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Sudan: While Peace Deal is Signed, Women Fight for Representation

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 13:26

Women were an integral part of protests that led to the ouster of Sudan's Omar al-Bashir and in demonstrations after his downfall. But many leaders now say they feel they have been locked out of political agreements and do not expect to be named to any positions in the regional council. In Khartoum, Esha Sarai and Naba Mohiedeen speak with female politicians and feminists who are pushing for more representation.

Trump Administration Under Renewed Fire From Environmentalists

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 13:12

The Trump administration is under renewed fire from environmentalists following its move earlier this week to weaken the Endangered Species Act. At the same time, more than two dozen states and cities as well as a coalition of health and environmental groups are suing the administration over its rollback of the Clean Power Plan, one of President Barack Obama's signature regulations to reduce the nation's carbon emissions. White House Correspondent Patsy Widakuswara has more.

Philadelphia Shootout Triggers Questions, Blame Game

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 13:02

With the Philadelphia shooting suspect behind bars, U.S. President Donald Trump Thursday engaged in a blame game with city authorities. The president said the suspect, who has a criminal record, should not have been on the street. A U.S. attorney appointed by Trump blamed Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner for the shooting that left six officers wounded. But as VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the incident has helped put pressure on the administration to tackle long-avoided gun legislature.

Africa’s Gentle Giraffes Threatened with ‘Silent Extinction’

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 12:11

For most of his life as a Samburu warrior, Lesaiton Lengoloni thought nothing of hunting giraffes, the graceful giants so common a feature of the Kenyan plains where he roamed.

“There was no particular pride in killing a giraffe, not like a lion. … (But) a single giraffe could feed the village for more than a week,” the community elder told AFP, leaning on a walking stick and gazing out to the broad plateau of Laikipia.

But fewer amble across his path these days: In Kenya, as across Africa, populations of the world’s tallest mammals are quietly, yet sharply, in decline.

Population down sharply

Giraffe numbers across the continent fell 40 percent between 1985 and 2015, to just less than 100,000 animals, according to the best figures available to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

But unlike the clarion calls sounded over the catastrophic collapse of elephant, lion and rhino populations, less attention was paid to the giraffe’s private crisis.

“The giraffe is a big animal, and you can see it pretty easily in parks and reserves. This may have created a false impression that the species was doing well,” said Julian Fennessy, co-chair of the IUCN’s specialist group for giraffes and okapis.

The rate of decline is much higher in central and eastern regions, with poaching, habitat destruction and conflict the main drivers blamed for thinning herds of these gentle creatures.

FILE - Barbie, a 10-day-old Nubian Giraffe, left, gets a playful nudge from her mother, Maji, at the Egyptian Temple in the Antwerp Zoo, April 11, 2000.

Some subspecies nearly extinct

In Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, reticulated giraffe numbers fell 60 percent in the roughly three decades to 2018, the IUCN says.

The Nubian giraffe meanwhile has suffered a tragic decline of 97 percent, pushing this rarer variety toward extinction. 

Further afield in Central Africa, the Kordofan giraffe, another of the multitude subspecies, has witnessed an 85 percent decrease.

In 2010, giraffes were a species of “least concern” on the IUCN red list. But six years later they leapt to “vulnerable,” one step down from critical, catching many by surprise.

“This is why for the giraffe we speak of the threat of a silent extinction,” said Jenna Stacy-Dawes, research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

FILE - Giraffes are seen in Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Aug. 3, 2019.

Mysterious, gentle giants

Despite this, an international effort underway to put giraffes squarely on the global conservation agenda has divided professional opinion.

Six African nations are pushing to regulate the international trade in giraffes under the U.N. Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which meets from Aug. 17 to 28 in Geneva. 

Those advocating for the change, including Kenya, want the giraffe classified as “a species that, although not necessarily currently threatened with extinction, could become so if trade in their specimens were not closely controlled.”

Critics however say there is little evidence the international wildlife trade is responsible for dwindling giraffe numbers. A lack of reliable data has long hindered efforts to protect them.

Conservationist Symon Masiaine, left, searches for giraffes at Loisaba conservancy in Laikipia, Aug. 5, 2019. In Kenya, as across the wider African continent, the number of the world's tallest mammals have steadily declined in recent decades.

“Compared to other charismatic species like elephants, lions and rhinos, we know very little about giraffes,” said Symon Masiaine, a coordinator in the Twiga Walinzi giraffe study and protection program, which began in Kenya in 2016. 

“Nowadays, we are still far behind, but we are making progress.”

A research afterthought

Almost nothing is reliably known about giraffe populations in Somalia, South Sudan and eastern parts of Democratic Republic of Congo, where collecting such information is perilously difficult.

But even research outside conflict zones has been patchy.

Arthur Muneza, from the Giraffe Preservation Foundation, said the first long-term study of giraffes was not carried out until 2004. Data on giraffes is often gathered as an afterthought by researchers focusing on other wildlife, he added.

“Without reliable data, it is more difficult to take appropriate conservation measures,” Muneza said.

It was not until 2018 that the IUCN had enough statistics to be able to differentiate the threat levels facing many giraffe subspecies.

The reticulated and Masai giraffes, for examples, were classified as “endangered” while the Nubian and Kordofan were “critically endangered.”

A reticulated subspecies of giraffe at Loisaba conservancy in Laikipia, photographed Aug. 5, 2019. The twin drivers of poaching and habitat destruction have sent populations of giraffes into freefall.

Trophy hunting

Under the proposal before CITES, the legal trade in giraffe parts, including those obtained by trophy hunters on Africa’s legal game reserves, would be globally regulated.

Member countries would be required to record the export of giraffe parts or artifacts, something only the United States currently does, and permits would be required for their trade.

