Central Asia Caught Up in Power Play Between US, China 

23 minutes ago

In the two most recent U.S. presidential administrations, Central Asia has been caught up in Washington's "strategic competition" with Beijing, experts say. And, they add, that under the presumption that Central Asians share Washington's concerns, the United States, highlighting human rights violations in China's western region of Xinjiang, has insisted the countries in the region reevaluate their relations with Beijing, underplaying the issues that drive policies in Central Asia and China. Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, head of the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh, said Beijing's interests mainly reflect its own focus on security, especially in Afghanistan. China "does not want terrorism or extremist activity to spill over from Afghanistan into China. It wants to prevent terrorism from destabilizing the region," she said. Murtazashvili told a recent hearing of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) that China's engagement with the Taliban should not be mistaken for support. She argued that Washington's failure to achieve its political and military objectives in Afghanistan over 20 years "rattled its more powerful neighbors, especially China, Russia, Iran and Uzbekistan." "Rather than bringing stability, U.S. intervention in Afghanistan spawned the growth of terrorist groups including Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K). China saw this growing instability in the north as creating space for terrorist groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an organization it accuses of fomenting separatism and terrorist attacks inside of China," Murtazashvili told the commission, and it is that belief that drives Chinese policy and regional engagement. While China sees the ETIM as a Uyghur terrorist organization, the U.S. does not, having revoked its designation as such in October 2020. Murtazashvili does not see China rushing to invest in Afghanistan, adding that some of its business projects, including the Mes Aynak copper mine, "have been plagued by problems and have mostly been on hold for years." "First, China wants to make sure that Afghanistan has a functioning government," she said. For long-term investments, Beijing wants Taliban guarantees, not least securing its shared border, preventing violent extremists from entering its territory, and protecting its interests. "This means that the Taliban must give up some members of ETIM to China … and demonstrate that they have a monopoly on violence in Afghanistan. This objective seems increasingly difficult at the current moment as the Taliban face increased threats from IS-K," Murtazashvili said. She emphasized differences between these two Islamist movements: the Taliban claims its focus is only Afghanistan; IS-Khorasan seeks to build a global caliphate. While condemning China's treatment of Uyghurs, Washington ironically shares some of China's goals for fighting terrorism and violent extremism in Afghanistan, Murtazashvili said. Yet Chinese policies, including its treatment of Uyghurs, which the U.S. and rights groups have labeled as genocide, make it impossible for Washington to collaborate. Still, she said, Washington has options. "With a distracted Russia and the de-Americanization of the region, Central Asians have greater agency than at any time in recent history. Thus, a path towards greater U.S. engagement in the region could be through Afghanistan and China's neighbors who are looking for another party that will allow them to continue to play larger powers off against one another. This would help build autonomy of local actors and recognize their increasingly independent foreign policies," said Murtazashvili. Niva Yau, senior researcher at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, told USCC that Beijing believes Uyghur movements "must be completely eliminated, even across official borders, for it endangers unity of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) political system and its functioning as a unified Chinese state." "In Central Asia, this required local law enforcement efforts to disintegrate these networks scattered around the region," Yau said. She noted that China's security interests had been matched by economic enticements. It is the leading provider of cheap loans and grants, including to the region's "weak economies such as Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic." Economic relations In a January 25 virtual summit commemorating three decades of diplomatic ties between five Central Asian countries and China, Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a speech, "No matter how the international landscape may evolve or how developed China may grow, China will always remain a good neighbor, a good partner, a good friend, and a good brother that Central Asian countries can trust and count on," reported Chinese state news agency Xinhua. Xi also said China would "firmly support them (Central Asia) in playing a bigger role on the world stage." In terms of economy, Kazakhstan is Central Asia's largest, making up at least half of the region's trade with China, with Central Asia exporting raw materials such as minerals and crude oil while importing Chinese-made consumer products. "In the past 15 years, exports have been "dominated by two state-managed pipelines: the China-Kazakhstan oil pipeline and China-Central Asia gas pipeline," said Yau. Chinese oil imports from Kazakhstan and gas exports from Turkmenistan to China have grown consistently, but other Central Asian exports, such as gold, copper and coal, are much smaller in scale and often managed by private companies. "The PRC (People's Republic of China) has invested at least $20 billion into the Kazakh oil and gas sector, at least $17 billion into Turkmenistan's, and at least $2 billion into Uzbekistan's," Yau said. With Russia's invasion of Ukraine, she said, Central Asians want to "transition away" from reliance on Russia — which has traditionally been a customer of energy and other raw materials along with a source of remittances from Central Asian migrant labor in Russia — without fostering dependence on Beijing as the price, if China becomes the region's principal client. Where US can step in They need alternatives, so "Central Asian states, who desire regional integration and integration into the global system, should be supported and empowered" by Washington. Without the U.S., Central Asian countries will have to bargain with China from a position of relative weakness. But because Beijing seeks security cooperation, the region has leverage to demand higher-quality investments from China as well as in fulfilling other local development needs. Central Asian states "should be empowered to rethink their transactional relationship with the PRC," Yau argues, including through collaboration with America's Asian allies. "Japan and South Korea already have strong presence in Central Asia." Yau encouraged Washington to support local media and ensure the presence of reliable international news outlets. Both would help provide Central Asia with more credible sources of information and help citizens pressure governments to seek better deals from China while countering Russian disinformation. She also urged Washington to avoid isolating Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. "While it is important to continuously highlight human rights problems and terrorism threats that are associated with the Taliban leadership, the United States will benefit from engaging in a new dialogue with the Taliban under these new regional circumstances." If Uzbekistan and other Central Asian neighbors can accept the prospect of long-term Taliban leadership, Yau suggested, the U.S. should also embrace the vision that a stable Afghanistan could pave the way for enhanced Central and South Asia connectivity, including the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, which India hopes will help plug gaps in its energy supply. Infrastructure and market linkages in the fast-growing markets of India and Pakistan would help these countries diversify their economic partners and further reduce dependence on Russia and China.

