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Wednesday
Apr102019

Alleged ISIS member on trial for allegedly killing 5-year-old girl in landmark case

Jennifer W. stands in between her lawyers Ali Aydin and Seda Basay-Yildiz at the first day of her trial. (Sebastian Widmann/Getty Images) (MILAN) — A trial is now underway in Munich against a 27-year-old German convert to Islam who is accused of allowing a 5-year-old Yazidi girl to die of thirst in the scorching heat in Iraq.

It is the first prosecution for crimes of ISIS militants against Yazidi victims and may set a precedent for forthcoming cases.

If convicted by Munich state court, the defendant, identified as Jennifer W., faces life in prison for weapons offenses, joining a terrorist group, war crimes and murder.

Jennifer W. and her husband are also accused of enslaving the young girl in ISIS-held territory in Iraq.

The co-plaintiff and witness in the case is the girl's mother, who was also held captive by Jennifer W. and her husband. She is being represented by international and human rights lawyer, Amal Clooney, among others.

The start of the case is a landmark for Yazda, a global Yazidi non-governmental organization that helped identify and locate the girl’s mother.

“We have been waiting for this moment to happen – to see that this being discussed legally in the court where there is a criminal perpetrator,” Ahmed Khudida Burjus, director of Yazda, told ABC News.

“The most heinous crimes are what [ISIS] did with women and girls and children, where they used them for sex slaves and abused them psychologically, physically and sexually," he said, while stressing that the thousands of currently detained ISIS fighters should similarly be held responsible for their crimes.

The Yazidi people are an Iraqi ethnic and religious minority who were heavily targeted by the Islamic State.

According to a statement put out by federal prosecutors, Jennifer W. was born in Lower Saxony, quit school in 8th grade and converted to Islam in 2013 before making her way to the Islamic state in 2014 where she “immediately joined the decision-making and command structure of the IS."

As a part of the group’s “morality police,” she patrolled parks in Fallujah and Mosul armed with a Kalashnikov-style assault rifle, a pistol and explosives vest, looking to punish women who did not confirm with the extremist group’s strict dress code, according to prosecutors.

In the summer of 2015, her husband, an Islamic extremist fighter, “purchased” the 5-year-old Yazidi girl and enslaved her and her mother in the household. When the child wet the bed, the defendant’s husband made her stand in the scorching sun as punishment, where it was 113 degrees Fahrenheit outside.

“The accused allowed her husband to do it, and did nothing to save the girl," prosecutors wrote in the statement.

While trying to renew her identity papers in Turkey in 2016, Jennifer W. was deported to Germany and eventually taken into custody after an investigation into her activities in 2018. According to German newspaper Der Spiegel, Jennifer W. was arrested after talking about her experiences, including the girl's death, during a ride in a car with a man who said he wanted to take her back to the Islamic State. That car was, in fact, bugged, and the man was an undercover police officer.

“Yazidi victims of genocide have waited far too long for their day in court. I am grateful to the German prosecutors who I have worked with for their commitment to holding ISIS members accountable for their crimes. And I hope that this will be the first of many trials that will finally bring ISIS to justice in line with international law,” Clooney wrote in a statement released by her office.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Wednesday
Apr102019

Poetic photo of Sudan's 'Lady Liberty' sheds light on anti-government protests

PhilMSparrow/iStock(CAIRO) — A video of a Sudanese protester reciting revolutionary poetry to thousands of protesters in Sudan's capital of Khartoum has gone viral, making her an icon for the mass anti-government mobilization that started last December.

In the video, the young woman, Alaa Salah, is dressed in a traditional white Sudanese thobe and large gold round earring. Sudanese on social media called her "Kandaka," an ancient Nubian title for queen.

The video was taken on Monday during a sit-in by the army headquarters and presidential palace.

Salah’s identity was confirmed to ABC News by Tahani Abbas, a Sudanese women’s right activist.

Abbas told ABC News the footage was helping to shed light on the situation in Sudan.

"It is a salute to the struggles of the Sudanese women and their participation in the mobilization," Abbas said.

