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Updated: 14 min 19 sec ago

Iran’s State Media Distort Western News Coverage of Rare Khamenei Sermon

5 hours 28 min ago

Iranian state media have given a distorted view of Western news coverage of a rare public sermon by Iran’s supreme leader, ignoring how Western outlets highlighted perceived shortcomings in his responses to domestic problems.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei led Friday prayers in Tehran for the first time since 2012, giving a sermon at the capital’s Grand Mosque. The longtime supreme leader has limited such public sermons to times of national crisis in the past.

In his speech, Khamenei harshly criticized the United States and its European allies Britain, France and Germany. He singled out American leaders as “clowns” for professing to stand with Iran’s people while in practice seeking to “stab” Iranians in the back with a “poisoned dagger.”

Khamenei’s speech came two weeks after the U.S. carried out what it called a self-defensive strike that killed his top general, Qassem Soleimani, at Baghdad airport. In his remarks, Khamenei accused the U.S. of engaging in a “terrorist” act by killing Soleimani, who led Iran’s elite Quds Force and whom the U.S. had designated as the head of a terrorist organization that killed hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq and directed proxy militias to fight U.S. allies in the region.  

The Iranian supreme leader also denounced Britain, France and Germany as U.S. lackeys after they decided this week to trigger a dispute resolution mechanism in their 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, a potential step toward joining the U.S. in re-imposing economic sanctions on Tehran.   

Khamenei expressed sorrow over the Jan. 8 shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane by Iranian forces that mistook it for an enemy threat shortly after it took off from Tehran. Hours earlier, his forces had fired missiles at U.S. troops in Iraq in retaliation for the Soleimani killing and had braced themselves for a U.S. counterattack. No U.S. forces were killed in the Iranian missile strike, however, and Washington did not hit back.  

For three days after the plane crashed, killing all 176 people on board, Iranian officials insisted it was not their fault despite Western media and officials citing intelligence sources as saying Iranian missile fire downed the aircraft. Officials belatedly acknowledged that their denials of responsibility were false on Saturday, angering hundreds of Iranians who joined four days of anti-government protests in Tehran and other cities.  “

The plane crash was a bitter tragedy that burned through our heart,” Khamenei said in his sermon. However, he made no apology for his government’s initial false statements about the crash and criticized those who joined the anti-government protests as unrepresentative of the Iranian people.  

Prominent Western news agencies had extensive coverage of Khamenei’s rare public sermon.   

Iranian state media outlets Fars News Agency  and ISNA published summaries of those Western news reports, highlighting their references to Khamenei’s strong denunciations of the U.S. and European powers. Fars and ISNA also cited the Western news agencies as noting the large size of Khamenei’s audience, with thousands of people cramming into the mosque for the sermon.     

A VOA Persian review of Khamenei sermon articles by the eight Western news agencies cited by Fars and ISNA, though, found that the two Iranian state media outlets ignored several key elements of the Western news coverage.   

In one example, Fars avoided mentioning that a Reuters report said Khamenei stopped short of a direct apology for the plane disaster. “On social media, some Iranians reacted angrily” to the lack of an apology, the report said.  

In another example, ISNA made no mention of the New York Times reporting that Khamenei “offered only scant condolences” to the families who lost victims in the plane crash and dismissed the anti-government protesters as “stooges of the United States.” The New York Times article also noted that Iran “choreographed” the Friday sermon by busing in schoolchildren, civil servants and worshippers from neighboring provinces “to present an image of power and unity.” “

When it comes to reporting an important speech by the supreme leader, it is no surprise to see there has been an  attempt to pick and choose  bits of coverage in international media that are either positive or neutral and leave out the negative bits,” said BBC Monitoring journalist Shayan Sardarizadeh, a former Iranian state media employee, in a message to VOA Persian.  

“Reports about the views and speeches of Khamenei are almost always entirely supportive,” Sardarizadeh said. “It would be highly unusual to see state media highlight any criticism of the supreme leader even in normal times, let alone now.  But Khamenei is one of the few individuals about whom all media sources in Iran tend to be highly cautious and selective in their reporting.”

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service. It was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Extremism Watch Desk. 

3 More Linked to Neo-Nazi Group Arrested in Georgia

5 hours 45 min ago

 Three men linked to a violent white supremacist group known as The Base were charged with conspiring to kill members of a militant anti-fascist group, police in Georgia announced Friday, a day after three other members were arrested on federal charges in Maryland and Delaware.

A senior FBI national security official said police and federal agents intentionally moved to arrest the men ahead of Monday's rally because they believed some of them intended to commit violence there. It was unknown if the men arrested in Georgia planned to attend the rally in Richmond.

The Base, a collective of hardcore neo-Nazis that operate as a paramilitary organization, has proclaimed war against minority communities within the United States and abroad, the FBI has said. Unlike other extremist groups, it's not focused on promulgating propaganda - instead the group aims to bring together highly skilled members to train them for acts of violence.

There's an intensified focus on The Base after the three members were arrested Thursday in Maryland and Delaware on federal felony charges. A criminal complaint included details of how some of the men built an assault rifle using parts, purchased thousands of rounds of ammunition and traded vests that could carry body armor.

"A  big reason why we disrupted it now was based on the timing of the rally on Monday and the intent of some of the individuals to potentially conduct violent acts down in Richmond," said Jay Tabb, the executive assistant director for national security at the FBI.

Speaking at a homeland security event in Washington, he said the FBI has "got a fair sense of worry" because agents "can't account for everybody and everything.''

"We have a degree of interest of some individuals that we know are at least saying that they will be there and we have no way to predict where rhetoric turns to violence," Tabb said.

Organizers of The Base recruit fellow white supremacists online - particularly seeking out veterans because of their military training - use encrypted chat rooms and train members in military-style camps in the woods, according to experts who track extremist groups.

The group, which has the motto "learn, train, fight," brings together white supremacists with varying ideologies.

The arrests show an intensified focus on the group from law enforcement officials who are concerned that the supremacists may go beyond plotting to violent acts, a threat made more urgent ahead of a pro-gun rally Monday in Richmond, Va.

The arrests only added to rising fears that Monday's rally  could quickly devolve into violence, with thousands of protesters planning to descend on Virginia's capital, and become a repeat of the 2017 white nationalist rally  when a man drove his car into counter-protesters in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal and civil rights activist.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed an executive order banning guns from the state Capitol grounds for Monday's rally, but pro-gun groups filed an appeal seeking to overturn the ban. The Virginia Supreme Court upheld the ban Friday.

"These extremists are going to try to attach themselves to these events in order to exploit these strong feelings, to try to bring in new recruits,'' said Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism.

In encrypted chat rooms, members of The Base have discussed committing acts of violence against blacks and Jews, ways to make improvised explosive devices and their desire to create a white "ethno-state," the FBI has said in court papers.

On Friday, police in Georgia confirmed that the three other men linked to The Base were arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit murder and participating in a criminal street gang. Authorities said the men planned to kill a married couple who were anti-fascist protesters - part of the Antifa movement - and believed killing the couple would send a message to enemies of The Base.

