Voice of America

  • Australia Government Loses Parliamentary Majority
    Australia’s center-right government has lost its one-seat majority in parliament following a defeat in a by-election in Sydney.  The ballot was prompted by the removal of Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister in a party room coup.   The defeat of the governing Liberal party candidate is seen by analysts as an act of retribution by Sydney voters furious at the way their former member of parliament, Malcolm Turnbull, was ousted as prime minister.  He was forced out by government colleagues in August, and he then resigned as lawmaker.   For the first time ever the seat of the Wentworth electoral district is not in conservative hands.  It will be represented by Kerryn Phelps, a local doctor and prominent gay rights campaigner.  She accused the government of ignoring voters and of doing too little to address the impact of climate change. She was given little of chance of winning when the campaign began, but she is savoring her famous achievement. “People have been concerned about the direction of the government for a very long time and we have seen a lack of decency, a lack of integrity, and we really need to go back to looking at what the House of Representatives is all about.  It is about representing the people and the people have spoken loud and clear,” Phelps said. The Wentworth vote represents the biggest by-election swing against a federal government ever recorded in Australia. It strips the center-right Prime Minister Scott Morrison of his narrow one-seat parliamentary majority in the lower house of parliament. He accepted blame for the defeat but says he will fight on. “The result today is on us, the Liberals.  But leadership requires you to turn up on the tough days and the good days, and that is what you will always get from me as the leader as the leader of the Liberal Party,” Morrison said. The Morrison government will probably survive for now with the support of independent MPs but with a federal election due next May its longer-term prospects appear grim. There is speculation that the government’s grip on power is so tenuous that an early poll is considered in certain quarters to be inevitable.  

  • Thousands in Taiwan Rally in Support of Independence
    Thousands of pro-independence demonstrators gathered in Taiwan's capital on Saturday to express their disapproval with China's stance toward their island. China cut off contact with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen's government shortly after her inauguration in 2016 and has been ratcheting up diplomatic, economic and military pressure on Taiwan in a bid to compel her to agree to Beijing's insistence that the self-governing island democracy is a part of China. “I want to loudly say no to China,” said 43-year-old demonstrator Ping Cheng-wen, who is self-employed. “I just don't agree with China's rhetoric. We have our own sovereignty, and Taiwan is a country.” Another demonstrator at the rally in Taipei, Kuo Jung-min, an 85-year-old Presbyterian church pastor and Hebrew language professor at Taiwan Theological College and Seminary, said pro-unification advocates should move to China if they think it is a better place to live. “We have to be real Taiwanese, not fake Chinese,” Kuo said. “There is no use being Chinese. Those who advocate pro-unification still live in Taiwan. If China is that good, why don't they just move to China?” In an October 10 National Day address, Tsai called on China not to be a “source of conflict” and pledged to boost Taiwan's defenses against Beijing's military threats. Tsai said the best way to defend Taiwan was to “make it indispensable and irreplaceable to the world,” while remaining nonconfrontational in its attitude toward China. China and Taiwan separated amid civil war in 1949 and China considers the island part of its territory to be taken control of by force if necessary.  

  • No Winner; US Lottery Jackpot Climbs to Record $1.6 Billion
    No one won the latest Mega Millions drawing, meaning the jackpot climbs to a staggering $1.6 billion.   Mega Millions officials say no tickets matched all six numbers to claim the estimated $1 billion grand prize in Friday night's drawing. The numbers were 15, 23, 53, 65, 70 and Mega Ball 7.   The next drawing will be Tuesday.   With the jackpot currently tied with the record-setting lottery jackpot and bound to grow before the next drawing, it is bound to become the largest prize in U.S. history.   The jackpot has been growing since July, when a group of California office workers won $543 million.   It costs $2 to play the game, but the odds of winning the jackpot aren't good. The chance of matching all six numbers and taking home the grand prize is one in 302.5 million.   Mega Millions is played in 44 states as well as Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  