A photo of Salah standing on top of a car surrounded by protesters, pointing her finger to the sky, has earned her the nickname "Lady Liberty."

The poetry Salah chanted spoke of the injustice the people of Sudan have endured at the hands of their ruler in the name of religion.

"They jailed.... burnt us in the name of religion," she said.

"We who quenched the Nile with our boiling blood shall be silent not in the face of unjust traitor," Salah recited as the crowd chanted back “Thawra!” -- the Arabic word for "revolution."

Demonstrators are protesting the rising cost of living and many are calling for the end of President Omar Bashir's 30-year rule.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters marched to army headquarters to mark the 34th anniversary of the ousting of former president Jaafar Nimeiri, who was removed in a bloodless coup after a popular uprising.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Wednesday
Apr102019

How Prince Harry, Prince William are changing royal fatherhood

Anwar Hussein/WireImage(LONDON) -- All signs point to Prince Harry being a very hands-on dad to his first child with Duchess Meghan, but it was not always that way for fathers in Britain’s royal family.

Harry’s grandfather, Prince Philip, was not present at his children's births until his wife, Queen Elizabeth II, gave birth to their fourth child, son Prince Edward, in 1964.

Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth’s eldest son, Prince Charles, on the other hand, was there when his then-wife, the late Princess Diana, gave birth to their two sons, Prince Harry and Prince William, at the Lindo Wing.

William, likewise, has been present for the births of all three of his children with Duchess Kate, also at the Lindo Wing.

The royals' increasing participation as fathers with each generation follows a larger societal shift.

"Dads are more than just babysitters; they want to be more involved in parenting their children and often feel shut out," concluded a 2015 survey of Millennial and Generation X parents released by Zero to Three, a non-profit that works to support kids in the first three years of life. "Many want to raise their children differently from how they were raised."

More than half of families in the U.S. now have both parents employed. In those families, a majority of mothers and fathers say they share tasks equally when it comes to household chores and responsibilities, disciplining and doing activities with the kids, according to a Pew Research Center study.

Just as dads around the world have progressed in time to become more involved as equal parents, so, too, have the royals.

"In contrast to perhaps the stiff upper lip or 'get on with it' attitude of previous generations, William and Harry are really keen to pave the way for men being able to show their vulnerabilities and emotionally connect," said ABC News royal contributor Victoria Murphy.

William, 36, second-in-line to the British throne, took some time off from duties after the births of all three of his children, although being a member of the royal family is not a job that comes with established maternity and paternity guidelines.

He has also spoken movingly about fatherhood and the importance of family in his life.

“I’m concentrating very much on my role as a father," William told the BBC in a 2016 interview. "I’m a new father and I take my duties and my responsibilities to my family very seriously and I want to bring my children up as good people with the idea of service and duty to others as very important."

William described in another interview how fatherhood had changed him.

"I'm a lot more emotional than I used to be, weirdly," he said. "I never used to get too wound up or worried about things. But now the smallest little things, you well up a little more, you get affected by the sort of things that happen around the world or whatever a lot more, I think, as a father."

William and Kate have spoken of the support they receive from family members and their nanny, Maria Theresa Borrallo, in raising their children while juggling royal obligations and charitable work.

William is also known, though, to regularly do school drop-offs and pick-ups with his two older children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte.

"While Charles adores his sons, there wasn't the same expectation on fathers of his generation to do the day-to-day things so everyone assumed he would carry on as normal with his duties when his children were young, which he did," said Murphy. "By contrast, in one interview William defended criticism of his official workload by saying that if he can't give his time to his children he worries about their future."

She added, "The idea that men will take time out from work or duties to be with children has shifted with each generation."

Harry, 34, is expected to carry on the generational change with fatherhood when Meghan gives birth to their first child. She has told well-wishers she is due in late April or early May.

Harry and Meghan recently moved from Kensington Palace to Frogmore Cottage in Windsor, a town about 25 miles outside of London. The couple appears to have made the move to escape the glare of the spotlight in London and have a private place to grow as a family.

"It's a perfect place to raise children and for them that's what it's all about: finding normalcy, privacy and a safe family environment for when [the baby] is born," said ABC News royal contributor Omid Scobie.

