffolding will be in the way and will have to be delicately taken down because it's suffered with the heat," he says.

He explains that a protective cover will then need to be placed over the cathedral to shield it from the wind and rain.

Any fallen timber and other debris inside the cathedral will need to be cleared out, Mr David says. But this debris won't just be removed and forgotten about.

"Early phases of the work will include the archaeological recording of surviving fragments of timber, stone and artworks," says Dr Kate Giles, from the University of York's department of archaeology.

"This will enable the Notre-Dame team to salvage what can be reused and provide crucial evidence for the design of new fabrics in the building," she says.

Surveying the damage

Once the cathedral is cleared, experts say a thorough survey will need to be carried out to establish the extent of the damage and to ensure it is safe to re-enter.

"Safety will be the prime concern," says Dr Amira Elnokaly, a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Lincoln. "There should be critical inspections to avoid any risks of further collapses or falling debris."

The survey will then turn to the stonework at the top of the cathedral near the roof.

"The upper stone work, the vaulting and the top windows, will have been baked and the temperature will have spoiled and weakened the stone," says Paul Binski, a history of medieval art professor at the University of Cambridge.

"The first thing they're going to do is a massive survey of the stone," he says. "They're going to have to scaffold the whole building and look very closely at its condition."

This is because the stone ceiling will have taken the brunt of the impact when the timber roof above collapsed, experts suggest.

"The 19th Century spire, the 19th Century roofing, what will have happened is that these will have crashed down on to the stone vault underneath, the rib vault, which rises to 108ft (33m)," Prof Binski says.

"The vaulting system will have shielded what's in the church from the inferno above," he adds. "Of course, it will likely have come down in parts, but it will have done a major protective job."

Indeed, images appear to show that the pulpit, pews and altar have escaped the fire largely unscathed.

If some of the stonework does need to be replaced then, Prof Binski says, the team will probably use traditional methods to do so.

"It's important to look at the original construction methods and try to emulate them." he explains. "This involves building an awful lot of wood scaffolding inside the church because [stone vaulting] is built around a kind of wooden structure - like a mould.

"They're not built with cement but with something that's rather like putty."

Prof Binski says that if a large amount of the stone vaulting needs to be replaced it could be "the biggest vaulting operation of this type undertaken since the Middle Ages".

"The question is how long this is going to take and my guess is 5-10 years minimum to get the whole thing re-vaulted," he says.

This estimate highlights the challenges facing the restoration team if they are to meet President Emmanuel Macron's suggested timescale. The French leader wants Notre-Dame rebuilt by the time Paris hosts the Summer Olympics in 2024.

But Mr David says this is a feasible goal. "I don't think it will take 10 years," he says. "It might take two years to decide what to do, but [five years] is quite achievable."

Photos from inside the cathedral appear to show that at least one of its famed rose windows has survived, although there are concerns for some of the other stained-glass windows.

So how will the experts protect and restore these?

"They will do an initial survey when they establish what the highest priorities are in terms of historical and artistic significance," says Sarah Brown, an expert in stained glass windows.

"I suspect all of the windows will require some attention because a fire of that size will generate so much smoke and soot," she says. "Even if the windows are in relatively good order they're certainly going to require cleaning.

"The biggest problem will be the heating up and then the rapid cooling down of the glass as it's been struck by water from the cannons," Ms Brown explains. "This will bring about thermal shock that will cause micro-fractures in the glass which will be really difficult to stabilise."

She continues: "They will need to re-lead these windows because the lead that keeps it all together will no longer hold good, but you cannot even attempt that until you've stabilised the heat-induced micro-fractures in the glass.

There are modern adhesives that can do that, however."

And what if one of the cathedral's windows has been completely destroyed? "The big question then is how they go about re-glazing the building," Ms Brown says.

"You can't leave it with nothing in the window," she says. "Some might call for a new stained glass window but it's too early to say what should be done. Windows can be remarkably resilient, so let's hope that's been the case here."

ruby Posted on April 17, 2019 11:30

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Notre-Dame fire: Macron says new cathedral will be 'more beautiful'

French President Emmanuel Macron says Notre-Dame cathedral will be rebuilt "even more beautifully" - and that he wants the work done within five years.

A massive fire on Monday ravaged the 850-year-old Gothic building, destroying much of its roof and causing its steeple to collapse.

The cathedral was minutes away from total destruction, officials say.

But despite Mr Macron's pledge experts say its reconstruction could take decades.

Fifty people will investigate the cause of the fire. Paris public prosecutor Rémy Heitz said there was no obvious indication of arson and that the blaze was being treated as an accident.

A combined €800m ($902m; £692m) has already been pledged by a number of companies and business tycoons to help rebuild the Unesco World Heritage site.

What has Macron said?

In a televised address on Tuesday evening, President Macron suggested he wants it rebuilt by the time Paris hosts the Summer Olympics in 2024.

"We'll rebuild Notre-Dame even more beautifully and I want it to be completed in five years, we can do it," said Mr Macron, who had already pledged to launch an international fundraising scheme for the reconstruction.

"It's up to us to convert this disaster into an opportunity to come together... It's up to us to find the thread of our national project."

But Eric Fischer, head of the foundation in charge of restoring the 1,000-year-old Strasbourg cathedral, told AFP the Notre-Dame may take "decades" to rebuild.

Frédéric Létoffé, the head of the group of companies for the Restoration of Historic Monuments, put the timescale at between 10 and 15 years, warning substantial work would be needed to secure the site before restoration can begin.

What is the damage?

The blaze - which was discovered at 18:43 (16:43 GMT) on Monday and was fully extinguished almost 15 hours later - destroyed most of the cathedral's roof and led to the collapse of its iconic spire.

Experts have not yet been allowed on site to assess the damage and firefighters have sent a drone to survey the scale of the destruction.

Photos appear to show that at least one of the famed rose windows has survived but there are concerns for some of the other stained-glass windows. The 18th Century organ has not been burned but it is not clear whether it is damaged.

It was still too early to estimate the cost of the damage, said the Fondation du Patrimoine, an independent non-profit heritage group.

Deputy Interior Minister Laurent Nuñez said the structure was in good condition "overall" but that "some vulnerabilities" had been identified in the stone vaults and the remainder of the ceiling.

The main structure, including the two bell towers, was saved in a time window of 15 to 30 minutes by a team of 400 firefighters, he said.

In his speech Mr Macron heaped praise on the fire services, saying they took "extreme risks" to tackle the blaze.

Praying for the cathedral

They sit or stand in a crowd, many of them young people, spilling over the end of the Boulevard Saint Michel, this first evening after the fire, singing hymns. On a table beneath the towering sculpture of Saint Michael stands a statue of Our Lady - Notre Dame.

"As a French Catholic," says Éloi, 22, "I felt really bad after the fire so I see this vigil as a way to say that even if the flames destroyed the cathedral, we can rebuild it because the Church is made not of stones but is a living body." He believes the cathedral should be remade just the way it was, as a "prayer to God".

"We are Catholics," he adds, "but all French people - Catholics, Muslims, atheists - are united around this disaster and in the hope it will be rebuilt."

And they are united in pride in the fire brigade. During the concert, an engine hurtles past on the road, and the singing stops as the crowd claps and cheers.

What happens next?

Investigators trying to establish the cause of the fire have begun questioning workers from five companies involved in the extensive renovations that were under way at the cathedral. Officials believe the works could be linked to the disaster.

"Nothing indicates this was a deliberate act," said public prosecutor Rémy Heitz, adding that he expected to be a "long and complex" case.

Offers of help to rebuild the cathedral have come from several world leaders, groups and individuals, including:

Culture Minister Franck Riester said some of the artwork and religious items rescued would be sent to the Louvre museum where they would be kept and eventually restored.

They include what is said to be the crown of thorns worn by Jesus before his crucifixion and a tunic King Louis IX is said to have worn when he brought the crown to Paris.

The cathedral's paintings would be removed from Friday, Mr Riester said.


ruby Posted on April 17, 2019 10:25

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Russia jails Norwegian Frode Berg for spying on submarines

A Moscow court has sentenced a 63-year-old Norwegian, Frode Berg, to 14 years in a strict-regime labour camp for spying on Russian navy submarines.

Berg, arrested in Moscow in 2017, denied the accusation.

He formerly worked as a guard on the Norwegian-Russian border.

Berg admitted acting as a courier for Norwegian intelligence, but said he had little knowledge of the mission. A Russian ex-policeman accused of passing him navy files has been jailed.

Berg's lawyer, Ilya Novikov, said his client would not appeal against the verdict but would seek a pardon from President Vladimir Putin.

Norway - a Nato member - shares an Arctic border with Russia and for decades their relations were amicable, even during the Cold War. But ties have worsened since 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.

Mr Novikov, quoted by AFP news agency, said Berg "expects his government to undertake diplomatic efforts" and "we see no practical use in appealing".

"He's been used without his knowledge," Mr Novikov said. "We cannot talk about gathering any secret information."

He warned that, at the age of 63, Berg was facing "basically a life sentence".


ruby Posted on April 16, 2019 13:23

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Experimental drug may ease opioid withdrawal symptoms

A drug that scientists originally developed to treat depression may have promise for the treatment of opioid withdrawal, researchers say.