But observers say the limited information available suggests most of this trade originates from places where giraffe numbers are actually rebounding, like South Africa and Namibia, where game hunting is legal.

Muneza says there isn’t a clear enough picture that the legal trade is linked to declining giraffe numbers.

“The first step should be to conduct a study to find out the extent of international trade and its influence on giraffe populations,” he said.

Those supporting the proposal before Geneva talk of a “precautionary principle” — doing something now before it is too late.

For Masiaine, the Kenyan giraffe researcher, any publicity is good publicity for these poorly understood long-necked herbivores.

“It means that people are talking about the giraffe,” he said. “And the species really needs that.”

Indonesia President Proposes Relocating Capital to Borneo

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 11:39

Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Friday formally proposed to parliament a plan to move the country’s capital from Jakarta, on the crowded island of Java, to Kalimantan on the island of Borneo.

Widodo made the proposal during his state of the union speech at parliament, a day before the country celebrates its 74th independence anniversary.

“I hereby request your permission to move our national capital to Kalimantan,” said Widodo, who will be sworn in for a second term in October after winning April’s election.

“A capital city is not just a symbol of national identity, but also a representation of the progress of the nation. This is for the realization of economic equality and justice,” he said, without specifying the exact location for the new capital.

Arlo Guthrie Sings as Woodstock Fans Flock to Concert Site

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 08:59

Tie-dyed pilgrims and white-haired Woodstock festival veterans converged at the generation-defining site to celebrate its 50th anniversary, while Arlo Guthrie came back to sing — what else? — “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”

Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is hosting a series of events Thursday through Sunday at the bucolic 1969 concert site, 80 miles (130 kilometers) northwest of New York City.

Guthrie, an original Woodstock performer, played an evening set atop the famous hill, but said he also wanted to play at least one song near where the 1969 stage was located. Picking up a guitar, he sang the Bob Dylan classic for a group of reporters gathered on the grass under the wilting afternoon sun.

“It was a great time,” Guthrie told reporters, his long white hair flowing from a straw hat. “For me, the Woodstock festival was a celebratory end of an era. It was not the beginning of anything. It was the end of something, and it was an end of a very turbulent time that was also very wonderful.”

People hold hands in a circle around a large, illuminated peace sign on the original site of the 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Fair in Bethel, N.Y., Aug. 15, 2019.

No overcrowding, chaos

An estimated 400,000 people showed up for the original festival on upstate New York farmland Aug. 15-18, 1969.

There won’t be overcrowding and chaos this time. Visitors need event tickets and travel passes to drive to the site through the weekend. But the site was buzzing by the afternoon, with people stopping by the on-site museum and the monument near the stage area.

“This is like a pilgrimage. Coming back to the holy land,” said Glenn Radman, a 67-year-old New Milford, Connecticut, resident stopping by the monument with his friend.

People enjoy a concert by Arlo Guthrie at a Woodstock 50th anniversary event in Bethel, N.Y., Aug. 15, 2019.

Radman was at the festival 50 years ago, as was 75-year-old Roger Dennis, an Ithaca, New York, resident who was making his first visit since that famous weekend.

“I was here 50 years ago right on this day, and it was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. And I just had to be back here,” Dennis said, standing by the monument.

Dennis went to the concert with his brother and turned 26 years old that Sunday. His brother died years ago, which made the visit Thursday a bit melancholy.

“But the memories the energies of this festival were just unbelievable,” he said. “And I feel that.”

Access to the field is usually open, but Bethel Woods is setting restrictions this weekend to avoid a repeat of the chaos that engulfed the site in 1969.

Arlo Guthrie talks during a concert at a Woodstock 50th anniversary event in Bethel, N.Y., Aug. 15, 2019. Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is hosting a series of events Thursday through Sunday at the bucolic 1969 concert site.

Baby boomer crowd

Guthrie’s evening performance drew a crowd heavy on baby boomers, many with psychedelic-print shirts. In contrast to the 1969 show, there were plenty of seats and well-stocked vendors selling food, wine and beer.

Guthrie’s show was to precede a screening Thursday night of the Woodstock documentary at an amphitheater on the site.

Bethel Woods is hosting a long weekend of events featuring separate shows by festival veterans like Carlos Santana and John Fogerty.

Photographers like Henry Diltz are exhibiting their festival shots for the anniversary and other places are hosting musical performances, but this site holds a special place for many music fans.

“Being here reminds me of what it’s like to feel differently,” said Helen Rothberg, “to live in a community, to feel joy.”

North Korea Fires More Weapons; Criticizes South Korea

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 08:18

North Korea has launched a fresh round of projectiles toward the sea off its east coast, South Korea's military reported, Pyongyang's latest apparent outburst of anger at continued U.S.-South Korean military drills.

The North fired two projectiles Friday from Gangwon province in the northeast part of North Korea, according to a statement from Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff. The statement gave no other details, but said South Korea's military is on alert for additional launches.

North Korea has conducted six launches in about the past three weeks. Combined with a series of aggressive statements toward South Korea, the launches mark a return to a more provocative stance for North Korea, which has refused to hold talks with Seoul or Washington. 

Though it isn't clear what North Korea launched Friday, the North's other recent tests involved short-range ballistic missiles that appear designed to evade U.S.-South Korean missile defenses.

People watch a TV news program reporting about North Korea's firing projectiles with a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Aug. 16, 2019.

North Korea is banned from any ballistic missile activity under United Nations Security Council resolutions. But U.S. President Donald Trump says he has "no problem" with the missile tests, saying they can't reach the United States. 

Last week, Trump said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offered a "small apology" for the launches and vowed to stop them as soon as the current round of U.S.-South Korean military exercises end. 

This round of drills is scheduled to end on Aug. 20. 

