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« Reply #2730 on: Sep 04, 2018, 04:34 AM »

Seoul to check public toilets daily to tackle 'spy-cam porn' crisis

Move follows protests by record numbers of women calling for more action to tackle rise of voyeurism

Benjamin Haas in Seoul
4 Sep 2018 03.02 BST

South Korea’s capital and largest city, Seoul, is set to begin daily checks for hidden cameras in public toilets in response to growing public outrage over an epidemic of “spy-cam porn”.

South Korea is in the middle of a battle against videos secretly filmed in places such as toilet stalls and changing rooms. Police have said more than 26,000 victims between 2012 and 2016 have been identified, but many cases go unreported.

Mobile phones sold in the country are required to make a loud audible sound when taking photos, an attempt to discourage surreptitious recording. Offenders can also turn to an array of seemingly everyday items – including pens, watches and shoes – equipped with spycams. The footage is not limited to public toilets, and the epidemic includes revenge porn, sometimes filmed without the women’s consent.

Record numbers of women have held a monthly protest on the streets of Seoul calling for the government to do more, with last month’s demonstration drawing 70,000 protesters, according to the organisers.

At present, the Seoul government checks each toilet about once a month, and employs only 50 inspectors to monitor more than 20,000 public bathrooms, according to news agency Yonhap. The new plan will call for the 8,000 city workers who maintain and clean the bathrooms to conduct daily checks.

Government inspectors have failed to find any cameras in the past two years. But experts and activists have criticised sweeps of public bathrooms, saying they were little more than a show and most cameras were installed in homes and offices. They have also chided the government for failing to adequately punish perpetrators who share secretly filmed footage.

There have also been charges of sexism in the justice system, with two recent high-profiles cases targeting female perpetrators. A South Korean court sentenced a woman to a year in jail last month for sharing a nude photo of a male colleague, while most men who share photos or videos are typically only fined. The vast majority of perpetrators, over 90%, are men, according to government data.

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« Reply #2731 on: Sep 04, 2018, 04:39 AM »

Leader of militant Haqqani network in Afghanistan has died, say Taliban

Jalaluddin Haqqani died ‘after a long sickness’, the insurgent group says

Staff and agencies
Tue 4 Sep 2018 05.27 BST

The Taliban have announced the death of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the leader of Afghanistan’s Haqqani militant group – one of the most powerful and feared affiliates of the insurgency.

The Taliban said he died after “a long struggle with a disease”, according to the monitoring group Site.

According to the statement, Haqqani has been buried in Afghanistan.

Haqqani originally founded the group to fight Soviet occupation in the 1970s, and was once funded by the CIA and lionised by some in the US.

Haqqani relinquished operational leadership of the group some years ago to his son Sirajuddin Haqqani, now deputy leader of the Afghan Taliban.

Haqqani joined the Taliban government as minister for tribal affairs after they captured Kabul in 1996, fleeing after they were ousted in late 2001 and taking up arms again.

The Haqqani network was declared a terrorist organisation by the United States in 2012. The elderly founder had been paralysed for the past 10 years.

Haqqani had not been heard from in several years. Reports of his death had been widespread in 2015.

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« Reply #2732 on: Sep 04, 2018, 04:41 AM »

German officials promise crackdown on neo-Nazis after violent anti-immigrant protests

9/4/ 2018 at 09:16 ET                   

Officials in Germany’s eastern state of Saxony sought to avert further unrest in the city of Chemnitz before the far right gathers for another anti-immigration protest later on Thursday after several violent confrontations this week.

Thousands of people took part in two days of protests against asylum seekers in Chemnitz this week after police arrested a Syrian and an Iraqi on suspicion of fatally stabbing a German man on Sunday.

Germany is deeply divided over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to take in more than one million migrants, many of whom fled conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We will see to it that those who have committed this homicidal crime are condemned, and swiftly,” Michael Kretschmer, Saxony’s premier told reporters in Chemnitz.

“We will see to it that those who ran through the city with Hitler salutes are also convicted,” he said.

The authorities said federal police and police from other states including Hessen and Bavaria would be drafted in to support local forces during the far right protest at Chemnitz’s football stadium later on Thursday.

Kretschmer plans to meet with local residents to discuss immigration inside the stadium at around the same time, he said.

Chemnitz lies Germany’s formerly Communist east which has become the heartland of anti-immigrant groups including PEGIDA and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party which won 13 percent of the vote in a 2017 federal election, its strongest showing yet.

In Wismar, another eastern town, police called for witnesses to come forward over an attack late on Wednesday on a 20-year-old migrant who was beaten with an iron chain by three assailants.

At around noon in a rainy and cold Chemnitz on Thursday there was still no sign of the extra police which the local authorities said would be present at the protest due to start at 6 p.m. local time (1700 GMT).

The Chemnitz stabbing has raised concerns of possible links between police and the far right in Saxony after prosecutors in the northern city of Bremen opened an investigation into a lawmaker, a former police officer, who is accused of leaking information of the arrest warrant against the Iraqi suspect.

Chemnitz mayor Barbara Ludwig vowed to clean up her city’s image, telling reporters: “This city is something completely different to what you had to see and what has been shown in the media in the past few days.

The AfD and PEGIDA, which is under observation by intelligence agencies, say they will march again in Chemnitz on Saturday to “mourn Daniel H. (the stabbing victim) and the others killed by Germany’s forced multiculturalisation.”

Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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« Reply #2733 on: Sep 04, 2018, 04:43 AM »

A look at Turkey's post-coup crackdown

New Europe

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey blamed military officers loyal to a U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen for a failed military coup attempt on July 15, 2016 and declared a state of emergency five days later to clampdown on a vast network of alleged Gulen supporters in the military and other state institutions. The state of emergency led to mass arrests and purges.

Opponents say President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government used its emergency powers to crackdown on all dissent — not just Gulen's movement. The cleric denies involvement in the coup. The two-year-old state of emergency expired in July, after Erdogan kept to an electoral campaign promise not to extend it, but new anti-terror laws enacted since then allow authorities to press ahead with mass purges of public employees.

Here's a look at Turkey's post-coup crackdown: ARRESTS: Some 160,000 people were detained for questioning, of which over 77,000 were formally arrested for alleged links to terror organizations, including Gulen's network and outlawed Kurdish rebels. Those arrested include military personnel, police, journalists, lawmakers, judges and prosecutors.

According to Justice Ministry figures, close to 35,000 people put on trial for links to Gulen's network have been convicted so far. Around 14,000 others were acquitted. PURGES: More than 130,000 people have been purged from the public service through emergency government decrees. Those dismissed include tens of thousands of teachers and close to 6,000 academics. Around 1,300 people were re-instated to jobs by a commission that was set up to review cases but 18,000 other appeals were rejected.

MILITARY: Some 170 generals and around 7,000 other senior military officers were arrested as part of the crackdown. At least 58 generals and 629 senior officers have been convicted to life terms in prison so far in trials against military officers, according to Justice Ministry figures. Eight generals were acquitted.

MEDIA: At least 143 journalists or media workers are currently behind bars, most accused of links to Gulen or Kurdish rebels, according to the Turkish Journalists Syndicate. Using emergency decrees, the government closed down around 200 media organizations, including newspapers, periodicals, radio stations and television channels.

POLITICIANS: Ten legislators from Turkey's pro-Kurdish political party, including former co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, are in prison on terror charges for alleged links to Kurdish militants. Enis Berberoglu, a legislator from the main opposition Republican People's Party, is in prison convicted of espionage for giving an opposition newspaper images allegedly showing Turkey's intelligence agency trucking weapons into Syria.

ACTIVISTS: Human rights activist and businessman Osman Kavala is in jail pending trial, accused of seeking to overthrow the government and having alleged links to Gulen. Eleven prominent activists were arrested last year at their hotel on an island off of Istanbul while on training. They were eventually released from jail pending the outcome of their trial for supporting terror groups. Among them was Taner Kilic, Amnesty International's former Turkey chairman, who was released earlier this month.

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« Reply #2734 on: Sep 04, 2018, 05:01 AM »

'Good job Jeff': Trump blames Sessions as Republicans charged before midterms

President says legal actions against ‘very popular’ congressmen have put victories in doubt

Martin Pengelly in New York
Tue 4 Sep 2018 00.16 BST

Donald Trump has mounted another extraordinary attack on his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, blaming him for charges against two congressmen that he said jeopardised Republican chances in the forthcoming midterm elections.