The palace has not released any details on whether Harry and Meghan plan to employ a nanny or how much time they will take off after Meghan gives birth.

"William took time out when all his children were born but not as long as Kate," Murphy said. "Harry and Meghan might follow that model or they may go for a more shared parental model and both step back for equal amounts of time."

Harry is also expected to continue the work William has done in encouraging fathers, and men overall, to be more open and vulnerable, especially about their own mental health.

"The younger generation of royals are talking a lot about mental health and emotional support and it's clear they bring this into how they parent," Murphy said. "William has spoken about encouraging fathers to emotionally connect with their children and pointing out that fathers find it harder to talk about their own feelings but that it's vital to do so and that children need their father's support just as much as their mothers."

In a 2016 interview with ABC News' Good Morning America co-anchor Robin Roberts, Harry spoke about his love for little ones, saying he "can't wait for the day" he has children.

At the time, he said he tries to be the "fun uncle" for Prince William's children.

"I've got a kid inside of me, I want to keep that, I adore kids," he added. "I enjoy everything that they bring to the party, and they just say what they think."

Harry has also given a preview of what he'll be like as a dad through his interactions with kids at his events, from stepping into a ballet class with 6-year-olds to comforting a young boy in New Zealand whose mom had also passed away.

“I have a beautiful wife and a baby on the way,” Harry told the boy, pointing to Meghan. “Your life is going to be sorted. Don’t you worry about that.”

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Wednesday
Apr102019

Arrests made in connection with kidnapping of American tourist in Uganda, police say

Wild Frontiers Uganda(KAMPALA, Uganda) -- More than 10 arrests have been made in connection with the kidnapping of an American tourist and her safari guide in Uganda's most popular national park, ABC News has learned.

A senior commander of the Uganda Police Force told ABC News eight people were arrested Monday in Kanungu district, which encompasses the southwestern section of the sprawling Queen Elizabeth National Park where U.S. citizen Kimberly Sue Endicott and Congolese national Jean-Paul Mirenge Remezo were abducted at gunpoint while on a safari.

The commander said at least two others were taken into custody Tuesday and that more arrests are expected as authorities continue searching the area and also the other side of the country's western border, into neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Uganda Police Force spokesperson Fred Enanga would only confirm that "some arrests of suspects" were made in Kanungu district.

"We have an intelligence-led operation, which was calculated and tactical in the early stages, and is now progressing unhindered, with raids and extensive searches," Enanga told reporters at a press conference Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Ugandan tourism authorities assured the public that all of the country's national parks remain open and safe for visitors.

"Through the Uganda Wildlife Authority and security agencies, new measures as well as strict guidelines to avoid similar incidents have been put in place," Uganda Tourism Board CEO Lilly Ajarova said in a statement Tuesday. "Security has been tightened in all national parks for tourists' safety. Tourists are encouraged to continue visiting the parks and to enjoy Uganda's wildlife abundance."

Remezo, a senior guide for safari tour operator Wild Frontiers Uganda, was leading Endicott and a Canadian couple on an evening game drive in the park's southern Ishasha section on April 2 when they were ambushed by four gunmen in military uniforms. The gunmen apparently held the group at gunpoint before snatching the keys to their safari vehicle and fleeing with Remezo and Endicott, police said.

The Canadian tourists, identified by Wild Frontiers Uganda as Martin and Barbel Jurrius, were left behind and contacted the camp manager, who brought them back safely to the wilderness compound, police said.

The kidnappers used one of the victim's mobile phones to demand a $500,000 ransom, which police believe was the motive behind the abduction.

After a days-long search operation by Ugandan police, armed forces and wildlife authorities, Endicott and Remezo were "rescued" unharmed from the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo and brought back to Uganda on Sunday evening.

But their captors "escaped," and the operation to track them down continues, according to Ugandan government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo.

Ugandan police said they are working in close coordination with their Congolese counterparts.

Endicott and Remezo were freed in a "negotiated handover, conducted between the Ugandan and U.S. authorities," according to a press statement from Wild Frontiers Uganda, which has been operating safaris in the East African nation since 1996.