  • IS Frees 6 Hostages in Deal with Syrian Government
    The Islamic State group early Saturday released two women and four children they had been holding since July in the first part of an exchange with the Syrian government that will set free dozens of women related to members of the extremist group, opposition activists said. The women and children were among 30 people kidnapped by IS in the southern province of Sweida on July 25 when they carried out a raid that left at least 216 people dead. One woman died in IS custody while another was shot dead. In August, a 19-year-old man was also killed while in detention. Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the women and children were the first batch of the exchange, adding that more will follow. The Observatory said the government in return will release 60 women held by authorities and a $27 million ransom. The Suwayda 24 activist collective posted a picture of a woman and four children who were released adding that authorities freed 17 wives of IS fighters and eight of their children. It added that 21 women and children still being held by IS will be set free in the coming days. Suwayda 24 identified the released women as Rasmiya Abu Ammar and Abeer Shalgheen and her four children. The July 25 attack on the southern city of Sweida and nearby villages, which are inhabited by members of the minority Druze community, was one of the deadliest by the extremists since they lost most of the land they once held in Syria and Iraq. State news agency SANA quoted the governor of Sweida Amer Ashi as saying that the six hostages were freed as a result of the tight siege imposed by Syrian troops on the extremists in the desert area outside the city of Sweida. He said that more hostages will be freed soon.

  • Afghan Voters Defiant in Face of Taliban Threats
    Voters are lined up to cast their ballots in polling stations across Afghanistan despite repeated threats from Taliban, including a new one Saturday morning, that they would attack all polling stations. In capital Kabul, voters struck a defiant tone. “We are not afraid of threats because we want to build our country. Today we had a lot of threats, but we are still here to vote,” said Fariba, a female voter in Kabul. In other parts of the country, officials seemed confident about the safety measures they had taken. “The security measures are all in place. We have a really good coordination with the security forces,” said Mohammad Rasul Omar, the head of Independent Election Commission in Kunduz, although election officials reported that Taliban had stolen election material from at least one polling station in the province, and local journalists had reported some rocket attacks in various parts of the province. The start of polling, originally scheduled for 7 a.m., was delayed in various parts of the country, sometimes by up to several hours, agitating voters who had lined up before 7. “I was in a hurry, so I came at 7 a.m., but by 7:30 they had not started polling. The process was disorganized. I had to go to a funeral,” said Sahila, a female voter in Kabul. Because of the delays, voting will be extended to Sunday in places where technical and organization glitches stymied voters, Abdul Badi Sayad, chairman of Independent Election Commission, said. Fraud allegations, Kabul explosions The election season was marred by allegations of fraud from various political parties and by violence. Two days before the election, an attack in Kandahar killed the influential commander General Abdul Raziq, leading to postponement of elections in the province by a week. Ten other candidates died in various attacks across the country, along with dozens of their supporters, since the beginning of the nomination period in late May. At midday Saturday, the Afghan Ministry of Interior confirmed several small explosions in Kabul. The health ministry confirmed a few casualties but would not say if anyone was killed. According to the ministry, tough security measures stopped the attackers from getting close to the polling stations, the intended target. Election overdue The sitting Afghan parliament had completed its constitutional term in 2015 but continued to operate under a presidential decree because of a delay in electoral reforms. Until a month ago, many analysts and journalists were not sure the elections would actually take place. “There was no trust, now there is trust; there was doubt, and now it has converted to belief; there was criticism, and we converted that to cooperation,” said President Ashraf Ghani, who cast his ballot in Amani High School near the presidential palace. He also praised the election commission for taking the right technical measures to help with the legitimacy of the polls. The election commission introduced a new biometric system after political parties expressed concern about the transparency of the process. Despite concerns that the system, which was not adequately tested ahead of time, might crash or create problems, voters in several polling stations in Kabul seemed to be satisfied with their experience. “We are very pleased with the process. It was very transparent,” said Fazila, a Kabul voter. Security, election observers Around 70,000 security personnel are deployed around the country to safeguard 5,100 polling stations. The original plan was to operate more than 7,000 polling stations but was changed because of security concerns and high threat alerts in several areas. At least 19 districts in Afghanistan are considered under a severe threat of attacks. Around 132 observers from various countries and the European Union are joining close to half a million local observers. Many of these are agents of candidates or political parties, civil society activists, and other groups monitoring the elections. More than 2,500 candidates are competing for the 249 seats in the next parliament. Out of these, about 400 female candidates are competing for the 68 seats reserved for women. Speaking to VOA’s Afghan Service, Hamdullah Mohib, the National Security Adviser of Afghanistan, said the Taliban had been trying to show that Afghans could not handle this process all on their own, but they will be proven wrong. These are the first elections since the fall of Taliban, which are being primarily managed by the Afghan government, including the security arrangements. Resolute Support, NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, has said they are ready to support the Afghan forces if needed.