On Monday afternoon, the president tweeted: “Two long running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department. Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff......

“....The Democrats, none of whom voted for Jeff Sessions, must love him now.”

In fact, one Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voted for Sessions when he was confirmed as attorney general by a 52-47 vote in February 2017.

Trump did not name the congressmen he was talking about. But last month Duncan Hunter, a California representative, was charged with misuse of campaign funds while Chris Collins of New York was indicted for insider trading – over a share tip alleged to have been made in 2017, when Trump was in power.

The two men were Trump’s first supporters in the House. Hunter will run for re-election. Collins will step down.

Sessions, a former Alabama senator, was also one of the earliest supporters of Trump. But the president has attacked him repeatedly for his decision in March 2017 to recuse himself from oversight of the investigation into Russian election interference.

Sessions made that call after it was revealed he did not disclose to senators meetings with the Russian ambassador during the election campaign.

Trump indicated last week that he would fire Sessions after the midterm elections, a move some observers said might presage the firing of deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein and the special counsel, Robert Mueller, whose work on links between Trump aides and Moscow has circled ever closer to Trump’s inner sanctum.

Some senior Republicans have indicated they would accept a move against Sessions, which would echo the infamous “Saturday night massacre” carried out by Richard Nixon against top law enforcement officials during his downfall in 1973. Some have said they would not.

On Monday, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a frequent Trump critic, said: “The United States is not some banana republic with a two-tiered system of justice – one for the majority party and one for the minority party.

“These two men have been charged with crimes because of evidence, not because of who the president was when the investigations began.”

Trump’s positive remarks about supporters charged with criminal wrongdoing echoed his comments about the case of Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman who was convicted last month on eight counts of tax and bank fraud brought by Mueller’s team. Trump praised Manafort for not “flipping” to testify against him, and told Fox News he thought the practice, common in criminal cases, should “almost” be illegal.

The president has not spoken positively of Michael Cohen, his former personal lawyer who pleaded guilty to charges of fraud and violating campaign finance law brought by federal prosecutors in New York. Cohen said Trump directed him to make payments to women who claim to have had affairs with him.

Trump’s implication that the Department of Justice runs politically motivated investigations is contrary to stated DoJ policy.

Sessions issued a rare response to Trump’s threats and abuse last month, saying in a statement: “While I am attorney general, the actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.”

On Monday afternoon, Trump was at the White House after what appeared to be a trip to his golf course in Virginia was called off, with vehicles and secret service agents waiting. The Washington Post reported that he spent the day watching television.

He also tweeted about the FBI director he fired in May 2017, writing: “Same thing with Lyin’ James Comey. The Dems all hated him, wanted him out, thought he was disgusting – UNTIL I FIRED HIM! Immediately he became a wonderful man, a saint like figure in fact. Really sick!”

The firing of Comey, which led to the appointment of Mueller, is one aspect of the special counsel’s investigation of whether Trump has attempted to obstruct justice in the Russia affair. The attacks on Sessions are also under scrutiny.

Many election models predict that the Democrats will take back the House in November, with the votes of supporters eager to see Trump impeached.

Nonetheless, on Twitter later on Monday, Trump cheerfully anticipated a race for re-election in 2020 against a former Democratic presidential candidate.

“I see that John Kerry, the father of the now terminated Iran deal, is thinking of running for President,” he wrote, referring to the former secretary of state and 2004 nominee’s failure to deny such ambitions while being interviewed about his new memoir on CBS the day before.

“I should only be so lucky,” Trump wrote, “although the field that is currently assembling looks really good – FOR ME!”


Here’s how Donald Trump’s looming debt tsunami could end up crushing everyone — except the 1 percent

Bob Hennelly, Salon - COMMENTARY
04 Sep 2018 at 10:39 ET                   

Bullies like Donald Trump consolidate their power by dividing the population, and then  by creating a crisis which further fractures the polity. If they can at the same time make their cronies richer, why so much the better.

Consider the president’s pre-Labor Day “gift” to federal civilian workers when he tore up their scheduled 2.1 percent pay hike, while letting the 2.6 percent raise for the military stand.


The divider-in-chief blamed this White House double cross of the civilian workforce on the massive mound of debt that’s piling up on the U.S. government’s balance sheet.

“In light of our Nation’s fiscal situation, Federal employee pay must be performance-based, and aligned strategically toward recruiting, retaining, and rewarding high-performing Federal employees and those with critical skill sets,” Trump wrote in a letter to the congressional leadership, striking a pose of  fiscal rectitude.

Title V of the U.S. Code permits the president to unilaterally suspend a scheduled pay increase if he believes there is a “national emergency or serious economic conditions affecting the general welfare.”

But what if he created the “national emergency”?

It is a great tool. And rest assured it is another Trump pyramid scheme.

The three-track evil genius behind the Trump-Ryan-McConnell $1.5 trillion tax cut, heavily weighted to the wealthiest individuals and largest multi-national corporations, wasn’t just that it opened the spigots for CEO bonuses and multi-billion dollar stock buybacks for Republican donors. It also sharply reduced the revenue coming into the federal government.

Once you can cite the huge looming debt tsunami, you have created a pretext for slashing food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — just as a matter of “prudent” fiscal policy. But it’s not just the historic chance to toss tens of millions of undeserving Americans off the cushy sofa of government entitlement that’s got these elected minions of vulture capitalism so excited.

Instead of funding social welfare, the U.S. Treasury will be paying out debt service that goes to them and their friends as investors.

“The Congressional Budget Office still projects debt rising very quickly, with particularly fast growth in the amount America spends on its debt interest payments,” reports the Washington Post. “Interest costs are expected to approximately double as a share of the economy over the next decade and even overtake the cost of funding Social Security — the biggest expenditure in the Federal budget by 2048.”

So the most enduring gift to the well-heeled is that in place of a social safety net, Trump-Ryan-McConnell have cleared the way for Uncle Sam to float hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. Treasury bonds to pay off the debt. They and their wealthy campaign donors can profit off all this, while avoiding state and local taxes on that windfall.

This is the foundation for wealth-building from one generation to the next. This “starve the beast” policy is actually an articulated objective of Trump and the GOP. It helps the princes of the private sector continue to amass ever greater concentrations of capital as government revenue is replaced by structural debt that they get to buy and speculate on — whether or not they hold political power.

The dirty little secret behind all this is that buying government debt, whether issued by federal, state or local government. is one of the mechanisms by which the wealthy get wealthier. That’s because the interest paid on these instruments is, to varying degrees, tax-free.

Of course, none of this is risk-free. It’s all a huge gamble. What if the ruling elites get too greedy and too much debt is created?

Back in June, the Congressional Budget Office warned that the $1.5 trillion tax cut, pushed through by Trump and his Republican allies in Congress, was adding so much to the national debt that it heightened the risk of another financial crisis.

Currently, the federal debt sits at $15 trillion, which is roughly three-quarters the size of the entire U.S. economy. The CBO projected the tax cut would add $1.84 trillion to the national debt over the next decade, eventually growing to 152 percent of the gross domestic product.

Creating structural debt like this gives the wealthy and powerful ultimate social control.

Whether it be student debt, debt incurred by “developing nations” or the debt that Trump and company have loaded on the American people, it shackles our dreams and indentures our children and their children.

Serving it turns us, the laboring 99 percent, into slaves building a pyramid that serves only those at the top. When that architecture crumbles we are lost in the rubble.

Remember 2008?


‘Revenge of the coffee boy’: CNN host stunned after ex-Trump aide implicates Sessions in Russia conspiracy

Dominique Jackson
Raw Story
04 Sep 2018 at 12:20 ET                   

Former President Donald Trump aide, George Papadopoulos, implicated Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a Russia conspiracy.

Papadopoulos said that Sessions had knowledge of Russia’s involvement in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

CNN’s Kate Bolduan was stunned at the accusation and mocked Papadopoulos as a “coffee boy” who wanted revenge.