"We have provided as much assistance as possible to the authorities and will now continue to provide support to both Kimberly and our guide Jean-Paul as they work toward returning to their homes and families," the company said in the Monday statement. "We also are working with the investigating authorities to ascertain precisely what happened and how this can be prevented in the future."

Enanga, of the Uganda Police Force, said at a Monday press conference that he did not believe a ransom was paid. However, a Wild Frontiers Uganda spokesperson told ABC News a ransom was paid. It remains unclear who paid it or how much was given.

Endicott was seen Monday morning being transported by helicopter to Uganda's capital, Kampala, where police said she was handed over to the U.S. ambassador at the American embassy. It's unclear exactly when Endicott would return home to Southern California.

The U.S. Department of State updated its travel advisory website on Tuesday to include a new specific warning label for the risk of kidnapping and hostage taking. Thirty-five countries, including Uganda, are now marked with the "K" indicator.

Meanwhile, Ugandan tourism authorities assured the public that all of the country's national parks remain open and safe for visitors.

"Through the Uganda Wildlife Authority and security agencies, new measures as well as strict guidelines to avoid similar incidents have been put in place," Uganda Tourism Board CEO Lilly Ajarova said in a statement Tuesday. "Security has been tightened in all national parks for tourists' safety. Tourists are encouraged to continue visiting the parks and to enjoy Uganda's wildlife abundance."

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Tuesday
Apr092019

Three US Marines killed in roadside bomb attack in Afghanistan

flySnow/iStock(WASHINGTON) -- Three U.S. Marines were killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan on Monday, according to the U.S. military.

Three other Americans service members and an Afghan contractor were also wounded in the attack, which occurred near Bagram Air Base. The wounded were evacuated and receiving medical care.

Early reports on Monday from U.S. Forces Afghanistan incorrectly identified the contractor as an American who had also been killed, but an updated statement on Tuesday corrected that the contractor was actually an Afghan civilian who was alive and "treated along with other injured civilians."

“We feel and mourn the loss of these Americans with their families and loved ones. They volunteered to protect their country. We will continue our mission,” said Gen. Scott Miller, Commanding General of Resolute Support and U.S. Forces Afghanistan.

In a congressional hearing on Tuesday, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer confirmed that the three dead American service members were Marines.

The Kentland Volunteer Fire Department identified one of those Marines as Staff Sgt. Christopher Slutman, who served in their department as well as the New York City Fire Department for 19 years.

"Through this trying time, we will remember Chris for the father, husband, brother, son, and friend that he was, the moral character he displayed daily, and the courage and conviction to serve his fellow Americans, both at home and abroad," the department wrote in a Facebook post.

"We ask for your thoughts and prayers for his firehouse brothers, his fellow Marines, his friends – but most of all, his family," the post read.

Prior to Monday's attack, there had been a total of four American troops killed in Afghanistan in 2019: Sgt. Cameron Meddock, Staff Sgt. Joshua Z. Beale, Spc. Joseph P. Collette, and Sgt. 1st Class Will D. Lindsay.

There are 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, many of whom train, advise and assist Afghan forces in their fight against the Taliban.

In February, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said he had not received orders from President Donald Trump to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by half, but U.S. military planners had been tasked with a possible troop reduction after internal discussions began late last year, according to U.S. officials.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad has led direct talks with the Taliban which resulted last month on an agreement "in draft" related to American troop withdrawal and the Taliban's commitment to deny safe haven to terror groups. However, no final decisions have been made.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Tuesday
Apr092019

Israeli elections: What you need to know

IMNATURE/iStock(LONDON) — Who are the key players in this year's Israeli elections?

There is a new excitement surrounding the April 9 Israeli elections -- because incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a possible historic victory, and is staring down his most serious contender in many years.

Netanyahu, who previously served a term as prime minister between 1996 and 1999, will overtake the state's founder David Ben Gurion if he is to win a historic fifth term in office. But the man who has always modeled himself as the leading security and defense candidate is facing stiff competition from a military veteran -- with other senior army figures as allies.