UK defers junk food deals, advertisement restrictions

40 minutes ago

China's Xi Bets It All on Zero-COVID Policy 

about 1 hour ago

Chinese President Xi Jinping is staking his political future on the success of an unusually strict zero-COVID policy, experts say, as he comes up for an unprecedented third-term reappointment this year to the Communist Party's top job. China is pursuing a zero-COVID policy while the United States and countries from Europe to Asia are lifting or easing restrictions and living with the coronavirus. "Why does Beijing stick with this approach?" wrote Neil Thomas, China analyst with the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. The World Health Organization has called zero-COVID unsustainable. "The most important reason is that Xi has invested significant political capital in zero-COVID, which is portrayed as a shining example of how the Communist Party delivers good governance to the Chinese people," Thomas wrote. Shanghai, China's largest city at 26 million and a major commercial hub, has been locked down for weeks to stop the spread but recently announced plans to gradually reopen. Analysts say Xi believes the zero-COVID policy will best cap the death toll in a country with relatively weak medical care, including vaccines, compared with many Western countries. Since the start of the pandemic, China's COVID-19 death rate, at 2.34%, is nearly twice the world's 1.2% average of infections that lead to death, according to Worldometer data. "As to which policy is better after all, is it zero COVID or not zero COVID, it's the same as a lot of public policies, (meaning) there will always be a lot of debate," said Huang Kwei-bo, associate professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University in Taipei. "But whether it's good or not we can only turn our heads later and look back." China acknowledges the risk of more deaths from infections. "I have seen reports that, based on new modeling by scientists in China and the U.S., China risks over 1.5 million COVID deaths if it drops its tough dynamic zero-COVID policy," said Liu Pengyu, spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. "In this case, we must adhere to dynamic zero-COVID policy," he told VOA. Xi's political future Xi, general secretary of China's only major political party, was elected as a delegate to the 20th Party Congress in late April, a run-up to his possible reappointment to the top job. The congress is scheduled for the second half of 2022, state-run Xinhua News Agency reports. The 68-year-old leader has been party chair and Chinese president – positions that normally go together – for about a decade. If the party gives him a third term, he would stay in power until at least 2027. The Shanghai government's response to surging COVID-19 cases since April has generated "condemnation from citizens" over "empty store shelves, a lack of access to health services" and rules that "separate infected children from their parents," wrote Amy Gadsden, associate vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang warned this month that China's job market is "complicated and severe" if China sticks to zero COVID. His comment may be a veiled criticism of Xi's pandemic response, Huang said.   Lockdowns in Shanghai, following the same in China's tech center Shenzhen, have sent world supply chains into a tailspin due to labor shortages in shipping, logistics and factory work.   But so far, most Chinese policymakers support zero COVID, at least tacitly, analysts observe. "From what we can see from the outside, he doesn't seem to be in very much danger of not getting a third term," said Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center think tank in Hawaii. "COVID is a problem and zero-COVID policy is prolonging it, but I don't think the COVID problem is necessarily fatal for Xi. It's not clear that a large part of the senior party leadership would favor doing anything much different." The leader's policies outside the pandemic have broad party support, Roy said. Zero COVID success or failure? The Chinese president will spend the rest of 2022 doing everything possible to prove that zero COVID works, experts say. Officials have already avoided severe lockdowns in Beijing despite rising caseloads there, a possible lesson from Shanghai. "China is not a democracy and dissent is not tolerated, but public opinion nevertheless matters," Gadsen wrote. "Xi is in a tough spot as the spread of the omicron variant strains efforts to maintain the zero-COVID policy." Zero COVID runs the risk of failure if even one infected person gets out of line, said Wu Chia-yi, associate professor in the National Taiwan University College of Medicine's nursing faculty. "If the zero-COVID policy is taken really very strictly and if people really don't go outside and don't get infected, then of course it (wouldn't spread), but there would still be cracks," Wu said. Without the policy, China could see as many as 100 million confirmed coronavirus infections, Huang said, citing estimates from Asian media reports. He said that figure would "scare people to death" and could lead to more extensive economic losses.

Supreme Court Limits Review of Some Deportation Cases

about 1 hour ago

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that federal courts cannot revise immigration judges’ decisions in some deportation cases, even when the government made what Justice Neil Gorsuch called “egregious factual mistakes.” The court ruled against a Georgia man, Pankajkumar Patel, who has lived in the United States for 30 years and faces deportation because he checked the wrong box on a driver's license application stating he was a U.S. citizen.   In a 5-4 vote, the majority interpreted the law at issue as limiting courts from considering relief and leaving it up to the discretion of immigration officials to apply in factual dispute cases as to whether someone is eligible for that discretionary relief in removal cases.  “Today’s decision lets immigration officials make discretionary decisions based on totally mistaken assumptions about the immigrant. The official might know they’re false, or it might be based on an honest mistake. But either way, our courts exist to correct such mistakes and allow all people to be treated fairly,” Paul Gordon, legislative counsel at the People for the American Way, told VOA.  Per court documents, in 2007, Patel and his wife, Jyotsnaben, sent an application to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to change their immigration status under the discretionary adjustment of status code, which would have made Patel and his wife lawful permanent residents.  USCIS was aware that Patel had previously checked a box on a driver’s license application falsely stating that he was a U.S. citizen while his petition to adjust status was pending.   It then denied Patel’s application, saying he failed to satisfy the requirements to be legally admissible for permanent residence. He was charged with making a false statement, but the charges were later dropped.   According to filings in the case, Patel said he checked the box by mistake in his license renewal application. His lawyers argued that U.S. officials could not conclude Patel had misrepresented himself as a citizen on purpose as Georgia does not require a resident to be a U.S. citizen to receive a driver's license.  Yet, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security placed him and his wife in removal proceedings.  Today’s ruling was authored by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who said although the U.S. attorney general can allow protection from deportation, people have to first be eligible. And, per previous decisions in Patel’s case, he was ineligible.   “Federal courts have a very limited role to play in this process,” Barrett wrote, adding immigration law “precludes judicial review of factual findings that underlie a denial of relief.”  But Justice Neil Gorsuch parted ways with his conservative colleagues to join three liberal justices in dissent.  He said Monday’s decision will act as a shield to protect the government from the “embarrassment” of having to correct even obvious errors.  “It is no secret that when processing applications, licenses, and permits the government sometimes makes mistakes. Often, they are small ones — a misspelled name, a misplaced application. ... Our case is such a case. An immigrant to this country applied for legal residency,” he wrote.   The government rejected his application, allegedly, based on a glaring factual error, per Gorsuch.  “In circumstances like that, our law has long permitted individuals to petition a court to consider the question and correct any mistake. Not anymore. … As a result, no court may correct even the agency’s most egregious factual mistakes about an individual’s statutory eligibility for relief,” Gorsuch added.   Patel and his wife, Jyotsnaben, entered the U.S. illegally about 30 years ago after leaving India. He applied for an adjustment of status with the support of his employer. The couple have three adult sons.  The Supreme Court ruling means Patel is not able to challenge the possible deportation in court.  “Today’s decision finds a loophole that will likely harm a lot of people. Immigration officials will have less incentive to get their facts right when they know there won’t be a judge checking their work,” Gordon added. 