The arrests came after an undercover FBI agent infiltrated the group and participated in shooting drills in the mountains of northern Georgia, according to a police affidavit obtained by the AP. The drills were being done in preparation for what they believe is an impending collapse of the United States and ensuing race war. At the end of the firearms training, the Georgia men wore tactical gear and balaclava hoods that expose only part of the face while posing for photos with the undercover agent and the photos were later used in the group's propaganda, the affidavit says.

The men were identified as Luke Austin Lane, Michael Helterbrand, and Jacob Kaderli. The three remained in custody and it was not immediately clear whether they had attorneys who could comment on the allegations.

Lane, Kaderli and the undercover agent drove to the couple's home in Bartow County to scope it out, according to the affidavit. After checking out the property and the surrounding neighborhood, Lane suggested using a sledgehammer as one way of breaching the door, then kill them with revolvers, according to the affidavit. Kaderli suggested they should burn the house down after the killings, it states.

While other extremist groups are focused on getting people together to produce propaganda and make a name for themselves around a specific ideology, The Base is focused on action, the experts say. They are interested in training their members to use firearms and explosives.

"To have that kind of broad tent, that's incredibly dangerous,'' said Joshua Fisher-Birch, a researcher with the Counter Extremism Project, a policy group formed to combat online extremist ideologies.

Members of The Base also believe in an extreme form of survivalism and preparation, offering real-life survivalist training to resist the "extinction'' of the Caucasian race, the FBI has said.

"I think what marks The Base as a particular concern is that it is very blatant about its embrace of accelerationist ideas. This concept that societal collapse is not only imminent, but that they have a role to play in furthering it - so that we can have a race war in this country,'' Segal said.

"There are many groups active online that have an on-the-ground presence, but it's the sub-culture that the base is embracing is so vividly militant,'' he said. "It's so blatantly hateful it's going to attract a certain type of extremist, one who is looking for action.''

A New Jersey man who authorities say was a recruiter for The Base was arrested by the FBI  in November after he allegedly used the group to find fellow neo-Nazis to vandalize synagogues in Michigan and Wisconsin. Authorities said the group's plan to vandalize synagogues with anti-Semitic graffiti and break windows was part of what the group called "Operation Kristallnacht,'' a reference to a 1938 incident when Nazis torched synagogues in Germany, vandalized Jewish homes and business and killed close to 100 people.

The man, Richard Tobin, 18, had also discussed carrying out a suicide bombing and said he had saved manuals about how to carry out an attack, filling the back of a truck with barrels packed with explosive materials similar to the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people in 1995.

Separately on Friday, the Justice Department charged a Wisconsin man who they say was also a member of The Base who spray painted swastikas, the group's symbol and anti-Semitic words on a synagogue in Racine, Wisconsin in September, at Tobin's direction. The man, Yousef Barasneh, 22, was arrested on a federal civil rights charge.

Tobin is not specifically named in the charging papers against Barasneh, but the details match those in the criminal complaint that was filed against him in November. Authorities said Tobin and Barasneh were supposed to meet in person at one of the group's meetups in in Silver Creek, Georgia, from Oct. 30 until Nov. 2. Tobin ultimately didn't attend.

Prosecutors said recruitment posters for The Base were put up at Marquette University in Milwaukee and the group also held a separate training session for members in Wood County, Wisconsin.


4 S Koreans, 3 Nepal Guides Missing in Avalanche; 30 Rescued

5 hours 54 min ago

An avalanche swept a popular trekking route in Nepal's mountains, leaving at least four South Koreans and three Nepali guides missing, authorities said Saturday.

Nepal's Department of Tourism official Meera Acharya said at least one Chinese national injured in the avalanche was rescued by helicopter.

The avalanche hit along the popular Annapurna circuit trekking route, which encircles Mount Annapurna.

Acharya said efforts were being made to rescue the others. So far, rescuers have been able to pluck 30 trekkers who were trapped by the avalanche blocking the trail and flew them to a safe area.

Weather conditions were poor with temperature dropping in the last two days, making the operation more difficult.

The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the avalanche hit at an altitude of 3,230 meters (10,600 feet) before noon Friday. It said five other South Korean members of the same team were safe and taking shelter in a lodge.

The missing trekkers - two women in their 30s and 50s and two men in their 50s - were teachers who were staying in Nepal for volunteer work, the ministry said, according to the Yonhap news agency.


Russia Touts Arms Across Southeast Asia

6 hours 24 min ago

Russia is rapidly expanding foreign arms deals worldwide, with Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin confirming to the Russian military's newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda December 20 that Moscow has signed military cooperation pacts with 39 countries in the last five years, many of them in Southeast Asia, including Laos, which has not been buying Russian weapons on this scale for decades.

The expansion is raising eyebrows and comes as relations between Russia and NATO have broken down.

Analysts said old Cold War alliances with countries such as Laos, Moscow's appetite for barter deals, and the potential for access to railroads under construction that will provide access to seaports and trade routes along the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Thai coasts, appeal to Moscow, and the arms sales are part of a larger effort by Russia to strengthen its links with these countries.

“Moscow’s motives appear to be a combination of commercial and the perhaps disruptive, in the sense that any erosion of U.S. or European defense interests is a de facto win,” Gavin Greenwood, an analyst with A2 Global Risk, a Hong Kong-based security consultancy, told VOA.

He said Russia had accounted for 25% of major arms sales in Southeast Asia since 2000, and according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Moscow sold $6.6 billion in arms to Southeast Asia between 2010 and 2017, as much as the U.S. and China combined.

The institute also says Russia accounted for 60% of arms sales across Asia and Oceania between 2014 and 2018.

However, Russia also needs to offset falling sales to India, and the MiG-29 and Sukhoi-30 fighters purchased by Malaysia in 1995 are nearing the end of their life. Greenwood said any replacement was unlikely to be procured from Russia, as they are also considering deals with U.S. and European suppliers.

Southeast Asia focus

As a result  of declining arms sales to India, Russia is falling further behind the U.S. in global arms sales, analysts say,  but it has remained the dominant player in Southeast Asia, where analysts said  South China Sea disputes, terrorism   and competition among rival states is increasing demand for high-tech weaponry.

Fomin said progress in developing military cooperation with traditional partners China and India had been made alongside fresh efforts with Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.

“Their efforts to sell are obviously increasing and there’s a sense from some quarters that this is a strategic effort by Moscow – while others would say probably not, it’s commercial,” Greenwood said.

Russia remains a primary supplier to Vietnam, accounting for 60% of all military sales to that country – including submarines – and is seeking opportunities in the Philippines while stepping up sales to Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar.

Meanwhile, strategically important Laos, which forms a buffer between China and Southeast Asia, has increased its spending, acquiring Russian T-72B tanks, BRDM-2M armored vehicles, YAK 130 fighter jets and helicopters.

In addition,  Russia and Laos last month launched the nine-day Laros 2019 exercise, their first joint military exercise, with more than 500 soldiers taking part alongside the recently acquired tanks, which was seen as part of a greater effort to deepen military ties with Southeast Asia.

Analysts said further joint military exercises with Laos are now in the offing together with more arms and training for Laotian officers in Russian military academies.

The timing could be related to Chinese railway construction, “which will connect southern-southwest China to Thailand,” Greenwood said, which would provide further seaport access.

FILE - People attend a mobile exhibition installed on freight cars of a train and displaying military equipment, vehicles and weapons, in Sevastopol, Crimea.

