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Iranian Oil Tanker Remains Off Gibraltar Despite Court Ruling

Sat, 08/17/2019 - 05:25

VOA Persian's Katherine Ahn contributed to this report.

An Iranian supertanker caught in a diplomatic standoff off the coast of the British overseas territory Gibraltar remained in port Friday despite a court ruling that it can be released. 

It is not clear when the Iranian supertanker Grace 1, which is at the center of the standoff between Iran and the West, will be able to set sail. 

A lawyer for the ship's captain told the Associated Press on Friday that the ship's Indian captain no longer wanted to maintain command of the vessel.

The Supreme Court in Gibraltar ruled Thursday that the tanker could be released from detention, shortly after the United States had launched a new, last-minute legal bid to hold it.

A delay of the vessel's departure could give the United States another opportunity to mount further legal action to again try to prevent the tanker from leaving Gibraltar.

A view of the Grace 1 supertanker is seen backdropped by Gibraltar's Rock, as it stands at anchor in the British territory of Gibraltar, Aug. 15, 2019.

The Grace 1 had been carrying 2.1 million barrels of Iranian oil when Gibraltar police and British Special Forces seized it on July 4. It was believed to be transporting oil to Syria in violation of both European Union and U.S. sanctions.

On Thursday, Gibraltar's government said it had received assurances from Tehran that it would not send the crude oil cargo to Syria. 

Gibraltar chief minister Fabian Picardo said in a statement: "We have deprived the Assad regime in Syria of more than $140 million worth of crude oil."

However, an Iranian official later disputed that any assurances had been given.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi was quoted by Iran's semiofficial Tasnim news agency Friday as saying, "Iran has given no assurances over the Grace 1 not going to Syria to secure its release," and that Gibraltar was only seeking to "save face."

FILE - The Stena Impero, a British-flagged vessel owned by Stena Bulk, is seen at Bandar Abbas port, July 21, 2019.

After the Iranian tanker was seized, Tehran retaliated by taking control of a British tanker, the Stena Impero, on July 19 in the strategic Strait of Hormuz — the shipping lane for about a fifth of the world's crude — for breaking "international maritime rules." Iran still holds the Stena Impero.

Iran had repeatedly called for the release of the Grace 1, saying it had been in international waters and was not headed to Syria.

Tehran condemned Thursday's U.S. bid to block the release of the ship.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Twitter, "Having failed to accomplish its objectives through its #EconomicTerrorism — including depriving cancer patients of medicine — the U.S. attempted to abuse the legal system to steal our property on the high seas. This piracy attempt is indicative of Trump admin's contempt for the law."

In a Thursday interview with VOA Persian, Brookings Institution foreign policy research director Michael O'Hanlon said he did not see Gibraltar's decision on the tanker as a significant failure for U.S. policy. 

"I think this is in the category of ‘win a few, lose a few.' We decided to make a run at [the tanker]. Apparently, we have been unsuccessful," O'Hanlon said. "It doesn't change the overall situation, which is that we are squeezing Iran harder and harder economically. They are getting less and less oil out, even as they get some sanctions evasion and avoidance. You don't have to necessarily win every single engagement of this type for the overall strategy to succeed.” 

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters as he boards Air Force One for travel to New Hampshire from Morristown Municipal Airport in Morristown, New Jersey, Aug. 15, 2019.

The dispute over the tanker is part of the ongoing confrontation between U.S. President Donald Trump and the Iranian government over its nuclear program, ballistic missile development and involvement in regional conflicts. The confrontation escalated last year when Trump withdrew the U.S. from a 2015 international agreement in which Iran agreed to curb activities that could be diverted to making nuclear weapons in exchange for relief from crippling economic sanctions. 

Trump said the 2015 deal did not do enough to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons or engaging in other perceived malign behaviors. By withdrawing from it, he unilaterally reimposed U.S. sanctions against Iran, hobbling its economy in a so-far unsuccessful effort to force Iran to negotiate a new deal. 

Trump has said such a deal should cover not just Iran's nuclear program but also its activities related to ballistic missiles and support for Islamist militant groups hostile toward the U.S. and U.S. allies.

Epstein's Death Was Suicide, Medical Examiner Says

Sat, 08/17/2019 - 04:50

NEW YORK - An autopsy has determined that financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was found dead in jail while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges, died of suicide by hanging, New York's Office of Chief Medical Examiner said Friday. 

Epstein, 66, was found dead Saturday in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in lower Manhattan, triggering investigations into the circumstances of his death. 

The well-connected money manager was arrested July 6 and pleaded not guilty to federal charges of sex trafficking involving dozens of underage girls as young as 14. 

"We are sending the determination out very shortly. It is suicide by hanging," Office of Chief Medical Examiner spokeswoman Aja Worthy-Davis told Reuters. 

The autopsy showed that Epstein's neck had been broken in several places, two law enforcement sources said Thursday. 

The federal Bureau of Prisons, which runs the MCC, has said there had not been an inmate suicide there since 2006. 

Epstein had been on suicide watch at the jail but was taken off prior to his death, a source who was not authorized to speak on the matter said previously. At the MCC, two jail guards are required to make separate checks on all prisoners every 30 minutes, but that procedure was not followed, the source added. 

Separately, a team at the jail on Wednesday began an "after action" review, which is normally triggered by significant events such as a prominent inmate's death, a person familiar with the matter said. 

U.S. Attorney General William Barr ordered the removal of the warden at the jail, the Justice Department said Tuesday. Barr had criticized "serious irregularities" at the facility. 