U.S. to Resume Small, Persistent Presence in Somalia > U.S. Department of Defense > Defense Department News

by C. Todd Lopez, about 2 hours ago

U.S. presence in Somalia, where American forces provide advise-and-assist support, will soon change from an ad hoc model to one of persistent presence, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said.

Report: Global Pandemic Increased Poverty in Africa

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The global pandemic has pushed more than 55 million Africans into extreme poverty and reversed two decades of hard work in poverty reduction on the continent. The Economic Report on Africa for 2021 blamed the growing poverty on job losses, reduced income and the inability of households to manage the risks In a 150-page report launched in Dakar, Senegal, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa said the coronavirus negatively impacted the continent's economy.    Speaking Saturday at the 54th session of the Conference of African Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, Hanan Morsy, deputy executive secretary of the commission, said the pandemic eliminated 20 years’ worth of achievements made in fighting poverty.  “The implication for the continent, one of the most critical implications of COVID-19, has been the reversal of very hard-won gains that the continent has managed to achieve in terms of reducing poverty,” she said. “So, we’ve lost two decades of hard-won gains of reducing poverty in Africa due to the pandemic.”    The economic decline caused by the lockdowns and the restrictions on people and the movement of goods has increased the number of newly poor on the continent by 55 million people and pushed 39 million others into extreme poverty.    Morsy said millions of people are still vulnerable. She said between 30 million and 35 million jobs are at risk of reduced wages and working hours because of reduced demand and enforced lockdowns. “The current reality is that the fiscal deficit has worsened, gender inequality remains significant and has accumulated during the pandemic even worse economic growth in both developed and developing economies are expected to decelerate in 2023,” she said. The report also documents job losses, people earning less and the inability to manage the risks — making them more vulnerable.    African governments have responded to the economic crisis by expanding their fiscal and monetary policies.    Ken Gichinga, chief economist at Mentoria Economics, said Africa needs policies that can bring money to people and stressed areas such as food production, industrial value addition and services.     “So, we need strong fiscal policies and monetary policies, but most importantly, we need policies that encourage business policies that encourage enterprise, which means things like VAT and taxation,” he said. “Those things need to be reduced so that we have money in the pockets of people so that there is demand for goods and services.”  The economic commission researchers say the African Continental Free Trade Area can give countries opportunities to diversify their economies and reduce dependence on external partners and trade with each other more.    Gichinga said African countries need to produce more goods to fashion economic growth.  “We need to get these countries into production,” he said. “There has been a drop not only in productivity but in jobs and in wages. So, being able to bring the 54 countries back into production, that can stimulate the African economy and create jobs.”   Economic experts are calling on African governments to create programs for social protection and provide short-term assistance to the most vulnerable communities. Africa is also encouraged to invest in health protection systems and create a policy for national health emergencies that can stand against future pandemics.