North Korea has long complained that the drills are aggressive. U.S. military leaders say the exercises are defensive, and necessary to maintain readiness. 

Trump last week called the drills "ridiculous and expensive," but said he signed off on the latest round because it helped prepare for "the turnover of various areas to South Korea." 

"I like that because it should happen," Trump said. 

FILE - Amphibious assault vehicles of the South Korean Marine Corps travel during a military exercise as a part of the annual joint military training called Foal Eagle between South Korea and the U.S. in Pohang, South Korea, April 5, 2018.

On Friday, the NoThe current drills are designed in part to test South Korea's ability to retake operational control from the U.S. during wartime.

Though the drills have been scaled back and renamed in an attempt to preserve the idea of talks, North Korea is still not happy and wants the drills to end completely. 

North Korea has directed most of its recent outbursts toward its neighbors in the South. 

On Friday, the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) took aim at South Korean President Moon Jae-in, calling him an "impudent guy" and a "funny man." 

"We have nothing to talk any more with the South Korean authorities nor have any idea to sit with them again," said the statement, which quoted a spokesperson at the semi-official Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country. 

The comments come a day after President Moon pledged to work toward the unification of the two Koreas by 2045 — a bold proposal for a leader who is set to leave office in 2022. 

Moon and Kim met three times in 2018, promising to bring in a new era of inter-Korean relations. Those talks have since broken down, amid North Korean complaints about continued military cooperation between South Korea and the United States. 

In his speech Thursday, the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War Two, Moon insisted a unified Korea would become a global world power and eventually overtake Japan economically. 

North Korea doesn't seem very impressed. KCNA on Friday called Moon's remarks a "foolish commemorative speech" that was enough to "make the boiled head of a cow provoke a side-splitting laughter."

Virgin Galactic Reveals Futuristic Outpost for Space Tourism

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 08:04

Spaceport America is no longer just a shiny shell of hope that space tourism would one day launch from this remote spot in the New Mexico desert.

The once-empty hangar that anchors the taxpayer-financed launch and landing facility has been transformed into a custom-tailored headquarters where Virgin Galactic will run its commercial flight operations.

The interior spaces unveiled Thursday aim to connect paying customers with every aspect of the operation, providing views of the hangar and the space vehicles as well as the banks of monitors inside mission control.

Two levels within the spaceport include mission control, a preparation area for pilots and a lounge for customers and their friends and families, with each element of the fit and finish paying homage to either the desert landscape that surrounds the futuristic outpost or the promise of traveling to the edge of space.

Virgin Galactic employees gather at the coffee bar that serves as the heart of the company's social hub at Spaceport America near Upham, New Mexico, Aug. 15, 2019.

From hotel rooms to aircraft cabins, the Virgin brand touts its designs for their focus on the customer experience. Spaceport is no different.

 A social hub includes an interactive digital walkway and a coffee bar made of Italian marble. On the upper deck, shades of white and gray speak to Virgin Galactic's more lofty mission.

Company officials say the space is meant to create "an unparalleled experience" as customers prepare for what Virgin Galactic describes as the journey of a lifetime.

Timeline not set

Just how soon customers will file into Virgin Galactic's newly outfitted digs for the first commercial flights to space has yet to be determined. A small number of test flights are still needed.

"We were the first company to fly a commercial space ship to space with somebody in the back who was not a pilot — first time that somebody like that has been able to get out of their seats and float around the cabin," Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said. "So it's happening. We have a bit more work to do before we get to commercial service."

Billionaire Richard Branson, who is behind Virgin Galactic, and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, first pitched the plan for the spaceport nearly 15 years ago.

There were construction delays and cost overruns. Virgin Galactic's spaceship development took far longer than expected and had a major setback when its first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.

Critics suggested the project was a boondoggle, but supporters argued that there were bound to be hard and sometimes costly lessons.

A digital walkway with mirrored ceiling serves as the entrance to the social hub of Virgin Galactic's digs at Spaceport America near Upham, New Mexico, Aug. 15, 2019.

Democratic state Sen. George Munoz has enduring concerns about the business model for commercial, low-orbit travel for passengers.

"You can have all the money in the world and come back and say, 'Was my 30 seconds of fame worth that risk?'" he said.

Munoz says New Mexico's anticipated return on investment in terms of jobs and visitors is still overdue, with more than $200 million in public funds spent on Spaceport America in cooperation with Virgin Galactic as the anchor tenant.

New facility

At the facility Thursday, the carrier plane for Virgin's rocket-powered passenger ship made a few passes and touch-and-goes over a runway.

Behind the spaceport's signature wall of curved glass, mission control sits on the second floor with an unobstructed view of the runway and beyond.

There's also space behind two massive sliding doors to accommodate two of Virgin Galactic's carrier planes and a fleet of six-passenger rocket ships.

Virgin Galactic employees gather in the ground floor lounge at Spaceport America near Upham, New Mexico, Aug. 15, 2019.

Virgin Galactic posted on social media earlier this week that its main operating base was now at the spaceport. And Branson said the wing of Virgin's next rocket ship has been completed.

Chief Pilot Dave Mackay said the crew in the coming days will fly simulated launch missions to ensure in-flight communications and airspace coordination work as planned. The pilots also will be familiarizing themselves with New Mexico's airspace and landmarks.

"New Mexico is on track to become one of the very few places on this beautiful planet which regularly launches humans to space," Mackay said.

Whitesides said that once the test flights are complete, commercial operations can begin. He envisions a fundamental shift in humanity's relationship with space, noting that fewer than 600 people ever have ventured beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

"We're going to be able to send way more than that to space from this facility here," he said. "In another 15 years, I really hope that we've had thousands of people go."

About 600 people have reserved a seat, according to the company, at a cost of $250,000 a ticket.