Two corrections officers assigned to Epstein's unit also were placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of investigations. 

Epstein, a registered sex offender who once counted President Donald Trump and former President Bill Clinton as friends, pleaded guilty in 2008 to Florida state charges of unlawfully paying a teenage girl for sex. 

Two women who said they were recruited 15 years ago to provide massages to Epstein, only to be later sexually molested by him at his Manhattan mansion, filed a $100 million lawsuit against the financier's estate on Thursday night. The lawsuit was at least the second filed against the estate since Epstein’s death. 

 (Im)migration Weekly Recap, Aug. 11-16

Sat, 08/17/2019 - 04:28

Editor's note: We want you to know what's happening, why and how it could impact your life, family or business, so we created a weekly digest of the top original immigration, migration and refugee reporting from across VOA. Questions? Tips? Comments? Email the VOA immigration team: ImmigrationUnit@voanews.com. 

United States: New regulation penalizes green card applicants over public benefit use.

The Trump administration this week moved to further limit who can obtain U.S. residency based on which public benefits they use, even if they are legally entitled to them. 

— VOA Immigration Reporter Aline Barros breaks down which benefits might put someone's immigration status at risk, and why the government is doing this. Immigrant rights advocates call the new regulation "xenophobic and classist." 

Bangladesh: U.N. moves forward on ensuring Rohingya are no longer undocumented

Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh are getting identity documents — some for the first time — that the United Nations claims are "fraud-proof." Roughly half a million of the estimated 900,000 people living in the Cox's Bazar camp have the new registration cards, which show the country of origin as Myanmar. Such documentation serves multiple purposes, including ensuring access to benefits, and the right of refugees to return to their home country, which in some cases would not recognize them as nationals. 

From the Feds: U.S. Border Patrol agents rescued six children — including an 8-month-old — and six adults from the Rio Grande in Texas this week. Agents on the U.S. side of the border repeatedly warn the public of the danger in crossing the boundary river, which is studded with small islands, rocky outcroppings and steep underwater drop offs.

Nigerian Sheikh Abruptly Returns Home from Medical Trip to India

Sat, 08/17/2019 - 04:24

James Butty contributed to this report.

WASHINGTON - Controversial cleric Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky returned home to Nigeria after a brief trip to India, where he had sought medical treatment after four years in detention.

The news came as a surprise to supporters who had celebrated his departure earlier in the week. Nigerian authorities had granted Zakzaky medical leave while he awaits trial. He was charged with inciting violence and other offenses but denies guilt. While in detention, he has had two strokes and is losing his sight, the BBC reported

In a videotaped statement posted on Twitter, the 66-year-old Shia cleric said he had been informed by Indian regional authorities that he was being returned to Abuja, Nigeria. "We hope this is the best decision for us," he said in a translated and subtitled statement.

Here is the English subtitle. pic.twitter.com/F2Mxtr8Lz1

— Sayyid Zakzaky Office (@SZakzakyOffice) August 15, 2019

Zakzaky is the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), a Shia Islamic group closely allied to Iran. Long distrusted by Nigerian authorities, Zakzaky was held as a prisoner for nine years in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2015, the Nigerian army clashed with his supporters, killing about 350 people.

Zakzaky and his wife were both wounded in the battle, and he has been detained since. His supporters have demanded his release with periodic protests, which security forces have violently suppressed.

John Campbell, a senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Zakzaky may have not liked the strict terms of his trip. Zakaky wished to be checked into a hotel upon arrival in India, Campbell said, but instead was taken directly to a hospital and surrounded by security personnel, restricting his ability to move freely in the country. 

"Apparently, what he had wanted to do in India was to resume, essentially, his political activity," Campbell said. "And so he anticipated being unfettered and found himself to be very fettered, indeed, and that, I think, is at the heart of his discontent."

Online, Zakzaky's supporters claimed authorities had forced him to return to Nigeria for political reasons.

In an email response to VOA, the Indian Embassy in Nigeria highlighted social media posts in which the diplomatic mission refuted claims the Indian and Nigerian governments were working to keep Zakzaky unlawfully detained or deny him treatment.

Sir, Such reports are not true. India has always been responsive to humanitarian requests. Medical treatment request was received from both the patient and the Government of Nigeria, and we readily agreed. No other connotation should be attached to the matter.

— India in Nigeria (@india_nigeria) August 14, 2019

Estimates of the number of IMN followers range from several hundred thousand to 3 million, Campbell said. He added that one concern is that Zakzaky's followers will become disaffected with the political process and take up arms. The worst-case scenario would be that they become an insurgency, similar to the radical Islamist group Boko Haram. 

"The concern is that, if the Shia are radicalized, that that is not going to be good," Campbell said. "Now there's a difference. Zakzaky has never advocated violence, whereas Boko Haram preachers have. So that's a fairly important point. On the other hand, the concern has to be: What happens if the Shia, in fact, start advocating violence?"

FILE - Iranian and Nigerian students hold posters of Nigerian Shiite cleric Ibrahim El-Zakzaky during a demonstration outside the Nigerian Embassy in Tehran, July 17, 2019.

The group had been holding daily protests in the streets of Abuja, but in an interview with VOA's Daybreak Africa on Monday, Ibrahim Gamawa, a spokesperson for the IMN, said those protests would stop while Zakzaky receives treatment. 

He said the group is happy, but added that the medical leave should have been granted long ago.

"We will disappear from the streets of Abuja for the time being. We pray that our sheikh will come back healthier than when he left the country," Gamawa said. 