A new experimental drug may help reduce opioid withdrawal symptoms.

Opioid withdrawal is a challenging experience, and although there are medications already on the market that can help curb the symptoms of withdrawal, these drugs cause negative side effects.

Current withdrawal medications also often require people to take them for a prolonged period, which is not ideal and could lead to a relapse.

There may be encouraging news on the horizon, however. New research highlights the possible benefits of an experimental drug called rapastinel, which scientists initially created to help those with major depressive disorder.

This new research showed that rats responded positively to rapastinel in opioid withdrawal studies. The researchers noted that rapastinel had a significant effect on withdrawal in just a few days, which could make it a candidate for future testing in human participants in a clinical setting.

The first few days after halting opioid use can be very difficult because the withdrawal symptoms can be exceptionally severe. This stage is when rapastinel could potentially be useful, as it may help ease those symptoms without the additional burden of side effects. It could also reduce the need for prescription drugs that require long-term use for a person to avoid relapse.

"We have found that rapastinel has potential as a new treatment for opioid dependence, as it is effective in reducing withdrawal signs and has not been shown to produce any negative side effects," notes Julia Ferrante, an undergraduate at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

Ferrante conducted the research with Cynthia M. Kuhn, Ph.D., a professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University in Durham, NC. The findings featured at the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics annual meeting, which took place recently during the Experimental Biology 2019 meeting in Orlando, FL.


Opioid addiction and withdrawal

Opioid use disorder is a chronic condition that can significantly affect a person's health, job, and financial situation. While doctors prescribe opioids in cases of severe, postsurgical, or chronic pain, they are also often accessible on the black market.

Legal opioids include oxycodone, oxymorphone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl, and buprenorphine. Heroin, an illegal drug, is another example of an opioid.

In some cases, opioid use can lead to addiction. These drugs can also cause severe health problems and sometimes even result in overdose and loss of life. According to estimates, the misuse of prescription opioid medications and heroin affects more than 2 million people in the United States every year.

Physical and psychological dependence present a new set of problems when the person ceases taking the drug. During withdrawal, symptoms include nausea, vomiting, anxietyinsomnia, hot or cold flashes, sweating, cramps, and gastrointestinal upset.

People commonly take methadone or buprenorphine to alleviate some of these symptoms, but these drugs are also opioids and can be addictive. They also have side effects of their own and can often only prevent a relapse if people use them for an extended period.


Rapastinel as a withdrawal treatment

Recent clinical trials found that rapastinel is not effective for depression, but they did reveal that people can tolerate the medication well and that it does not cause significant side effects.

The new research involving rats going through withdrawal showed that the rodents that received rapastinel had far fewer withdrawal signs than those that the researchers gave either ketamine or a saline solution.

While these results are promising, it will take some time before rapastinel reaches clinical trials in humans. Until then, researchers will conduct more studies to determine how rapastinel works on a molecular level and how it might work to prevent relapse.

"By reducing withdrawal symptoms, the patient feels less discomfort during treatment, and we hypothesize this would lead to a decreased risk of relapse," says Ferrante.


"Rapastinel research for opioid dependency is currently only being done in rodents, but if the drug continues to have successful trials, it may enter clinical trials for use in humans."


sarah Posted on April 15, 2019 08:55

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Radiohead stage death inquest brings 'some closure'

A Canadian coroner's inquest has brought "some closure" to the family of a Radiohead drum technician killed in a stage collapse.

Scott Johnson died in 2012 at Toronto's Downsview Park when the stage roofing buckled and fell.

Seven years later, an Ontario inquest has wrapped up hearings into Johnson's death and the causes of the tragedy.

The inquest has now released series of recommendations aimed at preventing similar such incidents.

Over more than two weeks, the public inquest heard from engineers, provincial officials, the owner of the defunct company that built the stage, and workers who were on the ground during the stage construction.

The public inquest also heard early on from both Ken Johnson - the father of the drum technician - and Radiohead drummer Philip Selway.

A number of concerns were raised during testimony related to how the temporary stage deviated from its design as well oversights in the stage construction.

On Wednesday, the five-person inquest jury proposed 28 non-binding recommendations, including the creation of the permanent working group to develop and maintain standards and procedures for the live performance industry.

Ken Johnson, who attended the full hearing and who himself works as a scaffolding safety inspector in the UK, was asked to be part of that group.

What happened in Toronto?

Radiohead was set to perform a sold-out show in Toronto on 16 June 2012 when the stage's metal scaffold roofing - tens of thousands of pounds of steel and equipment - collapsed onto crew members on stage at the time.

The incident happened an hour before the gates opened to the public coming to see the UK band perform.

Johnson, a native of Doncaster, South Yorkshire, was killed and three other people were injured, one seriously.

Mr Selway told the inquest that the incident still haunts the band.

He described the "anger and frustration" felt by the UK band, its crew members and Johnson's parents in the wake of the incident.

"The system has failed Scott, his family and other industry workers," he said.

Radiohead band members and Johnson's family have been outspoken in demanding answers over his death.

In September 2017, a Canadian court stayed charges against the concert's organisers because of trial delays.

Police had filed charges under Ontario's health and safety laws against entertainment company Live Nation, engineer Domenic Cugliari and contractor Optex Staging and Service following the incident.

All three defendants had pleaded not guilty; but the trial was "stayed" - meaning no charges would be brought forward - because of a landmark 2016 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that said cases in provincial court should go to trial within 18 months.

An inquest into Johnson's death was called in March by the Ontario coroner's office.

What else came out of the inquest?

Many of the recommendations put forward by the jury were aimed at bolstering oversight related to safety requirements for the construction of temporary performance stages in the Canadian province.

They included improving the permitting process for stage construction and ensuring better training, certification and licensing for people building those stages.

It also called on the provincial engineering body as well as live entertainment venue owners and show promoters to bring in a series of guidelines to help ensure better oversight and safety measures.

The jury urged national and international performance industry associations to share the inquest report widely.

'Some closure'

At the end of the inquest, Ken Johnson told journalists in Toronto that his focus on the incident over the last few weeks - and years - has helped him cope with his son's death.

"There's hardly a month gone by in the last seven years where I'm not involved in some dialogue about Scott and what's happened," he said.

He and his wife have not taken a holiday since their son was killed.

"To sit on a beach would be torture. We can't sit quietly," he said.

Being busy "takes away the emotions a little bit".

Ken Johnson is optimistic that, despite the fact the inquest recommendations are non-binding, there is momentum behind their implementation.

He is expected to continue to consult with organisations in Canada in implementing and improving the safety of live performance venues.


ruby Posted on April 11, 2019 12:58

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Trump urges inquiry into 'attempted coup' against him

President Donald Trump says he has spoken to the US attorney general about tracing the origins of the inquiry that cleared him of colluding with Russia.

Mr Trump described the investigation by former FBI director Robert Mueller as "an attempted coup".

Attorney General William Barr meanwhile said he believes US authorities did spy on the Trump campaign.

US intelligence officials have previously said they were spying on the Russians, not the Trump campaign.

What did Trump say?

Speaking to reporters at the White House on Wednesday morning, the Republican president railed against the Department of Justice inquiry into whether the Trump campaign had conspired with the Kremlin to sway the 2016 election.

The investigation cleared him and his aides of collusion, making no determination on whether they had tried to obstruct justice.

Mr Trump said: "This was an attempted coup. This was an attempted take-down of a president. And we beat them. We beat them.

"So the Mueller report, when they talk about obstruction we fight back. And do you know why we fight back?

"Because I knew how illegal this whole thing was. It was a scam.

"What I'm most interested in is getting started, hopefully the attorney general, he mentioned it yesterday.

"He's doing a great job, getting started on going back to the origins of exactly where this all started.

"Because this was an illegal witch hunt, and everybody knew it. And they knew it too. And they got caught. And what they did was treason."

Donald Trump has long been calling for an investigation of the investigators who launched the probe of his presidential campaign. Now, with the help of his recently appointed attorney general, he will get his wish.

William Barr subsequently backed away from his assertion during Senate testimony that intelligence agencies had been "spying" on the Trump campaign, but that may end up beside the point. An inquiry has been started, and the ball is rolling.

Whether this is simply a move to placate an impetuous president or a substantive investigation remains to be seen.

There is no solid evidence, at least at this point, of misconduct in the opening of the Russia investigation or in the warrant targeting Carter Page, the low-level adviser with Russian ties who had left the Trump campaign before he became the subject of government surveillance.

The president, however, will surely cite his attorney general's decision as part of his attempt to undermine any unpleasant information that could be revealed when the redacted Mueller report is finally released in the coming days.

Even an investigation that reaches no actionable conclusions can have a damaging effect - as the president knows all too well.

What did the attorney general say?

While Mr Trump was flying off to Texas, America's top law official was appearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

William Barr was asked whether spying occurred on the Trump campaign during the 2016 White House race.

"I think spying did occur," said the attorney general. "The question is whether it was adequately predicated."

He later clarified: "I'm not saying improper surveillance occurred, I am looking into it."

But Mr Barr said he did not understand why intelligence officials chose not to warn the Trump campaign that it could be vulnerable to infiltration.