“Is this officially what revenge of the coffee boy looks like?” she said. “Nothing against anyone getting coffee for anyone, but the same campaign adviser that the Trump campaign and White House did its best to dismiss, and degrade when he pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with Mueller is the very same Trump campaign adviser who just offered up an accusation against Sessions.”

She added, “He contradicted a testimony Sessions gave to Congress. It all has to do with the potential — a potential meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin during the campaign.”

Watch the video below via CNN: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZaqi7LJA1I


Longtime Republican official resigns from the party with a devastating rebuke of Trump’s enablers

Dominique Jackson
Raw Story
04 Sep 2018 at 14:43 ET                   

Michael J. London, a former member of the Trumbull Republican town committee in Connecticut, detailed in an opinion article multiple reasons why he left the Republican Party.

In August, London resigned from the Republican Party and registered as an unaffiliated voter. He described the act as something he “never thought he would do.”

London blamed President Donald Trump for the downfall of the GOP.  He claimed that President Trump has transformed the party “into a lame, extreme right-wing group of people unwilling or unable to see the truth.”

“Trump is simply the worst president our country has had — ever. He is encouraging increased pollution and disavowing the need to halt climate change,” London wrote.

“He is taking credit for a strong economy when it was the previous president (like him or not) who set the current strong economy in motion,” he said.” He has separated immigrant mothers and children. He has, more likely than not, supported (or participated in) collusion with an enemy.”

He noted that Trump has embarrassed America on the global stage. “He is almost dictatorial and he has severely hurt our standing in the international community. People around the globe are laughing at us. His patriotism is really egotism,” he said.

He said that overall Trump does not even represent what it means to be a Republican.

“I can’t take it anymore. Trump does not represent true Republican values. He does not represent my values. I am leaving the Republican Party and, for the time being, will remain unaffiliated,” London concluded.

Read London’s full piece here: https://www.courant.com/opinion/insight/hc-op-insight-london-leaving-gop-20180827-story.html


US investigators secretly sought cooperation from Russian oligarchs between 2014 and 2016: report

Agence France-Presse
04 Sep 2018 at 14:30 ET                   

US justice officials secretly sought cooperation from a few of Russia’s richest men as they investigated Russian organized crime and possible aid from Moscow to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, The New York Times has reported.

Nearly all the half-dozen Russian oligarchs approached between 2014 and 2016 by the US Justice Department and FBI have close links to President Vladimir Putin, the newspaper said. None of them apparently cooperated.

At one point, FBI agents reportedly appeared unannounced at a home that billionaire Oleg Deripaska maintains in New York to press him on whether Paul Manafort, a onetime business partner of the Russian and briefly chairman of the Trump campaign, had served as a liaison between the campaign and the Kremlin.

A jury in Virginia last month convicted Manafort of several counts of tax and bank fraud.

Two key players in the US investigative effort, according to the Times, were Christopher Steele, the former British spy who assembled a controversial dossier on alleged links between the Trump campaign and Russia, and Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, recently the target of angry attacks from Trump.

The Steele report, which included salacious but unproven allegations about Trump — from purported encounters with prostitutes to bribes disguised as real estate deals — was paid for in part by supporters of Hillary Clinton, and Trump has vociferously denounced it as a “deep state” attempt to discredit him.

Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating possible Trump campaign links to Russia, has a copy of the dossier and has reportedly interviewed Steele.

Ohr engaged with Steele repeatedly as part of the Justice Department’s original investigation. Word of those contacts has fueled Republican ire and brought calls from Trump for Ohr to be stripped of his security clearance or even fired.

The Times said US officials’ attempts to enlist Deripaska’s help were not entirely a long shot. He had worked with the US government in an effort to rescue an FBI agent held in Iran, and he was seeking permission to travel more easily to the US.

Instead, the newspaper said, Deripaska notified the Kremlin of the American contacts.

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« Reply #2735 on: Sep 04, 2018, 06:23 AM »

What apocalyptic vision guides our president?

By Kathleen Parker Columnist
Wa Post

As Sen. John McCain’s departing call to national unity reverberated across America this week, President Trump’s prediction of violence should Democrats prevail in November’s midterm elections seemed both discordant and, well, weird.

Trump issued his dire warning on Monday — two days after McCain’s death — at a gathering of evangelical pastors at the White House. Trump warned that if they didn’t rally their parishioners to turn out and vote Republican, Democrats “will overturn everything that we’ve done, and they’ll do it quickly and violently.”

I’ve nearly rubbed my chin raw from stroking it for answers.

What sort of apocalyptic vision guides our commander in chief? What level of paranoia inspires such hyperbolic projections?

These questions are tendered as rhetorical exercise. We know what petty perdition this president has created for himself. And, sadly for the country, it needn’t have been this way. Given the antipathy toward Hillary Clinton, Trump might have won the election without appealing to raw emotion and base fears. Later, he might have changed his tune as president and tried to appeal to a broader cross-section of Americans. Who knows? As McCain said, in this country, nothing is inevitable. Trump might have united the nation in common cause.

Instead, he chose the ugly path. In immigration, health care, tax overhauls and foreign policy, Trump has taken the low road. Thus, the less-rhetorical question is: How do these evangelical pastors sleep at night?

What you need to know about evangelicals in the Trump era. The label "evangelical Christian" gets thrown around in politics. Here's a look at how it has evolved and this group's religious beliefs and political leanings: <iframe width='480' height='290' scrolling='no' src='https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/c/embed/5aa80b1c-0d02-11e8-998c-96deb18cca19' frameborder='0' webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe>

We know that many conservatives voted for Trump because he promised to appoint conservative judges to the Supreme Court. We also know that Trump ran away with the evangelical Christian vote.

But one must ask these men and women of the cloth: Is it really more important to hope for a Supreme Court that might reverse (or, more realistically, erode) Roe v. Wade than it is to have a president of whom we can be proud? In whom we can trust to be thoughtful, honest and impervious to every little slight?

Does same-sex marriage, which a majority of Americans support, so offend these church leaders that they would rather risk a nuclear matchup with North Korea? Or an increasingly tenuous relationship with Russia and China, owing to Trump’s careless use of power to intimidate, insult and badger our geopolitical foes? This month, Russia is slated to hold war games — its largest since the dissolution of the Soviet Union — and China’s army will be involved.

Is this of no consequence to those who preach the word of God?

Granting the benefit of the doubt, Trump’s supporters early on might have deluded themselves into believing he wouldn’t be that bad. But what’s their excuse now?

But Trump was surely serious when he spoke about the darkness that would descend upon the land if Republicans lose the House. One would have thought he was speaking of the Islamic State or the Taliban, not fellow Americans with a different point of view. Even stranger, he mentioned violence in the context of antifa, a loose group of anti-fascists militant in their protest of the white supremacists who have celebrated Trump’s presidency as a giant step for white mankind.

If Republicans do lose Congress in the fall, it won’t be because evangelicals didn’t turn out to vote, though that surely would be a redemptive act. It will be because of Trump himself. A Post/ABC News poll released Friday found that 60 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s job performance. The same survey also found that 63 percent support special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. And 64 percent said they support Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump has been threatening to fire. A Democratic victory in the midterms will happen because of the GOP’s silence in the face of Trump’s untenable behavior, their lack of courage in condemning his draconian execution of policies, and the utter hypocrisy of allowing such a foul-mouthed, race-baiting misogynist to occupy the Oval Office after many of these same paragons of virtue impeached Bill Clinton for lying about his irresponsible affair with an intern.

Violence isn’t likely should Republicans lose, but impeachment probably is. This is what Trump anticipates and fears. If evangelical pastors really want to help the country, they should urge their parishioners to read McCain’s last testament and heed his words: “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe.”

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« Reply #2736 on: Sep 05, 2018, 04:04 AM »

Scientists Are Retooling Bacteria to Cure Disease

By manipulating DNA, researchers are trying to create microbes that, once ingested, work to treat a rare genetic condition — a milestone in synthetic biology.

By Carl Zimmer
NY Times
Sept. 5, 2018

In a study carried out over the summer, a group of volunteers drank a white, peppermint-ish concoction laced with billions of bacteria. The microbes had been engineered to break down a naturally occurring toxin in the blood.

The vast majority of us can do this without any help. But for those who cannot, these microbes may someday become a living medicine.