Benny Gantz served as the chief of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) from 2011 to 2015, and in his Blue and White Alliance he is also running with two other former military figures: the former defense minister Moshe Yaalon and former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU


Age: 69; Party: Likud Party

Prime minister since 2009, having previously served a term in 1996 to 1999. Netanyahu is facing indictment charges and may stand trial for corruption.

It's unclear if he will be able to shield himself from the trial if he wins re-election. Netanyahu is poised to win a historic fifth term -- breaking the record for Israel's longest serving prime minister, currently held by the state's founder, David Ben Gurion.

BENNY GANTZ


Age: 59; Party: Israel Resilience Party (Blue and White alliance)

Former chief of the Israeli military 2011-2015, including during two major military campaigns in the Gaza Strip. Gantz has run on a campaign aimed at "cleaning up" the politics in Israel, pushing social policies and, if elected, will serve two-and-a-half years before switching with Yair Lapid.

The Blue and White alliance is formed of Gantz's Israel Resilience Party and is joined by the Yesh Atid and Telem parties.

YAIR LAPID


Yair Lapid leads Yesh Atid. He is a prominent politician and former television anchor who served as finance minister under the last Netanyahu administration.

If Gantz wins the election, Lapid is expected to take over as prime minister after Gantz's first two-and-a-half years are up, under an agreement between party leaders.

NAFTALI BENNETT & AYELET SHAKED


Two of Israel's most prominent right-wing politicians, who lead the newly formed "New Right" party. They are more right-wing than Netanyahu's Likud Party, advocate secular policies and are strongly in favor of settlement expansion.

Both Bennett and Shaked have gained notoriety for some of their more controversial comments on the conflict with the Palestinians and are seen by many as divisive political figures.

LABOR


The successor to Israel's founding party, it has dropped in prominence in recent years. Labor is a social democratic party and a strong supporter of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and may join a centrist coalition.

THE ZIONIST PARTIES


Jewish Home, once the party of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, has joined into an alliance with other right wing part called Jewish Power.

JP is controversial due to its connections with a banned organization called the Kahanist movement -- a proscribed extremist group designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S.

THE ARAB BLOC


The grouping of Israeli-Arab parties has split recently -- but their corresponding demographic in the electorate could still have a deciding effect on the election if they turn out in large enough numbers.

Arab citizens of Israel, ethnically the same as the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, make up around 20 percent of the Israeli population. Many parties in what was known as the Arab Joint List say their biggest priority is to unseat Netanyahu, but some have said they would not support Gantz unless he blocks the controversial "Nation State Law" -- recent legislation that entrenches Jewish influence and control in Israel over other minorities.

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Tuesday
Apr092019

Critics seize on DC visit of Egyptian president to protest 'power grab'

Sean Gallup/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- As Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi prepares to meet with President Donald Trump in Washington, critics are using his visit to protest what they see as human rights violations and steps to further codify his authoritarian rule in Egypt.

While Trump is expected to embrace the Egyptian leader, members of Congress in particular are increasingly vocal in their opposition to Sisi's seizure of power and crackdown on political opposition, including the detention of more than a dozen U.S. citizens.

The White House said Monday the two leaders will have a "very frank and open" conversation about human rights and civil society, but officials emphasized their "warm and personal" relationship, adding that expanding on that is among the visit's goals.

But Sisi's trip comes a week before the Egyptian parliament votes on constitutional amendments that would ensure the general-turned-president remains in power until 2034. The amendments proposed by the pro-Sisi parliament majority, Support Egypt Coalition, would allow the president to run for two six-year terms compared with four-year terms. In addition, it adds a clause that allows the changes to apply to Sisi, whose last term should end in 2022. The changes would also grant him executive authority over the judiciary and further expand the role of the military in political life.

"It seems by coming to Washington at this key moment, Sisi is looking for support for these amendments -- either explicit or implicit. If Trump once again says he's 'doing a great job' that will send a message about these amendments -- and it will not be one of concern," Sarah Margon, the Washington director at Human Rights Watch, told ABC News via email.