He added: "I also want to make clear this is not launching an investigation of the FBI.

"Frankly, to the extent that there were any issues at the FBI, I do not view it as a problem that's endemic to the FBI."

Mr Barr also told lawmakers he will release the nearly 400-page Mueller report next week after he has finished redacting sensitive material.

On Wednesday, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, told the Associated Press: "I don't trust Barr, I trust Mueller."

Mrs Pelosi said that appearing to support Mr Trump's views on the alleged spying had undermined Mr Barr's role as attorney general.

Was the Trump campaign spied on?

President Trump and his conservative allies have repeatedly suggested the Obama administration planted a mole in his presidential campaign to undercut his candidacy.

The former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was asked on ABC in May last year if the FBI had indeed snooped on the Trump team.

He replied: "No, they were not. They were spying on - a term I don't particularly like - but on what the Russians were doing.

"Trying to understand were the Russians infiltrating, trying to gain access, trying to gain leverage and influence which is what they do."

The same day in an interview with CNN, Mr Clapper said: "The objective here was actually to protect the campaign by determining whether the Russians were infiltrating it and attempting to exert influence."

US media reported last year that the FBI sent an informant, an unnamed US academic who teaches in the UK, to speak to two low-level Trump aides, George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, after the agency became suspicious of the pair's Russian contacts.

In March 2017, President Trump made the explosive claim on Twitter that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had ordered phones at his Trump Tower office to be wiretapped during the 2016 White House race.

But the US Department of Justice later said there was no evidence to support the president's claim.

ruby Posted on April 11, 2019 12:53

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Kim Kardashian hopes to become lawyer in 2022 after four-year apprenticeship

Kim Kardashian has revealed she has begun a four-year apprenticeship with a law firm in the US, with hopes of becoming a lawyer in 2022.

The reality TV star says she made the decision to pursue a legal career in 2018.

Last year, she met with President Donald Trump and successfully campaigned to have 63-year-old Alice Marie Johnson released from jail.

She says her experiences at The White House inspired her decision.

"The White House called me to advise to help change the system of clemency," she tells Vogue magazine in a new interview.

Clemency is when someone is pardoned from a crime they are accused of having committed and it is declared that they are not guilty.

In America, the President can grant clemency to anyone convicted under federal law.

"I'm sitting in the Roosevelt Room with, like, a judge who had sentenced criminals and a lot of really powerful people and I just sat there, like, Oh - I need to know more," Kim says.

"I would say what I had to say, about the human side and why this is so unfair. But I had attorneys with me who could back that up with all the facts of the case."

Kim says choosing to pick up a new career was something she had to think "long and hard" about but that she knew she always wanted to "do more".

"It's never one person who gets things done; it's always a collective of people, and I've always known my role, but I just felt like I wanted to be able to fight for people who have paid their dues to society," she says.

"I just felt like the system could be so different, and I wanted to fight to fix it, and if I knew more, I could do more."

As part of her apprenticeship, Kim will need to do 18 hours of supervised study each week and will shadow two mentor lawyers - Jessica Jackson and Erin Haney.

Kim's work with grandmother Alice Marie Johnson secured her release from a 1996 life sentence for cocaine trafficking, when Donald Trump intervened.

He commuted her crime, this means her conviction still stands, but Alice had her sentence swapped for a lighter one.

She was immediately released because of time she'd already served.

In 2017, Kim was among a number of celebrities who spoke in support of Cyntoia Brown.

She was jailed for life in 2006 at the age of 16 for shooting dead a man she said solicited her for sex. Prosecutors said it was robbery.

Other stars including Rihanna, comedian Amy Schumer and NBA star LeBron James also supported her case.

Cyntoia was released earlier this year.

ruby Posted on April 11, 2019 12:30

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Medicare for All: Can Bernie Sanders overhaul US healthcare?

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders is unveiling his vision for a national health care plan that is expected to be adopted by several other leading White House candidates. So what is it?

It's widely known that the US has the most expensive healthcare system in the world, and health outcomes vary according to your means.

President Barack Obama tried to overhaul it. But even after his landmark Affordable Care Act, some 27 million Americans remain uninsured.

His successor in the White House has tried to dismantle that legislation, making healthcare a central issue in next year's presidential election.

Senator Sanders' plan - called Medicare for All - will play a big part in the debate.

So what's in it?

Firstly, what's Medicare?

Medicare is a federally run programme that offers health insurance coverage for Americans aged 65 and older, as well as individuals with certain disabilities or medical conditions. It covers both hospital and medical costs.

The programme is broken up into different plans (called Medicare A, B, C and D) that individuals can select depending on their needs. There are additional private plans available to supplement the basic coverage.

Most still require patients to pay annual premiums as well as deductibles (what patients pay for treatment before insurers step in) and co-payments (fixed cost of a service or prescription) that are set based on rates negotiated by the government with providers. These rates can change year to year.

Many people find they need supplemental insurance coverage even with Medicare, as the programme will only pay for 80% of approved medical costs or for 60 days of hospital care.

As it stands, Medicare is not a single-payer system since private insurers can participate.

What is Sanders proposing?

Medicare for All is a proposal to expand Medicare into a single-payer health system.

That means the federal government would be the sole, nationwide insurance provider for all essential and preventative healthcare.

It is not a universal health care system where the government would own and operate hospitals - instead, the government would pay private providers an agreed upon rate for their services.

Under Senator Bernie Sanders' proposal, first introduced in 2017 and re-introduced in April, Medicare for All would expand Medicare's coverage to include vision, dental, prescription drugs, nursing home care and reproductive health services.

The 2019 update to the plan also includes a long-term care coverage for patients with disabilities - amending one of the criticisms of his earlier plan.

The change also brings Mr Sanders' plan more in line with the version of Medicare for All proposed in the House of Representatives by congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington state.

In four years, Mr Sanders' plan would have the country phase out of private insurance plans so everyone would receive insurance from the federal government.

The Affordable Care Act would also end, as users would be enveloped into the national plan.

Private insurance companies and employers would be banned from selling any manner of duplicate plans for services covered under the government's programme, though plans for non-essential medical services like cosmetic surgery could remain.

Mr Sanders' proposal would see an end to the "cost sharing" that makes up the current system: No deductibles, no premiums, no co-payments for care.

The only out-of-pocket expense under Mr Sanders' plan would be for some non-generic prescription drugs, but any cost to the patient would be capped at $200 annually.

For comparison, US patients in 2016 paid over $535bn for prescription drugs, according to government estimates.

Mr Sanders' Medicare for All would see a new 6.2% tax paid by employers on all wages; estate tax reforms; more taxes on the wealthy; and a 2.2% income tax on personal income with no credits allowed.

Ms Jayapal's plan mostly tracks with Mr Sanders', but also includes provisions to roll out the programme in two years instead of four, offer no out-of-pocket costs at all for prescriptions, and grant the government the ability to issue generic prescription licences to bring down costs if negotiating with companies fails.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders put universal healthcare on the map as a Democratic policy objective, even as Hillary Clinton scoffed that it was an unpractical and unachievable goal.

Now Mr Sanders is no longer a lone voice in the party.

Within the burgeoning field of Democratic presidential hopefuls, however, there are variations on the scope and speed of reform. Some would prefer to add a government-run option within the existing system. Others want to put private insurers out of business.

On Wednesday, Mr Sanders made clear once again he's in the latter camp. The plan the Vermont senator proposes would be more generous than government-run systems in other countries. That may appeal to voters - at least until the price tag is discussed.

Then expect some Democrats to again say enacting such a programme is unrealistic in the extreme. When it comes to healthcare, many Americans are fearful of disruptive change. The current system may be flawed, but its flaws are known.

Mr Sanders, who preaches "political revolution", doesn't do small and incremental, however. He's again cutting a path to the party's left. Can he again convince others to follow?

What are the arguments for Medicare for All?

Everyone is covered

With millions still uninsured - and forgoing care because they cannot afford treatments - Medicare for All would ensure healthcare is a right for all Americans.


The government's bargaining power would drive down healthcare costs, supporters say, pointing out that government health programmes like veterans' health already receive 50% in discounts on prescriptions.

And unlike the current system, where deductibles can be as high as $10,000 for patients before their insurance plans even kick in, Medicare for All would guarantee everyone could afford any care visits and prescriptions.

System consolidation

Medicare for All would remove health insurance responsibilities from employers and states as private insurance and Medicaid would be rolled into the federal plan.

Providers would not need to navigate a labyrinthine system to file reimbursement claims and it would be easier for patients to understand and use the system.

Reducing healthcare spending

Bringing down rates for services and prescriptions would help lower the overall cost of the health system.

Administrative health costs could also be reduced by $400bn under Medicare for All, according to The Physicians for a National Health Program group.

Other analyses have also found that a single-payer plan would ultimately reduce total national healthcare spending. University of Amherst economist Prof Gerald Friedman estimated savings could be between $5.5tn and $12.5tn in the next decade.

One report by the Citizens for Tax Justice advocacy group found that for all but the highest-earning Americans, Mr Sanders' plan would result in an increase in post-tax income.