  • Monitor Gives Iran New Money-Laundering Reform Deadline
    The international group that monitors money-laundering worldwide said Friday Iran had until February to complete reforms that would bring it into line with global norms or face consequences. The Paris-based Financial Action Task Force said after a meeting of its members that it was disappointed that Tehran had acted on only nine out of 10 of its guidelines despite pledges to make the grade. It had previously set a deadline of October to compete all 10 reforms. “We expect Iran to move swiftly to implement the commitments that it undertook at a high level so long ago,” said Marshall Billingslea, the U.S. assistant Treasury secretary for terrorist financing, after chairing an FATF meeting. “In line with that, we expect that it will have adopted all of these measures by February. If by February 2019 Iran has not yet done so, then we will take further steps,” he said. Iran welcomes extension In the meantime, the FATF said it had decided to continue suspending countermeasures, which can go as far as limiting or even banning transactions with a country. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said he welcomed the decision to extend the deadline to February, the state news agency IRNA reported. He also criticized the U.S. chairmanship of FATF, saying it was an attempt to bring Iran back on to the international money-laundering blacklist, without elaborating. Iran’s parliament approved some new measures against funding terrorism earlier this month under pressure to adopt international standards. But FATF said that it could only consider fully enacted legislation. Members of FATF had given Tehran until this month to bring its laws against money-laundering and funding of terrorism up to its guidelines. Return to blacklist possible Otherwise, Iran risked being returned to a blacklist of noncompliant countries that makes foreign investors and banks reluctant to deal with it. Britain, France and Germany are trying to keep some financial channels open to Iran after the United States pulled out of a 2015 nuclear deal in May and re-imposed sanctions. Analysts say that inclusion on the FATF’s blacklist could effectively make that all but impossible.

  • Alaska Governor Drops Re-Election Bid, Backs Democrat
    Alaska Governor Bill Walker, a political independent, halted his re-election campaign Friday and endorsed his Democratic challenger, ending a three-way race in which the Republican candidate had appeared to possess an insurmountable lead. With 18 days remaining before the Nov. 6 election, Walker, 67, said he concluded that he could not win a second term in a race against former U.S. Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat, and former state legislator Mike Dunleavy, a Republican. Walker’s withdrawal came three days after his former running mate, Byron Mallott, abruptly resigned as lieutenant governor over admitted but unspecified “inappropriate comments” in a scandal that threw the governor’s campaign into disarray. Republican well ahead in polls But public opinion surveys were already showing Dunleavy well ahead of the two other men and indicated Begich had greater support than the incumbent governor. Consulting for days on whether Walker or Begich had a better shot at running a competitive race against Dunleavy, the “determination was made that, at this point, Begich has the better odds,” the governor said in a statement posted on his campaign’s website. Walker also said Begich’s positions on various key issues “more closely align with my priorities for Alaska,” including their support for Medicaid expansion in Alaska and state action on climate change. Dunleavy opposes both. “Today’s developments leave Alaska voters with a clear choice,” Dunleavy’s campaign said after learning Walker halted his re-election campaign. A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump, Dunleavy has focused his campaign on criticizing Walker for reducing the annual oil-fund dividends all Alaska residents receive. Walker has said limiting the payout was necessary to address big budget deficits. Dunleavy has advocated deeper spending cuts and more oil and mining development. The latest announcement came at the annual convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives, a powerful constituency in the state, just before Walker, Begich and Dunleavy were all scheduled to participate in a gubernatorial debate. Begich and Walker, whose name will remain on the ballot despite his withdrawal, were widely seen as likely to take votes away from each other in a three-way race. Walker a former Republican Walker changed his party affiliation from Republican to independent before launching his successful 2014 campaign for governor on a “unity” ticket with Mallot, a Democrat, as his running mate. In his remarks at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference, Walker said his supporters would have to decide for themselves who they favored in a two-man race but said he planned to vote for Begich. Walker’s campaign spokesman previously acknowledged that representatives for the governor and Begich had been in talks on a “path forward” even before Mallott stepped down from office.

  • Using Tech to Save World's Most Endangered Species in Tanzania
    In Tanzania, protecting endangered animals has become easier thanks to Earth Ranger. Earth Ranger is not a superhero, it's a technology platform, developed by Vulcan Inc., a company co-founded by U.S. philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The system helps rangers remotely monitor elephants and other animals to stay ahead of poachers. Faiza Elmasry has the story. VOA's Faith Lapidus narrates.

  • Saudis Admit the Death of Khashoggi; Crown Prince in Charge of Investigation
    Saudi Arabia has admitted that Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi is dead. Saudi state-run media says Khashoggi died after an altercation in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and it is promising a one-month investigation. VOA's diplomatic correspondent Cindy Saine reports from the State Department on the dramatic developments in Riyadh.