The trial marks an important milestone in a promising scientific field known as synthetic biology. Two decades ago, researchers started to tinker with living things the way engineers tinker with electronics.

They took advantage of the fact that genes typically don’t work in isolation. Instead, many genes work together, activating and deactivating one another. Synthetic biologists manipulated these communications, creating cells that respond to new signals or respond in new ways.

Until now, the biggest impact has been industrial. Companies are using engineered bacteria as miniature factories, assembling complex molecules like antibiotics or compounds used to make clothing.

In recent years, though, a number of research teams have turned their attention inward. They want to use synthetic biology to fashion microbes that enter our bodies and treat us from the inside.

The bacterial concoction that volunteers drank this summer — tested by the company Synlogic — may become the first synthetic biology-based medical treatment to gain approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

The bacteria are designed to treat a rare inherited disease called phenylketonuria, or PKU. People with the condition must avoid dietary protein in foods such as meat and cheese, because their bodies cannot break down a byproduct, an amino acid called phenylalanine.

As phenylalanine builds up in the blood, it can damage neurons in the brain, leading to delayed development, intellectual disability and psychiatric disorders. The traditional treatment for PKU is a strict low-protein diet, accompanied by shakes loaded with nutritional supplements.

But in experiments on mice and monkeys, Synlogic’s bacteria showed promise as an alternative treatment. On Tuesday, company investigators announced positive results in a clinical trial with healthy volunteers.

The researchers are now going forward with a trial on people with PKU and expect to report initial results next year.

Tal Danino, a synthetic biologist at Columbia University, said that a number of other researchers are working on similar projects, but no one has moved forward as fast as Synlogic. “They’re leading the charge,” he said.

One of Synlogic’s co-founders, James J. Collins, a synthetic biologist at M.I.T., published one of synthetic biology’s first proofs of principle in 2000.

He and his colleagues endowed E. coli bacteria with a way to turn a gene on and off when they were exposed to certain chemicals — “like a light switch for genes,” Dr. Collins said in an interview.
“I think anywhere there are bacteria in the body is an opportunity to engineer them to do something else.”

Tal Danino

At first, the scientists envisioned using rewired bacteria as environmental sensors — perhaps detecting airborne biological weapons and producing a chemical signal in response.

But then came the microbiome.

In the mid-2000s, microbiologists began charting our inner menagerie of microbes, the vast diversity of organisms that live inside healthy people. The microbiome is continually carrying out complex biochemistry, some of which helps shield us from diseases, scientists found.

Synthetic biologists soon began wondering whether they could add engineered bacteria to the mix — perhaps as internal sensors for signs of disease, or even as gut-based factories that make drugs the body needs.

“You can’t overestimate the impact of the microbiome work,” said Jeff Hasty, a former student of Dr. Collins who now runs his own lab at the University of California, San Diego. “That, in a nutshell, changed everything.”

Dr. Collins and Timothy K. Lu, another synthetic biologist at M.I.T., co-founded Synlogic in 2013, and the company began looking for diseases to take on. One of their picks was PKU, which affects 16,500 people in the United States.

Drugs have recently become available that can drive down levels of phenylalanine. But they only work in a fraction of patients, and they come with side effects of their own.

“The current tools that we have available are not good enough,” said Christine S. Brown, the executive director of the National PKU Alliance.

For years, researchers have explored treating PKU with gene therapy, hoping to insert working versions of the defective gene, called PAH, into a patient’s own cells. But so far the approach has not moved beyond studies in mice.

To Synlogic, PKU looked like a ripe opportunity to use synthetic biology to create a treatment that might gain government approval.

Company researchers selected a harmless strain of E. coli that’s been studied for more than a century. “Most people have healthy, good E. coli in their intestinal tracts,” said Paul Miller, the chief scientific officer of Synlogic.

The researchers inserted genes into the bacteria’s DNA so that once they arrived in the gut, they could break down phenylalanine like our own cells do.

One of the new genes encodes a pump that the bacteria use to suck up phenylalanine around them. A second gene encodes an enzyme that breaks down the phenylalanine into fragments. The bacteria then release the fragments, which get washed out in urine.

The Synlogic team wanted the microbes to break down phenylalanine only in the right place and at the right time in the human body. So they engineered the bacteria to keep their phenylalanine genes shut down if they sensed high levels of oxygen around them.

Only when they arrived in a place with little oxygen — the gut — did they turn on their engineered genes.

To test the bacteria, the researchers created mice with the mutation that causes PKU. When the mice received a dose of the bacteria, the phenylalanine in their blood dropped by 38 percent, compared with mice without the microbes.

The researchers also tried out the bacteria on healthy monkeys. When monkeys without the microbes ate a high-protein diet, they experienced a spike of phenylalanine in their blood. The monkeys with engineered bacteria in their guts experienced only a gentle bump.   

For their human trial, Synlogic recruited healthy people to swallow the bacteria. Some took a single dose, while others drank increasingly large ones over the course of a week. After ingesting the bacteria, the volunteers drank a shake or ate solid food high in protein.

On Tuesday, Synlogic announced that the trial had demonstrated people could safely tolerate the bacteria. In addition, the more bacteria they ingested, the more bits of phenylalanine wound up in their urine — a sign the bacteria were doing their job.

The next step will be to see if the microbes can lower phenylalanine levels in people with PKU.

“I’m amazed at how fast we got to where we are,” said Dr. Collins, who was not involved in Synlogic’s PKU research.

In July, Dr. Danino and his colleagues published a review in the journal Cell Systems, cataloging a number of other disorders that researchers are designing synthetic microbes to treat, including inflammation and infections.

Dr. Danino and Dr. Hasty are currently collaborating on another project: how to use synthetic biology against cancer.

One huge challenge in developing drugs for cancer is that they often fail to penetrate tumors. But microbiome researchers have discovered that natural bacteria regularly infiltrate tumors and grow inside them.

Now scientists are engineering bacteria that can also make their way into tumors. Once there, they will unload molecules that attract immune cells, which the researchers hope will kill the cancer.

“I think anywhere there are bacteria in the body is an opportunity to engineer them to do something else,” said Dr. Danino.

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« Reply #2737 on: Sep 05, 2018, 04:07 AM »

Robot drone could protect Great Barrier Reef by killing crown-of-thorns starfish

Researchers say underwater drone can monitor coral bleaching and inject coral-eating starfish with vinegar

Australian Associated Press

An underwater drone that can keep watch over the Great Barrier Reef’s health and kill invading species is ready to be put to the test.

Researchers from Queensland University of Technology say their robot reef protector can monitor coral bleaching, water quality, pest species, pollution and sediment buildup.

It has also been trained to detect crown-of-thorns starfish with 99% accuracy and can inject the coral-eating starfish with vinegar or bile salts, both deadly to the invasive predator.

Professor Matthew Dunbabin said RangerBot was not only autonomous but could also stay under water three times longer than a human diver and operate in all weather conditions.

“It’s an impressive piece of technology, [it’s] also deliberately low cost to allow production to be scaled up once the next level of operational testing is completed and all the necessary approvals are in place,” he said on Friday.

Dunbabin said the team hoped to eventually launch the drones up the length of the 2,300-kilometre long reef.

He said the robot was fitted with real-time guidance so it can avoid obstacles by moving in any direction.

Great Barrier Reef Foundation managing director Anna Marsden said the robot could become an extra pair of eyes and hands for frontline staff managing the reef.

“Due to [the reef’s] size and complexity, effective management is a mammoth and expensive task,” she said.

RangerBot is a collaboration between QUT, Google and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

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« Reply #2738 on: Sep 05, 2018, 04:10 AM »

Detroit to shut off drinking water in schools after lead found

9/5/ 2018 at 05:56 ET                   

Detroit authorities on Wednesday ordered drinking water shut off at all city public schools after elevated levels of lead and copper were found in water at more than a dozen buildings with antiquated plumbing systems.

Over the weekend, supplies were cut at 16 schools and bottled water was provided until water coolers arrive, Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said.

Although there is no evidence of excessive levels of copper or lead in other schools, Vitti decided to shut off water throughout the system “until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools,” he said in a statement.

“We have no reason to believe that any children have been harmed,” said Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district.