Tuesday's meeting will be the sixth between both presidents and Sisi's second visit to the White House. During his last visit, the Egyptian president was praised by Trump for "a fantastic job" and promised him an ally and a friend in the U.S.

Last April, Trump also tweeted his congratulations to Sisi for winning reelection in a process heavily criticized for a crackdown on opposing candidates and for allegations of intimidation and abuse. Sisi won 97 percent of the vote.

While the White House said human rights will be addressed, officials said their meeting will focus on counterterrorism, economic issues and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Egypt, which marks the 40th anniversary of its historic peace treaty with Israel, has been increasingly cooperating with the U.S. ally on counterterrorism and playing the role of mediator between Israeli and Palestinian leadership in Gaza amid recent tensions.

Because of the importance of these security relationships, the Trump administration has been quieter on Egypt's human rights record, critics have said. But they warn that the consolidation of power presents a greater long-term risk for chaos.

"By closing off all peaceful means for the public to change the Egyptian government or to express its grievances, these amendments will create a veritable pressure cooker in which any and all dissent could result in turmoil and unrest," according to the Project on Middle East Democracy, a nonpartisan group that advocates for democracy in the region.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a vocal Sisi critic who's lobbied against the provision of military aid to Egypt since Sisi came to power through a popularly backed coup that ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, urged Trump to be tougher on the former general.

"Instead of welcoming him with words of praise, President Trump should stand up for American values and our true national security interests," Leahy said in a statement to ABC News.

Leahy, along with other key Democratic lawmakers, also is supporting a campaign by April Corley, an American woman severely injured in Egypt in a 2015 military attack, to halt a $1 billion sale of Apache helicopters to Egypt, the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel.

In 2015, the Egyptian military killed 12 people using U.S.-made helicopters, including Corley's boyfriend, in the western desert. They later said they had mistaken their tour bus for Islamic militants. Egypt has offered Corley $140,000 in damages, which is less than the cost of her medical evacuation from the country, let alone the 10 surgeries she's since required.

"It is long past time for the United States to use our influence with Egypt, including tying our military aid to reforms that protect the fundamental rights of the Egyptian people. The alternative is to continue to be complicit with a military dictatorship that contradicts the most basic ideals and principles our country stands for," Leahy added.

Sisi's government is also accused of launching the most aggressive crackdown down on political opponents from across the political spectrum in the country's modern history, according to Amnesty International. While Sisi has repeatedly insisted that there are no political prisoners in Egypt, Human Rights Watch said an estimated 60,000 behind bars in Egypt have been detained on political grounds.

On Monday, a bipartisan group of 17 U.S. lawmakers signed a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, urging him to raise key concerns about Egypt during the meeting between Sisi and Trump, including the "unjust detention" of U.S. citizens.

More than a dozen U.S. citizens are detained in Egypt, according to the letter, which was signed by the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Praveen Madhiraju, a lawyer from Pretrial Rights International, is hoping the visit would secure the release of Mustafa Kassem, a U.S.-Egyptian national detained in Egypt for almost six years. According to Kassem's attorneys and family, he was unlawfully arrested following a time of turbulence after the 2013 ouster of the Islamist president.

Kassem started a hunger strike in September 2018 after he was sentenced to 15 years in a mass trial with more than 700 defendants. His family said he's slowly dying.

"President Trump is Mustafa's best hope. Mustafa has withdrawn all of his appeals and done everything he needs to do for President Sisi to free him," Madhiraju told ABC News. "But that won't happen without President Trump making a simple but life-saving request. As Mustafa wrote President Trump in September, 'I am putting my life in your hands.'"

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Tuesday
Apr092019

Nearly $40 million worth of pangolin scales seized in Singapore

Singapore Customs/National Parks Board(SINGAPORE) -- More than 14 tons of pangolin scales were intercepted in Singapore last week in what authorities are calling one of the largest-ever such seizures in a single shipment.

Singaporean customs officials and the country's national parks board said they inspected a 40-foot container last Wednesday that came from Nigeria and was en route to Vietnam.

The shipment was labeled as "frozen beef," but inside officials found approximately 14.2 tons of pangolin scales stuffed in 230 bags, worth an estimated $38.7 million.