A study by the conservative-leaning Mercatus Center also found that Mr Sanders' plan would see a $482bn decrease in health spending and $1.5tn in administrative cost reductions, amounting to a $2tn decrease in health spending in a decade compared to current projections.

And what are the arguments against?


A fear of higher taxes is perhaps the biggest reason for pushback against a national health programme.

Under Medicare for All, nearly all residents would see new annual taxes.

Income tax reform would make wealthier Americans pay more: An income between $250,000 to $500,000 would see a 40% tax; an income of over $10m would see a 52% tax.

But some experts worry Mr Sanders' current tax plan would not adequately finance a Medicare for All programme, and that actual taxes could end up being even higher.


Mr Sanders in 2016 estimated his plan would cost $1.38tn per year, while opponents say costs could be double that.

Medicare for All would increase government spending in a decade by anywhere from $25tn to $35tn according to US economists and think tanks.

Both Mercatus and the Urban Institute - institutions that lean conservative and liberal respectively - put 10-year costs at around $32tn.

Pay cuts all around

Private insurance companies would essentially be eliminated. In addition, with the government setting prices, both providers and pharmaceutical companies would also face profit losses.

The Mercatus study noted that for the Medicare for All plan's savings to work, providers must acquiesce to a 40% reduction in reimbursements compared to current private insurance payments.

Decrease in care quality

Tied to profit reductions, opponents say the quality of healthcare could be negatively affected if providers face deficits and disruptions, warning that hospitals could quickly go out of business.

The issue of wait times is also one many Americans are wary of given horror stories of year-long waits for surgeries from the NHS and Canada - opponents say the increased number of patients in the system may overwhelm providers already dealing with budget cuts.

No innovation

Some of those against federal intervention in the health system have cautioned that cutting payments to the health industry would stifle US innovation.

The abortion debate

Under Medicare for All, abortions would be covered by the federal insurance plan - an aspect that will certainly draw criticism from conservative groups who are already outspoken against any federal funding for the controversial procedure.

What's the public opinion?

Support for a national healthcare system has somewhat increased overall, national polls say, but the divide along political lines has deepened.

A Harvard-Politico poll in January found 68% of Americans said working on a plan like Medicare for All should be a top priority for Congress.

The nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) similarly reported six in 10 Americans are in favour of a national health system. But support f

Americans are in favour of a system that covers everyone and ends premiums and out-of-pocket payments, but the idea of higher taxes or wait times for care sees support sharply decrease.

Along party lines, 61% of Republicans polled said they strongly opposed Medicare for All, while 54% of Democrats said they strongly favoured it.

An optional Medicare for All plan that would allow people to retain their current insurance garnered more bipartisan support in the KFF poll, with 74% support overall and 47% support from Republicans.

How does the US compare to other systems?

Firstly, it's a lot more expensive in terms of cash spent.

Most government-funded health plans around the world do require individuals to pitch in, making these Medicare for All proposals more generous than anything currently in place.

An important distinction to make when comparing Medicare for All to systems like the NHS is that this is still not socialised care. In the US, the Veterans Health Administration, for example, operates on a socialised medical system like the NHS, with federally run hospitals.

Medicare for All would move the entire US system into a single-payer, social insurance model - very similar to Canada.

Canada's government funds universal healthcare coverage by reimbursing private providers. Provinces and territories are able to operate their own programmes with varying levels of coverage, so it is not entirely controlled by the federal government.

Under the Canadian system, patients still largely need to pay for their own dental and vision care as well as some prescriptions.

In the UK, in addition to covering the costs of care, the government owns hospitals and employs physicians. Prescriptions in hospital are free and those for outpatients are subsidised, so that patients generally only pay a minimum co-payment - usually around $12 (£9). For some groups, prescriptions are completely free, like those under 16, the elderly or full-time students up to age 18.


ruby Posted on April 11, 2019 12:28

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The US students who want to pay slavery descendants

Students at Georgetown University are voting on whether or not they should pay reparations to the descendants of slaves sold by the institution.

In 1838 the Jesuit university, which relied on financial support from wealthy plantation owners and often received slaves as gifts from prosperous parishioners, had fallen on hard times.

It decided to raise funds by selling 272 slaves to plantations in Louisiana, in a deal worth the equivalent of $3.3m (£2.5m).

Now, students at the elite institution are voting on what could be the first time reparations have been paid directly to the descendants of slaves in the US.

Proponents of slavery reparations argue that America built its wealth off the backs of enslaved people, and in the centuries following emancipation enacted policies to exclude black people from sharing in the wealth of the country.

Lower incomes, worse health outcomes and the higher rates of incarceration currently experienced by the black community are highlighted as vestiges of this history.

'Repay our debts'

The proposal would see all Georgetown undergraduates pay a $27.20 (£21) fee per semester, which will be "allocated for charitable purposes that benefit the descendants" who mostly live in Louisiana and Maryland.

"As students at an elite institution, we recognize the great privileges we have been given, and wish to at least partially repay our debts to those families whose involuntary sacrifices made these privileges possible," the proposal reads.

"As individuals with moral imagination, we choose to do more than simply recognise the past - we resolve to change our future."

Melisande Short-Colomb is the descendent of one of the 272 people sold by Georgetown, and became a student at the university at the age of 63.

"At the bedrock there was slave labour, there was human ownership and bondage," Ms Short-Colomb says, pointing to the grand buildings of the Georgetown campus, which the sale of her ancestors helped to fund.

She is part of the team advocating for the proposal and is hopeful that it will "start a conversation across the country" on the issue of reparations.

"Reparations and repair are important to the whole of America because we are a broken society," she says. "Bridges are falling down - physically, emotionally, mentally - all around us, and we have to repair ourselves."

Hannah Michael, a second-year student, suggests that every student at Georgetown is the "direct beneficiary" of the organisation's slave-owning past, regardless of their personal history.

"I am daughter of two Ethiopian refugees," Ms Michael says. "My parents came to this country about 25 years ago, and have no relation to the slave trade in America."

However, she argues her education is "only possible because of the enslavement and sale of African-Americans".

"Our classes, the beds that we sleep on, the food we eat, the literal foundations of the school were created and maintained by the profit gained from the 1838 sale."

Ms Michael is keenly aware of how the Georgetown vote reflects a broader national conversation, and hopes it will spark more action on the issue.

"[The vote] tells us there are things we can do right now to benefit people who are impacted by the history of slavery.

"I hope people outside the university see that it is possible to grapple with the difficult history of America."

'Totally symbolic'

However not all students agree with the proposal.

Hunter Estes, who is studying international politics, says he thinks the fee is an "arbitrary number" and "an attempt to compound a moral obligation onto the whole student body".

He suggests that any reparations should be "opt-in" to avoid "imposing a moral structure" which he says "crushes an aspect of liberty".

"It is driven by good intentions," Mr Estes says. "But good intentions can't be what defines policy."

Mr Estes suggests the university should focus on providing education to the descendants of the 272 people sold, rather than "throwing money at the problem".

He adds it is "tough to say" if he personally benefits from Georgetown's slave-owning history.

"I am trepidatious about applying a 2019 standard of morality in evaluating history," "If we are constantly apologising about the issues of the past, we'll always find something to apologise about."

Sam Dubke, an international economics student, is worried by some of the practicalities of the proposal.

"The $27.20 figure is totally symbolic," he says. "There is no analysis or systematic investigation of the amount."

He also questions how the roughly $400,000 expected to be raised in the first year will be spent, suggesting it is "not something that can just be done on a whim".

Further, Mr Dubke suggests student action should be directed at the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation set up by the university in 2015 to engage with the university's past.

"We should put pressure on the university administration to take action, rather than relying on students to pay out of pocket."

"Current students are not to blame for the past sins of the institution, and a financial contribution cannot reconcile this past debt on behalf of the university," he wrote in the student newspaper.

Georgetown spokesman Matt Hill told the BBC "student referendums help to express student perspectives but do not create university policy and are not binding on the university."

"Following a formal apology to Descendants, renaming two buildings, and offering Descendants the same consideration in admissions that it gives members of the Georgetown community, we are continuing to deepen our campus' engagement to develop education and programming that will enable all students to meaningfully engage with Georgetown's history of slavery," he said in a statement.

Why now?

Slavery reparations have become a hot button issue in the US recently, as a number of Democratic presidential hopefuls have floated the idea as part of their 2020 nomination bids.

While the level of support for reparations varies between candidates, the migration of the issue from the political fringe to the mainstream reflects a wider shift in US political discourse.

William Darity Jr is a professor of public policy at Duke University, and is one of the leading scholars on reparations in America.

"I am refreshingly surprised that the reparations conversation has become so rich and expansive in the public arena recently," he says.

"To see multiple presidential candidates talking openly about the issue means the conversation we are having is unlike any we have had on the topic before in the United States of America."

Democratic senator, and presidential hopeful, Cory Booker recently introduced a bill to study the possibility of reparations for the descendants of slavery as "a way of addressing head-on the persistence of racism, white supremacy, and implicit racial bias" in the US.

Mr Darity says that this bill could provide a way to analyse how reparations would work.

"We have a court system where when someone is injured... we find a way to assign a value to that. I am always startled when people say we couldn't do something similar for the decedents of slaves."