Gamawa denied that the group has ever used violence, saying they are victims of violence by Nigerian authorities. "We want to unite Nigerians. We want Nigerians to understand each other. We want Nigerians to tolerate each other. We want Nigerians to be each other's people. So, extremism is for the extremists," he told VOA.

"There is no civil court that convicted any of our members of killing any other person," Gamawa added. "We are victims of all these things that come from disgruntled people, so we are victims of extremism. We are victims of political struggle. We are an endangered species in Nigeria."

Sudan's Opposition Alliance Chooses Prime Minister

Sat, 08/17/2019 - 04:16

Carol Van Dam contributed to this report.

KHARTOUM, SUDAN - Sudan's Forces of Freedom and Change, the country's main opposition alliance, has nominated economist Mohammed Abdalla Hamdok to serve as prime minister in the country's transitional government.  

Hamdok, whose nomination was announced Thursday night, is expected to be appointed prime minister by Sudan's sovereign council, which is expected to be sworn in Monday. 
 
Hamdok has served as deputy executive secretary of the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa since 2011. For decades, he worked as a senior policy analyst and economist on governance issues, public sector reforms and regional integration. 
 
From 2003 to 2008, Hamdok worked at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance as regional director for Africa and the Middle East. 

Hurdles ahead
 
Some Sudanese said that while they thought Hamdok was the right person for the job, he faces many challenges. 
 
Khartoum-based economist Abdallah Ramadi said given his credentials, Hamdok was the right choice to lead Sudan for a transitional period that is to last a little more than three years. 
 
"He has in his hands now the responsibility of a collapsing economy. Shortages [are] everywhere. You find queues in bakeries, you find queues in gas stations, you find queues at transport stations and in banks, which is a shame," Ramadi told South Sudan in Focus. 
 
Ramadi said bad decisions by government leaders caused the economic collapse, not a shortage of natural resources. 
 
"Prices shot up in Sudan not for economic reasons but because of mismanagement of the economy, because of exaggerated government spending on politics and politicians, which led to high inflation," Ramadi told VOA. 
 
Sudanese journalist Shuhdi Nadir called the choice of Hamdok a blessing for Sudan but warned that efforts to lift Sudan out of its economic crisis wouldn’t be easy. 

"For the past 30 years Sudan has been spending much of its budget on war. Corruption has been spreading within government institutions. There is a lot that needs to be done to reform the civil service," Nadir told South Sudan in Focus. 

Peace first
 
If Hamdok can restore peace in the conflict-affected regions of Darfur, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile area, Nadir said, he will have a good chance at achieving significant economic change in Sudan. 
 
Hamdok holds master of arts and doctoral degrees from the School of Economic Studies-University of Manchester, United Kingdom, and a bachelor of science degree from the University of Khartoum. 

US Public Charge Rule: What Do Changes Mean for Immigrants? 

Sat, 08/17/2019 - 03:40

Victoria Macchi contributed to this report.

The Trump administration this week finalized a rule that will expand the definition of a person who could become dependent on the government for support, known as a public charge, allowing immigration officials to decide who is admitted into the United States or is allowed to adjust his or her status to that of lawful permanent resident (LPR) based on the likelihood of becoming a public burden. 

Using the public charge inadmissibility determination method, officers from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) — an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that administers the country's naturalization and immigration system — will look at the totality of a person's circumstances, including age, health, assets, education and financial status. 

What is the new policy?

According to government officials, public benefits are defined as federal, state and local, or tribal cash assistance for income maintenance and non-cash benefits.

Under the new rule, the financial security of immigrants who are in the United States legally on temporary visas or who are eligible for adjustment of status, will be examined more closely when they seek LPR status — which allows them to live and work in the U.S. and eventually file for American citizenship. They receive a photo ID known as a "green card."

A person may be deemed a public charge if he or she has used one or more public benefits for more than 12 months in the aggregate within any 36-month period. For example, the receipt of two benefits in one month counts as two months. 

Immigration officials will be given broader discretion to determine whether an immigrant is likely to be a user of public benefits, to deny him or her a green card, or to order that person removed from the country. The latter can eventually lead to deportation but applicants can appeal the decisions. 

What is the administration's reasoning for the change?

Even though officials said the program would not apply to people who already have green cards, to certain members of the military, to refugees and asylum-seekers, or to pregnant women and children, the Trump administration strongly defends the idea the United States should welcome immigrants based only on the "merit" they demonstrate.

Ken Cuccinelli, USCIS acting director, said it would allow the government to insist that immigrants who come to the country were self-sufficient and would not be a drain on society.

At a White House news conference, Cuccinelli said the rule would apply only to applications and petitions received starting on Oct. 15. After that, USCIS career immigration services officers are expected to consider an applicant's current and past receipt of public benefits as negative factors while in the United States. 

"However, receipt of certain non-cash benefits received before Oct. 15 will not be considered as a negative factor," he said. 

Supporters of the new interpretation of the public charge definition proposal have said the rule "ensures that we allow in only those who will be able to pay their own bills."

Most of the 800 pages in the new public charge rule consist of responses to critics who believe the rule is too strict, based on the idea that people likely to become public charges should be welcomed to America. Congress has explicitly stated otherwise. https://t.co/MBjjJwx5uy

— Mark Krikorian (@MarkSKrikorian) August 14, 2019

According to immigration law, a legal permanent resident qualifies for limited federal benefits. But in most cases, the LPR must wait five years after receiving residence to apply for government assistance.

What are critics and immigration advocates saying about it?

