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Intel Proves ‘Russian Bounties’ Were No Hoax, House Dems Say

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A group of House Democrats left a classified briefing at the White House Tuesday morning, on  reports that Russia paid Taliban fighters bounties on U.S. soldiers, with complaints that Trump administration officials were not more forthcoming about the intelligence. And they also left with lots of questions about why the president—who has dismissed the story as another “Russia hoax”—is not being more forthcoming with criticism for Russian president Vladimir Putin.“The president called this a hoax, publicly,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the number two House Democrat, at a Capitol Hill press conference after returning from the White House. “Nothing in the briefing we just received led me to believe it’s a hoax. There may be different judgements as to the level of credibility… there was no assertion that the information we had was a hoax.”“We did not,” said Hoyer, “receive any new, substantive information.”And Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that the “right people to give the briefing were not in the room,” noting the absence of intelligence agency leaders. Schiff also addressed the question of whether or not Trump himself was briefed on the intelligence, as the initial report in the New York Times alleged and Trump denies. “There may be a reluctance to brief the president on things he doesn’t want to hear,” he said. The Daily Beast reported on Tuesday that top White House officials did not want to brief Trump on the Russia bounty intelligence for fear he’d resist or ignore the information. Schiff also questioned why the Trump administration has not addressed how it will respond to Russia. "I find it inexplicable in light of these public allegations that the President hasn't come before the country and assured people that he'll get to the bottom of whether Russians are putting bounties on the heads of troops,” said Schiff, who said that U.S. officials should be considering sanctions on Russia, not inviting them to multilateral talks like those in the G7.The Democratic lawmakers said they were unable to elaborate on why the intelligence was not, as Trump claimed, a “hoax.” They are requesting an all-member briefing from intelligence officials soon. But a key focus going forward, said Hoyer, is learning more about what Trump knew about the matter, and when. If Harry Truman said the “buck stops with me,” quipped Hoyer, “Trump says, I didn’t see the buck.”Trump Officials Didn’t Want to Tell Him About the ‘Russian Bounties’The lawmakers’ tone was a stark departure from what House Republicans had to say when they left a briefing on the matter at the White House yesterday. A GOP attendee, Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN), tweeted that White House officials had debunked what he called the New York Times’ “hit piece,” and blamed the paper for reporting details about the alleged bounty system. “Now it’s impossible to finish the investigation,” said Banks. “Many in the media & Congress rushed to judgement before learning the whole story.”Democrats were not present at that meeting, which Banks said featured Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and “top intelligence officials.” Spokespeople for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) all told The Daily Beast on Monday they had not been invited. On Tuesday, Hoyer said that Meadows called him on Sunday night about setting up a briefing for a small group of Democratic lawmakers. The Democrats’ calls for additional briefings are likely to set up a showdown with the White House, which the lawmakers say has not taken the Russia intelligence seriously enough to warrant the all-member briefing they believe is necessary. Schiff said his committee has also requested additional documents to review as it investigates the matter.Read more at The Daily Beast.Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.



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Coronavirus Is Now Reaching ‘Full Speed’ in Africa, Says Top Health Official

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(JOHANNESBURG) — The COVID-19 pandemic in Africa is reaching “full speed,” the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief said Thursday, while a South African official said a single province is preparing 1.5 million graves.

Just a day after confirmed coronavirus cases across Africa surpassed the half-million milestone the total was over 522,000 and climbing, with more than 12,000 deaths. With testing levels low, the real numbers are unknown.

South Africa has the most confirmed cases with over 224,000, and for the first time Gauteng province — home to Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria — has the country’s most cases with over 75,000, or 33%.

Provincial official Bandile Masuku, a medical doctor, startled South Africans when he told reporters Wednesday that Gauteng is preparing over 1.5 million graves. “It’s a reality that we need to deal with,” he said, and it’s the public’s responsibility “to make sure that we don’t get there.”

But the province in a statement Thursday sought to calm fears, saying it “does not have over a million already open dug graves” and clarified that the official was saying the province has enough space for that many. It also said six members of Gauteng’s COVID-19 War Room have tested positive for the virus.

Modeling has shown that South Africa will have nowhere close to that many deaths in the months ahead. Several models forecast between 40,000 and 80,000 by the end of the year.