Ukraine sanctions

Increased weapon sales worldwide can be traced to Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine six years ago. Sanctions followed and the ruble collapsed, sparking a three-year financial crisis.
Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales said military technology is one of Russia’s much-needed strengths.

“Annexation of the Crimea was accompanied by very punishing sanctions by the United States and Russia went through a phase of trying to recover by developing its domestic market.

“That didn’t work, and they had to do overseas exports and the one thing the Russians have is military technology,” Thayer told VOA, echoing Greenwood.

Meanwhile, the issue for most Southeast Asian countries is that access to high-tech weaponry is limited to the U.S., which ties sales to human rights, and Russia, which offers soft loans, state-backed credits, barter deals, spares and servicing with a no such strings attached.  

Don Greenlees, senior adviser at the Asialink think tank at the University of Melbourne, said U.S. costs and conditions, coupled with sanctions, mean easier options are available in Russia.

“If you want really high-level military technology and you’re a Southeast Asian country you’ve either got to go to Moscow or you’ve got to go Washington. And Washington hasn’t made it terribly easy in recent years for a lot of these countries to obtain the best kit,” he told VOA.

“And it’s also more expensive to buy it from Washington,” Greenlees said. “So Russia, for many of these countries, is the arms supplier of choice.”

The big picture

Thayer said Moscow also must act against any isolation spurred by sanctions and establish itself with Vietnam, with which it has always been a strategic partner, as a natural conduit in developing relations in Southeast Asia, but Laos  “is just one small peg in the larger picture.”

Greenlees said Russia’s regional reemergence was still in its early days but from a big-picture geopolitical point of view, it’s the Sino-Russian alignment that concerns everyone.

So far,  China has not complained about Russia’s push into its traditional sphere of influence.  Moreover, it also could benefit from potential sales to countries alienated by the U.S. linkage of sales to issues like human rights, which analysts said could lead to a stronger alliance between Moscow and Beijing in Southeast Asia.    

“If that leads to a hardening of East-West 'camps,' that would be a concern to the region. It could force the issue of 'taking sides and reduce the opportunities for small to medium sized powers to play the great powers off against each other,” Greenlees said.



Social Enterprise Project Connects African Asylum Seekers, Israelis in the Kitchen

7 hours 9 min ago

The 37,000 African asylum seekers in Israel live in limbo. They are allowed to work and their children go to Israeli schools, but they have no official status and live on the fringes of Israeli society. Now a new social enterprise project aims to help them share their stories and culinary culture with native Israelis. Linda Gradstein reports from Tel Aviv.

Social Enterprise Project Connects African Asylum Seekers, Israelis in the Kitchen

7 hours 41 min ago

It looks like any other cooking class in yuppie Tel Aviv. Sleek kitchen utensils, baskets of fresh vegetables, participants sipping wine and beer. The first hint that this is a little different is the beer Asmara from Eritrea.

Yael Ravid, co-director of Kitchen Talks, explains how her cooking events make a special connection between Israelis and the Africans seeking refuge in their country.

"As we cook together shoulder to shoulder, we literally break bread, not as a metaphor but as a real happening together. I'm hoping they will enjoy the holiday feast we're preparing for the Eritrean Christmas and they will get a chance to know Asmayit, our Eritrean cook, and to ask her questions about her life, her home kitchen, how she grew up, how she came here," she says.

Chef Asmayit Merhatsion is a 30-year-old asylum seeker from Eritrea. As she chops and stirs, she tells her story, starting with her imprisonment in Eritrea.

"When I was in college I was arranging for women or girls to pray. They catched [caught] us and asked who organized? I organized. They are thinking our meeting is political but it's not political, it's religious. That's why I was in prison," she explains.

After two short stints in prison, she escaped to Sudan, then to Libya, hoping to make it to Europe. But after Europe closed its doors, she decided on Israel, paying smugglers to get her across the Sinai desert.

That was almost nine years ago. Today she is married and has a young daughter. She works for the AIDS task force. And she is a chef with Kitchen Talks to share her love for Eritrean food and culture.

"It's a vegetarian dish, five types of food we do and the traditional bread we have here I make it at home. This one is not bread it's injera, it's made of teff flour growing in Eritrea or Ethiopia…it's non gluten, its healthy, that's why we are not fat," she says.

Participants paid about $50 for the collaborative cooking event and were enthusiastic when they tasted the results. Many said it was their first time meeting with an asylum seeker and eating their exotic food.

"You can form an opinion based on things that you don't know or things that you fear. Then once, like even seeing here people interacting, and then once you know somebody, like get to know them and speak with them, and all of a sudden you're like, they're people just like me and deserve rights just like I do'," says Adi Cydulkin, a cooking class participant.

"They are here, they exist here, we can't ignore it, we should help especially the young children to become good citizens here in Israel," says Eli Levy.

Participants agreed that they will take home, not only empathy for African asylum seekers like chef Asmayit, but also some of her tasty recipes they learned tonight.

Thousands of Women to Gather for Fourth Annual Women’s March

8 hours 35 min ago

Thousands of women are planning to march in cities across the United States Saturday for the fourth annual Women’s March to advocate for a host of issues, including gender equality and women’s human rights.

Rallies are planned in dozens of cities, including Washington, where the first Women’s March in 2017 drew hundreds of thousands of people the day after President Donald Trump was sworn into office.

The march has included a political message since it began three years ago when many protesters wore the knitted pink hats that have become a symbol of women’s anti-Trump sentiments.

Politics continued to be a strong theme at the Women’s March in all subsequent years, including in 2018 when the organizers moved the march to Nevada, a battleground state for the midterm elections that year, as well as in 2019 when the march returned to Washington and heralded the record 102 women who had been recently elected to the House of Representatives.

Several of the Democratic candidates for president in 2020 are planning to attend Women’s March events across the country this year. Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, will attend the Women's March in Reno, Nevada, while former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick is planning to be at a rally in South Carolina. Senator Michael Bennet and businessman Andrew Yang will attend Women’s March events in New Hampshire and Iowa, respectively.

Since its first march, the Women’s March has faced controversy, including its leaders facing accusations of anti-Semitism. The organizers have repeatedly denied the claims. Three of the four original co-chairs of the organization have left the group, and the organization has appointed a new board that includes three Jewish women.

Current co-president of the Women’s March, Isa Noyola, noted in a statement ahead of this year’s march that it will be the last march before the 2020 election.“

In 2020, we have a chance to finish what we started three years ago and remove Trump from office,” she said.

China Targets Foreign Nationals of Uighur Origin

8 hours 38 min ago

Chinese authorities are continuing to detain foreign nationals of Uighur descent, which experts charge is part of an effort by Beijing to prevent any outside access to Xinjiang province.

 VOA interviewed several ethnic Uighurs of different nationalities who said they or their family members faced detention upon arriving in China. The detained foreign citizens were allegedly jailed, put under house arrest or even sent to the so-called reeducation camps, while some others were repatriated to their home countries.