That buys them a ride on the winged rocket ship, which is dropped in flight from the carrier airplane. Once free, it fires its rocket motor to hurtle toward the boundary of space before gliding back down.

The latest test flight reached an altitude of 56 miles (90 kilometers) while traveling at three times the speed of sound.

Florida Leaders Move to Condemn White Nationalism 

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 08:04

TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA - Florida legislators are moving to officially condemn white nationalism, with Democrats and Republicans alike drafting resolutions against hate-spurred violence, but the unity could be short-lived as elected officials plunge into debates over how the government should intervene to prevent more mass killings and rein in white supremacists. 
The condemnations come amid an outcry over a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, in which authorities believe the gunman posted a racist screed online shortly before the attack.  
Following the shooting, Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, a Republican, called the violence a “reminder that we have more work to do,'' and he called on a legislative committee to review what can be done to address white nationalism.    

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at the Presidential Gun Sense Forum, Aug. 10, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Earlier this week, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, a Democratic presidential hopeful, called for a federal ``red flag'' law that would allow law enforcement to take away guns from white nationalists, if a judge agrees if a person poses an imminent danger. 
While Galvano says he's open to possibly expanding the Florida's ``red flag'' laws, he told the Associated Press on Thursday that the two issues should be addressed separately. 
``Do both issues need to be considered and talked about? The answer is yes, but I don't know if you can just merge them,'' Galvano said. 
Since Florida's ``red flag'' law went into effect in March 2018, there have been 2,434 risk protection orders reported to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which prompted the agency to suspend 595 concealed weapons licenses. The protection orders give law enforcement the authority to temporarily confiscate guns. 

Rubio's call
Following the 2018 mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio called on Congress to follow his state's lead in enacting a federal ``red flag'' law — a call that  he again made following the mass shootings in Texas and Ohio that killed 31 people. 
In the wake of those shootings, Florida Republicans have focused their condemnation on hate groups and their attention on keeping guns away from those with mental illness. 
A trio of Republican state senators began circulating a resolution on Thursday that rejects white nationalism as ``hateful, dangerous and morally corrupt.'' 
That followed a move earlier in the week by Democrats in the Florida House, who introduced legislation spurning white supremacy as ``hateful expressions of intolerance that are contradictory to the values that define the people of Florida and the United States.'' 
But while both parties were united in their condemnation of race-based hate, it remains to be seen what policy changes will be enacted.  

FILE - Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, participates in debate April 17, 2019, in Tallahassee, Fla.

``We can have lots of discussions about hate as it relates to white supremacy and white nationalism, but it does not get us to the solution of dealing with guns — and that's the bottom line for any discussion that should be done,'' said Sen. Audrey Gibson, the Democratic leader in the Republican-controlled state Senate. 
In a letter sent to Galvano on Wednesday, she said it was still too easy to access a gun in Florida. 
Gun-control activists are trying to place a measure on the 2020 ballot that would ban assault weapons. 

Common thread
``Whether the massacre unfolded in El Paso, Dayton or Las Vegas, Newtown, Parkland or Pulse, the one inescapable common thread that has bound each and every one of these horrific mass shootings is the presence of an assault weapon,'' Gibson said. She said the state could do better in controlling access to guns, strengthening background checks for private gun sales and expanding the state's ``red flag'' laws to allow relatives, not just law enforcement, to seek a court order when they think a family member might pose a risk. 
Galvano said ``everything would be on the table'' as his chamber begins work on strengthening laws to curb mass violence and to expand the laws enacted in response to the Parkland shootings. But when pressed, Galvano said he would leave it to legislative committees to come up with specific legislation. 
``In the best-case scenario, the most effective way to begin to approach the state's role in these things is to look comprehensively — everything from law enforcement and how we're doing it, and policy changes in funding, mental health screenings, red flags and gun safety.'' 

North Korea: No Talks With South Korea Ever Again

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 07:57

North Korea said Friday it will never sit down with South Korea for talks again, rejecting a vow by the South’s President Moon Jae-in to pursue dialog with Pyongyang made the previous day as he pledged to bring in unification by 2045.

The North has protested joint military drills conducted by South Korea and the United States, which kicked off last week, calling them a “rehearsal for war” and has fired several short-range missiles in recent weeks.

The loss of dialog momentum between the North and South and the stalemate in implementing a historic summit between their two leaders last year is entirely the responsibility of the South, a North Korean spokesman said in a statement.

Blaming US-Korea exercises

The spokesman repeated criticism that the joint U.S.-South Korea drills was sign of Seoul’s hostility against the North.

“As it will be clear, we have nothing more to talk about with South Korean authorities and we have no desire to sit down with them again,” the North’s spokesman for the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country said.

The committee is tasked with managing the North’s relationship with the South. The rival Koreas remain technically at war under a truce ending the 1950-53 Korean War.

The comments were carried by official KCNA news agency.

Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have met three times since April last year pledging peace and cooperation but little progress has been made to improve dialog and strengthen exchange and cooperation.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks during a ceremony to mark the 74th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japanese colonial rule, at the Independence Hall of Korea in Cheonan, Aug. 15, 2019.

Liberation Day speech

Moon said in a Liberation Day address Thursday marking Korea’s independence from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule that it was to the credit of his policy of Korean national peace that dialog with the North was still possible.

“In spite of a series of worrying actions taken by North Korea recently, the momentum for dialog remains unshaken,” Moon said.

The North’s spokesman said it was “delusional” to think that inter-Korean dialog will resume once the military drills with the United States are over.

The spokesman left open the possibility of talks with the United States, speaking of upcoming dialog between the two countries but warned it will have no place for the South.