Asked about the graves, Africa CDC chief John Nkengasong said “there’s absolutely no harm to think ahead” and prepare for the “worst-case scenario.”

’We’ve crossed a critical number here,” he said of the half-million milestone. “Our pandemic is getting full speed.”

He called for more mask-wearing, saying “this battle will be won or lost at the community level.” He also called for more testing, as just 5.7 million tests for the new virus have been conducted across the continent of 1.3 billion people.

With painful memories of many people dying in Africa while waiting for accessible HIV drugs years ago, the Africa CDC on Thursday launched a consortium aimed at securing more than 10 late-stage COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials on the continent as early as possible.

“We want to be sure we don’t find ourselves in the 1996 scenario where HIV drugs were available but it took almost seven years for those drugs to be accessible on the continent,” Nkengasong said.

With any COVID-19 vaccine, a “delay in Africa of even one year would be catastrophic,” he said.

He said the new consortium of African institutions will engage with the GAVI vaccine alliance and other entities outside the continent amid efforts to ensure that a vaccine is distributed equitably from the start.

Those efforts are challenged by the United States and others assertively making deals with vaccine makers to secure supplies in advance.

The African Union last month said governments around the world should “remove all obstacles” to swift and equitable distribution of any successful COVID-19 vaccine, including by making all intellectual property and technologies immediately available.

Africa in recent days has begun taking part in COVID-19 vaccine trials in the face of increasing misinformation on the continent. Trials have begun in South Africa and Egypt, but Nkengasong said a “continent of 1.3 billion people deserves more than just two countries participating.”

A vaccine “is the only weapon to allow our lives to return to normal,” he said.

Conducting clinical trials in Africa is crucial to see how a vaccine performs in a local context — “extremely important,” the World Health Organization’s Africa chief, Matshidiso Moeti, told reporters Thursday.

Many life-saving vaccines have lagged between five and 20 years from the time they become available in high-income countries to when they’re available in low-income ones. That’s in part because local data is lacking, said Shabir Madhi, principal investigator of the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine trial in South Africa.

Africa has some 17% of the world’s population and less than 3% of its clinical trials, he said. “If anything, the criticism right now shouldn’t be about the possibility of using Africans as guinea pigs.”

Africa sees few trials “because there’s very little financial incentive on the part of industry,” Madhi added. “So the entire conversation needs to be flipped on its head.”





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Turkey Torn on Whether Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Should Be a Museum or a Mosque

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Seraffettin was at home under coronavirus ­lockdown on May 29 when a Muslim cleric recited Quranic verses atop a carpeted dais inside Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia museum. But the imam’s reading, to mark the 567th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of the city, lingered in the simit bread vendor’s mind weeks after he returned to the courtyard outside Turkey’s most visited attraction.

“Hagia Sophia officially belongs to Turkey,” Seraffettin said on July 7, outside the 6th-century UNESCO world heritage site where he has sold the sesame-seed dotted snack for 15 years. “But we have to understand that people come to visit it from many different countries. We have to let them see and feel their history too.” Like other vendors, he declined to give his full name so that he could speak freely.

A principal seat of power for Orthodox Christians for almost 1000 years, the Hagia Sophia, known as Ayasofya in Turkish, became a mosque in 1453 after the Ottomans breached Constantinople’s walls. Its mosaics and frescoes were painted over, and for centuries it stood as a symbol of Christian–Islamic rivalry. In 1934, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who envisioned modern Turkey as a secular nation, ordered it turned into a museum. But later in July, a court is set to rule on whether the Ataturk-­era decree can be annulled, paving the way for the Hagia Sophia to again be a mosque.

Orthodox Christians in Greece and Russia were aghast. Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew said in a statement that the building’s reconversion would upset millions of Christians worldwide and could “fracture” relations between East and West. A senior Russian Orthodox Church official, meanwhile, lamented what he described as a “return to the Middle Ages.”

On July 1, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo weighed into the debate. In a tweet, he urged Turkey to keep the Hagia Sophia a museum to show it respected pluralism. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded that such reactions were “tantamount to a direct attack on our sovereignty.”