Mr Darity uses the example of the "40 acres" promised, but never given, to former slaves.

"I have done a computational analysis of the value of the 40 acres of land that slaves were promised. That would work out as around $80,000 for each eligible American."

Mr Darity says that he "admires" the Georgetown students, but has "strong reservations" about "piecemeal reparations", and hopes such local initiatives don't distract from the need for national actions.

ruby Posted on April 11, 2019 12:16

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British woman found dead in Swiss hotel

A 22-year-old British woman has been found dead in the bathroom of a hotel in southern Switzerland, police say.

Her 29-year-old German boyfriend has been taken into custody and reportedly told police that the death was the result of a "sex game" that went wrong.

The victim has not been officially named. Local media say a post-mortem examination has shown she died of suffocation.

The UK Foreign Office said it was offering assistance to the family.

Swiss media said the woman had been staying at the Hotel La Palma au Lac in Muralto, in the district of Locarno, with her boyfriend, who lives in Zurich. She was found dead on Tuesday morning.

Police say they are still investigating the circumstances of the death. Reports say officials are looking into the possibility of an intentional killing.

Some hotel guests told Swiss news outlets that they had heard arguing coming from the couple's room the night before she was found dead.

The UK Foreign Office confirmed it was offering consular assistance to the family following the death of a British citizen.

ruby Posted on April 11, 2019 12:12

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Australia election announced: 10 things to know about the poll

Australians will vote in a general election on 18 May, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced.

The poll will decide whether the conservative government wins a third term or is replaced by a Labor administration led by Bill Shorten.

All 151 seats in the House of Representatives will be contested, and half of the 76 seats in the Senate.

The election is expected to be hotly contested in several areas including climate change and the economy.

"[The election] will determine the economy that Australians live in, not just for the next three years, but for the next decade," Mr Morrison said at a press conference on Thursday.

"We live in the best country in the world, but to secure your future, the road ahead depends on a strong economy," he said. "That is why there is so much at stake."

Here are some key things to know about the vote.

1. Voting in the election is compulsory

Unlike many other global democracies, Australia has mandatory voting for people aged 18 and over - or they risk a fine.

It ensures a high turnout: 95% of people voted in Australia's last election. The most recent US and UK elections, by contrast, drew an estimated 55% and 66% respectively.

Advocates say it depolarises the vote and reduces the influence of lobby groups, though critics dispute this.

2. Leadership 'madness' may haunt the government

Mr Morrison only became prime minister last August after bitter party infighting ousted his predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull.

In doing so, Mr Morrison became Australia's fifth leader since 2013.

"It was a peculiarly Australian form of madness," Mr Turnbull told the BBC in March, speaking about a coup culture which began with Labor in 2010.

It's likely to harm the government's standing with voters, predicts Prof Sally Young, a politics expert from the University of Melbourne.

"They're sick of the sniping and undermining," she says. "Knifing a leader - it never goes down well."

3. Climate change could sway votes - but to what extent?

Australia has just endured a year of extreme weather events, including destructive floods, bushfires, cyclones and a severe drought. The past summer was the nation's hottest on record.

It has made climate change a key election issue in some seats, experts say.

Last year, the government scrapped plans to set an emissions reduction target in legislation - prompting fierce criticism.

"Australia's lack of action [on climate change] internationally is becoming more recognised within this country," says Prof Young.

The University of Sydney's Prof Marc Stears agrees, but says it's unclear how widely it will affect voting decisions.

4. In many ways, the main battle lines are familiar

Prof Stears says the major parties are already talking up their traditional strengths. That's subjects like jobs and infrastructure for the government, and health and education for Labor.

They will compete fiercely on economic issues, with both parties promising policies aimed at reducing the cost of living,

Although Australia's economy is the envy of many countries, wages growth is flat, and there is a generational split in attitudes to house prices.

5. There's much talk about a north-south divide

Mr Morrison is overseeing a minority government, meaning he can ill afford to lose support anywhere in the country.

Political observers say he faces challenges from the left and right - a debate that is often framed in geographical terms.

In the northern state of Queensland, experts say the government fears losing votes to more socially conservative minor parties and independents.

But in Victoria in the south, the electorate is perceived as more progressive. It delivered a resounding victory to Labor in a state election five months ago.

6. Will migration and refugee debates resurface?

During past elections, Australia's major parties have employed tough rhetoric on immigration issues - particularly regarding asylum seekers.

It has often been used to appear strong on issues such as national security, says Prof Stears.c

That debate resurfaced in February, however, Prof Stears believes that last month's New Zealand mosque attacks may see politicians tone down such rhetoric.

7. There are signs of support for minor parties

Prof Young says there is some public cynicism about the major parties, pointing to possible increases in support for other candidates.

High-profile independent candidates have entered key races, and in New South Wales, a recent state election saw rises in minor party support in rural electorates.

8. Is there a risk of foreign interference?

In February, Mr Morrison said a "state actor" had carried out a cyber attack on the parliament and political parties.

Authorities said there was no evidence of electoral interference, but security experts have urged vigilance.

9. Citizenship checks should be water-tight

In 2017, several MPs were disqualified for unintentionally breaking a rule that lawmakers cannot be dual citizens when elected.

Fifteen parliamentarians were ousted, though six later managed to return after relinquishing their non-Australian citizenships.

The saga sparked comprehensive checks of MPs' statuses.

10. What do the opinion polls say?

Opinion polls in recent times have consistently put Labor in front on a two-party preferred basis.

However, those measures also say that Mr Morrison leads Mr Shorten as preferred prime minister.

ruby Posted on April 11, 2019 12:05

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Cate Faehrmann: Why a lawmaker admitted to taking MDMA

Australian Cate Faehrmann may be the world's first politician to admit to having used the illicit drug MDMA. The reaction in Australia, and globally, has surprised her, she tells Gary Nunn in Sydney.

Ms Faehrmann's admission, made in January, has come amid a fierce debate about introducing "pill testing" services in New South Wales (NSW).

Five music festival-goers have died from suspected drug overdoses in NSW since September. It has prompted passionate calls for action - but state lawmakers are divided on what should be done.

Ms Faehrmann, 48, from the Greens party, argues that her opponents have a "limited understanding of the people they're needing to connect with". She says she has taken MDMA (known as ecstasy when in pill form) "occasionally" since her 20s.

"I'm sitting here as a politician with more experience than anyone else in the building," she says, adding: "Maybe not - maybe I'm the only one being honest."

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is opposed to pill testing. She has said that "no evidence [has been] provided to the government" that it saves lives, and that testing would give drug users "a false sense of security".

It would also fail to prevent "the lethal combination" of taking drugs and alcohol, or "the fact that what's ok for one person's body isn't ok for another person's body", according to the premier.

Ms Berejiklian favours a tougher policy approach. Notably, she has vowed to shut down a festival where two people died in September.

Spreading the debate

In January, Ms Faehrmann wrote that it was a "difficult decision" to "come out" about her past drug use. Certainly, her admission generated publicity and discussion.

Australia's opposition leader, Bill Shorten, was among those immediately drawn in. He was asked about drug use at a press conference and responded that he "might have done something in his university days".

A domino effect followed. In the Australian Capital Territory, a string of lawmakers admitted to using illegal drugs: Chief Minister Andrew Barr said he once ate a hash brownie; Police Minister Mick Gentleman said he had used cannabis in his youth; and MP Shane Rattenbury said he'd tried ecstasy once.

The police minister's admission surprised Ms Faehrmann most: "I thought: wow. We've possibly now moved the debate on to a point where previous use is no longer an issue."

Outside Australia, the Philadelphia Inquirer picked up Ms Faehrmann's story, with columnist Abraham Gutman writing that it had taken "a lot of courage".

In her home state, however, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard told the Australian Associated Press that her admission was "reckless" and a "really bad message for young people".

Ms Faehrmann says she received a mostly positive response, notwithstanding one conservative columnist who wrote that she "deserves the boot": "It could've been the end of my political career but... the mainstream media was surprisingly positive."

What's the wider context?

Ms Faehrmann argues that the debate about pill testing must be "put in proportion" to deaths from legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco.

She references a UK study, published in The Lancet in 2010, which found that ecstasy had a fraction of the harm of alcohol. Analysis on the UK's NHS website suggests the study is useful, but a limitation is that alcohol tops the list of overall harms largely because it is legal and widely consumed.

Last week, Australia's National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre reported that almost one in five deadly strokes among people aged 15-44 were linked to methamphetamines, MDMA or other psychostimulants.

Pill testing is being used in some countries, and advocates argue it saves lives. An Austrian study found about half of those who had their pills tested said it would affect their consumption choices.

It was trialled at a festival in the Australian Capital Territory last year: two samples were found to be potentially deadly, and those festival-goers chose to dispose of their drugs.

But others, such as Tony Wood, remain strongly opposed. Mr Wood is the father of Anna Wood, who died in 1995 - becoming Australia's first high-profile ecstasy-related death.

"It was confirmed that the tablet Anna took that night was pure, not contaminated," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation recently.

"Drugs are idiosyncratic, so how will pill testing save lives? It won't."