  • Bali Beauty Pageant Signals Renewed Anti-LGBT Crackdown
    Majority-Hindu Bali has long been considered more tolerant of different sexual identities compared with other parts of Indonesia, especially amid recent anti-LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) crackdowns in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.  But a beauty pageant promoting HIV education and equality was this month shutdown by Islamic hardliners, sparking concern among some in the LGBT community that Bali is no longer a safe place. Organized by the Bali-based Gaya Dewata Foundation, which provides testing, counseling and support on HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, the pageant has been held annually for the past three years. But this year, anti-LGBT Muslim groups reportedly harassed the owners of the Bhumiku Convention Hall in Denpasar, Bali’s capital.  “We had to call off our event, due to the owners of the venue canceling it,” Christian Supriyadinata, the director of Gaya Dewata, told VOA. “I thought Bali will have that space for us to be ourselves,” said Agung a Balinese native who recently moved back to the island from Muslim-majority Java. He chose to be identified by one name to protect his identity. Agung told VOA it, “actually turns out to be Bali doesn’t have that immunity anymore, doesn’t have that bubble anymore to protect ourselves.” LGBT events canceled Lini Zurlia, an Indonesian queer activist who works for the regional LGBT organization ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, said this was not first LGBT event to be canceled in Bali. Many public events for the Straits Games, a sports event for the gay community from across Asia, were canceled last year after pressure from certain quarters, she said.  “It was not only from hard-line groups but also from the police,” she said. “Since then, we think Bali isn’t all that friendly [to LGBT people] after all. Maybe it’s just friendly because it’s a center for tourism in Indonesia.” The local chapter of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI) was among the groups that opposed the event and reported it to the police.  “This is clearly very alarming, because the [pageant] is clearly contrary to moral and religious values in Indonesia,” the Bali MUI chairman, Muhammad Taufik Asadi, told the conservative-leaning newspaper Republika. Sexuality and health Many local cultures in Indonesia have traditionally had fluid understandings of sexuality beyond a binary of heterosexuality and homosexuality. This has, however, eroded in recent years with the rise of more conservative strains of Islam. Intensified anti-LGBT sentiment has also been accompanied by rising infection rates of HIV/AIDS. According to UNAIDS, Indonesia had 48,000 new HIV infections and 38,000 AIDS-related deaths in 2016, an increase in AIDS-related deaths of 68 percent from 2010.  “We want the community in Bali, especially our friends in the LGBT community, to understand the problem of HIV/AIDS and help with HIV/AIDS prevention,” Supriyadinata said. Members of the LGBT community are disproportionately affected, with HIV prevalence rates of 25.8 percent for men who have sex with men and 24.8 percent of transgender people.  “Cases of HIV/AIDS across the whole community [in Indonesia] have indeed increased, so information about HIV/AIDS is much needed,” Supriyadinata said. ​Moral panic The Gaya Dewata pageant’s cancellation is just the latest in a string of anti-LGBT actions by the police and civil society groups across Indonesia. While gay sex is not a crime, the LGBT community is often targeted under the country’s strict anti-pornography laws. Earlier this month, Jakarta police raided a so-called “gay party” and arrested four men on drug charges. Law enforcement publicly paraded the suspects and their faces were televised. Several social media accounts later further spread the men’s images to shame them. Social media again exploded with the hashtag #UninstallGojek, with many netizens calling for a boycott of the local ride-sharing application Gojek after one of the company’s executives expressed support for diversity and tolerance of LGBT people on Facebook. Indonesia’s minister for religion, Lukman Saifuddin, subsequently released a video on social media declaring that “all religions reject LGBT, that’s why I reject LGBT actions and behavior.” “Although LGBT behavior is wrong, they should be treated with empathy so that they change their deviant ways,” he added. Survey results released by Saiful Mujani Research & Consulting in January showed that 81.5 percent of Indonesians believe gay and lesbian “behavior” is prohibited by religion, and a majority said they would object to having LGBT neighbors or in government. But only 58.3 percent of the respondents reported to know what LGBT meant. ​Election season Some worry that anti-LGBT activity will further ramp up ahead of the country’s presidential elections in April 2019. The incumbent Joko Widodo’s running mate, the influential conservative cleric Ma’ruf Amin, has helped issue fatwas against LGBT people as a member of Indonesia’s Ulama Council.  “We want a stern prohibition of LGBT activities and other deviant sexual activities and legislation that categorizes them as crime[s],” he was quoted as saying by the national news agency Antara in 2016. Anti-LGBT themes also feature heavily in the rhetoric of supporters of opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto. According to Zurlia of ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, many of the Islamic groups who support Prabowo and opposition figure Fadli Zon claim that the LGBT movement is the product of Western influence and an import from countries like the United States. “They’re good friends with the American president and praise Donald Trump and yet say that the LGBT movement comes from America,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