A Migration Policy Institute analysis showed that within the expanded rule there would be "a disproportionate effect on women, children and the elderly. It also could shift legal immigration away from Latin America and towards Europe in particular." 

Immigrant advocates described it as a "cruel" policy, which they said was already leading immigrants to quit housing and medical benefits out of concern that it could impact their immigration status or that of a family member. The National Immigration Law Center filed litigation on Friday to stop the public charge expansion. The organization and co-litigators asked the court to "strike it down," calling the new interpretation of the rule a "violation of equal protection under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution."

BREAKING: We just filed our lawsuit to stop Trump’s #PublicCharge regulation, which threatens millions of immigrant families. We will not stand for it. We’re fighting back against this racist policy and we’re going to win the fight to protect immigrant families. #ProtectFamiliespic.twitter.com/B7gpX76k9o

— National Immigration Law Center (@NILC) August 16, 2019

"One line of attack is that the agency has gone too far in trying to make these changes by regulation, and that only Congress has authority to make such substantial changes," Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell University's law school, told VOA. 

 

(1/8) Today the final #PublicCharge rule was issued. In the next few tweets, we will explain how it will harm immigrant families’ ability to access nutrition support and health care. https://t.co/zyNJHfkEd0

— Amer Acad Pediatrics (@AmerAcadPeds) August 12, 2019

Kristen Torres, director of child welfare and immigration at First Focus on Children, said the effect was visible in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps. Torres said advocates have seen a 10% decline in participation during the first half of 2018 by eligible families.

"Children are considered negative factors both for themselves and for the consideration of their parents in the totality of circumstances. The rule specifically says it will consider an age of less than 18 as a negative factor, as under 18 they are unable to be meaningfully employed," Torres added. 

Under the administration’s proposed cut, 61% of those who would lose access to SNAP are living with children or are children themselves. Protect children and families today: https://t.co/r5Jh97YTIY#HandsOffSNAPpic.twitter.com/Wo0HzUiF1y

— First Focus on Children (@First_Focus) August 14, 2019

What does the data say? 

A 2018 Migration Policy Institute analysis showed that among recent green card holders, more than 69% had at least one negative factor. The five factors used in the study were being neither employed nor enrolled in school, not speaking English well or at all, having an income below 125% of the federal poverty level, not having a high school diploma and being under 18 or over 61. 

A heavily positive factor is if a person makes 250% of the federal poverty guideline, about $64K a year, or if a person has "private health insurance" that doesn't come with an Affordable Care Act subsidy. 

The findings showed most green card applicants would fall into a gray area with some positive and some negative factors. Also, with its emphasis on employment, the rule has the potential to make it more difficult to get green cards for women who stay at home rearing children. 

Department of Homeland Security officials estimated about 382,000 immigrants seek adjustments to their immigration status annually and would be subject to the public charge review.

An Associated Press analysis of census data showed that low-income immigrants who are not citizens use Medicaid, food aid or any sort of cash assistance at a lower rate than comparable low-income U.S.-born adults. Non-citizen immigrants represent 6.5% of those participating in Medicaid, while more than 87% of participants are native-born; and, 8.8% of those receiving food assistance are non-citizen immigrants while more than 85% of participants are native-born.

Immigration attorneys who spoke with VOA said that although the damage done by the expansion of the public charge rule would take longer to play out, green card denials would spike. 

And people who are denied turn to the massive immigration court backlog.

UN Security Council Discusses Kashmir Escalation 

Sat, 08/17/2019 - 03:22

Updated at 5:38 p.m. Aug. 16.

UNITED NATIONS - The U.N. Security Council met privately Friday to discuss India's Aug. 5 decision to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, which has led to a security crackdown in the territory and an escalation in tensions with neighboring Pakistan. 
 
Permanent council member China requested the session on behalf of Pakistan, which had sent three letters to the council's president detailing its concerns since early August. It is the first time the council has met on the issue since 1971.  
 
"It's obvious that the constitutional amendment by India has changed the status quo in Kashmir, causing tensions in the region," China's new U.N. envoy, Zhang Jun, told reporters, referring to India's decision to revoke Article 370 of its constitution, which gave the Muslim-majority territory semiautonomy.  
 
Zhang noted Beijing's deep concern and called on the parties to exercise restraint. 

Meanwhile, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan discussed the situation in Jammu and Kashmir over the phone Friday with U.S. President Donald Trump. Khan and Trump met in Washington last month.

According to a White House statement, Trump conveyed the importance of India and Pakistan reducing tensions on this issue through bilateral dialogue.

Overlapping claims
 
The Kashmir region is divided among India, Pakistan and China, who have overlapping territorial claims.  In Indian-controlled Kashmir, China controls an area in the east known as Aksai Chin, and Zhang said India had challenged China's "sovereign interests" there and violated a bilateral agreement related to peace in the border area.  
 

FILE - Zhang Jun, then-procurator-general of China's Supreme People's Procuratorate, delivers a report at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 12, 2019.

"And on that, China is also very much seriously concerned," Zhang said. "And we wish to emphasize that such unilateral practice by India is not valid in relation to China and will not change China's exercise of sovereignty and effective administrative jurisdiction over the territory." 
 
Kashmir has been a regional flashpoint for decades. Nuclear powers India and Pakistan have fought several wars over Kashmir since they both gained independence from Britain in 1947.  
 
India views the issue as an internal matter to be handled bilaterally with Pakistan, but Pakistan's ambassador argued that was not the case. 
 