“South Korea is poking around hoping to reap the benefits of future dialog between the North and the United States, but it will be a good idea to give up such foolishness,” the unnamed spokesman said. 

Trump and Kim have met twice since their first summit in Singapore last year and said their countries will continue talks, but little progress has been made on the North’s stated commitment to denuclearize.

Sister: Earnhardt Jr 'Safe' After Plane Crash in Tennessee

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 07:43

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is "safe" and in a hospital for evaluation after his plane crashed in east Tennessee, the NASCAR television analyst and retired driver's sister tweeted.

Earnhardt's sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, tweeted that the driver's wife, Amy, and 15-month-old daughter, Isla, also were on the plane along with two pilots.

"Everyone is safe and has been taken to the hospital for further evaluation," she tweeted. "We will have no further information at this time."

Federal Aviation Administration officials said a Cessna Citation rolled off the end of a runway and caught fire after landing at Elizabethton Municipal Airport at 3:40 p.m. Thursday. FAA officials said the preliminary indication is that two pilots and three passengers were aboard. 

FILE - Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks to reporters during NASCAR auto racing pre-race activities at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., July 6, 2018.

The National Transportation Safety Board tweeted that it's sending two representatives to Elizabethton to begin investigating the crash.

Carter County Sheriff's Office spokesman Thomas Gray confirmed Earnhardt was aboard but said he wasn't one of the pilots. 
Earnhardt retired as a full-time driver in 2017 and has been working as an analyst for NBC. He is part of the scheduled broadcast team for Saturday night's Cup Series event in Bristol, Tennessee.

Deadly crashes

This incident comes 26 years after former driver and 1992 Cup champion Alan Kulwicki died in a plane crash while on his way to the spring race at Bristol from a promotional appearance in Knoxville, Tennessee. That crash at Tri-City Regional Airport in Blountville, Tennessee, killed a total of four people.

Earnhardt was part of Rick Hendrick's racing team in 2011 when Hendrick broke a rib and a collarbone while on a small jet that lost its brakes and crash landed in an airport at Key West, Florida. Hendrick's son, brother and twin nieces were among 10 people killed in a 2004 crash of a plane traveling to a race in Virginia.

Previous injuries

This isn't the first fiery crash for Earnhardt. He still has a burn scar on his neck from a crash at Sonoma in 2004 during warmups for an American Le Mans Series race that left him with second-degree burns. 
Earnhardt has a history of concussions that plagued him over his final years as a driver. 
He won NASCAR's most popular driver award a record 15 times with 26 career Cup victories. 

After Ferguson, Some States Move to Rein In Punishing the Poor

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 07:36

Five years after the death of Michael Brown in the St. Louis, Missouri, suburb of Ferguson, Americans are still divided over whether his death at the hands of a white police officer was justified. 
Even among the staunchest critics of the high-profile shooting of the 18-year-old unarmed black man, many believe the incident and its aftermath have brought attention — and in some cases reform — to a long-standing criminal justice problem: ballooning fees and fines from traffic stops and other minor violations that can turn poor people into criminals. 
"What I'd say is that out of tragedy comes opportunity," said Wesley Bell, a former activist and Ferguson City Council member who is now St. Louis County's chief prosecutor. "In Ferguson, when you do something negative or positive, it registers, sometimes locally, but oftentimes nationally. And I think that's an opportunity to implement changes and reform that can reverberate across the nation." 

In the years since Brown's death, a growing number of cities and states have moved to rein in all manner of punitive measures — from exorbitant penalties to the suspension of driver's licenses — that critics say can lead to a perpetual cycle of crime and punishment. While far from universally embraced, reform is happening in key regions.  
In 2015, Missouri capped the share of revenue that municipalities could raise from fines and fees at 20%, taking away incentives for cities such as Ferguson to police for profit.   

FILE - Former state Rep. Kris Steele addresses justice system critics in Oklahoma City, April 16, 2019. Supporters of justice reform in Oklahoma say court fines and fees are levied on people unable to pay them in order to fund government functions.

In 2017, Texas passed a law requiring judges in fine-only cases to assess an offender's ability to pay before imposing or waiving a fine.  
In 2018, California, which generates nearly $500 million a year from penalties, became the first state to eliminate all fines and fees imposed on juvenile offenders or their parents, followed by Nevada this year.  
"We've seen reform," said Lisa Foster, a retired California judge who is now co-director of the Fines & Fees Justice Center in Washington. "It's nowhere near enough, but we're making progress."   

'Sources of revenue' 
A 2015 U.S. Justice Department report found that Ferguson city officials pressured the then mostly white police department to focus more on generating revenue than protecting the public.  As a result, police officers viewed the city's predominantly black residents "less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue," the report said. 

As in many other U.S. cities, the fines and attendant court fees imposed by the Ferguson municipal court hit people who could least afford them the hardest. Failure to pay often resulted in jail time. 
In one case, an African-American woman received a $151 ticket in 2007 for parking illegally — a fine that increased with penalties for late payment and other charges. By 2014, she had paid $550, been arrested twice and spent six days in jail for the same violation. And she still owed the city $541.  
In other cases, "what should have been a couple of hundred dollars' worth of fees is sometimes $1,000," said Bell, who in 2018 became St. Louis County's first African-American prosecuting attorney.  
In 2014, Ferguson received more than 16% of its revenue from fines and fees. But it wasn't the worst offender in the county of 88 municipalities. Nearby Saint Ann claimed that top distinction, receiving 30.4% of its revenue from fines and fees in 2012 and exceeding a state cap of 30%, according to a report by the Civil Rights Commission.   
To discourage excess in fines and fees, Missouri lawmakers lowered the cap to 20% in 2015. Anything above that would be turned over to the state. The effect was widely felt. In Ferguson, revenue from fines has dropped by 90%.  
Nationwide problem 
The Justice Department's denunciation of Ferguson's predatory policing practices as "unconstitutional" reverberated across the country, Foster said.  
"When people read [the report] and realized the extent of the problem in Ferguson, [they] began to look elsewhere in the country to see: ‘Was this happening in our community as well?’ " Foster said.  "And the answer all over the country was 'Yes.' " 