California Church Shooter Was Motivated by Hate, Politics

about 3 hours ago

A gunman in a deadly attack at a Southern California church was a Chinese immigrant motivated by hate for Taiwanese people, authorities said.  The shooter killed Dr. John Cheng, 52, and wounded five others during a lunch held by Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which worships at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, authorities said at a Monday news conference.  Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said the motive of the shooting was a grievance between the shooter, identified as a Chinese immigrant and U.S. citizen, and the Taiwanese community. China claims Taiwan is a part of its national territory and has not ruled out force to bring the island under its rule.  Barnes said the suspect drove to the Orange County church, where he was not a regular attendee, secured the doors and started shooting. The gunman had placed four Molotov cocktail-like devices inside the church, the sheriff said.  Barnes said Cheng, survived by a wife and two children, heroically charged at the shooter and attempted to disarm him, allowing others to intervene. Cheng probably saved the lives "of upwards of dozens of people," the sheriff said.  A pastor hit the gunman on the head with a chair and parishioners hog-tied him with electrical cords. But Cheng was hit by gunshots.  "Understanding that there was elderly everywhere and they couldn't get out of the premises because the doors had been chained, he took it upon himself to charge across the room and to do everything he could to disable the assailant," said Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer.  The Orange County Sheriff's Department tweeted that David Chou, 68, of Las Vegas has been booked on one count of murder and five counts of attempted murder. The suspect lawfully purchased the two 9mm pistols in Las Vegas, said Stephen Galloway, ATF Los Angeles assistant special agent in charge.  The suspect made brief comments when he was taken into custody and then asked for an attorney, Barnes said.  Jerry Chen had just stepped into the kitchen of the church's fellowship hall around 1:30 p.m. Sunday when he heard the gunshots.  Chen, 72, a longtime member of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, peeked around the corner and saw others screaming, running and ducking under tables.  "I knew someone was shooting," he said. "I was very, very scared. I ran out the kitchen door to call 911."  Four of the five people wounded suffered critical gunshot injuries. Orange County Fire Authority official Michael Contreras said two of the wounded were in good condition, two were in stable condition and the status of the fifth patient was undetermined.  "I will tell you that evil was in that church yesterday," Spitzer said.  There is a lot of evidence that the suspect "had an absolute bias against the Taiwanese people, its country, as a Chinese or mainland national," Spitzer said.  The suspect left notes in his vehicle concerning "his hatred of the Taiwanese people," the sheriff said.  Jail records show Chou is being held on $1 million bail. It's not immediately known whether he has a lawyer who can speak on his behalf.  A former neighbor said the California church shooting suspect’s life unraveled after he was nearly beaten to death several years ago.   Chou had been a pleasant man who used to own the Las Vegas apartment building where he lived, Balmore Orellana told The Associated Press.  But Orellana said Chou received a head injury and serious body injuries in an attack by a tenant and he sold the property.  The neighbor said that last summer, Chou fired a gun inside his apartment. No one was hurt, but he was evicted.  Orellana says Chou’s mental ability seemed to diminish in recent months. He was angry that the government didn’t provide comfort in his retirement, and he may have been homeless.  The church was cordoned off Monday with yellow police tape, and several bouquets of flowers were left outside the church grounds.  But on Sunday afternoon, Chen said he was in such a state of shock that he was unable to tell the operator his location when he called 911 from the church's parking lot.  "I had to ask someone else for the address," he said.  Chen said a group of about 40 congregants had gathered in the fellowship hall for a luncheon after a morning service to welcome their former pastor, Billy Chang, a beloved and respected community member who had served the church for 20 years. Chang moved back to Taiwan two years ago. This was his first time back stateside, Chen said.  "Everyone had just finished lunch," he said. "They were taking photos with Pastor Chang. I had just finished my lunch and went into the kitchen."  That was when he heard the gunshots and ran out.  "It was amazing how brave (Chang) and the others were," he said. "This is just so sad. I never, ever thought something like this would happen in my church, in my community."  Most of the church's members are older, highly educated Taiwanese immigrants, Chen said.  "We're mostly retirees, and the average age of our church is 80," he said.  Orange County Undersheriff Jeff Hallock praised the parishioners' quick work to detain the gunman.  "That group of churchgoers displayed what we believe is exceptional heroism and bravery in intervening to stop the suspect. They undoubtedly prevented additional injuries and fatalities," Hallock said. "I think it's safe to say that had people not intervened, it could have been much worse."  The shooting came a day after an 18-year-old man shot and killed 10 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York.  As news of the shooting broke on the heels of the racist rampage in Buffalo — where the white gunman allegedly targeted a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood — fear spread that the Taiwanese congregation had also been targets of a hate crime.  Laguna Woods was built as a senior living community and later became a city. More than 80% of residents in the city of 18,000 people about 80 kilometers southeast of Los Angeles are at least 65. The shooting was in an area with a cluster of houses of worship, including Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist churches and a Jewish synagogue.  Those wounded by gunshots included four Asian men, ages 66, 75, 82 and 92, and an 86-year-old Asian woman, the sheriff's department said.  It was not immediately clear whether all of the victims were of Taiwanese descent.  Tensions between China and Taiwan are at the highest in decades, with Beijing stepping up its military harassment by flying fighter jets toward the self-governing island. China has not ruled out force to reunify with Taiwan, which split from the mainland during a civil war in 1949.  Taiwan's chief representative in the U.S., Hsiao Bi-khim, offered condolences to the families on Twitter.  "I join the families of the victims and Taiwanese American communities in grief and pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded survivors," she wrote on Sunday.  The deadliest shooting inside a U.S. church was in 2017 in Sutherland Springs, Texas. A gunman opened fire during a Sunday service at First Baptist Church and killed more than two dozen people.  In 2015, Dylann Roof fired dozens of bullets during the closing prayer of a 2015 Bible study session at Charleston's Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina. Nine members of the Black congregation were killed in the racist violence, and Roof became the first person in the U.S. sentenced to death for a federal hate crime. His appeal remains before the Supreme Court.   

Uber Bolsters Platform for Post-pandemic Life 

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Uber said Monday it is revving up to be a "go anywhere and get anything" service, testing delivery robots, weaving in Google voice commands and more as people shed their pandemic lifestyles.    The San Francisco-based tech firm unveiled enhancements to its platform as it navigates tough economic conditions but looks to ride a busy travel season.  "After two years of pandemic living, 2022 is looking like a sea change," said Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.    "One of the busiest travel seasons is upon us, a record-breaking number of weddings will be held this year, and climate is at the center of the global conversation." The suite of products unveiled by Uber was intended to help users "go anywhere and get anything," he added, building on Uber's goal of being an app used for far more than simply summoning rides.  "Today, we're talking a lot about travel and reconnecting with places and people you care about," Uber Rides head of product Jen You told AFP. "But broadly speaking, we want to be your daily one-stop shop for anything, whether it's for travel, work, social, even personal errands."    Uber is testing autonomous, electric delivery robots in Los Angeles to shuttle orders from local merchants to customers in neighborhoods, Khosrowshahi said.    The delivery bots are part of an Uber goal for every ride in North America and Europe to be electric-powered by the year 2030.  Uber laid out how it is further meshing its food delivery and ride services by letting riders use the app to have orders waiting at airport or sports stadium restaurants upon arrival in a smattering of locations.    Uber said it is also weaving in the ability to let users connect Google mail, calendar and digital assistant features into the app to enable voice commands or get help with arranging travel.    "These are all part of the ultimate vision to have more touch points with consumers across their daily activities," You said.  Along with its rides service, Uber has an Eats food delivery arm that boomed during the pandemic and a Freight platform that matches truckers with shipments in a way similar to how it pairs passengers with drivers. 

Buffalo Shooter Planned More Killings, Police Commissioner Says

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The white teenage gunman accused of killing 10 Black people in a racist frenzy at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store would have kept on killing if he had escaped the scene, the city's police commissioner said Monday.  The gunman, identified as Payton Gendron, 18, had talked about gunning down more people at another store if he'd been able to flee the Tops Friendly Market where he allegedly shot 13 people, 11 of them Black, Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia told CNN.  "He was going to get in his car and continue to drive down Jefferson Avenue and continue doing the same thing," the Buffalo police official said.  The Saturday afternoon mayhem unfolded in a predominantly Black neighborhood in the northeastern U.S. city, an attack that some authorities are describing as a hate crime fueled by what they contend was the shooter's rage at nonwhite people and the racist theory that nonwhite immigrants are moving to the United States to replace white people.  Police say Gendron drove 320 kilometers from his home in Conklin, New York, fired an AR-15-style rifle during the attack, wore body armor, and used a helmet camera to livestream the carnage on the internet.   Investigators are studying a racist 180-page document, purportedly written by Gendron, that said the assault was intended to terrorize all nonwhite, non-Christian people and get them to leave the United States.   Federal prosecutors said they are contemplating federal hate crime charges in the case.  The mass killing was the latest in a string of them in the U.S. in recent years, although the first one in 2022. Just as in the aftermath of other such horrific scenes of violence, some U.S. politicians called for tighter gun controls. Such pleas in the past have not generated significant gun ownership changes, however, with gun rights advocates rallying to uphold the constitutional guarantee of owning weapons.  U.S. President Joe Biden deplored the Buffalo killings and plans, along with first lady Jill Biden, to visit the city of 255,000 on Tuesday.  At the White House, the U.S. leader paid tribute to one of the victims, security guard and retired police officer Aaron Salter. Salter fired repeatedly at the attacker, hitting his armor-plated vest at least once before being shot and killed.  Biden said Salter "gave his life trying to save others."   Portions of a video circulating online showed the gunman killing multiple shoppers in less than a minute. At one point, the video shows him pointing his weapon at a white person cowering behind a checkout counter, but says, "Sorry!" and doesn't shoot.  Gendron surrendered to police who confronted him in the supermarket's vestibule. He was arraigned on a murder charge pending further court proceedings in the coming days.  U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres condemned the shooting, with his spokesman saying Sunday that Guterres was "appalled" by the "vile act of racist violent extremism in Buffalo." Some material in this report came from The Associated Press.   