"The fact that this meeting took place is testimony to the fact that this is an internationally-recognized dispute," Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi told reporters. "Today the whole world is discussing the occupied state and the situation there."  
 
She said Pakistan stood ready for a peaceful settlement of the dispute.  
 
Since the revocation of Article 370, India has effectively cut off Kashmir’s communications with the rest of the world, imposing a blackout on telephones and the internet, stepping up security and limiting free movement.  

'Reasonable restrictions'
 
"Public order is integral to ensuring that democracy prospers," Indian U.N. envoy Syed Akbaruddin said in response to reporters' questions. "There are reasonable restrictions. We acknowledge that these are restrictions. We are easing them." 
 

FILE - Indian paramilitary soldiers stand guard near a temporary checkpoint on the road leading toward an Independence Day parade venue during a lockdown in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, Aug. 15, 2019.

He said it would be up to the administrators on the ground to decide how quickly they would be eased or ended. But he said they were necessary to prevent "terrorists" from acting against the people. 
 
In February, a young Kashmiri suicide bomber attacked a military convoy, killing more than 40 Indian troops. India blamed Pakistan for the attack and retaliated with airstrikes on what it said was a terrorist camp in Pakistan.  
 
Of the possibility of talks with Pakistan, Akbaruddin said it would be necessary for Pakistan to "stop terror to start talks." 
 
Between 1948 and 1971, the Security Council has adopted 18 resolutions on the situation. The U.N. has a very small military observer force in the area to monitor the cease-fire. The territorial dispute remains the primary source of regional tensions. 

Recession Fears Prompt Many to Rethink Global Economic Integration 

Sat, 08/17/2019 - 03:02

Fears of a global recession mounted this week, as a host of factors combined to send investors retreating to the safest havens they could find and forced policymakers to make plans to counteract a possible global economic slowdown. 
 
The issues giving everyone pause are numerous and are largely interconnected. Looming over everything is the United States' aggressive stance on trade with China, which has devolved into a trade war with global implications.  
 
The Chinese and U.S. economies, which between them account for a major share of global economic production, are both suffering. Additionally, Germany, which counts on China as a major importer of its manufactured goods, saw its economy shrink in the second quarter of the year. Meanwhile, Britain stands on the brink of a disorderly exit from the European Union, with unknowable — but likely dire — economic consequences, and markets are nervous about another volley of tariff threats from President Donald Trump that would hit German cars and French wine, among other things. 

Larger question
 
While these may all seem only tangentially related, each of the different factors currently troubling the global economy is part of a larger question that economist Nicolas Véron, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, says everyone is currently trying to answer: "Is global economic integration as we have known it over the last few decades sustainable?" 
 
Recent years have seen an unprecedented intertwining of global supply chains in manufacturing, retail and agriculture. Now, investors are asking themselves whether leaders of some of the world's largest economies, Trump chief among them, are really going to try to pull those relationships apart, and what will happen if they succeed. 
 

FILE - U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other U.S. officials gather with China's Vice Premier Liu He and other Chinese officials before the start of trade talks in Washington, Feb. 21, 2019.

"Is the trade war a real thing, or is it going to peter out? Is the U.S. really going to decouple from China? These are big questions associated with apparent change of direction of U.S. policy with the Trump administration mostly, but are echoing various strands of economic nationalism in other places in the world," said Véron. 
 
The current uncertainty may be adding to the problems that a major realignment of global trade policies would create. 
 
Across the globe, many investors are so spooked about the future that they are literally paying the governments of economically powerful countries to hold their money for them. Typically, sovereign debt issued by a major industrialized nation is viewed as a very safe asset. That's why governments — particularly the United States, but also Germany, Britain, Japan and others — can borrow money at very low interest rates. 
 
However, over the past several weeks, the yield on many government bonds has turned negative, meaning that purchasers agree in advance to suffer a loss, presumably because they expect that they would lose even more in any alternative investment. Early this month, a Deutsche Bank analysis determined that 25% of current government bonds around the world now offer a negative yield, three times the percentage in October 2018. 
 
This is bad news for multiple reasons, not least of all because it means that money that might have been invested in growing businesses is instead tied up in government bonds. 
 
Bond market warning 
 
Another negative signal from the bond market appeared in the U.S. this week when the price of two-year Treasury notes rose above the price of 10-year notes.  
 
That phenomenon, known as an inverted yield curve, occurs when short-term investments in Treasurys pay more than the long-term kind. If that sounds economically nonsensical, that's because it is. Lending for 10 years is riskier than lending for two years and ought to command a higher rate of return. 
 
Inverted yield curves are driven by many factors. These include investor panic, but there are systemic issues at work as well, such as large investment funds that are required by their promises to investors to keep a certain percentage of their holdings in bonds — even when doing do requires them to overpay.  
 
Whatever the ultimate cause, inverted yield curves have preceded every recession in the U.S. for the past 50 years, though often the inversion and the onset of the following recession were separated by as much as 18 months. 
 
The increasing possibility of a recession in the U.S., particularly with an election year looming, has drawn mixed reactions from the Trump administration. While administration spokespeople continue to insist that the economy is strong and getting stronger, the president himself seems to be preparing for the possibility of recession by preemptively deflecting blame from himself. 

FILE - A television monitor on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange headlines a rate decision of the Federal Reserve, in New York, July 31, 2019.

Pointing toward Federal Reserve
 
Trump has suggested that any downturn in the economy will be the responsibility of the Federal Reserve, which sets interest rates. Trump has consistently criticized the central bank for slowly increasing rates over the past few years, accusing the Fed of hampering economic growth.  
 