Domestically, the status of the Hagia Sophia strikes at the heart of the battle between Turkey’s past and a future embodied by Erdogan’s brand of religious nationalism. “Istanbul is a city of mosques and the politics that surrounds them,” says Soner Cagaptay, author of Erdogan’s Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East. Ataturk making Hagia Sophia a museum underscored his commitment to secularism, he says. Now, nearly a century later, Erdogan is attempting the opposite, “flooding Turkey’s public space with his own understanding of religion.”

Turkey’s 20th-century secular rulers often limited the freedom of religious expression, for decades banning the headscarf in state institutions, among other measures. It is difficult to argue that such limitations are still an issue, says Cagaptay, but Hagia Sofia’s continued closure to prayers allows Erdogan to assert that his “conservative base is being victimized, or could be victimized should he fall from power.”

Erdogan’s grip on power looks less assured than ever. In 2019, shortly after Turkey endured its first recession in a decade, his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost the mayorship of Istanbul, which it had held for 25 years. Prominent defections—including that of the former economy minister Ali Babacan—risk splitting his base at a time when the global pandemic is heaping fresh pressure on Turkey’s economy.

Polls suggest slightly more Turkish people support the Hagia Sophia becoming a mosque than oppose it. But a majority also think the debate is being raised now primarily to serve the government’s agenda. More than 55% of respondents to a June survey conducted by Turkey’s Metropoll said its main purpose is either to distract from discussions of Turkey’s economic crisis or to create an argument the government can use to influence early elections.

“It’s a bluff, like poker,” says Mehmet, 60, who owns a shop selling carpets and silverware near Seraffettin’s simit trolley. For now, he says, there’s no need to convert the building. “Did we fill all the other mosques in Turkey?”

There are indications the court could rule in Erdogan’s favor. In a similar case last November, a Turkish court ruled that an Ataturk-era decree making the nearby Chora church a museum was unlawful. Like Hagia Sofia, it had been converted into a mosque during the Ottoman period. Per the court’s ruling, it “cannot be used except for its essential function,” Foreign Policy reports.

Before Hagia Sophia was a mosque, however, it was a cathedral. At least one Orthodox leader believes it might be time for a new approach completely. Armenian Orthodox Patriarch Sahak Mashalian has endorsed the idea of restoring Hagia Sophia as a place of worship for both Christians and Muslims, reports Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper — an announcement that has sparked controversy among Greek and Armenian communities.

But Hagia Sophia has long attracted visitors of every faith. Last year, its immense dome, ornate minarets, and medieval frescoes drew some 3.7 million tourists, making it Turkey’s most visited monument. Yet Sami Bozbey, a trilingual tour guide worried that changing its status would elongate queue times, and might mean covering up mosaic images of the human form, which are considered idolatrous in mosques. He fears that could dissuade foreigners from visiting and hurt an industry already reeling from the pandemic. “Look around,” he says, scanning the courtyard for tourists, “everybody’s struggling.”

With reporting by Engin Bas / Istanbul





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With prizes, food, housing and cash, Putin rigged Russia's most recent vote