  • African Billionaire Abducted in Tanzania Back Home Unharmed
    Africa’s youngest billionaire, snatched a week ago off the street outside a luxury hotel in Tanzania, has returned home safely, the family company that he runs said Saturday. Mohammed Dewji, 43-year-old CEO of the MeTL Group family conglomerate, was seized as he arrived for a morning workout in Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam last week. Forbes estimates his net worth as $1.5 billion, making him Africa’s 17th richest man and its youngest billionaire. “I have returned home safely,” the MeTL Group quoted him as saying on its Twitter feed, without providing more details about how he was freed or got away from his captors. The company also quoted him thanking those who had worked for his release, including the police. The seizure of Dewji, who has also served as member of parliament in the past, had caused consternation in the East African nation as he is one of its most prominent business executives. January Makamba, the country’s minister of environment and Dewji’s former colleague in parliament, also tweeted Saturday morning that he had spoken with him and that he was safe. Makamba said that Dewji had bruises on his hands and feet from being tied up by his kidnappers. He said the kidnappers had freed Dewji by dumping him in a field in the early hours of Saturday morning. Dewji’s family had offered a reward of 1 billion Tanzania shillings ($440,000) for information leading to his release. MeTL Group is involved in a diverse range of manufacturing, farming, transport, infrastructure, agroprocessing and telecoms businesses spanning 11 African countries.

  • Afghans Vote Amid Taliban Threats, Fears of Fraud
    Afghans began voting Saturday in parliamentary elections overshadowed by chaotic organization, allegations of corruption and violence that has forced a postponement of the vote in the strategic southern province of Kandahar. The United Nations, which has been supporting the process, has urged Afghans to “use this opportunity to exercise their constitutional right to vote” and called for the election to take place in a safe and secure environment. Officials worry that violence will keep voters away from polling stations, particularly following the assassination of the police chief of Kandahar on Thursday, which forced authorities to delay the election in the province by a week. ​Taliban: Don’t vote Taliban militants have issued a series of statements telling people not to take part in what they consider a foreign-imposed process and warning election centers may be attacked. Thousands of police and soldiers have been deployed across the country but nine candidates have been assassinated and hundreds of people killed and wounded in election-related attacks. Polls opened at 7 a.m. (0230 GMT) and voting is to continue until 4 p.m. Because of the difficulty of collecting and collating results across Afghanistan, the overall results will not be known for at least two weeks. Election authorities originally planned 7,355 polling centers but only 5,100 will be able to open because of security concerns, according to the Independent Election Commission, overseeing the vote. Voting has also been delayed in Ghazni province by arguments about the representation of different ethnic groups. Fears of fraud Widespread allegations of voter fraud present a challenge to the legitimacy of the process, seen by Afghanistan’s international partners as a vital step ahead of the more important presidential election next year. Afghan politics are poisoned by the aftermath of a disputed presidential vote in 2014 that forced the two main rival groupings to form an unstable partnership. Both sides were accused of massive electoral cheating. Political sleaze has put Afghanistan near the bottom of Transparency International’s world corruption index. “Fraud, the abuse of power and corruption are going to be the main challenge, much more than security,” said Aziz Rafiee, a political analyst and executive director of the Afghan Civil Society Forum. Millions of voters, thousands of polling places About 8.8 million voters have been registered but an unknown number, by some estimates as many as 50 percent or more, are believed to be fraudulently or incorrectly registered. About 2,450 candidates are competing for places in the lower house, which has 250 seats, including one reserved for a candidate from the Sikh minority. Under the constitution, parliament reviews and ratifies laws but has little real power. In a bid to ensure the vote is fair, biometric voter registration technology has been rushed in at the last minute. But many fear the untried technology, which was still being distributed to provincial voting centers as recently as Thursday, will add to the confusion without eliminating fraud.