Even after a quarter-point cut last month, which left the rate target in a range of just 2% to 2.25%, Trump called for an immediate additional cut to forestall the possibility of recession. 
 
However, there is sometimes only so much policymakers can do. Economies move in cycles, and those cycles inevitably include periods of recession. 
 
"The U.S. has its own cycle," said Véron, of the Peterson Institute, and that cycle is separate from those of other countries. However, the U.S. is now in the longest economic expansion in its history, and factors like the yield curve inversion suggest that it may be reaching its end.  
 
"There is an indication that we're at the late stage of an expansion," he said, "but that doesn't necessarily mean it ends tomorrow." 

IOM: 500-plus Migrants Have Died in Americas in 2019

Sat, 08/17/2019 - 02:51

GENEVA - The International Organization for Migration said Friday that deaths on migratory routes in North and South America had reached a grim milestone of more than 500 this year. Of those, 247 occurred on the U.S.-Mexico border. 

The latest statistics showed migrant deaths had increased by more than one-third over the same period last year. The U.N. migration agency said women and children accounted for one-fifth, or 107, of those known to have died in the Americas in 2019. 

IOM spokesman Joel Millman said that the deaths not recorded on the U.S.-Mexico border occurred in Central America, near Caribbean Sea islands or in South America.  
 
"The turmoil in Venezuela — where over 4 million migrants have left the country since 2015 — may account for much of 2019's fatalities surge in recorded data,” he said. “This year, IOM has reported 89 confirmed fatalities of Venezuelan nationals, whose deaths were recorded across South and Central America as well as in the Caribbean Sea." 

Millman said this year's total of 514 recorded deaths did not include at least 11 deaths in custody — eight in detention centers in the United States and three in Mexico.  Nor, he said, does the total include at least 50 as yet uncorroborated cases in Mexico and in Panama's Darien Jungle.  

"In the last 10 days, since our last update, 15 people were recovered in inland Texas and three were recovered after they had drowned crossing the Rio Brava River [the Rio Grande],” he said. “So, that is 18 people in 10 days, just in that tiny stretch of the border." 
 
The IOM said the causes of migrant deaths are wide-ranging.  It said most result from traffic accidents, followed by accidents along railways, dehydration or exposure, and violent crimes such as homicides. It said 19 people had died this year because of sickness or lack of medical attention. 
 
But the cause of the largest number of fatalities, more than 100, was listed as "unknown."  That, the report said, is because many migrants' bodies are not found for weeks or months after their deaths, making a proper assessment difficult if not impossible. 

30th Anniversary of Berlin Wall's Tumble Prompts Democracy Debate

Sat, 08/17/2019 - 01:49

Thirty years ago, the Iron Curtain dividing Europe lifted.  

Next week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel travels to Hungary to commemorate the anniversary of a peace protest on the border with Austria that helped pave the way for the mass flight of East German citizens to the West. The Berlin Wall was torn down three months later, and 1989 went down as an era-changing year that ended the three-decade-long Soviet occupation of the countries of Central Europe.

The commemoration on Aug. 19 will include an ecumenical service in the Lutheran church of Sopron, and is to be held near where 600 East Germans plowed through the border gates to enter the West. Hungarian authorities had announced the border would be opened symbolically later for three hours, but the crowd was too impatient to wait for freedom — and in no mood to receive it as a gift from increasingly superannuated Communist bosses. 

FILE - An East German refugee shows off a newly acquired West German passport just before crossing the Hungarian border into Austria, Sept. 10, 1989.

Three years later, political scientist Francis Fukuyama published his triumphalist book The End of History and the Last Man, celebrating the ascendency of Western-style liberal democracy. Humanity, he argued, was reaching "not just ... the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

But history did not end in 1989. 

Hungary only 'partly free'

For some, the awkward pairing next week of Germany's Merkel and Hungary's authoritarian-inclined prime minister, Viktor Orban, will be symbolic of the return of history, of a new, unfolding east-west cleavage. The pair will be celebrating the rebirth of democracy, but Orban has been accused of backsliding on democracy by systematically dismantling the Western-style institutions his country has struggled to establish since the crumbling of Communism. 

This year, Freedom House, a U.S.-based research group, described Hungary as only "partly free," the first time it has withheld from a European Union member state the designation "free." It has accused Orban's government of having "moved to institute policies that hamper the operations of opposition groups, journalists, universities, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) whose perspectives it finds unfavorable."

FILE - German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a news conference in Bratislava, Slovakia, Feb. 7, 2019.

Hungary's firebrand populist, an anti-Communist liberal-turned-conservative who's enjoying a burgeoning friendship with Russia's Vladimir Putin, has remained undeterred in shaping what he likes to call an "illiberal democracy."His warming relationship with Putin is seen by some as an alliance between two emblematic nationalistic strongmen.

Other populist leaders in the Central European states of Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have also been accused of seeking to erode democratic checks and balances, of curbing judicial independence, politicizing the civil service and seeking to expand state control over the media and civil society, prompting protests and liberal outrage at their linking of Christianity with patriotism.

Their current populist governments have been the strongest critics of the migrant policies coming out of Brussels, refusing to accept migrants under an EU burden-sharing refugee resettlement plan. They have strained and bellyached at the restrictions and strictures placed on them by EU membership and what they see as an overbearing Brussels.

Growing EU divisions

All four members of the so-called Visegrad group of nations have been labeled in some ways as "flawed" democracies by rights monitors as their governments surf a powerful wave of Central European populism that they hope will reshape the regional bloc by reducing the power of EU institutions and returning it to national governments. The drumbeat of populism has been heard in the neighboring former Communist states in the Balkans and the Baltics.