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When Russians voted in early July on 200 constitutional amendments, officials rigged the election to create the illusion that President Vladimir Putin remains a popular and powerful leader after 20 years in office. In reality, he increasingly relies on manipulation and state repression to maintain his presidency. Most Russians know that, and the world is catching up.At the center of the changes were new rules to allow Putin to evade term limits and serve two additional terms, extending his tenure until 2036. According to official results, Putin’s regime secured an astounding victory, winning 78% support for the constitutional reform, with 64% turnout. The Kremlin hailed the national vote as confirmation of popular trust in Putin. The vote was purely symbolic. The law governing constitutional change does not require a popular vote. By March 2020, the national legislature, Constitutional Court and Russia’s 85 regional legislatures had voted to enact the proposed amendments. Yet, the president insisted on a show of popular support and national unity to endorse the legal process. The Kremlin’s goal was to make Putin’s 2024 reelection appear inevitable. Given the stakes, the outcome was never in doubt – but it did little to resolve uncertainty over Russia’s future. Declining social supportWhy hold a vote if a vote isn’t needed?As a scholar of Russian electoral competition, I see the constitutional vote as a first step in an effort to prolong Putin’s 20-year tenure as the national leader. The Kremlin’s success defined the legal path to reelection and the strategy for securing an electoral majority in the face of popular opposition.Its effect on societal attitudes is less clear. A recent poll by the independent polling organization the Levada Center showed that while 52% of respondents supported Putin’s reelection, 44% opposed. At the same time, 59% want to introduce a 70-year-old age cap for presidential candidates. This change would bar the 68-year-old president from running again. [Get facts about coronavirus and the latest research. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]The government’s disorganized and weak response to COVID-19 highlighted the inefficient and corrupt system and produced an unprecedented drop in Putin’s public approval ratings. Growing signs of popular discontent in Russia suggest this polling data underestimates demand for change. Local protest against pollution, trash incineration and state reforms continue to grow across the Federation. Focus group data reveals that ordinary Russians are concerned about state repression and civil rights violations. In the leadup to the constitutional vote, internet influencers read the public mood and refused payments for their endorsement, fearing a backlash from followers and advertisers. A new Putin majorityDeclining popular support highlights the difficulty of building a new voting coalition. Manufacturing a demonstration of national unity was the first step in reinventing Putin’s links to core supporters in the runup to the next national election cycle. By 2012, Putin’s first coalition, forged in the economic recovery of the early 2000s, was eroded by chronic economic stagnation punctuated by crisis. In the mid-2010s, Putin’s new majority was based on aggressive foreign policy actions. That coalition declined, as conflicts in Ukraine and Syria dragged on, and public support for expensive foreign policy adventures decreased.The constitutional vote marks Putin’s third attempt to reconstruct electoral support rooted in patriotism, conservative values and state paternalism that echoes the Soviet era. Fixing the voteThe constitutional reform campaign focused on state benefits rather than the Putin presidency. Putin offered something for everyone in the 200 amendments. As an antidote to unpopular pension reforms, a new provision guarantees pensioners annual adjustments linked to inflation. Other amendments codified existing policies guaranteeing housing and a minimum wage. New clauses codify Putin’s version of conservative values, with measures that add a reference to God, a prohibition against same-sex marriage and support for patriotic education. Other provisions take aim at corruption, by prohibiting state officials from holding offshore accounts.A massive PR campaign framed starkly different appeals to different voter groups. For those concerned with international security, ads depicted apocalyptic visions of Russia’s future after a NATO invasion. For younger voters, appeals depicted happy families voting to support a bright future. State television featured supportive cultural icons and artists, including Patriarch Kirill, who is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin himself argued that participation was a patriotic duty. No one mentioned the controversial loophole that would allow Putin to run again. The campaign foretold the outcome: The regime would stop at nothing to secure success. Officials coerced employees of government agencies and large businesses to turn out. Voters were offered prizes, food and chances to win new housing and cash for participating. Ostensibly in response to COVID-19, the Electoral Commission altered voting procedures to evade observation, developing a flawed online voting system and creating mobile polling stations in parks, airports and outside apartment blocks. There is overwhelming evidence that the Kremlin resorted to falsification to produce the desired outcome. Most Russians understand that the manufactured outcome does not accurately reflect attitudes about Putin’s reelection. Limits of disinformationThere is growing evidence that the public is no longer persuaded by disinformation and political theater such as the rigged constitutional vote. Trust in state media, the president and the government are declining precipitously.The realities of sustained economic stagnation and the Kremlin’s anemic response to COVID-19 stand in sharp contrast to its all-out approach to the symbolic national vote. It can rig a vote, but it can’t control a virus.The Kremlin’s pandemic response raises doubts about its ability to fulfill new constitutional mandates. Widely publicized efforts to reform the Soviet-era health care system still left hospitals unprepared to manage the pandemic. The state proved incapable of delivering bonuses to first responders and medical workers. The Kremlin refused to use its substantial emergency fund to support entrepreneurs, families with children and the unemployed. Given these realities, upcoming elections will test the illusion of a new pro-Putin majority defined by this rigged vote. And if the voters abandon Putin, the new Constitution provides a final path to remain in office: the unelected chairmanship of the powerful new State Council.This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts.Read more: * Russia’s cabinet resigns and it’s all part of Putin’s plan * Vladimir Putin’s lying gameRegina Smyth does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.



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