'Honesty' in politics

Other parents have thanked Ms Faehrmann for opening up constructive conversations with their children.

As for her admission being a world first, British author Johann Hari, who has researched this area extensively, believes it is: "Other politicians have admitted using cocaine and cannabis; I've never seen an MDMA admission. That's partly generational: it's only now that a generation of politicians who have used MDMA is coming up (excuse the pun). But I think this is a first."

Ms Faehrmann says she "very deliberately" didn't confine her admission to her university days, unlike most other politicians who make drug use confessions.

Her view is that voters are attracted to honesty: "They don't want spin [or] people who've lived as advisers their whole life, in a cushioned bubble and not the real world."

ruby Posted on April 11, 2019 12:00

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New York holidaymakers presumed dead in Dominican Republic

A New York couple missing for two weeks in the Dominican Republic probably died after a car accident on the way to the airport, police say.

Two unidentified bodies found in Santo Domingo East match descriptions of Portia Ravenelle and Orlando Moore, according to officials.

Authorities believe the pair crashed early in the morning on 27 March in a rental car.

The bodies have been sent for post-mortem examinations.

According to Dominican Republic National Police spokesman Col Frank Felix Durán Mejia, a woman believed to be Ms Ravenelle was found alive but critically injured on the Las Americas highway on 27 March, the same day the pair went missing.

The woman, found without any identifying documents, was taken to the Doctor Darío Contreras hospital where she spent six days in intensive care before dying on 4 April.

Four days after she was discovered, on 31 March, the body of a man was reportedly retrieved by authorities washed ashore near San Souci.

His remains were in an advanced state of decomposition, police said, and he had a tattoo that read "Milano" on the right arm, matching one known to be on Mr Moore.

The body was recovered about 21km (13 miles) from where authorities believe the couple's car plunged into the Caribbean Sea.

Authorities have not yet been able to identify or recover the car due to poor water conditions.

Although their bodies were found within days of the car crash, family and friends of the couple are only just learning what happened to them, CNN reports.

"She had to die by herself" family friend Franecsca Figueroa told CNN. "When one of us could have been there holding her hand."

Ms Figueroa told CNN she had known Mr Moore for about 25 years.

She described the couple as "happy-go-lucky", "always trying to help people".

The pair, of Mount Vernon, New York, stayed at the all-inclusive Grand Bahia Principe Cayacoa resort in Samaná from 23- 27 March.

They had not been heard from since they began their drive to the airport to return home, according to reports.

Authorities had confirmed that Mr Moore and Ms Ravenelle passed a toll booth on the way to Santo Domingo at 01:41 on 27 March.

ruby Posted on April 11, 2019 11:28

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Is the honeymoon period over for Brazil's Bolsonaro?

Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil's presidential election last October on a platform of change.

He said he would deliver a safer Brazil to appease those worried about rising violence, an economic turnaround after several years of crisis and - perhaps most central to his campaign - an end to old-style corrupt politics which have seen dozens of high-ranking politicians, including a former president, jailed.

For millions of Brazilians fed up with the status quo, the gun-loving former army officer was the only man for the top job despite sexist, racist and a homophobic remarks he made during the campaign.

Reality sets in

While 100 days in office may not be long enough to judge the president's performance, some of his erstwhile supporters are now expressing doubts about his ability to lead the largest democracy in Latin America.

And among his detractors, there is definitely a feeling of "I told you so" after his first months were beset by a series of problems.

Late last month, the president caused outrage by suggesting the armed forces commemorate the start of military rule 55 years ago. His anti-corruption image has been tainted by allegations that his son Flavio was involved in financial scandals and death squads.

And then of course, there was that awkward time during carnival when he posted a video on Twitter of a sex act performed by two men at a street party that he felt was bringing the reputation of the country down.

He has now got the lowest approval rating recorded by a first-time president in the initial 100 days in power since the country returned to democracy in the 1980s.

Lack of change

"The feeling is that the situation is worse than it was before the elections," says Rafael Alcadipani, an associate professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation. "Everyone wanted change in society but the commander-in-chief hasn't shown himself to be capable of delivering any type of change."

"He's failed to show Brazilians confidence in his plan for government," says Roberta Braga, associate director at the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin America Centre in Washington DC. "He's losing a lot of support. It clearly takes time to implement these very complex reforms but Brazilians expected a lot from him."

One of Mr Bolsonaro's campaign commitments was to bring down violence by making it easier for people to own guns. Within a couple of weeks of being sworn in, he had loosened regulations to make it easier to keep guns at home.

This was music to the ears of people like gun club member Natasha Imata, whom I met at LAAD Expo, Latin America's largest security and defence show in Rio de Janeiro last week.

But despite his swift action on gun ownership, Ms Imata thinks that the new president is "not focussed on security".

Her husband Vitor agrees. "His whole campaign was focussed on helping Brazilians but that's not happened. It's been a weak start," he says.

From bullish to confused

Brazil's stock market and currency soared after Mr Bolsonaro's election in what some dubbed the "Bullsonaro wave". But since he took over power on 1 January, signals have been more mixed.

While many in the industry point to a strong economic team led by market-friendly economy minister Paulo Guedes, unemployment levels have remained stubbornly high.

There is also a reluctant acceptance that the government may not be able to push through much-needed reforms such as pension cuts as easily as it had hoped.

"We have serious doubts about the capacity of the government to continue to do these reforms," says Andre Perfeito, chief economist at Necton brokerage in São Paulo. "Bolsonaro's main promise was pension reform. And he's not doing the political job to deliver that."

Others though, are more upbeat.

Walter Maciel is the CEO of independent asset management company AZ Quest: "Most of the old political leaders were not re-elected and went home. There is a major renovation in congress, a new government that was elected by people who desired a huge change, not only in the way the country was led but also in the way that politics was done."

"So you have a lot of new people coming in, many of them coming in without any political experience. Of course there's some kind of externality and undesired volatility but it's part of the learning process," Mr Maciel says.

Change of heart

Government worker Gabriel Moraes voted for Jair Bolsonaro but says he would not do so again. He thinks the president needs to be more statesman-like and has so far failed.

"As a head of state, any message he sends out is a reflection of society today," Mr Moraes argues. "Life in civil society isn't like an army barracks. Sure there has to be order and discipline but there have to be principles, rules and respect too."

But his cousin Alessandra Guadelupe Regondi disagrees. A big fan of President Bolsonaro, she says he represents something very different, something that Brazil needs.

With a military background in her family, Ms Regondi warmed to the politician during the campaign.

His promises of cutting ministries in the government and making it more efficient, for example, appealed to her and she has even got a photo of the two of them together, in pride of place on her bookshelf in the living room.

Ms Regondi does not see any problem with the president's social media habit. "It helps him get closer to the people," she argues.

"Leaders were always from the same parties," she says. "He's a new hope, like Donald Trump was. He went against everything - and still won."

ruby Posted on April 11, 2019 11:26

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‘I’m 35, with two young children – and Parkinson’s’

At 29, Ellie Finch Hulme was diagnosed with a condition often associated with much older people - Parkinson's disease. She decided it wasn't going to stop her living her life the way she wanted to.

Ellie doesn't fit the stereotype of someone with Parkinson's disease, as one of her recent tweets makes clear.

People are often shocked when they meet her for the first time, she says.

"I volunteer in a local charity shop occasionally around the kids and around my work and if I'm trembling, if I have to wrap something up - because anything can set off your tremor - someone will say something like, 'Is it your first day here?' And I'll be like, 'No I've got Parkinson's.'"

They expect someone with Parkinson's to be white-haired and stooping, but Ellie, who lives in Farnham in Surrey, has young onset (or early onset) Parkinson's disease, and was diagnosed before she was 30.

How people react

A survey of more than 2,000 people for Parkinson's UK, to mark World Parkinson's day, found that 87% of people with the condition had faced discrimination or harassment.

More than half (57%) said they had avoided or cancelled social situations because of concerns about how others would react to them.

For more information see Parkinson's Is

She first experienced symptoms when she was training for a half marathon in 2012. At first it was just a tremor in her left little finger, then her left leg started to go from under her as she ran.

Her GP suspected the problem was something called "essential tremor", a movement disorder, but Ellie wasn't convinced. After seeing a neurologist in April 2013 she underwent a series of scans and tests and was finally diagnosed with the condition that August.

By coincidence, in her work as a translator Ellie had been working on a text about one of the scans she herself was given. This led her to suspect she had Parkinson's before it was confirmed.

"I had a feeling that that's what it would be. But a lot of my friends were like, 'No, don't get ahead of yourself, it won't be that, it can't be that.'"

Ellie says it took a long time to accept that she had Parkinson's but one of the hardest experiences was having to break the news to friends and relatives.

"I think it was more difficult for friends and family to accept than it really was for me," she says.

Ellie and her fiance, Tom, had already planned to marry the following March and soon after returning from their honeymoon, Ellie realised she was pregnant.

Image copyright Matthew Quake

"That was intentional," she says.

"We knew we wanted to have kids and we wanted to do it sooner rather than later. In no way was I prepared to sacrifice that because of this condition."