What is the Lag BaOmer pilgrimage?

about 5 hours ago

Antidepressants during pregnancy are unlikely to cause seizures in kids later

by Amanda Chambliss-Indiana, about 6 hours ago

Taking antidepressants during pregnancy does not appear to cause seizures in newborn babies or epilepsy in children, a new study shows.

'Gold standard' star holds a record number of elements

by Morgan Sherburne-Michigan, about 6 hours ago

Astronomers have been able to identify the widest range of elements in a star beyond our solar system yet in a Milky Way star called HD 222925.

Howitzers Proving Very Effective Against Russians, DOD Official Says > U.S. Department of Defense > Defense Department News

by David Vergun, about 6 hours ago

The 155 mm M777 towed howitzers supplied by the U.S. and other types supplied by ally and partner nations to Ukraine are having a big impact on the battlefield, a senior Defense Department official said.

Exiled Uyghurs Fear China’s Reach

about 6 hours ago

Amannisa Abdulla is raising her two children, ages 9 and 4, without her husband. The 34-year-old Uyghur woman said her husband, Ahmed Talib, who is also Uyghur, was deported to China four years ago from the United Arab Emirates where he was working at the time. “Interpol in the UAE called me and said they deported my husband on February 27, 2018,” Abdulla told VOA. She said her husband had not committed any crimes. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is believed to have targeted hundreds of other Uyghurs through similar methods in recent years, according to a new report, creating what researchers say is a complex system that allows Beijing to carry out its repressive policies overseas. “China operates a global dragnet spanning 44 countries,” said Bradley Jardine, author of the Woodrow Wilson Center report “The Great Wall of Steel: China’s Global Campaign to Suppress the Uyghurs,” which details Beijing’s pursuit of Uyghurs around the world who have fled China. The report said that since 1997, “the People’s Republic of China has engaged in transnational repression in 44 countries.” As of January 2022, there were “1,574 publicly reported cases of detentions and refoulements of Uyghurs to China, where they faced imprisonment and torture in police custody.” The report said there have been “5,532 additional cases of China’s government targeting Uyghurs abroad using intimidation and harassment to monitor and silence them.” Jardine said that in addition to utilizing Red Notices — an alert circulated worldwide by the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) regarding missing persons, people wanted for serious crimes, possible threats and other information — China has also used “everyday” tactics, including digital threats such as phishing attacks, malware and coercion via threats to relatives in Xinjiang. Jardine added that China is most active in countries with weak rules of law and a lack of judicial transparency. “Although China signs extradition treaties with partner states these are rarely invoked, instead, compliant states are more likely to accuse Uyghur residents of violating the terms of their immigration visas on dubious grounds and have them deported, which involves less bureaucracy and draws less international attention,” he said. In an email to VOA, Liu Pengyu, the Chinese Embassy spokesperson in Washington, said he was “unaware” of the report and its findings of harassment and detention of Uyghurs and Kazakhs abroad. He said that Xinjiang is China’s own affair. “We are firm in upholding national sovereignty, security and development interests. We would like to point out to those rumor makers that their lies have long been exposed. They will never succeed in obstructing the stability, development and prosperity of China's Xinjiang, and their ill intention will only end up in failure.” Liu told VOA. “We also urge the relevant think tank and scholar to stop making up and spreading rumors, and stop misleading the public,” Liu said, referring to the Wilson Center and Jardine. Barbaric torture Last December, following a series of hearings about China’s treatment against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region, the Uyghur Tribunal, an unofficial London-based independent people’s tribunal, concluded that it was “satisfied as set out previously that within the PRC’s penal system, barbaric, cruel and sadistic torture was perpetrated.” The tribunal stated that “President Xi Jinping, Chen Quanguo and other very senior officials in the PRC and CCP bear primary responsibility for acts that have occurred in Xinjiang.” Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, requested the independent tribunal in 2020. For 20 years, his name was on an Interpol Red Notice. He told VOA that he had felt helpless and embarrassed for the inclusion and was considered a criminal in many countries and institutions. His name was eventually deleted from the notice. “The Chinese government has put this politically charged label on me, and this had prevented me from entering different countries and led to my detention and interrogation in South Korea, Italy, Turkey, the USA and Switzerland,” Isa said. Deportation Abdulla told VOA that on February 9, 2018, “the local police (in Xinjiang) came to my husband’s brother’s house and demanded Talib should send them a police clearance certificate from the UAE police.” Abdulla said the day after applying for the document on a UAE government website, her husband “received a text message from UAE police authorities urging him to visit the local police in Sharja.” She said her husband’s visit to UAE police was a “trap” that would eventually send him back to China. Talib was moved to Dubai, where police “took his DNA, took his blood and his urine,” Abdulla said. “They did these according to China’s request, as my husband told me.” Abdulla said Interpol did not answer her questions about why her husband was deported. “They said whatever crime he committed, he will take care of it in China. They said If he didn’t commit any crime, then he can come back to you after making things in China correct,” she said. Interpol and Red Notices When VOA reached out to the Interpol General Secretariat regarding Talib’s case, its press office responded by saying Interpol offices in each member country “can interact and share information directly without any involvement with the General Secretariat” and directed VOA to contact the Interpol office in the UAE, which is under the jurisdiction of the country’s Ministry of Interior. VOA did not receive a response about Talib’s case from the UAE Ministry of Interior after repeated attempts to reach out to them. When asked about China allegedly using Interpol Red Notices to target Uyghurs, the Interpol press office responded to an email to VOA and said each member country determines “what legal value it gives to a Red Notice and the authority of their law enforcement officers to make an arrest.” Each Red Notice is reviewed by a task force and a notice is only released if it is in line with Interpol’s constitution that states it “is strictly forbidden for the organization to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character,” explained Interpol’s press office by quoting its constitution. “Whenever new and relevant information is brought to the attention of the General Secretariat after a Red Notice has been published, the task force reexamines the case.” Seeking safety Abdulla said the last time she talked to her husband, he instructed her to find safety in Turkey if anything happened to him. It was there that she learned he was in prison in Xinjing. Although she received refugee status in Turkey, she still fears for her children’s safety. “A few weeks ago, I and my daughter survived a hit-and-run accident, and my son ran away after he was dragged into a black car by a stranger in front of his school,” Abdulla told VOA. She believes that these attacks were retribution from China for her testimony to the Uyghur Tribunal and for talking to the media about her husband’s deportation.