  • Numbers Announced in $1 Billion US Lottery Drawing
    The wait is over for the millions of people who purchased tickets for the Mega Millions jackpot that climbed to a staggering $1 billion before the winning numbers were announced Friday night. Those numbers are 15 23 53 65 70 and Mega Ball 7. It is not yet known if there are any winning tickets. That will be known later Saturday or Sunday. If no one wins, the jackpot will be even larger for Tuesday’s drawing. Friday’s drawing is the second-largest lottery pool ever in U.S. history, topped only by the $1.59 billion Powerball award in 2016. People with dreams of quitting their jobs or donating to charity have been lining up at retail stores in recent days to buy lottery tickets for the $1 billion Mega Millions jackpot, despite the odds. The odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot are 1 in 303 million, much less than the National Weather Service’s 1 in more than 1 million estimate of being struck by lightning in a given year. If a person purchases a ticket with the lucky six numbers, the winnings can be claimed one of two ways: accept payments spread over 30 years or as a one-time lump sum payment. The lump sum would be subject to federal, state and local taxes totaling tens of millions of dollars. If ticket holders fail to win the Mega Millions jackpot, they can also pursue their dreams by participating in the Powerball lottery, which will hold its drawing Saturday for an estimated $430 million jackpot. Both lotteries are offered in 44 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

  • Hackers Breach System, Get Data on 75,000
    A government computer system that interacts with was hacked earlier this month, compromising the sensitive personal data of some 75,000 people, officials said Friday. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services made the announcement late in the afternoon ahead of a weekend, a time agencies often use to release unfavorable developments. Officials said the hacked system was shut down and technicians are working to restore it before sign-up season starts Nov. 1 for health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act. About 10 million people have private coverage under former President Barack Obama’s health care law. Consumers applying for subsidized coverage have to provide extensive personal information, including Social Security numbers, income, and citizenship or legal immigration status. The system that was hacked is used by insurance agents and brokers to directly enroll customers. All other sign-up systems are working. CMS spokesman Johnathan Monroe said “nothing happened” to the website used by the general public. “This concerns the agent and broker portal, which is not accessible to the general public,” he said. Federal law enforcement has been alerted, and affected customers will be notified and offered credit protection. President Donald Trump promised to repeal “Obamacare” but failed.

  • VOA Interview: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
    VOA contributor Greta Van Susteren interviewed U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Mexico City, Oct. 19, 2018, where Pompeo met with officials from the existing government as well as the newly elected ones.

  • Manafort Sentencing Set for February; Comes to Court in Wheelchair
    A judge has set a February sentencing date for Paul Manafort, who appeared in court Friday for a post-trial hearing in a wheelchair and green jail jumpsuit. The hearing in federal court in Alexandria was largely procedural, but provided the first glimpse of the former Trump campaign chairman since he began cooperating with prosecutors in special counsel Robert Mueller’s office. It also resolved the outstanding question of whether Manafort would be sentenced before he had finished cooperating. A federal jury convicted Manafort earlier this year on eight counts of tax and bank fraud. The jury deadlocked on 10 other counts, with a lone juror holding out for a not-guilty verdict. The jury found that Manafort hid from the IRS millions of dollars he earned advising Ukrainian politicians. Then, when the Ukrainian money dried up, they found that he defrauded banks on loan applications by lying about his income. Plea deal struck After his convictions, Manafort struck a plea deal on separate charges in the District of Columbia. The plea deal requires him to cooperate with the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Prosecutors had wanted to wait until Manafort’s cooperation was complete before proceeding to sentencing, where he could face as many as 10 years on the Virginia charges. U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, though, expressed concern about waiting too long to schedule a sentencing hearing. The Eastern District of Virginia, known as the Rocket Docket, has a reputation of moving cases along quickly. The more typical procedure in the district is to proceed with sentencing. Then, at a later date, prosecutors can file what’s called a Rule 35 motion that would seek a reduced sentence to reward him for any cooperation. Prosecutors and Manafort’s lawyers agreed that would be acceptable, and Ellis set the Feb. 8 sentencing date. Also, as expected, he dismissed the remaining 10 counts against Manafort, again with prosecutors’ acquiescence. Ellis’ dismissal of the counts does not preclude prosecutors from refiling them at a later date if they choose. Manafort in wheelchair Manafort looked frail and had a foot elevated in a sock as he was wheeled in and out of court wearing a jumpsuit that read “ALEXANDRIA INMATE” on the back. Manafort’s lawyer Kevin Downing said his 69-year-old client was dealing with “significant issues” with his health as a result of his incarceration but declined to elaborate. Manafort, whose penchant for expensive suits came into focus during his trial earlier this year, had requested that he be allowed to appear in court in civilian clothes, but Ellis denied the request, saying Manafort should be treated like any other inmate. Tax returns released Also Friday, special counsel prosecutors and Manafort’s attorneys released several years of Manafort’s tax returns. The document release comes after The Associated Press requested access to the documents and an attorney acting for the AP and other news outlets got involved. The documents were admitted into evidence during Manafort’s trial and several portions were read aloud, but Mueller’s office had withheld them. Prosecutors say Manafort falsified the documents, leaving off millions in income.