To be sure, most U.S. cities don't rely on fines as a major source of revenue. But a 2012 study by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that 38 cities, including six in Missouri, received 10% or more of their revenue from fines and fees. Ferguson was No. 18 on the list.  
According to Foster, the explosion of penalties grew out of the tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s that led to mass incarceration in the United States, making it the largest jailer in the world.  
"It costs money to lock up lots of people, but there are other costs, as well. You need more judges. You need more prosecutors. You need more courtrooms. You need more public defenders, probation officers," Foster said.  
Meanwhile, legislators looking to fund more jails and judges were faced with another reality sweeping the country: growing anti-tax sentiment.  
"In state legislatures, they didn't want to raise taxes to pay for the cost of the justice system, so they looked to the system itself, and the people caught in the system to pay those costs," Foster said.  
In Los Angeles County, for example, families were charged $23.63 a day for a dependent in a juvenile detention center, and $11.94 a day for a dependent in a probation camp. The county banned the practice in 2009.  
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, 47 states and several cities raised fines and fees to boost their revenue. But then the Justice Department's subsequent probe of the Ferguson Police Department and municipal court — and a plethora of independent studies — showed how the system was rigged against poor African-Americans.   

WATCH: Five Years After Ferguson, States Rein in Punishment of the Poor 

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A 2019 study by the Stanford Computational Policy Lab showed that in nearly 100 million traffic stops, black drivers were stopped more often than white drivers, while a study of Alabama residents who owed fines found that 38% committed at least one crime to pay off their court debt.  
Ending abuse 
With lawmakers reluctant to raise taxes, rolling back fines has not come easily. But increasingly, judges have stopped jailing offenders for unpaid fines, while states have moved to end driver's license suspension, another punitive measure designed to compel payment.  
In the last two years, six states — California, Mississippi, Montana, Idaho, Virginia and Texas — and the District of Columbia have stopped suspending driver's licenses for unpaid fines. In September, nearly 1 million Texans will get back their driver's licenses thanks to the new law.  
This year, New York became the first U.S. city to offer free phone calls for people incarcerated in city jails. It used to charge 50 cents for the first minute and 5 cents for each additional minute. In other cities, a jailhouse phone call can cost more than $1 a minute.   
"I think that when the history books are written and we truly understand the legacy of what's happening now,” Bell said, it will be clear that the changes “started five years ago. I think St. Louis County residents should be proud of the fact that impetus for change, many would argue, started right here." 
There is more work to do, Bell said. "And I'll even add, this work will never be done." 

Appeals Court: US Must Provide Soap, Toothpaste to Detained Children   

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 07:20

A U.S. federal appeals court has ruled that the Trump administration must provide adequate food, water and basic hygiene items to children being held in immigration detention centers.

A three-judge panel for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco Thursday ruled that the administration had violated a 1997 settlement agreement that requires the government to provide “safe and sanitary” facilities.

“Assuring that children eat enough edible food, drink clean water, are housed in hygienic facilities with sanitary bathrooms, have soap and toothpaste, and are not sleep-deprived are without doubt essential to the children’s safety,” the panel wrote.

In June, a government lawyer had argued that the agreement did not stipulate that a toothbrush and soap be provided to children during brief stays in custody.

Senior director of the National Center for Youth Law, Leecia Welch, said “It should shock the conscience of all Americans to know that our government argued children do not need these bare essentials.”

The 1997 Flores settlement mandates that the children should be held in facilities that meet certain standards and released as soon as is reasonably possible.

Drugs, Weapons Convictions in Philadelphia Shooting Suspect's Past

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 06:50

The criminal history of a man suspected of barricading himself inside a Philadelphia rowhome should have prevented him from legally owning the firepower he used Wednesday to wound six police officers in a standoff that carried deep into the night, authorities said.

Maurice Hill, who authorities say had at least a semi-automatic rifle and a handgun when he opened fire on officers serving a drug warrant, has on his record multiple arrests in Philadelphia and adjacent Delaware County between 2001 and 2012, according to online records.

He has convictions for an array of crimes that include assault, perjury, fleeing and eluding, escape, and weapons offenses.

Hill, 36, served two stints in state prisons — three, counting a return for a probation violation. He was also hit with a 55-month federal prison term over a pair of convictions for being a felon in possession of firearms.

Pennsylvania prison officials said Hill served about 2-1/2 years on drug dealing charges and was paroled in 2006, and then did more than a year for aggravated assault before being released in 2013.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said Thursday that Hill's arrest history also includes burglary, resisting arrest, taunting a police animal and reckless endangerment, although he cautioned not all resulted in convictions.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross, center right, speaks during a news conference at City Hall in Philadelphia, Aug. 15, 2019.

"I think what it says is that the system had multiple contacts with this man, and the system ... did things that obviously did not stop this incident," Krasner said.

Authorities are trying to determine whether there is an outstanding warrant pending against Hill, based on a docket reference to a March 2018 probation violation, said Philadelphia-based U.S. Attorney William McSwain.

"He's an individual who spent most of his adult life sort of bouncing in and out of the criminal justice system," McSwain said.


The prospect of a return to prison was on Hill's mind during telephone negotiations to end the nearly 8-hour standoff, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross said.

Hill told him he had an extensive record and "did not want to deal with prison again," the commissioner recounted.

Ross expressed amazement that the standoff ended with no one dead and no life-threatening injuries, despite the gunman firing over 100 rounds.