How media reports of 'clashes' mislead Americans about Israeli-Palestinian violence

about 6 hours ago

Taliban Say No Christians Live in Afghanistan; US Groups Concerned

about 7 hours ago

Husain Andaryas was a religious fighter in the war against the invading Soviet army in Afghanistan in the early 1980s, but almost a year after the Soviets left, he converted to Christianity. For the next nine years, Andaryas wandered in several regional countries, suffered torture, and was finally offered a job at a church in Virginia, enabling him to migrate to the United States. Now from his home in Tennessee, Andaryas runs a daily live show on YouTube and Facebook preaching Christianity in the Dari and Pashto languages.   “We have an Afghan church here in Tennessee which has 15 members,” Andaryas told VOA, “And we have other, larger, Afghan churches in Kentucky, Los Angeles and elsewhere.”   Andaryas said many of the churchgoing Afghans resettled in the U.S. after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan last year.   Last month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) called on the U.S. State Department to designate the Taliban’s de facto government a “country of particular concern.” The designation will result in further financial and travel sanctions against Taliban officials. “Reports indicate that the Taliban continue to persecute religious minorities and punish residents in areas under their control in accordance with their extreme interpretation of Islamic law,” USCIRF said in a report.   More than 85% of Afghanistan’s 38 million population are Sunni Muslims, about 12% are Shia Muslims, and small numbers of other religious minorities such as Sikhs, Hindus and others live there, according to various estimates.   Amid widespread concerns about systemic and targeted attacks by Islamic State’s Khorasan Branch on Shias, Sikhs and Hindus, International Christian Concern (ICC), a U.S.-based non-government organization, says Afghan Christians are particularly under threat.    “ICC is in direct communication with a number of families currently hiding from the Taliban. Some are in quite a serious situation, with the Taliban conducting sweeps of entire neighborhoods or districts,” Claire Evans, ICC’s Middle East program manager, told VOA. Thousands of converts The only known Afghan Jew, Zebulon Simentov, left his native country in September.   Around the same time, hundreds of fearful Afghan Sikhs and Hindus also left the country. A once thriving community of about 250,000 individuals, now fewer than 300 Sikhs and Hindus are reportedly left in Afghanistan.   There is no official data available about Christianity in Afghanistan, but USCIRF, quoting ICC, has reported 10,000 to 12,000 Christian converts in the Muslim country.    “They are deeply afraid and heavily targeted by the Taliban. If they are caught, their lives and that of their loved ones are at immediate risk,” Evans said about Christians in Afghanistan. The USCIRF has called on the U.S. government to create a legal resettlement program for the religious groups that are at extreme risk of persecution by the Taliban.   The U.S. government evacuated more than 124,000 Afghans in 2021 out of concern that the Taliban would target them because of their affiliation with the U.S. and its NATO allies.   Washington has refused to recognize the de facto Taliban government but maintained diplomatic contacts with Taliban officials to evacuate U.S. citizens and permanent residents from Afghanistan.   “Practically speaking, it's hard to evacuate people who for whatever reason, must stay hidden. Navigating this challenge is hard in the best of circumstances, and Afghanistan challenged every existing protocol. We hope that lessons learned can help global actors improve how they aid Christians under such trying circumstances,” said Evans.   Taliban denial Even raising the evacuation of Afghan Christians with Taliban officials will be problematic and potentially risky.   “There are no Christians in Afghanistan. Christian minority has never been known or registered here,” Inamullah Samangani, a Taliban spokesman, told VOA.   “There are only Sikh and Hindu religious minority in Afghanistan that are completely free and safe to practice their religion,” he added.   Samangani did not specify what the Taliban will do if they find Afghans who have converted to Christianity, but quitting Islam has always been considered apostasy and punishable by law in Afghanistan.   In 2006, an Afghan man, Abdul Rahman, who had converted to Christianity was sentenced to death by a court in Kabul but flown to Italy after intense diplomatic pressure from the U.S. government.

Official numbers may miss 20% of COVID deaths

by Jillian McKoy-Boston U., about 7 hours ago

The United States has just marked one million deaths from COVID-19. But a new study suggests that the true count is closer to 1.2 million deaths.

May 16, 2022

about 7 hours ago

A look at the best news photos from around the world.

US Supreme Court Rules for Sen. Cruz in Campaign Finance Case

about 8 hours ago

The Supreme Court's conservative majority on Monday sided with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in his challenge to a provision of federal campaign finance law, in a ruling that a dissenting justice said runs the risk of causing "further disrepute" to American politics. The justices, in a 6-3 decision that divided the court along ideological lines, agreed that the somewhat obscure section of the law violates the Constitution. The decision comes just as campaigning for the 2022 midterm elections is intensifying. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority that the provision "burdens core political speech without proper justification." The Biden administration had defended the provision as an anti-corruption measure, and in a dissent Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the majority, in striking it down, "greenlights all the sordid bargains Congress thought right to stop." She said the decision "can only bring this country's political system into further disrepute." The case may be important for some candidates for federal office who want to make large loans to their campaigns. But the administration has also said that the great majority of such loans are for less than $250,000 and therefore the provision Cruz challenged does not apply. The case involves a section of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. The provision says that if a candidate lends his or her campaign money before an election, the campaign cannot repay the candidate more than $250,000 using money raised after Election Day. The loans can still be repaid with money raised before the election. Cruz argued that makes candidates think twice about lending money because it substantially increases the risk that any candidate loan will never be fully repaid. A lower court had agreed the provision was unconstitutional. Cruz, who has served in the Senate since 2013 and ran unsuccessfully for president in 2016, lent his campaign $260,000 the day before the 2018 general election for the purpose of challenging the law. The government has said that in the five election cycles before 2020, candidates for Senate made 588 loans to their campaigns, about 80% of them under $250,000. Candidates for the House of Representatives made 3,444 loans, nearly 90% under $250,000. The case is Federal Election Commission v. Ted Cruz for Senate, 21-12.