Their clashes are seen by some liberal critics as tempting geopolitical fate. "It's hard to deny that divisions between so-called old and new [EU] member states are growing," according to Jakub Wisniewski, a Polish political analyst and director of the Slovakia-based GlobSec Policy Institute, a research organization. 

He places the political differences now between east and west as having their origins in the past. "Central Europe is still markedly different from the rest of the EU — politically, economically and, most of all, culturally," he argues.

National electorates in Central Europe are "more conservative, and more preoccupied with health care and local corruption than melting ice-caps or #MeToo. They are also less self-assured, hence their anxieties about Muslim immigration or leftist internationalism," he adds.

The populists of Central Europe say their critics make the mistake of equating "liberal democracy" only with versions espoused by the political left or center and that there are quite legitimate conservative and nationalist varieties, too. 

Liberal pessimists lament the rise of the nationalist populism, but optimists highlight the rambunctious politics of the region, which, this year, has seen liberal gains in electoral politics. 

FILE - Slovakia's President Zuzana Caputova reviews the guard of honor at the Presidential Palace after her swearing-in ceremony in Bratislava, Slovakia, June 15, 2019.

In March, an environmental activist, Zuzana Caputova, became the first woman to be elected president of Slovakia. Her election followed massive anti-government street protests last year triggered by the slayings of an investigative reporter and his fiancee that led to the fall of Robert Fico's conservative coalition government. 

Farther south, April saw nationalists defeated in the presidential election in North Macedonia and pro-European moderates winning elections in Latvia and Lithuania. Street protests have been mounted in the Czech Republic against Andrej Babis, the prime minister, who's been charged with fraud. They have been the largest seen since 1989.

For all of the rise of nationalist populism, pollsters and analysts say the voters of Central Europe remain firm adherents to the EU.

Populists have to be careful not to push too far on the anti-EU front. Julius Horvath, an economic professor at the Central European University told VOA earlier this year, "Populations would not like a rupture with Europe."

Portland Braces for Trouble Ahead of Opposing Rallies

Sat, 08/17/2019 - 01:03

Police in Portland, Oregon, are mobilizing in preparation for Saturday when far-right protesters are expected to come face-to-face with local anti-fascist counter-demonstrators. 

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler joined leaders of the city's religious, police and business groups to warn groups "who plan on using Portland on August 17th as a platform to spread your hate.''  Those groups are "not welcome here,'' he said. 

He said all of Portland's nearly 1,000 police officers will be on duty Saturday and will be helped by the Oregon State Police and the FBI. 

Saturday's rally is organized by a member of the Proud Boys, which has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

Expected to join them are the American Guard, Three Percenters, Oathkeepers and Daily Stormers.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Guard is a "white nationalist group," Three Percenters and Oathkeepers are "extremist" anti-government militias, and the Daily Stormers are "neo-Nazis."

Countering the right-wingers is Portland's Rose City Antifa, an anti-fascist group that has called on its members to take to the streets in an opposing rally. 

FILE - Antifa counter-protesters, rallying against right-wing group Patriot Prayer, light a smoke grenade in Portland, Oregon, Sept. 10, 2017.

Antifa in the United States have grown more visible recently and experts say antifa groups are not centrally organized, and their members may espouse a number of different causes, from politics to race relations to gay rights. But the principle that binds them — along with an unofficial uniform of black clothing and face masks — is the willingness to use violence to fight against white supremacists, which has opened them to criticism from both left and right.

At a June rally in Portland, masked antifa members beat up a conservative blogger named Andy Ngo. Video of the 30-second attack grabbed national attention.

The city's leadership and residents are on edge ahead of the rallies. Many summer staples like music festivals and recreational events have been canceled. A 5K race has changed its course to avoid possible violence and most businesses in the area plan to close for the day. 

Child Marriage and Arts

Sat, 08/17/2019 - 00:01

VOA Connect Episode 83 - We look at personal stories of girls who married young and the ways music and dance are helping immigrants.  

Brother of Afghan Taliban Chief Killed in Pakistan Mosque Bombing

Sat, 08/17/2019 - 00:00

The younger brother of Afghan Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada was said to be among at least four people killed in bomb blast at an Islamic seminary in a southwestern part of neighboring Pakistan.

Insurgent sources confirmed to VOA that the man, identified as Ahmadullah Akhundzada, was leading Friday afternoon prayer at the seminary’s mosque in the Kuchlak area near Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, when the bomb went off.

There were no immediate claims of responsibly for the attack in a Pakistani province, which has long served as a hiding place for Taliban leaders and fighters waging a deadly insurgency against U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan.

A senior Pakistani regional police officer, Abdul Razzaq Cheema, told reporters the blast wounded more than 24 worshipers. The improvised explosive device, he said, was planted under the chair of the prayer leader and a timed device was used to trigger the explosion.

The police officer, however, shared no further details about identities of the victims.

People gather at a mosque following a bomb blast in Kuchlak near Quetta, Pakistan, Aug. 16, 2019.

Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, was not immediately available to comment on the reported death of the brother of Hibatullah, who himself also used to run an Islamic seminary, locally known as madrassa, in Kuchlak before becoming the chief of the insurgent group in 2016.

Hibatullah’s predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, was also killed in Baluchistan in 2016 in an American drone attack while he was returning from neighboring Iran and travelling through the Pakistani province.