About 50,000 students are enrolled in the district, which operates 110 schools, according to its website. Detroit public schools students are due to start classes on Tuesday, although teachers are already working.

The Great Lakes Water Authority and Detroit Water and Sewerage Department said in a statement that the water, after treatment, surpassed all federal and state standards for quality and safety. They attributed any drinking water contamination in the affected schools to the antiquated plumbing in the buildings.

Detroit’s drinking water comes from the Detroit River.

Water safety is a sensitive issue in Michigan, where lead contamination in the water supply of Flint prompted dozens of lawsuits and criminal charges against former government officials.

Medical research has linked lead to a stunting of children’s neural development. Exposure to copper can cause gastrointestinal distress and liver or kidney damage, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Flint switched its water supply to the Flint River from Lake Huron in April 2014 to cut costs. The corrosive river water caused lead to leach from pipes. Flint switched back to Lake Huron water in October 2015, but the contamination continued.

Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney

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« Reply #2739 on: Sep 05, 2018, 04:12 AM »

Houses claimed by the canal: life on Egypt's climate change frontline

In Alexandria’s ‘Little Venice’, a poor fishing community faces the demolition of its homes and loss of its livelihood thanks to rising seas – and a local government keen to clear its slums

Ruth Michaelson in Alexandria

On the banks of the El Max canal near the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, one man untangles fishing nets in his turquoise-painted boat as the sound of a sledgehammer hitting bricks ricochets down the waterway.

Others lean out of their windows on one bank of the canal, staring at the growing piles of rubble of what was once rows of homes on the opposite bank. The previous occupants as well as those looking on are a harbinger of thousands who will be forced to leave their homes due to climate change.

Abir Mohamed Abdel-Salam says she doesn’t remember exactly when the canal water first rose above the height of her front window, pouring into her house. “It would reach the top of my thighs,” she says. Black fumes rise overhead from the adjacent petroleum factory.

For years, flooding has been a regular occurrence, and now she knows her emergency response by heart.

“First I would send someone to turn off the pumps,” she says, referring to the nearby pumping station designed to prevent flooding on an adjacent coastal road, one driven by wealthy Egyptians en route to their summer homes. “Then we would build a fort inside our house with the furniture.”

The three tiers of crumbling cement houses in El Max once formed the backbone of a 1,000-strong fishing community. But since March, the local authorities have forced half the residents out of their homes and into bleak tower blocks overlooking the canal they once depended on for their livelihood. Those that remain await the demolition of their homes, gazing at the rubble on the opposite bank as a reminder of what awaits them.

Alexandria is a city on the frontline of climate change. According to United Nations figures, even a 50cm sea-level rise will destroy its beaches entirely, while “the Alexandria lowlands – on which the city of Alexandria originally developed – are vulnerable to inundation, waterlogging, increased flooding and salinisation under accelerated sea-level rise”.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that global sea levels are expected to rise by as much as 68cm by 2050, flooding parts of Alexandria and seeping into the groundwater. It will also cause building collapses and force saltwater into vital farmland in the nearby Nile Delta region, destroying livelihoods and forcing more internal displacement.

The plight of El Max’s residents is an early warning sign, the first wave of thousands who will be forced to move due to the effects of climate change on the area, in particular nearby Lake Mariout.

“There are many areas around the lake that are located at least 3m below sea level,” says Alexandrian climate scientist Mohamed El Raey. “They will have to be abandoned and the people relocated. In these low-lying areas, there will be hundreds of thousands of people affected by flooding.” El Raey estimates that the government will be forced to move residents in less than 10 years.

These displaced people will form part of a growing global problem. The UN estimates that since 2009, one person every second has been displaced by a climate-change related disaster.

El Max is an unknown corner of the city to many Alexandrians, tucked away between a tangle of concrete overpasses, flat planes of polluted industrial wasteland and dust-choked streets where thick, dark clouds from nearby factories have coated every visible surface. Much of the surrounding area appears almost hostile to human life, despite its placement between the fertile Nile Delta and the Mediterranean coast.

The area is known as Alexandria’s own Little Venice, a community of people dependent on the water for their way of life and the rows of pastel-coloured homes that once sustained them. The decades-old informal dwellings are considered “slums” by the local government. The area has also featured in Egyptian film as a place of gangsters and illicit trading, generating rumours of real-world crime.

“This is Venice-El Max!” laughs Ahmed Saber, guiding his boat through the soupy brown water on the canal. Pollution from nearby factories has turned it into thick sludge, killing off many of the fish needed for the fishermen to survive. “It feels like Venice – I have a boat like they do in Europe. But it’s all about to be destroyed,” he says, as his boat passes another with rows of teeth painted at the bow to resemble a shark.

Saber, like many others in El Max, has repeatedly refuted signs of flooding that are all around them, from layers of rust on the bars on windows and doors to the water-worn steps that run between the houses. It seemed that admitting to the problem meant taking the side of the local authorities, who they said had been threatening the move for several years.

But by June this year, when half the community were forced to relocate, some residents were willing to be more open about the flooding.

The original problem, explains El Raey, stems from Lake Mariout. “The lake is almost 3m below sea level, so waste water dumping there causes fluctuations in the canal,” he says. “The buildings along the canal are also located below sea level.” The situation is worst in the winter, when the sea level rises.

Annual rainfall on Egypt’s coast has recently reached unprecedented levels, such as in 2015, says Dr Khayal Zahra of Egypt’s Coastal Research Institute. “Climate change-related problems meant that the amount of rainfall exceeded 227mm in two days.” The average rainfall had been 250mm a year, for the past 100 years. Excess rainfall exacerbates the rising levels of polluted water in El Max, overloading the nearby pumping station and raising the water levels of the canal until it floods residents’ homes.

But the rising waters on Egypt’s coastline will not affect everyone equally: Egypt’s poorest, living on the water’s edge or dependent on its resources, are vulnerable to the first and worst effects of climate change. They are also the authorities’ frequent target for forced relocation plans aimed at alleged illegal construction in areas they seek to reclaim.

“The state is working to end the issue of slums by 2022,” says Mohamed Sultan, a spokesman for the governor of Alexandria, referring to a state-wide initiative by President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to eradicate informal housing, known as ashwiyyet – urban working class centres often associated with both poverty and social discontent. Although several generations of families live in El Max and have paid rent for decades, the government claims the homes were built illegally and that the only solution is forced relocation, and demolition.

“The governorate has already started relocating the residents to a much safer area,” says Sultan, in reference to an austere cluster of red and sand-bricked tower blocks. The buildings are closer to the nearby beach, putting them in the path of future rising tides. “The previous houses were considered dangerous for the lives of the residents, as the water level increased and entered the homes, risking the lives of those who lived there,” he says.

The governorate insists that a new port will allow residents to fish, and store their equipment. But none of the residents the Guardian speaks to in El Max seem aware of the opportunity, viewing the move as a blow to their way of life and a shove into potential unemployment. They also cite a steep rise in rent, from under £1 a year to almost £9 each month – a sum that is untenable for many. It will mean packing extra family members into homes that residents like Abdel-Salam brand tiny compared with the houses they had before.

“The water is an excuse for the government to relocate people,” says Ali Abdel Rahman, a 63-year-old fisherman who sits inside the small blue-and-white-painted hut where he stores his fishing equipment. The room smells of saltwater, and most surfaces are encrusted with either salt, or rust. Outside the shop he sometimes cooks his catch on a small grill, and chats to his neighbours. He is cynical about government promises.

“I’m 63. There’s nothing I can do other than fish,” he says. “They say they’re building us new homes – but these houses aren’t homes, they’re just offices,” he adds bitterly.

Abdel Rahman, Abdel-Salam and other residents are certain that their lives in the new tower blocks might be a reprieve from the floods, but that the move will tear them away from their way of life.

“There, we have a sea view – but nothing else,” says Abdel-Salam.

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« Reply #2740 on: Sep 05, 2018, 04:15 AM »

'It saved our business': Italy's farmers turn low into high with cannabis

Hemp cultivation for non-pharmaceutical could help revert desiccation of farm land

Lorenzo Tondo in Catenanuova

Italian farmers are in crisis as low prices of wheat, desiccated land and big companies importing grain take their toll. But some have found a solution: growing cannabis.