The six officers who were struck by gunfire were released from hospitals Wednesday night.

Ross said officers "had to escape through windows and doors to get [away] from a barrage of bullets."

It "could have been far worse," Ross said Thursday outside the Philadelphia Police Department. "This was a very dynamic situation, one that I hope we never see again."

Hill, who has so far not been charged with crimes, came out of the home in the wee hours of Thursday after police used tear gas. He was taken to a hospital for evaluation and then placed in custody.

The tear gas prevented investigators from entering the house for much of Thursday, but members of the crime scene unit were seen moving in and out of it in the evening.

Officers trapped

While standoffs with police are not uncommon, the situation in Philadelphia drew particular attention because of how long gunfire was exchanged and the fact that the commissioner made the unusual decision to speak to the shooter directly and that two police officers were trapped during the standoff. 
Those officers were safely extracted by a SWAT team, as were three people that officers had taken into custody inside the house before the shooting broke out.

Hill's lawyer, Shaka Johnson, said Hill called him during the standoff asking for help surrendering. Johnson then called Krasner, and the two men patched in both Hill and the police commissioner, according to Krasner.

Hill told Johnson he wanted to make it out alive to see his newborn daughter and teenage son again.

On Thursday, politicians from Pennsylvania called for new gun control measures. Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney told reporters he called on state and federal lawmakers to "step up or step aside" and let cities deal with the problem themselves. He did not give specifics on what he wanted to see done.

US Diplomat: Dodik Rhetoric Undermining Bosnian Government Deal

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 06:41

This story originated in VOA's Bosnian Service.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Palmer says the U.S. welcomes an agreement that Bosnia and Herzegovina's political leaders recently signed as part of an effort to break the deadlock in forming the government. But that "hard-line rhetoric" by Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik could scuttle progress.

On Aug. 5, leaders of the country's three most influential parties agreed on 12 key issues to resolve as a primary step toward formation of a new government. Based on that list, the leaders then agreed to finalize a deal to open a new government within 30 days, which would keep the country on track toward future NATO membership.

Matthew Palmer, U.S. State Department Director for South Central European Affairs speaks during an interview with Reuters in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina Dec. 4, 2018.

Lawmakers, however, have since made little progress toward a binding agreement, as Bosnian Serb leaders are strongly opposed to membership in a western military alliance, while Bosniak and Bosnian Croat lawmakers support it.

On Tuesday, Dodik, leader of Serb-majority Republika Srpska, vowed to torpedo a number of major reforms in the country, including the formation of joint armed forces and a state court and police agency, unless a state-level government is formed soon.

"You know, I don't think that those kinds of threats are really going to help create the kind of political climate conducive to compromise and agreement," Palmer said in an interview with VOA's Bosnian Service. "So I'm hopeful that president Dodik doesn't maintain that kind of hardline rhetoric. I think it's fundamentally unhelpful and creates a political climate in which you have winners and losers rather than the opportunity for everybody to come out with a little bit of what they want and in a position to accept that they've won something."

Palmer also said he's optimistic that the stalled deal to form a government and submit an Annual National Program (ANP) to the alliance's headquarters in Brussels — a required step along the path toward NATO membership — can move forward.

"We think it's a positive development that the leaders of three of the major parties were able to come together and identify compromise as the path forward on both the EU and the NATO track and on government formation," Palmer said. "We understand in particular that both President [Željko] Komsic and President [Šefik] Dzaferovic have made clear that they would like to see an" ANP submitted to Brussels.

"We're hopeful that the presidency can come together and agree on a path forward that that works for all."

Dodik has said that the issue of NATO must not be on the agenda of the three-member state presidency session currently scheduled for Aug. 20, at which the formation of a state government will be discussed.

Bosnia will not hand over the ANP to Brussels. It does not say anywhere that it will. The agreement says nothing [about it]," Dodik said.

The tiny Balkan country of roughly 3.5 million residents applied for EU membership in 2016, following years of constitutional reforms and engagements with the 1995 Dayton Accords that put an end to the nearly 4-year-long Bosnian war.

NATO offered a Membership Action Plan to Bosnia in 2010 but declined to "activate" it until all conditions are met. Submitting its first ANP is a key part of that process.




EPA Reverses Approval for Poison Traps Used by Ranchers

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 06:33

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday reversed its preliminary decision allowing continued use of deadly sodium cyanide traps, blamed for injuring people and pets as well as their intended targets of coyotes and other predators.

EPA head Andrew Wheeler said in a statement he had decided the agency needed to do more analysis and consulting regarding the so-called M-44 traps, devices embedded in the ground that look like lawn sprinklers but spray cyanide when triggered by animals attracted by bait.

FILE - Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler testifies on Capitol Hill, April 9, 2019.

"I look forward to continuing this dialogue to ensure U.S. livestock remain well-protected from dangerous predators while simultaneously minimizing off-target impacts on both humans and non-predatory animals," Wheeler said.

Environmental groups had blasted the agency's preliminary decision last week reauthorizing the cyanide traps, saying they were impossible to use safely.

Federal officials decided against using the devices in Idaho after a then 14-year-old boy was injured in 2017 when he encountered an M-44 with his dog on federal land near his house on the outskirts of Pocatello. His Labrador retriever died.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services uses the devices to kill coyotes and other livestock predators, mostly in the Western U.S.

In 2018, M-44s killed about 6,500 animals, mainly coyotes and foxes. That was down from about 13,200 animals in 2017.

Bank of Mexico Lowers Interest Rate, Citing Global Concerns

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 06:13

Mexico's central bank said Thursday it was lowering its benchmark interest rate by a quarter-point to 8%, citing slowing global economic activity and tensions including the trade war between the United States and China. 