  • Macedonia’s Parliament Approves Change in Country’s Name 
    Macedonia’s parliament has approved a proposal to change the country’s name, a move that could pave the way for it to join NATO and the European Union. Eighty members of parliament in the 120-seat body voted in favor of the measure Friday to rename the country North Macedonia, just surpassing the two-thirds supermajority needed to enact constitutional changes. Parliament was forced to address the issue after a September referendum on the matter failed to achieve the turnout threshold of 50 percent. According to election officials, only about a third of eligible voters cast ballots in the September referendum. However, they said more than 90 percent of those voting cast ballots in favor of changing the country’s name to North Macedonia. Conservatives in Macedonia strongly oppose the name change and boycotted the referendum. Macedonians are being asked to change the name of their country to end a decades-old dispute with neighboring Greece and pave the way for the country’s admission into NATO and the EU. Athens has argued that the name “Macedonia” belongs exclusively to its northern province of Macedonia and that using the name implies Skopje’s intentions to claim the Greek province. The two countries agreed on the name change in June. Greece has for years pressured Skopje into renouncing the country’s name, forcing it to use the more formal moniker Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in the United Nations. Greece has consistently blocked its smaller neighbor from gaining membership in NATO and the EU as long it retained its name. The process for Macedonia’s parliament to fully change the country’s name is lengthy and will require several more rounds of voting.

  • Bolton Headed to Russia Amid Fears US Leaving Nuclear Deal
    U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton will meet Saturday in Moscow with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, amid reports that Washington will tell Russia it plans to quit a landmark nuclear weapons treaty. The visit comes ahead of what is expected to be a second summit between presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump this year. Bolton, who will also meet Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, announced the visit to Moscow in a tweet, saying he would "continue discussions that began in Helsinki," referring to a summit held in July. The New York Times said the Trump administration plans to inform Russian leaders in the coming days that it is preparing to leave the three-decade-old Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, known as the INF. The newspaper said the U.S. accuses Russia of violating the deal, signed in 1987 by president Ronald Reagan, by deploying tactical nuclear weapons to intimidate former Soviet satellite states that are now close to the West. US-Russia ties are under deep strain over accusations that Moscow meddled in the 2016 presidential election, as well as tension over Russian support for the Syrian government in the country's civil war, and the conflict in Ukraine. However, Washington is looking for support from Moscow in finding resolutions to the Syria war and putting pressure on both Iran and North Korea. No new summit between Trump and Putin has been announced, but one is expected in the near future. The two leaders will be in Paris on Nov. 11 to attend commemorations marking the end of World War I. A senior Trump administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said another potential date would be when the presidents both attend the Group of 20 meeting Nov. 30-Dec. 1. "There are a couple possibilities, including the G-20 in Buenos Aires or the Armistice Day parade in Paris. At the G20 is probably more likely," the official said. "President Trump's invitation to Putin to visit Washington, D.C., still stands." 