Hankiz Kurban, a Turkish citizen from Istanbul, told VOA that her parents, Yahya Kurban, 54, and Amina Kurban, 51, both Turkish citizens originating from the region of Xingjian, have been detained since Sept.11, 2017, when they were on a trip to operate a clothing business in Urumchi, the capital city of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
I received my mother’s voice message asking me, in a trembling voice, to contact the Turkish embassy in Beijing and do something for them,” Hankiz said, recalling the moment Chinese authorities arrested her. “It was the last day I heard from my parents.”
Working on release

Kurban and her siblings have attempted to find their parents to no avail. The Turkish embassy has told them officials there are still working with Chinese officials to secure the parents’ release.
Another Turkish citizen of Uighur origin, Muyesser Temel, told VOA that her brother, Mehmet Emin Nasir, 40, was arrested in late 2017 in Kashgar, where he owned a Turkish curtains store.
We kept calling [the] Turkish Embassy in Beijing, Turkish Foreign Ministry in Ankara, and Turkish Presidential Office. Their answer has been, ‘Wait, we are working on this case,’” Temel said.
VOA contacted Turkey’s foreign ministry and embassy in Beijing but has not received a comment.
Responding to a parliamentary question regarding incarcerated Turkish citizens in China, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu last April said his government was using its diplomatic means “in every level” to bring them home.
The problems faced by our citizens around the world and the complaints received in this context are closely monitored through our foreign representatives. Every diplomatic and legal tool is used in order to solve their problems, and the necessary legal, economic and social support is provided to our citizens,” Cavusoglu said in a written response.  
Uighurs are ethnically Turkic and religiously Muslim with a worldwide population estimated to be 12 million.  More than 90% of them are believed to live in their ancestral home of Xinjiang in China’s northwest region. The remaining Uighurs reside in neighboring central Asian states like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan as well as Turkey and Western countries.

Since 2017 China has been accused of detaining almost 1.8 million Uighurs and other minority Muslim groups in mass incarceration camps where they are forced to abandon their religion. Those outside the camps are believed to be under strict government surveillance with no access to the outside world.
China first denied the detention facilities existed but later said they were only for “reeducation and vocational training” purposes. Beijing has tied its policies in the region to fighting “the three evils of terrorism, extremism and separatism.” It recently claimed that all “students” from “training centers” had “graduated” without giving any more details.
Leaked document
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in November released several official Chinese government documents it had obtained, revealing that officials in 2017 directed border officials and police to hand-pick and arrest foreign nationals of Uighur descent.
The documents showed that Chinese officials kept track of about 1,535 people from Xinjiang who had citizenship from various foreign nations, with about 75 confirmed to be in China and about 560 whose location was undertermined. Of the 75 “red-flagged” people, 26 were Turkish, 23 Australian, five Canadian, five Swedish, three American, three Uzbek, three Finnish, two British, two New Zealanders, one French, and one Kyrgyz.
Personal identification verification should be inspected one by one, for those who have already canceled their citizenship and for whom suspected terrorism cannot be ruled out, they should be deported. For those who haven’t canceled their citizenship yet and for whom suspected terrorism cannot be ruled out, they should first be placed into concentrated education and training and examined,” the document suggested.

Australian Uighur Sadam Abdusalam holds up a photo of his wife Nadila and their toddler son Lutfi, whom he has never met. He is trying to get them released from China.

Sadam Abdusalam is one of the Australian Uighurs whose family has been stranded in China since early 2017. His wife, Nadila, a Chinese citizen, was applying for her Australian spousal visa in late 2016 when Chinese officials confiscated her passport. Their son, Lutfi, was born a few months later.
My son, even though an Australian citizen, has not been allowed to unite with me in Australia since the day he was born and I haven’t seen my son for his entire life,” he told VOA.

According to Nurgul Sawut, Campaign for Uyghurs’ director of the board for the Oceania region, three Australian Uighur children and one Australian mother are trapped in China so far.
Except for Sadam’s son, two other Australian children were taken to China for family visit by their grandmother. An Australian permanent resident, who was placed in house arrest and her passport was confiscated after arriving in China,” she told VOA.
Detained, repatriated

Hayrullah Muhammed, an Australian Uighur detained at Chengdu airport in western China in July 2017, told VOA that he was incarcerated in Xinjiang for almost a month before being repatriated. The release, he said, came after the Australian embassy in Beijing intervened.
I was under arrest by special police from Xinjiang at Chengdu airport and was flown to Urumqi and interrogated for at least seven times in three weeks in a detention center before I was let go,” he said.
Omir Bekali, a naturalized Kazakhstan citizen of Uighur heritage, told VOA that he was arrested by five Chinese police while he was visiting his family in Xinjiang in April 2017.
They put shackles on my hands and feet and my head was covered by a black hood when they took me,” Bekali said, adding that he had lost 130 pounds, almost half of his body weight, because of the harsh conditions in captivity.
Thanks to my wife’s efforts to speak up about my disappearance to the media, Kazakh authorities and U.N. office in Kazakhstan, I was released after seven months of going through food and sleep deprivation, beating and interrogation,” he said.
Some experts charge that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) considers Uighur ethnics from foreign countries particularly concerning, seeing them as potential agents from adversaries. Such people, they say, could play an effective role in exposing China’s secretive actions in Xinjiang.   

Timothy Grose, an assistant professor of China Studies at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana, told VOA that CCP officials hope that introducing stricter rules would intimidate Uighurs outside China into silence.
Conceivably, CCP officials assume that Uighurs who have changed their citizenship have also fundamentally shifted their loyalties away from the party, China, and the Zhonghua minzu and to other social, religious, and/or national collectivities and are therefore deemed potential political threats,” said Grose.   
As the CCP further restricts outside contact with Uighurs inside China, “officials hope to ‘sterilize’ the region from outside influence while they construct, unimpeded, a narrative about combating ‘terrorism,’ ‘extremism,’ and ‘poverty,’ he added.

VOA’s Ezel Sahinkaya contributed to this story from Washington.

New Tech, Sharp Docs Made Fast ID of Wuhan Coronavirus Possible

9 hours 15 sec ago

The new virus emerging from a live animal market in southern China has worrisome echoes of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which killed 774 people worldwide in 2002 and 2003.  

Two people have died from the new virus, which is closely related to the SARS virus. Forty-one people have become ill. Three travelers have carried it to Thailand and Japan.  

Georgetown University infectious diseases physician Daniel Lucey worked on SARS in 2003 in China, Hong Kong and Toronto.

He says this outbreak is different in three ways.  

Chinese scientists have tools that were not available in 2002. They had the acumen to look for something new. And they had something else that was missing during SARS: the transparency to warn the world.

Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, right, speaks next to Wong Ka-hing, the Controller of the Centre for Health Protection of the Department of Health during a press conference at the Health Department in Hong Kong, Jan. 11, 2020.

Quick ID

The world first heard about a new disease coming out of Wuhan, China, Dec. 31.  

A week later, Chinese researchers announced they had identified the culprit. The following week, German researchers developed the first diagnostic test.  

That’s fast.  “It’s truly an incredible accomplishment,” Lucey said.  

In the early 2000s, scientists looking for a virus had to grow it in animal cells in petri dishes.

The problem with SARS was “it didn’t grow in any of the usual cell lines. One of the University of Hong Kong scientists had the idea, ‘Well, let’s just try some other cell lines. Why not? What’s to lose?’ And it grew in one that nobody expected it to grow in," Lucey said.

Then the researchers had to grow enough of the virus to isolate its DNA and read its genetic code, a process known as sequencing.