Hemp cultivation has been legal in Italy since 2016, and over the last few years the amount of land dedicated to the plant has increased from 400 hectares (1,000 acres) in 2013 to 4,000 hectares today.

The law – which allows cultivation for non-pharmaceutical use of plants with up to 0.2% of the psychoactive compound THC – was introduced with the intention of increasing the development of industrial hemp production. Italians have taken advantage of the legal change to produce not only hemp ricotta and environmentally friendly bricks, but also hemp pasta and biscuits.

“The boom in the production of hemp is an excellent example of the ability of agricultural firms to discover new frontiers,” said Roberto Moncalvo, the president of Coldiretti, Italy’s largest farmers’ association. “We are in the middle of an opportunity for economic and employment growth.”

This solution to the crisis affecting Italian farmers can be seen in a small green oasis set in the arid interior of Sicily. Among the clay fields and sheaves of abandoned grain, a sign depicting a seven-point leaf hangs from a gate.

Beyond it is Salvo Scuderi, the president of the agricultural cooperative Colli Erei. The 41-year-old has just finished reaping part of his hemp harvest, which will be used to make pasta, oil and flour. This year, Scuderi and 20 other producers of Rete Canapa Sicilia, an association whose goal is to promote and market the use of hemp in the region, have together produced almost 150 tonnes.

“Hemp saved our business,” he said. “This year we earned 10 times more than what we used to earn with wheat and it has enabled us to hire four workers.”

Wheat yields a profit of €250 (£220) per hectare in today’s market, while hemp can generate net earnings in excess of €2,500 per hectare, according t Rete Canapa Sicilia. And there are many Sicilian farmers who, in order to breathe new life into the dry land and to improve their financial situation have substituted wheat with hemp.

In the countryside around Catenanuova, temperatures can reach the mid-40s in the summer. It is where the Italian car manufacturer Fiat used to test its prototypes under high temperatures, scorching weather would force trains to stopbecause of expanding rails. But it is not the heat alone that has caused the desiccation of the land.

“Years of monocultural wheat cultivation are the problem,” said Dario Giambalvo, professor of agricultural sciences at the University of Palermo. “It has caused soil erosion, and is at risk of soon making the land infertile.”

According to data from Italy’s Council for Agricultural Research and Analysis of Agricultural Economics, land planted with durum wheat decreased by 7.4% in southern Italy last year, and by more than 9% in the north of the country. Overall production decreased by more than 4% during the last year.

This is why the move towards to hemp farming could help, say experts.

“The cultivation of hemp is a valid opportunity for a diversified farming which can be a good solution for the rebirth of abandoned and less fertile land,” said Giambalvo, “The ancient Romans taught us that diversifying crops can help make the land more fertile. I do not know if this will lead to the growth of the agricultural sector, certainly for Italy is a return to the origins.”

Up to the 1940s, Italy was the world’s largest producer of hemp after the Soviet Union. Back then in Italy, more 100,000 hectares were planted with hemp. After the war andthe move towards synthetic fibres, the cultivation of hemp plummeted. The downward trend continued as the campaign against illegal drug use was strengthened. In 1961 the Italian government signed the single convention on narcotic drugs. Despite the international treaty specifically excluding non-pharmaceutical hemp production from the regulations controlling cannabis, it led to further to decline in hemp cultivation in Italy.

    This could open the way for the legalisation of plant species with levels of psychoactive substances over 0.2%
    Salvo Scuderi, hemp farmer

“Hemp has been waiting 60 years to reclaim its rightful place,” said Scuderi. “And this could open the way for the legalisation of plant species with levels of psychoactive substances over 0.2% and to develop pharmaceutical experimentation.”

The 2016 law does not prohibit the commercialisation of hemp flowers, a gap that allowed market for the sale of light cannabis to blossom, with more than 500 stores in Italy. The flowers, sealed in bags or jars with names such as Gorilla Blue, Amnesia and Raging Bull, can be collected and used for tisanes or as scents for wardrobes. But the majority of customers simply crumble them, roll them and smoke them. The effects are not as pronounced as most cultivated strains of cannabis, which typically have THC levels of 15-25%, but do offer an immediate sense of relaxation.

According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Italy ranks third in Europe for consumption of cannabis.

On his company’s jars of hemp flowers, Scuderi has placed a label: “pizzo-free”. “It means the product is made without giving a cent to the mafia,” he said. “We launched a clear message: producing cannabis doesn’t mean just regenerating the land; it is also a way to weaken the mafia, which for decades has continued uninhibited in its quest to control the criminal business of drugs trafficking, and to give back to the farmers what the bosses had taken away from them.”

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« Reply #2741 on: Sep 05, 2018, 04:17 AM »

Despair for Australian farmers as drought kills livestock

9/5/ 2018 at 06:46 ET                   

In better times, the dam on farmer Kevin Tongue’s property is three meters (yards) deep with water. It’s now been empty for three months.

The worst drought in living memory is sweeping through Australia’s east, the country’s main food bowl, decimating wheat and barley crops and leaving grazing land parched.

Tongue, his wife and two sons hand-feed their 300 breeding cows and 1,300 sheep with grain and fodder bought and transported from other parts of the country as drought-hit local supplies run out.

“It’s been a huge financial effect on everyone. Not just buying hay and things like that, but you know, we’ve got no winter crop and that’s probably a third of our income that we won’t have,” Tongue told Reuters on his farm near the town of Tamworth about 300 kilometers (188 miles) inland from Sydney in the eastern state of New South Wales (NSW).

Forecasters have dramatically cut anticipated wheat yields for the country’s most important crop three months before the harvest.

Glencore Agriculture has forecast a wheat crop in NSW of just 2.4 million tonnes, less than a third of the average annual yield of 7.4 million tonnes.

Tongue said the despair in the farming community was palpable.

“When you have some strange woman come up crying on your shoulder, saying, ‘I can’t find hay, I can’t find grain, what am I going to do?’ I’m just not in a position to say I can help you but, yeah, it is very hard.”

The east coast has received some recent sporadic rain, though it has not been enough to save crops. A sustained break of the “big dry” is required to enable grazing to resume.

NSW is the country’s most-populous state and produces a quarter of Australia’s agriculture by value. The state government has officially declared a drought.

On ‘Te-Angie’, north-east of Tamworth, Richard Ogilvie said he had lost in excess of A$40,000 ($29,264) in income on his Hereford cattle station as grazing pastures turned to dust and feed costs soared.

This will lead to a loss of about A$200,000 ($146,320) longer term due to the reduction in breeding cattle, he said.

Many farmers, including Ogilvie, have been forced to shoot starving cattle, which he said was putting a big strain on the family.

“The ongoing thing is not to dwell and get down too much with the ongoing days of dragging cattle out of dams and shooting the ones that can’t get up,” he said.

Australia’s federal government and the NSW state government have pledged several billions dollars in aid for drought-afflicted farmers.

Australia recorded its fifth-driest July on record last month. For NSW, the January-to-July period was the driest since 1965 and marked seven consecutive months of below-average rainfall for the state. ($1=1.3669 Australian dollars)

Reporting by Jill Gralow in TAMWORTH; editing by Jonathan Barrett and Neil Fullick

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« Reply #2742 on: Sep 05, 2018, 04:35 AM »

'Alone and in fear': ordeal of married gay couple forced to flee Russia

Pavel Stotsko and Yevgeny Voitsekhovsky followed Russian law but their Danish marriage put their lives at risk

Marc Bennetts in Moscow
Wed 5 Sep 2018 08.39 BST

On a cold January evening, as plainclothes police officers hammered relentlessly on the door of their flat near Moscow, newlywed gay couple Pavel Stotsko and Yevgeny Voitsekhovsky began to consider fleeing Russia.

“It was a siege situation. The police were in the entrance to the building, and all around it,” Stotsko said this week from the Netherlands, where the couple, who are both 28, were recently granted asylum. “We sat in the flat like in a prison cell, totally alone and in fear,” said Voitsekhovsky.

The two men’s problems with the Russian authorities began at the start of the year after they wed in Denmark, where same-sex marriages have been legal since 2012.

Although homosexuality is not against the law in Russia, same-sex marriage is. But after studying Russian civil law, Stotsko and Voitsekhovsky realised that the authorities are obliged to recognise marriages that have been registered abroad, even those between same-sex couples. Russian officials, it appears, were unaware of the legal loophole.