  • US Officials Warn No Letup in Russian Meddling Attempts
    U.S. intelligence, law enforcement and security agencies are warning that Russia is persistently targeting the country's upcoming midterm elections. They laid out the latest evidence in new charges against a Russian national connected to the oligarch known as "Putin's cook." The U.S. on Friday unsealed the criminal complaint against Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, 44, of St. Petersburg, making her the first Russian charged in connection with interference in the 2018 election. According to the criminal complaint, Khusyaynova was the chief accountant for a Russian effort dubbed "Project Lakhta," a self-described "information warfare" operation run by the Internet Research Agency — the same social media troll farm indicted earlier this year by U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his Russia investigation. Charging documents say Khusyaynova oversaw spending for social media advertisements and promotions and proxy servers as she helped to create thousands of social media accounts on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, some of which generated tens of thousands of followers. The criminal complaint says Khusyanova was working with a multimillion-dollar budget — money, according to U.S. officials, that came from Russian businessman Yevgeniy Prigozhin, known as "Putin's cook" because of his catering company's work for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin is thought to have extensive ties to Russia's political and military establishments. Involved in 2018 elections But unlike previous criminal complaints, U.S. officials said Khusyaynova's activity extended well beyond the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as she funded efforts to create new social media accounts targeting both issues and candidates, Republican and Democratic, involved the 2018 election, now just a little more than two weeks away. Like with previous efforts under "Project Lakhta," all of the accounts were designed to make it appear as though they belonged to actual American political activists, using virtual private networks (VPNs) and other methods to hide their origin.  U.S. officials also said those running them were told to intensify divisions and distrust between members of all political parties "through supporting radical groups" and to "aggravate the conflict between minorities and the rest of the population." Messaging focused on a variety of topics, including immigration, gun control, the Confederate flag and the debate over American football players kneeling for the U.S. national anthem. Officials said specific incidents, including mass shootings, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., and decisions coming from the Trump White House were also used as fodder. "The strategic goal of this alleged conspiracy, which continues to this day, is to sow discord in the U.S. political system and to undermine faith in our democratic institutions," U.S. Attorney Zachary Terwilliger said in a statement. Asked about the new charges during a visit to Arizona, President Donald Trump called them irrelevant to his efforts. "It had nothing to do with my campaign," he told reporters. "If they are hackers, a lot of them probably like [2016 Democratic presidential nominee] Hillary Clinton better than me." Warning and reassurance Friday's indictment came as U.S. intelligence and security officials sought to both warn and reassure U.S. voters about the upcoming midterm elections. "We're not seeing anything anywhere remotely close to '16," Chris Krebs, undersecretary for the Department of Homeland Security's National Protection and Programs Directorate, told reporters Friday following a tabletop election security exercise. "2016 had a long lead-up of spear-phishing campaigns, compromise of networks," he said. "We're not seeing them right now." Krebs and other officials have also said there had been no increase in attempts to infiltrate U.S. voting systems, and that no system involved in tallying votes had been compromised. Many of those systems have been upgraded or hardened, U.S. officials said, noting that more than 90 percent of the country's election infrastructure was now being monitored by sensors that can detect malicious activity. But at the same time, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence warned Friday of persistent efforts by U.S. adversaries to sway voters. "We are concerned about ongoing campaigns by Russia, China and other foreign actors, including Iran, to undermine confidence in democratic institutions and influence public sentiment," ODNI said in a joint statement with the Justice Department, the FBI and DHS. "These activities also may seek to influence voter perceptions and decision-making in the 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections," the statement said. U.S. officials say both China and Iran have been increasingly active in their efforts to use influence operations, with current and former officials describing Beijing's efforts as more sophisticated and more intent on generating a favorable view of China over the long term. But neither yet compares in scope to the Russian efforts, just some of which were unveiled in the criminal complaint.  Russian-financed Financial documents obtained as part of the investigation indicate that as of January 2016, Khusyaynova and "Project Lakhta" were working with a budget of $35 million, spending about $10 million in the first half of 2018 alone. Khusyaynova's 2018 expenditures included $60,000 for Facebook advertisements, another $6,000 for ads on Instagram, and $18,000 for "bloggers" and for developing accounts on Twitter. Russian businessman Prigozhin was the source of the money, according to U.S. officials. Prigozhin controls Concord Management and Consulting LLC, one of three entities under indictment as part of the Mueller investigation. A Washington-based lawyer representing Concord did not respond to a request for comment. Masood Farivar contributed to this report

  • $215M Settlement Offered in Alleged Abuse by Campus Gynecologist 
    The University of Southern California said Friday that it had reached a tentative agreement to pay $215 million in compensation to victims who alleged they were sexually harassed or abused by a campus gynecologist. The university said students who alleged abuse would receive compensation ranging from $2,500 to $250,000. A federal judge must still review the deal. More than 450 current and former students made accusations against Dr. George Tyndall, saying the abuse took place between 1988 and 2016. The students accused the gynecologist of range of abuses, including making lewd comments, taking inappropriate pictures and groping them. Tyndall has denied the allegations. Attorney Gloria Allred, who represents several dozen women who have accused Tyndall of abuse, said in a statement that the amount of money in the proposed settlement was "way too minimal." Attorneys said that if the settlement was approved, any victims who had not yet come forward and filed legal action against Tyndall would be held to its terms. Tyndall spent about three decades as a USC staff gynecologist. He was suspended in 2016 after a health worker accused him of making sexually inappropriate comments to patients. The university has faced criticism of its handling of the matter after a Los Angeles Times report this year said that complaints about Tyndall's care went unheeded by the school for decades. President C.L. Max Nikias stepped down following the criticism. Interim President Wanda Austin said in a statement Friday that since she took office, "a fair and respectful resolution for as many former patients as possible has been a priority for the university and for me personally." "I regret that any student ever felt uncomfortable, unsafe or mistreated in any way as a result of the actions of a university employee," Austin said.