The technology has advanced tremendously in the past decade and a half. “

Back then, it took days to sequence,” Lucey said. “Now, it can take hours.”

Scientists don’t even need to grow the virus in cells anymore. They can directly detect extremely small amounts of viral DNA in a patient’s spit or blood.  

A electron microscope image of a coronavirus is seen in this undated picture provided by the Health Protection Agency in London, (File photo).

Pneumonia in pneumonia season

Having the right tool is important, but what’s more important, Lucey added, is thinking to use it at a time when it’s not obvious.  

It’s winter in China, he said, and “it’s a tribute to the insight of the Chinese clinicians to recognize that there’s a new infectious disease causing pneumonia in the middle of pneumonia (or flu) season."

Lucey said that didn’t happen in the first outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, which has killed more than 850 people.

In April 2012, 13 health care workers at a hospital in Zarqa, Jordan, came down with pneumonia. Two died. Tests for known viruses, including SARS, came up negative.  

Later, in September, a Saudi man died of pneumonia, and scientists determined that a novel virus was causing what was dubbed MERS. Only then did researchers go back and find the MERS virus in samples from the Jordanian patients.  

Lucey also credits the Chinese scientists for getting the word out quickly. China drew criticism for covering up the spread of SARS in 2002. “

You need to have the frame of mind and the political will and the scientific wherewithal to share the information with the world immediately so that diagnostics can be developed immediately,” he said. “And that’s what’s happened. China has done all those things.”

However, some information is still missing.  

The three patients who carried the virus outside China came from Wuhan but have no known link to the animal market identified as the source of the other infections.

"It just suggests to me that there are other people in Wuhan that are infected, and/or other animal markets,” Lucey said.  “The virus is out of the bag,” he added. “I’m afraid we’re at the beginning of the beginning, and a long way to go.”

US Hits Iran General With Sanctions Over Protest Crackdown

9 hours 18 min ago

 The Trump administration on Friday imposed sanctions on a senior Iranian general for his role in a brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters as it ramps up its maximum pressure campaign on the Islamic Republic.

The State Department said it imposed penalties on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Gen. Hassan Shahvarpour for directing a massacre of nearly 150 demonstrators in southwestern Iran in November.

"General Shahvarpour was in command of units responsible for the violent crackdown and lethal repression around Mahshahr," U.S. special envoy for Iran Brian Hook said. He said the designation was the result of photographic and video tips submitted to the department by Iranians.

The department has received more than 88,000 such tips since it appealed for Iranians to report evidence of repression and gross human rights abuses, Hook said.

Iran has denied U.S. allegations of widespread repression but has acknowledged confronting separatists in Mahshahr that it said were armed.

Student Debtor Forgiven $220,000 in School Loans

9 hours 28 min ago

A judge in bankruptcy court has ruled in favor of a law school graduate who asked to have more than $220,000 in student debt erased.

The case is notable because student debt is commonly thought to be unforgivable in bankruptcy cases, a lament of many students who leave college saying they are too financially burdened to advance the milestones of adulthood, like buying property or having children.

But borrower Kevin J. Rosenberg, 46, of Beacon, N.Y., asked the court to forgive his student debt because repaying the loans was impossible and created an undue hardship, the legal test of whether a debtor should be forgiven.

Rosenberg’s student debt commenced in 1993, when he enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, according to court documents. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in history, he served in the U.S. Navy on active duty for five years.

He then attended Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York from 2001 to 2004. His degrees were financed by student loans.

When he graduated from law school in April 2005, he consolidated his debts with a nonprofit corporation called Educational Credit Management Corp., (ECMC), owing $116,464 in principle on the loan amount before interest. But by November 19, 2019, the 3.38% interest rate expanded that loan debt to $221,385.

Rosenberg is among a small percentage of student debtors – 2% -- who owe most of the nation’s $1.7 trillion student debt. This group borrowed money to pay for expensive graduate school programs, like law and medicine.

The average loan debt for law school graduates in 2012 was between $84,600 and $122,158, according to the American Bar Association. Almost 70% of law school graduates in 2016 left with student debt, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

ECMC -- a nonprofit lender organization headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota -- argued that Rosenberg did not meet the undue hardship standard. They cited his age (45), health, lack of dependents, two degrees, and law licenses in New York and New Jersey in their legal brief.“

Shortly after starting his first job as an associate attorney at a law firm, [Rosenberg] decided that practicing law was not for him, because he disliked working in an office and did not find the work interesting,” New Jersey attorney Kenneth Baum, who represented ECMC, wrote in his court brief.

"Thus, after leaving that job after only 2½ months, [Rosenberg], with the exception of a brief period of working as a part-time contract attorney on a project basis – which [he] likened to working as a paralegal – has not sought any employment in the legal profession and has no intention of ever doing so, despite the fact that opportunities abound for Plaintiff to make a very respectable living in the legal profession," Baum wrote.

Rosenberg was quoted in Yahoo Finance on January 12, saying, “First of all, I realized the whole job is sitting in the office by yourself. You can't be creative at all, but also that you either help people out or you make a good living -- you can't do both. And I kind of had a problem with that.”

But Rosenberg told VOA that his hardship was caused by the collapse in the bricks-and-mortar retail industry in 2017, when a shop he owned in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York City, failed because consumers made their purchases online.  

"I left the law in 2005 and filed for bankruptcy in 2018," Rosenberg told VOA in email and by phone. "In between, I was able to launch a business as a street vendor and grow it into a small shop, and then with the help of an investor, a much larger shop that was nationally recognized, before brick & mortar retail collapsed in 2017. It was nation’s switch to ecommerce and the collapse of retail that directly caused my bankruptcy." 
Judge Cecelia G. Morris, chief U.S. Bankruptcy judge in the Southern District of New York, agreed with Rosenberg. She used the student-debt test case, Brunner v N.Y. State Higher Education Services Corp., from 1987 differently than other decisions. “

Brunner has received a lot of criticism for creating too high of a burden for most bankruptcy petitioners to meet,” Morris wrote. For Brunner, who filed for bankruptcy within a year of graduation, “the test is difficult to meet,” she wrote. “

However, for a multitude of petitioners like Mr. Rosenberg, who have been out of school and struggling with student loan debt for many years, the test itself is fairly straightforward and simple," she said.

Rosenberg was relieved of his debt.

Student-loan experts say that most students are under the impression that student debt cannot be relieved in bankruptcy court. Some get bad advice from attorneys who also believe student debt cannot be forgiven in bankruptcy court. “

Jason Iuliano, student-debt expert and assistant professor of law at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia.

You can't discharge student loan debt in bankruptcy: That was the prevailing wisdom,” said Jason Iuliano, an expert in student debt and assistant professor of law at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia.

But Iuliano, whose own student debt was hundreds of thousands of dollars after receiving degrees from Harvard University and Princeton University, dove into the caseload and found that wasn’t true. “

What I found when I actually went in and collected the cases was a lot of folks actually do meet the [undue hardship] test,” he said. “About 40% of the student loan debtors in bankruptcy … are successful in getting a discharge of some sort. And that struck me as really important.”

Iuliano said about 250,000 student debtors file for bankruptcy each year. But only about 500 of them take a necessary additional legal step – an adversary proceeding - to address college-loan specific debt. Only 1% end up going in front of a judge.