Not many people with Parkinson's disease become pregnant. Although a third of people with the condition get it before the age of 65, only one in 20 get it below the age of 45, and only one in 100 below the age of 40, according to Prof Huw Morris, consultant neurologist at the Royal Free Hospital and professor of clinical neuroscience at University College London.

The symptoms - slower movements, stiffness and sometimes tremors - are caused by a loss of nerve cells in the brain, and a reduction in the amount of dopamine, the chemical in the brain that helps with movement.

Treatment for Parkinson's therefore includes dopamine replacement.

"We think that Levodopa, the main dopamine treatment, is probably safe in pregnancy, but it's difficult to know that," says Huw Morris.

Ellie says she felt extremely anxious throughout the whole of her pregnancy, even though the dose of her medication was reduced.

"It was scary. I was pretty concerned," she says. "I just didn't know how the drugs were going to affect the foetus at all."

In January 2015, Ellie went into labour on the day of her baby shower and gave birth to a son called Charlie three weeks early.

She took the decision not to breastfeed Charlie because of the risk that the drugs would be passed to him through her breast milk - she was told this was higher than the risk of them reaching the foetus had been.

"I found that absolutely heartbreaking," she says. "I always thought that I would breastfeed and I was not able to and it took a long time to get over that."

By this stage Ellie had a tremor in her left arm and hand, which made it harder to bottle feed her son. Holding him on her left side she would bottle feed him with her right hand, but it wasn't easy to keep her arm in a comfortable position - especially when she was doing it in public.

"Bath time was a bit scary," she says. "But I used to do that when my husband was there."

Ellie also struggled with some of the fiddlier baby clothes, such as doing up the poppers on Babygros or getting zips up. She buys shoes with Velcro fastenings to avoid problems with laces.

Twenty-two months after Charlie was born, in November 2016, Ellie gave birth to her daughter, Sophie.

"We were like, 'Let's just go for it, because I'm not going to get any better, so therefore it's probably better to just get through a second pregnancy sooner rather than later.' But obviously not too soon."

She says her reaction to having two small children was probably the same as any parent's.

"It's quite kind of, 'Wow!' A lot of things to deal with, like getting my son weaned off his dummy and then starting his potty training. And obviously, having a newborn, it's a lot to cope with. But it's a lot for any parent," she says. "I've tried not to let having Parkinson's really affect any of what I was doing with the kids when they were little."

Ellie says her children know that she takes medication and her son, now four, has started to ask some questions.

"As he gets older and he's able to understand, and his empathy builds as he grows, I think that it will be easier for me to say, 'This is what doesn't work properly,'" she says. "But they've never once said to me, 'Mummy, why do you shake?'"

The speed at which the disease develops tends to be slower in people with early onset Parkinson's, says Huw Morris. Treatments are very effective, he says, but there is nothing that can stop it in its tracks.

Like Ellie, the actor Michael J Fox was diagnosed with young onset Parkinson's at the age of 29, and he's still acting occasionally in his late 50s.

Ellie says her hopes for the future are mostly the same as any person with children.

"I hope that my children understand all my decisions and the choice that my husband and I made to have them - and I'm pretty sure they will," she says.

"I do hope that I won't be a burden on them, that they won't see it like that, because one day I'll probably need to be cared for, and that's really quite difficult to say, to be honest."

Ellie says she does not spend each day wondering, 'What's my life going to be like?' but takes each day as it comes.

"I think that's the best way to be, to be positive and don't worry about what the future holds, either positive or negative, because you could get run over by a bus tomorrow and it would be totally unrelated to Parkinson's. It's just not worth worrying about."

Ellie says it is frustrating people tend to associate Parkinson's with just one thing - tremors - and are unaware of other symptoms.

"I do have a lot of stiffness in my hand," she says. "So at times when my medicine's wearing off I just can't raise my arm for example and my hand is completely stiff. People don't realise that is one of the main symptoms - and pain as well, and cramps."

Rates of anxiety and depression are also higher in people with young onset Parkinson's disease, according to Huw Morris.

Ellie says the things that have helped her most with her condition are continuing to do plenty of exercise, connecting with other young people who live with Parkinson's and avoiding the temptation to compare herself to others - because each person is different. It's impossible to know whether her condition will progress faster, slower or at the same speed as someone else's.

"It's not like a death sentence," says Ellie. "Hopefully I'll live a fulfilled life with this condition for many years."

All photographs courtesy of Ellie Finch Hulme, unless otherwise indicated. Ellie writes a blog about what life is like as a young mum with Parkinson's disease called PD Mama

ruby Posted on April 11, 2019 11:19

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India election 2019: Voting begins in world's largest election

Indians have begun voting in the first phase of a general election that is being seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Tens of millions of Indians across 20 states and union territories are voting in 91 constituencies.

The seven-phase vote to elect a new lower house of parliament will continue until 19 May. Counting day is 23 May.

With 900 million eligible voters across the country, this is the largest election ever seen.

Some observers have billed this as the most important election in decades and the tone of the campaign has been acrimonious.

Mr Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a historic landslide in the last elections in 2014. He stakes his claim to lead India on a tough image and remains the governing BJP's main vote-getter.

But critics say his promises of economic growth and job creation haven't met expectations and India has become more religiously polarised under his leadership.

The BJP faces challenges from strong regional parties and a resurgent Congress party, led by Rahul Gandhi. Mr Gandhi's father, grandmother and great-grandfather are all former Indian prime ministers. His sister, Priyanka Gandhi, formally joined politics in January.

How has voting gone so far?

The Lok Sabha, or lower house of parliament has 543 elected seats and any party or coalition needs a minimum of 272 MPs to form a government.

Hundreds of voters began to queue up outside polling centres early Thursday morning. In the north-eastern state of Assam, lines of voters began forming almost an hour before voting officially began.

Voters at one polling booth in Baraut - in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh - got a royal welcome with people greeted by drums and a shower of flower petals.

But violence has flared in several places already. One person has died after clashes erupted at a polling station in Anantpur, in southern Andhra Pradesh state. Four others were critically injured in the fight that broke out between workers from two parties, BBC Telugu reports.

In central Chhattisgarh state, suspected Maoists detonated an IED device near a polling booth at around 04:00 local time (23:30 BST) - no injuries were reported.

The mineral-rich state has witnessed an armed conflict for more than three decades and attacks by Maoist rebels on security forces are common. On Tuesday a state lawmaker was killed in a suspected rebel attack.

How big is this election?

It is mind-bogglingly vast - about 900 million people above the age of 18 will be eligible to cast their ballots at one million polling stations. At the last election, vote turn-out was around 66%.

More than 100 million people are eligible to vote in the first phase of the election on Thursday.

No voter is meant to have to travel more than 2km to reach a polling station. Because of the enormous number of election officials and security personnel involved, voting will take place in seven stages between 11 April and 19 May.

India's historic first election in 1951-52 took three months to complete. Between 1962 and 1989, elections were completed in four to 10 days. The four-day elections in 1980 were the country's shortest ever.

Which states are headed to the polls?

On Thursday, the following states began voting, with polling stations opening from 07:00 local time (02:30 BST):

Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Odisha, Sikkim, Telangana, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal, Andaman and Nicobar islands and Lakshadweep.

Polling in some states, such as Andhra Pradesh and Nagaland, will conclude in one day. But other states, such as Uttar Pradesh, will hold polls in several phases.

What are the key issues?

Hundreds of millions of Indians have escaped poverty since the turn of the millennium but huge challenges remain.

Under Mr Modi, the world's sixth-largest economy appears to have lost some of its momentum. Although annual GDP growth has hovered at around 7%, unemployment is a major concern.

Mr Modi's government has been accused of hiding uncomfortable jobs data. In fact, a leaked government report suggests that the unemployment rate is the highest it has been since the 1970s.

Farm incomes have also stagnated because of a crop glut and declining commodity prices, which has left farmers saddled with debt.

Unsurprisingly both parties have targeted the rural poor in their campaign manifestos. The BJP has promised a slew of welfare schemes to India's farmers, while Congress has promised a minimum income scheme for the country's 50 million poorest families.

National security is also in the spotlight this election after a suicide attack by a Pakistan-based militant group killed at least 40 paramilitary police in Indian-administered Kashmir in February. India then carried out unprecedented air strikes in Pakistan.

Since then, the BJP has made national security a key plank in its campaign.

ruby Posted on April 11, 2019 11:10

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Israel election: Netanyahu set for record fifth term

PM Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to secure a record fifth term after almost complete results from Israel's election suggest a new right-wing coalition.

His Likud party is expected to finish with a similar number of seats as ex-military chief Benny Gantz's centrist Blue and White alliance.

But Likud and right-wing allies are set to be the largest bloc with 65 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, local media said.

The 69-year-old premier is facing corruption allegations.

However, the election result means he could become Israel's longest-serving prime minister later this year, overtaking Israel's founding father David Ben-Gurion.

Exit polls had predicted a tight race with no clear winner, prompting both Mr Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to claim victory on Tuesday night.

"It will be a right-wing government, but I will be prime minister for all," Mr Netanyahu told cheering supporters.

"I'm very touched that the people of Israel gave me their vote of confidence for the fifth time, and an even bigger vote of confidence than previous elections.