Upon their return to Russia in January, the couple submitted their internal passports to a register’s office in Moscow, where a clerk “calmly and without any questions” put marriage stamps on the documents. All Russians over 14 must by law possess internal passports that document their place of residence and marital status. They cannot be used for foreign travel.

“We were so happy when we got the stamps in our passports. We thought that we could now live happily and calmly in Russia, and that, despite all the homophobia, the law was on our side,” Stotsko said. “We didn’t expect that the authorities would respond so aggressively.”

Stotsko then posted online photos of the stamps in the passports and the couple gave interviews to Russian media, moves that sparked widespread outrage. Vitaly Milonov, an ultra-conservative MP with the ruling United Russia party, said the marriage stamps had no legal basis and likened Stotsko and Voitsekhovsky to “stinking goats”. He also said they should be “checked for dangerous diseases” and “kicked out of the country” as a warning to others. The interior ministry accused the men of defacintheir passports, which they denied. The couple also received numerous death threats.

Human rights groups say homophobic attacks have rocketed in Russia since President Vladimir Putin approved a controversial law barring so-called “gay propaganda” in 2013, effectively making it an offence to promote LGBT rights in public. Dozens of gay men were detained and tortured in Chechnya, a mainly Muslim republic in southern Russia, last year.

Police officers soon turned up at the couple’s flat in Lyubertsy, a small town just outside the Russian capital, and demanded that they hand over their internal passports. The officers’ actions, the men say, were overseen by Andrei Zakharov, the then deputy chief of Moscow’s police. Shortly after their arrival, police cut off the internet and electricity supply to the flat, plunging it into darkness.

“For Russians, a marriage stamp in their passport is a symbol that their marriage is recognised by the state. Naturally, when the authorities realised there was no legal grounds not to recognise our marriage, they decided to get rid of any evidence that this had happened in Russia,” said Stotsko.

Yet even after the men surrendered their passports, police refused to guarantee the couple’s personal safety, Stotsko said: “Zakharov also said he couldn’t give us any assurances that he wouldn’t arrest us later.”

Terrified, the couple decided to leave Russia that very same night, assisted by members of the country’s beleaguered LGBT community. “We left in the middle of a freezing January night with just $53 between the two of us,” said Stotsko. The couple fled to Amsterdam, where they applied for asylum. They say their lawyers advised them not to speak about their ordeal until this month, when they received confirmation that they were under the protection of the Dutch authorities.

They are now hoping to eventually receive Dutch citizenship and have no plans to return home. They are pessimistic about the long-term chances of an improvement in attitudes toward LGBT people in Russia.

“After Putin came to power, after the ascent to power of those people who came from the criminal underworld, criminal customs and ideas that ‘gays are dirty people’ gained more popularity and are now widely accepted throughout the government,” Stotsko said.

Although Russian police generally adopted a tolerant approach to foreign LGBT fans at this summer’s World Cup, which Russia hosted, homophobic attitudes are widespread.

Even in Moscow, which Stotsko says is safer than the rest of Russia, LGBT people can be subject to horrendous abuse in public, if they are open about their sexuality.

In a social experiment carried out in the city in 2015, two young men who walked hand-in-hand along the street were taunted repeatedly and even physically attacked by passersby. Last year, assailants beat a 29-year-old man to death in Moscow’s Gorky Park, near the Kremlin, “for not dressing right”.

In an eye-opening opinion poll published last month by a state organisation, two-thirds of Russians said they believed there was a worldwide gay conspiracy to subvert their country’s “traditional values”.

“Putin always says that everyone lives in Russia according to the law,” said Stotsko. “But what happened to us proves that he is a liar. We tried to live in Russian within the framework of Russian law, but instead the authorities broke the law themselves to seize our passports.”

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« Reply #2743 on: Sep 05, 2018, 04:38 AM »

The dark secret of Thailand’s child brides

Underage Muslim girls are regularly forced into marriage with Malaysian men, and the government turns a blind eye

by Hannah Ellis-Petersen
5 Sep 2018 22.00 BST

One day this summer, 11-year-old Ayu married 41-year-old Che Abdul Karim Che Hamid at a small pink mosque on the banks of the Golok river in the far south of Thailand. Earlier that morning, Che Abdul Karim and his soon-to-be child bride had travelled over the border from Malaysia into the Thai province of Narathiwat for the wedding. After a short ceremony at 11am and a trip to the Islamic Council offices to get their marriage certificate stamped, the couple crossed back over the border. Ayu was now Che Abdul Karim’s third wife.

In Malaysia, where men can legally marry girls under 18 if they get Islamic sharia court approval, Ayu’s case caused a national outcry in parliament and protests on the streets. But over the border in Thailand, where the controversial union took place, the response by the government and religious authorities has been notably muted.

Hashim Yusoff, the imam who married the couple, defended the arrangement: Ayu (not her real name) was “mature” he said, so the marriage was sah (legal under sharia law). The imam did make Che Abdul Karim – himself an imam in a rural village – pledge not to have sexual relations with his young wife, but medical tests since are said to show that the 41-year-old did not keep his promise.

Ayu’s father, Madroseh Romadsa, who was present at the wedding to give consent, said simply: “We have never done anything wrong. In Thailand, many people get married at early ages.”

Since 2003, under Thailand’s strict child protection laws, no one under 17 can marry, and sex with a minor is a prosecutable offence. However, in the southern provinces of Thailand – Narathiwat, Pattani and Yalla, which are majority Muslim – a legal loophole allows Muslim communities to apply Islamic law to family matters.

According to this law, there is no minimum age for marriage and, culturally, girls are deemed eligible as soon as they start menstruating. In this way, child marriage has continued as an unregulated norm and a solution to underage pregnancy and rape – with the Thai government appearing to turn a blind eye.

“Here, if a girl is not married by the time she is 16, it is already felt to be too late and that no one will want to marry her,” said Amal Lateh, who lives in Thailand’s Pattani province and was forced at 15 to marry a relative 10 years her senior.

The legal loophole has also created what Thai children’s rights activist Anchana Heemmina described as the “big business of cross-border marriage” – Malaysian men crossing into southern Thailand to easily engage in underage or polygamous marriages for which getting approval in Malaysia would be impossible or a very lengthy process.

Mohammad Lazim runs one such business, helping arrange cross-border marriages for Malaysian men. He works with more than 50 bridegrooms a year, mainly wanting a second or third wife – but insists never with underage brides. He says that his business is tiny compared with some.

“People come from all over Malaysia to do this,” he said. “Business is booming: instead of applying to a sharia court in Malaysia and answering all their difficult questions – a process that takes sometimes a year – the shortcut is to come to Thailand. Here there is no law.”

The practice is also particularly lucrative for imams practising on the Thai side of the Golok river, who charge four times as much to conduct a marriage for a visiting Malaysian as they do for people from their own community. In Malaysia, Che Abdul Karim would have found it difficult or impossible to obtain permission to marry Ayu; in Thailand, he simply paid the imam 4,500 baht (£105), and it was done. He has since been fined 1,800 Ringgit (£340) in a sharia court in Malaysia after pleading guilty to polygamy and conducting the marriage without the court’s permission.

Wannakanok Pohitaedaoh was forced into a violent marriage when young and now runs Luk Riang, a children’s shelter in Narathiwat. She said: “The biggest problem with child marriage in Thailand is that nobody wants to talk about it – not the Islamic Council, not the imams and not the government. It has always been swept under the rug, and that’s where they want it to stay.”

Her opposition is deeply personal. Wannakanok, now 34, was just 13 when she was forced into marriage by her parents and says the experience “haunts my soul to this day”.

“When he asked me to have sexual intercourse, I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t even know really what that meant, so I refused, and then he raped me,” she said, sobbing at the memory. “He was very violent and every time he wanted to have intercourse, he would use violence. We were living at home, and my parents would hear me screaming.

“And it was the same for so many of my friends. Many of my friends who were 12 or 13 had been married to men who were a lot older than them, maybe in their 30s or 40s. But the girls were young like me and didn’t want sex, so violence was very common. We had no idea about sex at that age.”