"A lot more people should be filing and trying to prove undue hardship, because they would be successful if they actually came before a judge,” Iuliano advised.

Ashley Harrington, senior policy counsel for the Center for Responsible Lending in Washington.

Ashley Harrington, senior policy counsel for the Center for Responsible Lending, celebrated the decision, but said student debt that impacts low-income and minority borrowers more than any others should be addressed long before debtors end up with interest-bloated loans. “

My initial thought was, ‘This is great, good for him.’ We’ve always supported student-loan discharge of both private and federal loans,” Harrington said. “But, there still is a need for Congress to do something about it.”

Among students in the Class of 2016, 70% borrowed an average of $30,000, Harrington said.“

People are really struggling under this debt for a very long time. Your repayment term is 20 to 25 years, and that’s as long as some people’s mortgages," she said.“

Part of the conversation is changing in judicial chambers because everyone is realizing what a crisis this is, seeing how it effects students’ lives,” Harrington added. “How much help have you given them?”

Rosenberg said he is frustrated by "some folks [who] come away acting like my case was a scheme to get out of a bad decision and it wasn’t.  

"I did everything I could to avoid bankruptcy and tried to work things out with the lenders but they refused to budge ...   I only filed for bankruptcy when I had no other realistic option."

ECMC has the right to appeal the decision. Spokesperson Laura Telander Graf emailed VOA that “We are reviewing the ruling to determine how we will proceed.”

US Official: Unknown if Iran Athlete Plans to Seek Asylum in America

10 hours 41 min ago

A U.S. official says women are the force behind the massive protests in Iran, and that the United States is unaware of whether Iranian Olympic athlete Kimia Alizadeh is seeking asylum in the U.S.

Alizadeh, Iran's only female Olympic medalist, said earlier this week on social media that she has permanently left Iran because she had had enough of being used by its authorities for political purposes.“

I don’t know if she is seeking asylum so I can’t speak to that," Brian Hook, U.S. Special Representative for Iran, said Friday when asked by VOA if the  U.S. would welcome Alizadeh if she seeks asylum in the United States. 

"Much of the strength and the energy in the anti-regime protests are being led by Iranian women,” Hook said, adding he believes “many more Iranian women would like to leave the oppression that this regime presents to them.”
Iran was shocked when Alizadeh announced her defection earlier this week.

Iranian politician Abdolkarim Hosseinzadeh accused "incompetent officials" of allowing Iran's "human capital to flee," according to media reports.

A deputy Iranian sports minister, Mahin Farhadizadeh, reportedly told the news agency ISNA that Alizadeh defected to pursue her education "in physiotherapy," according to a New York Post report.

Friday, Shohreh Bayat, an Iranian chess referee who is in Russia for the Women's World Chess Championship, told Reuters she does not want to return home out of fear for her safety. Bayat has been accused of violating her nation’s Islamic dress code while adjudicating a women's tournament.

Last week, protests erupted across Iran after a period of increasing tensions between Washington and Tehran. The U.S. killed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 2, and Iran responded Jan. 8 by launching an airstrike from Tehran against an Iraqi base that housed U.S. military. Shortly after, a Ukrainian International Airline Boeing 737 taking off from Tehran's airport crashed, killing all 176 people on board. Three days later, Iran admitted to mistakenly shooting down the airplane, which led to street protests in Tehran and several other Iranian cities.

The 21-year-old Alizadeh, who won a bronze medal in taekwondo at the 2016 Rio Olympics, did not reveal her whereabouts but in the past has said she wants to settle in the Netherlands.

She said she no longer wanted to "sit at the table of hypocrisy, lies, injustice, and flattery."
"I am one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran with whom they have been playing for years," she wrote on social media.

In a tweet, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said “#KimiaAlizadeh, Iran’s only female Olympic medalist, has rejected the regime’s oppression of women. She has defected for a life of security, happiness, and freedom. #Iran will continue to lose more strong women unless it learns to empower and support them.”

#KimiaAlizadeh, Iran’s only female Olympic medalist, has rejected the regime’s oppression of women. She has defected for a life of security, happiness, and freedom. #Iran will continue to lose more strong women unless it learns to empower and support them. https://t.co/NIzdo4PPwI

— Morgan Ortagus (@statedeptspox) January 12, 2020

Western media had credited the taekwondo medalist with “emboldening Iranian girls and women to push the boundaries of personal freedom.”

In December, Alireza Firouzja, Iran's top-rated chess champion, said he would not play for Iran in an upcoming tournament and is ready to renounce his citizenship because of a ban on competing against Israeli players.

Saeid Mollaei, an Iranian judo world champion, left the country for Germany last fall and sought asylum. Mollaei said he had been pressured to deliberately lose in the semifinals at the 2019 World Judo Championships in Tokyo to avoid facing Israelis.

US Eases Firearms Export Rules, Officials Say

11 hours 11 min ago

U.S. firearms makers will be able within days to export as much as 20% more guns, including assault rifles and ammunition, under rules the Trump administration announced on Friday.

The change, which had been contemplated for more than a decade, will officially move oversight of commercial firearm exports from the State Department to the Commerce Department, where export licenses will be much easier to obtain.

The move by President Donald Trump's administration will generate business for gun makers such as American Outdoor Brands Corp and Sturm Ruger & Co, while increasing the sale of deadly weapons abroad.

Relaxing the rules could increase foreign gun sales by as much as 20%, the National Shooting Sports Foundation has estimated.

The Department of Commerce is "better oriented for the kinds of licensing requirements that we are going to be enforcing.” Rich Ashooh, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration told reporters in a conference call. 

A woman uses a virtual reality based firearms simulator at the National Rifle Association's annual meeting, in Indianapolis, Indiana, April 28, 2019.

A draft of the rules was published on Friday, with publication in the Federal Register expected next week, said Clarke Cooper the State Department's Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs.

"While we are providing industry a some regulatory relief and a cost savings, it does improve enforceability," Cooper said.

U.S. Representative Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, called the move "bad," at Tuesday's Forum on the Arms Trade Annual Conference, in comments that echoed arms control advocates. 

Under the change, Lieu said, more weapons will be sold overseas and "give Congress even less authority as a check and balance on those sales."

Under the new rule 3D printed guns will still be regulated.

"This control will help ensure that U.S. national security and foreign policy interests are not undermined by foreign persons' access to firearms production technology," a version of the rule posted on the Federal Register said.

Reuters first reported on the Trump administration's interest in the oversight shift in 2017 .

The action is part of a broader Trump administration overhaul of weapons export policy.

Both US, Iran Believe Time Is on Their Side in Tense Standoff

12 hours 8 min ago

The prospects that Iran and the United States will develop a new, more extensive nuclear agreement appear bleak, at least for now, after leaders in Tehran this week defiantly abandoned the 2015 deal, one that President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018. Tensions remain high as international sanctions could be added to those already imposed by the U.S.  VOA’s Brian Padden reports on growing concerns that there is no realistic diplomatic strategy at play to peacefully resolve this crisis.

What Do We Know About Newly Identified Virus from China?    

12 hours 24 min ago

A second person has died from a newly identified virus in central China that has sickened dozens. The outbreak prompted U.S. health officials to announce Friday that the United States would begin screening airline passengers arriving from central China. Here is what we know about the virus.