"I intend to be the prime minister of all citizens of Israel. Right, left, Jews, non-Jews. All of Israel's citizens."

No party has ever won a majority in Israel's 120-seat parliament and it has always had coalition governments.

There were roars of celebration at the election night party for Benny Gantz as the first exit poll was released. His supporters believed Israel was on the brink of a new centre-ground government.

But as the votes were counted overnight, Benjamin Netanyahu's success became clearer. The incumbent PM's Likud party appears most likely to be able to form another coalition government with the help of right-wing nationalist and religious parties.

He said history had given the people of Israel another chance as his supporters, using his nickname, chanted: "Bibi, the King of Israel."

With left-wing and Arab-Israeli parties suffering heavy losses, his win appears decisive, despite the most serious challenge yet to his decade in office.

How was the campaign fought?

Mr Netanyahu, 69, put forward tough messages on security ahead of the vote and it soon became one of the election's key issues.

He also made a significant announcement in the final days of the campaign, suggesting a new government would annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

In a separate controversy on Tuesday, Israeli Arab politicians condemned his Likud party for sending 1,200 observers equipped with hidden body cameras to polling stations in Arab communities.

The Arab alliance, Hadash-Taal, said it was an "illegal" action that sought to intimidate Arabs. Likud said it wanted to ensure only "valid votes" were cast.

Mr Netanyahu's main challenger, Mr Gantz, is a retired lieutenant-general who formed the Blue and White in February, promising to unite a country that had "lost its way".

The 59-year-old former chief of staff of the Israeli military rivalled Mr Netanyahu's tough stance on security and promised cleaner politics.

Mr Gantz's campaign platform referred to "separation" from the Palestinians but did not specifically mention them having an independent state. It also called for continued control over the Jordan Valley and retaining West Bank settlement blocs.

What allegations is Netanyahu facing?

At the end of February, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit informed Mr Netanyahu that he intended to indict him on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in connection with three cases, pending a final hearing.

Now that the election is over, the evidence in those cases is to be turned over to the lawyers of the various parties involved.

The prime minister is alleged to have accepted gifts from wealthy businessmen and dispensed favours to try to get more positive press coverage. Mr Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and says he is a victim of a political "witch-hunt".

A date for the final hearing, at which the prime minister and his lawyers would be able to argue against the allegations, has not yet been set. Mr Mandelblit has said the Supreme Court will determine whether Mr Netanyahu has to resign if he is charged.

There have been reports that Mr Netanyahu will attempt to persuade his potential coalition partners to pass legislation that would grant prime ministers immunity from prosecution while in office.

The Jerusalem Post reports that Likud and four other allied parties, who together will control 61 seats in the Knesset, have made it clear that they will not require Mr Netanyahu to resign if he is charged.

ruby Posted on April 10, 2019 09:11

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Aphantasia: Ex-Pixar chief Ed Catmull says 'my mind's eye is blind'

The former president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios says he has a "blind mind's eye".

Most people can close their eyes and conjure up images inside their head such as counting sheep or imagining the face of a loved one.

But Ed Catmull, 74, has the condition aphantasia, in which people cannot visualise mental images at all.

And in a surprising survey of his former employees, so do some of the world's best animators.

Ed revolutionised 3D graphics, and the method he developed for animating curved surfaces became the industry standard.

He first realised his brain was different when trying to perform Tibetan meditation with a colleague.

Visualisation is a core part of the practice and he was told to picture a sphere in front of him.

Ed told the BBC: "I went home, closed my eyes… I couldn't see a thing and for an entire week I kept trying to visualise this sphere."

He spoke to colleagues and learned that some animators could form mental images so strong they would open their eyes and the image would still be there, so they could practically trace what they could see.

Ed just thought: "That's interesting, it's probably what makes them an artist."

Glen Keane

But eventually Ed realised he was not alone and that, perhaps counter-intuitively, some of the greatest talents in animation could not visualise either.

Oscar-winner Glen Keane, who created Ariel (The Little Mermaid), also has no visual imagery.

Ed told the BBC: "He is truly extraordinary, he's one of the best animators in the history of hand-drawn animation.

"[And] he said that he could never visualise either."

Ed said: "When he first did The Little Mermaid, it's a bunch of scribbles.

"And then it converges, after he works on it for a while, into this gorgeous piece of art.

"And as far as he's concerned, that's the right way to work because it means he's looking deep down inside, for his emotions, and that's what drives his drawing."

Origins of aphantasia

The term aphantasia was coined by Prof Adam Zeman, from the University of Exeter Medical School, in 2015.

He had documented a case of a man who lost his mind's eye in his 60s following a heart operation.

Prof Zeman was then contacted by people who reported never having one and he described the condition as aphantasia in the journal Cortex.

Around one in 50 people is thought to have aphantasia, although exactly what is going on in the brain is still unclear.

Parts of the brain from the frontal and parietal lobes are involved in visualisation and differences at any point in the system could be the cause.

Ed, who co-founded Pixar, had a parting gift for his former employees when he left last year - a piece of homework.

He asked 540 members of staff to take a test of the vividness of their visual imagery.

It showed that the artists were slightly better than technical artists at visualising, but the differences were not that huge.

"It was not a large skew, that's the real issue," said Ed.

The production managers were better than both.

The homework also revealed stark differences between two artists and good friends of Ed's who had worked on Frozen.

One can see an entire movie in his head and play it backwards and forwards and never needs to see a movie twice because he can visualise it.

The other cannot see anything at all.

Lessons from aphantasia

Some people with aphantasia find it a cause of distress.

People have described feeling isolated and alone after discovering that other people could see images in their heads and they could not.

Ed argues aphantasia is not a barrier to success.

He told the BBC: "I think the main message is, 'OK folks you can't use it as an excuse, you can still do good work, regardless of your differences'."

And believes the study clears up misperceptions about the creativity.

He added: "People had conflated visualisation with creativity and imagination and one of the messages is, 'they're not the same thing'.

"The other one I think that people might have assumed, but if you think about it you can see why it's false assumption, is you would think if a person could visualise, they're more likely to be able to draw.

"If you open your eyes and you take out a pencil and pad, how many people can draw what they see? The answer is a very small number, so if you can't draw what is in front of you then why would we expect that you would be able to draw what you visualise?"

Discovering he has aphantasia has also led to some insight into Ed's personal life, because his wife has very strong visual imagery.

He can remember their first date was in a park on the other side of the freeway and that is it. She can describe the whole area.

Prof Zeman, who has led research in the field of aphantasia, said: "I think it's really helpful for people to know that the way they visualise - or not - doesn't define them.

"Although we all have different thought processes, that doesn't link with the quality of what you produce.

"We just all go about it in different ways."

ruby Posted on April 09, 2019 13:55

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US and China edge closer to 'epic' trade deal, says Trump

President Donald Trump says the US has found agreement on some of the toughest points in trade talks with China.

He said a deal could come in the next four weeks, but added some sticking points remained.

The Chinese echoed the optimism, with President Xi Jinping touting substantial progress, according to the Chinese state news agency Xinhua.

The US and China have been in talks since December trying to end a trade war that is hurting the global economy.

Mr Trump said the US and China had agreed on "a lot of the most difficult points" but that "we have some ways to go".

He was speaking from the White House, before a meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He.

The US president said if there was a deal, he would hold a summit with President Xi.

"This is an epic deal, historic - if it happens," said Mr Trump.

"This is the Grand Daddy of them all and we'll see if it happens. It's got a very good chance of happening."

Sticking points in negotiations in recent weeks have included how fast to roll back tariffs and how a deal would be enforced.

Mr Trump suggested at the press conference that some of these persisted.

He said it would be tough for the US to allow trade to continue with China in the same way as in the past, if a deal did not materialise.

'Conflicting signals'

The world's two largest economies imposed tariffs on billions of dollars worth of one another's goods over the past year.

Negotiations between them have continued since a trade truce was agreed in December, but have at times been rocky.

The BBC's China correspondent Robin Brant said that both sides were - yet again - giving conflicting signals.

Mr Liu said the US and China had reached a new consensus on important issues like the text of the economic and trade agreement, Xinhua reported.

While that echoed Mr Trump's comments, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer sounded more cautious. He said there were still some major issues left in trade talks, according to reports.

Mr Brant said there was clearly still significant distance between the two sides on the crucial issue of enforcement.

What's being discussed?

The US accuses China of stealing intellectual property from American firms, forcing them to transfer technology to China.

Washington wants Beijing to make changes to its economic policies, which it says unfairly favour domestic companies through subsidies and other support, and wants China to buy more US goods to rein in a lofty trade deficit.

China accuses the US of launching the largest trade war in economic history, and is unlikely to embrace broader structural changes to its economy.

What's at stake?

Failure to achieve a deal may see the US more than double the 10% tariffs on $200bn (£153bn) of Chinese goods and impose fresh tariffs.

Mr Trump has in the past threatened to tax all Chinese goods going into the US.

The US has already imposed tariffs on $250bn worth of Chinese goods, and China has retaliated with duties on $110bn of US products.

The damaging trade war has already cast a shadow over global trade and the world economy.

ruby Posted on April 09, 2019 13:14

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