Most of her friends were pregnant by 14. She still regularly hears similar cases to hers and Ayu’s. One 13-year-old girl, Naa, had recently been staying at the Luk Riang shelter while her mother worked in Malaysia. “Her mother came to pick her up but soon after they married her to a 40-year-old as his second wife,” said Wannakanok. “The family was very poor so she was a financial burden: it was easier to marry her off.”

There are no official figures on child marriages in Thailand but data from the human rights commissioner of Thailand shows that, in 2016 alone, in the public hospitals of Narathiwat, 1,100 married teenage girls gave birth. This does not include the three other provinces where child marriage is condoned, or births in private clinics and at home.

But the Thai government appears reluctant to engage with the problem at a senior level, pushing responsibility back to the provincial Islamic councils. “This issue has never been raised in the Thai parliament,” said Heemmina. “The government want to pretend it’s not happening because they don’t want to provoke the communities. They are protecting themselves.”

Their reluctance, she added, is rooted in sensitivity over self-determination for Islamic communities in the deep south of Thailand. For 14 years, a civil war has been raging in Narathiwat, Pattani, Yalla and occasionally southern areas of Songkhla. Its roots lie in Thailand’s annexation and conquest in 1909 of the Malay sultanate of Patani, which covered most of these provinces. A separatist movement formed in the 1950s exploded into all-out insurgency in 2004. Though the conflict has quietened in recent years, bombings and shootings are still common, and the fighting has cost almost 7,000 lives, 90% of them civilians.

    A girl raped in her village was taken to a shelter, but the Islamic Council visited to try to make her marry her rapist

As a result, policies imposed on the south from Bangkok are often a great cause of friction. The Thai government, which has thousands of troops stationed across the south, has little interest in stirring up tensions further by interfering in an issue deemed religiously sensitive.

Suraporn Prommul, governor of Narathiwat province, said he had recently met with the Islamic Council over the issue. However, the only change Ayu’s case had prompted was an agreement that in future – in cases involving a young bride and a foreigner – the couple must go first to the provincial Islamic Council office to get married, so the committee can look closely into the case.” There was no stipulation on how this would be enforced.

After the furore in Malaysia over Ayu’s marriage, the girl and her family have this month returned to their native Thailand. Child rights activists fear the Thai government’s apathy over the issue means Che Abdul Karim, who remains in Malaysia, will never be charged with child grooming and abuse. “I am scared this will be another case of child marriage legitimising paedophilia that is swept under the carpet,” said Heemmina.

The impact on girls of marrying before the age of 18 is globally accepted as causing lasting emotional and physical damage, but also perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Girls in the southern Thai provinces are commonly taken out of school once they are married. Many find themselves divorced and with a child before they are even 18.

But Safei Cheklah, the president of the Islamic Council of Narathiwat, while emphasising that council “guidelines” advise that under-18s should not be married, and admitting that it is “not suitable” – still vehemently defended the practice: “I have to speak based on Islamic principle, and according to Islam, the father can give permission for the girl to get married as long as she has achieved physical maturity.”

For the secretary of the Islamic Council, Abdul Razak Ali, whose own mother was just 13 when she married his 70-year-old father, allowing under-18s to marry was justified as a way to prevent “hideous” cases of adultery or illegitimacy. This also extended to forcing underage girls who are raped to marry their rapists.

Angkhana Neelapaijit, the human rights commissioner of Thailand, recounted a recent case of a 15-year-old who was raped in her village in the Yalla province. The girl was taken to a shelter but two days later the Islamic Council visited the girl to try to force her to marry her rapist. “They said it would be best for her,” said Angkhana.

Even charities seem wary of taking action. Aiyub Chena, vice-president of Nusantara, an Islamic NGO working with deprived children in southern Thailand, defended child marriage, because it protects girls from being stigmatised if they are caught with a man.

“Adultery is wrong and sinful according to Islam but if they banned child marriage, I am worried that would make adultery acceptable,” he said.

“You can change the law but that won’t change the society here. It will mean unmarried girls who get pregnant will be outcasts, and their children will not be accepted because they are illegitimate.”

Yet across the Islamic world there is a movement towards outlawing child marriage. Algeria, Oman, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco and Turkey have all set the minimum age for marriage at 18, and recently Indonesia prepared a presidential decree to close the legal loopholes that allow child marriage.

In a small village in Pattani’s Sai Buri district, women spoke about how common forced underage marriage still is in southern Thailand. They described figures known as “facilitators” who would come to the village on behalf of men who are looking for a young wife.

Amal Lateh, who was forced into marriage at 15, said: “When the facilitators come to the houses, they don’t ask the fathers directly – they will say things like, ‘Do you have any lambs or baby goats you are selling?’ Everyone understands what that means: it means they are looking for a virgin to marry. And then an arrangement will be made between the girl’s father and the facilitator. The girl has no say.”

Suranya Litae was 15 when she was forced by her father to marry a man 16 years her senior in order to help her family out financially. She spoke of her anger that the law did not protect girls from the trauma of underage marriage.

“I did not want to be married. I cried so much, and I wanted so much to run away,” she said. “But my family needed the money from my dowry to build a house. At that time I felt so sad because getting married meant I had to abandon my studies.

Sadly, Suranya, stroked the head of her seven-year-old son, Afdon. “I dreamed of being teacher,” she said. “But that didn’t come true.

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« Reply #2744 on: Sep 05, 2018, 04:40 AM »

I get scared, but I'm staying': poignant words of murdered Mogadishu florist

Mohamed Mahamoud Sheik, who opened Somalia’s first flower shop, was killed on 2 August. In this previously unpublished interview, he talks about life in war-torn Mogadishu

Sarah-Eva Marchese and Rebecca Ratcliffe
5 Sep 2018 09.00 BST

Dozens of young people wearing white headbands took to the streets of Mogadishu this month. They walked through the city demanding justice for the young entrepreneur Mohamed Mahamoud Sheik.

Sheik, a businessman known for bringing flowers to Somalia, was shot and killed on 2 August. Sheik had opened Mogadishu’s first florist, and launched Somalia’s first laundry and dry cleaner’s since the state’s implosion in 1991.

Born to Somali parents in Italy and raised in Tanzania, Sheik was among a number of expat entrepreneurs who went back to Somalia to open businesses, following the country’s two decades of conflict.

    To me flowers bring in a new light, a solution to the problems faced

In an interview in 2015, he spoke about why he believed flowers could bring normality to his country. “Most people wonder why [Somalia] is unable to gain peace and stability and have a functioning government. It is not because people do not want peace or a government. It’s because they cannot. They are still haunted and traumatised by the decades of war,” he said. “It has not set it into their minds that peace can truly happen.

“On a daily basis [people] witness bombs going off and see bodies and hear of death. They help those injured and bury their dead. They mourn and pray that God helps them. Then they move with their lives. The next day is again the same and nothing seems to change.

“To me flowers bring in a new light, a solution to the problems faced. It provides an opportunity to see beauty and gain sanity from all the problems surrounding us.”

Some people thought his decision to open a florist’s was mad, he said. Security was always a concern, and fresh flowers had to be imported from Kenya.

But his business grew steadily, with international UN staff making up the majority of his clients, as well as young couples on Valentine’s Day.

To make flowers more attractive to Somali customers, Sheik used chemicals to preserve them for longer. He would recommend different types, based on customers’ favourite colours and smells. But most wanted to order a red rose.

Over the years, on Valentine’s Day, he defied the warnings of some clerics, who said celebrating the event was illegal. A steady trickle of 20-somethings would come to his shop to buy baskets with flowers and chocolates, and post pictures on Instagram.

Some bought a single red rose. “I didn’t mind if they didn’t buy a bouquet,” he said. “It wasn’t about selling the flowers. It was about people appreciating them.”

He said he didn’t worry about being arrested, although he did fear being attacked. Despite this, Sheik was determined to stay. “I’m giving services people love and like,” he said. “If I just leave to another place, I won’t have the joy I’m having right now. I do get scared, but I’m staying here.”

No one has been arrested in connection with Sheik’s murder. The Mohamed Sheikh Ali Foundation has been established to continue his legacy, and a Twitter account, @WeAreNotSafe, has been set up in his memory. It is demanding security and justice for Somali citizens, and for the government to be held accountable.

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