"This is the largest shipment of pangolin scales seized in a single haul globally in recent years," Singapore Customs and the National Parks Board said in a joint statement on April 4.

Singaporean officials also discovered about 400 pounds of cut up and carved ivory from elephant tusks within the same shipment, estimated to be worth another $88,500.

The pangolin, which resembles an anteater apart from its hard, plate-like scales, is believed to be the most illegally trafficked wild mammal in the world. The distinctive yet docile and reclusive creature is being poached into extinction amid an unyielding demand in China and Vietnam for pangolin meat and scales.

Since 2014, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has classified all eight pangolin species as "threatened with extinction," with two now listed as "critically endangered."

With pangolin populations rapidly decreasing, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species banned international trade for all eight species in 2016.

"Pangolin meat is eaten as a luxury dish in high-end urban restaurants, and scales are used to treat a range of ailments from psoriasis to cancer," pangolin researcher Dan Challender, chair of the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group, said in a statement last year. "While pangolin trafficking has historically been confined to Asia, the most worrying trend in the last decade has been the emergence of intercontinental trafficking in African pangolin scales to Asia."

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Monday
Apr082019

London introduces Ultra Low Emissions Zone for vehicles with charges up to $130

BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images(LONDON) — London introduced a new Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) on Monday, a radical new step to clean up the city's air and improve public health that the mayor's office described as the "world's toughest vehicle emissions standard."

The low pollution zone will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, charging cars and motorbikes that do not comply with European Union emissions standards £12.50 ($16) each time they enter central London, while trucks and buses will be charged £100 ($130).

Anyone who does not pay the fine will receive a warning letter, and if they still refuse, will be fined £160 ($208).

This will mostly affect older vehicles that pollute more, according to the Financial Times.

Environmental campaigners and politicians in London have welcomed the move as necessary for both public health and finances, although some small business leaders say the charge is too high.

The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, described the introduction of ULEZ as "a landmark day for our city."

"Our toxic air is an invisible killer responsible for one of the biggest national health emergencies of our generation," he said in a statement. "I simply refuse to be yet another politician who ignores it. The ULEZ is the centerpiece of our plans to clean up London's air – the boldest plans of any city on the planet, and the eyes of the world are on us."

Cardiovascular charity British Heart Foundation hailed the move, claiming action was required as U.K. air pollution plays a role in up to 36,000 deaths a year.

"The ULEZ will help reduce the levels of dangerous pollutants in the air Londoners breathe and crucially, it will help to protect the health of the most vulnerable people across the capital," Sunib Gillespie, the charity's chief executive said. "Air pollution is a major threat to the UK's health, and contributes to thousands of heart attacks and strokes every year. … We now need to see other cities across the U.K. following suit."

However, the Federation of Small Businesses says many of its members have expressed concern that the scheme is an "additional cost burden" and that proposals were not properly communicated to them by the government.

"FSB fully acknowledges that tackling air quality is a critical issue for London," Sue Terpilowski OBE, London Policy Chair of the FSB said in a statement. "However, the cost of doing business in the capital is already high which is forcing many small businesses to re-evaluate their business activity."

The group Mums for Lungs, which campaigns on behalf of parents for lower emissions and cleaner air, say while they have "sympathy" for those affected by the cost, ultimately "the health of Londoners cannot be weighed in money."

"The reduction of air pollution will hopefully result in fewer premature deaths (currently almost 10,000 a year in London alone)," Jemima Hartshorn, the founder of Mums for Lungs told ABC News. "Less hospitalizations because of respiratory illnesses and less occurrence of the many other illnesses linked to air pollution."

The ULEZ will be in effect in the same area affected by the London congestion charge, which charges drivers £11.50 ($15) when entering the center of the city in order to decrease rates of traffic.

The implementation of the low emission zone comes as the city of New York announced plans to introduce its own congestion charge, the first American city to do so, which will come into effect in 2021.

Copyright © 2019, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Monday
Apr082019

Top Russian director freed from house arrest in case that drew international outcry

Andreas Rentz/Getty Images(MOSCOW) -- A Moscow court has released Kirill Serebrennikov, one of Russia’s most celebrated theater directors, from house arrest -- a major change in a case widely criticized as a political show trial and that has drawn comparisons with Soviet-era persecution of artists.