The United States has long blamed Pakistan for not preventing insurgents from using its soil to plot attacks in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials maintain insurgents take shelter in areas hosting camps for millions of Afghan refugees in the country.  

The relationship between Washington and Islamabad, however, has improved in recent months mainly because Pakistan is credited for arranging ongoing U.S.-Taliban peace negotiations aimed at ending the 18-year-old Afghan war.

Child Marriage: Kathleen's Story

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 23:56

Kathleen Burns is a young mother who dropped out of high school and married before she turned 18.  We talk to her about her decision to marry young and the impact that choice has left on her.  

Reporter: Carolyn Presutti, Camera: Mike Burke; Edited by: Phil Dierking

Child Marriage: Ashley's Story

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 23:54

Ashley Duncan is a stay at home mom with four boys who tied the knot at 15.  Learn the role her family played to convince her to get married and how marrying at such a young age has affected her life.  

Reporter:   Carolyn Presutti; Camera: Mike Burke; Edited by: Phil Dierking

Child Marriage: An Official's View

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 23:52

Pam Strawbridge issues marriage licenses at the a court house in Missouri, a state which has among the most lenient child marriage laws in the country. She’s been working there for over 40 years and talks to us about how she feels when kids under 18 come to get a marriage license. 

Reporter:  Carolyn Presutti; Camera: Mike Burke; Edited by: Phil Dierking

Child Marriage: An Economist's View

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 23:49

Economist Quentin Wodon from the World Bank shares his insight into why people marry young and the economic cost of child marriage.  

Reporters: Carol Guensburg, Hayde Adams-Fitzpatrick; Camera: Karina Choudhury; Edited by: Phil Dierking, Martin Secrest

Immigrant and Refugee Girls Choir

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 23:48

Pihcintu is a multinational refugee and girls’ chorus group that started 14 years ago in Portland, Maine. Con Fullam, who founded the choir, says he created this group to give these children their voices back, many of whom come from war torn countries.  

Reporter/Camera: June Soh

Indian Classical Dance

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 23:43

A People in America profile of Ranee Ramaswamy who founded the Ragamala Dance Company in Minneapolis.  She talks to us about Bharatanatyam, a popular South Indian dance and reflects on how this art form has kept her centered and balanced, both literally and figuratively.  

Executive Producer: Marsha James; Camera:  Kaveh Rezaei

Maryland Teen Among America’s 2019 Top 10 Volunteers 

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 23:38

CROFTON, MARYLAND — Reading the biography of a philanthropist was a life-changing experience for Caleb Oh. The book was so inspiring that he wanted to volunteer with a local charity, but there was a problem. Caleb was only 6 years old.

“What I found out was almost all organizations had age restrictions,” recalls Caleb, who is now 14. “You have to be at least 8 years old to volunteer. This frustrated me.”

Caleb’s parents were saddened to see their young child frustrated. 

“For me and my husband, it was a time to kind of think and brainstorm with him on how he might be able to help,” his mother, Margaret Oh, said.

The parents told the 6-year-old he could start a nonprofit organization and that’s what Caleb decided to do.

Kids Changemakers collaborates with schools, businesses and other organizations to set up numerous food and clothes drives throughout the year. (Courtesy Caleb Oh)

Kid power

Caleb called his nonprofit Kid Changemakers. 

“It collaborates with schools, businesses and other organizations to set up numerous food and clothes drives throughout the year to benefit the homeless, foster care youth, food security and other causes,” says the teen, who attends high school in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.

Kid Changemakers not only collects and distributes donations, its founder also inspires others to start community service projects.

Chrissy Rey, a local business owner who runs a robotics club, is supporting Caleb’s Kid Changemakers.

“I know Caleb from school,” Rey said. “He went to school with my daughter. We are hosting his events and presentations about volunteerism. A few weeks ago, he had school supply drive. Today, Caleb is doing a public service project with kids in our summer camp.”

The camp project is helping children 4 to 12 years old create colorful postcards  for veterans and donation boxes for local charities.

The projects help kids think beyond themselves, Rey says. 

“I think when they start earlier, it becomes sort of normal for them to help others and give back to the community,” she explained.

Through his nonprofit, Kids Changemakers, Caleb Oh and friends collect school supplies for students who cannot afford to buy them. (Courtesy Caleb Oh)

Transformative experience

While helping the community, Margaret Oh says her son gets benefits in return. The experience, she said, has been a journey that has helped Caleb grow and mature.

“At the beginning, he was a little shy about talking to people, about volunteering and the importance of sharing and being generous to each other. But as he’s grown up and really seen the difference he’s made. He got more confident about speaking in front of people, about brainstorming new ideas, about how to help people not just in one way, but often 20 ways,” she said.

The projects also draw the interest of Caleb’s friends and classmates.

“Some of them approach me just ask when the next program, the next project is,” Caleb said.

Kids Changemakers collects donated school supply to give to students who need them.

A good example

That is good news to William Myers, principal of South River High School where Caleb is going to be a freshman this school year.

“He is a perfect example of what we encourage students to do here, to really take service as a serious part of being a good citizen and having sound academics,” Myers said. “Being involved in doing something beyond yourself that is the key to having a strong society, one that perpetuates itself and does the right thing.”

Eight years after starting his organization, Caleb has been recognized as one of the nation’s top volunteers. This year he received the 2019 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, the largest youth awards program in America.

Caleb says everyone can be a force of change. His motto is, “No matter how old you are or who, you can make a difference.” He says that’s what he believed when he started his organization, and that’s what keeps him volunteering.

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