What is the newly identified virus?

Health authorities have identified the virus as a new type of coronavirus, part of a large family of viruses that includes the common cold as well as the more serious illness SARS. Laboratory tests have ruled out all previously known coronaviruses, including SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, MERS, or Middle East respiratory syndrome, as well as influenza and bird flu. Scientists say the new virus strain appears most similar to SARS, but say it seems to be weaker than that disease.

How many people have become sick?

Two people in China have died from the mysterious virus and 41 others have been infected. Chinese officials say five people are in serious condition.

FILE - A vendor gives out copies of newspaper with a headlines of "Wuhan breakout a new type of coronavirus, Hong Kong prevents SARS repeat" at a street in Hong Kong, Jan. 11, 2020.

Where has the disease been reported?

Cases of the virus were first reported in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, believed to be the epicenter of the outbreak. Chinese health officials say many of those who became sick worked at or visited a seafood market in the suburbs of Wuhan. Three cases have been detected outside China — two in Thailand and one in Japan — but health officials say those patients had visited Wuhan before becoming sick.

How does the virus spread?

Health officials believe the virus is spread from animals to humans. There is, so far, no evidence that the virus is capable of human-to-human transmission, although health officials say they cannot rule out this possibility. Scientists say it is also possible that the virus could mutate to become more dangerous.

What are the virus symptoms?

The most common symptoms of the virus are fever, cough and difficulty breathing.

What is the U.S. response?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the risk of the virus to the American public is low, but that it wants to be prepared and so is setting up health screenings at three U.S. airports. The focus will be on travelers to the United States on direct or connecting fights from Wuhan. The CDC said travelers with symptoms arriving at San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles airports will undergo testing for flu or other possible causes.

How are Asian countries responding?

At least a half-dozen countries in Asia have also started health screenings for incoming airline passengers from central China, including Thailand and Japan, both of which have seen cases of the virus. This time of year is one of the busiest travel seasons in China, with people flying both to and from the country to celebrate the Lunar New Year. China has increased disinfection efforts in major transportation hubs.

What is the World Health Organization recommending?

The WHO is warning that a wider outbreak of the virus is possible and has given guidance to hospitals worldwide. It said in a statement Thursday that it did not recommend instituting any trade or travel restrictions on China at this time.

Pentagon Placing New Restrictions on International Military Students

13 hours 20 min ago

The Pentagon is placing new restrictions on all international military students at American bases in response to a December shooting by a Saudi trainee that killed three sailors in Florida.

Garry Reid, director of defense intelligence at the Pentagon, said the restrictions would include limits to students' ability to possess and use firearms, along with control measures limiting their access to military installations and U.S. government facilities.

Act of terrorism

Earlier this week, the Department of Justice called the December 6 attack at Naval Air Station Pensacola an act of terrorism.    

Twenty-one Saudi trainees were returned to Saudi Arabia after an investigation found they had either jihadist sentiments on social media pages or contact with child pornography. Officials did not accuse any of them of having advance knowledge of the shooting or helping the gunman.

Updated software will help

Senior defense officials say the U.S. military will more closely control foreign trainees' access to facilities on military bases by using a software application known as the Defense Bio-metric Identification System, which could code foreign students' access credentials to prohibit their entry into buildings not used for their training.

Trainees will now be continuously monitored while enrolled in U.S.-based training programs, according to a defense official.

"When these procedures are in place, the military departments will be authorized to fully resume the training that has been suspended since the attack at Pensacola," Reid said.  That suspension has applied to about 850 Saudi trainees.

Updated policies for current and new students

The new policies will be applicable to all current student populations in addition to new students.

In the last 20 years, more than a million students have gone through the United States' International Military Students program.

There were no "serious security incidents" until the December 6 shooting in Pensacola, according to defense officials. During that attack, Saudi Air Force officer Mohammed Alshamrani, 21,  killed three U.S. sailors and injured eight other people.

Jury of 7 Men, 5 Women Selected for Weinstein's Rape Trial

13 hours 32 min ago

A jury of seven men and five women was selected Friday for Harvey Weinstein's rape trial after an arduous two-week process, setting the stage for testimony to begin in the next week.

The final tally mostly erased a gender imbalance that, just hours earlier, led to complaints by prosecutors that the defense was deliberately trying to keep young women off the panel.

"They are systematically eliminating a class of people from this jury," prosecutor Joan Illuzzi-Orbon said.

The defense said it wasn't specifically targeting young women, but didn't want jurors who were too young to understand the way men and women interacted in the early 1990s.

"That was a different time in New York and on planet Earth," Weinstein attorney Arthur Aidala said.

Weinstein, 67, ambling out of the courthouse, didn't comment when asked his thoughts on jury selection. "Ask Donna!" he said, referring to lawyer Donna Rotunno. Three alternate jurors — one man and two women — were also seated who will sit through the trial and take the place of any jurors on the main panel who can't make it through to deliberations.

Donna Rotunno walks ahead of her client Harvey Weinstein, left, as they arrive at a Manhattan courthouse to attend jury selection for his trial on rape and sexual assault charges in New York, Jan. 17, 2020.

Weinstein, the former studio boss behind such Oscar winners as "Pulp Fiction" and "Shakespeare in Love," is charged with raping a woman in a Manhattan hotel room in 2013 and sexually assaulting another woman in 2006. He has pleaded not guilty and said any sexual activity was consensual. If convicted, he could face life in prison.

Complicated selection process

The tussle over juror gender comes amid a selection process that has been far from easy.

Weinstein's case has attracted widespread public attention and catalyzed the MeToo movement as dozens of women have come forward over the last two years with allegations of sexual misconduct. That's made it tough for Weinstein's lawyers, prosecutors and Burke to find a fair and impartial jury.

Each day for nearly a week, whenever Judge James Burke introduced Weinstein to a new batch of potential jurors and asked if they couldn't be impartial, dozens of hands shot up.

Weinstein's lawyers have tried, so far unsuccessfully, to move the trial out New York City, arguing that the media hub where celebrities and ordinary people often intersect can't possibly give Weinstein a fair trial.

Cognizant of the media attention and the weight some people are putting on the case, Burke has cautioned potential jurors: "This trial is not a referendum on the #MeToo movement."

Of more than 600 people summoned as potential jurors in Weinstein's case, some have marked themselves for disqualification by admitting they knew one of Weinstein's many accusers, had personal experience with sexual abuse, or read "Catch and Kill," a book by Ronan Farrow, one of the first reporters to bring the allegations against Weinstein to light.

There were others like supermodel Gigi Hadid, who reported for jury duty and wound up in the Weinstein pool, who even said they had met the defendant. One man's wife starred on a show that Weinstein's studio produced and said he couldn't be impartial. One woman said she couldn't be impartial because she has a "close friend who had an encounter with the defendant in his hotel room."

Another man was scratched for saying he couldn't be fair-minded because he had often spotted Weinstein in Tribeca, the lower Manhattan neighborhood that hosts an annual film festival. "On several occasions I've seen him on the phone screaming at someone," he said of Weinstein.

In the end, the jury includes the author of a upcoming novel that she describes as involving young women dealing with predatory older men. The defense, out of challenges, argued against including her on the jury, but Burke said she could serve. The defense then asked for a mistrial over her inclusion on the jury but was denied. Weinstein lawyer Rotunno said the woman had lied on her jury questionnaire, but prosecutors noted she disclosed on the form that she was a novelist.