The drop from 8.25% was reportedly the first rate cut by the Bank of Mexico in five years. 

In a statement, the bank said “the risks that the global economy faces have increased” and also mentioned commercial disputes, the “disorderly” Brexit process and deterioration of “some political and geopolitical risks.” 

It added that uncertainty persists over the U.S.-Mexico relationship as well as downgrades to ratings of state oil company Pemex and sovereign debt. 

The Dow Jones Industrial Average had its biggest single-day drop of the year on Wednesday amid mounting fears of a possible recession and weak economic data from Germany and China.

Earlier this week, analyst Alfredo Coutino of Moody's Analytics forecast only ”mildly positive” GDP growth of 0.5% for Mexico this year. 

“However, if investors remain reticent, the economy could report no growth or even a mild contraction in 2019,” Coutino wrote. 

The Mexican peso closed up 0.33% vs. the U.S. dollar Thursday.

Trump Blames Mass Shootings on Mentally Ill

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 06:11

President Donald Trump said Thursday he supports meaningful background checks for gun buyers, but he told reporters that those responsible for recent mass shootings were mentally ill and the United States should build more mental institutions.

Trump said he had been speaking with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and many other Republicans about the problem of gun violence and that "they don't want to have insane people, dangerous people, really bad people having guns."

"We don't want crazy people owning guns," the president added. "It's them. They pull the trigger. The gun doesn't pull the trigger. They pull the trigger. So we have to look very seriously at mental illness."

The president is under pressure to curb gun violence following mass shootings that killed dozens of people this month in Texas and Ohio. His comments came as he started a trip from New Jersey to speak to a campaign rally in New Hampshire.

"We're looking at the whole gun situation," Trump said when asked whether he was pressing Republicans on tougher background checks for gun buyers.

"I do want people to remember the words mental illness. These people are mentally ill. ... These are mentally ill people and people have to start thinking about it. I think we have to start building institutions again," he said, adding that many U.S. mental institutions were closed in the 1960s and '70s and their patients released onto the streets.

"A lot of our conversation has to do with the fact that we have to open up institutions," Trump added. "We can't let these people be on the streets."

Coroner: Dayton Gunman Had Drugs in System During Firefight

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 05:46

CINCINNATI - The gunman in Dayton who killed nine people had cocaine, an antidepressant and alcohol in his system during the mass shooting and was cut down by a barrage of at least two dozen police bullets that penetrated gaps in his body armor, a coroner said Thursday.  
Montgomery County Coroner Dr. Kent Harshbarger said authorities found a pipe device and a baggie of cocaine on Connor Betts, 24. Harshbarger also reported in his preliminary autopsy findings that Betts had more than 50 entry and exit wounds. 
``This incident involved an intense firefight that is rarely seen other than combat and an active-shooter incident,'' Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl said. ``The officers were confronted with a moving shooter wearing body armor, actively executing victims with an AR-15-type weapon and high-capacity magazines.'' 

Police bullets hit two
The coroner said police gunfire hit two people. One of them died, but Harshbarger said the gunman, not police, fired the lethal round. 
Police investigators will review the medical records of the 17 who were wounded to determine if any of them were struck by the officers' bullets, Biehl said. 
Police haven't yet determined a motive for the shooting.  

A makeshift memorial sits outside Ned Peppers nightclub in the Oregon District entertainment neighborhood where on Aug. 4 a gunman killed nine people, on Aug. 14, 2019, in Dayton Ohio.

Meanwhile, Betts' parents have apologized for the wording in his obituary that didn't mention the mass shooting whose victims included his younger sister.  
Stephen and Moira Betts issued a statement that said the obituary for Connor Betts was ``insensitive in not acknowledging the terrible tragedy that he created.'' 
They said they wanted to reflect the son they knew and weren't trying to ``minimize horror of his last act.''  
The obituary described Betts as a ``funny, articulate and intelligent man with striking blue eyes and a kind smile'' before it was taken down Wednesday by a funeral home in their hometown of Bellbrook, Ohio.  
Betts opened fire in a popular entertainment district in Dayton. Police shot him as he neared a crowded bar. 
It's not known whether Betts targeted his sister, Megan, 22. They had spent an hour together at a bar in the same area before the shooting.  
The family will be holding private memorial services for both of their children. 

Friend to stay in jail

Ethan Kollie, a longtime friend of Betts who told investigators he bought the body armor, a 100-round magazine and a key part of the gun Betts used in the attack, will remain in jail after a judge ordered Thursday that he be held without bond until his trial.  
Authorities have said there's no indication Kollie knew Betts was planning the mass shooting, but they charged him with lying on a federal firearms form while buying a pistol not used in the shooting.  
His attorneys wanted him released on house arrest with electronic monitoring and other conditions, telling the judge Kollie had no history of violence and no role in the shooting. Prosecutors opposed his request to stay with a family friend. 

Trump Says US Moving Rapidly Towards Trade Deal with Britain

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 05:38

President Donald Trump said on Thursday the United States and Britain were moving rapidly towards a deal on trade that would be "fantastic and big."

"I think we'll make a fantastic and big trade deal with the UK," Trump told reporters before departing for a political rally in New Hampshire. "That's moving along rapidly."

He said he had talked to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday and would be speaking with him again. "He and I are very much aligned," Trump said.

The two countries are discussing a partial accord that could take effect on Nov. 1, the day after Britain is due to leave the European Union, a senior Trump administration official said on Tuesday.

Officials from the two nations have discussed the possibility of a temporary agreement covering all sectors. Such a deal could last for something like six months, the official told reporters.

Supporters of Britain's exit from the EU are hoping for a wide-ranging deal with the United States that could help cushion the nation from any disruption to trade with European neighbors.