Countries step up global fight against COVID-19

by Leigh Hartman, about 8 hours ago

Dozens of nations, private sector groups and nonprofits recently announced new contributions to the global fight against COVID-19.

Bacteria that 'record' data can check gut health

by Fabio Bergamin-ETH Zurich, about 9 hours ago

Modified bacteria that can log data about their surroundings may be a good way to non-invasively get information about gut health, research in mice shows.

First plants grow in soil from the moon

by Samantha Murray-Florida, about 9 hours ago

"For years, we were asking this question: Would plants grow in lunar soil," says Rob Ferl. "The answer, it turns out, is yes."

Officials: Biden Approves Redeployment of Some Ground Troops to Somalia

about 9 hours ago

U.S. President Joe Biden has authorized the redeployment of several hundred American troops into Somalia, two U.S. officials said on Monday, after Donald Trump ordered their withdrawal during his presidency. Prior to Trump's withdrawal, the United States had about 700 troops in Somalia focused on helping local forces defeat the al Qaida-linked al Shabab insurgency. "President Biden has approved a request from the Secretary of Defense to reestablish a persistent U.S. military presence in Somalia to enable a more effective fight against al Shabab," a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said. "This is a repositioning of forces already in theater who have traveled in and out of Somalia on an episodic basis since the previous administration made the decision to withdraw," the official added. Al Qaeda-linked insurgent group al Shabab is seeking to topple the government and establish its own rule in Somalia based on its strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. Al Shabab frequently carries out bombings in Mogadishu and elsewhere as part of its war against the Horn of Africa country's central government. Somalia has endured conflict and clan battles with no strong central government since the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. The government has little control beyond the capital and the African Union contingent guards in an Iraq-style "Green Zone." While the United States did not have troops in Somalia since Trump ordered their withdrawal in December 2020, the military has occasionally carried out strikes in the country and has had troops in nearby countries.

Can this soil microbe boost artificial photosynthesis?

by Glennda Chui-Stanford, about 11 hours ago

"This bacterial enzyme is the most efficient carbon fixer that we know of, and we came up with a neat explanation of what it can do."

Stimulus cash does the most when it goes to people who spend it

by U. Chicago, about 11 hours ago

To get the most bang for the buck, the government should send stimulus to households that are most likely to spend it, researchers report.

Assassination Plot Claim Prompts Pakistan to Boost Security for Ex-PM Khan

about 11 hours ago

Pakistan has ordered enhanced personal security for former prime minister Imran Khan, a day after he repeated his claim at a massive rally that there was a plot to assassinate him. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s office said Monday he had directed federal and provincial authorities to provide “foolproof security” to his predecessor during his appearances at public rallies and gatherings. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has organized massive anti-government rallies across the country since early last month when the cricketer-turned-politician was ousted in an opposition-led parliamentary no-confidence vote and replaced by Sharif. “A plot is being hatched against me in Pakistan and abroad. They are plotting to kill Imran Khan,” the former prime minister told a rally in the central city, Faisalabad, on Sunday night. “I have recorded a video message and kept it in a safe place. If something happens to me, God forbid, this video will be made public, where I have exposed everyone involved in the plot,” Khan said without elaborating. The deposed prime minister has been demanding new elections, accusing the United States of conspiring with his political opponents to bring down his nearly four-year-old government. Khan levelled the allegations while he was in office, citing a ciphered message from the then-Pakistani ambassador in Washington, Asad Majid Khan. The allegations form a central part of speeches Khan has made at his recent public rallies. The deposed leader maintains he was punished for pursuing an independent foreign policy and ignoring Washington’s advice against visiting Russia. Khan met President Vladimir Putin on February 24, when Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Washington has persistently rejected the charges as not true and reiterated its stance last week. “We are not going to let propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation – lies – get in the way of any bilateral relationship we have, including with the bilateral relationship we have with Pakistan, one we value,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told a regular news conference last week. Sharif and his nascent government also vehemently deny Khan’s foreign conspiracy charges as politically motivated. Khan has vowed to gather hundreds of thousands of people in the national capital, Islamabad, later this month for a sit-in protest until fresh elections are announced. The political uncertainty has led stocks to tumble. The Pakistani rupee is at a record low and foreign exchange reserves have rapidly depleted, adding pressure on the beleaguered Sharif government, a coalition of political parties.