Serebrennikov, 41, has been under house arrest since autumn 2017, charged with embezzling from a state funded project. But many in Russia’s liberal elite and a host of international artists have condemned the trial, seeing it as a punishment for his work, which frequently tackles topics that are uncomfortable for Russian authorities.

Moscow’s Meshchansky court on Monday released Serebrennikov on bail, ending his house arrest but keeping his travel restrictions in place. The court also released two co-defendants in the case, one of Serebrennikov’s producers, Yuri Itin, and Sofia Apfelbaum, a former Ministry of Culture employee.

“It’s not yet victory, but it is almost!” Serebrennikov said in the courtroom on Friday, Russian state news agency TASS reported. “We’re close!”

Serebrennikov, who runs the Gogol Center, Moscow's most prominent contemporary theater, is considered one of Russia's greatest living directors and arguably the most celebrated internationally. His arrest in 2017 shocked Russia’s cultural elite, many of whom believed a political crackdown under President Vladimir Putin that had previously largely spared artists had now reached them. At Serebrennikov’s first court hearings, hundreds of supporters and leading cultural figures gathered outside demanding his release.

Numerous famous artists abroad joined those calls, including actress Cate Blanchett and legendary dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Prosecutors accused Serebrennikov of embezzling funds from a state grant allocated for a theater project he led between 2011 and 2014. They allege that he worked with a group colleagues at his Seventh Studio company to steal 133 million rubles ($2.04 million) from the funds provided by the Ministry of Culture. Serebrennikov has denied the charges, calling them absurd.

Serebrennikov’s lawyers have pointed out that prosecutors initially claimed Serebrennikov had stolen part of the money by not staging a play, a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His defense then showed the play had not only taken place, but won awards.

But while skepticism about the case is widespread, speculation over why Serebrennikov might have been targeted by authorities has been less unanimous.

Although his plays and films frequently parody a corrupt and cynical Russian state, Serebrennikov has long been at the center of the artistic establishment, and for years was a favorite of some of the Kremlin’s most influential officials. In recent years he has directed ballets at the Bolshoi Theater and top officials frequently attended his premiers. Even the theater project now under investigation was created by Putin’s decree.

Many Russian arts circles believe Serebrennikov fell afoul of a more reactionary atmosphere and the political clampdown that followed Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Some see his arrest as a classic authoritarian message telling artists to remain within bounds.

Another widespread theory is that Serebrennikov upset powerful conservatives close to the Kremlin with his open discussion of homosexuality in his work. Some have linked his arrest to his ballet Nuryev at the Bolshoi, which portrayed the life of Soviet dancer Rudolf Nureyev and was delayed amid claims officials found its depiction of gay themes too frank.

Serebrennikov’s proximity to power, even as he often provided an unflattering mirror to the powerful, has led to the comparisons with the treatment of virtuoso artists under Joseph Stalin, who would take a personal interest in favored creators as he often banned them. It has also led to soul-searching among Russia's cultural elite about cooperating with the state following his arrest.

Konstantin Gaaze, a well-known journalist, said he believed the trial had been a message to artists who receive state-funding that they must produce the conservative work desired by the state.

It was to say, “‘If you want budget funds then you should conduct yourself with Russian culture in the appropriate way,’” Gaaze said.

The Kremlin on Monday declined to comment on the court’s decision. Observers in Russia had noted a shift recently in the coverage of Serebrennikov’s trial in state media. Last month, Dmitry Kiselyev -- known as the Kremlin’s propagandist-in-chief -- on his flagship show suggested there was no reason not to release him from house arrest.

Serebrennikov has continued to work while under house arrest, including directing an opera at the Hamburg State Opera in Germany in March, while his Gogol Center in Moscow continues to stage shows. In court on Monday, Serebrennikov told reporters he would try to return to work right away.

“It’s not very easy psychologically, but there’s a lot of stuff to do. We have shows, rehearsals,” Serebrennikov said.

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