That so many people in the running to be on the jury have had experiences involving Weinstein or his accusers speaks to the breadth of his alleged abuse, as well as the ubiquitous nature of celebrity in New York, where stars are frequently spotted by paparazzi and the public alike riding the subway, shopping for groceries and walking their pets.

Juror prejudices, experiences

Then there have been other issues, including at least one instance of what jury consultants call "stealth jurors" — people eager to serve, especially on a high-profile case, because they hope to make a point, or a profit.

On Thursday, Burke threatened to hold a potential juror in contempt of court for asking his followers on Twitter "how a person might hypothetically leverage serving on the jury of a high-profile case to promote their new novel."

Opening statements are expected next Wednesday. The trial could last about six weeks.

While Weinstein's celebrity was behind some of the difficulties in finding an impartial jury in this case, they also stemmed from the fact that the MeToo movement has Americans thinking more than ever about their own experiences with sexual harassment and assault.

"A lot of folks who will be incapable of separating their own workplace experiences from the case ... and might not even recognize that they're bringing their own prejudice, if you will, to bear on the circumstances," said jury consultant Philip K. Anthony. "It's not bad on their part — it's just human nature."

Anthony's Los Angeles consulting firm is not involved in Weinstein's case.

During the phase of jury selection called voir dire, where lawyers attempt to size up people who have assured the judge they could be fair and impartial jurors, the lawyers' concerns were in evidence. Addressing a pool of prospective jurors Thursday, prosecutor Meghan Hast signaled concerns that the sight of Weinstein, who's been using a walker since back surgery last month, could influence their attitudes about him.

"Is there anything about Harvey Weinstein, looking at him today, that makes you feel that there's no way that man's a rapist?" she asked. No one responded.

Defense lawyer Damon Cheronis told the panel that they would hear testimony from Weinstein accusers who might get emotional and cry on the witness stand. He also asked the potential jurors whether they were familiar with the concept of "victim shaming."

Another one of his questions: "Does anybody think an individual could have sex with someone that they may not find attractive for reasons other than love?" No one responded.

Prosecutors plan to call at least four women to the witness stand who have accused Weinstein of violating them, but whose allegations weren't the basis for the New York charges.

As jury selection was getting under way last week, California prosecutors charged Weinstein with sexually assaulting two women there, one of whom who is expected to testify in the New York case.

Burke ruled Friday that if Weinstein testifies on his own behalf, prosecutors can't question him about that accuser on cross examination.

Press Fights New Trump Impeachment Rules

14 hours 52 sec ago

For just the third time in U.S. history, senators will sit in judgment of a U.S. president and decide if there is enough evidence to remove him from office. Members of Congress are held to account for their decisions by a free press asking tough questions about their actions. But as VOA's congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson reports from Capitol Hill, new rules for Trump's impeachment trial may change that process.

Migrant Surge into Guatemala Reaches 3,500, Heads for Mexico

14 hours 12 min ago

More than 3,500 Central Americans had poured into Guatemala by Friday in U.S.-bound gatherings known as caravans, officials said, posing a headache for the leaders of Guatemala and Mexico amid fierce U.S. pressure to curb migration.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly urged the region to prevent such groups of migrants reaching Mexico's border with the United States, and the latest exodus from Honduras that began on Wednesday has been accompanied by U.S. border agents.

The migrants, some traveling in groups as small as a dozen people while others formed caravans of more than 100, said they planned to unite at the Guatemalan border city of Tecun Uman before crossing together into Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said his government was monitoring the situation as the migrants approached, saying there were 4,000 jobs available on the southern border, as well as shelters and medical help.

"We are keeping an eye on everything," Lopez Obrador said during a regular press conference.

Honduran migrants get a ride on the back of a truck as they travel north in hopes of reaching the United States, in Quezaltepeque, Guatemala, Jan. 17, 2020.

Lopez Obrador did not say if Mexico would seek to keep the migrants in the southern part of the country. Most Central Americans who leave their countries escaping poverty and violence are eager to make their way towards the United States.

Under U.S. pressure, Mexican security forces have increasingly broken up large groups as they head north.

On Wednesday, Guatemala's new President Alejandro Giammattei suggested Mexico would prevent any caravans from reaching the United States.

About a thousand migrants entered Guatemala on Thursday, with local officials busing some of the migrants back to the Honduran border to fill out official paperwork, said Alejandra Mena, a spokeswoman for Guatemala's migration institute.

"We haven't returned people from Guatemala and we have a total of about 3,543 people who have so far crossed the border," Mena said.

At least 600 Honduran migrants spent the night under tents in a shelter in Guatemala City on Thursday night, sleeping on mattresses.

"Now we have more experience, and we know how to treat them," said Father Mauro Verzeletti, director of the Migrant House shelter in Guatemala City.

Guatemala's former President Jimmy Morales agreed last July with the U.S. government to implement measures aimed at reducing the number of asylum claims made in the United States by migrants fleeing Honduras and El Salvador, averting Trump's threat of economic sanctions.

New leader Giammattei said a top priority would be reviewing the text of migration agreements made with the United States.

Benin Museum Celebrates Return of Precious Artifacts from France

14 hours 32 min ago

More than two years after France promised to return colonial-era treasures to their African homes, Benin — ostensibly the first recipient of the groundbreaking policy — still awaits them. But on Friday, a small museum outside Cotonou celebrated the return of antique royal scepters gifted by a group of Paris gallery owners.

In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron sparked joy — and unease — when he announced colonial-era treasures from Africa would be returned, or shared through exhibitions and loans. The first gesture would be the speedy return to Benin of 26 objects looted by French colonial forces in 1892.

But turning that promise into reality is not so easy. Only last December did France's culture minister offer a concrete timetable, saying the objects now housed at Paris' leading African art museum would be returned by 2021.

Enter a group of Paris Left Bank gallery owners, whose private efforts are moving much more quickly than public ones. They have not only acquired and returned precious antiques to Benin for years, but raised funds to build a small museum outside Cotonou to house them.

On Friday that institution, the Petit Musee de la Recade, welcomed one of its biggest troves to date: more than two dozen pieces, including 17 scepters, coming from the ancient Kingdom of Dahomey, located in parts of what is modern day Benin.

Speaking by phone from Cotonou, Paris gallery owner Robert Vallois said the gesture doesn't constitute restitution of ill-gotten art. Instead, he and his colleagues bought the antiques in France, with the specific intent of returning them to Benin.

Macron's restitution promise has been more complicated to realize. It means changing French laws and ensuring old and fragile pieces are properly housed.

With French support, Benin is building a new museum in Abomey, once the capital of the Kingdom of Dahomey. Jose Pliya, head of Benin's national agency for heritage promotion and tourism development, spoke to VOA about the process last year.

"We really have to have the good condition — temperature, isolation, conservation — to welcome them ... a lot of things have to be done. The training of all the conservators in Benin, how to protect the pieces," Pliya said.

Despite the roadblocks, Macron's restitution vows add pressure on other European countries and museums with African collections.

Vallois said he and his gallery group are not part of such debates. Instead, they're following their own counsel — and what's important to them is that the objects return to their countries of origin.