Catholic Leader Blasts Israeli Conduct at Al Jazeera Journalist Funeral 

about 12 hours ago

The top Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land on Monday condemned the police beating of mourners carrying the casket of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, accusing the authorities of violating human rights and disrespecting the Catholic Church. Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa told reporters at St. Joseph Hospital in Jerusalem that Friday's incident, broadcast around the world, was a "disproportionate use of force" to the Palestinian flag-waving crowd of thousands proceeding from the hospital to a nearby Catholic church in Jerusalem's Old City. The attack drew worldwide condemnation and added to the shock and outrage of Abu Akleh's killing as she covered a shootout in the occupied West Bank. The police attack, Pizzaballa told reporters, "is a severe violation of international norms and regulations, including the fundamental human right of freedom of religion, which must be observed also in a public space." He spoke as the leaders and clergy of other Christian churches sat nearby. There was no immediate Israeli response. Israel and the Palestinians are locked in a war of narratives over Abu Akleh's killing. The reporter, a Palestinian-American, a Catholic and a 25-year veteran of the satellite channel, was shot Wednesday while covering an Israeli military raid in the Jenin refugee camp. She was wearing a blue vest clearly marked "Press." Abu Akleh was a household name across the Arab world, known for documenting the hardship of Palestinian life under Israeli rule. Palestinian officials and witnesses, including journalists who were with her, say she was killed by army fire. The military, after initially saying Palestinian gunmen might have been responsible, later backtracked and now says it is not clear who fired the deadly bullet. The funeral violence caused another international uproar, with the United States and the United Nations among Israel's critics. Israeli police have claimed that they agreed with funeral arrangements ahead of time with Abu Akleh's family, and that a crowd of mourners violated that agreement by marching with the coffin, instead of driving with it, and shouting nationalistic slogans. But Abu Akleh's brother, Anton, disputed those claims. He said Monday that the family had given the funeral arrangements to Israeli police and that they did not want slogans or Palestinian flags. But he said "this is something we cannot control." Anton, who was one of the pallbearers, said police also wanted to know the funeral route, and there was no other agreement. "We wanted to put the coffin in the car," he said. "We were going to the car when they attacked us." Israeli police launched an investigation into the conduct of the officers who attacked the mourners, causing the pallbearers to nearly drop the casket. Israel and the Palestinians have continued to argue over the investigation into the shooting. Israel has sought the bullet, saying it must be analyzed by ballistics experts to reach firm conclusions. Palestinian officials have refused, saying they don't trust Israel. Human rights groups say Israel has a poor record of investigating wrongdoing by its security forces. After earlier saying they would accept an outside partner, the Palestinians said late Sunday that they would handle the investigation alone and deliver results very soon. "We also refused to have an international investigation because we trust our capabilities as a security institution," Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh announced. "We will not hand over any of the evidence to anyone because we know that these people are able to falsify the facts." Amid the wrangling, several research and human rights groups have launched their own investigations. Bellingcat, a Dutch-based international consortium of researchers, published an analysis of video and audio evidence gathered on social media. The material came from both Palestinian and Israeli military sources, and the analysis looked at such factors as time stamps, the locations of the videos, shadows and a forensic audio analysis of gunshots. The group found that while gunmen and Israeli soldiers were both in the area, the evidence supported witness accounts that Israeli fire killed Abu Akleh. "Based on what we were able to review, the IDF [Israeli soldiers] were in the closest position and had the clearest line of sight to Abu Akleh," said Giancarlo Fiorella, the lead researcher of the analysis. Fiorella acknowledged that the analysis cannot be 100% certain without such evidence as the bullet, weapons used by the army and GPS locations of Israeli forces. But he said the emergence of additional evidence typically bolsters preliminary conclusions and almost never overturns them.

EU Cuts Eurozone Growth Forecast As Ukraine War Bites

about 12 hours ago

The European Commission on Monday sharply cut its eurozone growth forecast for 2022 to 2.7 percent, blaming skyrocketing energy prices caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The war also spurred the EU's executive to revisit its eurozone inflation prediction for 2022, with consumer prices forecast to jump by 6.1 percent year-on-year, much higher than the earlier forecast of 3.5 percent. "There is no doubt that the EU economy is going through a challenging period due to Russia's war against Ukraine, and we have downgraded our forecast accordingly," EU executive vice president Valdis Dombrovskis said. "The overwhelming negative factor is the surge in energy prices, driving inflation to record highs and putting a strain on European businesses and households," he added. The EU warned that the course of the war was highly uncertain and that the risk of stagflation -– punishing inflation with little or no growth -- remained a real risk going forward. If Russia, the EU's main energy supplier, should cut off its oil and gas supply to Europe completely, the commission warned that the forecast would worsen considerably. "Our forecast is subjected to very high uncertainty and risks," EU commissioner Paolo Gentiloni told reporters. "Other scenarios are possible under which growth may be lower and inflation higher than we are projecting today. In any case, our economy is still far from a normal situation," he said. For the EU as a whole, including the eight countries that do not use the euro as their currency, the commission had also forecast growth of four percent in February, but has now cut this to 2.7 percent, the same level as for the eurozone. The sharp reduction in expectations is in line with the forecast made in mid-April by the International Monetary Fund, which predicted 2.8 percent growth for the eurozone this year. The EU's warning for the months ahead lands as the European Central Bank is increasingly expected to increase interest rates in July to tackle soaring inflation. Critics warn that this could put a brake on economic activity just when the economy faced the headwinds from the war in Ukraine.

Abortion: the story of suffering and death behind Ireland's ban and subsequent legalization

about 12 hours ago

Georgia Jails Prominent Pro-Opposition Media Owner 

about 13 hours ago

Georgia on Monday jailed for over three years an owner of the nation's most popular television station critical of the government, further raising concerns over media freedom in the country. Nika Gvaramia, an anchor and owner of the pro-opposition Mtavari TV, was found guilty of harming financial interests of a television station he had earlier run, a judge of the Tbilisi city court said. He was sentenced to three and a half years behind bars. Gvaramia has also been a lawyer of Georgia's ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili who is serving a six-year jail term for abuse of power —a conviction he has denounced as politically motivated. Gvaramia has said his case was aimed at silencing critical media. His lawyer Dito Sadzaglishvili said the verdict was illegal, adding that "Gvaramia was taken into political captivity." "Political repression is underway in Georgia," he told AFP. "In democratic countries, journalists are not jailed for their dissenting views." Transparency International said in a statement the verdict was "a continuation of a campaign of political persecution the government" has carried out "against opponents for years". "The use of judiciary for intimidation and media censorship sends a dangerous message to other critical media outlets." Georgia's rights ombudsperson, Nino Lomjaria, said on Sunday her office had studied Gvaramia's case and found no proof of wrongdoing. Georgia's prominent TV personalities and managers have long accused the ruling Georgian Dream party's government of using the judiciary to stifle independent voices. Rights groups have also expressed concern over media freedom in Georgia, saying managers and owners of nearly all independent TV stations critical of the Georgian government are under investigation. Georgia's ranking in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) media freedom index dropped from 60th in 2021 to 89th place this year. In October 2015, Gvaramia said a government middleman had threatened to release secretly-recorded videos showing what he described as his "private life" in an attempt to force him to quit journalism. In 2007-2009, he held several government posts in Saakashvili's Cabinet, overseeing his anti-corruption crusade. Independent media in Georgia has often had fraught relations with authorities since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

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